Love in a Strange Land

Enchantment, intimacy and romance abroad

My grandfather had his “study abroad” experience at age 20, like many college students, but his took place in the thick of World War II. Choosing to enlist, he left New York’s City College in 1942 and spent the next three years thousands of miles from home, fighting for his country and based in southern India. Growing up, I heard about the tse tse fly that gave him malaria and about the time he spent in the military hospital. Yet those stories never grabbed me quite as much as the one about his short-lived romance with the daughter of a British nobleman. 

Her father, Lord David Ezra, hoped to find her a match when he learned of a nice Jewish soldier in the area. Lord Ezra invited my grandfather for a meal and showed off his private, all-white zoo. As for the girl, my grandfather said that she was “perfectly nice” but that nothing ever happened.

Maybe they didn’t click. Maybe my grandfather was too busy to get involved with a wealthy Jew’s daughter. Or maybe the whole affair was infeasible because his home was in Brooklyn and hers was in Calcutta.

The night that he went to Lord Ezra’s manor, my grandfather faced the simultaneous tasks of courting a woman and adapting to her cultural mores—all while he was on furlough from a World War. And though students today do not have to deal with loading missiles for the Allies as they find romance overseas, relationships abroad come with their own set of added challenges. Students must adapt to new and different norms of dress, male-female relations and personal safety in a new country, and dating locals can give them a needed measure of security, comfort and intimacy.

At the same time, however, entering into such a relationship may make a semester abroad even more foreign. Along with the exoticness and excitement of dating someone overseas comes a headfirst dive into that person’s—and his culture’s—differing conceptions of love, sex and what it means to be in a relationship.

Naamah Paley, a University of Michigan alum who spent a summer during college in Turkey, experienced that tension firsthand. When she arrived in Istanbul to volunteer at a Jewish camp, a security officer from the Jewish community named Murat came to the airport to retrieve her.

“I was a stupid American and had no idea what to do,” Paley said. Murat made her feel comfortable immediately, and the professional relationship turned romantic—aided by a tour of Istanbul’s Jewish institutions. “We went to the synagogue and Jewish community center and we had this great time, and then we ended up sort of dating for the rest of the summer.”

It took some time before Paley embraced the cultural norms Murat brought into the relationship. In Turkey, the man traditionally pays for the woman, which proved to be an adjustment for Paley.

“I was on my parents’ dollar and he wasn’t making that much money,” she said.  “In America, we’re so like, ‘No, I’m a woman and I can do that,’ and then it became the most amazing thing. It was not infantilizing. It was really sweet.”

In a country where women often face catcalls and harassment in the street, feeling a sense of security was particularly important to Paley, which was why she had met Murat in the first place, before they began dating.  “He was there to physically protect me,” she said. “It was his job.”

Sarah, a Jewish student at the American University of Cairo, faced similar difficulties and found a similar solution. “I couldn’t walk down the street and not get harassed,” she said. “[When it was] 95 degrees, I had to wear long sleeves.” She found a reprieve in her boyfriend Khaled, an American-educated Egyptian Muslim she met through Seeds for Peace, an international conflict-resolution group. Cognizant of the dangers that foreign women in Cairo faced, Khaled took extra care to deter would-be lecherous men from Sarah when they went out together. “He wanted to make it clear that I was with him so that other people wouldn’t harass me,” she said.

In other instances, such traditional gender roles flipped. Michal, an Israeli, met her Dutch boyfriend Peter while skiing in France. At first, their dynamic made them both uncomfortable. “He found me much more aggressive than him and he was too calm for me,” said Michal. Nevertheless, Peter won her over. “He was an amazing guy, sweet, kind,” she said. “His family was so welcoming. It was like I immediately became part of the family.”

While cultural differences caused tension for Michal, other couples grew closer because of their different backgrounds. Rebecca, a Washington University in St. Louis student who met her Azeri Muslim boyfriend Selim while studying abroad at the University of Haifa, said that their differences were what sparked the initial attraction.  

“He just had qualities that I think are probably more common in his culture than I have seen in American culture,” she said.  “I really admired how he stuck to his word and had a lot of self-control and determination.  He woke up at 5 AM to pray.”

The Jewish-Muslim divide did not spell doom for Rebecca and Selim, who cared more about people’s beliefs and intentions than about specific practice.  “He wanted to see that someone had some sort of relationship to God,” Rebecca said.  

Despite that common ground, Rebecca says the relationship never could have happened in Selim’s homeland of Azerbaijan.  “They don’t really have girlfriends where you’re dating someone and you’re on equal footing,” she said “I think it blew his mind a little or at least he had to grapple with what I was, that he could love and respect me [while] I was unmarried and in a relationship.”

Similar cultural restrictions limited the development of Sarah’s relationship with Khaled in Egypt. “I wasn’t going to meet his family or see his neighborhood because that’s not acceptable,” she said, and added that the relationship “could only go so far.”

While Judaism was not the deal-breaker in Sarah’s case—Khaled saw her as “more American than Jewish,” she said—it did cause some problems back home. In classic Jewish communal fashion, Sarah’s mother found out through the mother of a friend that her daughter was dating a Muslim.

“I was sitting at dinner table eating steak and drinking wine, and my mom said, ‘I heard you had an Egyptian boyfriend.’  I don’t think she was upset, but she would’ve been if it had lasted,” she said.

In part because she and her boyfriend were both Jewish, Paley escaped the issue altogether as Murat’s community embraced her. Even though Paley says their dating “was probably pretty sketchy at camp because of the conservative culture, no one said anything. I was always very welcomed.”

In the Turkish community, says Paley, a feeling of “we’re all Jews and we’re in it together” trumped any cultural tension. She felt that though their worlds were so different, Murat and she viewed being Jewish in the same way. 

“I’m a Jew from the Upper West Side and I grew up with total safety and security.  His Judaism was very minority and very persecuted, very self-segregating,” said Paley. “Both of us were people who defended Judaism.  I try to improve it ideologically, defending it thoughtfully and he provided tangible physical security.”

Differences in personality and values, rather than religion or background, hampered the Israeli Michal’s relationship with Peter. When Peter overpaid for a jeep tour in Jordan—getting a half-broken car and a guide who did not speak English for 100 while other tourists got a working vehicle, an English-speaking tour guide, a meal and sleeping accommodations for much less—Michal was furious. The next time Peter had to pay for something, Michal hid behind a rock to see what happened. “This guy in Petra wanted 50, and he said, ‘No I’ll give you 20,’ so suddenly he started bargaining,” she said. Later, she convinced him to learn how to drive—at age 32. 

Although Peter loved Michal—he proposed to her twice and considered moving to Israel—she could not see them together and broke it off before starting her studies at New York University. “He would have moved to Israel if I’d asked him to,” She said. “But we are really different people.  He is not very ambitious and I was always looking for the next thing.”

Circumstances rather than emotions ended things for Rebecca, Sarah and Paley: they each chose the familiarity of home over the familiarity of their current relationships, and all broke up with their respective boyfriends before returning to the United States. Despite her feelings for him, Rebecca was glad to put an ocean between her and Selim.

“I was kind of comforted that there would be this big distance,” she said. “It would have been a really big struggle to have a serious relationship with someone with such different views.” 

Rachel Trager is the co-founder of Pink Pangea, an online community for women travelers.  She is an MFA student in fiction writing at Columbia University.  

**Due to the sensitive nature of some of the content in this article, several names have been changed.**

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