Living without a cell phone has been one of the more liberating experiences of my stay in Germany. It’s been close to sixteen months now.
I did not do it on purpose. Having used a cell phone for over a decade, I had every intention of getting a new connection in Germany. It seemed like the natural thing to do.
However, cutting ties with my ex-phone-provider in the US turned out to be messier than a breakup. I had to pay a heavy price for terminating my two-year contract at the end of year one. A series of events led to long and futile conversations with their rather tardy customer service, hundreds of dollars and hours of lost sleep, a string of international calls, and loss of faith in their service. My cross-continental move had exhausted me, and I needed temporary respite from a telephone provider. Ironically, owning a phone in Germany is an easier process. You do not need to show your credentials, have a credit history, or have a contract to own a phone. You can just buy a pre-paid card, a phone, and use it on a need basis. However, my harrowing experience with Verizon had left me scarred, and I did not want to go through the same battle again in German, a language I do not speak or understand.
My bad experience turned out to be serendipitous. I never got that phone. I do not intend to anymore.
Using a phone, just like using anything, is a habit. And the thing with habits is that they change. Living without a cell phone is really easy in this age of technology. I am usually always online and checking emails at work or at home. Friends who need to talk write me emails or send me Facebook messages. On weekends I religiously Skype and video chat for hours with my close friends, all of who happen to live in the US. Ironically, I never talked to them as much when I actually had a phone.
I call my family in India using Google voice. 2 cents/minute is cheap enough, but not so cheap that I would engage in long, meaningless conversations. My mother could not figure out for a long time why I renounced the comforts of a phone. She came up with a string of theories (I was depressed, going through midlife crisis, trying to be stingy, etc.), and offered to buy me a phone, demanding to know how she might get in touch with me if there was a family emergency. I explained to her that in this age, trying to shut out someone might be a more difficult endeavor than trying to get in touch with someone. I stood my ground, and she eventually gave up.
So now that I have no phone, do I travel less? Not really. On the contrary, 2015 has been my most extensively travelled year, covering 22 cities in 13 countries. So the notion that one cannot travel without a phone is entirely wrong.
And how do I travel without a phone? Just like people traveled, and even invaded and conquered empires before the era of cell phones. I do my homework beforehand, meticulously reading maps and memorizing them. I had made free-hand drawings of the way to the hostel from the train station in Frankfurt (I knew that I was reaching pretty late at night, and my hostel was a good 15 minute away). Additionally, I use this amazing resource called human beings, asking for help, and learning to say please and thank you in the local language. Rather than seeking help from technology, I ask help from human beings.
And what if I am waiting and am bored? I don’t get bored actually. Far from it. Rather than succumbing to this compulsive habit of looking at a phone, I look around me. I watch people. I carry reading and writing material. I recently had a 5-hour layover at the Helsinki airport and a 7-hour layover at the Dubai airport. I chatted up with a few random people, enjoyed a nice hot bowl of salmon soup in Helsinki, and time flew while I did nothing in particular.
What if I get an important email while traveling? Really, what could be so important? Sure, there was a time I had a compulsive habit of browsing work emails, staying abreast of everything posted on Facebook, every news that had gone viral, a disaster, a tragedy, a malady, perhaps even some joyous news. Now, I am no longer attached to the idea of staying on top of things all the time. I couldn’t care less about what people are eating, what they are arguing and fighting about, what the activists are up to, and who is leading the baseball season. It is a selfish existence you might say, but it suits me fine. I do not chase news anymore. If news is important, it chases me.
Is it hard? Not at all. It is strangely liberating actually. It is one less thing to worry about (not worrying where you left your phone, not worrying about paying the phone bill or exhausting your talk time, no peer pressure to upgrade, among a few). I am not accountable for calling people or staying in touch with them every day. Nor do I feel bad if people do not call me every day. Yes, there are websites for booking flights and buses that need you to have a phone number. I just make up a random number, and tell them that email is the best way to reach me. Calcutta, Bombay, and many airports need you to give them a cell phone number to be able to access their internet (they send you a code on your cell phone). I just choose to read/write/snooze/reminisce/plan/fantasize [insert any verb of your choice] rather than browse the internet.
And how do people respond to this? My colleague, like my mother, got concerned and gave me an extra phone and a charger to use. It is still sitting unused in my office. My mom gave me a phone too, and I have no idea where it is. Obeying Lamarck’s theory of use and disuse, I have lost my instinct to jump and respond to a ringing phone. Most of the time, I ignore ringing phones.
At the end of the day, a cell phone is just one of the many methods of staying in touch. It is just a tool, and not the cause for strong friendships. This compulsive habit of being available at everyone’s beck and call or being reachable all the time doesn’t suit me anymore. This is not a Germany-specific malady. I was in the US for 2.5 months and in India for a month, and did great without a phone. While meeting someone, I look at the bus/train timetable (I have been without a car for 16 months too) and send them an email about my expected time of arrival. My life is not a continuous job where I have to be on-call all the time. Even without a phone, I have traveled more, made more friends, forged active research collaborations, and been able to stay in touch with everyone I want to. People wanting to meet me have taken international flights and found their way to Germany. I have connected with people even more, relearned to observe and reflect more, and channelized the extra time in pursuing newer interests like learning German and understanding the technology behind how airplanes fly.
Lastly, this write-up is not really about the vices of a phone. It is about learning to give up something familiar, rewiring my habits around it, and pushing myself to do something uncomfortable. It didn’t have to be a phone, it could be anything (well, I learned to give up driving too, and I used to be an avid driver). The good news is, meet me for a meal, and you will have all my attention. I will not be compulsively checking emails and texting out of habit.