Love, Culture And Other Languages: Differences In Romance Across Europe

In case you hadn’t noticed, Valentine’s Day is here. To celebrate the quirks and joys of pan-European dating, here’s an investigative deep dive into the cultural differences in love and relationships across the continent.
European dating couple hangs out on a bridge in Berlin
  • What are you doing tonight?
  • Want to come over?
  • I’ll make dinner 🙂

These WhatsApp messages were from a man I’d recently started seeing. We’d met in the famous Berlin nightclub Berghain of all places, and we hit it off immediately, swapping stories of my London life compared to his Frankfurt upbringing. I was three months into my new life in Berlin and very happy to be dating a German. How authentic, I thought to myself. I was having a true European dating experience.

This dinner invite would be our fourth date. The previous ones had gone swimmingly: burgers at a local restaurant, a French film, a walk in Viktoria Park — and now a romantic dinner. I cycled over to his Kreuzberg apartment with a smile on my face. I wondered what Deutsch delicacies would await me.

The smell of onion pervaded the air as I approached his apartment. “Hallo!” He opened the door. “Wie geht’s?” (We spoke a little German together. I thought it was adorable.) The tiny table in the kitchen was set for two and the smell of raw onion was overpowering. Tears stung my eyes.

“What have you made for dinner?” I asked. “It smells…potent.”

“I’ve had this craving all week,” he said, the smell of fish and garlic strong on his breath. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

I looked over to the source of the smell. The kitchen was dimly lit with tea candles but I could just about make out a square shape on each of the plates. What was that? It couldn’t be. Why the he—

“I’ve made tuna sandwiches.”

A German Love Story

It took me over a year of living in Germany to understand why this person (the man my friends and I now refer to as Tuna Sandwich) decided to serve that choice of dinner. But it was as simple as this: He had a craving, he fancied tuna sandwiches, and he thought I’d like to eat them too. This sense of logic and practicality blew my little British mind, but this is just one of the quirks you’ll get used to when dating a German.

But most challenging of all, perhaps, is coming to grips with each other’s sense of humor. Raphael is a Londoner who’s been dating his German boyfriend for over seven years. I turn to him for insight into the complexities of these beings.

“At first he hated my sense of humor,” Raphael says. “He didn’t get why I kept taking the mick but I was just flirting. He brought it up about two to three months in and I toned it down a bit. I think he eventually ‘got it’ when he visited my family for the first time and saw how everyone just took the mick out of each other all the time.”

(If you’re keen to avoid these landmines on your own European dating endeavors, here’s how to flirt with a German.)

From Russia With Love

Katya (Polish) has been dating Aleksi (Russian) for 18 months. They met on Tinder in Vilnius, Lithuania, and have been living together and traveling around the world ever since — she studying and he working. The cultural differences that Katya has noticed manifest in Aleksi’s moderate Russian nationalism. “When we argue I can see this Russian pride of his. Saying that Russia is the greatest. We argue about politics when he wants to be mean.”

Neither can speak the other’s mother tongue, which meant that they fell in love in a different language. This is often the case in transnational European dating culture. “We communicate in English. But if I don’t know a word in English I’ll say it in Polish and there’s a big chance he’ll know what I mean because they’re both Slavic languages.”

But in this case, their sense of humor transcends language barriers. “We have the same weird sense of humor so we’re really connected on this level.”

No Games In Hungary

Natalie (British) has been with her partner Tamás (Hungarian) for 15 years. They met in London before Shoreditch was the “edgy” neighborhood. Natalie says, “I remember when we first started going out and I learned some Hungarian in private. I said some of these phrases when we were out one night and Tamás was really impressed.”

Learning the language of the person you’re datingespecially if it’s not very widely spoken like Hungarian — is a sign of respect and willingness to share your partner’s culture. “Hungarian isn’t a business language and it’s not spoken anywhere else in the world so you’re learning it for Hungarian people. It’s such a small population that most people are very appreciative.”

But one of the major cultural differences that Natalie noticed is that Tamás didn’t play any games: “If he said he was going to call, then he did. If we were going to meet, we met. English guys would always play games and not text back and I had to ‘follow the rules’ and not text back straight away. But with Tamás, none of that existed, and it was really refreshing.”

Best Regards From Poland

Jack (British) has been with Ania (Polish) for over two years.

“We met like all successful couples do — on Tinder,” Jack says. We communicate in English. I’m learning Polish so occasionally we switch, but this is more for my benefit to practice, rather than meaningful conversation.”

There are clear benefits to learning languages for love, but in Poland there were misunderstandings that took a while to decipher.

“There’s a habit of ‘sending best regards’ to and from friends and family,” Jack explains. “So if Ania is on the phone to her brother or has recently seen a friend, she might say ‘they send best regards.’ Okay, so we have something similar in the U.K. — someone ‘says hi’ or ‘send them my love’ — but when Ania was first sending me best regards from people, I just said, ‘Oh, say hi back.’ At some point I realized I was offending her by not expressing my regards, as if I didn’t care about people she was close to. So we discussed that and now I can approach it much better.”

The emotional differences have helped Jack learn about himself, too. “I think that Poles, perhaps Slavs more broadly, are very in touch with emotions. Much more so than Brits with that stiff upper lip thing. Ania can be very melancholic, either about things directly in her own past, or about aspects of collective Polish consciousness. So that was a slightly weird one for me. Over time, I think that it’s enabled me to be open about my own sadness and not try to bury it, so there’s a positive within the difference.”

European Dating For Beginners

One of the pros and cons of dating within this tightly packed continent is that there are countless cultural differences you’ll encounter from nationality to nationality (and even region to region). Dating a Parisian is going to bring along different norms and expectations than dating an Italian, even if these societies are both very interested in cuisine and aesthetics. Simply speaking, every country is different.

If you want to nab yourself an international beau, there are 50 different ways to crack the code of European dating. But you should at the least learn some pet names in different languages, or even how to say “I love you” in different languages.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on Feb. 14, 2019.

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