A Defense of Traveling Without a Smartphone

Last week, my husband and I spent a few days in Montreal, Canada. It was our first trip up to the Great White North since moving to the Boston area almost exactly one year ago. I had heard that Montreal is primarily French speaking, so I was prepared for a bit of a cultural immersion. What I didn’t prepare for, though, was not being able to use my iPhone as soon as we crossed the border.

About two minutes after passing through border control, my husband and I each received text messages informing us that using data while out of the country would cost about an arm and a leg. This meant no more Google Maps; no more checking for updates on our lodgings in my Airbnb app; no more Instagramming, Tweeting, or checking Facebook. No more constant access to the Internet.

At first, this was nerve-wracking. Neither of us had ever been to Montreal, after all, and neither of us could speak French very well. As I’ve said before, I am an introvert who is afraid of drawing attention to myself (sometimes to a debilitating point), so I don’t like the idea of standing out as a tourist. In hindsight, however, the experience of exploring a new city without constantly referring to a screen was pretty nice. Aside from using my phone to take photos and videos from time to time, I didn’t take it out that much around the city. Of course, we had wifi in the apartment where we were staying, so in the mornings and evenings we looked for fun things to do online, made lists of names and addresses in a notebook, and marked their locations on a paper map given to us by a friendly employee at a tiny rest stop in northern Vermont. (We came to rely on that map a lot during our trip, so friendly Vermont rest stop lady, if you’re reading this for some bizarre reason: thank you.)

Not only did we quickly learn that most people in Montreal can speak English (at least when they want to), it was also a relief to find that the locals were pretty friendly and happy to help two lost-looking American tourists. One afternoon we sat down in a park and unfolded our map, trying to orient ourselves and find the quickest route to a bar where we’d read we could get some good local beer. Two friendly faced, stylishly dressed university students approached us. The young man greeted us in French but quickly realized that we didn’t speak it. He proceeded in English: “Do you need some help?”

“Well,” my husband said, “We’re just trying to figure out where to go next.” The blond-haired female student bent over us, looking at the map through her large hipster glasses.

“Do you want to know exactly where you are?” she asked in her lilting French Canadian accent.

“Sure,” my husband replied. “We’re trying to get to this bar nearby.” He pointed to our marking on the map, where earlier that day he had simply written the word “Beer” on the  intersection closest to the bar.

“Ah, Dieu du Ciel!” the girl said. She knew of it and told us a good way to get there.

The next day we made a wrong turn on our bikes trying to make our way back to the Latin Quarter (where we were staying) from the port in Old Montreal. Again, we stopped and opened the map. Not five minutes later, two young men approached us and offered to help. As we talked, they also gave us tips on some fun things to do that evening. That’s the thing about pulling out a map in public: it’s a universal signal that says, “I’m lost,” and it’s recognizable to speakers of any language.

While it’s definitely great and convenient to be able to pull up Google Maps and know exactly where you are, or to do a quick Yelp search for good restaurants in the area, traveling in a new place without that instant accessibility to information lent itself to a more human experience. We had more interactions with locals than we would have had otherwise; when we got lost or needed a recommendation, we had to rely on the kindness of strangers rather than our smartphones. And, of course, there was the added benefit of not compulsively checking Facebook every five minutes during meals together. Plus, using a paper map and finding our way as we went was kind of fun; to be sure, it was also occasionally frustrating, especially when certain streets seemed impossible to find on the map or had different names for some reason. But after a while, we got a better feel for how the city was laid out and which streets could take us where than I think we would have by simply following turn-by-turn instructions from a GPS.

I’m not making a broad argument against modern technology. Most days, I love having a smartphone. But it does seem that certain technologies can lend themselves to isolation, depending on how we use them. If my husband and I had been able to use our smartphones every time we needed directions or help of any kind, it probably would’ve been a little more convenient, and we probably would’ve saved a little time getting around, but we also wouldn’t have interacted as much with the people around us. And for an introvert like me, I often need an extra push toward interactions with strangers.

When visiting a new place, opening yourself to receiving help from the people there makes for an experience that is more human and more interpersonal. It makes you vulnerable and it’s even a bit humbling, because you can’t feign independence with a technology crutch. Instead, you must accept setbacks and delays as part of the reality of exploring someplace new, and if you need help, you must acknowledge it, reach out to your fellow man (or let them reach out to you, as was often the case for us in Montreal), and see where you end up.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Having lived in Nashville for a year and a half, I finally understand the adjoining freeway system, I know Fido cafe (where Taylor Swift coffees) and which Starbucks Nicole Kidman frequents. I love the Batman building and can explain the local tradition of hot chicken. I have an app on my phone that tells me about the two-dozen or so concerts every weekend, and indie musicians attend my church.

When you live in a tourist site where the Grammy nominations affect your normal commute and billboards advertise a show about your city, the strangeness of living away from home is exaggerated. With my California license plate, I’m the out-of-town driver; yet I know which lane I need to make it onto that hidden one-way street. A mix between a local and a tourist, I get groceries here, I get lost here, I get confused by the difference between “y’all” and “all y’all.” I get the stranger experience and the local experience – being in Nashville, but not of Nashville, to paraphrase.

You probably see where I’m going with this. All of life is a metaphor for something heavenly, after all, and a couple years as a half-local has given me a new perspective on verses urging Christians to behave “as aliens and strangers in the world.” I’m a Californian, and I don’t drive like a Tennessean, eat like a Tennessean, or breathe like a Tennessean (Nashville is Allergy Capital, USA). I dislike how comfortable Tennessee men feel touching my arms or back or calling me pet names. I forget that “How are you?” literally just means “Hi,” here, and no response is given or expected. I’m out of place, but quite happy not to conform whole-heartedly to the patterns and ways of Nashville.

Still, I enjoy the vivid autumn leaves. I love the crumbling brick and the friendliness and warmth of strangers. I appreciate going to a coffee shop and hearing musicians “test out this new song” on us. One thing about being an alien or stranger, in the world or in a city, is that you’re there for a reason. That means that, despite the fact that it isn’t home, it is a good place to be for the time you’re there.

Wayfaring also creates that lovely moment when you overhear someone explaining, “I’ve always thought of rain as cold, not warm. It’s so strange here!” Ah – a West Coaster! It’s like the song of your homeland. Away from home, your ears get attuned to picking out those phrases you’ve thought to yourself. A microcosm of an unparalleled phenomenon is that instant joy of greeting someone with, “Where are you from?” and getting to follow with “Me, too!” That human fragment of living, breathing, undiscovered Home echoes your thoughts and discomforts and revelations in soothing rhythm. That joy and excitement just comes up to the heels of that giant peace of drawing open polished wooden doors and slipping into a pew beside another eternal citizen of the place you call Home not by birth, but by loving choice.