It was a long-haul holiday romance that managed to stay the course.
ow living in Perth with her husband, Steve, and their three sons, Jennifer Coia has crossed the globe countless times over the last eleven years. “At one point it was quite common for me to fly to Australia for a long weekend!”
Jen first met Steve when she was visiting her sister in Australia, back in 2001. “My sister and I had a lovely girlie trip planned, but while we were in Airlie Beach, the hub for the Whitsunday Islands, I met Steve. During the next five weeks of my holiday Steve and I met up in Townsville, where he lived, and then he came up to join us in Cairns.”
Holiday over, and back in the UK, Jen kept in touch with Steve. But if it hadn’t been for Jen’s job, they might never have been able to be anything more than pen pals. Jen was working as a stewardess for British Airways, and, in the aftermath of 9/11, the company were offering unpaid leave to their staff. “I applied for four months off so that I could return to Oz to do more travelling with my sister, and see Steve again. I was back there by March.”
At the end of the four months Steve and Jen were certain that they wanted to be together in the long term – but they still had a slight problem in being based nearly ten thousand miles apart. “We discussed our options,” says Jen, “and the most realistic plan was for me to move to Australia.” However, by this time, Jen’s sister was on her way back to the UK, and for Jen, who is very close to her family, the thought of moving so far was daunting. “As much as I wanted to be with Steve, I was reluctant to give up my job and life for a relationship that I couldn’t be certain was going to last. So we decided that I would apply for more time off under the BA unpaid leave scheme.”
Jen and Steve had to wait eight months to find out whether Jen was going to be given the year of leave that she had requested and it was during this period that Jen, who, working for an airline, was better placed than most to hop on a plane, found herself regularly flying thousands of miles to spend a couple of days with Steve. “I would land from the States after working all night, grab a quick shower and get straight on the next flight to Oz.”
Steve is in the military and he had been moved to Perth, so it was there that the couple began their ‘trial year’ together. “We both fell in love with Perth and the beach way of life. By the end of the year we were still together and plans were in motion for our future.” In December 2004, Steve and Jen got engaged – but they were forced to spend a further year apart before their wedding in December 2005, and Jen was back to hopping on planes and flying half way round the world for a weekend.
After the wedding, Jen joined Steve in Perth full time, but, with Steve in the army there were still enforced separations. “Our decision to have children was made while Steve was deployed to Afghanistan during 2005. When he got home we decided not to wait to have kids – the fear of losing the person I loved without having made a child together filled me with horror.”
The following year their son, Max, was born. Steve made it to Max’s birth, but shortly afterwards he left for four months in Iraq. “The life of a soldier’s wife is lonely at the best of times,” says Jen, “but to do it ten thousand miles away from family makes it that bit harder. Although we had super friends in Australia, I really felt that I needed the support of my family during the birth and the following months. I spent the first year of Max’s life flying back and forth to the UK depending on whether Steve was home or away. It was unsettling, but I loved the fact that when he was away I had the chance to be with my family.”
In 2008, with two sons, there was good news – Steve was being posted to London. “I was sad to be leaving my life and friends in Perth, but overjoyed at the thought of being back home and close to my family. We had the most amazing time living in Hampstead Heath and we were devastated when our two years were up. If we could, we would have loved to stay for at least another two years, but it wasn’t possible.”
For Jen, the move back to Australia was a real wrench. “It was very hard for me. I had to leave behind my family once again, my old school friends, and all the new friends we’d made in London. To make matters worse, I was five months pregnant with baby number three, and we returned to the hottest summer Perth had had in over sixty years!”
And it wasn’t just leaving friends and family that affected the couple. “Steve thought he had landed upside down! For the first time in his life Australia were losing the Ashes at home, and Australia was more expensive than London. It took us a few months to stop gasping at the cost of groceries.”
Having had a year to get used to being back ‘down under’, Jen can now see both positives and negatives to a life so far from home. “We’ve bought a gorgeous family home four hundred metres from the beach and two hundred metres from the boys’ school. A lot of our old friends are still in Perth so we have a fabulous group of close friends. I do feel very lucky that I can offer my children this way of life. However, I also worry about how isolated we are in Perth, and in Australia.”
“We miss the UK for being able to jump in our car, get on the Eurostar and be in a choice of countries within a couple of hours. I love the beach life, but quite often I crave the opportunity to go over to Europe, or even travel in the UK and drive through all our gorgeous towns and villages. Once you’re away, you realise how lucky we are to have a country jam-packed full of culture and history.”
“I also get annoyed when people assume that I’m glad to be in Oz rather than the UK! Yes, the weather is better, but it’s not the done thing to be out in the sun all day and often play dates aren’t outside in the summer because it’s too hot, or for fear of sun damage – so the sun, like the cold, can force people indoors.”
On balance, though, Jen seems pretty content with her long-haul life. “I’m very happily married, with three gorgeous young boys and a husband I adore. Steve still works away for months at a time, but I’m lucky that my parents are retired and happy to spend months at a time with me and the boys to help us through Steve’s deployments. Without their support I would struggle to cope with life at the other side of the world.”
“Where do I want to spend the rest of my life, Australia or the UK? The jury’s still out.
We’ve made a lovely home in Perth, but we had just as much of a fantastic life in London, even though it was of a very different nature.”