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7 Things I Learned from Having an International Romance


For starters, a good accent never gets old.

And if you’ve never had a sexy Brazilian man whisper flirtatious flattery in your ear, well, I suggest you book your first post-pandemic flight down to Rio de Janeiro and see what happens next.

Since I built my own fully digital career back in 2018, I’ve called a handful of countries home and fleetingly traveled through even more. (Though that’s currently on pause, for obvious reasons.)

Consequently, my love life has been pretty damn interesting.

Whether a fling on board a Great Barrier Reef dive boat or an ongoing romance across multiple continents, I’ve had my fair share of situationships with people from all over the globe.

Falling in love (or lust) with someone from another country is a bit like hopping on a roller coaster with a blindfold on. The twists and turns are even less predictable than a typical relationship, but hell, the drop is epic and now I’m hooked.

Apart from how to hide a breakup cry sesh on a plane with the grace of a gazelle, here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

Misunderstandings are natural, but they should always be addressed. Differing communication patterns might mean your partner doesn’t even know how or why they’ve upset you — so, speak up if you can.

On the lighter end, some of your jokes may fall flat due to cultural gaps, but oftentimes the differences between you and your partner can prove to be an incredible strength.

The most mundane conversations — like how you make your eggs in the morning — can become deep dives into your respective cultures.

Cooking dinner together can be more entertaining than an episode of “Chopped.” And arguments over how to pronounce the word “aluminum” can become a favorite pastime.

Too many times to count, I’ve found myself marveling with joy over the most mundane things in my international relationships.

Learning about another culture through the stories of someone you deeply care for is an unfathomably beautiful experience.

I don’t know about you, but my fight-or-flight response goes off at lightning speed when someone tries to make me their wife right off the bat.

Personally, when it comes to relationships, I like to say I’m “always just chilling, until I’m not.” In other words, I’m usually not looking for anything specific until it hits me in the face — like a (very attractive) brick.

Thing is, some countries use the words “partner,” “girlfriend,” or “boyfriend” quite casually — whereas in the United States, these labels often warrant the infamous “what are we” talk.

Some move fast. Others are painfully slow.

I’ve experienced both sides of the coin: dodging dudes with wedding rings but also seeking commitment in others who seem oblivious to the concept.

I’ve had people tell their parents about me a week after we meet and others who just permanently avoid the topic of dating.

It’s a toss-up.

If it hasn’t already happened in your home country, be prepared to encounter a wildly different timeline than your own.

Either way, one of the more endearing lessons I’ve learned is that nearly everyone wants the same thing, regardless of where they come from: kick-ass human connection, and lots of it.

We’re a sensitive species at heart, even if our respective countries’ societal norms taught some to wear armor.

Now, I’m a highly emotive American woman who will dish out her thoughts faster than many. But not everyone grows up in a society conducive to vulnerability — or one with many emotions whatsoever.

At times, I may have overwhelmed people with my assertive admissions of feelings, wrongfully assuming that it’s just as easy for them to share what’s going on in their minds.

In 2019, the analytics company Gallup published a report on global emotions after surveying people from over 140 countries and territories about their daily emotional experiences.

People were asked yes or no questions about whether they experienced five positive and five negative emotions in the past day.

According to the results, Latin American countries were among the world’s most emotional with high volumes of “yes” responses about experiencing a wide range of emotions — most of them being positive.

I didn’t exactly need Gallup to lead me to that conclusion — the “I love you” eyes from a myriad of gentlemen on the dance floor in Colombia were a solid clue — but it’s fascinating to see a numerical connection.

Our environments shape both what and how much we feel, and culture plays a massive role in that.

There’s long distance — and then there’s looong distance. Traveling from Minneapolis to Milwaukee sounds like a breeze when you compare it to living in Tokyo with a lover in Tanzania.

Difficult as it may be, it’s not doomed. There are plenty of ways to make long-distance relationships work.

Plus, even though it might be frustrating, the general ebb and flow of daily life can pull you and your partner in opposite directions, ultimately making periods apart feel semi-normal.

If you have to be separated for an extended period, make sure you have a conversation sooner rather than later about your individual needs and expectations.

For example, do you want to video call once a week? Take turns traveling to one another (as the pandemic allows) every couple of months?

Finding a structure that works for both of you will make or break your time away. That, and a consensual NSFW photo here and there, can really keep the fire alive.

No matter how globalized our world becomes, there are still plenty of technical challenges attached to dating someone from a faraway land.

You might face visa complications or get trapped in separate countries because of a border-shutting pandemic.

Sometimes, your plans just don’t line up logistically in the expat lifestyle — like if you’re new in town and they have plans to leave soon.

Soon enough your flexibility will rival that of an Olympic gymnast.

The trials and tribulations are anything but “normal” as far as relationships go, but all the tedious complications can make you increasingly nimble.

Patience in all these endeavors, whether being apart for months or trying to understand a stone-cold cultural divide, is key for moving through tough times.

“Screw it” has become a motto of mine over the years, and slapdash pursuits of the heart are no exception.

I’m a bit of a risk-taking hopeless romantic, and, once in a while, it puts a blindfold on the logical side of my brain.

Yes, you might be completely aware that flying 8,392 miles for someone you’ve got the hots for is a bit reckless. But, given the opportunity, I bet you’d do it at least once in the name of thrill.

It might be perfect, or it might be a complete flop. Either way, you’ll learn from it — I definitely did.

Adventures of the heart, even if they dissolve in the end, can leave you with memories and stories that’ll be retold for a lifetime.

I’m not even trying to be cheesy; it’s true, I swear.

Even now, I can’t help but smile at the thought of my past travel escapades — the ones that were born solely from the spark of human connection, the one-way flights booked on impulse, and all of the quirky differences that brought us closer together.

I even hold gratitude for the endings that have caused me pain, reveling in the passion that once was and the way I grew stronger from it.


Sarah Lempa is a writer and creative media strategist covering the joys (and challenges) of travel lifestyle, mental health, and solopreneurship. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, VICE, and SUITCASE Magazine, among others. Currently based in Indonesia, she’s called multiple countries home and has ventured across six continents along the way. When she’s not chipping away at a piece, you’ll find her jamming out to groovy beats or riding a motorcycle. Keep up with Sarah on Instagram.





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