I met the love of my life – then the pandemic broke us apart

We spent five hours a day on video chat (Photo: Bill Hillmann)

“What if this coronavirus thing gets really bad?” I asked my partner, Paula.

‘Really? You think? Do not scare me. Her eyes misted as I picked her up in my arms and hugged her tight.

It was March 2, 2020 and we were at a bus station in Spain, having just spent 10 days together while we were dating long distance back then.

“Look, whatever happens, it’ll be fine, okay.” I told him. ‘We will get out of this. I will swim to Spain from the US if I have to.

We laughed, then we kissed and I got on the bus. She waved as he walked away.

Nine days later, the WHO officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic. What followed were our desperate attempts to be together.

I first met Paula on screen during a Zoom meeting in May 2019 for an event we were hosting where we were introducing Spanish culture to English speaking tourists for a company we both worked for.

She was my international colleague; her role was to organize the event and provide insight from her perspective as a Spanish native. I was in the USA at the time.

Paula materialized in front of me and my heart flew. She was a classic Spanish beauty, dark skin, fine features, long straight dark brown hair, with a soft voice.

Although I was interested, I did not contact her after the meeting.

Bill and Paula smile in New York

We flew to New York, a place she had always wanted to visit (Photo: Bill Hillmann)

We finally met in person at Fiesta in Pamplona, ​​Spain in July 2019 on a trip organized by the company. When I first saw her, I thought, ‘wow, she’s cute and energetic and strong-willed.’

We were getting into these arguments about Spanish culture that I thought I knew so much about because I had researched and attended Spanish cultural festivals for 15 years. She often won.

It was then that I realized that I had not seen this culture through the eyes of a young Spaniard who had grown up there. I became fascinated by his ideas. I asked her out a few days before Fiesta was over.

She looked at me suspiciously. “What are your intentions? she asked.

I did not know. I shrugged. Still, somehow I convinced her and we went out together in the wild party. We were inseparable for three days.

After the fiesta, we drove to the cliffs of Zumaia on the Basque coast. I held her in the warm waters with tendrils of her hair floating on the shiny surface. I looked deep into his brown eyes.

Everything in my world seemed to change forever. I told him that I was in love. She wasn’t there yet, but that didn’t bother me. I told her that I would call her when I got home and that I would contact her and that I would soon come back to Spain to see her.

I could feel her falling in love with me and over the next few weeks of video chats she did.

I went back to Spain in August to see her. We spent time in Pamplona and then visited a festival in Cuellar, Spain. Then we both met in London in October, where we went to a boxing match and spent five days sightseeing.

She came to the United States for 10 days in November to visit me in Louisiana – where I am completing my doctorate in English at the University of Louisiana. She then met my friends and we flew to New York, a place she had always wanted to visit.

We chose to fight for each other (Photo: Bill Hillmann)

I returned to Spain in January and then again at the very end of February. After this last trip, this is where international borders closed and we were torn apart.

Separated, we have seen the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths soar. Travel bans are hitting. Our trip to Miami in May was canceled so we rescheduled it until the travel bans are lifted.

Spain was in complete lockdown, so Paula lost her events business. We spent five hours a day on video chat. We started planning our future together – our life, our marriage, our family, our children, our home, everything started to blossom.

But that was not enough, we needed physical contact. We had to be real in the moment, human, not little faces inside screens. The holding pattern weighed on us. We continued to naively hope for any sign that the pandemic would end.

In July, Spain said it would accept tourists. I tried to get on a plane to Madrid. They chased me up the boarding ramp and sent me away because I didn’t have an EU passport. It crushed us. I tried to explain to Paula.

“Baby, they didn’t let me fly, I’m not coming to Spain.” Our connection became fragile, the screen went black.

Most people would have given up at this point. The weight of the situation seemed so enormous. The entire planet down to the smallest microbe seemed to say no to us. Maybe we weren’t meant to be.

