By Elizabeth Kelsey, Editor of Interface
This column originally appeared in The Valley News on Sunday, October 19, 2014
When I returned to Holland after a 10-year absence, I realized how much technology complemented my connections with people.
I traveled to the Netherlands for vacation in July. I once lived there, and the trip was my first time back in 10 years.
As I boarded the plane to Amsterdam, I thought of how much I had changed since I last made this journey as a vagabond grad student. But another type of transformation dawned on me in flight as I binge-watched episodes of Girls on my iPad: Technology would make this trip different.
When I last lived in Holland, Gmail was Google’s newborn infant and the iPhone was probably a mere napkin sketch on Steve Jobs’ coffee table. Still, on this trip, I wasn’t keen on using any of the advances that have come since those days. Why fly all the way to Amsterdam to look down on a retina display and not up at the city’s gables?
I limited Internet use to the evenings, when I contacted my husband Maroun on FaceTime to say good-night (good afternoon, for him, in New Hampshire). In the U.S., I’d used the service to chat with out-of-state family, but I always reverted back to regular phone calls. But intercontinental use proved a revelation as I connected with my husband from my cousins’ home in the village of Wassenaar.
Maroun had never met the Dutch side of my family, and I introduced them all one evening as my cousins and I mingled in the kitchen after dinner. My husband laughed when he noticed that the television in the background was tuned to the World Cup semifinal, the orange-clad national team darting across our screen and his. And he was surprised at how light it still was at 10 p.m. in the Netherlands, something that struck me too the first time I visited there. On his end, our cat Stella, hearing my voice, approached his iPod. She butted up against the device and I could hear her purr.
After I said goodnight to my husband and cat, I signed on to Facebook briefly, just to reassure myself that my community back in New England hadn’t changed in the three days since I’d left. Indeed, judging from their photos, friends still went to farmers markets, baked pies and took vacations. Even the Fourth of July was celebrated without me.
One afternoon I visited a couple of friends in The Hague. Over wine and apple tart, I described my home in America. The mountains I had hiked. The college where I worked.
“Show us,” they said, and handed me an iPad.
On Google Maps I hovered over New Hampshire.
“It’s all forest!” they said.
I zoomed in closer, to my office building, to the track where my running club trains, to my house, where my husband’s car was parked in the drive. I felt an unexpected pang of homesickness as a Dutch drizzle tapped against the windowpane.
But I would be going home soon enough. In the meantime, I had another social call. And unlike my serendipitous brushes with FaceTime and Google Maps, this was one technological encounter I had planned for.
My grandmother, who died over 30 years ago, had preserved several photo albums from her youth, which chronicled her time with our European family. In the years preceding World War II, she and her Dutch first cousin, Betty, took turns visiting each other, either at my grandmother’s childhood home in Trumbull, Conn., or in Wassenaar, where Betty, 91, still lives.
Before I left for my trip, my father scanned hundreds of my grandmother’s photos and placed them in a shared DropBox folder on the Web. On one of my last evenings in Holland, Betty, her son and I sat in her library, huddled around my iPad. As I uploaded photos, it crossed my mind that we looked like a multigenerational Apple ad. The images displayed beautifully: vibrant, even in black and white. Betty’s eyesight was poor, but I enlarged photos with my fingertips on the screen.
We scrolled through photographs of my grandmother. My great grandmother. A great aunt. A neighbor, once forgotten, but now remembered. Like a magician, I conjured the past with a wave of my hand. Cousin Betty marveled at photos of herself she had never seen; at images, too, of those long dead, now resurrected.
“Mijn schat (my dear),” she said, resting her hand on the tablet. “How did you fit so many pictures into one book?”
Later, on FaceTime, I recapped the evening for my husband.
“She really liked the albums,” I said.
At that point, my cat approached at the sound of my voice. I called Stella’s name and she purred back. Instinctively, I reached out to pet her, but my fingertips fell against a hard flat screen. It wasn’t time for that kind of iPod touch. But maybe it would happen. In another 10 years.