Faraway places

I'm going to a foreign country to meet a woman I've corresponded with. What should we do to get to know each other?

Published October 31, 2003 6:49PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

In a few weeks, I'm visiting a foreign country to meet a woman I've corresponded with for the past several months. I'm tremendously excited, and nervous.

I'm a 42-year-old man, never married, and with limited experience in relationships. She is 40, never married, with rather more relationship experiences than me.

She and I have been talking for several months, by e-mail and on the phone. I didn't expect a perfect match when I first heard from her and I don't expect one now, but she has a lot of qualities that attract me very much. She's bright, articulate, educated, happy and cute.

She wants to move to the U.S. eventually, and my friends and family have said that maybe she's looking for a green card. This doesn't seem likely to me, but I'm still being cautious until she and I have spent enough time together.

Nevertheless, this trip is a big step. What does one do during a weeklong visit with a prospective partner in a foreign country? Any suggestions?

Looking for Love a Long Way Away

Dear Looking for Love,

More people than ever before, it seems to me, develop rich and complex relationships through electronic means before they lay eyes on each other in person. I wonder what it is about distance that makes it easier to know someone. Maybe it is the long probation that distance enforces, during which you watch your words and build your best self in the air. Maybe it is the protection, the sense that sitting there a whole other country away from your correspondent, you can afford to be yourself, in the same way that I, answering your letter at a desk in a room alone in the early morning hours before anyone else is awake, can afford to be myself. If you had to get to know her in the flesh right away, fearful of rejection, careful to say the right things, watching her face for signs of disapproval, or if I had to compose these responses to your letters under the watchful eyes of my correspondents, certain true things might not get said.

If you have been honest in your communications up to this point, you will already have revealed things to each other that would be difficult and awkward to reveal in person, and you will already know each other in certain ways better than if you had grown up together. So when you meet her there will be some sense of meeting an old friend. On the other hand, if you have used the distance between you not for the protection of your honest thoughts but for the opportunity to dissemble, not as a medium of truth but as a shroud of falsehood, then the air between you will fill with the shriek of metal grinding against metal.

My first suggestion would be to make as many plans as possible. In making the plans, you make a little world. And in executing them, you find out much about how you and she could handle the world together. What is it like to sit in the passenger seat while she drives you through an unfamiliar orchard? What is it like to see how she brakes, not fast enough, or too fast, or too jerkily, or too delicately? How does she hold the wheel of the car? Is it like the way you imagined she would drive? And when you look at her in profile as she drives down a country road, how does her profile compare with the profile you had already constructed?

Among the many small things you can do to occupy your time as you evaluate each other: Meet her friends and family. Eat well. If you exercise regularly in the States, find a way to do the same thing there. Think up a cute name for her and call her that. Tell her stories from your childhood. Find out her favorite book. Meet her ex-boyfriend. Find out if she can cook. Watch how she behaves around animals. See if she has a police record. Find out about her history of diseases. See where she lives. Go swimming with her. If she has kids, get a close look at them. Do a lot of kissing. Try to come just at sunset. Take a rowboat ride. Sing to her. Rub her feet. Admire her profile. Speak her language.

Make lots of plans. Don't spend every day with her. Don't be just the two of you alone too much. Plan some things to do by yourself.

Things may blossom between you. Or the visit may represent the painful dissolving of a happy mirage. Whatever happens, be sure to acknowledge it. At the end of the week, make up your minds together about what to do next. Do not leave with vague promises. Settle on definite action: Should she come to the States to visit you? If so, in what month? Should you come again when you can? If so, how long should you stay next time?

You need to know when you will next say hello, in order to know how to say goodbye.

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By Cary Tennis

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