I am in an intercultural relationship. That term always sounds like you need a master's degree in social and cultural anthropology simply to explain to your partner how to vacuum the living room again. We are not even Swedish-Sri Lankan or Canadian-Cameroonian, we are only German-American, but that is enough to cause various verbal bumbles and cultural bewilderment. Instead of getting all bothered or ashamed of our gaffes, we have learned to laugh pretty loudly about it and add it to the list of things "we'll never talk about again." However, that list is now getting to be very long and only one of us seems to have to adhere to the ban. Because, of course, it is incredibly funny to dig up each other's faux pas on practically any occasion and surprise the other with an Academy Award-worthy performance of their previous indiscretion.
For example, I sit in the car and begin to tell my dad what my boyfriend called Germany's most famous castle, Neuschwanstein, last year. A castle that is named after a previous castle on that site, and the area in which it was built.
"Don't say that! This is something we put on the ‘Never talk about again’ list!" shouts my boyfriend from the back seat as he begins to realize the danger. But my dad is far too curious.
"Tell me! What did he say?" he asks eagerly.
"Schloss Neuschweinstein!" I burst out. A German word that means “Castle New Pig Stone” My dad grumbles in mock offense; my boyfriend feigns indignant. Then we all start to laugh.
So now let me tell you a bit about the everyday life of an intercultural relationship.
Where do you even meet someone who lives 5,000 miles away in another country? The average digital person who uses the internet for everything may think that something like this begins online. But not for us. I met my boyfriend on my big trip in 2017 traveling solo through the USA for several months.
After that initial meeting, he was only a good friend for the next year and a half. I kept in touch by e-mail. Lots of email. So much email that if we printed everything out, you could wrap the pages two hundred times lengthwise around the Empire State Building. Or so. When I re-visited him in the USA the following year, our relationship blossomed and we were both more than a little concerned, because there are not only 5,000 miles between us, but also a few decades. And two cultures.
We tried it anyway, because you have nothing to lose in life, except life at the very end of life itself.
Now we are like Bogie and Bacall. Although Bert and Ernie may hit it better. Except that we're both Ernie, the more foolish of the two characters. We spend part of the year in the USA and part in Germany. In between we travel a lot. While many couples would probably try to settle in one country as quickly as possible, we enjoy the luxury of having two home bases on two continents. And I am fascinated by the infinite expanses of the USA (logical reaction!) while my boyfriend is fascinated by the garbage separation and recycling system in Germany (Huh?).
I remember my first trip to the USA. When I drove what felt like thousands of thirsty miles past signs saying beverages because I didn't know it meant drink. And when I politely called one of my hosts elderly, because I thought that meant simply an older gentleman and not a rickety old man.
And I remember my boyfriend, who was just my host at the time, asking me when we first met if I wanted a Root Beer Float. Why would I want a beer with roots while I was on a raft? We are in the middle of Yellowstone and I now picture myself shooting down a river on a large beer bottle with octopus-shaped legs. Then I begin to grasp the fact that it is some American drink that everyone knows about. Except me. I try not to look completely clueless, so I pretend I know what's going on.
In one of the restaurants in the park, he orders a Root Beer Float for me. I have not had any alcohol in like forever, and I think I may soon get very silly. They bring me a large glass that looks like it contains cola that someone has dropped a pint of foamy shampoo into. I taste it carefully. The stuff turns out to be sugar-sweet, non-alcoholic flavored soda water with vanilla ice cream, which somehow floats like an iceberg on top the drink.
"Holy Moley!” I exclaim. “Is that ever sweet!"
My boyfriend tasted his float. "It just tastes normal to me."
We find that Americans and Germans evaluate sweetness differently. Because Americans try to cram at least five spoons of sugar into everything, while in Germany one rather tries to do without any sugar at all.
We drive under a shabby motorway bridge somewhere in the Sauerland region of Germany. "Wow!" my boyfriend shouts suddenly. I try to see the reason for his enthusiasm, but I see nothing but a truck that squeeze itself in front of me at a frantic 50 miles per hour. "What was it?" I ask.
"Well, this bridge!" says my boyfriend, deeply impressed. "German Engineering! Totally overengineered. That will last for the next five hundred years."
I look like a squirrel that came home and found her tree upside down.
A little later we debate the best way to warm up some potatoes we baked the previous day.
“I put them in the microwave,” my boyfriend says in a very American way.
“Uh, then they become quite spongy. I always put them in the oven!” I protest in a very German way. We then talk more about this and several deeper topics for about 15 minutes, and then before I die of hunger and we laugh.
On one of our forest hikes in Germany we find the total clearcutting of trees. Pine Bark Beetle defense. Something very similar has happened in Yellowstone, but there the skeletons of thousands of trees simply project into the sky until they eventually fall over naturally. In Germany, the romantic sounds of the chainsaw roars in our ears, while huge ruts remain in the clay from a tracked vehicle and have turned the trail into the remains of a war zone. "That's Germany," I say. "We love to ride a Panzer and mow down everything!"
Even though we can laugh at many things, there is one thing that is crucial to our relationship: we communicate with each other. About everything. We are both weird chatterboxes and most of our discussions are not about the weather, but really serious discussions such as Shakespeare, physics, or death. Just communicating with grunts and our hands and feet would definitely not have been enough for us in the long run. Luckily, I speak fluent English – especially since I started spending several months a year in the US – and my boyfriend is currently trying to learn a little German. Then he asks me obvious things like "Why is a mushroom [Pilz] a masculine word [der Pilz] and not a feminine word [die Pilz]?" to which I have no answer. But our main language with each other is English.
In my view, an intercultural relationship is completely lost without humor. You must be able to laugh at yourself and you have to be able to deal with other traditions and views other than what you grew up with. And you should be able to be fascinated by the many things your partner reveals about the novelties and beauties of the world that you have simply never noticed before. For us, our different backgrounds are a source of inexhaustible merriment and give us both a more meaningful fulfillment of life. We learn from each other as we learn to live in and enjoy a different culture. Even if the differences between Germans and Americans are not as stark as if we were Swedish-Sri Lankan.
In my article 5,000 Miles, Two Cultures, One Love: Long-distance relationship USA – Germany you will find more about how we get along in the two cultures, but also how we deal with the great distance that physically separates us.