Countless couples and families all around the world have been deeply affected by the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus). Many people have found themselves in quarantine far from home, or in a situation where they are separated from loved ones, unsure of when they will see each other again. James Gabriel Martin on the challenges of staying positive while being separated from his partner in another country.

Celia and Jamie in Cuba
Celia and James in Cuba © James Gabriel Martin

Plans change

Just three months ago, myself and my partner Celia were sitting on a sunny terrace in Granada, sipping coffee and anxiously discussing what at the time seemed like a big life event; our families meeting for the first time. Her mother and father were due to fly to Ireland from their home country of Spain for a few days in March, and we were running through a list of exciting decisions and questions. Should we book a restaurant, or do dinner in my parents’ house? Would it be awkward? Would we get over the language barrier? Little did we know that questions such as these would seem trivial when the time actually came and flights began to be cancelled en masse. 

Celia and I met in Dublin over two years ago, and some time afterwards moved into an apartment together. As a photojournalist and musician, my work takes me to a lot of different places, but we have always managed to be in the same city for the vast majority of the time, or else travel together whenever possible. Last year, Celia moved back to Spain to do a photography course and concentrate on writing a book. It wasn’t a problem for us, and I was lucky enough to be able to split my time between Dublin and Granada. But when Spain was hit hardest by the coronavirus, things rapidly changed, and I was back home in the middle of a tour with my band, an ocean apart from the woman I loved. 

James and Celia in Grand Cayman © James Gabriel Martin
James and Celia in Grand Cayman © James Gabriel Martin

Making difficult decisions 

From following the news in Spain, we knew that we had a limited window of opportunity to make a decision before flights in and out of the country would be completely closed down. Celia’s family home was further south in a small, sleepy town by the sea. She weighed up the prospect of going there against coming back to Ireland to weather this storm together. I advised her that wherever she did end up, she would have to be prepared to stay there for at least three months. At the time, Andalucía had the lowest number of cases of any province, but we knew that travel was still putting ourselves and, more importantly, others at risk. 

We had to have a difficult conversation. There was our relationship to think about, on top of countless other responsibilities. I wanted to stay with my parents in Dublin to make sure I could be by their side if they needed anything. Celia felt the same, but her family reassured her that they would be alright and encouraged her to go. So, she booked the last available flight and a plan was put in place. I would get supplies and meet her at Dublin airport. When her flight touched down, I would collect her and we would drive directly to my aunt’s cottage in Donegal to self-isolate for two weeks in case she had been exposed in transit. We knew that although we would be exposing ourselves to possible infection following passage through Spain, we could not risk the health of my parents or any member of the public. 

This was something that weighed heavily on us, and the morning of the flight, we both knew we couldn’t go through with it. While there would be a great comfort of knowing that we could be together, we knew that we would be constantly on edge thinking about our families and what lay ahead.

Nacimos a un Océano de Distancia
James and Celia have been working on an English translation of her book © James Gabriel Martin

Adjusting to distance

Since we made the decision to stay in separate countries through self-isolation and quarantine sanctions, myself and Celia have sought ways to stay connected and bonded.  Before the outbreak, Celia’s book Nacimos a un Océano de Distancia had been published and was selling well in Spain, and we were excited by the idea of working on an English translation together. Now we keep a weekly schedule, making our way through the chapters. It gives us a chance to focus our attention on something together, and turn the conversation away from news cycles and the daily anxieties of life. When we’re finished she is going to start teaching me Spanish over Skype. 

We are thankful that technology has made it easier to stay connected and make time every evening for a video call. Before all of this, we loved travelling together, and recently I have been starting every morning by sending Celia a WhatsApp Message with a memory of a past adventure. 

It will read, for example: “Today’s Memory: Being jammed into the back of a rickety yellow taxi that was missing the inside panels on the doors on a three-hour drive across Cuba. The radio in the front seat blasting as we watch the dusty urban roads transform to lush green fields as we enter Viñales.” It reminds me of how lucky I have been up to this point, and I hope that it inspires Celia to have faith that new experiences await us in the future.

Canvas map with pins
A canvas map with pins of past adventures © James Gabriel Martin

Staying positive

Like everyone else around the world, the past few weeks have seen us taking a crash course in adapting to situations outside of our control on a leviathan scale. Every day the headlines scare us, especially the ones from Spain. But we have been lucky so far, and are trying our best to be hopeful, and to remember that we will be together again, we will travel again, hugs will be had, laughs will be shared. Families will meet, and perhaps we will grow into better, more appreciative people in the end. 

Back when we shared a home in Dublin, myself and Celia had a canvas map hanging on the wall. It was stuck with pins of the places we had been together. It’s now in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, and I look at it every day. I reflect on where we have been and where we might go. On the map, the distance between us doesn’t look so far.

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