Madrid, autumn 1996. I have long henna hair, am dragging a suitcase with one hand and have all my fingers figuratively crossed on the other.
I’ve arrived in a foreign country, knowing no one, to do a university year abroad, and it will be another tear-stained fortnight before I speak to anyone back home in my own language. When I finally do, it will involve finding fistfuls of pesetas to feed into a phone box on the street corner, while a dubious-looking drunk batters the glass pane at my back. “Right, whitey, you’ve had long enough!” Sobbing my way back up to the flat, I hunker down for several more weeks’ radio silence.
Barcelona, spring 2011. Reply to texts from parents, answer emails from friends, update Facebook status to something approaching accurate, phone my gran back on her mobile, speak to my sister on Skype, catch up with ex-colleagues on Linkedin and, for the love of god, write something fresh for my blog. Is it just me, or do you ever wonder if all this accessibility is ruining your living abroad ambience?
Every time I hear the Arcade Fire song ‘We Used to Wait’ I think it sums up the old days (a mere decade ago) perfectly poignantly. “It seems strange”, the singer points out, “how we used to wait for letters to arrive. But what’s stranger still was how something so small could keep you alive.” I have to smile at this point, remembering the intensity of my 19-year-old vulpine-haired self. The highlight of my week was interrogating the buzón downstairs for a letter from my boyfriend, recognising the handwriting, tipping out the newspaper clippings about, most probably, a Highland cow that had got itself trapped off a cliff somewhere or, more prosaically, the latest football results.
I sound like a veteran of yore, I know, but my year abroad came at a time just before the internet age was upon us, when most people still didn’t have a home PC. And needless to say no British TV. I was cocooned in an environment of utter Spanishness, without a clue about what was going on in the wider world, with letters from loved ones the only umbilicus that kept me going.
Sunny little mystery
Seriously, can you imagine that nowadays? Since you’re reading this on an English-only website, I’m assuming you’ve moved to Spain from another country. And I don’t know about you, but I sometimes long for the days when there was still a bit of prevailing mystique about travelling and living abroad. Having all knowledge at your fingertips seems to strip the experience of what made it appealing in the first place—the pull of alterity, other, over there—and the breaching into the unknown. Now you can just look it up on Street View and see your soon-to-be neighbours hanging out their washing. Barcelona, done.
It’s also the sense of serendipity being thwarted that sets me wondering whether I’d be better just turning it all off. I’m fascinated with the idea of being able to go discover a city and a country on my own, without feeling obliged to consult three million previous users who have dissected it all for me. Plus, what are we passing on to posterity? “I’ll see your bundle of carefully wrapped love letters and I’ll raise you some 404 pages.”
I’d be interested to hear what other people think about this topic. Do you ever fancy going back to basics, or is modern technology a lifesaver when it comes to keeping in touch?