On Screens and Notre-Dame

A couple weeks ago, as Notre-Dame burned, I thought about my first trip to Paris, in 1995. I was 21, and it was April of my senior year of college. I met my high school best friend, Wendy, in Paris (she was studying abroad for the semester), and we traveled from there to Nice, Rome, Florence, and Venice, before returning to Paris. I carried a Minolta with me and took rolls and rolls of film, but I can’t find the photographs anymore, and I have almost no memory of the pictures I took. I do remember one, of a little Parisian boy rolling in the grass in a park where we had sat down to hang out.

Mostly what I remember from that trip is having a lot of time to read and think and just look. We sat on park benches for hours, reading, eating baguettes, and watching the people walk by. I read and wrote in a journal. Wendy wrote in her journal with a fountain pen, in French. We called our parents every few days from payphones on the street—just a few minutes before our francs or lire ran out. For those 17 days, we were totally disconnected from everyone we knew, except each other.

I was imagining what that trip would be like today. The texting and emailing and FaceTiming with friends and family. The sharing to Instagram and Twitter. Having a map in my hands at all times. Wendy and I were walking from our pensione in Rome to the Spanish Steps, and we ran into the Colosseum. And as we tried to find the Spanish Steps, we sat down and turned around and realized we were sitting at the bottom of the very steps we were looking for. That wouldn’t happen today, with iPhones in our hands. We started every morning, each of us buying a bottle of water and a fresh-out-of-the-oven baguette. Throughout the day, we would gnaw on our baguettes when we got hungry, maybe stop for a slice of pizza or a gelato in the afternoon, and then aimlessly look for places to eat dinner on our way back to our hotel every night. Today we would just look for restaurants on Yelp. It would save a lot of time, but it would also eliminate that sense of serendipity we had when we happened upon an amazing restaurant in a basement where we had pasta and wine and talked and talked.

Can I go back to that time? To a time before screens?

I bought an iPad several years ago, to show photos to clients, and I tried reading books on it, but I just couldn’t stand staring at another screen. Being able to carry dozens and dozens of books with me to Europe would’ve been easy, but I kept the copy of Leaves of Grass I took to Europe, and that meant more to me than any e-book ever could.

I bought an Apple Watch recently, and returned it a month later. You see the push–pull here? The conflict? At first, I was thrilled with all the information it gave me. Within 24 hours, I had turned off all notifications on the thing, because I didn’t want to be buzzed or beeped at so much. I used it just for activity tracking for a while, and then even that I found obtrusive. I didn’t count my steps in Europe. I just walked and walked and walked. It didn’t matter how many miles I had walked or flights I had climbed. I just knew I was standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower and seeing Paris spread out before me.

I’m wearing an analog watch now, for the first time in years, because why look at my phone to check the time, and look at a screen more than I do already?

What is this about? I love technology in so many ways. I love the sense of community I have online. Some of my best friends I met through Twitter or Instagram. And Wendy and I have lost touch—although I texted her as Notre-Dame burned, and we arranged a time to talk on the phone, for the first time in seven years.

I cried watching Notre-Dame burn, and I didn’t know why. I’m an agnostic, I was never Catholic, and churches hold no special meaning for me. I cried watching Notre-Dame burn, I realize now, because it wasn’t just Notre-Dame I was crying for. It was the memories of that trip to Europe when I was 21, of a time and a place that feels lost to me, as lost as Notre-Dame appeared to be as the flames consumed the famous spire. And yet Notre-Dame still stands, and will stand for hundreds more years, and that time before screens is gone forever.