Lifestyle

‘Whoever said the language of love is universal never lived in Germany’: British singles on the awkward truth about dating abroad

Illustration of a hand holding a phone with a pink screen and red heart in its centre

I have often seen the dreariest, most potato-like English men elevated to stud status

Adam Gabbatt, 36, New York City
Being a foreigner abroad doesn’t necessarily make you interesting, but it does at least give you something to talk about. If, like me, you’re a bit boring, you can still rely on someone at a party, or in a bar, or – once – in the shower at a swimming pool being curious about your origins. It can make you more desirable, too. When I was new to New York, an American woman overheard me in a deli asking for a blueberry “bun” rather than muffin. We chatted and she gave me her number. I lost it, but for the first time in my life I felt exotic.

In New York City, being British should be less interesting. Given the diversity of the city, and the alleged worldliness of its residents, there are a lot of New Yorkers who will claim to be above finding different nationalities interesting. But most of them are lying.

In New York City I have often seen the blandest, dreariest, most potato-like English men elevated to stud status (it’s English people – typical – who benefit more than the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish). And they know it, too; there’s a type of English man who has carved out a space for himself as being, well, English.

“Englishman in New York!” is his Tinder bio. There’ll be a picture of him with a union flag or looking mock-bewildered in Times Square. Hang in enough bars and you’ll hear English men on dates, often with women far too attractive for them, doing their best Hugh Grant impression and using words like “totty” and “crumpet”.

I’ve tried to avoid becoming the type of man whose entire personality revolves around being British, but my accent has almost certainly helped with my dating career, even if, as I’m from the north of England, Americans can find it difficult to place.

“Are you Australian? Are you from New Zealand?”

“Neither. I’m from Lancashire.”

“What’s a Lancashire?”

The accusations of being from Australia are hard to come to terms with, and so is the fact that many Americans lack the self-deprecation of other nations. The reduced faux modesty on dates can be refreshing, but it takes a while to get used to. A few years ago I went on a date with a woman who was a fairly well-known – although I’d never heard of her – musician. About 20 minutes into our hang, she said, completely deadpan: “I’m kind of surprised you haven’t heard of me.”

It took all my effort not to spray beer everywhere. Back home I’d have taken her comment for an excellent joke. But I got past it and we dated for more than a year.

It’s not just the personalities that are different. In Britain you can end up going out with someone without really realising it. Hover around someone over a period of weeks. Get drunk together. Sleep together. Wake up with a girlfriend. Here the relationship is carefully defined, each stage with its own terminology and expected level of commitment. There’s hooking up, hanging out, dating and “deleting the apps”, like levels in some daft video game.

Hooking up, as far as I’m aware, means having sex, and only meeting to do so, usually at night. Hanging out is the next step. It’s sort of the same thing, but sometimes you’ll go to a movie beforehand, instead of a bar, and in the morning the person doesn’t leave immediately, but might loiter for an hour or so.

Dating is a curious stage where you’re not technically in a committed relationship but you’re spending a lot of time together, including doing things in the day. At this point you may meet up to three of your love interest’s friends. Deleting the apps can be done with or without the other person’s consent.

The problem is, not everyone agrees on those definitions. I took someone to a friend’s party and introduced her to a group as “my co-dater”. She shouted, a little too loudly: “We’re not dating!” It turned out we were merely hanging out.

The final challenge is commonly an uncomfortable conversation about exclusivity. The process involves talking openly and honestly about feelings and expectations, about concerns and jealousies and flaws.

Back home in England I once confirmed my relationship status by standing at a nightclub bar with a woman I was seeing and asking for “a blue WKD for my girlfriend”. I looked at the woman hopefully, and she gave me a thumbs up. I had a girlfriend.

Here the conversation is much more intense: “What are your hopes and dreams? Where do you see yourself in five years? How do you feel about monogamy? What antidepressants do you take?” Ironically, given the clamour to date English men – however flawed, boring, doughy – it’s a style of dating, even a style of behaving, that many of us are entirely unprepared for.

Quick Guide

Get your coat: how to flirt in eight languages

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Italian
Se fossi un astronauta ti porterei sulla luna. Non lo sono, quindi ti accompagnerò a casa
If I were an astronaut I would take you to the moon. But as I’m not, I’ll walk you home instead

German
Ich habe meine Telefonnummer vergessen, kann ich deine haben?
I have lost my phone number. May I have yours?

Japanese
Kondo ocha shinai?
Shall we get tea next time?

