‘Sorry’ doesn’t seem to be the hardest word.

I started writing this post during my lay over in Doha, but got interrupted by someone that was looking for someone to talk to. I tried again on the plane, but fell asleep shortly after. This time I’m writing from the beach.

After a month of holidays in The Netherlands, I’m back in Sydney. It was amazing to be back and see my partner, family and friends again after 6 long months. I desperately needed this. My start in Sydney had been everything but smooth. A lockdown right when I arrived, meant that universities were closed and I had to start my PhD from home without meeting colleagues or having any decent opportunities to make friends. On top of that, Australia’s international borders were closed. No one could enter or leave Australia without an exemption that is almost impossible to get. I felt trapped. It was hard, to say the least, and very lonely at times. Luckily, I have a kind housemate with whom I get along well. She introduced me to some of her friends and I hung out with them regularly. Later when the lockdown came to an end, I also met some great colleagues. Nonetheless, seeing my old friends again whom I’ve known for years, felt like a warm bath. Making new friends takes time and building a deep connection isn’t something that happens overnight. So it was wonderful to catch up with them, even for one night. It somehow felt like I never left. Since most of my friends live in different cities, we’re used to not hanging out on a weekly basis.

The same can be said for my family. I grew up in the south of The Netherlands but moved to Utrecht for my bachelors and masters. Since this was a 4 hour bus/train ride or 2 hour drive away, I didn’t go home very often. Especially since I had a weekend job as well. Later I moved to Wageningen, which is about as far as Utrecht. Now, I have to take a 26 hour flight to see them. A little bit longer haha. My mom and sister were waiting for me at the airport, and my sister even made one of these signs to welcome me home. So sweet! We got to spend Christmas together and also saw each other apart from Christmas.

Last but not least: going back home also meant that I got to see Paola, my partner, again. Of course, she was also there at the airport. I didn’t think I could miss someone as much as I have missed her, despite daily calls and online dates. I very much underestimated how hard this long-distance relationship thing would be. Yes, you might say that it was naive of me to think that it would be okay. My view on this probably got clouded by the excitement of starting a new job and living in Australia; a dream I’d had for years. The fact that we couldn’t plan any visits with the borders being closed, also made it even worse.

Even though each visit back home was amazing, every ‘hello’ was followed by a ‘bye’ soon after. Every visit felt too short and left me feeling happy and sad at the same time. I didn’t think about this before I flew over and I guess I underestimated how different this would feel compared to my normal visits in the Netherlands. But for at least the next few years, this is what it will be like. Something I’ll have to accept.

I’m very grateful though that borders opened and we could see each other, but going back to Sydney was hard. I hoped that going back to The Netherlands would help me get rid of the sadness and lack of energy that I’ve been experiencing these past months. It didn’t. The stress of this pandemic, changing jobs, moving country, lockdowns, the constant uncertainty about pretty much everything, all while deeply missing my partner, has left me exhausted. This past month in The Netherlands, I definitely felt better, but going back felt like I was being smacked in the face, again. Don’t get me wrong, despite the weird start I like my PhD so far and I love living in Sydney, but being separated from Paola is killing me. This emotional rollercoaster of a long-distance relationship consumes so much of my energy, and has caused the energetic, funny, and passionate Renske as you may know her, to leave the building. Again, don’t get me wrong, Paola and I are in a very good place, and this challenge has definitely made our relationship even stronger over the past months. But not being physically together, just flat out sucks. Even more for her, because while I’m discovering a new country, enjoying great weather and a beach at a 10 minute walk from home, she stayed behind in our apartment.

When I talk to people about this or read stuff on the internet, they all say the same: take this opportunity to invest in yourself. Read books, pick up a new hobby, go out more with friends, exercise, enjoy what Australia has to offer, learn to be alone etc. This all sounds wonderful and I’ve done it all, but it still leaves me feeling empty. I talked to an Australian guy on the airplane who told me about his friend from the UK. She is in a similar situation and is only ever 80% happy. I guess that’s how I feel as well. All the amazing things I was looking forward to, somehow don’t feel so great. All these things are just so much better if at the end of the day you can come home and share it with the person you love. In person, not via Skype.

Now, I’m not the type of person that sits around waiting for things to get better. Because that’s usually just not how it works. Unfortunately. This situation is impacting my mental and physical health and something needs to be done. In our culture we pride ourselves pushing through things, and this is something I’ve definitely done in the past. Not a good idea. Definitely didn’t work for me. Quitting the PhD? Nope, not an option. I like it. I just want my energy back. Ending the relationship? Definitely not an option. I love this woman to the moon and back and wouldn’t let her go for anything.

So here’s what I’m going to do:

1) Accept that it’s okay to feel this way. I’m a sensitive person and for that reason maybe react stronger to these changes than most other people. That’s okay. If some days I’m less productive than I know I could be, so be it. If sometimes I’m more quiet or less fun to be around, sorry for that, but that’s how it is. Good thing that people in Sydney don’t know the ‘normal’ me.

2) Try to get over this horrible jetlag asap and pick up my normal daily routine again. Going for a walk in the morning, surfing/swimming after work, cooking healthy lunches and dinner. Right now I’m hungry at the weirdest times and awake most of the night. A fucking disaster. This will probably take a couple more days.

3) Make a plan to get some valuable output from my PhD while also maximizing the time I can spend with Paola. On a very positive note: her visa got approved and she will come to visit me in Sydney in a month! You may wonder why I’m still so sad right now, a month isn’t that long. Especially compared to the 6 months we just spent apart. I know, I keep telling myself the same. I’m just done with the goodbyes. Life is better with her. And I just can not and don’t want to miss her any longer. Luckily she is willing to move across the world to be with me and also work out a plan to be together. Yes, she’s amazing. And now that she’s almost in the final year of her PhD, most that is left for her to do is writing. And that can be done from anywhere. For me it is a bit different, but the rough plan I made so far should give me the possibility to spend some time working in The Netherlands as well. Covid has taught me that working remotely definitely can work.

If all this works out than we shouldn’t be spending more than a month apart again. Of course, you never know what the future holds, but I want to at least try to control what I can control. By the time she graduates next year this will hopefully all be over. She can come to Sydney on my student visa and find a job here. After that? Who knows. One thing I know for sure: if we move for a job, we move together. This never again. For Elton John, ‘sorry’ seems to be the hardest word. For me it’s definitely ‘bye’.

A warm welcome with embarrassing pictures at Schiphol Airport. Maartje, my sister on the left and Paola on the right.
Bowling with my sister, her boyfriend and Paola.
Gourmetten for Christmas. Something very Dutch.
A visit to our friend Jon in Gouda!
My cats! Oh, how I missed them too!
Me and Paola during a nice walk.

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