In The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes an impulse that, at times of great emotional stress, communicates a being’s distance from their birthplace, triggering the longing to be there, wherever “there” is, when the chips are really down. On Earth that can’t be very far, he argues: around 16,000 miles at a push.
And yet somewhere at the back of my head, and my wife’s, this sensation is pulsing, droning, beneath the veneer of everyday life. Its symptoms give the game away: crying at baby adverts is one, walking into furniture is another. It’s there subliminally in the films we watch, in the songs we listen to; it’s there in the mood swings, the saying “I love you” and feeling none the better for it; in the waking up happy before sinking through the carpet, down through the neighbour’s basement and away. ￼￼￼
The first time I fell for a foreign girl I was 17. Erika Piacentini from Milan was in Aberdeen to learn English. The fact we could barely communicate, or that she would soon be leaving, didn’t enter into it. An angst-ridden summer of writing three letters a day ended abruptly when she took her father’s credit card and returned for my birthday. The new distance between us, created through our angst-ridden teenage prose, left us with little of interest to say. Then came the Spanish girl, a love-hate affair begun in Barcelona and ended in the smog of Santiago.
The French girl, the Zimbabwean girl: both went down the pan. Petra from Prague lost touch, Gazaleh from Tehran went cold. In the straw poll of my experience, love across cultures didn’t work. And yet the message has been lost on the masses. Ten years ago, fewer than 20,000 people came to Britain to marry or be with their partners; last year, that rose to more than 40,000.
Scratch the surface and there are plenty more who haven’t yet taken the plunge, who are sat scribbling letters, on their webcams, in the lurch. Anyone not in the situation themselves will probably know someone who is: the boy or girl next door has been replaced, without a second glance, for the boy or girl met in Ibiza, on a business trip to Berlin, during a gap year in Bahrain, sharing sandwiches on the Inca trail in Peru.
Emotional migration, like its economic equivalent, is officially on the rise. When I moved to Italy in 2002, such affairs were strictly off-limits, unless it was with a Scot who would want to return to Scotland. More often than not, said my past, long- distance relationships don’t work: there’s the friction for a start, the tugging this way and that, the airports, the decisions, the heartbreak.
The girl next door would be fine as soon as I had a door to be next to.
That was where I met Jess. Suspended on a balcony above the seedy streets of Bari. Our pasts, broadly speaking, were the same, our principles close matching, our mutual attraction fairly obvious. She was from Melbourne, and recently divorced. We hit it off, shared panini and pasta, fell in love without even trying.
We took trips to Sorrento, to Paris, to Rome, she the Audrey Hepburn and me the willing Gregory Peck. There were no language barriers, no cultural faux pas, and few apparent landmines. In time we decided to ditch Italy and move to Edinburgh. We would get jobs as teachers, get some money, get on with things.
The immigration officials saw the romance, smiled, then stamped Jess’s passport with a warning not to over-stay. Six months later she was in Melbourne and I was in Leith, with no way of dragging the two closer. Any relationship counsellor worth their salt would give the same advice: stay in touch, keep the home-fires burning, make the relationship relevant to your life.
In practice, this meant phone calls at the wrong time of day, emails with too little text, introducing each other at parties as the empty space beside the beer. Not unlike Alexander Selkirk of Robinson Crusoe fame, knowing our ship would come in would have made the waiting more bearable.
Instead, we got by on discussions about people the other had never met, friendships begun but never shared and the daily battle against forgetting.
Cursing the lottery gods when tickets don’t produce miracles is perhaps the most common mania of those kept apart by circumstance, along with the hows, the wheres, the when-will-I-see-you-agains.
As it was, it was 12 months later in Glasgow, Jess still without a visa, me without a penny or any means of making one. Food came via the occasional freelance article while I retrained as a journalist. The anti-climax, so typical for couples rejoined after lengthy separations, was complete.
