When President Trump addressed the world on the global coronavirus pandemic last Wednesday, my husband and I watched from his apartment in Boston, where he lives half of the time. The other half, he’s with me in Zurich, Switzerland, where I live with my children. He ‘commutes’ between the two cities every two weeks, his family and his work being on both sides of the Atlantic. The minute President Trump announced his travel ban between Europe and the United States, we knew our world was about to turn upside down, because our family life is built on being able to cross borders.
In a matter of minutes, we made a very hard decision: I needed to get back home to Switzerland, to my children, immediately, while I still could – before airlines started cancelling flights (the next day my original flight home was cancelled) and people started panicking. If we hadn’t acted fast, I would have been trapped in the U.S., away from my children for an indefinite period of time. At the same time, that meant leaving behind my husband. He was unlikely to be able to travel any time soon: he’s in the high-risk group for the virus and his teenage son lives with him part-time – in Boston. So we faced the prospect of a separation of indeterminate duration.
I’m not the only one who’s found themselves in such a situation or who’s had to make such wrenching decisions. I have friends whose adult children, studying abroad, are stranded there, unable to come home. Every day I hear stories of friends and acquaintances who can’t visit their ageing parents or other relatives who are at high risk, often living in different countries (but even if they live in the same city), because of closed borders and travel restrictions, in addition to the danger of unwillingly infecting them with potentially fatal consequences. I have heard of cases where a person was not even able to attend a loved one’s funeral, because of the inability to travel.
The novel coronavirus pandemic is hitting everyone hard on many levels – physical, emotional, financial, social. But especially for us expats, it has upended the very foundation upon which we’ve built our lives: the assumption – the now-gone ease? – of mobility. With loved ones spread out around the world, being with them physically requires travel. In my case, travel is essential for my family to function. It’s a core dimension of our life.
How do we cope when global mobility breaks down? How do we deal with being away from the people we love at a time when, more than ever, we need to feel close to them? Thankfully, as expats, we are not only uniquely affected; we also are uniquely equipped to deal with this not-so-new challenge. Situations such as the ones I just described – being away from loved ones at challenging or even critical times – are common in expat life. Distance, work, financial or other realities come into play. If we haven’t faced a global pandemic before, many of us have faced local emergencies that have restricted our mobility.
Because we can’t be with ‘our’ people all the time, we’ve had to be resourceful in finding ways to maintain connection from a distance. We’ve developed rituals and routines that allow us to be part of each other’s lives, working around miles and time zones. We just need to up the ante on those right now, when connecting in person is not only challenging, but also something we can no longer plan ahead. We need to get even more creative.
I’m grateful for all the opportunities modern technology provides. My husband and I will be living in different time zones for the foreseeable future. While we miss each other more than we could possibly imagine and the uncertainty is tough to swallow, we are more connected than ever. In addition to talking several times a day, we write each other a letter, by email, every day. He writes to me before going to bed in Boston, so that it’s the first thing I see when I open my eyes in the morning. I write my letter mid-morning, so he finds it when he wakes up.
Due to the nature of our work, we’ve always been doing a lot of it remotely, from our home office in Zurich, often working side by side. Inspired by an article we read, we now log onto a virtual Zoom room and work on our respective projects – virtually side by side. Hearing each other type away has an almost comforting sound. We use Netflix Party to watch our favorite series together – at the same time. Every night, before I go to bed, he reads me a poem.
We’ve also resolved to be proactive about connecting regularly with our loved ones. I call my mom twice a day now. She’s home alone and I know she enjoys the added bonus of seeing her grandchildren on video – since they’re now all home at the same time, which also allows us all to connect with other family members, like my kids’ cousins in Germany. I try to connect with my friends around the world more regularly now, to check on how they’re holding up. I try to call, ideally video-call as much as possible, instead of texting. While text is convenient and relatively non-intrusive, I find that the visual is important now.
As we all settle into our new, more separate routines, we can do it without feeling disconnected or lonely. In fact, we can learn, adapt and come out the other side stronger and closer to each other than before. And hopefully, this new way of being and connecting will stay with us long after this time is a distant, though scary, memory.