When free wifi doesn’t come close to being free of wifi
On a tiny Greek island open-mouthed South Africans can learn a thing or two about being connected
Whenever some fresh mishap or new stroke of ill-fortune descends, I try to remind myself about the wifi on Ikaria.
When I arrived on Ikaria I knew I’d be there for several months but I didn’t know anyone who lived there. I was staying in a house on a hill outside a very small fishing village on a very remote island and I was trying to be casual but secretly I was scared. The landlord of the house had promised there would be wifi. I told myself that I needed the wifi for work and so that I could watch the cricket, but really, truthfully, I needed the wifi because it would make me feel less alone.
I checked the wifi as soon as I arrived. It wasn’t working. I pointed this out to the sweet lady named Maria who had let me in and given me the keys. Wherever you go in Greece, you will find that you are always being let into your house and given keys by a sweet lady named Maria who receives no money either from you or from your landlord but who will bring you freshly baked items from her kitchen every day and leave them on your doorstep if you’re out and who will speak no English whatsoever.
I told Maria about the wifi but all she could understand was the word wifi so she beamed and wiggled her fingers at the air to acknowledge that wifi is amazing and is all around us. I waved the dark and silent modem at her, and she beamed and nodded in vigorous agreement that, yes, this is indeed the magic box that produces wifi.
Once she had gone and I’d eaten her delicious pumpkin-and-feta pie, I tried to fix the wifi. In other words, I unplugged it and plugged it in again. Nothing. Something that cannot be fixed by unplugging and replugging is clearly broken beyond repair. I felt a dark gloom settle over me. Below the house the sea sucked at the pebbles on the shore and the moon lay upon the water and ordinarily I would feel dizzy and delighted with where I was but I was not yet used to being disconnected and it felt as though I was some spark flying up from the fire of humanity and slowly fading forgotten and unseen into the darkness. That’s the kind of thing you think on your first night when you have no wifi. You become 16 again.
The next day I wandered down to the village. I mooched around, waving my laptop in the air, scanning for signs of wifi. Two old men drinking coffee at a small table on a shady porch watched me, and one of them said something in Greek.
“Wifi!” I replied.
He slapped the chair beside him to invite me to sit, but I had already seen that their porch had no wifi so I went on my way.
There was nothing in the small square and nothing near the boats. Restaurant MaryMary was my last hope. I crossed the little bridge over the stream where the freshwater turtles are and climbed the slight rise and tried the stairs to the front door to Restaurant MaryMary. I was frowning over the laptop when someone said: “Hey! What are you doing there?”
He was a guy on a scooter beside the road.
“Wifi,” I said, then realised he seemed to understand English. “I’m looking for wifi.”
“That’s my restaurant,” he growled.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry, I was just ... I was just trying to steal some free wifi.”
“There is wifi but only up on the terrace,” he barked. “I only open at six.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, “Sorry, I’ll come back at six ... ”
I was trying to skulk away like the embarrassed South African that I am, but he dismounted his scooter and strode toward me with what seemed to be an angry gait. Oh no, I thought. I have already antagonised the only person in town with the ability to connect me to the world.
“So this is where I keep the key,” he said roughly, showing me a ledge. “If you want wifi and I’m closed, let yourself in.”
I stared at him, like a bewildered South African encountering the sense of Greek community for the first time, like a pale child of the connected world who is only just starting to figure out what it actually means to be connected.
“Okay?” he said, clearly wondering whether this goggling stranger, open-mouthed like a fish, had sufficient brain to understand simple sentences.
“Th- thank you … ” I stammered.
“Ehhh,” he shrugged, and rode away.
I am preparing to leave Greece and make my way back home. In all the hours I’ve sat in Nikos’s restaurant he has never suggested I order something to eat, never suggested the table might better be used by someone paying. If he arrives and sees that I haven’t helped myself to coffee he becomes angry because how can a man work and not drink coffee? He never takes money for coffee drunk when he’s not there. He never charges me for the wine I drink when he’s sitting at the table with me. Now when old men invite me to sit down with them, I do, without checking if they have wifi.
You never know when a bad thing is actually a good thing. I am glad the wifi wasn’t working when I arrived in Ikaria.