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.
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.
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.
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.