Last time I lived really far from home – in Peru – I didn’t speak to anyone, not even my family, till I came home again four months later. A weekly update by e-mail, sent from the only internet café in the village, was enough for me, and for them. So it was that the big events (from a new puppy in the family, to the nationwide foot-and-mouth outbreak) simply passed me by.
Ten years later, and though three time zones and thousands of kilometres away, I’m only too well informed of the in-laws’ latest strop, the effect of the heavy rain on the vegetable garden, and the exact discussion surrounding which colour we’re repainting the kitchen. With slow but more or less constantly available internet I can regularly e-mail or skype not only my extended family, but also my close friends – and even people I’ve never actually spent much time with. Facebook means I know where friends of friends, who I have nothing in common with, just went on holiday. And all of them, too, can follow the minutiae of my everyday life, if they want to. I can send (admittedly pretty unreliable) and receive text messages, and I can even phone my sister in China, mobile to mobile, for only 100TSH (5 euro cent) per minute.
Don’t get me wrong – this is progress. Anxious Sister can stop worrying about Somali pirates. And for me, no matter how lonely it gets I’ll always find someone online to chat to, even if I can’t quite remember what that someone actually looks like. It means I’m still somehow in people’s lives, and I’m not cut off from what my old world is doing; this will probably make the transition back to that world, when it comes, much easier than it would be otherwise. And in the meantime, the abrupt transplantation to a foreign environment feels a bit less drastic, and a year or however long you’re away for doesn’t seem so impossible.
And yet… it’s really odd. Not only because of the slight panic you get when you realise how hard it is to keep up with all those people that you should be keeping in touch with, now that you can. But also because being so closely connected to what you’ve left behind keeps you in a sort of in-between world. You’re not at home, and you can’t even really imagine being there, because no matter how much detail you get about the vegetable garden you still feel quite detached from such things. You can’t get quite as excited about their lives as you would do normally. But nor are you truly letting go of all that to properly live here; with ready-made friends online, why bother going out to make new ones?
And then of course, you’re missing out on the real adventure of travel and living abroad, which comes, as one writer puts it, “from feeling cut off from one’s normal way of life”, from finding yourself in “a situation that forces you to accept what you find and become absorbed by it”. Staying close to your mobile or your computer makes that acceptance a matter of choice. And choice, as we all know, makes life confusing…