Keeping in touch as an expat
The autumn seems to bring a spate of family birthdays – my children, mother-in-law, step-mother, sister-in-law, niece, father and my sister all have birthdays falling between September and November. In years gone by we were not able to call family for birthdays, we could not even be sure that a card would make its way to us. Luckily three out of the four main family birthdays (my mother, father and my birthday) all fell in school holidays but my little sister’s falls squarely in term time.
Before modern technology
I remember the first year I spent away from her, alone at boarding school knowing she was in Nigeria with my family, celebrating a birthday but unable to get any message to her at all. I had left a card with our parents at the end of the holidays but I felt very bad about not being able to be in contact. Consequently I was very excited, when she moved to a prep school in the UK. My school allowed students in my year and above (age 13) to make telephone calls. The other girls in my year, knowing I never made calls let me go ahead so I could ‘phone before my sisters bed time. I remember getting through to her house-mistress and asking if I could wish my sister happy 9th birthday only to be told that only parents and grand parents were allowed to call. I explained our family situation and that nobody but me would be calling but they would not allow us to speak. I could hear my sister pleading on the other end of the phone, wanting desperately to speak with me, before the phone was put down. Luckily I had been able to send a card but I remember that evening as one of the most upsetting of my school life.
Snail mail and email
The intervening years saw a lot of changes – when I went to school our post would take 3 months – I would dutifully write a letter home each week knowing that I would get to Nigeria before the letters. The letters I received and read were full of out of date news but still precious as a tangible link to my family. When I was a little older my family moved from Nigeria to Turkey, our post was faster and the school gave us a special dispensation to use the fax machine meaning we could receive and send letters each week.
By the time I went to university I had an email account and could send weekly letters directly to my parents through my father’s work email. My sister’s school had not yet enabled email but I was able to call and send mail through the UK post.
Out of touch and emergencies
It really did feel, particularly when my parents were in Nigeria, that they were completely out of touch and that I was on my own. When I was 12 I flew to Ireland to spend a half term with my grandparents, due to a mix up no one turned up to meet the ‘plane. The airline called my grandparents but also, despite my pleading, called my father’s UK office. When the message that I was stranded in Dublin got through to them my parents were understandably frantic, it took them some days to get a call through to my aunt and be reassured that I was OK.
Even in the late 1990’s we had some problems with communications. One Sunday morning at university I received a call from my sister – due to delays she missed a connection on her flight home to Venezuela and was being re-routed. She had tried to call our parents to let them know but to no avail. I called home with no luck, I tried the office but my father was not in. I asked for his cell phone number (it was too expensive to call normally so I did not have it) but for security they would not give it to me. I finally managed to speak to someone who agreed to get a message through to him, just in time as he was about to leave for the airport. My last option would have been to call Caracas airport and ask for an announcement to be put over the tannoy, but whether or not they would have agreed to do this I have no idea. When my sister got home and they investigated the problems with the telephone it turned out the line had been severed by a joy shot. You just can’t plan for such happenings.
I think about all the challenges we used to have to deal with just to keep in touch I am very thankful that it is so different these days. My children speak to their family every week on Skype – just the other day they even put on a ‘gymnastics show’ on the webcam. When we first came to Kazakhstan I had to travel back to the UK for two weeks each month but I could still read them a bedtime story. We are always contactable and available – mobile costs may be high but are much more affordable than in the past. Our UK contract ‘phones are always charged and can be used for family to contact us (at little cost to them) in an emergency and they also have our Kazakh mobile numbers.
Facebook and email mean that grandparents, extended family and friends can see the most up to date family photographs, they are able to stay in touch effortlessly and there is no time-lag, no delay in news. We can send flowers and gifts to our family at the touch of a button, the children may not get the opportunity to browse shop shelves for gifts but they can help choose something from the internet. The internet even allows our children to show off their school work. Post from Kazakhstan can take some time so I regularly photograph key pieces of work and share them with instant messengers such as ‘whatsapp’.
Even if our children go to boarding school modern legislation means that they will be able to take full advantage of all these means of communication. What a wonderful world we live in these days!
Republished with kind permission via Ersatz Expat: Modern technology and staying in touch with family and friends.
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