I stood on the edge of the Prinsengracht canal on the edge of the old worker’s neighborhood in historic Amsterdam, now a maze of vintage shops, small cafes, and converted tenements for the professional classes, called the Jordaan. As long as I stuck to the main canal loops that circle the old city in widening circumference, I basically knew where I was. But start walking, or biking—the preferred means of travel—outside these orderly loops, and the side streets envelope you. A good map or large blocks of open time for getting lost are prerequisites for finding your way around.
For many years, my husband and I were fortunate to find ourselves exploring new European cities at length nearly every summer. But we have a two-year-old now, and we hadn’t taken on a new “old city” in several years. Besides the euphoria of our first adults-only vacation since becoming parents (a ten-year wedding anniversary trip), this trip was different in another respect from earlier travels: for the first time we had Internet-enabled smartphones on the streets and wireless in our sublet Amsterdam apartment. It was also the first time in many years that we spent less than a week in a city (we used to be real “hunker down” travelers, staying for weeks, or even months, whenever we could).
It turns out these two facts were integral to each other in forming our enjoyment of the city and our quick sense of comfort wandering these new streets. If you stay in a new place for a long time, you stand a chance of making friends who can recommend the best spots in a new city, or you can linger long enough at a local café to overhear a conversation or watch the fliers for popular venues. But when you only have a short time, you can easily become dependent on sheer luck to find great, out-of-the-way spots, or you follow a guidebook to the same handful of spots pre-selected for tourists. With Internet access, we were able to read local blogs and chat boards to find amazing restaurants and lesser-visited parks, not to mention the fact that the GPS on my phone came in very handy when our map didn’t extend to some out of the way islands!
Jason Byassee wrote about
a similar experience when traveling in Tennessee: how social media allowed friends to give personal recommendations of local places to eat. He lauds the way these uses of new media allow others to tap into the “local, particular, quirky, and glorious.” I didn’t happen to have any close friends who lived or had lived in Amsterdam, but an hour of searching online yielded a wealth of “local, particular, quirky, and glorious” insights through local blogs, lovingly updated and robustly interactive. I never met the folks who provided so much valuable insider knowledge, but I felt connected, however tenuously, to other lovers of farm-to-table French-Caribbean fusion cuisine.
Then again, as I urged in my theological essay
for this project, there are some times when you just have to unplug in order to concentrate attention in one place, at one time. Standing on the edge of the Prisengracht watching the canals—a man-made feat of sixteenth and seventeenth century engineering, now transformed into something like a natural wonder—was such a time. Turning into the labyrinth of winding cobblestone streets, I slipped my iPhone back in my pocket. Lost in a new city—that is a feeling I never want to change. Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University (starting Fall 2012) and the Co-Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact email@example.com.