“Anyone who travells will have a tale to tell,” said the German poet Matthias Claudius. Back in the 1970s, however, you had to wait until you had returned home before you could share your stories, as there was simply no way of communicating with your family or your company while you were away. For all intents and purposes, you were cut off from the rest of the world.
Let’s take southern Algeria as an example. I was there in 1971 to carry out initial dust tests for one of our major clients. The subject of the testing was the 1.6-litre Beetle. We were based in El Golea, an oasis town some 900 kilometres south of Algiers. Back then it took around a week just to get there and, of course, there was no telephone on site.
The only connection to the outside world was the post office in the oasis. This was only manned on certain days, but from time to time there would be an official there who was willing to help. Then, having waited for days, I could finally send a telex via France which would arrive in Germany two or three days later, before being delivered by the postman. Alternatively, I could also have written a postcard, but this would only have arrived once I had already returned home myself. In those days, home felt a really long way away …
It wasn’t much better in the USA, Mexico, Brazil, northern Canada, South Africa or Lapland. Here, too, there was hardly any possibility of contacting home in real time. It was not possible to make long distance calls from all telephones and you needed a bit of luck to even find a free line. Of course, things have improved over the years. Mind you, in many countries I now have to contend with huge time differences – something many people were not really aware of back then, in contrast to today. The record was a call I received from a colleague at half past four in the morning. It wasn’t even particularly important, but nonetheless I wasn’t able to get back to sleep afterwards. Even in more recent years, with international telephone calls largely being free from technical issues, I had to take care. As soon as I was connected, it was a case of: “Keep it brief, these calls aren’t cheap!” One minute from the USA would set you back around ten dollars. With this in mind, we came to a clear agreement: I would only contact my wife or the company when it was absolutely necessary. Therefore, my wife in particular needed a lot of trust and patience.
This is impossible to imagine from today’s perspective. Text messaging, WhatsApp, Skype, email and many similar services work almost wherever you are in the world, so you can announce before boarding your flight: “I’m just at the airport in Frankfurt now.” When you arrive wherever it is you are going, you can check in again straight away: “I’ve arrived safely.” This is all somewhat foreign to me, even though I do now know my way around WhatsApp. It’s also wonderful when my eleven-year-old grandson sets up Skype for his grandmother and his parents appear, as if by magic, on the laptop. However, this does mean there is less time left for painting, crafts and playing – away from our little electronic helpers – outside of school. But is this a good thing? Only future generations will be able to judge.