Tiny doses of personal technology helped me enjoy a great two-week trip through France and Spain. With the help of my iPhone, some temporary WiFi services from iPass and my two-year-old Canon PowerShot camera, I slipped through the streets snapping pictures while keeping in touch with the folks back home.
I was helped along the way by ATMs, postal kiosks and railway ticket machines that offered English language interfaces with which I could interact. Although border patrol agents were just as surly as they were when I traveled on my previous passport, my new RFID-equipped identification at least lessoned the amount of time I had to spend in line.
Much as I appreciated the technology I was able to carry with me and use on my trip, for the most part, I was more happily engaged in the company of family, enjoying human contact and communication with as little technology around as possible. Unlike tourists that I saw ladden down with bulky DLSR cameras and lugging laptops in backpacks I left all my big, battery-powered friends at home and was happy for it.
In fact, I blithely ignored work (and for the most part) personal e-mail while I was away. Thanks to Skype I was able to call a couple people back in the United States to pass on the latest adventures of my trip. But it was even more satisfying to go into a Spanish post office and buy international postcard stamps from a human being and then spend time relaxing at the hotel writing postcards to friends and neighbors back home.
There were a couple of surprising technology phenomenon. For one thing, I flew both ways on a 747-400, an aircraft that first launched more than 20 years ago. I can't think of another piece of high-tech equipment that was first delivered in 1989 that I use today. Although I prefer Boeing 767's (a beautiful two-aisle, human scaled airplane) there is nothing like flying in a 747. Especially one operated by Air France, undoubtably one of the best coach airline experiences I've ever had.
It turns out I didn't miss the individual seatback entertainment systems found in other airlines. I also didn't miss the "upgrade assault" that is so beloved by U.S. airlines. I was met by a genuinely friendly cabin crew offering tasty food and drink, eyeshades and earplugs. Instead of a non-stop PA announcement about what I could buy on board, I received pleasant hospitality on both legs of my flight. It turns out that when passengers aren't packed in to within an inch of our lives, and given bags of peanuts instead of meals, we need much less technology tranquilizing during the flight.
It was startling to notice in both Paris and Barcelona that people talk to each other face-to-face. In San Francisco--where I work--and Oakland--where I live--it is all too common to walk down the street with people who are loudly engaged in what appears to be a one-sided conversation with their telephone. Or they are walking down the street with a scowl of concentration while they text the most important message in the universe. Sure, people used mobile phones and I did see people texting. But it was nothing like the level on intensity that I've grown to tolerate in the United States.
Overall, I had a very pleasant break from my computer and so-called "social media" connections. As with the best kind of vacation, I've had a chance to "live intensely" as one travel guide put it. Returning to my regular way of life, I'm hoping to hang on to some of the humanity I picked up while I was away from the office. After all, California is a great place to hang out, and not just because it's the home of Silicon Valley.