A Pandemic-Era Virtual Valentine’s Day For A Couple Divided

SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 11: A view of the atmosphere at the launch of Street Food Cinema’s Valentine’s Day Drive-In at Santa Monica Airport on February 11, 2021 in Santa Monica, California. Emma McIntyre/Getty Images/AFP


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 kilometers) 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,” said Solberg, saying 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.”


CITY OF COMMERCE, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 11: Merchandise is displayed during the Citadel Outlets’ Drive-Thru Pop-Up Valentine’s Day Boutique on February 11, 2021 in City of Commerce, California. Rich Fury/Getty Images/AFP


– ‘Chaotic’ –
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?'” said 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.


CITY OF COMMERCE, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 11: Merchandise is displayed during the Citadel Outlets’ Drive-Thru Pop-Up Valentine’s Day Boutique on February 11, 2021 in City of Commerce, California. Rich Fury/Getty Images/AFP


“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,” said 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,” said Solberg, “which makes something that is supposed to (be) a fantastic period of new love and exciting feelings… very chaotic.”

Love In The Time Of Coronavirus: A Quiet Valentine’s Day In China

A couple wears face masks as a preventative measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, as they stand at the hug at the observation deck in Tsim Sha Tsui of Hong Kong on February 14, 2020. The death toll from China’s virus epidemic neared 1,400 on Friday with six medical workers among the victims, underscoring the country’s struggle to contain a deepening health crisis. PHOTO: Philip FONG / AFP


It was supposed to be a whirlwind tour of China for Jiang Lanyi’s boyfriend: classical gardens in Suzhou, modern art in Shanghai, ice-skating in central Beijing.

Instead, the 24-year-old and her Ukrainian partner have spent more than two weeks holed up in her parents’ house in northeast Liaoning province to avoid the new coronavirus.

Couples around China settled for a quiet Valentine’s Day this year, with COVID-19 intruding as an unwelcome third-wheel in romantic celebrations.

The new disease has infected nearly 64,000 people and killed more than 1,350 in China, triggering transport restrictions, restaurant shutdowns, and the closure of major tourist sites.

A couple wears face masks as a preventative measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, as they walk along the promenade in Tsim Sha Tsui of Hong Kong on February 14, 2020. The death toll from China’s virus epidemic neared 1,400 on Friday with six medical workers among the victims, underscoring the country’s struggle to contain a deepening health crisis. PHOTO: Philip FONG / AFP


Businesses around the country from florists to concert halls closed shop and axed events, leaving couples with no choice but to spend the night in.

For Jiang and her boyfriend, that meant a lot of mahjong.

“We play two to three hours every day,” said Jiang, who met her partner, a tech entrepreneur, while studying in London.

“Having started learning from zero, he’s now very skilled,” she added.

In Beijing, Valentine’s Day specials aimed at couples — from a “My Heart Will Go On” concert to a 1,688 yuan ($240) lobster dinner for two — were cancelled.

Valentine’s Day this year “won’t be that different from daily life under quarantine,” said Tyra Li, who lives in Beijing with her boyfriend of nearly three years.

Since Lunar New Year, aside from a trip to see family, the couple has only left the house to buy groceries –- they don’t even order food delivery for fear of infection, she said.

“There definitely won’t be any flowers,” the 33-year-old told AFP. “I don’t dare to receive them and he doesn’t dare to buy them.”

Business of love

The risk of infection, which has left most lovers house-bound, has battered Valentine’s Day sales for businesses hoping to cash in on love.

Flower shop Xian Hua Ge in Beijing told AFP that sales plunged by up to 70 percent from last year –- partly because many have not returned to the city to work.

Lu Ting, chief China economist at Nomura, said in a Tuesday report that the “return rate” of workers for China’s four Tier-1 cities was only 19.4 percent as of February 9, far below 66.7 percent a year ago.

A worker at Romanti Fresh Flowers said sales had dropped up to 50 percent in part because customers were fearful of virus transmission via delivery staff, while another shop told AFP they had “no stock”.

China’s wedding industry has also taken a hit, with the Chinese government urging couples to delay their nuptials earlier this month.

