Time Apart A Personal Story

Original article from the Sydney Morning Herald announcing closure of Australian borders. (C) and Source SMH

Some time ago...

It was a cold autumn morning when my small domestic plane touched down in Hannover Airport, October 11th of 2021. It hadn't been an easy ride. The lines in customs transiting from Frankfurt had been monumental and growing longer by the second - both a literal and metaphorical world away from the beginning of my journey - and that wasn't even the start.

When I had arrived at Singapore, employees head to toe in plastic had led myself and my fellow passengers through a string of chokingly humid passageways and halls of taped-off seats before we took a brief tram ride above the dark airport. By the time another vigorous round of herding and single-file lines had come to an end, including validating my COVID test for what felt like the tenth time, it was closing on midnight, and nearly 48 hours since I had last set foot in a residential building. The endless lengths of aged carpet and the drone of the health warnings on the speakers spoke of a aching, dull strain that had seated itself in my mind for what felt longer than memory itself, and somehow I wasn't even inclined to complain.

But how had I gotten here, and why was everything such a mess?

It was a longer story than you might think.

March 2020, in my home country of Australia. After what felt like an eternity hearing echoes of a coronavirus growing and spreading abroad, the virus had finally landed on our soil - sending people into a flurry of panic and confusion, and most regions into lockdown. Most powerful of the restrictions that the country leveled was a complete and almost entirely inclusive ban on international travel regardless of reasoning, and with narrow paths indeed for seeking exemption. A first for our time, yet that is not what I write about here. Outside the danger facing the world, and regardless of statistics, the day-to-day fact of continuing with even the most necessary of activities in one's life was and still is a dangerous concept by any regard. For myself, however, it was certainly a time of introspection, but being very deep in my own thoughts and routines as a writer, I took it not so hard as some. In a large way, I was privileged by having very little to lose, while many had their employment, family, and even lives stripped away in a heartbeat, but in a way, that was all about to change.

The next month, through the time I was spending online with my pursuits in art and writing, I met a fellow artist, and we began to share company. From the very first times we interacted, it was clear that we had uncountable things in common, and before long we were spending uncountable hours talking and spending time with one another. Things only moved faster and faster from there, and by that October, we both knew that what we felt for each other even from such a distance exceeded simple friendship. This was a joyous thing, yet a deep, deep source of sadness at the same time. It seemed we could have not picked a worse time - before long, each and every realization that we were apart turned into a crippling one, and normal tasks almost impossible. At the time, uniting seemed almost impossible and deeply impractical at the very least, given the ban on travel, and things were not looking to improve.

Estimation of stranded Australians from September 2020. (C) and Source to BBC

So here I was, in a complicated spot. I wasn't near ready to give up, yet at the same time I knew that the toll upon my health and standing wasn't an indefinitely maintainable one. Was it selfish to consider something perhaps not life-or-death 'necessary' to seek to travel during these times, or was it cruel for another to chose the importance of things for you? In the end, it is things like these that split people far too easily - for it is a decision that each individual must make to see personal circumstance as 'worth' furthering, be it in a rebellious spirit or through sheer desperation - neither way justifying itself to any other person than those making those same decisions. Hard times bring hard emotions out of people, so a divide upon this argument was more than logical, and it will undoubtedly stay that way. Just as I stayed waiting for month after month, scouring every document, news report, and law for a sign that the borders would open for travel, and soon it would end. Yet things never seemed to get better, and for myself emotionally, things only got worse.

Until eventually, 17 months after this had all started, I finally gave up on waiting, and I was determined that I was going to go the hard way. I was going to apply for exemption.

However, even beyond the forbidding text and limited options - with the only possible reason I could be admitted to leave being having a compelling reason to do so, and remaining from the country for three months minimum - things were even more complicated and hard than they seemed, as I soon found out through digging deeper than the surface. Fatal pitfall after pitfall awaited, from necessary clauses and on the declarations in which evidence must be submitted, what will and won't be considered, and most crippling and expensive of all, the need to translate each and every foreign document to English using only one possible avenue - state endorsed translation, through which I was quoted $450 for a three page employment contract. Neglecting to do so - be it a few words on a driver's license or the heading of a birth certificate - renders the document void in being considered as evidence. Even after a year and a half of sitting in wait, researching what must be done with a stress-ridden, obsessive mind, the task seemed utterly overwhelming, and like a minefield of catastrophic failure.

