by Caitlin Chandler
Vidar and I decided to get married five days before we walked into Brooklyn Borough Hall in July 2012 and took a legal oath.
Two months before, we were living in Bangkok, where we’d moved for my career with that January. Our peaceful routine consisted of work, swimming laps, and searching for the ultimate red curry. Vidar was consulting, and had recently applied for a position with a UN agency in Ethiopia working on refugee issues. He’d interviewed for the position on the phone, but as the weeks drifted by we assumed it was offered to someone else. Then one Friday night as we settled in to watch TV, an email popped up on his laptop screen with the subject line, “Your Appointment to Ethiopia.”
The first time I met Vidar was six years earlier in a one-room office on E. 43rd Street in Manhattan. I was twenty-two, American; he was twenty-six, Norwegian. Our nonprofit work environment was unusual. Everyone was in their twenties or early thirties, and the office was a hodgepodge of donated desks and chairs, giving it the appearance of an end-of-the-day kindergarten classroom. We were all grossly underpaid, working feverishly on young people’s human rights issues, and generally, having a great time.
For two years, we were close friends; then we became a couple. Vidar was unlike any previous boyfriends—for the first time, I understood what it was like to have someone challenge you and bring out your best qualities at the same time. A year later we moved in together in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, where we lived for two years in a kind of bliss amplified by proximity to Prospect Park and the Park Slope Food Co-Op (I still dream about the cheese selection). Still, we started to get restless, to question whether we could keep working on international development issues from New York. When my job proposed a location change to Bangkok, we deliberated for a few months but decided to take the leap.
When the Ethiopia offer came, it seemed like the perfect timing. I had decided to transition out of a leadership role at my organization, and Vidar had always been drawn to working on refugee rights. But whether you can relocate to a new country if your partner is a UN employee and you are unmarried varies according to a slew of circumstances, including the rules of the UN agency and the policies of your home country. As we started researching the particulars of our move, one thing became clear—marriage was our only option.
In our case, the UN would recognize my status as Vidar’s partner if we could produce certified documentation of our relationship from Norway. Norway recognizes common-law marriages if two people have co-habited for at least two years. But although officials in Norway agreed we had a common-law marriage, because we had lived outside of Norway they couldn’t produce any paperwork making it “official.” Without submitting to the UN this “official” documentation, I would be on my own. In this case, that meant only obtaining a three-month tourist visa to Ethiopia, as well as lacking healthcare, emergency evacuation insurance, and all the other things you suddenly start to wake up in the middle of the night worrying about when moving to a new country.
Marriage wasn’t out of the blue; we assumed it would happen, eventually. We already shared a credit card and saved money together. Thanksgivings were split between my mom’s house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and my dad’s place in the DC suburbs; Christmas spent with Vidar’s family near Stavanger watching snow dance across the windowpanes. I had no intention of ever being with anyone else. But coming to terms with sudden marriage, for me, was still difficult.
As a teenager and into my twenties, I never wanted to get married. My parents divorced when I was two, and although both happily re-married, I never thought much about it myself. If the future is always uncertain, I thought, why vow to do something that may be upended by natural disasters, unforeseen events, death (and the list goes on). The law in my mind was unrelated to promises.
But here I was, in love, and the more we discussed what to do, the clearer it became that we had no reason not to get married—we had already merged our lives in Brooklyn and Bangkok, begun the kind of long-term planning you can only do when you have already made a lifetime commitment. Although the weight of the decision gnawed at my sleep and waking thoughts, I knew it was the right thing.
Abruptly, I was back in Brooklyn applying for a marriage license, wearing a sundress, taking an oath. I was surprised by the emotion of it all, the way we trembled with joy when repeating phrases I now can’t remember. Vidar emailed our marriage certificate to UN human resources—they promptly replied “CONGRATULATIONS!!!” and issued him a new contract, this time with my name in it too.
The first three months of our “legal marriage” can best be summed up by airport codes: NYC–IAD–SVG–IAD–BKK. Our last few weeks in Bangkok were a flurry of preparations for the move: an Ikea run to stock up on kitchenware and linens, frequent trips to the electronics mall to hoard electricity converters, unending paperwork. There wasn’t much time to process being married, although we decided right away to have a wedding the following year, to make the commitment our own with family and friends.
Suddenly we had left tropical Bangkok for autumn in Geneva, where Vidar attended briefing meetings at his new job’s headquarters. I ran along the city’s icy-blue lake and stared at the old churches, the orange-leafed trees stark against clear skies. The crisp mornings were dream-like; I had the feeling of briefly settling, like a migratory animal.
When we awoke in Addis after an overnight flight, I felt far from home. The sun’s rays cut through the thick bedroom curtains, swathing the room in light. Outside our guesthouse, scraggly ponies pulled wooden carts over the dirt road and the Muslim and Orthodox Christian calls to prayer hovered in the air. Petite, ruby-colored birds flapped their wings on a tightrope of electric wires.
Our relationship is still growing, against this new backdrop. Two months ago, we managed to have the wedding on a tiny island in the Norwegian fjords where Vidar’s parents grew up. The process of creating a marriage ceremony that mattered to us was somehow cathartic for me, allowing the intellectual part of my brain to finally catch up with my heart. And in the midst of feeling at times intensely isolated in a foreign country, the knowledge I would soon be surrounded by loved ones was a balm against loneliness. I can only describe the actual wedding day as a kind of out-of-body experience. To articulate our values and love in front of our closest people was a gift we now carry with us wherever we go. (Also, there was a cake buffet).
The poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, “An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity. It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.”
When I think back to the Brooklyn courthouse over one year ago, and the nervous, excited girl who stood there, I already see a younger self. Living in a country where much is changing, and life uncertain, I now see marriage, however you define it and whoever sanctifies it, as a small act of defiance, a tiny bite out of infinity. No one can guarantee you unconditional love and a lifetime together, but you can be greedy and want it anyway.
First image by Maria Cobb
Final image by Matthew Radford
All other images by Caitlin Chandler