Zhu He, 25, who downsized her wedding due to virus fears last month, said she and her fiance had originally planned to pick up their marriage license on Valentine’s Day.

That’s been delayed due to the epidemic, said Zhu, who lives in southern Guangzhou city.

“We had planned to go together (with my parents),” she told AFP. “Now, they won’t come even though we all live in Guangzhou.”

“They both can’t drive and I don’t really trust public transport,” said Zhu, worried about the risk of infection.

Together in spirit

The new coronavirus has also complicated romantic trysts, with many cities across China closing off neighbourhoods to outside visitors in a bid to contain the outbreak.

Miao Jing, a university student in northern Tianjin city, said her girlfriend had to sneak into her hotel through the car park for a three-hour rendezvous earlier this month.

The trip was supposed to last three days, explained the 23-year-old, who took a five-hour train to northern Zhangjiakou city to see her partner.

But on the second day, the district where Miao was staying reported a confirmed case of the virus.

“She was really worried,” Miao told AFP. “In the end, I only saw her on the first day.”

For Shaw Wan, 28, who works on short documentaries in Beijing, the epidemic has separated her and her boyfriend –- who is in Taiwan -– indefinitely.

“I don’t really want him to return either — what if he gets infected on the way back?” she told AFP.

But there is some silver lining to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Li in Beijing said staying cooped up at home had meant more time with her boyfriend — in the past, their busy schedules meant they only saw each other after 10 pm on weekdays.

And for Miao and her girlfriend, who are in a long-distance relationship, volunteering in epidemic relief work has brought them closer together.

The two students help residents and communities in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, with remote tasks like calling to arrange car transport.

“There is a feeling of working together,” she told AFP. “Even if we cannot be together physically, in some sense we are.”


Valentine: Japan Produces World First Naturally Bright Pink Chocolate

This picture taken on February 7, 2018, shows sublime ruby KitKat packs, made of pink ruby chocolate, next to mock cocoa beans at a KitKat chocolatory shop in Tokyo. PHOTO: Behrouz MEHRI / AFP


It is a marriage made in Heaven for cute-obsessed Japan: this Valentine’s Day, lovers can present the object of their affection with a world first — naturally bright pink chocolate.

The KitKat store in the glitzy shopping area of Ginza in Tokyo is a riot of wall-to-wall pink, as marketing departments go into overdrive to promote the “fourth” type of chocolate, after milk, dark and white.

And the salespeople have chosen their moment wisely: Valentine’s Day is a massive business in Japan — with tradition dictating that the women give presents to the men.

“I love pink. I love chocolate. So this is just great for me,” said 24-year-old Natsuko Takeuchi, searching for a sweet treat at the Ginza store.

“Knowing that this chocolate is created purely naturally, without any additional flavour or colour. I think it’s really good,” added Takeuchi, who operates a food trolley on Japan’s iconic bullet trains.

For more than 80 years, when white chocolate was invented, the world has had to be content with just three varieties.

Then in September, Swiss group Barry Callebaut unveiled its new “ruby” type — the fruit of more than 10 years of research — and five months later, bars appeared on shelves in both Japan and South Korea.

The pink colour is obtained naturally, without using additives or artificial colouring, explained Akiko Hara, a manager for Barry Callebaut in Japan.

The colour comes from ruby cocoa “that can be found in normal plantations,” Hara told AFP.

The firm’s R&D department keeps the recipe a closely guarded secret, locked away in a safe.

The result is a chocolate that tastes both creamy and fruity, with a subtle hint of raspberry.

– ‘Obligation choc’ –

If Japan is the testing ground for the new variety of chocolate, it was well chosen.

The Japanese chocolate market is worth nearly five billion dollars per year, according to figures from research group Euromonitor.

This places Japan still way behind the United States ($18.9 billion) but still at the top of the Asian league table.

Japanese consumers also crave a huge variety of products, as can be seen from the enormous range of KitKat flavours — from wasabi to green tea to sake.

So consumers have a huge choice in what chocolates to buy: “Honmei-choco” for lovers, “giri-choco” for male bosses and colleagues and “tomo-choco” for close friends.