Information was hard to come by. It seemed almost as though there were very little legal resources pointing the way intentionally, even though certainly the demographics of those applying would have been far more pivoted toward the average person than to lawyers and businessmen, and thus logically should have been easier to research than other forms of paperwork. Yet the opposite was true, and it was only reading into the paperwork and processes around visa applications for foreign citizens that truly shone light upon what was expected of one applying for exemption. I also encountered a Facebook group named Partners Apart - purposed solely to help with uniting Australians and their partners, and with close on 20,000 members going through the same daily struggle that I was. The stories of heartbreak and struggling there - so much worse than my own temporary suffering - were truly shaking. Yet through these avenues, I learned quickly that those overviewing the exemptions didn't want to hear tales of suffering and hardship, nor cases of emotion. That, to them, was a sign of weakness, of an increased likelihood a candidate for travel would be making a rash decision, and become a liability later on.

The Facebook group Partners Apart, housing perhaps the largest community of separated partners and Australians

It was a hard truth but an imperative one that changed my outlook altogether. In basic words, I now knew I was basically writing an statement advertising that I was effectively shirking the Australian Government's protection, and taking three months from the country at my own risk alone. Harsh and potentially dangerous, yes, but something I was more than willing to do, and did almost immediately - amassing documents that together numbered over one hundred pages indicating the relationship between myself and my partner, my proof of funds, our plans in the future, and my complete and utter intention to remain absent from the country for three months. With several hundred hours shared between the two of us in writing and going through the difficult process of having my partner sign a Commonwealth declaration in his non-commonwealth home of Germany, there it all was, written in impartial, factual points, paragraphs, sections, and articles.

Unfortunately, just as it seemed as if the most complicated feat had been achieved, the stay-at-home order came in place across NSW, and most businesses were closed, making it almost impossible for me to find a Justice of the Peace to witness my signature. Eventually, after exhausting almost every other option, I was able to chance upon such a figure within a local tax accountancy, and it seemed as if the deal were set. Last checks were made, last hours were spent assembling evidence and formatting it in such a way as I had learned to be necessary - each piece aligned by articles, categories, sections and subsections, on and on - before late in August, I finally submitted my application.

It was a terse week as I waited. Work was a welcome distraction, even given that I worked in the retain sector and most of my time was spent by myself or with colleagues, preparing orders and deliveries. However, this time I was not so long to wait. The following Sunday, after arriving at work in somewhat of a hurry, I was greeted by a flurry of texts from my partner upon finally checking my phone. I had been approved to travel. Tears were the only response I could muster, and even they felt hollow and insufficient. After so long, I could not properly summon the emotion to convey how I was feeling, even to myself. That day, I went home from work a new person.

But the trials had only begun.

Booking flights was not all that hard. Although I paid somewhat more having waited some time, my flights weren't unreasonably expensive, and I was able to secure my desired date with only a little shuffling. My agent was extremely helpful every step of the way, juggling the days between the expiry of my visa and the minimum time I could be out of the country as I had stated in my exemption declaration to a perfect degree, and before long all seemed set, and the only thing left was to pack and prepare physically. The date drew closer and closer lethargically, until it almost seemed as though my period of anticipation were the true work, rather than that which I had achieved before. Sleep was hard to come by, most notably of all. Anxiety was taking its toll, and with my lack of appetite and motivation, I was feeling it harder than ever before. But time's arrow marches only forward, and in due course, it was time.


At 7am I woke, and by 8 I was in an airport shuttle, ready for a two hour drive all the way into Sydney, where my flight with All Nippon Airways awaited me at 9pm that night. From there, I was to be spending nine hours of layover in Tokyo, before finally landing on German soil the following day after 34 hours of airtime. It was an era of waiting come to an end, but in my sleep-deprived haze, I wasn't exactly in a state to be excited.

