The international relationship rollercoaster
In light of the fact that I'm getting married this weekend I thought maybe I'd get into something today that I've often thought about tackling, but always held off on.
Almost five years ago, when I became romantically involved with a foreigner (LP, the second participant in this weekend's wedding) the giddy high of trying to build a new relationship came hand in hand with a game of global visa-chess to try to stay geographically together.
It brought emotional and logistical realities into my life that I didn't predict.
It is a set of circumstances that I'm pretty sure people only think about once they get in this situation. Often when LP and I meet couples in our same situation, it cues a long spout of visa venting and theory-swapping.
LP's and my relationship began over the span of a three-month holiday in 2007 (we'd met a few years prior), but we quickly ran up against forces that conspire against our situation. I had moved, with a friend, on a working visa to Toronto, where we had the incorrect idea that we would become kings of industry. After a couple of months apart, LP flew up with the plan to live with us in Canada: maybe live off some savings, maybe even work a little under the table.
Except Canadian customs had other ideas about this, and stamped her into the country for less than two months.
So at the start of the following year we decided to move back to LP's hometown. I had a tourist visa, which I had mistakenly understood to grant me automatic access to six months at a time in the US.
I did not know that American customs are pretty hawkish about people using this to live in the country on the sly. I entered the country without onward travel booked, one of the biggest no-nos a tourist to America can commit. I was detained at the border. I had my bags searched. A customs official read my journal, looked through my photos, and pored over my belongings. LP had no idea where I was for the 90 minutes I spent in detention. It was harrowing.
Eventually, I was allowed to pass into the US. It was February 1, 2008, and I had until March 1 to be out of the country.
My relationship, a little over six months old, was running into serious barriers. Realistically, LP was another six months away from being able to up and move across the world. For a week I was very sad, and had it in my mind that I would go home. LP would join me toward the end of the year in New Zealand. We've discussed this since, and we each reflect that this might've been an insurmountable hurdle of distance for a new couple.
An idea came to me, born out of pigheadedness and frustration. I had six months left on my Canadian visa. I had very little money, but enough to get to Vancouver. And so I decamped alone to Canada. I lived for a while in a youth hostel, and then moved near the corner of Hastings and Main in East Vancouver. For anyone familiar with Vancouver, that location is a brutal slum (the rent was very cheap).
I worked in a café an hour away by bus, on the good side of town, making sandwiches in the morning and serving coffees in the afternoon. Drug dealers would try to sell me crack as I waited at the bus stop at 5 each morning. I worked all of the hours I could get, almost never socialised and lived as frugally as I ever have: plain bagels, cup noodles, green tea, food scrounged from work.
I returned to America in the middle of May for a few months, with a small amount of money saved to fritter away and onward travel booked. LP's family generously let an unemployed loaf stay with them for an extended period. LP worked as a waitress and I wrote a barely read blog, had a one-off period of yoga fanaticism, and took naps in the park.
From the one-year point on, things got easier. By July 2008, it didn't seem like a stretch for LP to come down to New Zealand in September. A one-year NZ working holiday visa is easy to get for people under the age of 30 from certain approved countries. A few months in, we extended this to a partner's visa.
We always had it in mind that we would go back to America, and my desire to do a Master's abroad pre-dated my relationship with LP. But getting back to America for LP's sake, under the cover of a student visa, was also a huge motivator.
It's all been an adventure, and has taught me a lot. It has brought a lot of paperwork and worry into my life alongside a great amount of personal contentment.
My life has spun in new directions with LP. You always hope that you won't change too much for a partner, but I saw that if I was going to commit to making a relationship with an American work, I had to be prepared to make some occasionally drastic choices.
We figured out early on that for this to work, one of us was going to have to sacrifice for the other by giving up on our own home to build a life elsewhere. It's something that LP and I have both had turns experiencing in the time we've been together and it's a sacrifice that has never once developed into resentment.
There's a deep trust that gets built up, both a faith in yourself and another person, when you see that you can up and live anywhere - Grass Valley, Toronto, Wellington, Boston - and know that you'll be okay.
All of this, the backstory and sacrifice, is in the DNA of our relationship, part of the complex baggage that comes with international romance: tears, travel, separations, homesickness, and administration fees.
But it is something that I think has made our relationship better. It's become a quirk of its character rather than a flaw in its design. It wasn't always easy, but if it's worth it, it is doable.
I'm interested in how many of you this story rings true for, or for how many of you maybe it is a bit hard to read, or maybe it's just a bit boring and un-relatable.
It is one thing that changed my life more than anything else. So today, I wanted to share that.
(Many thanks to Las Vegas artist and friend to Voyages in America, Matt Couper. His graphic of LP in the space suit with my disembodied head in her lap was born out of a fit of his procrastination in 2010.)