Recently I spent a good hour or two trying to determine whether I had completely dreamed up an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Here’s what I remember: In one of the early episodes, when Will has recently pulled up to his relatives’ ostentatious mansion with only a hardshell suitcase and a neon T-shirt, he’s astounded to learn that they’re so rich they have a videophone—a device through which one can talk to anyone, anywhere as if they were in the same room. In my memory, he’s hilariously theatrical about the technology. It seems unreal.
At the time I was experiencing a kind of inverse geographical displacement to Will—we moved from England to Philadelphia when I was eight and the Fresh Prince became my favorite show. The fact that Will could communicate with his friends and family across the country as if they were right there with him felt to me like joyful sorcery. I became obsessed with the idea that this might be possible in the distant future. I was so transfixed that even with every exponentially thrilling technological advancement we experienced from the ’90s onward, I maintained I would truly be impressed only when we could all—not just the rich Banks families of the world—seamlessly and clearly video-chat.
Fast-forward 20-some years, and the reality is even better than I could have imagined (or—if we’re considering that the memories I have of Fresh Prince could be fake—did imagine). Our phones and computers give us near-perfect access to our friends and families, allowing us instantaneous entry into their houses and their lives. Within seconds, we can see with crystal-clear clarity what they chose to wear that day, what state their apartment is in. We can read their facial expressions, intuit if they are tired or sad; we can make them laugh. When we move, we can give tours of our new digs, we can coo affectionately at disinterested babies, and try to get the attention of confused dogs. Most of all, we can feel close, even and especially if we are not.
Video chatting meant that I’d have to actually pay attention to the person who was, through marvelous technology, basically right in front of me.
As in all developments in technology, I began to see video chatting as mundane within a few months of its becoming widely available. First, when I lived abroad in the mid-2000s, I would use Skype to video-chat on painfully slow internet and it annoyed me. Leaps and bounds happened in such a magnificently short time period that, within a few years, I could video-chat friends from my phone, a tiny computer that fit into my pocket, and there would be no delay and no pixelation. But of course that soon stopped seeming novel. I went from being aggravated at the slowness to disenchanted at the speed in an outrageously quick period of time. I’d FaceTime friends here and there, but I largely defaulted to text so that I could talk to them while I did three or four different things at once. Video chatting meant that I’d have to actually pay attention to the person who was, through marvelous technology light-years beyond my understanding, basically right in front of me.
If my kid self knew that I felt that way, she would in no uncertain terms think that I was a huge asshole.
In September 2019, my partner and I moved to France, across an ocean from our closest friends and family. A friend who had lived abroad for several years told us that our Sundays were about to become both our best and most exhausting days. That’s because it would be the day that we rigorously scheduled phone calls with our friends and family, across several time zones, to catch up.
We’ve spent most of our Sundays ever since punctuating afternoons and evenings with video and phone calls, recounting the same stories, frustrations, and triumphs to a range of loved ones, according to when this friend woke up or this family member was free. This weekly ritual has since made us equal parts homesick and at home: With their faces right in front of us, we feel as if our people are not far away, that we can be thousands of miles apart but still feel their warmth. My favorite days are family get-togethers, when the phone gets passed around like a baby, with surprise and excitement coming from both sides of the screen. Our Sunday calendar has often been our fullest day of diligent conversation, while the remainder of the week is fairly quiet.
That is, until the past month. On March 14, French prime minister Édouard Philippe announced severe restrictions on movement in France in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic. Over that weekend all of France’s nonessential businesses were forced to close. As we’d been hearing the past few weeks, France was in severe danger of becoming the new Italy, where the virus has taken hold, infecting more than 27,000 people and killing nearly 2,500, but that hadn’t seemed to stop throngs from going to bars, restaurants, and cafés. It was difficult to imagine that these places would ever be closed—and then the number of cases in France doubled in 72 hours and all of a sudden, it was quiet. Soon, President Emmanuel Macron imposed an even stricter lockdown on the entire country. Now no one is to leave their homes except for the most essential needs. He said on live TV, “We are at war.”
Every so often I’ll open my window to look out onto our street, where there are two bars that double as cafés during the daytime. Normally, they verge on too noisy. It is surreal to see them too quiet. But, above all, the silence is necessary.
In our apartment, though, it feels as if we have absorbed all the noise. That’s because, from morning until evening, without scheduling anything or planning to talk or setting up a laptop in the right lighting in the most comfortable setting, we are constantly video chatting with friends and family. Knowing that it is not safe for the health of others and ourselves to go outside, and that strict social distancing is the best way to limit the spread of the virus, we have instead brought our loved ones inside with us, through a kind of technology that has begun again to seem absolutely, uncompromisingly miraculous.
I feel like that kid marveling at Will Smith in my memory every time the phone rings. At unpredictable intervals our phones will light up with FaceTime or Skype calls from everyone we love, near and far, and we take advantage of those unpredictable intervals too, to surprise friends in their homes with our faces. Sometimes they are making lunch just as we are about to go to bed. Sometimes we are just about to crack a beer as they are pouring a coffee.
It turns out that all that phone scheduling these past few months has had an unintended effect: We now know the time zone calculations and daily habits of our friends more or less by heart. We call them all without abandon and it reminds us, in what is a scary time for our entire world, that we are all in this together.
Togetherness right now looks like isolation, but our motivation to isolate is in fact the greatest proof of our desire to be together. Remaining apart is one of the best tools we have to protect each other from the virus spreading farther than it already has. But behind closed doors, whether we are there alone, with our partners, or with our families, we can still invite the world in. With a couple of taps, the people you lost most are at your fingertips. Go ahead—let that feel like a little miracle.
Dayna Evans is a freelance writer based in France.
Originally Appeared on Glamour