by Tobias Thornes
‘Could I have your number, please?’ said the young woman behind the desk. Her hands hovered over her keyboard in anticipation.
‘My number? What number?’ I asked, feeling somewhat perplexed. After all, it was getting late in the evening and the weariness of a long day’s travelling lay upon me.
‘Your telephone number,’ she said in her impeccable English accent.
‘I don’t have a telephone,’ I replied. She looked surprised.
‘Then how can we text you your ticket?’ she said. ‘Perhaps we can send it by email – what is your email address?’
‘Well I don’t have a computer – not any more,’ I replied.
Now she looked worried. ‘We need a telephone number or an email address to send the ticket,’ she insisted. ‘Are you sure you don’t have a telephone?’
Was I sure? A ridiculous question. But this wasn’t the time to argue. I was trying to book onto a train that would take me onwards through Europe the very next day. So I conjured up my old email address – which should still work. Satisfied, she smilingly typed it in. Clearly, I was going to have to find an internet café somewhere in Paris the next morning.
As usual, I set out to walk the city before dawn. At that time of the day, when darkness still clings to deserted boulevards and alleyways, and even stars sometimes poke through in pockets where the glaring orange blindfold of the streetlights is torn, every city takes on a special character. Devoid of the incessant chatter and clatter, ticking engines and wailing horns that mar each flustered, in-a-hurry day, an ancient tranquillity creeps back in beneath those eternal celestial watchers of the night. At times, early buses whoosh by like swooping owls; here and there a fellow shadow wanders the resting, deserted stones. But largely, for a short time at least, a lonely serenity reigns.
Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, the footfalls increase, and life returns to greet the rising sun. It is a comfort that, even in this digital age, one primeval animal instinct largely survives: the glare of screens and speakers has not yet drowned the quiet call of the sun by day and moon or stars by night bidding us to wake or rest. And, after the earlier solitude, it warms the heart to see and hear people of all ages and professions giving of their boundless walking, talking, breathing energy to replenish the vibrancy of this busy capital. Each clatter of the metro, each snatch of birdsong resounding from the neatly-arrayed tall trees, each snippet of French conversation wafting, with the smell of freshly-brewed coffee, from each quiet café: all make this the living, human place it is. Or at least, that’s how it used to be.
But nowadays the streets begin to clog more quickly and the hoot of horns soon returns. As I make my way into the city’s heart, I pass the silent congregations gathering round bus-stops, their heads bowed as if in prayer at some mournful funeral. Theirs is no reverential gesture: their ears are stopped, their eyes are focussed down upon the garish, flashing screens they cradle, too distracted by their digital preoccupations to watch the waking day. And I, though in the midst of such a busy crowd, feel utterly alone. For whom, amongst these digital people, has eyes to see and ears to hear the world around them any more?
Soon the great Notre Dame rises into my sight, that towering ancient testament of love and past enchantment that carries my thoughts away to a time when Christianity so perfused the lives of those that dwelt here that they mustered all their industry and ingenuity to assemble this incredible monument. Nowadays it’s hidden from afar, lost betwixt the frowning faces of later, taller towers that have crowded out the shrine of love with one of money, the slave-driver of today’s faster world. These were built in months; in years perhaps they’ll fall. But the house they hide, constructed as much by centuries of prayer as by stone and mortar, will outlive them all.
Yet as I enter I find it difficult to hear the echoes of those countless prayers recited down the years. Now, the place is thronged with tourists who look not with their eyes but with their hand-held camera-phones, which they wave throughout the building in a forest of fluorescence. I wonder whether they do not, in their eagerness to capture for the future the beauty they behold, lose it not only for the present but altogether. For how many of these photographs would ever meet their eyes again? And which amongst them could ever convey the true awe and majesty of the place which they, through the very act of taking pictures, only worked to dispel for those of us not looking through digital eyes? There was little tranquillity to be found amidst that fleeting, photo-stopping crowd.
It took me a little while to find an internet café. They used to be so common, not very long ago, at a time when to enter the world of the digital one would need to seek out one of its portals and, when finished, could simply shut the door and walk away. No longer: now it follows us everywhere, demanding our attention. Few places are immune from the ever-loudening drum of digitality, beating incessantly through a million mobile telephones and ‘tablets’ which people cling to like cherished children, never sleeping, always wailing for the attention of their twittering guardians.
Running Windows XP on a screen like a small cupboard, the cafe computer was hopelessly out-of-date compared to those machines. But it printed me my ticket, quickly and efficiently. Switching it off, I looked around the shadowy room, at first glance a quintessentially old-fashioned French place. But yes, here too the multiplying machines had made their habitation. In the corner, a couple sat in silence, each with a mobile telephone before them, their heads down, reading messages or chuckling to themselves. Only when the waiter arrived did they look up and converse. As they spoke, he whipped out a PDA and began to tap in their order. How long will it be, I wondered, before we forget how to write altogether? By the window a bored little girl slowly slurped through a straw, her father typing frantically on the touch-screen on his table. Work, play and conversation follow you everywhere, now. Some call it freedom. I call it slavery.
I didn’t give the waiter chance for further practice on his PDA; it was time to amble back to the station. The little girl smiled at me as I left. Her father did not look up. I sighed to think that this was the city where, in December 2015, so many promises were made. Two years on, the people were more plugged-in and wired-up than ever, often I saw them apparently talking to themselves as they walked the streets. A decade ago it would have turned heads. It is no wonder all those promises are coming to nothing: with every gram of precious metal mined, every Watt of energy wasted to feed these ever-hungrier handheld devices, the planet gets just a little warmer. And, each lost in our own digital universe, we cannot hear the ticking clock, nor see the gathering clouds.