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How the Facebook Portal transformed our lockdown – and kept us in touch with the grandparents

Discover how the Portal from Facebook has become this editor’s lifeline through the pandemic

Sophie Vokes-Dudgeon

Our Facebook Portal was a bit of an impulse buy last year. We were having Christmas with the in-laws and wanted a way to allow my parents to be part of it while the children were still young enough to appreciate the festive fun.

So, on Christmas day we both set up our Portals and had a hilarious game of charades between Yorkshire and Portsmouth in an impressively unstilted and ‘real’ way. We had a handful of Portal calls after that but it wasn’t until the country entered lockdown last March that it became apparent just how much of a lifeline they would become.

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It brought the family closer together

Unlike zoom calls or FaceTime, being on a Portal call really feels like you’re visiting someone else’s home. The graphics are incredible and having been designed by top Hollywood videographers, it’s an entirely different experience to other forms of video call.

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Portal, £169, Portal from Facebook

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The Portal’s automatic ability to pick up both sound and faces means you can literally get on with whatever it is you’re doing and the system adapts to make sure you remain in view (or zooms in if it’s just you in shot). And the sound is crystal clear – there really is no need to yell.

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It’s this that makes the Portal experience so unique and enables you to forget that you’re not actually together – you just focus on catching up. My mum and dad have had to shield for the duration of the lockdown, yet both they and my children – now 12 and 14 – say they’ve become closer than ever. It’s an incredibly heart-warming silver lining to a very difficult time.

It even helped with childcare – sort of!

Usually in the holidays the boys go to stay with the grandparents for a while – a much-needed childcare help and always a lot of fun. When the prospect of a four- week Easter holiday loomed, with me and my husband both working full-time from home, panic rose.

But it turned out even from afar, both sets of grandparents could still offer a form of childcare, keeping the kids off computer games and engaging with them in amazingly creative ways. It was a pattern we continued through the whole of the summer holidays.

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Portal+, £269, Portal from Facebook

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For my mum and dad, it was a time to read stories. All four downloaded The Diary of Anne Frank and took it in turns to read chapters via the Facebook Portal – some days my sons followed as my parents read, other days they sketched as they listened. An hour and a half each day spent reading, chatting, discussing and sharing opinions was precious time a normal holiday would never have allowed.

It helped grandparents connect with their grandchildren

When they fancied a change they got creative. They even took part in a virtual bake-off. Mum picked cheese scones as a challenge so I ordered the ingredients and the four of them were entertained in the kitchen for an entire afternoon. We won’t discuss the state of the kitchen – but the scones at least, were delicious!

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The kids and grandparents even had a bake-off via the tech!

In Portsmouth, the other grandparents (now also proud owners of a Portal) turned to quizzes and games – the cackles of laughter from catching each other out on personal specialist subjects, and the screams of ‘Bingo!’ I overheard during endless work video calls were testament to the fact that this was not stilted, unnatural distanced interaction. This was real life fun.

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Portal TV, £149, Portal from Facebook

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From time to time I’d thank the children for entertaining Granny and Grandpa, who hadn’t seen another face for months at this point. But the kids replied every time that they enjoyed it as much as the grandparents did. And without a doubt their relationships deepened as the weeks went by.

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Throughout school term we’ve stuck to weekend calls via the Facebook Portal, with every holiday, half term or forced isolation period reverting to daily grandparent calls. The boys have put the system’s audio to the test performing virtual piano and trombone concerts, and on Easter Sunday last year we sat the parents at one end of our lunch table while we ate at the other.

Not only did our lunches miraculously become ready at exactly the same time, we finished our meals without having raised our voices once. We had almost forgotten we weren’t genuinely sitting there together.

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We even enjoyed Easter lunch last year all together - via the Portal

It's not quite as good as real-life – but it’s close

As we prepared for another disappointment in 2020 – Christmas apart from the ones we love – I honestly can’t tell you how thankful I was for our rashly-bought Portal.

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We spent Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and a chilled-out Boxing Day with my mum and dad via the Portal – in their kitchen, their living room and in front of the fire. And thanks to the technology our lovely Portsmouth grandparents were there too. It’s not quite as good as real life, but it’s certainly a very close second best.

And while I’m desperate to leave most things that the pandemic has brought for us in the dim and distant past as soon as we can, finding time to connect weekly with our parents on the Portal is one thing I’m determined we’ll keep.

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