Long distance love
With modern technology, long distance relationships are becoming easier for some to maintain
Gabriel Couture and Carolina García met in a crowded nightclub in Barcelona. The small, low-ceilinged establishment reeked of cigarettes and sweat; the sounds of industrial-house music pounded through the speakers. Their dance floor make-out session moved to the back of a taxi, and eventually morphed into a blissful, weekend-long romp: the tourist and the local, connecting in the kind of instantaneous partnership usually reserved for not-real life. But he lived in Montreal, Canada, and she in Barcelona. A painful goodbye hung heavy on the horizon.
Or it would have, were the lovers’ story set in a pre-SMS, pre-Facebook, pre-discount airline world. But it’s a contemporary tale, and, like many people in similar situations, Couture and García opted to stay in touch and work through the distance problem.
The daily advancement of communication technology has, along with its other implications, effectively changed attitudes about long-distance love: it’s now more acceptable than ever to love across time zones.
“I know it seems crazy,” said Couture, who talks to García several times per week on Skype and is waiting for her to move to Canada, the details of which are still up in the air. “I wish she could be here tomorrow, but she can’t. And in the meantime I can still act like I’m single, which, yeah, has lost a lot of its appeal, but it’s still nice to have that freedom as well as the comfort that comes with feeling loved.”
Bruce Jack, another young Canadian, has been living and working in Paris for the past five years. An electronic music and technology buff, he comes to Barcelona for the Sónar festival every summer. This past summer, in the sort of wordless attraction that seemed normal in the context of a hard night out, he met and fell for Susana Grau, a graphic designer originally from Tarragona.
Aside from the distance problem, there was the issue of language: Bruce speaks English and French; Susana speaks Spanish and Catalan. “The whole thing was so romantic, we didn’t care that we couldn’t really talk to each other,” Jack said of the weekend they spent together. “With enough hand gestures, facial expressions and illustrations, we could get across what we needed to.”
When Sunday came, Jack gifted Grau with a plane ticket and asked her to visit him in Paris. She did—and in the weeks leading up to the trip, the pair sent e-mails back and forth, morning and night. Thanks to computers, it didn’t matter that they knew barely of word of each other’s languages.
“Google translation saved the relationship or, at least, made it possible for us to even try,” said Jack, about the website that translates, instantly, hundreds of words into a wide range of languages.
The pair did eventually split up—but not before making several more trips to each other’s cities. “I was basically a part-owner of Vueling last summer,” Jack said, laughing. “My friends couldn’t believe the amount of money I sunk into that company. But the truth is, almost everyone I know here has been in a similar situation at some point. Because the low-cost airlines are so cheap, and travel within Europe so easy, people are less likely to treat casually what might, 10 years ago, have been considered just a vacation fling. Now you have the choice to keep the relationship going.”
Judging by statistics, Vueling isn’t the only airline profiting from the lovelorn. In the past five years, Easyjet’s passenger volume has more than tripled: in 2007 they sold about 37 million tickets, as compared to just over 11 million in 2002. And, 10 years earlier, in 1997, that number was at 1.1 million.
“People are so busy anyway, it doesn’t seem that strange to see your partner only on weekends, though it has been hard,” said Tom Weatherburn, a New Yorker who has lived apart from his partner for the duration of their three-year relationship. Two hundred miles separate him from his girlfriend, Katie Green, whom he met while camping in Colorado one summer.
“There were times when I thought we’d never make it. But mostly, we’ve handled it well. We’re together every weekend, and, to be honest, it’s not the worst arrangement. I’m so busy with school and work, it’s almost better not to have the distraction of a typical relationship. I know I get a lot more done than I would if she were around all the time.”
Weatherburn’s Blackberry alerts him to an e-mail in the middle of our conversation. It’s from Katie—her messages are indicated by a special ring. The number of people who, like Weatherburn, own portable e-mail devices has more than doubled since 2004, and the average e-mail user checks their inbox five times per day, according to a survey carried out last summer by American IP giant AOL. That people are communicating across distances like never before is clear, but is it therefore possible that distance is now just another relationship problem that can be overcome, like jealousy or bad sex? Or are we all too keen on our gadgets to realise their definitive limitations? No matter the answer, it seems that, at the end of the day, long-distance relationships are the same as ‘normal’ ones—their success hinges almost solely on commitment.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen [my boyfriend],” said Denise Haire, who moved from England to the Costa Brava five years ago. Like many in the area, she makes her living from the booming tourist industry there, renting out a vacation apartment that adjoins her Begur home. As she does every year, she sent out Christmas cards in December 2006 to all of her guests of the previous year; this sparked a particular correspondence with an American man, living in New Jersey, who had rented her apartment in April. Since then they’ve seen each other several times, travelling twice to Valencia for the America’s Cup race and spending a week together in New Orleans. But, in truth, the majority of their relationship has been spent on the phone. They speak for at least an hour each day. “You really get to know someone that way; we’ve spent so many hours just talking.“You arrange your day around it. Because of the time difference we have to plan it. But we always talk at least twice a day, and on weekends more. He has a cheap long-distance plan on his mobile, so he can call me from wherever he is. He travels a lot for his job. I keep him company while he’s sitting in his car.”
Her partner does plan on moving to Spain, but the couple don’t expect to be together for another couple of years, during which time he hopes to finalise arrangements with his job. “It’s very hard,” said Haire. “It’s true that long distance relationships have become very common, but it’s not easy. We take it one day at a time, always looking forward to when we can be together again.”
Back in Barcelona, Carolina García has been making near-daily trips to the Canadian consulate, braving the frustrations of government bureaucracy in a bid for a residency visa and work papers.
And if she can’t get the papers
“I’ll go without them,” she shrugged. “If I get caught working illegally or can’t find work, I’ll come back here. Thank God the flights are cheap, at least.”
From the archive: February 2008