In a sign of how seriously Valentine’s Day is taken, Belgian chocolate firm Godiva created a storm when it called on people to forgo the chocs for colleagues (known as “obligation chocolate”) to focus on loved ones.

Convenience stores on every corner are packed with potential presents and master chocolatiers also go to town for the occasion, creating ornate shapes such as pink high-heeled shoes made of chocolate.

The result: huge sales. This year, love-struck Japanese are expected to shell out 130 billion yen (one billion dollars) on Valentine’s Day chocolates, according to Kinenbi Culture Laboratory, a research group on Japanese festivals.

The tradition of women giving chocolate to men stems from a promotional campaign at the end of the 1950s.

“Males reciprocate the favour a month later on a holiday called ‘White Day’, where female significant others receive a gift in return for their Valentine’s Day present,” said Megumi Matsunaga, an analyst at Euromonitor.

Frederic Madelaine, a French pastry chef who runs several shops in Tokyo, said Valentine’s Day was the be-all and end-all for the industry.

“A Japanese woman will hand out on average between eight and 10 presents. Then the man has to return the favour — and triple or quadruple the value of the gift,” he told AFP.

“You have to try things out, be innovative, stand out from the crowd,” he said.

This year is no exception and among his offerings at this year’s annual chocolate fair in Tokyo were a Camembert-shaped chocolate and “dalmatian eclairs” to celebrate the year of the dog.


Indonesian Cities Ban Valentine’s Day As Police Arrest Couples

An Iraqi man carries a big stuffed bear as Iraqis mark Valentine’s Day in Baghdad on February 14, 2018. PHOTO: SABAH ARAR / AFP

Valentine’s Day was banned in some Indonesian cities on Wednesday as police rounded up amorous couples, giving the official kiss-off to a tradition which critics say doesn’t deserve any love in the Muslim-majority nation.

The prohibitions come amid concerns that traditionally tolerant Indonesia is taking a sharp fundamentalist turn, by pushing to make pre-marital sex — including gay sex — illegal and punishable with jail time.

On Wednesday authorities in the country’s second-biggest city, Surabaya briefly detained about two dozen couples during a raid to sniff out any sign of Valentine’s Day celebrations. They were expected to be released with a reprimand.

Mataram city on the tourist island of Lombok issued its own Valentine’s Day ban and ordered police to raid schools in the hunt for passionate students unable to keep their hands off each other. Romantic parties at hotels and cafes were left alone, according to authorities.

Syamsu Rizal, the deputy mayor of Makassar on the island of Sulawesi, said his city prohibited Valentine’s celebrations, while Depok on the outskirts of Jakarta followed suit.

“It has never been declared by the government to be a celebration in the country” and the ban would prevent hanky-panky among students, Rizal said.

Makassar has imposed bans on Valentine’s Day for the past several years.

In 2017 city authorities raided convenience stores to seize condoms in a bid to stop teenagers from having sex on February 14.

At least 10 cities across the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation issued full or partial bans on Valentine’s Day celebrations.

Aceh province, the only place in Indonesia that imposes Islamic law, issued a fresh Valentine’s prohibition Wednesday, citing religious norms. It has ordered bans in previous years.

“Valentine’s Day reflects a culture which is not in line with Aceh’s and Islamic law,” provincial governor Irwandi Yusuf said in a statement.

Islamic clerics and some pious Muslims use the occasion to criticise what they see as Western decadence.

But many Indonesians practise a moderate form of Islam and celebrate Valentine’s Day with cards, chocolates and flowers for their loved ones.


Seven Persons Kidnapped In Epe

Seven Persons Kidnapped In EpeBarely two days after the release of the Secretary of Isheri Estate (GRA) Landlord Association, Dayo Adekoya, seven persons have again been kidnapped in Epe Area of Lagos state.

A source hinted Channels Television that the victims, five workers of a farm and two members of the Odua Peoples Congress (OPC), who were recently employed as security personnel, were abducted in the early hours of Tuesday,
while on the way to the farm.

The source also explained that the victims were whisked away by heavily armed men.

Igbodu community which has played host to medium and large scale farming in the last few years, has witnessed several kidnap cases, in which the abductors demand a ransom before releasing any of the victims.

