A “How To” on International Relations

This is a guest post by my friend Sonja, who writes over at The Big Dharma Theory.  Enjoy!

Don’t worry. This isn’t a primer on Israel/Palestine, but rather a guide on how to carry on a romantic relationship between partners of different nationalities. Having been described by friends as a “Euro-Sexual,” I feel I’m somewhat of an expert in this area. My ex is Icelandic and my current partner is Portuguese. (Oh yes, I’m an American, as you may have already surmised.) I’ve lived in Iceland and am right now, RIGHT NOW!, typing this up in Lisbon as I have been abandoned in the familial apartment while my partner watches the World Cup soccer game between Portugal and North Korea.

(First tip: If your partner is European, become acquainted with soccer and try to understand the offsides rule. Also, become comfortable with the fact that games can end in a tie. This is a very un-American thing and harder to accept than I thought.)

Bi-cultural relationships are the norm in my family. My grandmother is German, my grandfather American. Of their children, three out of four married non-Americans (a Frenchman, a German, and a Chinese woman to be specific). My father was the odd one out – both of my parents are American. Even amongst my generation it’s been the trend to “prefer” partners of other nationalities – my German cousin is in a relationship with a Turkish man and one of my French cousins has been in a relationship with an American. (I guess that only half counts, as he’s half-American, but has never lived in the US.) I’ve carried the torch myself, having married an Icelander and now have a long-term Portuguese partner.

Now that I’ve explained my credentials, here are my relationship “hacks” for optimizing a bi-cultural relationship:

  • You will travel a lot to the same place. Over and over and over again. Don’t feel compelled to do “touristy” things all on your first visit. You’ll be back. Your partner’s family will probably want to show you around – trust their instincts as to what you will and won’t want to see, they know the area best after all! Get acquainted with the weather and knowing what to pack. Also, get good at packing for trans-Atlantic (or trans-Pacific) flights. I could write a whole list about that one as well.
  • When you are in your partner’s home, give up the expectation that you will understand everything that is going on. Your partner will obviously try to include you as much as possible in conversation, but it’s not reasonable to expect that s/he will be able to translate every single sentence back and forth. Try to learn the language (I’m still working on this and didn’t ever manage to learn Icelandic, beyond basic eavesdropping skills) so you can contribute to conversation without having to burden others in translating for you. If you’re really being left out, stick up for yourself and ask what’s going on, but ultimately, accept that you’re not going to be able to catch everything.
  • In your home, you will run into tiny little confusions all the time. Idioms may not translate very well. You and your partner won’t have the same cultural “touchstones” such as what music was big when you were in middle school. It’s actually come up a few times that there’s been a bit of cultural confusion in that neither of my partners grew up watching Sesame Street. This little stuff happens all the time. Teach your partner the rubber ducky song and try to understand their own childhood stories.
  • You will experience things that no tourist gets to see. I have now been to an Icelandic funeral and a Portuguese wedding. In formal situations like this, make your peace with the fact that you will have absolutely no idea what’s going on. It’s really rough to sit in a church for two hours with no concept of what people are saying, but it will mean a lot to your partner to have you present for these major life events. Conversely, accept that you will have to explain your own culture’s formal events and norms surrounding them to your partner. S/he may live in your country, but chances are before getting involved with you, s/he never had to go to a wedding, funeral, or other formal family event. My partner has attended a funeral with me and had not only never been to a funeral before, but coming from an all-Catholic country, hadn’t been a to a church service that wasn’t a Catholic mass. You’d be surprised at the little things that are different and somewhat surprising – for instance, at the Portuguese wedding I attended, the bride and groom didn’t kiss. And at the Icelandic equivalent of the wake, each family member is expected to kiss (or otherwise say good-bye – I laid my hand on his forehead) the body of the departed. See this as a learning opportunity and try to relax about the cultural barrier.
  • Your partner will have preferred foods that you have probably never heard of and certainly never cooked before. Try to experiment with the cuisine as much as possible. I’m still trying to perfect my recipe for Portuguese steak, seeing as American steak tastes “weird” according to my partner. Likewise, neither he nor my ex-husband have been able to grok mac & cheese as comfort food. When you’re in their home, eat whatever is served to you. Even if it’s reindeer on Christmas Eve. Don’t try to seek out your own foods. Certainly don’t be that American who demands to go to McDonald’s. As a tourist, it’s easier to be kind of picky and stick to things that you know that you like with the occasional “experiment” here and there, but when you’re visiting in a family situation, accept that you have really no control over the meal and try to find things that you enjoy.

I’m sure Kelsey will be able to expand on anything I missed, but there are some pro-tips for carrying on a happy Bi-Cultural relationship. If you’re as lucky as I am, it will involve being introduced to beautiful places and some pretty damn amazing food in addition to having a wonderful partner.

Written by Sonja

Sonja is a nanny and artist living in Providence, Rhode Island.  A producer of beautiful collages and other works of art, she has lived in Vermont, Iceland, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.  She likes octopi, rain boots, her Portuguese boyfriend Nuno, and her cat Wensleydale.  She blogs at The Big Dharma Theory.

[Header Image by Tricia Ward. All other images by Sonja.]


  1. Okay first of all let me say I’m now going to call myself “Euro-sexual.” So much yes.

    Secondly, this post is really spot on. I dated an English guy for a year when I lived in London, and while you’d think the differences wouldn’t be too much with an American, it was definitely a cultural learning experience. Little things like buttering your bacon (seriously) and much bigger things like a willingness to talk about feelings (really got to understand the term “British Reserve”).

    We didn’t end up together in the end, but it was a really enriching experience. Not only did I learn a lot of intricacies of English culture but I also learned a lot about what it is to be American. Looking at my country from the eyes of an outsider as we roadtripped through the American West was both bizarre and educational.

    So yes, I’m all about dating foreigners, it makes the world a smaller, friendlier place.

  2. Thanks, Stephanie!

    And thanks for posting this, Kelsey! :) I’d been thinking about it all during the wedding I went to, and thought that it fit your blog much better than my own. And your little mini-bio of me is very flattering :) I’ll certainly put a link-back to it when I update again… which won’t be until I’m back in the States on Sunday, I think.

    (Yeah hi, can you tell that being with non-native speakers for a week that I’ve forgotten proper grammar? Also, very tired.)

  3. Oh, and yes, I have a way better insight into the “American” personality having been able to directly compare/contrast with other cultures. Iceland wasn’t actually too “different” for me as I come from a Scandinavian background (my mom’s family is all ethnically Swedish), but Portugal… man, it’s certainly different. You see your own country’s strengths/weaknesses so much more when you travel and when you’re constantly in touch with a “foreigner,” you realize how much of your own quirks have to do with your culture of origin.

  4. This is a great article! It’s really comforting to read about other people experiences to remind yourself that you are not the only one!

    I just had dinner with my boyfriends (Italian) family last weekend and as I was proud of myself for understanding more than I ever had, I found that for long periods I sat staring at the people around me and wondering if I would ever be “in” with their culture.

    As both you and Steph mentioned it’s a learning experience and somewhat (although it always feels naive) eye-opening to learn that your partners childhood was so different from your own. I can’t wait to get my boyfriend to the States to see if it adds up to all he imagined it could be!

    Thanks to your article, I know that I am not alone and no matter how hard it can be at times; there is always more learned than lost!

    Good luck with learning Portuguese and know that there are plenty of others right there with you!

  5. Good post! Dating a local is a sure fire way to experience the country from a unique perspective.


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