When Catie Torres said goodbye to her boyfriend at the airport this March, she never thought she would spend the rest of the year wondering when she would see him again.

A nurse raised in Livermore, Torres met her partner, Akis, while on vacation in Greece just over two years ago. The pair struck up a lively conversation on the day of her arrival, and she remembers how they “instantly connected.” Since then, the couple hasn’t spent more than two months apart, traveling to one another’s home countries for periodic visits. Last summer, Torres even acquired a student visa to continue her education in Greece so they could try out living together.

“It was perfect. I never wanted to leave,” she recalled. “Our goal is for me to finish school, and then move to Greece so we can be together.”

Then, the pandemic hit.

Just after Akis’ flight departed, the country closed its borders to noncitizens, and the United States as well as the European Union imposed a travel ban with the aim of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Such restrictions were implemented to deter tourism, but also prevented families as well as long-distance couples who are not married from being able to see one another during an especially challenging time.

Torres had previously booked a flight to see Akis again in May, and when it was canceled, she felt devastated. She recently moved to Reno, Nevada, to help take care of her grandpa while she finishes school, and is counting down the days until she can be reunited with her partner again.

“I know that this is the man for me, and it hurts us so much to know that there is no end in sight yet,” she said.

In the meantime, however, she’s found solace in “Love is not Tourism,” a Facebook group with over 32,000 members who are imploring their respective governments to amend their travel restrictions, allowing unmarried couples and their family members to safely reunite. Some countries have already changed their laws as a result of the movement.

“‘Love is not Tourism’ has its own group of Greek couples in a group chat, and we talk all the time,” said Torres, noting that many of their conversations are focused on creating petitions and lobbying the government to safely reform the ban. “We just hope that they hear us.”

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Saskia Talvio, a member of a like-minded group called “Couples Separated by Travel Bans,” finds herself in a similar predicament. Originally from Finland, she met her boyfriend, Serdar Serttop, while completing an internship in Istanbul, Turkey, five years ago. The couple had always been long distance, but their relationship was put to the test when he moved to the Bay Area, founding the start-up company Smart Mimic, Inc. in Sunnyvale.

Still, the couple was able to visit one another every two or three months, staying in touch over phone calls and FaceTime conversations during their time apart. A registered nurse in Finland, Talvio said her job provides her with the flexibility to work a few months in a row, then stay in the U.S. for an extended period of time.

But because of the pandemic and subsequent travel ban, eight months passed before they were able to see one another again — the longest amount of time they’d been apart. Talvio attempted to book the soonest flight out to the U.S that she could, but said travel restrictions made it difficult for them to reunite because they did not have a marriage certificate.

“We’ve had such a long relationship, but apparently it’s not good enough on paper,” she said. “It doesn’t take anything away from the seriousness of what we have. But there was nothing to do than just wait.”

Then, Talvio discovered a loophole: Though the CDC says that the risk of COVID-19 remains high in Turkey, the country was deemed safe enough to reopen its borders on June 11. She could fly there, take a COVID test and quarantine for 14 days before taking a direct flight to the San Francisco International Airport. She’s able to stay in the Bay Area for five weeks before returning home.

“I remember when I was grabbing my luggage and walking away from the plane, I was still thinking, ‘Did I actually make it?’ I had been stressing a lot, so it was a relief,” she said. “Next time, he will fly to me, and we hope the world will open up a little more so it will be easier for him than it was for me.”

Meanwhile, San Francisco resident Adriana Roberts and her long-term partner Jupiter Gatling are still living together in Berlin after reuniting in early August. A prominent local DJ known for hosting the Bootie Mashup parties at DNA Lounge, Roberts said her work all but dissolved as a result of the shelter-in-place order. Fortunately, she was able to pivot to livestreaming her gigs on Twitch — a pursuit that kept her sane while she waited nearly five months to see Gatling again.

“The timing was just so horrible,” said Roberts.

On March 10, Gatling was headed home after a three-month stay in San Francisco. By the time she landed in Berlin the following day, the E.U. had barred international travelers from visiting.

