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Land forgotten by God

The slow pace of life in Puglia and limited Internet access led my mind to revisit my childhood in the countryside of Iceland, and our lives before social media. Paradoxically, I had to travel several thousand kilometres into the past to arrive in the present.

Eternal connection has made it such that I constantly spend more and more time in the future. I had to travel several thousand kilometres into the past to make this realisation. In ordinary time, whether at work, at a coffee shop, or at the swimming pool, I am somewhere in the future. Organising writing, marketing strategies, the groceries, or even my own funeral. It is exhausting over time. We are shouted at from all directions that nothing is more important than being in the present. I have even paid for the chance to not think. Such attempts mostly ended in the same way; my thoughts doubled, and I spent terabytes of brain power reciting to myself in silence: Don´t think!

My relationship to the Internet is more complicated than most of the relationships I have in the real world, where the global search engine Google is my most frequented visiting place. From one unspoiled destination to another, I came closest to remaining in the present along the coast of the Adriatic Sea—Puglia, the province of Salento to be accurate, in  Southern Italy. The region is known for being the home of long-held traditions, olive oil, burrata cheese, outstanding wines, transparent blue waters, and a holiday hideaway for Italian families for centuries.

Italy has given me a lot. I began chugging down coffee there in my early twenties because I couldn´t stand the Roman gourmet. What a shame to have washed it down every day with coffee to soften my hunger. The love that I have for coffee is such that I wake up excited every morning with the knowledge that I can get a triple espresso with cream.

"Italy produces more wine than any other country in the world. In other words, this means that you can even buy a good and affordable bottle at a gas station. I was instantly hooked."

It was in Italy that I first drank wine. Italy produces more wine than any other country in the world. In other words, this means that you can even buy a good and affordable bottle at a gas station. I was instantly hooked. Italy also gave me fruits such as figs. Look, dear, the blossom is inside of the fruit, my host described proudly as she handed me a soft fig from her garden.

But most of all that region gave me limited Internet access—a long-awaited digital detox. It seems remarkable that residents in Puglia have, through their modest conservatism, learned to respect time. They spend their time well with family, friends, good food and the sea.

Our family experienced a touch of the past when we stayed in the region for three weeks. On paper, we´d had an ordinary summer holiday. Four passports, more flights than I care to mention, suitcases, and credit cards with rather low credit considering that was the main support for a middle-class family from Reykjavík. The surprise of having no Internet gave us precious moments together. We read books, made up stories, doodled on lined paper, concentrated over a chess board (demanding brain work), played hangman, and learned some everyday words in Italian. Buongiornoarrivederci!

We took siestas, a local tradition, over the warmest time of the day when the heat is devilish. We ate slow-cooked food and drank home-brewed wine. Life was simple and relaxed—the purpose clear-cut. Just eat and live.

This slow pace of life led my mind to revisit my childhood in the Icelandic countryside. The impressions were similar, with exceptions of the food and temperatures. Under the Vatnajökull Glacier in the southeast part of Iceland, the weather gods have been known to offer double-digit temperatures—on the modest side. In the temple of my memory, the awful-tasting lamb socked white sauce was often on offer and without a doubt, there was some home brew being made in the barn. In the country, children and adults had well-defined roles; we read, played cards, and shared stories.

The postman came to the farm three times a week. I always waited for him at the front gate in great anticipation. Would I get a letter? I wrote numerous letters to my girlfriends in the city with detailed accounts of my accomplishments. My greatest achievements were attaching the milking machine to the cows (which was, of course, a big lie) or how I was now an outstanding tractor driver. My girlfriends thought my accomplishments noteworthy.

Sometimes I took pictures on a cheap FUJI film camera to add proof of my achievements. Films were expensive back then and a lot of thought went into the best way to prioritise the twenty-four photos that were available. Half of the pictures frequently ended up in the rubbish due to movement, red eyes, or poor lighting. People photographed just as they were—good or bad, clean or dirty, wrinkled, pimpled, or with blotchy skin. 

A decade later, while backpacking through Europe and Asia, I sometimes sent myself postcards to landmark my memory. The postcards included everyday descriptions about people and prices and occasionally a weather report was managed without exaggeration. That was the social media of the time and I miss it.

When I choose a hotel today, it is more complicated than it seems on the surface. Indeed, we are bombarded by endless choices and it has not made our lives easier. Being a regular customer of the website booking.com, defined as a Level 2 Genius (a.k.a. a frequent traveller), I spend more than a moderate amount of time finding proper accommodation. I (obviously) want private accommodation, personal service and preferably food that is locally grown under good conditions. Once the booking is confirmed, I immediately feel the guilt of flying due to the family´s enormous carbon footprint.

While I navigate effortlessly online through the sea of hotels and cursing all the options, my mind leads me to old travel brochures. Four accommodation choices available—from one to four stars. Or one Lonely Planet travel book and a dirty old coin phone. Rooms in hotels with differing levels of grubbiness. Dump your backpack in your sixteen-bed dorm and then head straight to the bar. Done deal!

Flights were also more liberal and most airports had minimal security. Are you a smoker, madame? It is only possible to smoke on the other side of the plane, a handsome flight attendant informed my mother on our first flight to Mallorca in the 90´s. What genius thought that smoking and non-smoking sections on flights was a good idea? Although I miss good old days of travelling, I must admit that the smoking ban in planes was a step forward.

"The postcards included everyday descriptions about people and prices and occasionally a weather report was managed without exaggeration. That was the social media of the time and I miss it."

I am a sceptic by nature. I like working at a university because there I can air my opinions with many well-educated people who are also sceptics. Some lean towards socialism and others are more conservative. I thrive in this environment. It took seven years to convince me to join Facebook and an even longer to trick me into investing in an iPhone. I was too self-conscious to reveal myself publicly to the biggest amusement club in the world with a limited number of expressions.

Now I am convinced that smartphones are the invention of the devil and I could easily argue that I am addicted to social media. The smartphone (when it is not lost or uncharged) goes with me to the toilet and downstairs to do the laundry, and I am guilty of documenting everything between heaven and earth.

Electronic technology has no limits, unlike the films of yore. But don´t misunderstand me, caution follows every endeavour, and the Internet isn´t all bad. Every day, it provides me with new knowledge, connections, and ideas. I meet people at a city bus stop and instantly strike up a personal conversation. After that, we connect through social media, offering one another congratulations on birthdays in Finnish or Hebrew and sending hearts when our children graduate or have small sporting achievements.

The cost is high just the same, muscular and skeletal problems creep in when sitting most days as if crammed into a can of preserves, looking at a screen. The time invested isn´t worth it.

Without dwelling too long on the past, I want to explain that I needed to travel to the past to arrive in the present. In Puglia, we didn´t visit any amusement parks or shopping malls, minigolf courses or go-cart pavilions. We didn´t get any henna tattoos or dance at a foam disco. Certainly, the children got bored a few times. Most children today do not recognise that it´s healthy for everyone to get bored once in a while, and to date, no one has died from boredom (except maybe hamsters).

Is happiness found in a break from the world wide web?

WORDS Ingunn Eyþórsdóttir
PHOTOS Matteo Baldarelli