I’ll meet you at the border: International love in a pandemic

BLAINE — For months, the only place Bobby Warwick and Sarah Foo have been able to see each other is a 19-acre park on the U.S.-Canadian border.

Warwick, 28, is an engineer who lives in Mukilteo. Foo, 26, works as a dental assistant in Burnaby, a city south of Vancouver. With the border closed, Peace Arch Historical State Park in Blaine has presented a rare and treasured opportunity for them — and many others in their situation — to see each other face to face.

Their fledgling romance didn’t follow any typical course. With the backdrop of a global pandemic, they’ve had to connect not in bars and coffee shops, but over the internet and underneath a propped-up tarp.

“One room, 30 square feet, maybe less,” Warwick said.

“No amenities, no bathroom, nothing,” Foo said.

“Just handwarmers and a sleeping roll,” Warwick said.

Now, with the darkest, coldest, wettest days the Pacific Northwest has to offer, their relationship is being tested more than ever. Warwick, who has taken part in the “Let Us Reunite” advocacy movement, expressed frustration with the current border situation, and the United States’ blanket policy of denying all non-essential travel from Canada.

“I’d really appreciate if they advocated for folks in our situation, and make it easier for families and couples to unite in the United States,” he said.

Warwick and Foo’s meeting was an act of dating app serendipity. Despite living more than an hour and a border crossing away, Warwick saw potential matches from Canada. Perhaps it was a glitch. He swears he triple-checked his location settings.

At first, he gave little thought to potential courtships in the northern country. But then, in January, he saw Foo’s profile. She liked rock climbing and Chrissy Teigen.

“I really like the way she had her hair did in one of her pictures,” Warwick said.

So, he sent a message.

For her part, Foo said she hadn’t been using the app much. Meeting a stranger from the internet was, in her words, “really weird.” But when she opened the app and saw Warwick’s profile, she decided to reply.

“He was really cute,” she said, laughing. It’s hard to derive more meaning from an online profile than physical appearance, she admitted.

A couple months passed before they actually met. They were busy with various things. She had to take a trip to California. So did he, but on a different weekend. Neither seemed to mind playing the waiting game.

Their first date was March 1, just a few days after the nation learned COVID-19 hadn’t been contained. The virus had spread rapidly, quietly, for weeks. This was before it was called a pandemic, when public health agencies were still grappling to comprehend the breadth of the coronavirus; when scientists were still learning how it jumped from one person to another; and when governments were still unsure what the best course of action was to stem the deadly tide.

The new realities that the virus imposed hadn’t quite set for many people, including Warwick and Foo.

For them, March 1 was a fun first date, and the day they now mark as their anniversary.

They met halfway, in Bellingham, a small college city neither had ever been. Warwick drove up from Everett, while Foo took the bus down. They looked at a list of best things to do. They ended up in Fairhaven, where they went to a book store and a taproom. They meandered down Chuckanut Drive, Puget Sound opening up before them. In the distance, beyond the San Juan Islands, they could catch glimpses of Canada. Foo almost missed the bus home.

A second date happened about a week later. This time, it was Warwick’s turn to visit Foo. At the border, he recalled, he was given a pamphlet on symptoms of COVID-19. A rush on toilet paper had just begun. They hiked at Whytecliff Park. They tried going to an improv show at a comedy club in Vancouver, but large events had been canceled. They wandered a downtown that had become eerily empty.

It would be Warwick’s last time in Canada for the foreseeable future. On March 21, the Canadian and U.S. governments agreed to close down all non-essential travel across the border.

For a while, like many others, Warwick and Foo were hopeful the virus would subside, and the border would reopen. They’d wait impatiently as the 21st of each month drew near, wondering if they could finally visit one another, only to find out that the order would be re-upped. Little sign has been given that anything else will happen.

Technically, Foo has had the option to fly to Seattle. But it’s a risk she’s unwilling to take. She acts as the primary caregiver for her mother, who was diagnosed this year with Stage 4 breast cancer. She’d rather drive, she said, so she could go directly to Warwick’s without interacting with anyone else. But she can’t, because the U.S. — unlike Canada — hasn’t enacted any exemptions to the border closure.

Canada lifted some restrictions to allow people to enter the country to see family and loved ones, so long as an application is approved and they quarantine for 14 days. Warwick said he plans to do that, probably around the time of their anniversary, but he’ll have to use a couple weeks of vacation to meet the requirements. While he does work from home sometimes, he still often has to go in, he said.

He said he’d like to see U.S. lawmakers push for similar exemptions, so Foo also has the opportunity to drive down. He also hopes Canadian lawmakers will make their application process for the exemptions more streamlined, particularly for those trying to visit multiple times.

“They know who you are, they know why you’re coming, we’re not trying to go to Mardi Gras,” he said.