“There was a 36-hour time window where I could have dropped everything, packed a suitcase and flown to Berlin. At the time, we all thought the shutdown would only last for a month or two,” Roberts recounted during our conversation. “Within a few weeks, I realized it would not be ending any time soon. I felt so stupid. I wish I had had the foresight for what would come, but none of us have a crystal ball.”

The couple quickly fell into a routine, FaceTiming every day and constantly texting one another. They scoured news sites for updates on travel restrictions, throwing themselves into their creative work while they waited. Finally, they formulated a plan.

By mid-July, the borders to Hungary had opened up to Americans, permitting them to enter if they had quarantined for 14 days, or if they were able to provide two negative COVID-19 tests that had been taken within 48 hours of one another at least five days before arriving in the country.

Roberts took both tests, and the couple made arrangements to meet up in Budapest, where a couple of DJs she had previously booked had offered them a place to stay.

But on the day before she left, everything changed.

“I woke up in the morning and my phone was blowing up,” said Roberts. “Jupiter was like, ‘Hold everything!’”

Germany had opened its borders to unmarried couples. The decision was confirmed by the German Minister of Interior Horst Seehofer following a fairly vocal movement spearheaded by the “Love is not Tourism” group using the hashtag #loveisessential. Roberts was able to change her flights and arrived at the airport three days later.

Once there, she was asked to hand over an abundance of paperwork, including an invitation to visit the country from her partner, a signed declaration letter that confirmed they were together, as well as plane tickets and passport stamps that provided proof of prior travel to Germany, verifying the couple had, in fact, met there.

Roberts coyly recalled that fateful moment eight years ago: “I was performing at a Bootie Mashup show in Berlin, and we were both dressed like pirates.” After seeking out Roberts in the crowd, Gatling complimented her performance, and later that night, they kissed. She thought they’d never see each other again.

But when she was performing in Munich the following week, her eyes were immediately drawn to Gatling, who had appeared in the audience again. “She Googled me after we had our hot makeout session,” Roberts explained with a giggle. “That started a torrid, scandalous, international love affair that continues to this day.”

Upon landing in Berlin last month, she walked as swiftly as she could through the exit without making a scene.

“The airport is really small and old, so you can see through the glass on the other side while you’re waiting for your luggage. We did a thing where we stood on either side, pressing the glass with our hands,” said Roberts. “I exited with my luggage, walked as fast as I could and just hugged her. We were both crying, tears of joy, tears of relief. I tried to videotape it on my phone, but my thumb was over the camera lens the whole time. It was like, this should be an Instagram moment, but f— it. I wanted to hug my partner so tightly.”

No longer separated by a screen, thousands of miles and multiple zones, the couple has settled into a new routine.

Mostly, they’re homebodies. Finding a way to adapt to the lack of bars, clubs and overall nightlife, they’re still living on California time, livestreaming their DJ sets to an audience primarily based in the United States. It’s a strange schedule, but Roberts says she feels “normal” again.

“I’m realizing that, for five months, it felt like something was off. Part of me felt like it was missing, because part of me was missing. The love of my life was not there,” she said.

As an international couple, they’re accustomed to going for long periods of time without seeing one another — sometimes a few weeks, or a couple of months. Still, she said, those five months of separation imposed by the travel ban encompassed the longest stretch of time they’d spent apart.

Now, Roberts is in Berlin for the next three months — possibly longer, if she can acquire an artist visa. She and Gatling hope to get married, though she was quick to specify they want to do so when it doesn’t have to be a Zoom wedding.

“I’d like to do it on our own terms, not the terms of a virus,” she said, adding that she longs to return to the Bay Area again, too. “San Francisco is my home. When nightlife starts opening up again, that’s where I need to be.”

Several other countries throughout Europe have since lifted their travel bans for unmarried couples, including Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands. Many others have yet to adopt the same measures, though the European Commission has encouraged the E.U. to ease restrictions in all countries. A Change.org petition supporting the same cause spans over 33,000 signatures from couples around the globe, and several Facebook groups continue to advocate for the reunification of unmarried couples and families while serving as an informational resource on travel restriction updates.

“We will not stop until all binational couples and families are reunited,” reads a message from the “Couples Separated by Travel Bans” group.

Amanda Bartlett is an SFGATE culture reporter. Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @byabartlett

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