Spanish
¿Te llamas Google? Porque eres todo lo que busco
Is your name Google? Because you are everything I’m looking for

Swahili
Una tabasumu nzuri
You have a beautiful smile

Arabic
Kalaamak ‘asal ‘ala qalbi
Your words are honey on my heart

Urdu
Tum jab pass hotey ho to yeh duniya khoobsoorat lagti hai
When you are near me the world feels beautiful

Yoruba
Ododo mi
My flower

Research: Sundus Abdi and Kitty Drake

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Illustration of a man and woman on a tandem

‘You’re being too British,’ my friend says. ‘If you want to have sex with them, just tell them’

Trish Lorenz, 50, Berlin
Last week I got a message on the Bumble dating app: “Which position do you prefer when riding a tandem?” For a moment I was confused. Perhaps it was one of these “quirky” starter questions the app sometimes throws up, I thought. Or a cheeky innuendo? I’ve spent most of my life in London, where banter and double entendre are integral to dating, but this is the first suggestive message I’ve encountered while dating in Germany. I sent a slightly nudge-nudge, flirtatious reply.

I’ve lived in Berlin for two years now and, the city being what it is, I have dated architects, musicians, a film-maker, a DJ, a nurse and a fire-eating special needs teacher. They’ve all been friendly, mostly interesting, but the dates have been, well, a bit dull.

The stereotype that Germans are dour or humourless is completely wrong: I laugh with my friends here as hard and as often as I ever did in London. But where in Britain laughter is seen as an aphrodisiac, in Germany humour is low on the list when it comes to romance. Germans of both sexes prefer direct, earnest communication. As my German friends tell me: “Relationships are not a joke.”

My very first date arrives by bike, having pedalled 50km to meet me. As an ice-breaker, I try a joke about his staying power, which is met with an assessment of his fitness-to-age ratio and the results of his recent health checkup. I change tack and ask where he lives, hoping for an insight into a town I’ve never visited. Instead, he shares details of his living arrangements and the emotional challenges of post-divorce childcare. He’s genuine but it’s very intense. When he asks about my relationship history, and I joke that no one has the time answering that question requires and try to change the subject to the weather, the date is effectively over.

It seems more promising when a DJ invites me to his apartment for our third date. Our first two have been walks across snow-covered parks during lockdown winter – we have long, interesting chats but no chance to indulge in anything more risque. This time I have hopes: flirtation, a few drinks, who knows where it might lead. When I arrive, he is baking a cake (Germans are crazily good bakers). It’s delicious, but an evening of kaffee und kuchen saps all the frisson from the night.

Back on Bumble, a follow-up message: my match is confused by my flirtatious reply. It turns out he’d genuinely been curious about my tandem preference. Whoever said the language of love is universal never lived in Germany. Frustrated, I consult a German friend. “You’re being too British,” she says. “You need to be direct. If you want to have sex with them, just tell them.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” I say. “I need them to help me want to have sex with them.” I want them to make me laugh; I don’t want their health records.

Wistfully I contemplate the previous five years, when I lived in Lisbon and Madrid. Dating was hot and steamy, filled with passion and flattery. “You are more beautiful than all the stars in the sky,” one lover told me. But these men were also fickle; the declarations came quickly but faded as fast. Perhaps it just takes more time and sincerity to build a connection in Germany, I think. Maybe if I can embrace the earnestness early on, it can lead to a more authentic, deeper experience in the long run.

I decide to forgo British banter and Latin flirtation, and go for candour instead. I hit reply: “You’ll never get me on a tandem. When it comes to cycling, I go it alone.”

“OK,” comes the reply. “Would you like to go for a ride on Saturday? Separate bikes!” The temptation to revert to suggestiveness is very hard to resist but I manage it. “Sounds good,” I say.

Writing as Patricia Wolf, Trish Lorenz’s debut novel, Outback, is published in November by Embla Books.

Illustration of two men sitting at a table with a bottle of wine on it

One of my dates has a boyfriend in Paris; another works for a terrorist organisation

Mark Valen, 42, Abidjan, Ivory Coast
“Hey, I just wanted to give you a tip for the next date. You should shave your beard. Ivorians don’t like men with big beards.” Dating as a gay man in Abidjan has been a learning experience. The beard comment came at the end of my first date with a translator. Up until then it had been fairly typical: we met on Grindr, which is pretty established here, and entered a long “talking phase” which then moved to WhatsApp. After agreeing to eat at a barbecue restaurant, we met up to chat about our lives, what we are looking for, the usual dating patter.

