It appears absence does make the heart grow fonder in 2018. The Economist reports that “about 3.9 million married Americans aged 18 and over live apart from their spouses, up from around 2.7 million in 2000″—for many, out of financial necessity. But at Traveler, where about three-quarters of our staff has been in—or is in—a long-distance relationship, we think there’s a lot to be said for the flight-fight-and-FaceTime routine. Here are our lessons learned from years of transatlantic trips, Skype sessions, and airmail sent, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
About six weeks after my now-husband A. and I met on a blind date, I moved to Paris. I’d bought a one-way ticket in the weeks after breaking up with my longtime college boyfriend and before my boss set me up with her former assistant. (She was getting sick of my red eyes and puffy face.) My plan was to stay in France indefinitely, and I would get a job working for the Herald Tribune like Jean Seberg in Breathless (with a happier ending). There would be an attic apartment in St. Germain and Sundays spent reading Gertrude Stein on a bench by the quais. I would be a free agent. And so, tearfully—after an accelerated courtship and promise to see how things developed—I left.
Because this was in the stone age before the Internet and cell phones, 3,600 miles might as well have been 100,000. We did what people did back then to stay in touch. A. wrote letters on crinkly blue airmail stationery. Nearly every day. (I lacked both his discipline and frankly his charming logorrheic tendencies.) Long distance calls were expensive, but sometimes I called A. to wake him up for work
(he’s really not a morning person) and he would call before I fell asleep. In those conversations, a high-pitched beep ticking off the time (and money) draining down the telephone line, we endured the jangling syncopation of long-distance communication via France Telecom of the 1990s, with its tinny echoes and audio delays. (Saying “I love you” to each other—something that still felt a little awkward since our romance was, in actual in-person hours, still pretty new—could be an especially ludicrous exchange of overlapping interjections. “I love…” UNINTELLIGIBLE STATIC “What?” BEEP “- you! “I love you too!”) I came back to New York after a year to renew my work visa. (I’d struck out at the Herald Tribune but eventually landed a job at an ad agency, where a colleague offered to rent me her fiancé’s attic apartment in St. Germain!) A. visited me two or three times, and we’d rent a car and explore a different corner of France—Normandy, Provence, Alsace. One April we ran the Paris marathon, each beating our PR’s, and wobbled home over a dusky Pont des Arts wrapped in mylar blankets.
Each one of those reunions convinced us we were great together. And also convinced us that I should stay in Paris as long as I felt I needed to. Being single in the city was a dream I’d had forever—or at least since high school French class. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there were some benefits that accrue to a single woman in a city where chivalry still animates customary male behavior—let’s just say that I ate very well, at restaurants that I could never have afforded myself, and became pretty well acquainted with both the Paris and Bastille Opera Houses. I knew I’d resent A. if I aborted the plan for him. He recognized it even more.
Finally, after close to two years, I was ready to come home. The ad agency where I worked had been acquired. The winter was oppressively cold and dank. (Fact: It rains as much in Paris as it does in London.) My smoking habit had gone from reluctant second-hand inhalation to sucking down several Rothman Rouges a day. I craved take-out salad bars and fro-yo and a decent neighborhood gym. And I missed A.
Fifteen years later, we returned to Paris with our three children. We stood on the Pont des Arts (which at the time was covered in locks left there by selfie-snapping couples) and told the kids the story they’d heard many times before, but now at least they could picture the scenery. Then we bought a lock at a nearby store (clearly supplying the touristic habit) and locked one on together. Sebastian Modak: It’s painful, frustrating, totally maddening… but you get to see the world.
The trouble with falling in love in April of your senior year in college is that one month later, everything changes. Suddenly, flung out of your protective four-year bubble, you’re an adult, and have to do adult things, like find gainful employment. That’s the situation that Maggie and I found ourselves in eight years ago, as we queued up to receive our diplomas on a football field in Philadelphia. She was heading to New Orleans; I was making the trek north to the icescape of Boston.
For two years, we kept things going, and it sure wasn’t easy—anyone who says otherwise of long-distance relationships is a liar or just unrealistically good at life. Watching my meager paycheck disappear between rent every month and flights to MSY every other month; the constant phone tag; the endless loop of play-by-play “How was your day?” phone calls, when both of us really just wanted to be able to go for a Sunday walk together. Much of it—perhaps most of it—really, really sucked.
But, with hindsight comes nuance, and I’ve come to realize that the long-distance relationship actually has some serious positives. I spent those years effectively having not one, but two hometowns. I came to love New Orleans, almost as much as I would if I’d been living there. I knew when to go where for live music (the Maple Leaf on Tuesday nights, anywhere Washboard Chaz is performing); I watched the Krewe du Vieux floats and understood inside jokes poking fun at city politicians. I joined a handful of Second Lines, and complained vocally about Bourbon Street just like a local.
