On Leaving It All Behind. For A Bit.
As you’re reading this, you’re probably doing 7 other things. There’s a blinking notification for a software update in the dock at the bottom of your screen. Your iPhone screen just softly faded in, reminding you of an appointment, an incoming Skype call and an unfinished Whatsapp conversation you don’t want to be having right now. There are 5 tabs open in your browser, competing for space with the one you’re reading these words in. They gently try to edge each other out, cutting out the others’ titles as they add up. There’s a (1) in your Facebook tab, it’s begging you to go click on it.
These things that have come to define our lives in the last few years are a drain on our spirit, as well as our smartphone batteries. And there isn’t really a way to escape them. With the freedom of having everything with you all the time, comes the shackles of having everything with you all the time. Work Skype calls at 11:00 p.m., for example. Angry comments on your blog delivered straight to your hand, while you’re having a nice drink with friends.
I came dangerously close to a nervous breakdown about a year ago. About as close as anyone can get without causing damage to themselves and those around them. I’d look at all these perfectly synced devices around me and feel their charger cables tighten around my throat.
I booked 10 days off work. Set an amusing Out of Office automatic response. Well, it wasn’t amusing at all, actually. And I subsequently had panic attacks while away, my failed humor running in the background, for 10 days straight. I needed to get out of Paris, where I was living at the time, and away from anything that allowed anyone to contact me.
I rekindled some contacts I’d made in Croatia when I went for my friend Ena’s birthday years earlier. Iva, another friend I’d made over far too many bad mojitos at Hemingways on Tito Square in Zagreb, invited me through a series of Facebook chat messages to use her parents’ guest room in Zlarin on the Dalmatian Coast. I had no idea where that was, but a quick Google Image search showed that it was indeed an island, that the water it was surrounded by was clear. And its hills were green.
A couple of weeks later, I boarded an EasyJet flight to Zagreb, then took the 5 hour bus to Sibenik. By the time I got there, there were no ferries operating, so we had to call a taxi boat. The driver kept saying things at me in Croatian as he sped at an alarming rate through an archipelago of currently invisible islands.
I somehow convinced myself I was headed to the island for ten days of continuous writing – an unabashedly romantic vision of myself as some sort of Balkan Hemingway. So far, I’ve got the beard down. But not much else.
I got off the taxi boat onto the jetty, lumping my weekend bag and myself onto the concrete protrusion. Men laughed in the cafe overlooking the port. There were two of them but their laughter filled the entire island. I’d never been anywhere this quiet before. Or anywhere where an individual sound had this much possibility to fill the space. It made sense though, since my Wikipedia reading at the airport had told me the offseason population is 150. And all motorized vehicles are forbidden. An exception is made for a couple of little trucks on Thursdays, who bring in construction supplies for a single house renovation on the Marina side of the island.
We walked up the path past the cafe up to the Bulat’s place. The house was newer than the others (I’d later find out the islanders call it Conzum, like the supermarket, because of its clean and angular design). There was more laughing here. It flooded down the pathway. But there were more laughs. This was a group. There was a guitar and singing. When we made it to the garden, there were 13 people around a table, and at least double that number of empty bottles of Croatian table wine resting on the floor by the Lulu, the resident Persian cat.
“Where are you from?” someone throws in my direction. “Lebanon.” “Where in Lebanon?” “Umm, Beirut I guess.” “Okay. Okay. Christian? Muslim?”
It’s odd to have travelled to exactly where I would consider the furthest place from home, and be asked the question I despise the most. I was quickly taken into the kitchen and away from the drunkenness to rest after my 20-hour trip.
For the next 9 days, I informed everyone I came across that they should, under no circumstances, give me the password to any WiFi connections. I told the cafe owner. I told my hosts. Everyone. Don’t let me near the Internet. I even avoided the TV. Whenever Marina and Bulat would switch on the TV, I’d head to my room. I wanted to know nothing about the world.
Obviously, I wrote nothing. For 10 days. I made some character sketches, chapter outlines. But I wrote nothing. I ate well. Everything from the island. Fish. Vegetables. People would apologize when something was imported, meaning it came from the mainland, 15 minutes away. I slept a lot. More than I ever remember sleeping. And I slept well. I read some Penelope Fitzgerland, found out about transhumance, listened to a Croatian surf rock band called The Bambi Molesters. I watched HBO’s Generation Kill on a hard disk my hosts had brought back from Iran.
I did all these things without Googling them. Without Tweeting about them. Without straining to write a witty Facebook status. I just enjoyed them. Took notes in a notepad about things I wanted to remember about them.
I’m not a nostalgic person. I actually hate the past. Both my personal past, and that of others. I live firmly in the present and the future. I don’t long for the day when we used quills or any of that sort of nonsense. But disconnecting for a week from the stream was something essential. Not in an “Eat, Pray, Love” I-found-myself kind of way, but just in a breath-of-fresh-air way.
When I finally reconnected to all my streams a day ahead of my trip back to Zagreb, I expected a flood of information. Sure, I had some unread emails. I had some Facebook comments on something stupid I’d posted a week ago. But there was nothing urgent. There might have been something important in the emails, but nothing urgent. If my phone had been in my hand the entire time, I would have treated it all as urgency.
That’s just not a great way to live. Just because we can do everything all the time doesn’t mean we should. Our brains and our thumbs and our psyches are still processing how to ingest all this information. If we devised the 9-to-5 workday to answer a specific historic situation, why don’t we devise something similar for our devices? I don’t check email of any kind past 9:00 p.m. on weekdays. I don’t touch email at all on weekends. It might not be that same as going to Zlarin, but I do feel like I’ve won back a little piece of my brain.