A very virtual reality

It’s easy to confuse me. It doesn’t take much. I even manage to confuse myself on occasion. There have been times when I’ve told a story with such conviction that I actually believed it had happened, that I’d been there. I have had dreams, too, that I’ve recounted as fact and have been surprised to be contradicted in retelling them as such. But this week, I surpassed myself in my ability to delude.

One folder in my portfolio career involves working with a Swiss-Maltese cooperation with offices in Malta, Serbia, and Switzerland. My colleagues are spread around the world and it’s not unusual to have four or five countries at a Skype meeting. We rarely use video and mainly rely on voice or chat.

virt5Some of us are together this week for the Geneva Internet Conference and on Monday, the team began arriving from their respective four corners of the world. I was in the office when K walked in.

‘Hey – how are you? Long time no see… it’s been ages’, said I, full of enthusiasm as I’ve a lot of time for her.

‘You know we’ve never actually met, Mary’, she replied.

virtIt takes a lot to render me speechless but I was gobsmacked. Never met? Of course we have. I recognised you immediately. I know you.

The last time K was in Malta was 2009. I didn’t get there until 2010. I went back through every conference and meeting and event in the intervening four years and she was right. We’d never actually met in person.

If ever there was an argument in favour of social networking and social media and virtual get togethers, this was it. We’d been in contact so often over the Internet that she had become real – very real.

virt2The flip side though was that it scared me a little. There are days when my grip on reality is tenuous at best, a fine thread that could snap at any minute. I’m fully aware of my ability to romanticise, to fictionalise, to visualise; I don’t need any encouragement.

Later, as the conference participants began to arrive, I saw some familiar faces – Internet governance is a fairly specialised subject and there are probably 80 or so key players worldwide so lots of the faces are the same. I got chatting to one delegate who told me how great it was to see me again. I tried my damnedest to keep my pathetic attempt at a poker face in place but failed miserably. Apparently this was the third time we’d met, in person, and I would have sworn it was the first.

virt3This turned my world upside down a little. The blending of the fine line between virtual and reality was a little disconcerting. Here was one person I’d never met in person yet it felt like I had; and another whom I had met in person a number of times, but could have sworn I hadn’t.

Perhaps it has something to do with what’s called the online disinhibition effect that allows us to be more ‘real’ online… Something to think about.






Grateful 16

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I wasn’t reading. I was standing. There were no seats available on the tram. And as I’ve not yet mastered the art of simultaneously reading, standing, and holding on, I needed some other sort of diversion. In my defense, they were talking quite loudly: a young one of about 25 and and older woman tipping 65. Both Hungarian and yet both speaking in English, each with her own peculiar accent. I thought they knew each other but no. It was a chance encounter.

Conversation started with a casual comment admiring a watch. Not a wrist watch, but one that hung from a 36-inch chain around the young one’s neck. She was at pains to point out that she had her own style and that this was her nod to feminine form – the biker jacket, boots, jeans, messenger bag, and nose piercing all said something else. She’d spent some time in the UK working all sorts of jobs and was contemplating returning. She had a peculiar fascination with the fob watches that nurses wore over there and I suppose it’s as good a reason as any to go back. Conversation turned to the cost of living and how much cheaper it was to live in Hungary than in the UK or indeed the USA.

The older lady had returned to Budapest from California after 30 years on the West Coast. She’d come home to an aging mother and some cousins as all her friends Stateside had moved away or passed on. She was quick to point out that if you’re 25 and earning, with a future littered with paycheques looming ahead of you, then yes, life was better, not as expensive. But if you’re on a fixed income, with no promotion or payraise in sight, then life ain’t so pretty.

This has struck me before. Pensioners on fixed incomes, at a time in their lives when they should be enjoying the fruit of a lifetime of labour, are instead beset with worry. We’re living a lot longer. Seventy is the new fifty. And we need our money to stretch.  This plagued me earlier this year and although at least now I have a pension in the making, I can’t help thinking of the hundreds and thousands of older people in Budapest who are watching their pennies.  Position that against those who work work work and save save save only to drop dead two weeks after they retire. There’s a balance to be struck.

While in the USA recently, after the fifty-sixth repetition of a description of my life in Budapest, each telling gathering a few more exaggerated threads, my inquisitor looked at me and said: Sounds like you’re living the dream.  He was right. I am.

This week, as my meds wear off and I return to reality, I am truly grateful that even with the ups and downs, all is well in my world and life is indeed treating me kindly.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52