My portable reality

How the smartphone altered expatriate life

March 15, 2014 7:30AM ET
Mo Peerbacus / Alamy

A few weeks ago I attended my brother’s impromptu city hall wedding in lower Manhattan. I was in France, so I dialed in via Apple’s convenient video-chatting program, FaceTime. I was able to get a heartfelt word in with the groom, who looked handsome in his navy suit, and also with his bride, stunning in her cream dress. Then my wife and I visited with friends and family, and when the couple hung up to say their vows, they took over the improvised broadcast and kept us in the room with video clips and Instagram posts in real time. As the updates petered out, we toasted their happiness and returned to our own dinner table in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.

When my brother first told me he was getting married on such short notice, I was crushed that I couldn’t be there. All the suppressed feelings of longing that are so fundamental to the experience of living abroad suddenly resurfaced. But by the time I’d ended that video call, exchanged a few dozen congratulatory texts and finished “liking” all their pictures, I was surprised by the degree to which these seemingly small technological interventions had, in fact, dulled my sense of missing out.

I moved to Paris in 2011, when my French wife was offered a magazine job. The last time I had lived abroad for a significant stretch of time was in 2003, when I took an English teaching position in the drab industrial city of Lille, not far from the Belgian border. Then, the feelings of isolation, distance and separation overwhelmed me. Being far from home was a new and inescapable reality, like the ceaselessly rainy sky or the alien, though admittedly excellent, local beer. A combination of knowing no one, working a mere ten hours a week, and a low cost of living provided me with an enormous amount of free time, and with it, some transcendent moments of boredom and loneliness. I threw myself into a regime of reading and what I can only describe as very serious daydreaming, which led to my first exploratory stabs at writing. When I look back at my notes from that period, the luster of emotion shining through amazes me.

It’s easy today to forget just how different things used to be – starting with the obvious but decisive fact that if a phone wasn’t actively being spoken through or ringing there was no reason to pay it any mind. I have memories, clichéd perhaps but profound to me all the same, of sitting still at cafés, nursing a drink and reading a hundred pages of Proust at a time, without breaking concentration or feeling phantom vibrations on my thigh. It seems incredible now, but back then I only checked and answered email several times a week, not necessarily on consecutive days, and certainly not scores of times an hour, as I do now. Facebook was a tiny website reserved for Harvard students, while iPods and cell phones were discrete entities occupying separate pants pockets; there was no App Store teeming with novel ways to communicate your day.

Living in a foreign country was an existentially challenging situation: missing people was the price to be paid for the thrill of being somewhere else and feeling something new.

In Lille, I stayed current on what was happening at home by way of my weekly phone call with family and the care packages of magazines and CDs my mother and friends sometimes sent me, which I devoured in long, uninterrupted stretches. Living in a foreign country was an existentially challenging situation: missing people was the price to be paid for the thrill of being somewhere else and feeling something new. Feeling isolated was an essential precondition for gaining perspective and, hopefully, attaining a certain measure of self-mastery along the way.

There were many days in Lille that I spent without being in touch with any of the people I cared the most about in the world. If I craved friendship and companionship or simply wanted to speak to someone, I had to go out and make friends and find companions in real life. To do so successfully was elating, but more often than not, I left disappointed, never quite able to explain myself fully. It had the effect of pushing me into an unintended but oddly satisfying self-reliance: I took hours-long walks, cooked lonely guy meals worthy of a Murakami novel, and simply stared at the walls of my studio apartment. If I was dislocated and bored, to paraphrase Francoise Sagan, at least there was an intensity to my dislocation and boredom.

Home away from home

This time around, my experience has been wildly different. Whenever someone here asks me if it’s difficult to be away from home and if I miss my friends, I tell them yes. But it’s nothing like it used to be. What can it possibly mean, after all, to miss someone whose lunch you have just admired on Instagram—before it’s even been finished?

 Like most everyone else I know, whether I’m in New York or Paris, I wake up to my smartphone and check my email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, iMessage and sometimes even Tumblr and Goodreads feeds before getting out of bed. I make coffee and then sit down in front of my laptop, scrolling through the news of the day by way of the same New York Times website I would always read and listening to the same music on Spotify that I would play anywhere. Since there’s only so much time in a day, this necessarily comes at the expense of Le Monde and local radio. As the day gets going I don’t just speak meaningfully with distant friends but banter back and forth with them through any number of free channels—G-chat, Facetime, Skype, Viber, etc. —the list keeps growing —as if they were in the next room. The fact that this communication costs me nothing has the perverse effect of frequently cheapening the conversation—despite the basic agreeableness of being in touch. At night, back in bed, my wife and I drift to sleep streaming the same television series everyone else with a high speed Internet connection is watching and tweeting about.

I interact not with the city of Paris but with a system of artificial interfaces that amount to a consistent and hermetically sealed reality—a moveable feast of social media.

All of this has the bizarre effect of rendering the primary locality with which I interact not the city of Paris but a system of artificial interfaces that amount to a consistent and hermetically sealed reality—a moveable feast of social media. My world travels with me and remains intact wherever there is an Internet or cellular connection.

As a writer, I often fear that this may be detrimental to the creative spirit; I’m aware that nostalgia is a dangerous, unwinnable game, yet I can’t help but think of a young Ernest Hemingway Instagramming and live-tweeting his first bullfights in Pamplona for his friends back in Kansas City, at the expense of immersing himself in those impressions that would become “The Sun Also Rises.” We are all slaves to our times, but this is a tacky, dispiriting image nonetheless.

Perhaps this second time abroad was bound to be less arduous. Thanks to my Parisian wife, better French, and a decade of lived experiences, I now have a wonderful network of friends and family in Paris. But that doesn’t explain why I can’t step into the eerie glow of a medieval street without imagining how it will fare on Tumblr, or why the slope of a thyme-covered Provencal hill registers in my mind primarily as a tally of “likes” back in America.

This summer my brother will have a formal wedding ceremony in New York and I am going to be there in person. I can’t wait to embrace him, to shake my father’s hand and kiss my mother’s cheek. And though there will be phones and photographs and messages, there is still, thankfully, no app for that. 

Thomas Chatterton Williams is a writer and editor living in Paris. He is the author of Losing My Cool: Love, Literature and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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