· 10 min read
Doctors without borders: Ocean not wide enough to keep Jones, Vazansky apart
Welcome to Love Academically, a Nebraska Today series that snuggles up with the stories of Husker couples: how they met, how they wound up at Nebraska U, how they balance relationships with careers or studies at the university. Because love may be patient, kind and blind, but at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, it’s also academic.
As her plane touched down in Frankfurt, Germany, Jeannette Jones knew to look for Alex Vazansky — the Alex who had emailed with an offer to chauffeur her an hour south to Heidelberg, where she’d spend the rest of 2007 and much of 2008 as a visiting scholar.
She knew him, though didn’t know him, from his 2005 visit to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, just one stop on a barnstorming tour of academic institutions throughout the western United States. Back then, he was helping shepherd a cohort of master’s students from the Heidelberg Center for American Studies.
Jeannette, fresh off her first year as an assistant professor of history and ethnic studies at Nebraska U, had joined a welcome wagon of Husker scholars assembled at Yia Yia’s for a slice and some conversation. She remembered being surprised that enough Germans had enough interest in America to establish a center focused on it. She remembered having a good time.
She also remembered that Yia Yia’s had fed not just this Alex, but another Alex, too. Back in 2005, though, Jeannette had little reason to think she’d see either of them, or any of their colleagues, ever again. So as she deplaned in Frankfurt, with two years of experiences having crowded out the memory of that lone night, Jeannette had no idea which was This Alex and which was The Other Alex.
“When he emailed me, I was like, ‘Oh, damn. There’s two of them,’” she recalled. “When he showed up at the airport, I didn’t know which one I was going to see.”
Soon enough, there would be no mistaking this Alex for any other. Because as it happened, this Alex — the German to her African American, the self-described introvert to her Queens-born, put-it-plain Long Islander — was the one Jeannette would come to know, then love, during the next year. This Alex would leave his native Heidelberg to make a life with her in Lincoln.
At the moment, though, Jeannette was just hoping to jettison any jet lag imposed by time-jumping seven hours across 4,700 miles. So after some breakfast at a café, Alex took her to the one site in the city he figured was sure to keep sleep at bay: Heidelberg Castle, a centuries-old ruin and exemplar of Renaissance architecture.
“It very prominently sits on this mountain above the city,” he said. “You can’t miss it. To this day, I love going there.”
“So that’s how we met — again,” Jeannette said.
Over the following days and weeks, Alex took her grocery shopping and detailed the ins and outs of his cradle city. And as the son of an American mother, he was glad to explain some of the key differences between life in Germany and the U.S.
“He was good people. He was hospitable,” Jeannette said. “It wasn’t anything romantic. But I could tell we were going to be friends.”
She liked that he wasn’t a stick-in-the-mud, that he didn’t conform to the “crazy stereotypes” of German rigidity. Alex, for his part, was impressed that Jeannette — even knowing that she’d be teaching in English and surrounded by many English-speakers — had put in the time to learn some German before arriving. English or German, the two found that they had plenty to talk about: the inner workings of the Heidelberg Center, sure, but also their shared love of science fiction and fantasy, from Star Wars and Star Trek to Lord of the Rings and Battlestar Galactica. His American heritage meant that Alex, unlike many Germans, was plugged into the NFL, too — for better or worse.
“I found out he was a Patriots fan,” Jeannette said. “And I am a Jets fan. That’s all I need to say on that — because, you know, never the twain shall meet.”
Their burgeoning friendship was tested in February 2008, when the Patriots, then 18-0 and one win from completing the second undefeated season in league history, fell short against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
“Jeannette is a Jets fan, but in that moment, she was rooting for the Giants,” Alex said. “We actually watched that Super Bowl together. I’ll never forget her kind of hyperventilating when the Giants came back. She was clearly very excited and wasn’t hiding it.”
“But we overcame it,” she said.
Around the same time, Jeannette found that her view on Alex was shifting from platonic to romantic. It happened one night at a Heidelberg bar named Destille, where some patrons were singing along to a mid-2000s German hit, “Viva Colonia.” Jeannette was chatting with a couple of friends when she noticed a woman doing the same with Alex at the other end of the bar.
“There are times when my New York becomes more pronounced, and Alex will tell you that,” she said. “And that was one of those times. I was like, ‘I don’t understand why she’s in his space. Why she have to be that close to him? Is she going to put her hands on him?’ Everybody’s looking at me like, ‘What is your problem?’”
Jeannette would come to find out that the woman stirring up her own feelings for This Alex was actually attached to none other than The Other Alex. At that point, though, she was more occupied with what the innocent night out had revealed to her.
“That is when I knew,” she said, “because I had never been jealous of Alex talking to anybody, ever.”