IDPs Scared Of Returning Home

IDPsInternally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at the Kuchingoro camp in Abuja say they are apprehensive about returning to the northeast despite the orders by the government.

The Deputy Chairman of the camp, Mr Haliru Bello, said that news from their various villages indicate that it is not yet safe to return home.

Mr Bello was speaking at a Valentine’s Day celebration on Sunday in the camp in the Federal Capital Territory, with well-meaning Nigerians who came to show them love.

One of the donors at the IDPs camp, Bunmi Ademolu, spoke on the reason for the celebration and the need for everyone to help the government cushion the effect of the insurgency on the Nigerians.

The group of the goodhearted Nigerians who made out time to visit the IDPs, brought with them clothing, shoes, household essentials and monetary gifts.

While appreciating the gesture by the group, the displaced persons said that items brought by well-meaning Nigerians have sustained them throughout their ordeal.


Premier League: Arsenal, Tottenham Triumph In Top Four Clashes

Premier LeagueIt was a dramatic win for Tottenham and Arsenal in the English Premier League on Sunday with both sides waiting till the last minute to secure victories.

Christian Eriksen struck in the 83rd minute to give Spurs a 2-1 win over Manchester City.

Harry Kane had fired home from the spot while Kelechi Iheanacho levelled the score line at 1-1

For Arsenal, Danny Welbeck scored the winner four minutes into injury time to beat Leicester City 2-1.

Jamie Vardy gave the Foxes the lead on the stroke of half-time from the penalty spot before substitute Theo Walcott put the Gunners back in contention.

The win leaves Arsenal on 51 points levelled with Spurs who are second based on goal difference. Leicester City still lead with 53 points while Manchester City remain fourth with 47 points.

Also on Sunday, Liverpool trashed bottom club Aston Villa 6-0 at Villa Park with Daniel Sturridge marking his return to the Liverpool starting line-up with the opening goal.

Other Results

Other Matchday 26 pairings had been decided on Saturday.

AFC Bournemouth 1 – 3 Stoke City FCStoke City
Chelsea FC 5 – 1 Newcastle United
Crystal Palace 1 – 2 Watford
Everton 0 – 1 West Bromwich Albion
Norwich City 2 – 2 West Ham United
Sunderland 2 – 1 Manchester United
Swansea City 0 – 1 Southampton


EPL: Arsenal Beat Leicester City 2-1 At Emirates

ArsenalArsenal have defeated current leader of the English Premier League table, Leicester City 2-1 on a dramatic afternoon at the Emirates Stadium.

The atmosphere on Valentines Day was electrifying from the kick-off as the Gunners had a fast start, creating two good opportunities in the opening two minutes.

Referee Martin Atkinson had overlooked a foul by Mesut Ozil but did not hesitate to award a penalty to City as Jarmie Vardy was tripped by Nacho Monreal in the box.

Vardy himself stepped up and slammed his spot kick past Petr Cech to open the scoring which lasted till the end of the first half.

Arsenal were forced into a change at half time as Calum Chambers came on to replace Laurent Koscielny, who had suffered a dead leg.

From the 53rd minute, however, Arsene Wenger’s boys played with an extra man after Danny Simpson was dismissed for two bookable offences.

Substitute Theo Walcott scored the equaliser with 20 minutes remaining, latching onto Olivier Giroud’s knockdown.

Danny Welbeck subsequently scored a last-minute winner to set Arsenal two points off the pace with 12 games remaining.

San Francisco Zoo Offers Bizzare Valentine’s Day Pets

valentinesThe San Francisco Zoo is giving the spurned and broken-hearted a new reason to mark Valentine’s Day – the chance to adopt a giant scorpion or hissing cockroach named after a heart-trampling ex.

“When you think about the detritus of your love life this Valentine’s Day, consider adopting a Madagascar hissing cockroach for your ex,” the San Francisco Zoo said on its donation page of Monday’s promotion.

For those suffering the sting of rejection, the zoo recommends the giant hairy scorpion.

“Just like you-know-who, when a suitable victim wanders by, the scorpion grabs the doomed creature with its pinchers and stings the prey,” the zoo said.

For those feeling especially wronged, the zoo also gives the option of having a notification sent to the person behind the heartbreak.

