Our ship was a couple of hours out of Venice. The tip of the campanile of St Mark’s Basilica had disappeared over the horizon, and the Aegean stretched all around us is every direction.
Suddenly, my mobile sounded. A Croatian telecoms company welcomed me to its network. It informed me about texts and data charges and wished me a pleasant stay.
It used to be that, when you were travelling abroad, you had to worry about visas, foreign currency, border control and the price of cigarettes in Greece. Now, you just get a text to your mobile saying you’ve changed networks.
It used to be that, if you wanted to buy a ticket to a ferry from Venice to Patras – as we did a few days ago – you had to go to an office somewhere.
It would be hard to find. It would be hot. There would be a ceiling fan turning languidly, moving the hot air around the room.
There would be two men in cheap suits in the waiting room. Morose, heavy-set men, their faces dark with stubble. You could almost hear their beards grow.
When they were called in to the inner office, you would hear raised voices. Yet a few minutes later, they would emerge, smiles beaming and gold fillings glinting, their tickets in their hands.
You would be next. The ferry agent would be a middle-aged man who reminded you of Sydney Greenstreet. A fly-swat lay by his right hand, the corpses of several flies impaled upon it.
Everything about him would be damp, from his handshake to the papers he asked you to sign. With a flourish of his official stamp, he would complete the necessary documentation.
“May the winds favour you, Meester Robinson,” he would say as he handed over the tickets. The glass of his office door would rattle as you left.
Nowadays, you just book them on the internet and print them out.
It used to be that you brought books with you on your travels. Not books you madly wanted to read, but rather ones that, when other travellers saw their covers, would create a good impression.
On my first Inter-Rail holiday, I brought a copy of Middlemarch. On a ferry to Brindisi, I would sit on the deck and read a few pages. Then I would stare into the distance, as if cogitating on the folly of Dr Lydgate or the pros and cons of the Reform Act of 1832.
This performance was enough to earn me the temporary affection of a large American girl with a weakness for the 19th century novel.
At the very least, reading material was an easy topic of conversation. “I see you’re reading Hemingway,” you might say to a backpacker of the opposite sex. “You know he sailed these very waters in ’52?”
Nowadays, you just bring a Kindle because it saves on space in your luggage.
It used to be that, on those old rust-bucket ferries that plied the passenger and freight routes of southern Europe, backpackers would gather on the upper decks.
They had deck-only tickets and set up a temporary republic of sleeping bags, roll-up cigarettes and shared travel tips.
The ones who had come from Greece told tales of island police stations where they tortured you if you drank too much; the ones who had come from Italy passed on information on the liveliest bars and the best night trains.
The ones from Scandinavia explained how their countries worked, and the ones from everywhere else explained how theirs didn’t. The ones from America just sat there, not believing they were having this good a time.
Someone produced a guitar. Someone else produced a bottle. Inevitably, someone produced a salami sausage of dubious provenance, but, taken with the stuff in the bottle, it was probably harmless.
The Irish ones, whiter of course, even in the fading light, but also easier in this kind of company, led the singing and the talking (and held their own in the drinking too).
As the sun went down, and the boat’s wake turned phosphorescent in the moonlight, you felt this wave of goodwill and hope and belief in people.
Nowadays, they bring their iPod nanos and their earphones. Or buy WiFi vouchers from the ferry bar, and update their Facebook status.
Or maybe they do everything we used to do, and experience that fellow-feeling just as strongly as we used to. They just do it after I’ve gone to bed.