Who doesn’t love to eavesdrop? Years ago my wife suggested a book featuring compelling, ambiguous snippets of conversations she had overheard in and around New York City (but she was beaten to it by the Overheard in New York website and books). Random fragments of conversation are appealing to us because they pique our curiosity. We are witness to the immediate context of the conversation, but our fleeting interaction leaves us frustrated as to its full meaning, yet also free to indulge our imaginations and construct our own version of the narrative.
In traveling to and from England recently, I have had plenty of chance to overhear conversations and to observe people conversing. Perhaps the most notable observation, for me, has been the absence of conversation. I have been traveling long enough to remember when the Sony Walkman was the unusual personal entertainment device du jour. Now, of course, it seems as if most of us have ears hard wired to our smart technology. The traveling feature that I observe mostly now is the insulation that we build into our traveling lives. We choose to isolate ourselves from the real, personal experience of our journey. We choose to isolate ourselves from any chance of shared engagement with others around us. I don’t know if this twenty first century attitude is a result of our new technology, or because travel has become a functional activity instead of a previously indulgent one, or is due to some broader social meme.
I do not deny the utility and pleasure that comes from modern technology. I am no Luddite. Indeed, I am writing this blog post on my iPad 2,434 miles from Chicago O’Hare airport at an altitude of 35,005 feet. There is, however, a pernicious decline in our capacity to embrace the world around us as we travel through it, accompanied by a decline in our capacity to embrace those people also traveling in the world around us. On this recent sojourn, I have traveled by bus, train, subway, car share, private car, foot and plane. I am not a garrulous travel companion myself, but have relished overhearing unfinished stories about the Wilson Canadian wedding, an air marshall, Lee’s finger nails on his phantom limb, Terry’s cereal preference at his bed and breakfast in Dungeness, that guy’s shoestring wedding 23 years ago, a mother-in-law relationship sufficiently repaired that the son-in-law is now her Power of Attorney, an Israeli waterfall, a couple’s furtive appreciation of my socks, and so on…
When I return to Omaha, I expect to come back to drivers cocooned within their vehicles, joggers and walkers with the world around them mitigated by earphones, and bus riders minding their own quiet. I enjoy all of these pursuits myself, although I would invite us all to leaven those singular, solitary experiences with an inquisitive interest in the world, life, people and opportunity surrounding us.