News Travel

On Paris and Smartphones: dislocation in the modern world

By: Jennifer S. Deayton

Jennifer S. Deayton, blogger at the, shares her thoughts on the recent tragedy in Paris:

I woke at 5:30AM on Saturday to get my daughter to swim training. In the pre-dawn darkness, breaking news bulletins from CNN glowed on my iPhone screen: Bataclan, Stade de France, suicide vests, unconfirmed death toll. The latest email in my inbox came from my brother, an expatriate in Paris for almost 20 years. Only two hours before, it was just another Friday evening in the City of Light, and he was writing to confirm arrangements for our Christmas holidays together.

I replied immediately: Call me as soon as you wake up, just read… Stay safe, x

Within minutes, another email from my brother described anxious moments: his stepson sheltering in a bar next door to a restaurant that had been attacked. The bar owner had lowered the grill and ushered all of his customers to the back. His stepson was safe and in contact with his mom, but no one dared to venture out.

“We’re still up,” my brother wrote. “It is crazy.”

In French, a push message from a newsfeed is called an alerte. When the news started breaking, my brother downloaded the app from Le Figaro and has been inundated with alertes ever since. He doesn’t own a television and, as he wrote to me, “It feels like I’ve opened the front door to my house and a whole troop of uninvited guests has walked in.”

Throughout Saturday, as I shuttled from one weekend activity to another, I phoned my brother but got voice mail; I spoke to our mother, sent and received Facebook messages from concerned cousins in the U.S., cursed a missed call from France and read the latest reports on the CNN, New York Times and Guardian apps. Eventually I sent out a mass email to friends and family with the latest news from Paris. I was in touch with people I speak to frequently and those I normally contact maybe once or twice a year. The level of connectedness was comforting but out of character, a sure sign that something was wrong. Or as my brother described it: a different kind of alerte.

By Saturday night, I got to speak to my brother, who had already checked in with our other siblings and managed a few hours of sleep. His stepson made it home by 3AM, via Uber. On Sunday evening we Skyped: his kids and mine, chatting about school and holiday plans and talking briefly about the terrible events that had taken place. My brother said Paris had woken to beautiful weather, and although every museum and most businesses and markets were closed, he suspected that people would be drawn outside, in defiance, to mourn the dead and to acknowledge life.

With the perspective of a few days, I found it difficult to imagine how those 24 hours would have unfolded without an iPhone in my hand. Instant communication. It seems such a banal thing and yet, as I moved around Hong Kong on the day after the terrorist attacks, how could I have connected with that many people in that short a time? Not that long ago – though a veritable millennium in tech terms – we relied on landlines and terrestrial TV. Then came calling cards and cable channels. Fax machines and flip phones. Desktop emailing. My life as an expatriate – over 18 years and counting – can be measured in how inexpensive and easy it’s become to stay in touch. How technology has shrunk time and space. I used to write letters. Now I wait for my siblings to catch up to Hong Kong app trends, so we can set up a family WhatsApp group, as many of my friends have already done.

What endures, however, is the sharp sting of distance. An inescapable reality. An unpredictable fracture. The feeling emerges, raw and abrupt, during times of trouble. When we want to be there, right there in the flesh, to provide comfort and love, we can’t. The world is huge, and planes fly only so fast. My brother said times zones are the only consistent reminders of how big the world is. He waits for the U.S. to wake up and watches Asia go dark during his day. “The need to sleep is the final frontier.” Such is the life of the expat.

And as much as we can call, text, chat and post, instantaneously, the ache of dislocation will never leave us. Far from home, there is freedom but there are limits.