On Losing Tempers and Gaining Perspectives

by Brenna Holeman


Zurich, Switzerland

I write this on a quiet Sunday night from the Alps, tucked into a town a few miles from Innsbruck, Austria. I love it here. Here there is an endless sparkling sky, an air that smells like woodsmoke and the icy expanse of snowcapped mountains. I’ve been gulping it down with such gusto that sometimes I feel like my lungs will freeze. I can’t get enough.

Four days ago, in Zurich, Switzerland, I found my way to my hostel without consulting my map; I had stayed there once before, in the summer of 2006, and I let my feet and my intuition guide me from the main train station. The trip started off well, and I spent the afternoon with mulled wine and lulled steps, slowly and deliberately making my way through the cobblestoned streets and the Christmas markets. Around 8pm, I went back to the hostel. That was part of my goal – every night, through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Austria, I’d spend at least a few hours writing.

I opened my MacBook Pro, my fingers still slightly numb from the cold. I turned on the computer, its familiar grey screen popping up before me. The little circle spun, spun, spun. Spun. And spun. Nothing.

I tried again, and again. I left the computer for an hour. I tried starting it in recovery mode, safe mode. Nothing could make it work – not my patience, my frustration, my pleas. It was the first day of a ten-day writing trip, and I was without my main tool.

I knew, in the back of my mind, that the laptop was done, fried. I knew that I had lost everything – especially since, on a long to-do list I had been slowly checking off throughout December, the only thing that remained unchecked was “back up computer”. I broke down in the hostel stairwell, texting my sister a series of curse words.

But the moment only lasted a few minutes. I knew that it was pointless to rant and rage, to let a holiday be ruined. I also knew that I had most of my work and photos backed up on a hard drive in London, and that the other work was all either online or still on memory disks. It would be found. I would be OK, and, in the very worst case scenario, I would surrender my laptop for a new one.

Perhaps it was because I was in the very same hostel I stayed in all those years ago, on my first solo trip, but a sense of calm washed over me. I sat on my bed, realising that I was sleeping in the same room I had in 2006 (though I chose a different bunk; I remember being annoyed by the opening and closing of the door. Funny what the brain chooses to remember). I travelled around Europe for months by myself, and I met more people and wrote more words than I do now, on any of my trips. I was equipped with nothing but a few paperbacks, a journal, and a digital camera. No smartphone. No iPod even – I had some romantic notion of trains and church bells as my soundtrack. No Macbook, no computer at all. If I wanted to use the internet I had to go to a sweaty little cafe, feed a machine with coins that allowed me 15 minutes at a time. If I wanted to call my family, I had to stand at a pay phone in the street, charge my credit card. I wrote postcards. I talked to people – we all did, then.

Innsbruck coffee

Enjoying a quiet moment in Innsbruck, Austria

Sitting on my bed, I made a new plan for the next ten days. It involved notebooks  and paperbacks (I still carry those things around). It involved talking to people. It involved getting off the internet and back into what I love to do more than anything: travelling. Travelling with eyes and ears 100% open, alert, awake.

The next morning, I sat at the hostel lounge’s table. I sat at that same table in 2006 with a mishmash group of backpackers: there was definitely an Englishman I had a bit of a crush on, and two sorority girls from Georgia or Alabama with fake breasts. There was a woman named Ula from Hamburg who I’d later go out for fondue with; she was probably younger than I am now. Around the table this time are new faces. I can’t tell you where they’re from – each of them had a face in a mobile device, a laptop or smartphone or iPad. When a hostel staff member informed us that the internet wasn’t working properly, and she’d have to reset it, I couldn’t help but quip,

“Do you mean we’ll actually have to talk to one another?”

I was met with silence.

“I was joking,” I added, and a few people nervously laughed. Within a few seconds the wifi was on again, though, and everyone’s heads went down, back to Facebook and Twitter and Buzzfeed.

I walked to the Apple store, where my diagnosis was correct: my computer had to be wiped. I managed to save a few files, and was reassured by the thought of my hard drive waiting for me in London. Only later did I realise how much more I lost: all my music, all my passwords, all my bookmarks.