She said nothing about it to Alex, who wanted above all to avoid misinterpreting friendship as more-than-friendship. Then again, the pair had been spending time together — a lot of it — throughout the fall and into the new year.
“You know, I’m shy and introverted,” he said. “I thought maybe something was going on, but I wasn’t sure, and I’m not somebody who’s very certain about those things.”
A day trip to a 1,000-year-old cathedral in Speyer, followed by an afternoon walk among the renowned gardens of a palace in nearby Schwetzingen and a night of karaoke among friends back in Heidelberg, helped settle the question in his mind.
“It wasn’t so much spoken,” Alex said, “as it just kind of happened.”
Both of them knew that Jeannette would be returning to Nebraska in roughly six months. But Alex would be defending his dissertation at Heidelberg University less than a year after that. And the remainder of their time together in Heidelberg made it clear that neither wanted to spend their lives separated by an ocean.
“We realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t just casual, and it wouldn’t just end with her leaving,” he said. “In some ways, me being in the finishing stage of my dissertation was fortunate, because it meant that I wouldn’t be able to stay at the Heidelberg Center all that much longer — that at some point, I’d have to move on.”
Just a couple of months after Jeannette had settled back into life at Dear Old Nebraska U, Alex flew to Lincoln with a ring in his pocket. He’d fly back to Germany without it. A year later, he and Jeannette were married on Long Island in a ceremony attended by most of their mutual friends from Heidelberg.
They were benefitting from good fortune on the professional front, too. The same colleagues who had invited Jeannette out to Yia Yia’s in 2005 — a couple who specialized in German history and had known Alex prior to his first Lincoln visit — were leaving Nebraska. The Department of History, in turn, was looking to hire a lecturer. Alex fit the bill, officially joining the department just weeks after the wedding.
The next spring, the couple rode out the waiting game of Jeannette’s application for tenure — and wound up celebrating the announcement of her promotion to associate professor. It’s helped, they said, to have a partner who knows the stakes and strains of academia. So they celebrated anew in 2014, when Alex transitioned from lecturer to assistant professor, then again in 2020, when he earned tenure, too.
“I think we really appreciate the fact that the department, and the university generally, have been very supportive of both of us and what we do,” Alex said.
Other upsides of working at the same university, and in the same department, have outpaced any drawbacks, Jeannette said. They’re a one-vehicle household, carpooling to campus whenever Alex isn’t biking to the office. And working in the same building helps their relationship endure calendar-choking schedules — though they’re “not in each other’s pockets” when, say, sitting in on departmental meetings.
“People are like, ‘Oh, do you want me to save the seat for Alex?’ I’m like, ‘I live with him; I don’t need to sit next to him. I don’t have to hold his hand; he don’t need to hold mine,’” Jeannette said, laughing.
Though she spent time in France, Belgium and England while completing her own dissertation, Jeannette said she never foresaw becoming the “bicontinental, across-the-pond person” she is today. She has her own professional and personal networks in Germany now, sometimes collaborating with scholars there who don’t even know Alex.
“That’s my life now, and I feel like I thrive in that. And that’s part of the relationship,” she said. “I knew going into it that my life was going to change. I couldn’t just be U.S.-bound. I have a whole other family on the other side of the Atlantic that I have to engage with.
“They’re very loving,” Jeannette said of her in-laws, “and vice versa. (My family) are all like, ‘Oh, Alex is a good dude! Where’s Alex?’ And I’m like, ‘He’ll be coming soon.’ Or my mother will call him, and she’s not interested in speaking to me. And I’m like, ‘Oh, OK…’”
“I think we’ve both felt very welcomed, loved and integrated,” Alex said.
As the product of a bicontinental relationship, Alex said he had some sense of what he was signing up for when he departed Germany for the States. Even so, “knowing Jeannette and her family has given me all kinds of insights into Black and African American culture.”
It’s not unusual, Jeannette said, for Alex to be the only white person at her family gatherings. She might find herself the only Black person at a Vazansky get-together or other events in Germany. But both of them, she said, have immersed themselves in the norms and expectations of each other’s kin.
“Even how we discuss race in my house: We’re very open about that,” she said. “That’s something that we don’t shy away from. We’re not like, ‘Oh, we can’t talk about that, because Alex is here.’ No, we talk about it. And I think that’s refreshing, that we’re not trying to sanitize who we are.
“I had never imagined this would be the case — you know, biracial, bicultural, bicontinental, bilingual,” she said. “That’s four different things that we’re navigating. And it works.”
“I wouldn’t miss a moment of it,” Alex said.
“Nope,” she said. “I’m excited for the next however-many years we got together on this blue rock.”