In college, my friends poured over brochures at the end of sophomore year trying to decide whether to opt for Spain, a decision that would most likely include sangria, dancing and all-night parties, or France, a refined alternative with brie, champagne, literature and the Eiffel Tower. While the reason to study 4,000 miles from home was was part "education" and part world experience, many pupils would inevitably return stateside and tell tales of all-nighters, crazy experiences in a far-away land and a dating experience with a foreign gentleman.
I had a boyfriend all through college and would often live vicariously through my friends who would tell somewhat exaggerated stories of dating these foreign hotties. They would promise it was the best way to experience a culture and would often throw in a mishap they had with a language or a cultural difference. They'd use a stereotype often associated with European men, assuring me a "horizontal vocabulary" would come in useful while traveling through Europe.
I recently found myself living that cross-cultural "study-abroad-like" experience, but 10 years later, and not in Europe, but rather in the Middle East.
The man in question lived in the same apartment building and I promised my friends there was no way I would ever conceive of dating someone in my building (I already learned that lesson long ago) or someone who wasn't Israeli, because I was convinced that was the best way to improve my Hebrew. Nevertheless, nothing would stop the fact that after a long night of dancing to 1950s and '60s American rock and roll at a nearby dance club (clearly something that would never go over well in the States), I found myself hanging out in his apartment, making schnitzel at 4 in the morning and listening to the Doors as the sun came up.
He's the type of man my girlfriends fantasized about when they decided to study abroad in college. Dressed in a well-tailored suit, you can easily imagine him casually sipping a morning espresso while reading Le Monde before work. French in almost every sense of the word, with a 5 o'clock shadow and retro John Lennon spectacles, this Parisian is well-dressed, well-versed in music and literature and oozes sophistication. It might just sound like a fairy tale, but for one small detail: I don't speak French. My command of the French language is limited to a handful of words, many of which don't making communicating useful beyond ordering a crepe or counting to 100.
I'm not a complete stranger when it comes to cross-cultural dating. For most of my 20's I was with an American-Russian man, and while we both shared the same mother tongue, there were tremendous cultural differences embedded within our relationship. Perceptions about money, the close-knit, insular family unit and the unspoken roles men and women are "supposed" to assume could cause even the most culturally-sensitive person to gasp. And the influence many Russian men allow their mothers to have over them was often surprising. I never expected my ex's mother would fathom telling him I would never make a good wife because I don't cook or clean well enough. True, my domestic skills sometimes lacked, but is that the main criteria when picking a mate? After seven and a half years, I would hope that there's more to being a good partner than making a mean salad and killer burrito.
This is not to say that there are lovely attributes I associate with his family, that is while we were family -- they were quick to make that distinction. I now know that no matter how many pots of Borscht I helped to cook with my ex Mother-in-law or how many hours we stayed up drinking tea while she shared stories of her family in communist Russia, the Iron curtain went up as soon as her son and I split and I've yet to hear from his family.
What I've learned thus far from my trials and tribulations in cross-cultural dating boils down to patience. It will be frustrating at some point, probably more than once. Negotiating cultural differences and language barriers can often be a good challenge and one that makes a relationship a constant learning endeavor.
Sure, sometimes, it can have its moments: You want to share a joke you just heard, but alas, in the midst of explaining why it's funny, something gets lost in translation and eventually you realize some jokes cannot be translated or explained, and you give up. And there are times when I talk on the phone and I'm utterly confused when I hear, "I'm not angry yet" Baffled, I answer, "What does being angry have to do with eating dinner?"
With the aid of a smart phone dictionary application, you can almost always get your point across. I've become cognizant of thinking before I speak, enunciating my words and not saying the first thing that comes to mind, which is good exercise for me in general.
Aside from the Frenchman fitting the fantasy of a post-adolescent college co-ed, there are many serious parts of the relationship as well. When you get beyond the exotic mystique of a foreign lover, you realize that differences can be just as much challenging as they are rewarding. Dating someone from an entirely different cultural background makes you look at your beliefs and define who you are in relation to the other culture. It is important to note that both of the men I refer to in this piece are Jewish. I believe having that commonality makes things a bit easier. While a Parisian and first-generation American have vastly different backgrounds, there were some things that just didn't need explaining.
And unlike 10 years ago when many of the foreign men were simply flings in college exploration, this is a grown up relationship with bills and reality to deal with. Armed with a great sense of humor and a spontaneity that was absent before, there's a cohesiveness and ease, that is present despite our cultural differences and language barriers. I'm not saying any relationship is easy, but maybe the key to success is a cross-cultural one: a relationship where the subtleties are not fully recognized by either party, and love, respect and curiosity are the common language.