Vaduz, Liechtenstein

Still, something shifted. I spent the day in Liechtenstein as (by my observations) the only tourist in Vaduz. I didn’t think much about my computer; instead I wrote notes about castles and vineyards, about the bus driver, about seeing the Alps unfold in front of me as I stared out a train window. I wrote like I did in 2006.

In the past three days, I’ve been almost completely on my own, save a lovely kiwi in my hostel and some equally lovely train passengers from Zurich to Innsbruck. I’ve barely been online; I’ve sent the random text to my mum, tweeted a bit, put a photo or two on Instagram. I spent today completely offline with the exception of those few moments; instead, I spent it all outside, walking through Innsbruck, breathing in the fresh mountain air. At dinner I brought my book (the second I’ve finished in three days – another reason to get offline), but I closed it when the food came. I just wanted to enjoy being there, surrounded by good cheer. Over venison ragout and a litre of beer, I made friends with an Italian family, then retired to my room happy and full, eager to finish my book and jot down notes from this perfect day.

Innsbruck meal

Delicious venison ragout in Innsbruck, Austria

In the past six months, since attending my first travel blogging conference, my perspective has changed a lot on what this blog is and what it has done for me. It has, in effect, changed my life. The writing I’ve done here was submitted as part of a portfolio that led to my acceptance on an amazing Master’s program. My new employer found and hired me because of this blog. My flat in London came through because of this blog. Most of my closest friends in London came into my life because of this blog. My readership has tripled in six months, and I was recently honoured with being shortlisted for Hostelworld’s Storyteller of the Year. Because of this blog, I’ve achieved a goal I never though possible: I’m making a living, I’m making a life, by travel writing.

Most days, I love the online life I have. I cherish the communities I’m a part of on Facebook and Twitter, and I am so thankful for the overwhelming support I get online. Some days, though, I just want to unplug. I just want to go back to the way I travelled all those years ago, with a couple of pens and a wide-eyed grin.

The computer crashing was a curse and a blessing, though, bizarrely, it feels like more of a blessing, a clean slate. Even though it’s up and running again (though I did indeed lose all of my files), I’ve hardly touched it. In fact, I doubt I’ll touch it much over the next week, except to do my requisite work and homework.


Beautiful Innsbruck, Austria

In one of those quiet moments today, I decided to get offline as much as possible in the upcoming year. Even though my job, my degree, and my blog all rely on being online all the time, I want to cut out any unnecessary Internet time. I want to spend my time doing what I used to love doing: playing music, journalling, scrapbooking, taking photos. I still do those things, but not nearly as much as I used to. It’s time to step away from the computer a bit.

I take the train to Vienna tomorrow. For the four hour journey, I’m equipping myself with nothing. No laptop. No smart phone. Hell, no music, maybe no book or journal. I’ve got a window and one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth. I’ve got a seatmate with a story. I’ve got, just maybe, a new perspective, or an old one born again.

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Oneika the Traveller December 23, 2013 - 7:42 am

Love this Brenna! I also have taken a step back from the computer since my move to Asia — I find that my evenings are spent making new friends and re-establishing old friendships, not parked in front of the computer blogging and manning my Twitter. I’m definitely better for it but I do miss my online identity and lament losing touch with my online friends. I’m hoping for a little more balance in 2014. Also, I’ll be in London over Easter Break (April 17-26), will you be around? Would love to catch up.

Brenna Holeman December 23, 2013 - 9:01 pm

Thanks, Oneika! I will also be looking for balance in 2014 – we can share tips.

And yes, I think I’ll be around then, though I might also be travelling (I have a few weeks off of school, too). I would love to see you, so let’s keep in touch!

Alana - Paper Planes December 23, 2013 - 7:42 am

Hear, hear! Traveling is so much better without out the gadgets and connectedness anyway… I hate being tied to my computer and it’s one of the main reasons I left my job in the States. Now I’m using it more and more for work and it’s a constant struggle to find balance.

