Visa Las Vegas
I don’t usually air my relationship details online for the general public to see because, well, it’s weird. But I will make an exception for such a magnanimous event. The journey that brought us to the middle of the Nevada desert in our wedding best has taken us through different countries and over terrain of varying stability (and I mean that literally). Also, it’s probably one of the few things in my life that has tempted me to entertain the possibility of fate.
Kate had already achieved world traveler status, backpacking across India at 18. For me, however, a much tamer experience studying abroad in Sweden near the end of my university days was my first real foray abroad. Kate and I would have never met if I didn’t make that decision. Honestly, it probably wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t go to Sweden specifically, and even more specifically, Lund University. Then I would have never met Bjarni, who would have never invited me to Iceland for Christmas. Maybe it’s the Butterfly Effect that’s coaxing me away from my moratorium on superstition.
Anyway, I loved Iceland. If you’ve got the time and the money, work it into your life at some point. I loved Iceland so much in the winter - a bleak, cold, and windy rock in the sea - that I just had to see it in the summer. I found the perfect opportunity: the Iceland Conservation Volunteers. They circumnavigate the island for 3 months at a time while trying to dampen the impact of tourists in some of the country’s most remote areas. Five members to a team, each from a different country.
There she was, kind of an annoying hipster from London (for some reason I scoffed at her being from London, probably because I’m a country boy that secretly aspires to be an urbanite). She didn’t like me much either, at first. We had a lot of interesting discussions meandering through all topics that frequently turned into debates. Pretty soon, however, we found that we always just happened to be working on the same projects together. Then we started hiking together on our off time. The rest is history.
Before we knew it, our time together was up. We had to decide if we were really going to do the whole distance thing. We did. I watched her get on a plane in Reykjavik and so began the first and probably most painful time apart from each other. That was in July of 2012. We wouldn’t see each other again until Christmas of that year. During that time, we alternated between Skype, Whatsapp, Google Hangouts, Facebook, FaceTime, Tango... The verdict is that none of them really work well, but it sure as hell beats writing letters. I don't know how people did it back then.
Despite all of the dropped calls, lonely nights, and doldrum of living in my rural hometown for those months, I was suddenly on a plane to London. It was a city that I hadn't initially planned on visiting, and I never imagined I would be going there to visit my Londoner girlfriend. Nevertheless, it didn't take me long to love London, especially after getting over the terror of meeting her friends and family for the first time. We spent Christmas in a little town called Keswick, nestled in the northern area of the famous Lake District. We spent the majority of the time marathoning Six Feet Under due to terrible weather, but we did manage to fit one good walk in. Near the end of our time together, Kate surprised me with some New Year Eve tickets to Fuerza Bruta, a pretty visually stunning postmodern show that featured a lot of half naked people sliding around on plastic sheets above you.
Back to reality. Even that small phrase is torturous, revealing that our reality was to be apart. Being together wasn't the norm; it was special. Kate said in her vows something to the effect of, "Whoever said 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' was an idiot". She's right - long distance relationships are a cycle of pure elation and the inevitable withdrawal that comes afterward. After seeing each other again, we both hated going back to reality. We were not going to wait as long as we did again.
Four months later, Kate was sitting in her first "real" American diner with a pancake bigger than her head staring back at her. After the whole meeting friends and family on my side, we drove up to Boone and Blowing Rock where we rented a little cabin for a week (when I say little, I mean the bed popped out of the wall). That was our base for a week of hiking pretty much everywhere in the High Country - the Blue Ridge Parkway, Appalachian Trail, Elk Knob - as well as eating at all my favorite places I knew as a student and showing Kate that not all American beer tastes like piss.
Enough was enough, we needed to make some sort of plan that would be more sustainable than visiting each other for two weeks every six months. We weren't quite ready to get married yet, so a visa to either the US or UK was out of the question. My good friend Dylan had been teaching English across Asia at the time, and while it didn't really seem like something I would be good at, it suddenly seemed like the answer to all of our problems, at least temporarily. I sat down with him one rare occasion when he was back in North Carolina. Not long after, we found a school in Northeast China that would be happy to take both us.