I told him it was rude to comment on the appearance of someone you had only just met; he told me that I misunderstood him. Later an apology arrived by text, which I accepted before replying that I was not interested in seeing him again. In return, he explained why I was not as charming as I thought. L’échapper belle – dodged a bullet. Suffice to say there was no second date.

I’m Anglo-American, and since moving here in late 2019 to work as a journalist, I have found outspokenness is common. I have met lots of creative, interesting and dynamic people who are living their best lives in the face of a state, families and churches that are not so accepting of homosexuality. But I’ve also found that gay first dates tend to be more full on because gay people are more open about difficult circumstances they face or have faced. Someone recently told me he is just looking for a local partner, because his boyfriend is in Paris; another that he is heartbroken because his ex’s prophetess mother forced him to end the relationship. Another works for a group defined by many governments as a terrorist organisation. My dating life here has been a mix of the sensational and the mundane: sushi and a museum, Netflix and chill.

Abidjan has a busy nightlife, and there are a few clubs that cater solely to the LGBTQ+ community. For foreigners, gay dating is more out in the open but there are often constraints for Ivorians. Most of the people I dated might be out to friends but not to family.

Many Ivorians, no matter their sexual orientation, enjoy sharing the rumour of the day or “reading” someone into the ground (read is slang for jokingly tearing a person apart with criticism). Like anywhere, they also juggle multiple partners, though the transactional side – what you want from someone or from a relationship – is often pretty explicit. Some Ivorians will even change their WhatsApp status to say as much: one feminist friend says she wants to share tasks and equality, another that what she cares about is the money.

Perhaps the greatest hurdle is that living (and dating) in Abidjan means operating in French. I speak French well, but it is a second language. I have also come to learn how small the circle of gay men is in Abidjan. When I shared that troubled first date story with my current – Ivorian – boyfriend, he simply asked: “Is the translator named Eric?” I replied, laughing: “Yes! Yes, he is!”

Illustration of a man and woman in the basket of a hot air balloon

‘I have a boyfriend,’ she said. ‘But yes, take my number’

Frank Andrews, 29, Paris
Worse still, it seemed others were having a wild time. Maybe I would have felt the same without the apps, but the people ignoring my likes looked a lot like the people smoking cigarettes on rue de Buci. I didn’t know what was wrong with my profile. Was I too self-deprecating perhaps? Were there too few shared cultural references? Was Brexit a bit of a turnoff? Was it simply my pictures?

According to non-French friends still there, frustration on the apps is common and comes as a result of cultural differences. In Paris there is still some shame attached to the mechanical nature of online dating, particularly among those looking for relationships. By contrast, singles in the UK are often reliant on dating apps, whatever they’re after. The Anglo-American culture of going on dates with strangers, where you drink and eat while sizing the other up, is also less prevalent – French people are more likely to approach someone in the street and then go for a drink.

There’s also – at least compared with the UK – less of a culture of seeing several people at once. Though not always, proof of which came during one of my spiciest dating experiences. Predictably it started with a face-to-face encounter. During the intermission at a theatre, I fumbled a “Bonjour” to a girl waiting in the lobby. “I have a boyfriend,” she said before adding, in a comically French moment: “But yes, take my number.” We went for a tentative meal near République soon after, avoiding the subject of her relationship.

The date took a turn when we said goodbye at a Métro station – as we walked away we both stopped and turned back around. Neither of us wanted the night to end, we realised, so we went back to mine. We saw each other for a while, before and after her relationship ended. It didn’t last, but in four years it was a rare moment of romance.

Illustration of a man and woman sitting on steps eating ice-creams, with flowers above their heads

A power cut once trapped me in a date’s lobby for hours

Daniel Hilton, 36, Beirut
At 27, life was not going to plan. I had no bed and no job. Any money I did make tutoring ancient history was ploughed into an increasingly untenable long-distance relationship with a girl in Stockholm.

Then a British friend living the life in Lebanon – or so it seemed – urged me to move there. Feeling lost, and with nothing keeping me here, I uprooted to Beirut in a week and quickly found work as a food writer at a magazine – a move that brought fresh professional and romantic possibilities.

Perhaps it was the newness of everything, perhaps it was the murderous July heat, but everything felt immediately thrilling – particularly dating. My first date in Beirut a couple of weeks after moving – a girl I met, rather old-fashionedly, through friends – promised me she would show me around. I assumed she meant the redeveloped city centre, a flashy neoliberal jewel of French mandate-era sandstone facades and empty streets, but instead we wandered romantically around sidestreets, disturbing cats quietly eating out of bins. We saw each other for a few weeks until she moved abroad.

