Is it possible to be in love with no one there to love? To have a significant other and yet go to bed alone each night? A long distance relationship has taught me that the answer is yes, that it is not about the distance but the relationship; whatever the relationship may be. For me, I confess I am two-timing. I am in a long distance relationship with both my boyfriend and my home.
To explain to my boyfriend of three months that I would be transporting my life from London to the distant desert of Albuquerque for a semester was no easy feat. I couldn’t explain to him why because I didn’t know myself. I just knew that I had to. It was less a case of leaving somewhere old and familiar than of venturing forth into somewhere new. The world is too big to be tied to one small, if lovely, spot for the rest of my life. So it was that six months later I found myself, much to the embarrassment of myself and many poor Continental Airlines stewardesses, on an aeroplane weeping over goodbye cards from friends, family, and The Boyfriend; on my way into the unknown. As soon as I saw the craggy, unfamiliar arms of the Sandias hugging the strange, sandy expanse of Albuquerque, I realised I was in two long-distance relationships—one with The Boyfriend and the other with the Green and Pleasant Land. It turns out that you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the love of tea out of the girl.
I never really realised I was English until I left England. Nor did I ever realise what it meant to be in love and to dedicate myself to someone in sickness and in health, in England and in America, until I was away from that someone. As my mother often said to my brother and me when we were clamouring for the title of Favourite Child, “I love them both the same, but in different ways.”
I love England because it is what I understand and where I am understood. A point in proof is that any self-respecting Englishman would understand the sheer creepiness of the Senior Picture. I try to explain to my American friends that no matter how wonderful they are, and they are doubtless wonderful, no one needs a heavily photoshopped picture of them for their fridge. Their reactions range from confusion to outright offence. Perhaps only the English feel that giving out a posed picture of yourself might be considered strange social behaviour. Although, I suppose loudly proclaiming that you are going to the toilet, as many English people have a penchant for doing, could be considered slightly unsociable behaviour by any polite, bathroom-attending American.
And then there are the smaller differences: asking the waitress on my first trip to Old Town for ranch dressing and her bringing me more of the same pungent blue cheese dressing that I already had because she hadn’t understood what I’d said; telling my friend I love jumpers and her proceeding to show me a selection of her finest rompers, not realising that what I had actually meant were sweaters. Yet what makes these experiences frustrating is the same thing that makes them fascinating: the fact that we are both speaking the same language but our interpretations are miles apart (about three thousand miles to be exact). It has also been wonderful to find that our insecure minds adapt to fit in with the people around us. As I have unconsciously begun to address people with a cursory “what’s up?” my friends have come over all proper, meeting everyone with a polite “hello.” The interbreeding of cultures is as interesting as it is hilarious.
However, there is only so much cross-cultural linguistic coitus I am willing to indulge in. The more differently people speak here the more determined I become to hold on to what makes me me. English. Words such as plaster, nappy, and trainer suddenly become delightful and unique when confronted with an entire nation saying Band-Aid, diaper, and sneaker. But it becomes hard to hold on to the things you love when they aren’t there to enjoy. There is only so long I can profess the joys of tea without having a good cuppa myself.
The long-distance relationship is, in many ways, the same with my home and the boy in whom I have found my heart a home. I know he gives the best hugs in the world; I just can’t quite remember how they feel. I know tea is better than coffee but I just can’t quite remember why. And when I see the beautiful expanse of emptiness as I drive out into the desert I can’t say that I really prefer England’s leafy parks, trapped between huge concrete edifices that rise everywhere out of the ground.
Whereas my relationship with England is something that can be easily switched off and on and is designed to be moulded and changed during my stay here, the relationship I have with The Boyfriend is often entirely different. I only notice the absence of England in small ways, like not knowing which way to look when I cross the road. But the absence of my boyfriend is one I feel all the time, at points overwhelmingly so. I find it hard to accept having a significant other and still feeling lonely. It is hard to have no one to say goodnight to you because it’s five in the morning for him and his is already fast asleep. Most hard to get used to is Skype. It is an instant starburst rush of joy at seeing your loved one and then a wet blanket thrown on the fire when you can’t touch them or even hug them to say hello. It is as cruel as it is kind. But it is all we have and we learn to make the most of it. It reminds us why we wait and why we love and it makes the world seem just that bit smaller.
Being away from my home and my love has simply made me realise that the things you care about can never be taken away. If you love something enough a relationship can survive any distance. Even though I am away from the both of them, the simple essence of things transports me back. A cold fall morning reminds me of walking home, arm in arm, lit up by the warm, orange glow of the streetlights. The smell of rain coming in from the mountains can transport me straight back to the rain-soaked London pavements, using the inclement weather as an excuse to lean in closer under a shared umbrella. These things are always and forever will be close to my heart, no matter the physical distance between us. I miss England in the same way that I miss him: because it is what I know and where I am instantly known. England has become him and he has become my world, with our love shrinking all distances into a single spot. With a webcam and a kind word he may as well be in the room with me and the dry sands of Albuquerque could shoot up grass and be England.
Both of my loves make me proud. England makes me proud of a tiny country that conquered the world. Of a place that values good tea and good manners and cheese that can’t be sprayed onto whatever beige oblong of wheat one chooses. At times like these I often feel like Hugh Grant making his famous speech in Love Actually and then feel a minor depression sink in when faced with the blank look of Americans who don’t get the reference. But at the same time that is exactly what I love: the very otherness of England, a country famed for its eccentrics, terrible jumpers, and bad teeth. We don’t conform and we aren’t supposed to be understood. Instead we are best admired from the other side of a very large pond.
As for The Boyfriend, I am proud of us (said like a true American!). I am proud to have someone to whom no one else can ever measure up, no matter the proximity; someone who prides himself on living by his favourite phrase: “Emotion is a weakness,” and yet manages to handcraft an entire letter full of something dangerously close to emotion just because his girlfriend is desperate for some post to fill the depressing emptiness of her mailbox; someone who finds a way to channel his love and all the wonderful things about him through the aching emptiness of cyberspace to fill my computer screen and my heart.
For now, I wait. I wait to walk through London arm in arm with the one I have been waiting for, to admire London’s Christmas lights and the love that has lasted through miles and continents and months. I wait for a good cup of tea. And despite all of the things I love and miss I wait to experience all the wondrous things that America has to show me.