My partner brought his new love when we went on a family holiday to New Zealand last month. She’s sleek, perky, well connected, and loves to be stroked, all of which makes her a terrifying competitor. But ‘she’ isn’t quite right. His new friend has the attributes of his preferred male companions too: knows all about sport, technology and games; shuts up on command; and won’t steal your beer. Well, can’t steal your beer. Yet. I say it’s only a matter of time before his shiny new iphone turns on him, but he knows I’m jealous and therefore deranged.
Still, it did seem there was another member of the family with us on our trip. The iphone went everywhere we went: it sat next to the pepper at an outdoor cafe in Wellington, rode the luge in Queenstown, skied the slopes in Wanaka. When I suggested to my spouse he might like the iphone to join him in the shower, I was banned from touching it. He pointed out the iphone more than pulled it’s weight by offering advice on the attributes of each town we visited, helping with directions, providing phone numbers, and taking excellent photographs. Not to mention being an actual phone. The kids can’t do anything that useful, he said, and they’ve been alive for years.
I tolerated the iphone’s wide-ranging assistance, but pointedly used our year-old digital camera (which, for mine, takes better pictures), and refused to read the newspapers online though I was missing them. I filled our long car journeys by reading aloud from tourism brochures and guidebooks, which was interesting for no-one. I gave up when our youngest son bayed for the iphone so so he could watch Happy Feet rather than stare out the window at ‘more trees’. Our little one even began to change his language – every inanimate object now started with an ‘i’. Each morning he would ask if he could watch the itv, which was perhaps quite prescient of him, but unnerving nonetheless.
I admit with some shame that I shattered the peace in a pristine forest when I turned around (to comment on the peacefulness) and saw my spouse lagging behind, looking down at his iphone, its little face glowing in the dappled light. ‘Can’t you keep that thing in your pants?’ I bellowed. ‘What in the world could you need it for here? Look around!’ No-one could’ve matched my righteous indignation at that point. ‘I was taking a photo,’ he said. But we both knew that wasn’t true: all the photos of my ass stomping into the distance get deleted. He’d been checking his email, and I hated that he’d been able to do that.
You’d think I was a Luddite. But I use our computer every day. My list of bookmarks is in the hundreds, I’m addicted to email, I have a Facebook page. By comparison with my other half, however, I’m rubbing sticks together in a cave. He’d agreed that, in order to have a real break from work, he’d leave his laptop and Blackberry at home. The iphone, he said, was coming with us. He argued it would be crazy – more than that, irresponsible – to take our family into the wilds with no way of contacting the world. New Zealand, I replied. We’re going to New Zealand.
About halfway through our trip I phoned my parents to let them know all was well. They asked if we’d found the locals as friendly as they had on their recent holiday in the South Island. My father said New Zealanders were peerless as ambassadors for their country and that he’d never encountered people as knowledgeable about their home as the Kiwis. I couldn’t agree, I realised, because we’d hardly spoken with any. All the answers we’d needed had been in our hands, literally. I haven’t travelled as much as my father (sad but true), but I treasure memories of interesting people I’ve met on the road: the near toothless bartender in Donegal who offered an hour’s worth of directions to a village five miles’ away; the black-clad Turkish woman who invited my boyfriend and I inside her home to cheer her dying husband; the Greek fisherman who downed ouzo with us on his rickety balcony; the Canadian tap dancer. The only people I’d met in New Zealand had handed us keys to our motel rooms.
My family was, naturally, thrilled that I had a new avenue of complaint. They agreed to leave the iphone in our room for a day and see how we went. I enjoyed our time alone: we visited shops and cafes at random; we made no phone calls; we talked to the locals, asking for directions and advice (‘Do we have to do this?’ my spouse asked. ‘Their accents are annoying and they make mistakes’). I could tell he was tetchy. When we came back to our motel he went straight to his hiding spot to check the iphone was okay.
The mistress had won. I would never be as pretty, smart or thin as her, so I gave up. I didn’t become her friend but we did declare a truce. I took a picture or two, shrugged at the mediocre results, checked the news when I felt so inclined. It took my older son to alert me to the lunacy of my stubbornness. As we were walking together past the art gallery in Christchurch he tugged my arm. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing to a mob of tourists alighting from a bus. ‘Every single person.’ And he was right – every person in front of us was holding a camera or phone. ‘None of them is as good as ours though,’ he said.