"My boyfriend was in Vietnam," I say.
"Oh, we were there last year, too. Was he backpacking?" the young couple asks.
"Nah, he was in the war," I say.
Bam—I am good at conversation killers and surprising blunders.
My partner and I not only have a long-distance relationship between two continents and two cultures (Germany – USA), but also a large age difference.
He is my soulmate and my best friend, my single adventure, and the best thing that has ever happened to me in my melodramatically weird, funny life.
How we got to know each other, why we almost never admitted what we feel for each other, what the others say (spoiler: Who cares?), and how we come to terms with the idea that we can never grow old together. I will tell you all this here in an honest report about a wonderful relationship with a huge age gap.
The year is 2017. I am motoring along like a crazy woman, just fulfilling my life's dream, traveling for four months solo across the USA. I discover Couchsurfing, where you can stay for free with nice people, and thus get to know the culture and the country even better.
One of my hosts is particularly nice. An elderly gentleman in a cowboy hat sits in front of his wooden house in Wyoming and watches me drive up. He has a mischievous smile on his face as I arrive, over an hour late, because I had to quickly take one last photo of bubbling hot springs, 317,000 times, on my drive through Yellowstone. I spend five days with him, where he shows me the most exciting sights in the national park. We hike a lot, and he impresses me with his knowledge of geology and nature. As well as with the weird playlist in his car, which fluctuates somewhere between Mozart, Korean rap, and Australian didgeridoos. I am often reminded of my grandpa, who also knows an incredible amount and is just as kind and travel-happy as my host.
When I drive away from him—after three and a half months on the road in total, I am already an emotional powder keg—I begin to cry, loudly, alone in the car, for an hour, without knowing exactly why.
Because I promised that I would photograph the rock structure of Devil's Tower for him—a magnificent hunk of rock and the first National Monument in the USA, that I have yet to encounter during my journey—I send him an e-mail a few days later with the requested photos.
We stay in touch after that. And not as stale, distant acquaintances that often promise to write. After I am back in Germany, a storm cloud of change erupts over me. I quit my new job right away and decide to start my own business. Because I have learned to love a life free of a 9-to-5 tedium, and I want more of it. Between mental crises and freaking out, there is always one person, besides my friends, that I can talk to: my host from Yellowstone. We exchange pages-long e-mails and I trust him with a lot. Because it feels right. Because he is like an anchor for me—and at the same time such an exciting person who has already experienced so much himself.
One day he tells me that he is planning a trip through Eastern Europe and he will end up in Berlin. Should we meet there for a few days and see each other again? I think it is good! We arrange everything.
Then he buys a 50-ton bag of bird food and injures his back so badly while lifting it that he has to cancel the entire trip. I am unexpectedly freaking out about it. Memories flood the surface. Memories that include my grandma and how she died suddenly overnight in 2013, without me visiting her again beforehand. I know my Yellowstone Friend is already 70 years old. I know life can be a wicked traitor. Since I am now successfully self-employed and can work from anywhere, without really thinking, I book a flight to see him in the USA. If the prophet does not come to the mountain, the mountain will come to the prophet. In October 2018, I fly there. Full of joy to see Yellowstone again, and to meet up again with someone who has now become a good friend. Before he bites the dust.
The two weeks go by a bit differently than I expected. We spend every day together, wander to mystical stone circles and wonderous geysers, fly in a little, four-place airplane, lie beside each other in a meadow laughing as we look at the shapes in the clouds, walk at night through the streets of a small western village until it is dark enough to see the Milky Way. And because we play a game of questions in the car on the way, where the single rule is that you must always tell the truth, he tells me on our last evening that he fell in love with me. "If we hadn't sworn to always tell the truth, I would never have told you," he says later. "Because I knew you would just laugh at me."
I do not laugh. I cry. Aloud. Again. We have an age difference of 45 years and a distance difference of 5,000 miles. That cannot work. This is insane. I hug him the next day at the airport and fly home. My life is now upside down. Because I know I love him, too. His wonderful personality, his humor, his spirit. But a relationship? That is not possible!
Maybe it is possible. A month and a half later, we meet again. In Paris. To find out what to do now. And how can we manage it. I am not even sure I can handle a relationship like this. 45 years. I mean like, Holy Moly, he is older than my dad! What the heck.