I had packed appallingly, prioritising my antique coin collection rather than clothes, so for my first few months in Lebanon I seemed to dress mostly in rags. Yet despite this, and the near-constant sunburn I waved away as a “terracotta” tan, people wanted to hang out with me. Romance now involved dinners of ice-cream and ashta (clotted cream) on narrow stairs under a riot of bougainvillaea. In Beirut, romantic getaways to pine-scented mountains or coastal orchards are accessible and affordable. Occasionally the state’s dysfunction intervened: a power cut once trapped me in a date’s lobby for hours (the doors were electric). I had forgotten her flat number and my phone was dead. I appealed to a passerby for help through a window. He said: “This is Lebanon – never forget where you are” before walking on.

Tinder washed up on Lebanon’s shores a few months after I did, but my first attempts were unsuccessful and I didn’t get past swipes. Many women seemed terrifyingly glamorous, some only had images of roses on their profiles, and if you cast your net wide enough to cross the border, Israeli soldiers began to appear, gripping assault rifles, with glossy ponytails swept to one side.

I did end up in a relationship without Tinder’s help, though: everyone was sort of jumbled up together in bars and at house parties, and there were always new people arriving in Beirut.

A year after I left, the economy collapsed. Many of my old haunts have closed, people struggle to keep the lights on, and many just don’t have the cash to enjoy themselves like they did.

Illustration of a woman looking at her phone, with men’s heads in bubbles above it

Even the in-app racism lacks imagination

Georgina Lawton, 29, Lisbon
I moved to Lisbon in 2020 – single, with just my dog and a couple of suitcases – for a change of pace, a more relaxed, outdoor-focused lifestyle, and to work on my next book. I also hoped for a dating life filled with frenetic messaging, romantic strolls through winding streets and glasses of vinho verde by the river Tejo.

I moved when London was locked down and Lisbon was still open – there were no restrictions on bars and cafes. Despite this, the pace of dating was far slower. I was used to quick-fire questions and decisive dating plans, but in Lisbon the response time was languid, the digital flirting lacklustre. It was boring.

I made things harder for myself by being unable to speak Portuguese. Had I played myself entirely by moving here, I wondered after a few weeks of no luck. Tinder and Bumble are used here, a friend said, but the Portuguese don’t rely on them to facilitate dates in the same way as Brits; people see them as a way to find casual sex. Hinge, popular in London, wasn’t used much, and although in the UK black and brown women can be fetishised by white partners on dating apps, it had not happened to me for years. But immediately after moving to Lisbon, I received messages calling me “exotic”, with men expressing disbelief I was born and raised in the UK. Even the in-app racism was lacking in imagination.

When I ran out of potential dating matches after a few weeks, I realised the pool was far smaller than I was used to. But Lisbon has a vibrant street-party culture, so I turned to nights out in order to meet people, with some success. I flirted the night away with men in Bairro Alto, Lisbon’s party district, and arranged dates over the thumping beat of Brazilian funk music.

But Lisbon is a very transient city. Men who were my type seemed few and far between, and if I did find one, they either didn’t speak English or didn’t live in the city. Portuguese culture in general was also more closed off than I expected. Men were shy about approaching women in public. Catcalling and street harassment are rare, but I found myself craving just a sprinkle of the forward, hypermasculine approach I was used to from men in bars back home – then questioned my feminism.

Eventually I started dating a Portuguese man I met on an app. It took us two months to meet up, by which point we had gone into lockdown so the dating I had fantasised about – strolls through the city while picking up pastéis de nata – was impossible. Instead we formed an intense bond in my apartment, cooking seafood and drinking wine on my sofa, relying on each other for company and cuddles as the world burned around us.

After lockdown our incompatibility became clearer: I wanted to explore the city together and he just wanted to continue seeing me at my place. I grew bored and realised I need to be with someone who understands the importance of planned date nights beyond my apartment. Friends told me Portuguese men could be quite tight with spending, and I had noticed as much.

So, over a glass of vinho verde in a picturesque square, I ended things. In response, he stormed off. As I watched him cut through the crowds, I felt slightly relieved.

I don’t know if I’ll find what I’m looking for in Lisbon. But my life here is fuller and so much more peaceful than when I lived in London – and that’s more important than partnership right now.

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