After my drive, I stepped out onto the concrete of the airport parking lot. My shuttle was practically the only vehicle in sight. Shelling out $150, I found the pavilion where COVID tests and the certificates necessary for travel were given out, and made my way inside to what can only be described as one of the most overwhelming moments in my entire life. After so long, there I was - stepping into those cavernous halls, without having had a proper night's sleep in nigh over a week, and what felt like the country's eyes and judgment following each step I took towards unshackling the invisible chains I had borne for so long. Each movement echoed from end to end of the space, and for minutes at a time, I could go without seeing nor hearing the presence of another soul. Rows upon rows of stores were closed, mostly seeming to be remaining that way for good, and in this way, it was amazing how such a clean, interior space mirrored the state of my home town. Eventually, finding one pizza place down a flight of escalators that still hummed with heated ovens, I grabbed something to eat, and tried to find somewhere to sit. This in itself proved harder than one might think, as all the seating and tables had been either removed entirely or were inaccessible through layers of tape of signs. However, eventually, I found somewhere, and disinterestedly tucked in. The words I half-heatedly mulled over while I ate weren't positive ones, but food was food, and I hadn't eaten since the night before.

Front carpark of Sydney Airport, 9th October

Photograph of inside Sydney Airport, 9th October 2021

Fast forward to 6pm. After taking a brief nap that caused what felt like more pain than good as I staggered from the bar stool and counter I had leaned against, I made my way down to departures. Thinking to collect myself juts a little more before summing up what social skills I could to move through passport control, I sat down by the windows, and rubbed at my face as though hoping to rub away the plaster of fatigue that had cemented itself across my skull.

At this point, however, there was a buzz in my pocket. I had received an email. My flight out of Tokyo had been canceled.

According to a hastily-dialed representative who spoke English less fluently than was perhaps to be desired in such a stressful moment, the flight had simply not had enough passengers. Glancing over to the rapidly shrinking line before the counter I had been making to approach - counting in total to only 21 civilian passengers, for an entire international jetliner - the sting was both unsurprising and cruel. I was told that if I had have boarded the plane when the gates had opened, there would have been no way for me to get out of Tokyo for at minimum two days - and that was if they didn't refund my ticket immediately, which would triple if not quadruple the price I had paid to buy a ticket for that day.

A couple frantic hours later after a constant row of phone calls to family, my travel agent, agency's emergency line, and both of my airlines, I was sitting in a set of sad black vinyl chairs at 10pm, checking the time over my head to make certain that I still had time before the airport closed, and I was forced to move on. By the effort of my agent, a refund had been avoided, but this in itself had presented new problems. Very clearly, I wasn't going anywhere that evening. My flight was now with Singapore Airlines, at four the next day. While the time pleased me, the date understandably did not. Lufthansa had shirked all responsibility of inconvenience caused by their change, and while I had no means to expect anything more, it left me with very little options. After attempting to cross the bridge out of the airport by foot, and then reluctantly waiting for a late shuttle, I managed to find myself a cheap hotel room - paid out of my own pocket - and called it quits for the night.


The morning came with shaky hope, and a few last minute calls to airlines, trying to do what I could to assure myself that I would be safe on my way this time. With a much sunnier day than the last, it was only three hours until I was back in the airport's main hall, and queuing up for checking in, unlocking my phone again and again, time after time, to make certain there were no further emails. Eventually, I was allowed through the gates, and the process began. At first, there was concern over whether my COVID test - being a day older at this point due to the cancellation - but eventually with a few calls and conjecture the attendants were confident that it would suffice. First, I handed over my luggage, had my passport checked with my ticket, and then the call was made to validate my exemption to leave. The woman behind the counter nodded her head, and put down the phone, and I sighed. All had checked out. Pass in hand, I made my way to the gate utterly alone, unsure whether to be relieved or if this was just another build up to inevitable disappointment.

The walkway was long, but I made the journey gladly. I could see my plane out of the window, bridge extended, and seeming entirely prepared. A long last thirty minutes passed in the lounge, where a scanty few passengers - under 20 - waited to board, and then eventually we were allowed on. Settling down in my seat, and with takeoff, some weight came off my shoulders in turn, and was replaced by fatigue. But fly I did, and what a glad flight it was. The night lights of Melanesian islands and strikes of lightning from distant storms shone out into the darkness - strangely calming in their abstract, threatening quality of unknown.

