Moving to Germany at age 12, and even at age 20, meant writing letters if I wanted any connection to the place I left. It meant waiting– in line to buy stamps, at home for a reply. It usually took about two weeks for an envelope to come back, the airmail stationary so thin it seemed transparent when I held it up to light.
Waiting was hard sometimes; I remember the impatience, the intermittent sadness of missing the people I wrote. But that waiting time served a purpose too: it made me forget. In those weeks between letters, I had no choice but to live exactly where I was. And I did. When I think back on those times, I don’t remember very much pining, except for the moments when letters came or went. I do remember leading my little brother down pine-soaked forest paths until I had them memorized. I remember ordering vegetables for my mother at the market. I remember riding trains through France, Spain, The Czech Republic, leaning my forehead against rattling windows. I remember riding my bicycle to class, flying down the river road. I remember shrieking with laughter the night my floor mates in the dorm taught me how to tend bar. I remember how hard it was, both times, to leave.
My most recent move to Germany was very different. Before we left, I signed up for a Facebook account, telling myself and others that it would be a great way to keep in touch while we were gone. I imagined that Facebook, with its real-time news feed, could somehow make up for the fact that we were no longer going to live within an easy drive of our parents. I rationalized that our son’s frequent visits with his grandparents would be easily replaced by frequent status updates: “Heading downtown to Schlossplatz!” “Eating Brezel at the Biergarten!” Keeping in touch would be so easy, I told myself, it would be like we never left.
But we did leave. And the more I relied on the internet to make it seem like we hadn’t, the more obvious it became. Suddenly, there was no more waiting, no more forced immersion in the physical world. I didn’t need to wait two weeks to establish contact with the people and place I left; all I had to do was sign into my e-mail, log onto Facebook, ring into Skype, and the old world swam into a strange, shimmery kind of e-focus. “So easy!” I told myself. But then why was I so sad?
The internet created a separate world for me, a shadow of the one I’d left that kept me from really living in my new one. Why work hard to establish a strong network of friends when my real ones were “back home”? Why get to know this neighborhood when I can see photos of my old one on anybody’s “wall”? My friends from home, in kindness, still included me on our group e-mails about playdates and snowshoe excursions and teas, and the e-mails popped in often enough that I could pretend they actually applied to me. My son, a toddler when we moved, and his sister, born in Germany, maintained relationships with their grandparents on Skype. I was grateful for the e-mails and the video calls, but knew as I watched my kids lean into the screen, offering bits of food to my parents on the other end, that my original plan had been a farce. I thought the internet would knit up an ocean’s worth of space and make it disappear. Instead, constant electronic exposure to the old “home” only heightened my sense of separation. Staring at home on a screen wasn’t the same as being there, and I knew it.
I wonder sometimes if a little bit more of the waiting that infused my first two trips overseas would have, in the end, made me less homesick. I often felt overwhelmingly grateful for the online tools that kept me in regular touch with people I deeply missed. Yet I also usually logged off of Facebook feeling vaguely depressed and less motivated to engage with my immediate surroundings.
Now that we’ve moved back to the United States, I’m grappling with a new illusion: the idea that simply being on the same continent would be so much easier for our family relationships than living overseas. Realistically, living a 14-hour drive away from Michigan means that our contact with our parents and old friends looks a lot like it did when we lived in Germany. There’s a lot of Skyping, e-mailing, and Facebooking. Sure, it’s a little easier now because we live in the same time zone, and flying here is much less complicated than it was when we lived in Stuttgart. But those differences don’t change the fact that we’re still far away, far removed from daily life in our old community. We have a new community now, and is it hard for me to immerse myself in it? Yes. I miss my old friends and my old town. I worry a lot about what relationships with family will look like, especially as our parents get older. And Facebook remains a fraught tool for me, alternately comforting and maddening.
I don’t think my feelings of displacement are unique; ABC News recently reported on the acronym FOMO (Fear of Missing Out): “Now that you can see your connections’ lives in real time,” writes Sarah Miller, “you are theoretically always missing something…”Joyce Walder’s New York Times article “In Your Face(book): Here’s the party you weren’t invited to” asserts that “now…there are countless opportunities to feel wounded.”
Most often, I work on a daily basis to immerse myself in my new life. I go outdoors, I plan a garden for spring, I take my kids to the library and the swimming pool and the woods, I invite people to my house. But then I slip back. I go online and a photo of my old town pops up; I stare at it longingly, forgetting to look out my own window. I shift between places, stepping gingerly between worlds, delaying immersion in either.
I know it’s possible to strike a balance, to keep in touch without mourning and to love a new place while honoring an old one. We moved pretty recently, and I know that balance takes time. But while I give it a chance to work, I’m making a conscious effort to live where I am.
Sometimes that’s easy. The other day, the kids, dog and I headed into the yard to sled. The sun was thinking about setting, but we had a little light left. I’d been pulling the baby on her sled while my son hurtled down hills on his, but in a moment he handed me his rope, picked up mine, and started pulling his sister across the field. The dog, running ahead, stopped to look back. The moment passed quickly– of course my daughter got cold and started whining, and my son got tired of pulling. But moments like that ground me where I am and help me deepen a sense of place separate from the virtual world. I’m so glad I snapped a picture. I will not, however, be posting it to Facebook.