Zucchini, parsley, onions and a cocktail in hand: everything is set for the regular Sunday dinner Brandon and Mari have been holding over the past year.
But more than 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometrs) separate the lovers, who only see each other virtually, with one in New York and the other in Oslo.
There will be no romantic Valentine's Day celebration for this American cook and Norwegian therapist, who met at a New York concert in November 2019, mere months before the pandemic shut down travel between their respective homes.
Brandon Ballin, 45, and Mari Solberg, 41, had hoped to meet this week to take steps towards getting married in Norway in April.
But the arrival of new covid-19 variants, which has prompted many countries to close their borders once again and tighten restrictions, has foiled their plans.
"We wanted to get married pretty fast so we could be together. Not only because of the pandemic and the travel restrictions, but also because we live in two different countries, and if we could get married it would be easier to be together," says Solberg, stating that "fingers crossed" their new wedding date could be in June. "Making plans now is impossible, we don't know when things will open, we don't know what's allowed and we don't know how long this is going to last, and that can be very challenging."
Separated and barred from travel like many international couples, the pair has made a point of holding Sunday dinners to keep their flame alive. "Mari was supposed to be here 2020, March 21st, but the flight got canceled because of the pandemic. So she said, 'Why don't we cook together instead?'" says Ballin.
After a year of virus-related restrictions, the couple have only managed to see each other once last fall. A number of European countries then allowed partners from different countries to reunite, including from France, Belgium, Norway, Denmark or the Netherlands.
After completing a file proving their relationship, Ballin was able to visit Solberg for two weeks, almost all of it spent in quarantine, and he seized the moment to propose. But on January 23, the Norwegian government announced the total closure of its borders, allowing only "essential" visits, a category that does not include romantic relationships.
The United States has also kept its borders closed to Europeans, making no exceptions for unmarried lovers. "President Biden has decided to maintain the restrictions previously in place, for the European Schengen area, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and Brazil," declared White House spokesperson Jen Psaki at the end of January. "With the pandemic worsening and more contagious variants spreading this isn't the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel."
With no end to their struggle in sight, Ballin and Solberg have found some comfort in a Facebook page dedicated to couples separated by travel restrictions, a page with more than 16,000 adherents united under the hashtag #LoveIsNotTourism. Many couples have used social media to call on world leaders to consider their cause. "We're willing to do everything that we're supposed to do to be safe, to quarantine, follow the rules," says Ballin from his living room in Brooklyn.
Some couples have also shared advice and loopholes on the Facebook page, with some meeting in countries including Mexico or Turkey, where both Americans and Europeans can travel. Valentine's Day will be business as usual for Ballin and Solberg, an encapsulation of the challenge this couple has faced. There's so much "you can't control and that you can't choose," says Solberg, "which makes something that is supposed to (be) a fantastic period of new love and exciting feelings... very chaotic."