Featured Image Credit: Penguin Books
When everything is lost, that’s when we turn to love. The almighty power that makes every problem disappears. Or that’s what they like to tell us. Unlike Marquez’s story, Love in the Times of Cholera, these ones are real. The characters in the book by Colombian Nobel prize Gabriel García Marquez experienced a love tainted by misfortune. Having spent a very long time apart, the almighty power of love reunites the protagonists of the novel.
Call it misfortune, call it globalisation, call it world pandemic. Whatever the reason, I’m sure you know someone who has their loved one far away, or maybe you have gone through it. It’s easier now than it was when we didn’t have videocalls, texts were yet to be invented, Netflix didn’t exist, and immediacy wasn’t a possibility. But it still isn’t easy, and it will never be.
Leo is now 24, and after having finished his undergrad in Dundee (oh Scotland, bonnie Scotland) he is now enjoying his MSc in London. Leo met his boyfriend, Paolo, almost 5 years ago in Turin, where they both are from. “It’s going to be 5 years the 10th of December” he says, with a mixture of excitement and surprise. Of those 5 years, they have spent 4 apart from each other.
Life got in their way, or maybe they got in the way of life. I like to think of long-distance relationships as a bridge. One of those beautiful bridges you are terribly scared to cross, but once you step foot in them you don’t want to leave. Haunted by the feeling of flying above everything, of being able to look down, and having the security of knowing you will not fall.
I don’t know how far away 2015 seems to you, but to me it seems like it was a whole eternity ago. Perhaps it was 2015 I was walking through Dom Luís I Bridge in Oporto, over river Douro. It was 2015 when Leo had a crush on a guy who had a crush on Paolo. And again; life got in the way, or they got in the way of life.
If we were to picture long-distance relationships as bridges, I would assume you could have either of these two responses. Perhaps you would want to walk through it as fast as possible, afraid of looking down, afraid to fall, only wanting to get to the other side. Perhaps you would want to stop and look at a beautiful sunset. You are lucky enough to witness it. Once you’re there, you might as well appreciate the way. How the golden light of the last rays of sunshine filters through the bridge, fading into the water below it.
Leo is definitely the second kind. He wants a normal relationship, but his normal is long-distance, and he is happy with his relationship as it is. In the end, he recognizes, “it has always been like that”. Despite how stressful it feels to be in two different places, having different schedules, different holidays… Leo says distance is not that bad.
“Paolo knows everything, literally everything, that is going on in my life”. And Leo believes that it wouldn’t necessarily be like that if they hadn’t been apart for so long. “It’s an invasion of privacy to everyone else’s life” he confesses, laughing. But I have to say I would do the same. I don’t think I’ve ever kept a secret for myself, there’s always someone who needs to know. And if I did have a secret of my own, my lips would be sealed for life. Saying it out loud would break the very condition of it being a secret.
And yet, despite knowing everything about each other, Leo assures that Paolo will answer my same questions drastically different. “Well, perhaps not drastically, but definitely differently”, Leo says.
But, of course, the magic of life is that not all of us think the same. And not all of us are in the same situation. There might not be red threads that connect people, but there’s people who are worth sticking to.
“He has a very particular way of staring at people, and that includes me. I guess that’s what I miss the most.” I listen to Leo say this while my girlfriend is sitting in the other end of the sofa. I asked Leo to think of something he misses of his boyfriend outside the obvious; something only Paolo does, perhaps something only Leo himself sees. I want to know because I definitely would miss the way my girlfriend moves her lips from side to side, almost shaking them, maybe as a response to something. That I am yet to find out.
I firmly believe love lies in the small minute occurrences of everyday life that we fail to see in everyone else. For Leo it’s Paolo’s way of staring at people, for me it’s the way my girlfriend moves her lips. For Hector and Nuria it’s biting each other. Strange, I know. But it is in the details that nobody else sees, that love resides. At least I believe so.
Hector and Nuria are the couple that made me believe in love. Or made me believe in it outside a romantic concept of love. Real love, everyday love. Nuria, after some thinking, recognises she misses kissing Hector’s moustache. “It tickles him” she says. Tickles, what a weird thing to miss.