Brenna Holeman December 23, 2013 - 9:02 pm

Yes, it seems that balance is the key word here. I agree that travelling without all of the gadgets is preferred – it’s why my blog is almost always a few weeks (or months, or even years) behind!

Kathryn December 23, 2013 - 8:50 am

Having electronics fail during your travels is the absolute worst. My smartphone and hard drive have both broken during my year away from Canada. Like you, I accepted the loss but the worst part is having to carry around broken hardware from country to country since the warrantee only applies in canada! Curses! Haha

Brenna Holeman December 23, 2013 - 9:03 pm

Oh no! That really sucks. My MacBook is also under warranty from Canada – thankfully they were able to “fix” it in Switzerland. I can’t imagine how angry I would be having to lug it around on my travels…

Audrey December 23, 2013 - 9:52 am

I was thinking back on my first backpacking trip through Germany the other day. It was back in 2006 and I travelled with no laptop, phone or iPod – just a camera that I took a few blurry photos with. It’s strange to think of how quickly things have changed, I mean, that wasn’t even a decade ago. While I currently depend on my computer for work, over the past few months I’ve also been trying to eliminate non-essential computer time and I love it! I’m devouring books on my Kindle, enjoying long walks through the city, and meeting up with friends for meals. Balance feels good. : ) P.S. I hope you get a seat mate with a great story to tell on your train ride!

Brenna Holeman December 23, 2013 - 9:04 pm

It sounds like we have very similar stories and very similar goals! I hope that I find that important balance in the new year.

I actually had an empty seat beside me, ha ha! I did spend the hours staring out the window, though, it was wonderful.

Laura December 23, 2013 - 3:46 pm

Excellently put, Brenna. I had many of these same realizations on my most recent trip around Australia. It was only in those places where there was no signal and no internet that I got to know my fellow travelers. Those are some of my most treasured times on that 8 week trip. I have been traveling without a laptop now for over a year (because I left mine on a train…) and it is the best thing that could have happened. Good luck with your new years resolution!

Brenna Holeman December 23, 2013 - 8:59 pm

Thanks, Laura! I really do love visiting places where going online isn’t even an option. It sounds like you agree – thanks for the comment!

Sav December 23, 2013 - 6:23 pm

Great post! I think more people should take the time to travel with less of an online presence. I was just curious – what hostel did you stay in in Zurich? I’d love a recommendation as I may be there soon myself!

Brenna Holeman December 23, 2013 - 8:46 pm

Thank you! I think that, too – we’d see more and talk to each other more.

I stayed in City Backpacker hostel – to be honest, it’s not great, and it’s really expensive for what you get. There are so few cheap options in Zurich, though! It’s definitely one of the most expensive cities I’ve ever been in, but still worth a visit.

Katrinka December 23, 2013 - 8:50 pm

Brenna, your writing is just so wonderful.

Brenna Holeman December 23, 2013 - 9:07 pm

Wow, thank you so much, Katrinka. I really appreciate that!

The Irie Explorer December 27, 2013 - 3:07 pm

Your site is my favourite travel blog I have come across so far, Brenna, as I always enjoy your wonderful stories.
Last year when I was in Australia my Macbook died on me, too. One day it was working fine, the next it was black. Wouldn’t even turn on. I took it into Apple to learn that there was nothing they could do except extract a few files – everything was gone. I spent a week without a laptop and almost no communication with anyone online. Although it made keeping in touch with my family at home in Canada difficult, it was such a nice change to not feel obligated or bogged down by having to “keep up” with social media constantly. That week I read three books, spent much more time outdoors, and simply talked to people more (via real life and not a device). Like you, I enjoyed it so much I spent very minimal time online over the next few weeks (and then, eventually, got suckered in again).
Liane xx

Helen December 28, 2013 - 12:32 pm

Hey Brenna,

I can really relate to this! I miss the days when I travelled without any connection to the internet. When you could really just switch off. I recently just took myself off to a park for a few hours, with my iPhone on airplane mode and just walked and cut off and it was so lovely! I will be doing more of this again next year too! 🙂


Brenna Holeman December 31, 2013 - 12:27 pm

I miss those days, too. I never like the pressure to be online every day, all the time. Alas, that’s 2013 (soon to be 2014) for you! I think taking a few days (or even hours) offline like you mentioned is really important.

