It’s ironic, isn’t it? I often complain that people nowadays are incapable of talking to each other without a device to mediate between them. I despise people who bring their phones wherever they go… and actually answer them or check messages while they are having lunch or dinner with you. I can happily live without a single glance online while on holiday, surrounded by my physical books, good food, stunning landscapes – with only a minor urge to immortalise that moment in a photograph. I advocate (or should that be nag?) that families should unplug from the internet and spend more time together.
But then our internet and phone connection fails completely and I go mad with rage. My dear online friend, fellow crime lover, academic and author Margot Kinberg wrote a post about this very recently.
The meltdown is not instant, you understand.
The first day, I’m quite relieved to be untraceable. I happily finish a book (or two) guilt-free, write my WIP with relish. The second day, I even take on additional tasks which have been put off for far too long: tidying out wardrobes and the garage. I bake cakes with my sons and try to keep snails as pets in a glass jar. Yes! Quality time!
By the third day, I miss the companionship of Twitter and blogs, but I can just about live with it. And yes, before you ask, it IS different from being offline during a holiday, because it’s not my own decision. It’s being forced upon me, and I have no idea how long it will last, so cannot make plans.
On the fourth day, I start to feel incredibly isolated and frustrated, especially when the calls on my mobile to the internet service provider Numericable prove fruitless. Did I tell you that mobile reception is rubbish in my house, so I have to either hang halfway out the window in the bedroom upstairs, stand in a corner of the garden where my neighbours can hear every word, or be on hold for 20 minutes with outrageous Swiss roaming charges? (We live on the border, and sometimes the Swiss signal is far stronger than the French one).
Yes, yes, first world problems, I can see you roll your eyes just now. I’ve done it myself in the past. I’ve had to remind myself of others who’ve fled home with no belongings, perhaps no families, only their lives and a few memories. I came across a woman in one of the McDonald’s I found refuge in, who gave me a bit of reality check: left penniless after an acrimonious divorce, living in a part of France with high unemployment, she had made her way to this part of the world, in the hope of finding a job in or near Geneva. She was sleeping in her car, having a shower at the swimming pool and applying for jobs online while nursing a cup of coffee for hours at McDo. Life could be worse.
Of course, my parents live happily without a landline, internet or computer. But they are retired, live in the countryside, walk daily to the marketplace to buy their food and newspapers, and spend most of the day in the garden. They also forget to take their mobile with them into the garden, so I seldom can reach them during the day. They don’t even have a proper aerial for their TV, so can only watch one channel, shaky at that.
So, yes, life like that is possible and undoubtedly very peaceful.
I have it neither so good, nor so bad as some others.
I merely have to move a family, a household full of goods, a cat and some broken pieces of myself back to the UK this summer. All I need to do is ensure a smooth handover of schools, orthodontists, doctors, banks, utilities companies… well, I don’t need to go on about this, you all have experienced a move, and I’ve done it many times before, so I could handle it if I could do my research online and then phone. But I can do neither.
In the meantime, all the usual end of school year craziness is amplified, because it is the LAST one EVER (I am using my teenage son’s emphatic style), and they also want to have farewell parties and birthday parties and do memorable things which you’d always meant to do, as well as return to all their favourite places in the area to say goodbye. No matter how often I repeat to myself: ‘You can’t make everyone happy. You are not chocolate’, I still fall into the trap of trying, partly because of the guilt about disrupting the children’s life by moving again.
Just to add to the mess, there are a couple of deadlines for writing competitions, debut novels or debut poetry chapbooks which I want to make sure that I don’t miss. Besides, I do also have a day job, even if it’s become nearly invisible of late. I’m supposed to facilitate a few courses in mid-June, but so far have been unable to access the (very large) files, because public WiFi does not like Dropbox and other such sharing platforms. Ironically, one of the courses is on working in virtual teams…
In fact, life is full of irony at the moment. I could share such funny stories with you! How I sit in a car outside someone’s house because I know they don’t have a security key on their WiFi (this must be illegal in at least 50 countries). How I buy a cup of coffee (although I don’t really want another one) in a neighbourhood café and sit down with a sigh for an action-packed morning of work, only to discover that their own WiFi isn’t working. How I then rush back to McDonald’s, where the lady at the counter already knows I avoid their coffee and prefer a smoothie (why do they no longer provide their classical strawberry milkshake, for heaven’s sake?). I can never stay for more than an hour there, before it gets too busy and noisy at lunchtime, or all day really, as there are construction sites just outside, cleaning staff mopping underneath your feet in the morning, team meetings in the ‘quiet’ corner in the afternoon. I could share with you strategies for switching on/off/on/off even at these public WiFi spots, so that the simplest cut and paste from a Word document to a website only takes five times longer than it should, instead of ten times.
Why don’t you buy some temporary internet access via your mobile phone? Why don’t you use your neighbours’ networks? I’ve been asked all that. The answer is that you awake each day with renewed belief that today is the day when the problem will be fixed. You are not told from the beginning that it will take 3 weeks (or more?). Unless you are my older son, who had his own meltdown about not being able to use his tablet to search for film reviews or cheat sheets for video games. Now he gloomily predicts that internet will never come back until we go to England.
I can also write a film script for a farce about how my neighbours felt sorry for me and gave me the key to their house to use their WiFi, but forgot to switch off their alarm. To make things worse, the key was for the cellar door, so I looked doubly sneaky, but luckily, I was spotted trying to smuggle a laptop into the house, rather than out of it. The second time I try this, having been told the alarm is most definitely off now, I discover the key doesn’t actually turn in the lock.
I could also tell you the classic tale of Cinderella after everyone went to the ball. How I sat at home all day waiting for the engineer to come and fix this problem, biting my cuticles, not wanting to start any serious writing for fear of being interrupted, popping out the front door at the sound of every car or even bicycle, only to be stood up like a wallflower. Of course, it was then reported back to HQ that he did come to our address, but there was no one home and the phone (yes, the one that hasn’t had a dial tone in 3 weeks) was engaged.
Oh, so many potential sources of Mr. Beanish confusions! Being held up at the border in the UK because I have not filled in the right forms for our cat. The French Tax Office sending a Jean Reno in Leon look-alike professional to shoot me for not filling my tax returns in time (which, from this year on, can only be done online). How I will wing it for the workshops, having never seen the slides before that day: ‘Oh, look, and that’s another thing I should be talking about, but I don’t know what it means!’ Last but not least, a domestic noir brief about a wife murdering a husband who not only doesn’t shoulder any of the burden (other than to murmur supportively that he misses watching BBC iPlayer and Netflix), but actually forwards you (via email) the one and only enquiry you get from posting a few sales items on his company intranet, because you have not had much joy with Facebook sales postings even when you could access them daily. Why? It was in French, of course, and one can’t be expected to speak any French after studying it in high school over twenty years ago and living in France for 8 years in total.
Some day in the distant, rosy horizon of a future where all our thoughts can be uploaded instantly and transmitted to whom we like, when we like and only if we like, without depending on any cables or optic fibres or the people who put them in the ground, and without any ‘oops, wrong button’ moments…
Some day, when Numericable company bosses will have died a slow and agonising death, not before paying out a large compensation to all those unhappy customers who have not been able to do their work or live their lives for so many weeks…
Some day, when this madness will have passed, when your health and sanity will have returned, when husbands will have been buried and courts will have been clement because you had ample provocation…
Some day, this too shall pass and seem hilarious! Until then… ohmmmmm….