Jennifer Ehrlich is an editor with MPR News.
Today marks nine years since my husband and I were married on Nicollet Island. Tom is Belgian and I am American. We've lived together in both places. To make that happen we've had to satisfy the nosy needs of two governments that wanted to know much more than our marital status before they issued visas: They required proof of love.
We have a closet packed with fat accordion folders that contain the paper trail of documents we presented to immigration officials as evidence of our love.
There are the basic forms in triplicate, the marriage license, the birth certificates, the passport stamps, the school transcripts — all sealed by bureaucrats in obscure offices, attesting to their authenticity. There are even chest x-rays. Every piece of paper represents a wait in a long line.
The section translated into Dutch and English contains letters written by our parents, cousins, old college buddies — all attesting to the real nature of our love.
Deeper into the file there is the endearing, and painfully embarrassing, email we exchanged before I decided to move and join him in Belgium, six months after we met. It's the kind of personal correspondence that you would not usually show to anyone else. Ours is notarized.
If you look more deeply you will find some bizarre documents that predate our marriage. They supported my application for a Belgian green card through that country's civil union laws, which are based on an antiquated concept called "concubinage."
Yes, you read correctly. To gain a residency permit I had to apply to become his legal concubine, with all the economic obligations of marriage but none of the ceremony or status.
I didn't receive a residency visa until my second try, after I was deported. We had hired a lousy lawyer who assumed the paperwork for Americans in Belgium was identical to that for Polish immigrants. I soon found myself in Chicago, reapplying to become an immigrant concubine.
Shortly after my residency was approved, we made up our minds to get married anyway. So Tom's immigration situation was a lot less complicated when we moved to the United States, a few years later.
I have yet to find any divorce statistics for couples of mixed nationalities, but my theory is that our marriage stands a better chance than most. It's a lot of trouble to go through to split up over anything less than a worst-case scenario.
And waiting in a lot of lines together and signing things gives a prospective bride and groom plenty of time to get to know each other's irritating habits and to see each other's reaction to stress. It's just a theory.
But with couples of mixed nationality the stakes are permanently raised. I worked with a half-Italian girl in Belgium who told the sad story of how she grew up separated from her brother. Her father kidnapped her brother during a messy custody battle after her parents broke up. Her story sticks with us as a cautionary tale.
The upside of all these complications is that after all these years we've never had time to fall into a rut. We've always been too busy figuring out how to both find work, or learn languages, and make peace with the reality that one of us has to live far away from family and country.
We've grown up together and emerged with two sons, two cars and a St. Paul house about a mile away from where I grew up. The boys will be able to choose where to live, as they're entitled to citizenship in both countries.
But further exotic paperwork is always waiting around the bend. Belgium requires that children take the name of their fathers. We gave our sons a hyphenated combination of both of our last names. To get the Belgian government to acknowledge their actual names, we need to ask special permission of the king.