Lisa Imogen Eldridge December 30, 2013 - 2:05 pm

This totally happened to me too! I was teaching in Nepal and working on my MA at the same time when my laptop had a complete meltdown and deleted everything. I don’t know if it was due to the damp from it being rainy season but I completely broke down. Luckily I had saved my 33,000 words of my dissertation on a memory stick so all wasn’t lost but I really think it was a sign that I should have been absorbing my experience instead of writing.

It forced me to take time off and make the most of my time in Nepal and instead of spending hours slaving over my laptop, I took walks and hung out with the nuns instead. When I got back to England, my warranty was just within a week of expiring so I was so lucky!

Brenna Holeman December 31, 2013 - 12:28 pm

Oh my God! That is so horrifying. Thankfully you had it all backed up – I hope that I’m the same. I will probably realise later on what I forgot to save. Your story is not only a reminder to back everything up all the time, but that we really should appreciate what’s around us, not only what’s on a computer screen.

Kilee December 31, 2013 - 8:14 am

I think Apple is out to get travel bloggers. And maybe Canadian ones (I’m from B.C. 🙂 ) Same thing happened to me too, now I’m considering becoming “a PC person”. Hmm…

I used to catch up on my blogging while on long bus rides in Asia. Not only was I getting insanely car sick but I was missing out on what was going on around me/outside. The laptop from then on stayed in the backpack.

Cheers and Happy New Year!


Brenna Holeman January 13, 2014 - 12:24 am

Oh no! Really? I always want to make the switch but when my MacBook is working properly, I love it.

I’ve never tried writing while on a bus, but I don’t think I ever would. I love looking out the window too much!

Thanks for your comment, Kilee.

Zalie December 31, 2013 - 1:39 pm

Such a wonderful way to look at life! Sometimes it takes a Mac tragedy to make you realize how simple life was before we had all of our daily online addictions 🙂 p.s. there was definitely some cursing going on when it crashed though haha!

Brenna Holeman December 31, 2013 - 4:31 pm

Shhhh… I had the mouth of an angel! And yes, sometimes we need reminders of the simple things.

eemusings January 5, 2014 - 1:31 am

Yikes. I’m definitely guilty of being one of those hostellers who spent all her time glued to her laptop :/

Am glad you found the silver lining and I agree – with so much of my life (personal and professional) online finding that balance is a constant juggling act.

Brenna Holeman January 5, 2014 - 10:05 pm

I know that 2014 will definitely see me trying to find the right balance…

Katie @ Domestiphobia January 16, 2014 - 8:54 pm

…slowly making my way back through posts I missed between bouts of work…

1) I’m so happy for you, Brenna. I’m certainly not the first to discover your blog, but you know I’ve been around a while – since the time when things were fairly quiet around here. I think you’ve done a beautiful job of growing your blog with a smattering of professional articles while maintaining what I’ve loved about it since the beginning — your unique voice. You have a poetic way of storytelling that makes us feel like we’re there with you!

2) I’m glad you got to experience some “unplugged” travel. It’s so hard to remember that sometimes! Though I have to say — I’m SO sorry about your computer. I’ve lost two hard drives (neither of which were backed up, I’m ashamed to say), and it’s the most gut-wrenching feeling. I lost years of photos. And the sad thing is, they’re probably moments I might otherwise remember if I hadn’t had my head stuck in the camera.

3) It makes me happy to read this! You’ve come so far. It’s just cool to see. 🙂

Brenna Holeman January 16, 2014 - 11:47 pm

Thank you so much, Katie! You’ve certainly been a reader longer than most, and I really appreciate it.

It’s so terrible to lose photos, I’m sorry. I really try to back everything up now, I’m paranoid!


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