Then I surprise him at six in the morning at the airport, after I walked for three hours through the night in Paris. When he sees me, his blue eyes light up. He runs up to me and kisses me. Then I know: This is IT. Oh…my…gosh. HE is it!
We have been together ever since. Living on two continents. Traveling together around the world. Laughing and crying and freaking out and everything. We even survived the evil border closures because of Corona. He is the man with whom I want to grow old with. And yet I know I cannot. But I do not want to be without him on a single day he is still around.
Of course, you can see that we are not from the same decade (but at least from the same century). Have we ever experienced nasty comments because of this? Honestly, no. I remember only one situation with a stranger: an elderly lady on the subway in Paris, who first looked at us in disbelief and then with a gentle smile. Maybe she had to think about her teenage love.
Otherwise, we are not interested in what others think or how they look at us. Let them watch if they have nothing more exciting happening in their lives. My condolences.
My family and friends have received our relationship very well. Even a few doubters have become very fond of my boyfriend. When he recently had to return to the USA after several months in Germany, my dad said to him: "The fact that you two met is the best thing that could ever happen. My daughter is so happy – and if she's happy, I am happy."
Never let anyone tell you what to do, or who to love. Follow your heart. And if there are people for whom it is more important to denounce you than to see you happy, then it is time to put those people into your mental trash bin. You can also find more about this in my Guide to Happiness.
Now you can think: Wow 45 years—what do you have in common? In short: We have everything in common. We love long hikes, being outdoors in nature, a lot of traveling, deep conversations, and cooking together. We have remarkably similar tastes in music because I like to listen to stuff from the 50s to 70s. We have the same silly sense of humor. We have the same idea of what is romantic, what is totally stupid, and we even have a bucket list of almost identical goals that we arrived at independently. We also agree on unromantic things such as spending money, health, or cars. But the most important thing is that we share the same spirit, the same joie de vivre, and the same dreams.
While he always must try out new devices and taught himself computer programming for fun back in the Stone Age, I am sometimes the old aunt who prefers to pay in cash. While he dances up the north face of the Eiger, as if it were the beach promenade in Malibu, I sometimes puff like a rhinoceros behind him. In fact, he is the older of us but in fact, he is the fountain of youth, and I am the old soul who likes to think too much at times. Speaking of older, we do not see the visual age difference between us anymore. You get used to it and then it is only normal. And since my boyfriend is so athletic and has bicycled 98 million miles for 25 years, he also looks much better than many guys at 30 who have an unused membership to McFit Univeral.
Speaking about honesty. Of course, we both know that we do not have much time together. Sometimes I have days when I could really go nuts thinking about this. Then I ask myself—how much longer? 10 years, 5 years, 2 weeks? And are we both going to stay healthy?
But who knows? And that is exactly the point. Even in a relationship where both partners are the same age, either one of them could have an accident at work, get a serious illness, or be run over by a truck. An acquaintance of mine was 30 when his girlfriend, in her mid-20s, just fell dead while on stage. An aneurysm in the brain.
At the age of 28, I personally developed the chronic and incurable bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and I have a friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 30s.
And so, we try to enjoy every day and every moment and not constantly worry about what might happen in the future. The hipster term, YOLO ("you only live once"), has an incredibly special meaning for us. Life and love are now, not at some indefinable time in the future. And that is exactly how we appreciate time. It is something deeply special that we cannot and do not want to postpone until later. It is an experience that is much more intense than the lame, just living side-by-side life, that I have had in previous relationships.
And because we are both a bit crazy, but not naïve, we recently set up a living will together, talked for a long time about what we imagine may happen, what we both want, and how to deal with end-of-life decisions. We both agreed and signed.
Of course, I do not know what happens next when my boyfriend dies. But we have a long list of destinations and maybe I will go on a long trip to find all the places we wanted to see together.
"Wow, I do not think I would have chosen that," an acquaintance once said to me on the phone when I told him the size of the age difference. I had to laugh out loud. You cannot choose love. It just happens. And because in the end—no matter how old we are at the end—we all only live once. We should let love happen, enjoy it, care for it, and be grateful that we were allowed to meet such a wonderful person.
You can find out more about how we manage the distance between Germany and the USA in my article 5,000 miles, Two Cultures, One Love: Long-distance relationship USA—Germany.
More about our cultural differences in the article Intercultural relationship: Boo-Boos and Wonderment.