Saturday, December 28, 2013

Driving around home

In a post yesterday, I mentioned how the USA has changed so much in the 18 years I’ve been gone. So, I decided to drive around my hometown to have a look—from my computer in Auckland, of course.

When I moved to New Zealand in 1995, the Internet was still just catching on. Only a few friends and none of my family had email, and there certainly was nothing like Skype or instant messaging. So, staying in touch took a long time (a week or so for a posted letter to get from there to here, a little less from here to there) or expensive (international long distance phone calls—interestingly, it was cheaper for me to call the USA than for them to call me).

This meant that the only way I could keep up with what was going on where I’d grown up or lived later in life was for people to tell me or to see for myself on my rare trips back to the US. The only way to see people was if they sent me photos or, again, if I visited. The Internet changed everything.

By the 2000s, I was able to email all my friends and family and I stopped sending posted letters. As the years progressed, it became easier and easier to communicate with folks in the USA—face to face, even. But there was one more tool that I hadn’t really thought of using before: Google Maps Street View.

Street View lets you “travel” down streets in many places in the world—including the town I grew up in. But it never occurred to me until this week that I could use it to “drive” around my town and see the changes for myself. Sometimes the most obvious things take the longest to realise.

My sister rang on Boxing Day (Christmas Day in the USA) and among other things, she told me about some development going on in the town I grew up in. I couldn’t picture where she was talking about. Then yesterday my friend Lynne left a comment on Facebook about some other changes and—again—I couldn’t picture where she was talking about.

Now, I should say here that my faulty memory wasn’t just because I haven’t lived in the US for 18 years, but also that I permanently moved from the town 31 years ago, and only visited a couple times a year (and only three times in the past 18 years). I think it’s understandable that my mental map of that town would be a bit hazy.

Yesterday, I decided to look on the Village’s website to see the projects that my sister and friend were talking about. I read about the one Lynne mentioned, and dug around to find out what my sister was talking about. It took me so long that I kind of forgot about the project Lynne mentioned (and that memory lapse is, sadly, age), but I saw a map of the project my sister mentioned—I still couldn’t quite work out where it was.

So, I entered the street on Google Maps and found it—it was sort of familiar, but not quite. I switched to Street View and then I recognised it (I’m pretty visual, actually). Then, I just kept clicking: I “drove” down one street, up the other side, then past one house my family lived in, then my friend Jason’s old house, then through the heart of town and on south out of town, past my dad’s church, and on to an area that was developed after I moved away (30 years IS a long time…).

I stopped only when my mousing hand started to get a bit sore. One day soon I’ll “drive around” some more (I still have to go back and look at what Lynne was talking about!), and other areas, too. It won’t be too much longer before we’ll be able to “drive” down streets as a continuous, natural movie-like thing, rather than clicking down the street, and that’ll be good, too.

Things have changed so much since I moved to New Zealand—not just in the town I grew up in, but also my ability to stay connected to it. I had two thoughts related to that. First, if this technology had existed back when I first moved here, I might never have developed the sense of detachment I’ve mentioned several times. Also, I saw all the empty shop fronts and imagined what it would be like to move back and run a business from one of them. If the first thing had been true, the second might have been, too.

But things are as they are. I grew away from my hometown—heck, my home country—precisely because I had no way to stay closely connected. Technology now makes it possible for me to be connected as I never was before. That’s good, but it really came a little too late for me.

Still, at least when I visit things won’t seem quite as foreign as they might have otherwise. And all because I was able to drive around the town I grew up in while still at my computer here in Auckland.

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