Sunday, June 24, 2018

Another Country

I have never treated my telephone as anything other than the miracle it is. I have listened to people curse the mobile telephone world we live in as though it is somehow an implement without an "off" button. To like one's potable phone is somehow to epitomize  the life of an anti-social, hermit freak, someone who lives without true friends who exists only in the ether on"social media." Yet for me, my iPhone is so much more. It is a camera, a library, a compass, a navigator, a flashlight, a telegraph, a fax, a radio, a television, a publishing house, a weather station, a notebook,a gramophone player, a news stand,an archive,a Dictaphone, an atlas and so much more. I grew up in a world which lived by actual horsepower, that expected people to live in homes with (hopefully) cold running water and communal televisions, a world where oxen plowed fields and walking was the main means of locomotion.
I was a child of privilege fully equipped with hot and cold water, indoor plumbing and servants, but I who grew up speaking three languages no more imagined portable telephones than I could conceive a world where everyone in these villages owned a car.
I first noticed the mobile phone transformation when we traveled, my wife and I, on a three week road trip behind the recently removed Iron Curtain. The countries of Eastern Europe in those days of the mid 90s went straight to cell phones and skipped the whole landline dilemma, which we clung to for a decade longer. Our Western rental car out performed the two stroke Trabants we encountered but the young people in Czechia and Poland walked around with phones glued to their ears. Texting was still just over the horizon. In the picture below you can see an outline of my mother watching the procession from the shadow of the kitchen window in the castle where I grew up. We had a TV and the rest of the village shared a TV for the single channel broadcast in Italy at the time. We children democratically preferred to watch television with the children of the village rather than alone in one of our several living rooms.
Before she left to live a month with my family in Italy my wife took me by the scruff of my neck and forced me to download one more application on my phone. I whined but she was relentless. WhatsApp uses the Internet to make phone calls and unlike the cell signal my wife uses in the lonely mountains of my youth the WiFi at my family's bed and breakfast gives us a perfectly clear signal on which to talk. It is amazing. In my childhood the task of calling my father in England when my mother and sisters and I were on summer vacation in Italy was an all night affair. There were no cinemas within 45 minutes drive on gravel roads, so for entertainment we went to the next village which had a phone and sat for hours in the cobblers shop where Carletto repaired shoes and waited for the various operators to connect lines from our home in England to our village in Umbria. Our world in Italy was limited to a few villages in a narrow radius.
These days there is an app for everything, including travel bookings, such that travel agents are pretty much vanished for ordinary folk. Newspapers struggle  with electrons and writers struggle with free content. Cable TV is overrun by streaming content. Change is everywhere; food delivery is real, electioneering by Facebook is commonplace. Yet to me the simple fact that I can talk to my wife in Italy for free on a  crystal clear internet phone line from the phone in my pocket still seems like a miracle. I could even do a video link if I so chose but we are old and prefer our phone links to be audio only.
"The past is another country; they do things differently there." That quotation from L P Hartley has haunted the second half of my life, every time I think about my bifurcated youth, half in a proper English boarding school, half let loose in the empty countryside of my Italian vacations, I think of how much the world has changed. My wife spent months with her telephone studying Italian on a Duolingo App (of course) and now she is away for three weeks in a classroom setting every weekday, learning to drive without me, to order food without me, to talk to my Italian relatives without me, learning to function without me as her interpreter I am connected once again only by my iPhone.
When I was a child the phone booth in the 1960s was installed in this man's shop (above), Lorenzo was the cobbler and his shop smelled of glue and leather and I sat at that well worn table playing with tacks and lumps of dried glue while my mother handled the phone and tried to get a connection to London. If, after hours of calling back and forth the connection was made my father's voice came down the wires reverberating and distant as though he was on he moon. Even then my little mind was boggled imaging our distant connection putting me monetarily in the living room at home in England, lifting me out of Lorenzo's workshop in Morre, all along the length of a tiny piece of wire. After the call my mother and sisters and sleepy little me staggered out into the night once more immersed in Italy and Italian and dirt roads and faint street lights and outhouses, a century behind our orderly English life. 
Gravel roads and a beast of burden, a human being, in the good old days:
I don't know if phones are stunting our social skills or if Amazon will destroy our middle class insecurities as we know them. But I do know its nice to be able to call half way round the world on a whim and to be able to hear the voice at the other end as though she were here. At least I am getting something slightly useful out of the revolution before it destroys us.