Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Long Distance Runaround

It took only a World Cup trip to Nuremberg for my friend to fall for a Bavarian typist; 'help me compose my emails to her', he pleaded. Normally, people ask me for relationship advice as often as they ask Jordan for help in solving Fermat's Last Theorem.

Given that my German is merely adequate, I sensed his desperation. I knew he was in for a bad time. 'If you must go and watch England play Ecuador,' I said, 'this is your punishment.' But given the difficulty of dating in our time-poor world, and the range of the web, it seems many of us are at it, hooking up with potential partners in Istanbul or Oslo or Miami.

There's something to be said for long-distance love; and it's usually the word 'don't'. Such cynicism doesn't always apply; we all know those who've chucked up a lifestyle just to wake up next to an ideal paramour.

In 1994, I did my academic year abroad at Tours University in France. Maybe it was culture shock, maybe it was too many bottles of cheap Saumur, but - sorry, ladies, and I am sure there is the occasional distff reader of this stuff - no words could convey my epiphanic astonishment at the beauty, grace and maturity of French students. Physically gorgeous, clever, demure, precocious; I fell in love daily - honestly - until someone even surpassed this and I was really lost. I've never even read about anyone who ever imagined a woman as beautiful as Christelle; we went out for four months, in spite of her Parisian boyfriend. Part of me loves her still, and we still email trivia to one another.

The otherness of the foreign loved one's lifestyle is always a bonus; love is often mistaken for liberation, and the novelty of the beloved's circumstances can be as intoxicating as her or his physical and emotional charms. Since Christelle I have idolised Frenchwomen, and had relationships with two of them. Both have been contacted via the net, both with the premise I would move there. Neither worked. But neither were disasters and both women are still friends. And neither would I swap for anything.

The first was with a Swiss-French girl in Lausanne, Switzerland, who I visited twice; after thirty minutes of arriving on the first occasion, one summons the words of Ian Dury, "what happens next is private/it's also very rude". There was lots of talk also, as much as an Eric Rohmer movie; she tried to convince me to move over there. I wouldn't. We agreed; if either of us found someone better in London (me) or Lausanne (her), that would be the end of it, but we'd remain friends whatever happened. She found someone, I didn't. We are still best friends.

In 2003, I met a Rachael Leigh Cooke lookalike who dumped me after two ecstatic weekends by describing our distance relationship as 'too bizarre and precarious'. I disagreed; but not so much as to endanger an ongoing friendship which, as far as I can gather, still exists.

What am I looking for? A French girlfriend, a French flat to call home. Not every distance-relationship protagonist is so sure of his or her aims. Part of it is, yes, again, adventure; but anyone who will make that journey overseas has a longterm future in their emotional kitbag. The secret of enjoying and profiting from long distance love is not to tie up a potential partner to an idealised vision of a new life in a new country. No, better to marvel at how unlikely such a coupling is; how much of a risk it is (risk is always sexy); if it feels good, rejoice and keep the moments for ever but don't assume it's for life; don't kid yourself or him/her; establish an emotional bond before swapping spit; maintain friendship after the naughty bits are over.
Long-distance relationships can be the sweeter because of the passion that breaking an enforced absence can bring; if they work, and the protagonists move in together, they are the most enduring, for both partners have endured lengthy separation without (one hopes) infidelity. But if they don't, it's always nice to have someone to put up a bed for you on the floor overseas.

Right now my mate is no doubt in Hamburg doing what comes naturally. I've told him all the above. I think he will be all right. "If all else fails," he told me, "I've always got somewhere to have breakfast over there. And someone to talk to." That's the spirit, son.

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