The terminal was starting to fill up. Stretched across three or four seats, I listened as footsteps, coughs, and buzzing hives of unfamiliar languages drew near. I kept my eyes closed, a fruitless attempt to convince myself that I could sleep. The noises grew louder, so finally I sat up, defeated, and blinked in the harsh airport light. I looked around the room. Crowds of people, most of them dressed in hiking gear, swarmed the Reykjavík–Keflavík Airport. It was 6 a.m. My flight to Frankfurt was boarding soon, so I looked around to see who I’d be sharing an airplane with. I noticed two parents handing their crying child back and forth, watched a guy cover his Denver Broncos sweater in muffin crumbs, and saw a woman open up a book she had just bought at one of those everything-you-need-for-a-long-flight stores. Aside from them, everyone was on their phone, with their head down, chin to chest, and index finger swiping and tapping. Even through my early morning agitation, I recognized this clearly and knew that, for better or for worse, I had made the right decision. This was my first time in Europe, and I chose to leave my phone at home.
There is something sentimental, romantic even, about traveling. Maybe it’s the thought of breaking free from work for a while, or the feeling of that moment when the plane soars through the clouds, or the ability to shuffle through a foreign city as a stranger, as nothing, and feel like I’ve successfully escaped myself for once. Or maybe it’s instances of observation, like being able to watch two people drink coffee and share in a conversation that I can’t understand. I’m still trying to figure it out. But I know that Europe — with its cathedrals and cobblestone streets — further ignited this idealistic mindset. But instead of attempting to capture it with my phone and share my musings with hundreds of people I don’t actually know very well, I kept them stored away for myself, in a little notebook — you know the ones. Your grandfather may have had one. They have coils at the top and fit in shirt pockets.
But I have to admit that during the days leading up to my departure, being phoneless worried me. What if I missed my flight? What if there was an emergency back home? Plus, directions aren’t my strong suit. Somehow, I had to manage to get from Halifax to Iceland, then from Iceland to Frankfurt, and finally from Frankfurt to Cologne (where I was supposed to meet my girlfriend) unscathed. Even after making it two-thirds of the way, this seemed especially difficult — as it turned out, traveling down the Autobahn at 125 mph (200 kph) in a stranger’s car (BlaBlaCar is quite the invention) was the most treacherous part of the journey.
There are moments throughout my days when I wonder where the last 10, 15, sometimes 30 minutes have gone. Usually when that happens, I’m staring at my phone. There are times when I’ve walked somewhere only to realize that I can’t recall a single detail of what I’ve passed on the way. Most concerning of all, there are instances when I look at the faces of friends and family and ask them to repeat what they said, or worse, interrupt them by saying, “Just one second — I need to send a quick text.”
These occurrences are becoming harder and harder to ignore, mainly because I see myself missing things — important things — like my little cousin splashing around in the river, or a story my grandmother tells as she knits a pair of socks, her glasses defying gravity and somehow clinging to the very tip of her nose. And I don’t want to miss any more.
We didn’t stay in Cologne for long and soon flew to Prague. We spent three days there, wandering through the side streets and art galleries of Old Town, enjoying the warm weather and the way the sun turned the clouds a buttery yellow just before it set. While I was adjusting to a new time zone and language, I felt myself searching for a phoneless revelation — a big idea that would prove that what I was doing was right. But it didn’t happen, or at least not in the way I had hoped.
As we traveled on for the next week or so, first to Berlin and then back to Cologne, I settled into a peaceful rhythm that brought on two pivotal observations. The first was how slowly time seemed to pass. I know that spare time is a luxury travel affords, and the lack of deadlines to stress over and meetings to plan around definitely had something to do with it. But I also believe that when you aren’t constantly checking the clock and cataloguing your itinerary, the days seem longer, allowing time to somehow melt and stretch like a Salvador Dali painting.
My second observation was how easy it was for me to acclimate to life without a phone, though this appeared on a much more subconscious level. It didn’t materialize as the big unveiling I was hoping for, like Gandalf the Grey returning as Gandalf the White. Rather, being phoneless just felt more natural than having one. I found this strange but also comforting, mainly because it reminded me that humans have lived much, much longer without these devices than with them. We’re still adapting to this way of life, and we’re only beginning to understand the effects that smartphones have on us — a thought that didn’t fade for the rest of the trip.
When I try to remember the world before the smartphone, I can feel myself squinting, my face growing quizzical in search of a golden yesteryear. And then a picture comes into focus. This is what I see: my parents driving my sisters and me across the upper half of the U.S., circa 1996 or ’97, a big foldable map sprawled out on the dashboard, and expressions swelling with tension over who got us lost. When I think back to this road trip, I recall that they eventually recalculated and steered us in the right direction, as we were forced to listen to the same Adventures in Odyssey tapes for the millionth time. And when we finally returned home from our trip, we had to wait a week or two for the photographs from our disposable cameras to develop.
Smartphones would have been incomprehensible to the five of us packed into that minivan.
Remembering this reminds me that as much joy as our phones can bring us, it’s never a bad thing to be more deliberate with our time and energy, to take a little break from the digital world every now and then.
On our last day in Cologne, we dove into as many of the sentiments I pair with travel as possible. We climbed 533 stairs to the top of a 13th-century cathedral and stared out over the city, the grey buildings, and the autumn-colored trees; we stopped for coffee in the Belgian quarter and eavesdropped on conversations neither of us understood; and we paid our silent respects to the sidewalk plaques commemorating Holocaust victims (formally known as Stolperstein, or “stumbling blocks”).
And it might just be me, but I think that some of what I saw would’ve been missed had I kept checking the time.