Hector and Nuria are originally from Gijón, a city in northern Spain. I had no need to ask about how they met. I vividly recall Nuria’s phone call, panicking, because she had run into him in the street and had lost her chance of speaking to him. “I was so nervous, I didn’t know what to do, and now I missed my chance.” I remember hearing on the other side of the phone. She sounded like someone had just died.
But life always give a second chance to those who fight for it. Fighting is something essential in long-distance relationships. Everyone I’ve interviewed has a different perspective on where the effort should go. But they all agree on something: having a life of your own is crucial. Your life should not be a constant fight against distance, wishing it wasn’t there. There is a bigger effort involved in long-distance relationships where there is no physical connection involved.
Hector recognises and explains how a continuous communication is essential. “You need to have the certainty that the other person is there, and that they want to be there. Acknowledge that the other person also has a life, and that sometimes we all get caught in the moment. You can’t time how long someone takes to reply to your text. Go on living your life. They will get back to you whenever they can.”
“On Fridays we watch Star Trek now. Obviously sometimes both of us have things to do and then you rain-check. Like you would if you were living in the same place. It’s important to keep the commitment of doing something that feels like you are a little closer to one another, but still be understanding and realistic at the same time.”
Some people build up routines, like Hector and Nuria. Two nerds who sit and watch Star Trek together every Friday. “Now it’s Star Trek”, says Nuria “because they’re releasing the new episodes, but it can be anything else”. And again, she points out the importance of knowing and acknowledging that the other person also has a life. “You can’t just get pissed at someone because they have plans on a Friday evening and you were going to watch Star Trek together. That’s just unsustainable.”
On the contrary, Leo and Paolo don’t share that many hobbies as Nuria and Hector do. “He’s into rowing and cars and I don’t know a thing about either of them” Says Leo. They don’t watch things simultaneously, but they do feel connected by commenting on the episodes of a TV show. Most recently, they have watched the fourth season of The Crown. He said it’s good, although in his opinion the whole Diana thing is a little too romanticised.
Call it Netflix, call it Star Trek, call it whatever you want to call it. To me it is clear that people need to feel connected in one way or another. If who you love is far away, any connection makes the distance more bearable.
But distance can feel a lot less bearable when the other person is actually not that far away. Spain, amongst other countries, suffered a very hard lockdown between March and May due to the coronavirus pandemic we are all living through. Adri and his girlfriend had been in a long-distance relationship before. She had moved to another city to do her masters just after they had met.
But yet, it was more bearable to know and to accept that she was far away, than being less than 2km away from each other and not being able to meet, Adri confesses. Everyone I’ve interviewed agrees that the key to happily go through long-distance is communication. Communication and acceptance.
They all came to say that you can’t live your life wishing it wasn’t as it is. You need to accept the reality in front of you and shape your needs around it as best as you can. You recognize you are in that situation because, despite the distance, it’s still worth it to go through it. They all find joy in each other’s presence outside physical contact, and they all consider this connection worth keeping.
But what happens when you are so close to one another that you never
“We went from seeing each other 4-5 times a week to walking through supermarket aisles together”. Adri recognizes it was a lot more frustrating than a long-distance relationship. “Now she is a big part of my life, I got used to having her around physically and our relationship had changed. And we had to give it all up for a situation that was completely alien to us. There is a big difference between wanting to do something or having it imposed on you.”
They aren’t the only ones whose relationship got shaped by covid. Everyone’s life has been shaped by this global pandemic, and we have all heard sad stories about it. But not all of it is bad.
Leo and Paolo managed to be together longer than they expected precisely because of the pandemic. They both live abroad, and both went back to Turin, their hometown, earlier than expected. Leo recognized at the beginning it was scary, everyone was very confused by the situation and he tried not to see too many people outside of Paolo. But eventually he did. He wanted to take the chance to enjoy time with his people at home.
People he believes are still in his life largely because of Paolo. They both go back because of each other. Not that they wouldn’t otherwise, but they would definitely not be as eager. Perhaps that is because they both live abroad.
Nuria desperately wants to run away from Gijón, and Adri says he enjoyed being the one who travelled to see his girlfriend. A change of scenery. That’s all we need sometimes.
And no matter how much scenarios change, we will always stick to the people we love, and who love us back. As creatures of company, I have come to understand we cherish and protect the connections that make us feel alive. Long-distance relationships are complicated. We are complicated. But if something is complicated and you still decide to go through it, that right there is love. Real love.