The Paradox of Expat Relationships
As he looked up from the pot he was stirring, J. remarked, “If we lived in a normal city, we could have gone to the movies tonight. God I haven’t been to the cinema in ages.”
I stopped, suddenly very aware of the circumstance and place in which we live. J. has been here since late 2013, and I have been here since March of 2015. He works for the United Nations; I work for the US Embassy. We live in Maseru, the capital and largest city in Lesotho, a landlocked country inside of South Africa.
We met in May of last year, about a month and half after I arrived. He was fresh out of a sticky situation with a girl who left Maseru a few months prior and was fairly broken up about it. I knew none of this at the time, having arrived just after she left. At the same time, I had already gotten involved with a different guy in town and had a turbulent three week-stand with him before realizing the only thing we had in common was attraction.
Before you’ve even gone out to a nice dinner or the movies with a person, you’re living together, eating together, vacationing together, and doing everything together.
J. and I met right after both of these events took place; neither of us was necessarily in the position to meet someone and start a new romantic relationship. As if moving from Washington DC to Maseru doesn’t leave you vulnerable and confused enough, this became the perfect setting for a sudden and intense romance to take place.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these expat relationships and how the pace here differs from a “normal” city back home where you would meet someone, go on a few cliché dates like dinner and the movies, meet each other’s friends and progressively become more serious. In a city like Maseru with less than 200,000 people and an expat community with about 30 of dating age to choose from, things move at a very, very different pace.
You meet someone, and you see them at every event. They’re in your group of friends, you’re both strangers in a new place, you both cling to each other because you feel out of place Your new “home” isn’t exactly “home” yet, but you cling to cultivate a culture of normalcy. It’s similar to making friends, but with romantic partners, it is much more intense.
Before you’ve even gone out to a nice dinner or the movies with a person, you’re living together, eating together, vacationing together, and doing everything together. This would very rarely happen at home (at least not in my past relationships).
But there’s also a beautiful side to it. You get to know people deep and well right away; you skip the trivialities and know who they really are, what their fears and worries are, how they act when they are completely out of their comfort zone.
But it’s awfully easy to fall in love when your weekends are going on beautiful adventures in exotic new countries and places unseen to much of the human population.
Out of the couples I know abroad, so many are a mixture of two cultures: Mosotho and German, Israeli and Belgian, Swiss and South African, Norwegian and Ecuadorian, Japanese and Ukranian, Indian and French, the list goes on. It’s incredible to see two people raised so differently exchange food,language and culture. But as I enter the (nearly) one year mark of my own expat relationship (American and Danish), I find myself asking how real it all is.
It’s something I like to call, the Bachelor effect. If you’re unfamiliar with the Bachelor television show, basically a group of absolute lunatics try and gain the love and affection of one man (or woman) dubbed the Bachelor (or the Bachelorette). They go on exotic vacations all over the world and the word “love” is used much more liberally than it should be.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore and love J. and couldn’t picture a life without him at this point. We have weathered more in the past year than most couples do in five—depression, anxiety, sickness, family death—these all really express a person’s true colors. Rather than tear us apart, these conditions, made worse by the absence of a comfort zone, are ultimately what drew us together and strengthened us. They are what made us friends in addition to being a couple.
But it’s awfully easy to fall in love when your weekends are going on beautiful adventures in exotic new countries and places unseen to much of the human population. When a long weekend in Cape Town becomes is just as feasible as a weekend in New York was back home, camping under the stars in one of South Africa’s many National Parks is a frequent event and road trip through the sand dunes of Namibia is the same flight distance as Florida from DC, it all just begs the question: is this even real life?
Of course it’s real life because it’s real and it’s happening, but when our contracts are up, where do we go? We’ve talked about going back to Copenhagen for a bit, toyed with the idea of trying Portland or another US city, discussed the possibility of staying in Southern Africa or maybe even going to Italy for a few months to put off the real world for a bit longer, but will we be the same “us” in any of those places as we are here in our Maseru bubble? Will our relationship translate to the mundane of everyday life back home?
Only time will tell.
Top image is Ts’ehlanyane National Park in Butha-Buthe, Lesotho.