Warwick and Foo got creative in the meantime. Online, they watched Netflix and played video games, like the zombie first-person shooter Left 4 Dead 2.

In May or June — they forget which month, exactly — another solution arrived. They saw a news article saying Peace Arch Historical State Park was reopening. The park, which straddles the border, was built in 1931 in recognition of the end of the War of 1812, and the establishment of what would become the longest unmilitarized border in the world. Residents from both countries can enter the park without having to go through border security, as long as they don’t go beyond the park boundaries. For the most part, only a ditch separates the two countries.

For families, friends and couples like Warwick and Foo, Peace Arch has become a sanctuary. Each day, a makeshift tent city pops up, only to be disassembled each night at sundown.

Warwick and Foo don’t actually have a tent. They put up a sunshade with a tarp draped over it, facing a wall for some extra privacy.

Their dates at the park have become a weekly ritual. Almost every Sunday, they get together and set up their shelter.

For a while, they relied on DoorDash for food; their go-to is Mastro Pizza in Surrey. Warwick would pre-download movies to watch. Those include some of their old favorites, some of which didn’t age well. October became war film month — that was hit or miss, Warwick said. When the weather was nicer, Warwick brought a Frisbee to throw around. Foo taught him how to play badminton. They’d order boba tea.

Foo said getting a camp stove was a game changer. Now they don’t have to rely on delivery apps with processing fees on top of delivery fees on top of tips. They can cook their own meals, within the comforts of their tarp.

“She’s a really good cook,” Warwick said.

“Ah, I’m OK,” Foo said.

One time, Warwick tried homemade pancakes.

“Too much baking soda, though,” Foo said.

“Yeah, it was my first time,” Warwick said. “Oh, your lasagna is good.”

“Thanks, it’s just a recipe from the box,” Foo said.

“Still good,” he said.

As summer turned to fall, and blue skies gave way to gray, the couple still remained undeterred. Even on days that it rained, and even as the wind knocked down branches around them, they stayed as long as they were allowed.

“I want to squeeze every minute I can out of it,” Warwick said. In the summer, that meant staying out past 9. But lately that has meant packing up by 4.

Neither describes themselves as outdoors people. Foo’s more of a glamper. Warwick says he’s an indoors guy. But maybe, after braving the elements, they could one day do “real-life camping.” They’ll have to get an actual tent, though.

Warwick, who lives by himself with his cat Willie, said the weekly meetings have become his only source of in-person social interaction. As a fairly new arrival to Snohomish County, Warwick said he was just getting to know his new home before the pandemic hit. He joined a salsa club, volunteered at the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum and connected with people who were part of the same Greek fraternity as him. That all stopped, though, with the lockdown orders.

“I really think a lot of people … kind of take for granted, if they live with immediate family, if they live with roommates, how much stability they get from that,” Warwick said. “Whereas someone like myself, it’s just me and the cat.”

The holidays and their upcoming birthdays have put into sharper perspective their situation. They couldn’t meet on Thanksgiving, because Foo couldn’t get the day off. So Warwick brought up some food that following Sunday to celebrate.

They met at the park on Christmas. It was cold and icy, and part of park had recently flooded. They made do. They brought a small Christmas tree decoration and an electric blanket. Warwick gifted Foo a Fujifilm Instax, and they took a picture of themselves. He wore a Santa Claus hat, while she was adorned with reindeer antlers.

When it was time to pack up, authorities played “Closing Time” over a loudspeaker.

In some ways, they said, the pandemic has brought them closer. They’ve had to talk and get to know each other more. And while they’ve missed out on some fun date opportunities, they’ve had few outside distractions to draw them away from one another.

“I feel like we’ve been each other’s rocks through this whole situation,” Foo said. She said Warwick has been there for her ever since her mother was diagnosed with cancer. “He’s very sweet.”

“I admire a lot of things about her,” Warwick said. “She’s extremely conscientious, she’s driven, and she loves and accepts me for who I am. I don’t ever feel like she’s trying to change me, or, like I’m not enough, you know.”

“She’s a total softie, too,” he said.

Foo laughed. “Sometimes.”

They can talk about anything and nothing for hours.

“I talk to him more than I talk to anybody else,” Foo said.

“She’s honestly my best friend,” Warwick said.

“Same,” Foo said. “I would say the same.”

Warwick and Foo admitted they entertain thoughts of what they’ll do when the pandemic ends, whenever that might be. They talk of moving in together, getting a dog and traveling abroad.

First, she’ll have to meet Willie, the cat.

Foo hesitated on whether she’d come back to Peace Arch.

“He’ll have to convince me honestly,” Foo said.

“I’m a sentimental person … definitely a hiatus would be nice, but yeah, maybe someday,” Warwick said.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; [email protected] Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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