Here, my tale returns to Singapore. Landing late at night, and first being herded out of the plane through a narrow lane, I pushed on, with no other option. Uncertain where to go, and uncertain as to whether my transit flight to Frankfurt would be maintained as it were, I could only trust in the screens displaying my flight, and eventually made it through my gate and onto my plane. Finally relief, knowing that without doubt, I would at least be arriving in Germany.

Singapore Airport, 11:30 pm


Takeoff once more. The flight from them on was unpleasant, but uneventful. Due to my last minute switch, I no longer had vegetarian food ordered as I had for my original flight, but I understood what had happened and wasn't exactly going to complain, and thanked the attendants profusely for their efforts when they managed to get me at least something. Food was the last thing on my mind, although I knew I was suffering from lack. Landing and passing through Frankfurt was a blur. I can hardly remember leaving the plane, and the morning dawning outside had been little more than an additional ache to my weary eyes, though it brought mixed emotions of overwhelming excitement and trepidation. Passport stamped, I made on, and finally entered the airport proper. New, well constructed, and visually appealing, the terminal was busy but not crowded, and I was spoken to in German for the first time, making me smile and nervously exercise the language in a real situation for the first time.

But then I checked the time. My plane had landed nearly an hour late - and I was deathly short on time. So, with no other option, I started to run. A final push, for a final moment - or so it would have been, had the lines not formed up around me, and I was then stuck waiting to go through customs for a final times. After a long wait, and having to have my bag checked twice as I had rushed unpacking its contents into the trays, I finally bolted out of the scanners - shoes untied and compartments unzipped, sparing not a second to remedy either, and it was a glad thing that I did not. As I stumbled onto the last bus out to the plane, it waited only another 45 seconds before departing, and though my heart was thudding, and I was covered in sweat, I could not have been more glad as I boarded my last, significantly smaller aircraft, and reclined into the plush seats to the sound of the voice over the intercom rattling in German.

View of Germany from above

Once in the air, the view beneath was beautiful, as the country panned out before me for the first time. Early morning mist hung between each and every peak, so densely it seemed as though the lowlands were completely and utterly filled with snow. The flight was not long, however, and before I came to land; stepping from the plane with a heart rising steadily up in my chest. This was it, after so long. Each corridor came past only with deep effort after retrieving my luggage at long last, and it was then coming past a set of long windows that I saw him standing there, ready to greet me, and nothing else mattered as we ran to embrace. What had once been little more than a dream, seeming entirely unrealistic, had become true. For the first time in 18, long months, all was well, and I wanted for nothing. That serenity, that level of completeness, that sense of finally coming to peace with something that had so long been a source of pain and lament, was more overwhelming than every other sense my body could possibly have felt. All was well, and with that, a long, rocky chapter of my life wrought with want, tumultuous change, and frightening new steps came to a close.

Upon the first of November, the NSW Government opened flights for vaccinated Australian citizens. Though fraught with complications, loopholes, and imperfections, one can only hope that the system eventually put into place is less narrow and has far more leniency than the last one. But, to myself, and in the words of others, this news came with a strange sadness. A strange feeling of invalidation, as though now we had been 'given what we wanted' - though it were not so simple - all pain and all feeling of having achieved something by staying strong was to be washed away and flushed to the past. It may seem petty, and those unaffected definitely seem to think so, as since social media has exploded with negativity and voices who would label those who still seek to remember ungrateful, but when at least feeling like you have something to stand up against is all that was keeping you together for such a long period of time, having it stripped away is a feeling unique amongst all, and quite unexplainable as a whole. I hope to not allow this to happen, as to me - though I state with privilege that I have recovered and reciprocated all that I was separated from during this time - it will not be something so easily forgotten, and nor for others who have lost and suffered far, far more. That time will never replace itself, and the strain it took will never mend, but in it, perhaps myself, others in my situation, and all who have lost and waited can find the true value of what is absent or held from our grasps, for that is what I have.

So push, and achieve. If I learned something, it is that there is always a way, and there is always another side to everything, another side to each wall of hardship, and another chance, with each failure. Sometimes, although suffering strain, anxiety and taking a hard path may seem unreasonable, when it is pushed through and overcome, what lays beyond is often the sweetest. In the end, if you can summon the strength to fight against opposition for something, then it is worth fighting for. And in the end, what is more worth fighting for than family and love?

2nd November, Gabriel Foxx