During my second year of Spanish lessons, there was a new face in my class. He sat beside me every lesson, smuggling in home-made sandwiches to eat under the desk. It didn’t take long for us to become friends. After three weeks of mocking his ‘covert’ sandwich operation and being shushed by our teacher (‘no hablen más por favor’), he asked me out on our first date.
Not ones to waste time, we’ve been a couple for almost two years since that very first date. Taking Spanish classes is both the reason I met my boyfriend and why we’ve been apart for so long. Since August 2017, I’ve been living in Madrid as part of a 10 months exchange program.
In that time I’ve learned the struggles of having a long distance relationship with 15,753 km, a 10 hour time difference and a jet-lag heavy 22 hour flight between us. When my exchange finishes in May this year, we will have spent one out of roughly two years apart – 50% of our relationship.
Last year I wrote about us spending two months apart while I completed a journalism program in Indonesia and how hard but rewarding the experience was for us. In retrospect, the piece reads as painstakingly naïve. Two months feels like a nap and ten months, a coma.
Despite the struggles of being apart always circling my mind, I managed to distract myself for the first few months with many glasses of sangria, time with friends and trips to Paris, Rome and Lisbon. Time raced by and I was ecstatic when he came to visit me in Madrid a few weeks ago.
We had 12 days of blissful road tripping together through the south of Spain, practicing our Spanish, navigating tiny, cobble streets in a rental car (amazingly, without a scratch to our names) and eating tapas. Spending every day together felt dreamlike after such a long time alone. We caught up on six months of stories, ate sweets from a secret door in a convent, visited the Alhambra and climbed up the largest wooden structure in the world in Seville.
But the post-trip comedown has been tough. Our last night together was in a stuffy hotel room near the airport, neither of us could sleep. When he left for the airport in the morning, I managed to stifle my tears for just long enough until he closed the door behind him. Knowing we’d be apart for several months again after an amazing two weeks together left me a crumpled mess.
Still each night I lie awake thinking about watching trashy Korean talk shows with him, climbing abandoned castles in Cartagena and walking through the medieval streets of Cáceres, stopping for kebabs and cheap beer.
When he left, all the friends I made on exchange flew home too. I was starting anew six months into my trip, when all I wanted was to escape the miserable European winter and dive back into a warm, Aussie summer with my boyfriend.
Travelling alone, speaking a foreign language and adapting to a new culture has been challenging at times. For all the beautiful cities I’ve explored and the fun I’ve had, there’s been a ton of testing moments to follow, like having no idea what people are saying no matter how hard I try and feeling categorically alone, friends from home too busy getting on with their own lives to reply to texts I sent months ago.
But for all the isolation that I've felt as an expat, when I finally arrive home in Australia, I’ll be grateful for this time apart, no matter how hard it’s been. In the months to come there’ll be plenty more stings of homesickness, but one thing rings true from that innocent piece I wrote last year.
Being in a long-distance relationship takes a hell of a lot of trust and love. It’s a real-life relationship test that teaches you to drop petty fights and make the most of time spent together. In the end, for us, there’s more to gain than lose.