I am no newbie expat, nor am I here to escape the financial crisis or anything else. In fact, my life abroad has coincided with the growth of the internet, social networking, and cheaper and easier connections of all sorts. When I moved out here, initially for a year, it was for personal reasons; some real, some imagined. I stayed, probably for the wrong reasons at the time. Back then, in 1999, the world of computers was only coming into its own as a user-friendly sphere, and the number of people who owned a portal at home for fun was small. Computers at home were pretty much work related.
When I moved here at the age of 37, I still wrote and received letters, and loved them (still have them). Of course I also made phone calls, although this was still at the tail end of the era when calls to a foreign country were considered a luxury and a once-a-week kind of event. So home was abroad, away, far away. I spent fifteen minutes a week talking to parents and sisters and sometimes to friends. I wrote letters.
But most of my time was spent building a life here, learning Spanish, and getting to know people, supermarkets, places, customs, and habits. In other words: integrating, fitting in. I moved here alone, so I was happy to have to go out and make friends. At the first few jobs I landed I insisted that people spoke to me in Spanish, and gradually I learnt the language. Connections of all sorts, not just Internet ones, were slow. When a very close family member was dying I had to endure 4 a.m. Tenerife-Madrid-Dublin connections to make it to the hospital; direct flights only became a reality eight years ago.
I was a journalist before I left Ireland, and very soon the call of the profession was too strong. Within five months I was working full time for a local English paper, but here too we were antediluvian in our internet connections – there were two computers that could go online, and the use was monitored. It would take years before we were all able to log on first thing in the morning. But it meant that I was reading (and gradually understanding) two or three local Spanish papers a day, and interviewing local politicians became a bit easier. However, modernity caught up with us bit by bit.
Just a few years ago there were only a handful of people in our village with online connections – the hotels and the upwardly mobile bright young things – but almost overnight, that changed. Fast forward, and now if you’re not online, hooked up, tweeting out the messages and posting photographs on Facebook faster than you can say “where can I buy a stamp”, you’re not living. In fact, my daughter’s primary school recently organised a trip to the local post office as an excursion, and the kids were taught to post a letter. What a novelty and something very few of them see their parents doing these days.
So, how has the Internet changed my life as an expat? Hugely, and not completely for the best I think, though I am no Luddite. As a result of a recent birthday I am now the owner of an iPad, I am online at home, own a Smartphone, can make cheap calls to anywhere in the world, and am instantly contactable, which is a drag a lot of the time.
The advantages are numerous, I admit. I have watched a cousin get married in Dublin courtesy of the webcam, and was able to watch, with great sadness, the funeral of another contact live online. I follow politics from home with huge interest and contribute to Facebook chats on Irish issues, despite the fact I haven’t lived in Ireland for years and do not have a vote. I have rediscovered old friends, people who I had cared for but hadn’t written to in years. With the magic of social networking I now know more about them than ever. And interestingly enough some are, I feel, closer to me as friends today than when I left Ireland 14 years ago. Maybe in the intervening years, before we rediscovered each other, we all grew up a little, stopped trying to impress each other, and are truer representations of who we really are – at least online anyway!
Nowadays I listen to Morning Ireland on RTE (Irish national radio) as I am getting breakfast, check the Irish Times online the minute I get to the office, and listen to the News at One on my headphones in work. Keeping in touch is great, but there is a cost involved. The time I once spent watching Spanish news, finding out more about what was going in on my adopted country, is now given over to catching up on the minutiae of life in a place I may never live in again. In many ways, I have become more of an expat than before in recent years. I spend more time talking about and thinking about Ireland because I know more about what is going on, and that of course maintains the notion that some day soon I might go back.
I hope it’s a phase and that I will be able to find a balance. I love both Spain and Ireland, and if I am to be truly content with my life here I think I need to wake up a little, sign off, and go out and smell the Spanish flowers. The Internet should be a communications tool rather than an escape mechanism. Real life is outside the front door, not through the square window!
Cliodna O’Flynn left her native Ireland for Tenerife in 1999. There she edited one of the leading English language newspapers for 12 years. She is currently working in the communications department of the Adeje council, where she is actively involved in spreading a very positive message of harmonious co-existence.