Plus, being separated by over a thousand miles, we were able to make our own lives, find our own friends, develop our own interests—do all those typical early-20s things that are often stifled when you move somewhere new with someone you love, and have none of that pressure to get outside and be social. If we weren’t visiting each other, we’d meet somewhere new—let’s do Austin this month, Montreal the next.
Of course, we were both relieved when Maggie moved to the Boston area for graduate school—at least temporarily. When I left for a year in Botswana just six months after Maggie landed in Logan, ready to move into an apartment a bike ride away from me in Cambridge, it wasn’t ideal. And I wouldn’t recommend anyone go through back-to-back long-distance stints, especially when the latter one is about 6,000 miles farther away and made all the worse by shoddy Internet connections and the complete financial infeasibility of regular visits. But, hey, here we are now, not just in the same city, but the same damn apartment. So, take that naysayers. Long distance can work and, if the timing’s right, even make a relationship stronger.
Like most Londoners who wind up in New York, I fell in love with the city fast and hard. Then, of course, I fell in love with an American in very much the same way, returned to London indefinitely, and promptly made my life a thousand times more complicated.
Our now six-and-a-half-year relationship has been mapped between cities and continents. Our first date (and first fight) was in the West Village. Our favorite restaurant is in Fort Greene, but our favorite bar is in Notting Hill. Over the years, we’ve become intimately familiar with the euphoria of an airport arrival (it restores your faith in humanity), and the anguish of airport departures (which only gets worse over time). I quickly grew to hate Skype, but also became an expert flier, conducting my journey from Heathrow’s Terminal Five to JFK’s Terminal Seven like a military operation.
Of course, no one can emotionally withstand (or afford) being long-distance forever and four years ago, we put an end to our constant back and forth across the Atlantic and got married at City Hall in Manhattan. Walk in on any given day and you’ll find a cross-section of every type of New Yorker, hailing from every part of the world—from the Bronx to Beirut. You’ll see brides in giant, meringue-like dresses alongside couples on their lunch break and grooms in matching tuxes. There’s a souvenir stand and a gloriously tacky backdrop for photos. And if you get hungry (nerves will do that) you can pop outside and grab a hot pretzel from the cart. You want to understand what New York is all about? Swing by City Hall on a Friday morning.
A transatlantic relationship has allowed us to share more than one place; more than one culture. I now get to spend Thanksgivings in Pennsylvania (a novelty that, honestly, will never cease to amaze me) and he gets to spend Christmases in London. I get to slam whiskey shots in Brooklyn dive bars, and he gets to pound Guinness in East London pubs. In the summer, we’ll spend all day at Rockaway Beach in Queens, and in the winter, we’ll freeze our butts off on Brighton Beach in Sussex. We’ve walked Central Park and Hyde Park, and fallen asleep on a 3 a.m. subway ride and the last Tube home.
And last year, we got to go to Istanbul with my British mother and Turkish father, snacking on simit, sailing along the Bosphorus, and enjoying all the perks that come along when marriages cross borders. A long-distance relationship can open your eyes and your heart, and even at its lowest points—which can feel pretty low when there’s 3,459 miles between you—is always worth the trouble when you’ve found the right person.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I first meet someone and do the small talk dance, I feel myself pulling back the moment the conversation speeds toward the seemingly harmless: “Are you dating anyone?”
I’ve been in my relationship for four years. We’ve lived in as many countries together, and our shared love of travel has meant there’s never a dull moment. We’re also from different countries, met while we were both expats in another, and between the thrill of living and falling in love abroad, there’s no shortage of emotions that flood my mind when asked about Henry. However, over the last two years, we’ve done a lot of long distance: unconventional long distance.
There’s always a delay as my brain searches for the words to send to my mouth: Yes, I’m dating someone. Actually, we’re in a long-distance relationship. No, I don’t get to see him a lot. We used to travel full time—he still does. He’s in Indonesia right now, but not sure where next. You’re right, it is hard. No, you’re right, it is worth it, thanks. Each response is delivered with appropriate doses of shrugging, head tilting, and faint smiling on my end, because I don’t know what else to do. All to which the other person usually furrows their brow, waiting to hear something they relate to, which usually doesn’t come.
I wish I could describe the overwhelming emotion of boarding a plane, knowing the person I love most—and have, lately, seen the least—is waiting at the other end; how no other travel rush has managed to compete. I want to explain how everything feels simultaneously old and new; how being forced to repeatedly confront the question of, ‘Is it worth it?’ gives you the constant reassurance that it is. I wish I knew how to explain our transcontinental relationship without having to explain it.
I’ve come to accept that the distance between us sounds crazy to many, and without launching into a sappy soliloquy about why it is so worth it, I have to just let it sound as it may—and not let other people’s uncertainty about it become my own.
When I was 15, I met the guy (okay, boy) who, absent my immediate family, would become the single, consistent thread throughout my life. He sat diagonally across from me in English class, in the front row, and had a haircut that might be charitably described as “questionable.”
