In France, the tête-à-tête becomes de rigueur
Holidays are meant to be restorative of health and relationships. It depends where you go. A literary friend just returned from a short break at the Salzburg music festival, which she found awash with politicians, including the British prime minister.
I didn’t realise that, having inflicted this turmoil on UK citizens, politicians were seeking similar solace.
I found a farmhouse to rent in France that managed both to be idyllically remote and to offer high-speed broadband — the equation that promises greatest happiness.
We travelled by Eurostar and the young took longer, saving a few pounds with a dawn flight from Luton, because money is precious and time is cheap when you are in your twenties.
As the latecomers zoomed instinctively towards the Wi-Fi code on the router, I broke the news that the internet was down. And it was a weekend. And we were in France.
Many people talk about looking forward to a break from the internet, moving to a slower world of artisanal markets, lavender fields and books by the pool. Do they really? We over-40s remember those days, when we would try to locate the World Service on short wave radio and fall on three-day-old copies of the Daily Express, yellowing in a rack at the village tabac. How much better it is to break fresh croissants after downloading five of the day’s newspapers by 7.30am.
My complaints to our rental company became as pompous as they were pointless. Did they not realise that internet was now a utility, as important as — no, more important than — hot water?
A man arrived in a white van with a couple of screwdrivers and left again with a shrug. It was no good. Someone, somewhere, had cut the telephone line. It became clear that Emmanuel Macron’s revolution had not yet galvanised the telecoms business.
Our week of digital isolation revealed the extent to which work and leisure have become more or less inseparable — the employed go off with the expectation of keeping in touch all day. The entrepreneurial self-employed boast of working from anywhere but can do so only with a decent connection. None of us is truly confident enough to go off the radar.
Meanwhile, at the farmhouse, something else happened. As if in a modern morality tale, we began to have real conversations about modern expectations of work; pressures from high-achieving peers; our envy of those who actually enjoy their work; the fun to be had from more liberated career choices. We debated the freedom of zero-hours contracts against the impossibility of affording somewhere to live; the pleasure of working in a school and seeing a beneficial effect on the students.
The young men returned to a constant theme: with whom would you swap your life? The immediate attraction was for money. Elon Musk’s name came up early, naturally. Then someone opted for Richard Branson. I pointed out that they had just bypassed 40 years of their life. They replied that it would be worth it for cutting to the chase, exchanging the slog for the achievement.
Another decided he would be happy to swap with Prince Philip. It would be good to know you are already in the history books. They seemed dubious that the elderly would leap to be 25 again.
These holiday confessions came because we were forced to pay attention to each other. Our time is usually spent in half-listening or watching. We dip in and out between real conversation and the internet voices in our heads. We break the rhythm by reaching for Google to prove a point. We destroy self-made entertainment by passing round clips of video. We reach unnecessarily for the device.
The real human gift, of course, is the tête-à-tête.
© The Financial Times Limited 2018