Most of you reading know more than you probably care to about our adventures in Daqing and beyond, as it's been a major focal point ever since I've been writing here. We each signed a year contract at a language center in Daqing, just a small city of 3 million in bleak northern reaches of China, just below Siberia. I still wonder what made us go there out of the hundreds of warmer and sunnier options in China, but after meeting some amazing people there, we regret nothing. Heilongjiang may have been a frozen wasteland, but it was our frozen wasteland.
One can only live in China so long before they need a break, and we took several to various places during our time there. One such break took us to the sunny beaches of Hong Kong, as well as a Shenzhen hotel room where we puked our guts out for 3 days. Well, I guess the latter was technically in China, so never mind. This particular break was a whirlwind to London where I saw Snoop Dogg perform and my family finally met Kate's family (not at the Snoop Dogg show), then to Brighton for a dose of quintessential British seaside, to Paris where we visited Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame in less than 24 hours, and finally to lovely Greece for a week of freddo espresso in the morning and carafes of wine in the evening. If there was ever a holiday that I so desperately needed and delivered 110%, it was that holiday on Paxos. All good things must come to an end. In a blink, we were in a classroom of screaming children once again.
Both of our time in China was not always consistent with one another. Kate has been plagued with a ruptured disc since when we met in Iceland, and it sent her back to London a couple of times for doctors that won't recommend herbs and massages and avoiding spicy food before even looking at an MRI. After a particularly long time apart, we took advantage of China's Golden Week holiday and I jetted over to London for 10 days. Well, "jetted" probably isn't a great term because it implies an element of speed, but...I won't rehash that travel nightmare here.
Americans can't seem to find any additional adjectives other than "quaint" to describe the English countryside. Well, the cottage we rented outside the town of Saxmundham was just that. It creaked when you walked, required a space heater to keep you warm, and had nothing but vinyl records in the way of entertainment. I loved it. It was a cozy place to return to after visiting the dreary, stony coastline of Aldeburgh and the 8-mile Sandling's Walk. Our friends Katie and Simon joined us for an evening of food, beer, and 70s vinyl that was concluded with releasing a Chinese lantern that nearly avoided getting snagged in a tree and burning the place down. Those are the evenings you remember for a long while.
That was the last time I saw her for a long while. I finished out my last term in China and finally left it behind. Near the end of my time there, we finally made the decision that was always waiting there in our peripheral vision, as potent in practicality as in love: getting hitched. It was time to end this transatlantic madness for good. Never in my life did I think I would be one of those people that got married in Vegas, but it's Vegas, baby, so why the hell not? In the three weeks leading up to Vegas, Kate saw all there is to see of North Carolina. The boring Piedmont (where I live), Emerald Isle on the coast (where I proposed), and Boone in the Blue Ridge Mountains (where we hiked before).
Vegas is a contradiction, where the classiest of the classiest and trashiest of the trashiest coexist side by side, and we had a bird's eye view of it all from our honeymoon suite at the Stratosphere. I didn't even do the Vegas handshake. You just get free shit when you say you're getting married. But you don't want to hear about the hotel and how much money I lost playing roulette. This is the climax! Five years of going back and forth, upside down and all around, and finally we were standing in the middle of the desert - frankly, in one of the most beautiful places you could get married (inside a church is boring) - exchanging our vows. It was perfect. We were surrounded by a small group of friends and family, many of whom came all the way from London for this, and not a single thing went wrong. We're married! And then Kate had to go home again...
Looking back, even now as I write, at all of these memories and photos, I wonder why I even complain about anything. I had the privilege to meet my soulmate and travel the world with her - some people live a lifetime without doing either. These last five years have been truly amazing. Our next adventure - the UK spouse visa process - may be one of our most challenging yet, but I know it will open a very important door for us: the ability to do all of these awesome things together without being forced to wait months in between. So, to my wife who will probably get around to reading this at some point, thank you for these memories. I'm lucky to have them and such a beautiful person to make them with. Here's to making more!