Almost a decade later, that guy with the bowl cut and I are still going strong; so strong, in fact, that we’ve just moved into our first place together. As in any long-term relationship, though, our union has ebbed and flowed precariously over the years, through high school drama, college transfers, illnesses, and even deaths; though I don’t think anything has tested us more than my four-month semester abroad in Paris, which I took during our junior year of college.
When you’re with someone for as long as we’ve been—at the time I left for the Sorbonne, we’d already racked up five long, angsty years—you start to feel dependent on them, and the phantom limb-sensation is magnified ten-fold when you’ve endured puberty together. (Embarrassingly, I always liken our relationship to two saplings, planted around the same time: We dug our roots together, and for better and worse, they became intertwined as they grew.) Who I was, independent of my relationship, had become uncomfortably blurry somewhere along the way, and it took four long, occasionally lonely months to bring that self back into focus.
Despite our coordinated Skype sessions—I’d call him at midnight, my time, 6 p.m., his time—he wouldn’t always answer, and I’d feel incredibly alone in my adopted city. (Paris is not, after all, known for being cuddly, particularly to foreigners). After a while, though, I learned to put down my computer and my phone, and to stop waiting for the familiar ring. Instead, I’d stroll over to the Antoine Bourdelle museum, or pop into a bakery and savor a flaky mille-feuille. Instead of picking up my phone immediately to report what I’d seen as I saw it, I’d take time to sit on it, to think about it, to let my own opinions rattle around in my brain for a while. Having space gave me back my independence, and reminded me of how much I enjoyed my own company. It also taught me to live in real time—to accept the invitations to parties and dinners, to take last-minute day trips to wine country—and not to wait around for a Skype call that would probably mostly consist of nodding heads and “Miss you’s, miss you too’s” in a scene that too closely resembled a Stephen Chbosky novella. Social media has made it unbelievably hard to detach in that way—in fact, I wish I’d spent even more time gallivanting around and less time lying around listlessly.
The worst, though, was my 21st birthday—a big milestone, here in the U.S.—which I spent in Madridwith a few random girls I’d met from my program. He spent that day winning an NCAA fencing tournament, and forgot to call. Five years on, I can still remember how hollow (and furious) I felt when I had to call him and say, “Excuse me, it’s my birthday.” But hindsight is helpful, calming, and hopefully brings wisdom. Here’s what I’ve learned: You have to be okay with being alone, at least once in a while. If the other person is worth it, they’ll be around when you get back—and they’ll be happy for you. Learn to appreciate your own company. Say yes to things—it’s way better than FOMO. And sometimes, you can (and should) be really, really happy for someone else—even if it isyour birthday.
To be honest, when I first met Adam about three and a half years ago, I kind of thought he was a prick. He wasn’t mean—he was just very straight-forward, blunt. (He’s a New Yorker!) Our friends were trying to set us up, but neither of us were into it: He was moving to Colorado in a month and had gotten out of a bad relationship, and I was seeing this other guy. We didn’t even exchange numbers that night at dinner.
But apparently there was something there. He got my number from my friend and two days later sent me a text that just said: 15 EAST, 8:30. Period. Not even a question mark. Bold, right? I kind of liked it. So I decided to go to dinner with him—the thing with the other guy wasn’t going anywhere—and we bonded over food. He was very good at planning the dates, making the moves. We never talked about him leaving; we were having fun and both kind of like, whatever, if we see each other, we see each other. We left it open.
Then I left for a two-week vacation in Italy to visit my family and friends; he was supposed to leave for Denver before I got back. In the middle of the trip, he tells me he pushed his start date because he had other things to take care of (in reality it was to see me one more time) and when I came back he picked me up at the airport. (He was literally moving—his house was just a mattress.) We stayed one night and he left the next day. It was the beginning of a year and a half of long distance.
When I think of that time now, it seems like a vacation. He would come back from Denver every week or two weeks, but it was—or at least felt—casual, carefree, and easy. We were not only going back and forth; being long distance was also the perfect excuse to take time off and visit new places. That’s the fun part: You enjoy every single moment of it. Not taking things too seriously was the key to dealing with the distance—I would have felt too much pressure and run away otherwise, and he knew that.
Eventually, though, the fun part started to fade. I wanted someone I could go to the cinema with, cook dinner with. I felt alone sometimes. We had started dating so quickly, and then a month later, he left. We never had that day-to-day routine together. So we started to wonder, should we break up and see if life brings us back together? But at the end of the day, we would always end up booking a flight to see each other.
I was back in Italy after about a year and a half and I thought about breaking up with him—just doing it, for both our sakes. Then out of the blue, he called to say he was coming to New York. To live. I’d had no idea! He had found a way to start his own business and freelance, and didn’t want to tell me until it was certain; he didn’t want to get my hopes up. Two weeks later, he was home. We’ve been together three and a half years now. I love Adam, so much, and we have a great life together, but I do sometimes look back at that period of our life with nostalgia. It’s like childhood: so carefree and fun because it doesn’t last forever. —as told to Laura D. Redman