GIRL ON A PLANE, GIRL ON A TRAIN
ON BEING IN LOVE AND BETWEEN CITIES
Being in a long-distance relationship is to be in a relationship with your suitcase. Over the years you get to really know your baggage intimately: the corners where the lining is wearing thin, the way the wheels rattle on cobblestones, when to tug hard on the zipper so it doesn’t catch.
My suitcase is the only thing I ever won in a lottery. Styled in the white-and-orange of the Dutch Olympic team, it’s always filled with the necessities: tooth brush, jeans, pens, spare iPhone charger, a copy of Anna Karenina. My life. Cabin-sized. Never have I felt less athletic than I do rolling its weight after me, on my way to my boyfriend across the British Channel. Without him, I am – I confess – lonely. So the rest of the time, I roll to my friends and family, none of whom actually live in the same city as me.
Plenty has been written about the challenges of romance in the smartphone age, about waiting for the skype connection to resume while you stare blankly at your partner’s frozen face. Most of us have even experienced how long the nights are, when a significant other is a long way away and the ‘seen’ message appears on your latest Facebook chat rant at 3:45 am and you’ll still be awake to notice this and worry about what it all means.
But we don’t often talk about the physical activity of traveling to and fro from the people we love. When we say 'travel' we usually mean the noun, the experience, as in ‘travel broadens the mind’. The verb to travel is a different story. To travel is – let’s face it – delayed trains and waiting for your laptop to connect to onboard ferry Wi-Fi for six hours, as you watch seagulls freer than you soar and drift over white-capped waves.
Granted, there’s an advantage to having a partner abroad: when we do see each other it feels like a mini holiday, especially when we take time off to explore every corner of Amsterdam or London. But over time, the nature of my relationship changed, and so have the cities - at least to me. In the early days we would lie in the grass of the Vondelpark together, my head on his chest, dreaming of canals, red phone boxes and the Eye rising over the Thames. Listening to birds and bicycles and people laughing.
But nowadays I hear something else too, a sound I just can’t ignore. It’s the city’s heart, beating to the thump of suitcases being unloaded and the ringing before passenger announcements. A clock ticking days and hours away to the next goodbye. The rhythm is the same everywhere I go, from Paris to Berlin and every disco I get in.
And it’s haunting me.
My friends ask me: what are you going to do? How much longer will you go on like this? And, to tell the truth, I don’t know. Maybe it is true that a little distance makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe the effort of maintaining such a relationship draws people closer together. Or maybe I’m nuts.
But if long-distance relationships and traveling on a budget suck so much, why do I – and no doubt thousands of other young Europeans – subject myself to the experience?
The answer, as always, is love.
I don’t know how many young people across Europe are currently in a relationship with someone in another country, but a quick search on Google reveals that EU Member States have sent some 3 million youths across each other’s borders since the 1980s, when the Erasmus exchange program began. Erasmus has also been spectacularly successful as a dating platform – its alumni are three times as likely to be in a relationship with someone with a different nationality, suggesting that studying abroad is a great way to meet a long-term partner. The European Commission estimates that by now one million babies have been born to Erasmus-parents. Move on over, eHarmony.
But before marriage and babies happen, thousands of couples must linger for years in the UnEasyJet terminal a long-distance relationship is. We spend more time queuing at security and drifting through H lounge waiting for gate numbers to appear on the screen than actually being on the flight.
That being said, part of me still believes there is something wonderful about so many people facing the discomforts of Skype and EasyJet over and over again for no reason but love, sometimes for years. It is a bit mad and also a little brave. At the very least, I feel less hollow arriving in a new city when I remember how many others like me are out there. Maybe we’ve waited together at security or at bus stops, without even knowing about it.
If we were to visualize travel-for-love, I bet a map of Europe would light up like a Christmas tree. Every time someone sets out with a hopeful feeling and a boarding pass in hand, it’s a new chapter in a bigger story. They’re choosing a hard path when things could be easy, but they’re stepping out of (national) comfort zones and opening the door to adventure.
Most of all, people in long-distance relationships are an undeniably optimistic lot. We’re leaving an infrastructure of the imagination in our wakes to brighten the emotional void that airports and train stations generally are. We’re an army of suitcases, a city of hearts. It might be the only city I really feel at home in.
I’m not naïve - I know relationships don’t always work out. I can’t be certain that my story, or anyone else’s, will have the happy ending I’m hoping for. But the way I see it, here’s the great thing about cities: you can always start over somewhere new, where no one knows your name. All you need to do is buy a ticket and let a RyanAir girl in a blue dress whisk your broken heart away on to the next big adventure. If it comes down to it, I’ll pack my suitcase with favorite words and everything precious and leave what I no longer need on a park bench, somewhere, for a stranger to find.
And that’s alright, too.