From the Void
September 1, 2001
Planes, trains, and traces of love
by Michael Standaert
aren was attending school in Green Bay, Wisconsin - a nine hour drive from Southern Illinois University, where I was a student. I met her through my friend Paul, whose girlfriend was Karen's roommate. I tagged along for a trip Paul took to visit his girlfriend and ended up coming back to school in a relationship with Karen. Three months, one trip back to Green Bay, one long drive by her to call on me, another meeting midway in Chicago, and hours of hefty phone bills later, we split.
1999 - 2000
I was at the University of Iowa when I became involved in another Long Distance Relationship - an LDR, as they are commonly known. I lived in a house populated with medical and foreign students, and that is where I met an exchange student from the Netherlands: Ineke. For months we remained friends. She had a boyfriend back home, and I didn't think anything would happen. But it did in March, about a month before she left. We dove into each other for that short time, knowing it would end, and not knowing what would happen or even caring about the outcome. In late April I drove Ineke to the airport and watched her fly off. She said she loved me before she left. I said I would cross the ocean to visit her as soon as I could.
Four months later I flew to the Netherlands, my first time in Europe. Ineke and I had a wonderful time, though it felt strange being with her after that long. Even with all the phone calls and letters, being physically apart made us awkward around each other. The awkwardness soon wore off. We toured Holland, went camping, and even took a trip down to France at three in the morning to watch a total eclipse of the sun. After two weeks I journeyed home and Ineke started working on securing a visa so she could come work at the medical lab at Iowa while I finished my degree. Applications were sent to the INS. Letters were written on her behalf by members of the faculty. We talked nearly every three days, traded e-mails, and tried to hold on to our interest in each other.
December came and the visa didn't. The INS told her it would be another three months. She was about to fly over on a tourist visa, but that would have annulled her work visa, so I decided to fly to Europe once again. And once again we had a good time, went to Prague, toured more of Holland. But there was more friction, from being apart and not knowing what would result. After I returned home we decided to call it off. I would be moving over to Europe in a year for a master's program, and we'd find out what happened then.
2001 - Today
So here I am in Europe. I came to Holland in January to study in an MA program in European Journalism. We had talked, Ineke and I, and neither of us expected anything. She was interested in another guy and I didn't want to butt in. I was also looking forward to some freedom of my own. Yet over that year apart we had kept up the friendship, and not having enjoyed each others' company for a while, began spending time together. She would drop by my place, I would cook her dinner, we'd go out dancing, to movies, to concerts. Before we knew it those old feelings of love were growing again. Still, we knew there would eventually be a new test. In April, as part of my program, I would have to move on to Denmark for three months. I had planned to come back and live in the Netherlands with her over the summer. Even before I left I had a sense that it might not happen.
Three weeks into April I rode the train twelve hours to Holland. Again, returning to her. I felt like a yo-yo. When I arrived I knew it was over, just by the look on her face and the feeling in my stomach. She was scared. She didn't know how to deal with the distance any more, and really, I didn't either. I was supposed to be with Ineke at least a week, but ended up staying three days. We decided to break up.
Days later, back in Denmark, I met Mette. She's an artist and lives in Copenhagen, a three-hour train ride from Arhus where I study - at least I was getting closer. We hit it off on the night we met, drinking and dancing until dawn. I invited her for dinner and later I crashed at her apartment for five days. A few weeks afterward we spent spring break together. Now I am back in Arhus and she is on a three-week vacation in Thailand. More e-mails from the void. More long distance love. Except this time it is different. I won't let myself be so open to her. I have thicker skin. I am leaving in July for Brussels, then going to Paris in August to work on my research. Then to London in September. Then on to Wales in October, where I finish the program. After that?
I'm not sure if I should put myself through the pain and confusion again, or if I should just end it, knowing we will be apart in another couple of months anyway. What if I have to go back to the U.S. to get a job, if I can't find one here as a foreign correspondent? She has her life in Copenhagen, where I have no grand desire to live and work. I'm rootless now. I don't seem to have a life anywhere except in the moment, because if I think too much about how the past has gone, or worry about the future too much, it ruins any sense of the 'now.' Which is where I have to be to retain some semblance of happiness.
Many of my classmates are in the same boat. My German friend Franziska has been in a long distance relationship with an Englishman for five years. My British friend Steve has been dating a German girl for the past year - he says there are cracks forming already. There are Africans in my program who have left behind spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends. It seems like all of us have similar stories to tell. Maybe it comes with the territory. Maybe as journalists hoping to work outside our home countries, we should get used to it and shut up. We do realize there are greater problems in the world besides ours - in fact we study them every day. But they are still problems, no matter how inconsequential.
I know this all sounds sad, and it is, in a way. Still, there is also some hope. Some of the most important moments of my life, good and bad, have been spent with these three LDR women: knowing them and learning from them, breaking off and leaving them. When you are apart for so long you appreciate the small moments you have together more. You live a little faster when you are together.
I'm not sure what will happen with Mette. I'm trying not to look into the future too much, other than waiting for her to return from Thailand, fit and tanned from snorkeling and swimming in the sea. What counts most right now is the time I will share with her, even if it is just for a few hours, a few days, a few weeks. Those moments are all you really have, whether you live thousands of miles away or together under one roof. Live in the now. Nothing lasts forever.
Postscript: August, 2001
And it didn't.
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