When Long Distance Manifests: The challenge of love on foreign lands

Words by Elaine Mead

Our life narratives are shaped by many things. From the small incidences that teach us some of the more difficult lessons of life, to the missed opportunities, the grand gestures, and the deep dives into the unknown.

Sometimes a feeling carves itself out inside us and it sits there. Beating. Waiting. Wanting.

What this looks like from one person to the next will vary. For one, it might be a home in the safety of the community we know. A love for tradition. A familiar warm body laying next to us each night. For others, this calling card might be vapid travel through far-flung lands. Roots dug up and left to grow wild wherever the wind might take us. And for others still, it’s a rough-hewn combination of a few of those things. Life shouldn’t be about ultimatums after all.

I arrived in Australia in pursuit of my own combination of desires. It feels unusual to think of it in terms of a timeframe. Telling people how long I’ve been here often tumbles uncomfortably and half-formed from my mouth as being here is connected to so much more than time. After almost a year of long distance, I took the plunge and moved from London, for the other word with a capital L. Love.

Moving into the territory of your long distance lover has various challenges. It is, by default, an uneven playing field. Your partner has their life intact. Their home, job, friends and extended family. All of their comforts are easily accessible. The favourite coffee shop, the Italian restaurant that knows how to make their pizza just so, the hairdresser they’ve been going to for a decade, the hidden nooks of a city they’ve grown up in, familiar faces everywhere they go. These are still at the end of their fingertips, with the added benefit of you now being at their side. Without a doubt their exes will be in closer proximity than yours, and depending on their character, will want to make themselves known in person or digitally. Depending on your own character, this can be frustrating (Polite, unobtrusive, distance is generally preferred by most).

I moved to London because I craved the anonymity a large, bustling city afforded me. So moving to a small Australian town rattled my ribcage. My partner was well known and generous in the time he gave to other people, mostly wonderful but with one or two sour eggs thrown in. After so much time spent long distance, it can be jarring to see the one you love IRL interactions that don’t quite match up to how they have been with you. The dance around meeting and making your own decisions about these people can be tiring. There will inevitably be one or two who had their own long distant dalliances that didn’t work out. These people will want to tell you their stories, warts and all, and you won’t be able to shake the feeling that a few faces on the periphery of the social circle are simply waiting for you both to fail. When your priorities lie in maintaining the bed of new long distance relationships you now have (friends, family, people of preference) and tightening the foundation of the loving relationship you’ve spent so long longing for, the best social version of yourself often fails to make an appearance in your new environment.

These things aren’t threats, but they’re often unwelcome when you’re still getting over your sea legs. They require open, curious communication from both partners so you can continue to explore and get to know each other, while still building on the foundation you began months before. A favourite quote of mine comes from Claudia Rankine:

“”How can I say this so we can stay in this car together, and yet – explore the things that I want to explore with you?”

A wonderful reminder for thinking before we speak (an impeccably difficult task when emotions are involved) and a pertinent thing to hold onto when navigating love in new lands.

The first couple of months in a new place are some of the hardest. Usually leaving anything – a person or place – is an attempt to close a door on something unwanted, but this wasn’t the case for me. I loved my life in London, and I now know, despite the wanting to leave, I perhaps wasn’t quite as ready as I tricked myself into believing. When we find ourselves in a new place we need to build new moors, new attachments. When you move for love it makes sense that the partner becomes your anchor, but we know the dangers of this. A healthy relationship is built on two complete individuals creating something new together, not the absorption of one into the other.

Sometimes the version of me that was beginning to bloom in London flashes past. A song reminds me of a late night karaoke adventure with a group of strangers who became quick friends. A familiar smell takes me back to Sunday markets supping hangover cocktails and retelling stories with beautiful friends. A voice on the street attracts me for being the exact same diction of my mother’s. An unusually cold morning and the way the light creeps just so, momentarily tricks me into thinking I am tucked away in my cozy central city apartment. These moments of discombobulation can be bittersweet. They are reminders of the sacrifices I would have preferred not to make.

In her book, I Miss You When I Blink, acclaimed essayist Mary Laura Philpott shares what was required of her when she felt she had ticked off all the right boxes for her life. She caught my heart with the following:

“Sometimes in moments of memory or daydream, I feel the different iterations of myself pass by each other, as if right now me crosses paths with past me, or even imaginary me, or even future me in the hallways of my mind. I miss you when I blink, one says, I’m right here, says the other, and reaches out a hand.”

Our minds are ruthlessly determined to veer towards self-preservation. Negative experiences and challenges are hardwired into our memory for us to recall them easily, in the hopes we won’t repeat them. While the list of challenges can grow, the list of adventure, surprise, joy, and delight is often more than equal in measure. I have been very lucky to find someone who’s measured approach to life is the perfect fit to my own, often anxiety driven, temperament. Someone who, when I am being fearful, takes the time to ask the right questions and offer the best reassurance he can: his unconditional love. Who has whisked me away to travel half the world, and still asks me where I want to go next. Who has spent the last two years quietly and diligently working at evening out our shared playing field. Someone who delights me, every single day.

Love in a foreign land will always have its challenges, but if it’s with the right person, they are swiftly outweighed. As my partner and I prepare to embark on a new adventure, I am heeding the lessons the past two years or so have sent my way. It is a shame to box ourselves away in notions of past versions of who we might have been, or allow preconceived ideas of our origins to unwittingly write our stories for us. Ahead of my newest challenge, I am intently focusing my energy on enjoying where I am, who I am, and who I am with.

Art by Krissy Whiski

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