"And the teachers? They are so scary! They walk around the lunch room glaring, and they make sure that every girl eats every bit of her food!"
The face on the screen froze momentarily, suspended in a wide-eyed, aghast-looking expression somewhere around the word "glare." The image turned lime-green, then violet.
"Wait, sweetheart, you've gone blurry!"
"You've gone -- oh, you're back."
"Oh good. And we have to wear aprons over our school uniforms!"
It was like this nearly every day of the two weeks that the 12-year-old was away (if not always with technical difficulties). Due to her acute homesickness and the expense of trans-Atlantic phone calls, it seemed a brilliant idea for her to Skype us. What could possibly be wrong with face-to-face conversation, for free?
Each day, when she returned to her host family's apartment from her escapades in a Spanish middle school -- a place apparently filled with scowling teachers, where children were served steak that "was like eating fabric" -- there'd be a gurgle from my computer and her face would appear.
It was always a joy to say hello. The other children would pour into my office, and we'd all jumble together on the sofa. The visual effect of us, which we could see in a tiny box at one side of the screen, was like having the camera's view of a bunch of goofballs jammed into a photo booth.
We also appeared very shifty, and seemed to be giving her sidelong, untrustworthy looks, because we kept looking at her face, which was in the middle of the screen, while forgetting to look into the camera, which was just above it. The youngest member of the family never got over the fascination of seeing her own expression projected back at her, and after a bit of chat, would invariably subside into pursing her lips and blowing out her cheeks and generally making faces.
"Is it hot over there?"
"Are the other kids nice?"
"How late do you get to stay up?"
"Are you going to bring us candy?"
The tumble of questions always made her laugh, and even if the image sometimes froze, you could see how glad she was to reconnect with home.
She was actually having a lovely time, her host family could not have been kinder, she was seeing all sorts of interesting Spanish sights (including demonstrators shouting at an anti-austerity rally and a pedestrian strolling along a Toledo street with a rat on her shoulder), but oh she missed us!
Every time a lull came in the conversation, her smile faltered and her longing for home bubbled to the surface. The only way to forestall it was to keep talking -- jabbering, really -- as readily as we could. So we each handed over every scrap of material we had, from the funny things the dog was doing to what we'd had for supper the night before to the littlest child's latest triumphs in swimming lessons. She did the same, filling us in on life in Madrid.
Yet it was never enough. She always dreaded saying farewell.
Skype is a marvelous invention, but there's a perversity to it: While it closes great physical distances, at the same time it makes brutally plain how far apart people really are. Kisses delivered to a camera, looming as they do, are almost sadder than kisses over the phone.
There was another curious drawback, which we didn't perceive until our happy reunion at Dulles earlier this week: There wasn't any thrilling period of catching up, of exchanging stories of what had happened in her travels and in her absence. We all already knew what had happened! She'd been to Madrid and back, yet in a strange way, due to the miracle of Skype, it was almost as if she'd never been away.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at email@example.com.