Longing for Home

How Skype may be making us homesick

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | April 2012

By January 2012, another million people had signed up to Skype, bringing the number of active weekly users up to 31 million, according to Phil Wolff of the online Skype Journal. By March, it was up to 37.5 million, an enormous jump in just 60 days, for reasons nobody really understands, except that Skype now accounts for one in four international telephone calls.

That was interesting to me, as I see a lot of Skype-ing going on among Vienna’s ExPats. Well, actually, I hear a lot about it, as Skype appointments have now started competing with "real life" – you know, dinner, movies, meeting for a drink…  At home, I have more than once peeked through a darkened guest room door to see an animated face lit in the reflected eerie glow of a digital screen, laughing at some virtual joke.

So clearly the airwaves are humming.

As for me, I’m not into Skype, probably because I don’t like what the cock-eyed computer cameras do to otherwise perfectly pleasant faces. It feels voyeuristic to me, like a peeping Tom in the garden, nose on the windowsill watching the private world within.

However, it seems I am in a soon-to-be-minority; many, particularly (but not only) those under 40, report calling family and friends abroad several times a week. Which should be very gratifying to the Skype people, whose ads claim that video calling "makes it easy to be together, even when you’re not."

But it’s not clear it’s good for the ExPats themselves. In our very mobile world, Skype may be exacerbating feelings of homesickness, rather than easing them.

"It is possible that these new technologies actually heighten feelings of displacement," wrote historian Susan Matt recently in the International Herald Tribune. "The immediacy that [inexpensive] phone calls and the Internet provide means that those away from home can know exactly what they are missing."

No more "out of sight, out of mind." I think back to summer camp and boarding school: the first few days were always difficult, but then you adjusted. It wasn’t that you loved your family less, it just that you stopped thinking about it all the time and got involved in the place where you were. With instant communication, it may be harder for people to let go of "home" and make a new home for themselves somewhere else.

Even when you stay in touch, time passes; the world keeps changing, both where you are and where you are no longer.  Over time, you become someone different and the "home" you long for comes to exist only in your memory of what it used to be, and perhaps more to the point, the person you used to be – who you were, in that increasingly far away time and place.

So it strikes me that it may well be our younger selves we long for, the magical experience of a child’s discovery of ordinary things, a young adult’s belief in possibility, a sense of wonder wrapped in the careless abandon known to children who are loved. All of this colours our ideas of home.

"Like many long term expats, I imagine, I am afflicted with nostalgia for a place that has ceased to exist," writes Laurie Pike on www.theparisblog.com. "A place of imagination, distilled from childhood memories… a snapshot of a society in transition and full of hope." She was writing of 1970s London, but for someone else, it might have been the 90s in Vaclav Havel’s Prague or the 60s in flower-child San Francisco, or perhaps Greenwich Village in the 1950s, or Red Vienna of the 1920s. Or, of course, the fin de siècle Vienna of the Secession.

But then nostalgia has a long tradition in Vienna, a city Wien Museum director Wolfgang Kos describes as "the world capital of retrospection," and the inspiration of an unforgettable 2005 exhibition, Alt-Wien, die Stadt, die niemals war, Old Vienna, the City that Never Was. In every age, the Viennese look longingly back to an earlier one that was more charming, more civilized, more golden, than the one in which they happen to live. In EU comparisons only the Italians (4%) have less interest in living and working abroad than the Austrians (8%). It may be that they know too many stories of earlier émigrés who lived out their years in cultural exile.

But back to Skype. Perhaps there is a danger in too much of this good thing. Connection is sweet, and nostalgia a rich vein of imagination. But it is in letting go that we are free to change, to learn from the other and see ourselves and our old world from the outside.

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