A few weeks ago the owner of the apartment I am staying in visited my home with his wife, on a matter related to the apartment. The Quasts are retired; they live in a quiet neighbourhood a few streets away. Their English, like many of their generation, is rudimentary, and in the early years of our stay conversation was limited to a few sentences on house-related matters and some pleasantries about the weather. Now-a-days I am able to sustain a simple conversation in German, so the range of topics has expanded.
On this occasion, the subject of vacations came up, and they asked if we had travelled anywhere recently. I told them about our Spanish holiday, and, on an impulse, reached out for my MacBook with the intention of showing them some pictures of the trip. They were seated on the sofa; I handed them the laptop – which they held onto in a gingerly fashion, balancing it on their laps so that they could both look at the screen together – and started the slideshow. Standing next to them, I explained the background behind a few shots. Spain is a beautiful country, they said, and added that the pictures brought this out nicely.
A week later I visited them to get a signature on a form I had to send to my parents for their German visa application. Herr Quast welcomed me in his usual warm manner, led me inside and seated me at their dining table. His wife joined us, and after enquiring what I’d like to drink – an offer I gently declined, stating I had to leave soon – she sat down and began to chat. Soon the topic of my parent’s planned visit this summer came up. I mentioned that they wanted to see more of Germany this time as the itinerary on their previous visit was filled with visits to other European countries – France, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland. Frau Quast’s eyes lit up when I said this, and she came up with a flurry of questions: which places in Germany do they want to visit? Did they like cities, or the countryside? Had they seen Hamburg? Dresden? The Mosselle valley? We could offer some suggestions, she said, and left the room.
She came back with a thick file and placed it on the table. Inside, I could already guess, was a treasure of memories: the pages recorded many trips they had made in Germany over the recent years. She turned to a cycling expedition with another couple some years ago, along the banks of the River Elbe, from Dresden to Hamburg. The section began with a map of the route, which was followed by pictures that were clipped to the sheets with a paragraph or two of cursive script describing the moment. Then there were bills from restaurants they had eaten at, receipts from shops they had visited, tickets of concerts or movies, brochures of the region and other little scraps of memory that brought back minute details of the whole trip. In between explanations of this or that picture, Frau Quast would turn to her husband and recollect a day on the trip, or some event that came back to memory.
I had intended to stay not longer than five minutes, and wanted nothing more than a signature on a form; when I left, I had spent more than an hour, and was carrying with me itinerary suggestions that could fill six months of travel around the country. On my walk home I reflected over the two mediums, paper and digital. When it came to sharing something with people around us in the real world, the immediacy and personal touch conveyed by paper was superior to the impersonal, disconnected nature of the digital medium. My choice of the latter medium in the last years also indicated how my relationships had increasingly moved online – I shared more with people elsewhere than in my own neighbourhood, and for such global interactions the digital medium had to be preferred for the convenience it offered. But I was less sure that sharing through digital media – no matter how sophisticated the technology or how beautiful the website – could ever acquire the quality of sitting with a person on a table with a physical album full of pictures, maps, tickets, and recounting stories that made the trip memorable.