Tying the knot here, it transpired, would have meant a flight to Australia to apply for a fiancé visa, followed by another 20,000-mile round trip post-ceremony for a spouse visa. For the sake of a stamp, it seemed excessive. For the sake of the Commonwealth, a bit cruel. The Ballad of John and Yoko eventually gave us the answer, our marriage coming courtesy of a £4 flight to Gibraltar and a bung for the taxi driver who brought our celebrant to the altar.
It was love, between the rock and a hard place, but love.
The theme has endless variations. Friends of ours moved to Switzerland when the husband got a job: he now works in high finance; she works in a bookshop. Another pair recently swapped their flat in Edinburgh for a place in Pamplona, the female half of the partnership from Madrid, the male from Dumfries.
He’ll come back to visit family; she’ll come with him. Cheap flights can ease things to some degree when the couple are from the same continent; beyond that it gets a bit pricey. It would be fine, of course, if the world was actually getting smaller, as the metaphor would have us believe, but in reality, it’s just the same.
Which raises the question of whether it would be better to hold out for the boy or girl next door. Whereas my parents and grandparents all lived a stone’s throw from each other, and have been friends throughout their lives, our families, most likely, will never meet. They will never spend Christmas together, have picnics or share embarrassing photos of Jess and I as kids.
Not so long ago, ageing relatives could rely, if they were lucky, on a son or daughter to nurse them through the ailments of later life. Young mothers could rely, in most cases, on their own mothers being there to babysit.
But when Jess’s father had a stroke recently, it wasn’t a case of jumping in a taxi and being there by his side. Rather it was a taxi, followed by a train journey to London, followed by a 32-hour flight, followed by another taxi.
The realisation that one of us would always be at the wrong side of the planet when the dreaded phone call comes couldn’t have been clearer. In that same month my grandfather died weeks short of his 60th wedding anniversary, as very nearly did my grandmother. Cue the roar of more flights from around the world.
My parents jetted in from Spain, where they now live, as does my sister and her children; an aunt flew over from Canada, others rushed up from Bristol. Scattered, like so many modern families, but there, galactic impulse glowing, when it mattered. After 12 years of living in Hong Kong, in Europe, in India, Jess has dreams that can only be met in Australia.
She wants to study, rejoin broken friendships, be with her family. This is right, we both agree, this is proper. After 12 years of working towards my goals of self-sufficiency, and with my own family issues to attend to, I feel I need to be here.
This is proper, we agree, this is right. One way or another, the war of attrition is about to come to a head. Without yet having the ticket, as we are without yet the means to pay for one, Jess will go back to Melbourne to live next month, study at university on a grant for four years, move forward.
The arguments for us both to go range from the short-term to the sublime: November sees the Antipodean summer start, every index attests to the Australian standard of life being higher, and we, not least, would be together. Arguments for staying here revolve largely around my own experience of arriving in new countries with no money and my promises not to repeat them.
I don’t want to sleep on floors, to drop back below the poverty line, and I like it here just dandy. We would be better, I argue, to stay in the UK for another year, or maybe two, or maybe more. Get out of the rent trap, buy a property, make some money, visit Melbourne once a year, stay together.
Both plans seem valid, yet neither appeals to us both. Ironically, we champion the other’s ideas and think abandoning them would be wrong. And yet the daydreams turn to mush without the other there to share them.
Like many couples before us, something or someone has to give. Meanwhile we continue along twin travellators, our hands held tight but with a partition fast approaching. By the time we get to the other side we might be holding someone else’s hand, from the Congo, Vietnam, Buenos Aires. It’s not a terminal illness, we tell each other, it’s not someone dying, unless it’s those unborn babies, kept in reserve like bargaining chips in the event of all-out war.
But it is a bit daunting. Received wisdom would argue that if you love someone, you’ll be with them no matter what, no matter where. Couples who have to put such tenets in practice are increasingly bucking the theory: they do love each other, they do want to be together, just not in the same place.
A defeatist might cut their losses and call it quits; an idealist runs up the phone bills, stumbling forwards, keeping faith. ￼￼
First published in The Sunday Herald, 2006.