Then we got angry. We chose to fight.

A few days later that same month, we quit our jobs and flew to Ireland. We chose Ireland because Ireland and the UK claimed they welcome tourists and the flight and Airbnb to Dublin was half the price of London. I called the airline and the embassy, ​​and both confirmed that they should let me in.

I approached the immigration officer, a portly Irishman.

We were finally together in our little quarantine paradise (Photo: Bill Hillmann)

‘Reason for the trip?’ he asked bitterly. ‘Tourism?’ I shrugged.

“Tourism in the midst of a bloody pandemic? Then the answer is no, you are denied entry. So let’s try again. Why should I let you into Ireland? He glared at me as my heart raced.

“Look, this isn’t tourism, okay. It’s love. I’m in love with a Spaniard and this is one of the only places in the world that will take us both. I pleaded. “Please, I beg of you. »

“Are you telling me that Ireland is the only fucking country in the world that will get you both?” It’s just grand. He chuckled and ushered me into the country.

We were finally together in our little quarantine paradise with the seagulls in the sky in front of our balcony. We’ve done all the things lovers do; we spent hours lying in bed, touching each other, holding hands, looking each other in the eye, rekindling our intimacy.

We cooked all the meals, I studied for my doctoral exams. We even borrowed a set of weights from my Irish friend Brendan and practiced daily. We pinched ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming.

But the fight was not over. We had to enter Spain and get a civil union or this could be the last time we saw each other for who knows how long. We called all the officials – hours of waiting – until the verdict was delivered.

They told me that if I flew to Spain I would be arrested. They would organize a trial, I would be expelled and I would never be allowed to enter Spain again. We chose to cherish our time together.

Then I found an article online about people in the same situation traveling to mainland Europe by Eurostar train. We took a chance and flew to London that day.

We lined up. The immigration officer yelled at a woman who kept fumbling through her bag, pulling out documents while crying. We changed lines.

Remarkably, our officer took us to France.

Our wedding is scheduled for July 3 in Pamplona (Photo: Bill Hillmann)

I met Paula’s parents for the first time the next day when they smuggled me across the Franco-Spanish border.

In August 2020, we obtained civil union. But that wasn’t enough – travel bans were getting worse with the third wave. So I left remotely as a university professor and moved to Spain in November 2020, we rented an apartment in Pamplona.

Then, after much discussion, we chose to take a chance and move to the United States in January 2021. We did a two-week quarantine in Mexico and then entered. We rented a shoebox apartment in Cancun and flew in through the Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida. It was nerve wracking, but everything was relatively easy and went smoothly.

At first, Paula couldn’t work legally, so she studied remotely while I worked around the clock driving passengers for Uber and Lyft and teaching at college. In December 2021, Paula got her work and travel papers and went to work for Door Dash and Uber Eats delivering food and babysitting.

We spent Christmas with his family in Spain. In New Orleans, we keep odd hours and are extremely happy, saving money and planning our wedding.

Our wedding is scheduled for July 3 in Pamplona. The wedding will be a huge three day event with over 100 guests including a group of my friends and family from the US and Europe.

Marriage strengthens our legal right to be together even more than a civil union and with travel bans over, we finally feel safe.

Our marriage will be the culmination of an incredible fight. The whole planet said no to us, but we chose to fight because our love meant a lot to us.

After the wedding, we will split our time between the United States and Spain. When we return from Spain in August, we will buy a house in New Orleans. I will be getting my PhD in December and hope to start working as a tenure-track professor.

Paula will begin her studies at Mondragon University, a business school in Irun, Spain. Then in the fall of 2023, we plan to buy a condo near the school. We will be going back and forth between countries so that she can maintain her residency in the United States.

Life for us now is simple, we make the house, we work, we play, we enjoy the nightlife in New Orleans, we build towards our goals every day and we fall asleep in each other’s arms every day. night.

It all sounds like a dream, or maybe even a movie.

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