Naming rights start at $25, and the spite money goes to a good cause, the zoo said. In both cases, the donations will be used to support research and conservation efforts.

“We can’t make any promises, but urban legend says that the gift of a scorpion adoption serves as permanent protection against future romantic stings. Let the healing begin,” the donation page said.

Oscar Pistorius In Nightclub Fight

Oscar Pistorius gestures during his trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, in PretoriaSouth African Olympic and Paralympic track star, Oscar Pistorius, was involved in an argument at a night club over the weekend, his spokeswoman said on Tuesday, days after his lawyers wrapped up their defence in his murder trial.

The Star Newspaper said Pistorius had an altercation with businessman, Jared Mortimer, at a club in Johannesburg’s upmarket Sandton business district after the athlete made disparaging comments about Mortimer’s friends.

Pistorius’ spokeswoman, Anneliese Burgess, said that the argument started after Mortimer started to “aggressively interrogate” Pistorius about the murder trial, which has attracted huge domestic and international attention.

“Our client regrets the decision to go into a public place and thereby invite unwelcome attention,” she said in a statement.

The 27-year-old, known as “Blade Runner” because of the carbon-fibre prosthetic running legs he uses, has been on trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, whom he shot and killed at his luxury Pretoria home on Valentine’s Day 2013.

Pistorius said that he killed Steenkamp after mistaking her for an intruder hiding in the toilet next to his bedroom. The state accuses him of shooting her in cold blood after an argument.

During the trial, which opened in early March, the defence has sought to portray Pistorius as a vulnerable and caring boyfriend who killed 29-year-old Steenkamp accidentally.

The prosecution has argued Pistorius is a gun-obsessed hot-head who often lost his temper and who killed Steenkamp in a fit of rage after an argument.

The case was adjourned until August 7 to allow the legal teams to prepare closing arguments. Judge Thokozile Masipa will then begin her deliberations, extending a trial that has already dragged on over four months.

Pistorius faces life in prison if convicted of murder.


Pistorius Not Mentally Ill

Pistorius 422x280Psychiatrists have found out that double-amputee Olympian, Oscar Pistorius, did not suffer from any mental illness that impacted his ability to know right from wrong when he fatally shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

The requirement by Judge that Pistorius be observed by a panel of four mental health experts at Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa for up to 30 days came after a psychiatrist called by the defense said she diagnosed him with generalized anxiety disorder.

However, it was announced Monday (June 30) that the experts disagreed and the trial resumed.

The South African sprinter is accused of gunning down Steenkamp through a locked bathroom door in his home on Valentine’s Day of last year (2013).

Nicknamed the “Blade Runner,” Pistorius has admitted to the shooting but pleaded not guilty to premeditated murder, alleging he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder.

The state contends that Pistorius argued with Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and law graduate, before killing her.

If found guilty of murder, Mr Pistorius, who went on trial on 3 March this year, could face life imprisonment. If he is acquitted of that charge, the court would consider an alternative charge of culpable homicide, for which he could receive about 15 years in prison.

FIFA World Cup Opens On Brazilian Valentine’s Day

brazilBrazil is expected to come to a standstill as the national soccer team takes to the pitch against Croatia in the opening match of the World Cup on Thursday June the 12, 2014, the usual day for Valentine’s Day celebrations in Brazil.

This has encouraged the romantic and the soccer mad to get the best of both worlds by celebrating the day in advance.

A number of motels and other businesses have thrown their weight behind the “Movement 11” campaign – offering 11 per cent discounts to the “early bird” Valentines in a bid to ensure that Brazil’s passion for football doesn’t cut into profits.

Some businesses that rely on Valentine’s Day for a surge in profits are complaining that soccer has trumped romance and sales have dipped significantly this year.

“It got in the way. For business, it really got in the way having Valentine’s Day and the World Cup on the same day makes things very complicated.”

Other business owners said there is no room for romance when the World Cup is taking place.

Some others have found a uniquely Brazilian solution to the agonizing question of whether soccer or romance comes first as a man was sighted buying a his and hers Brazilian soccer shirt so that both can revel in the soccer action on Thursday.