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intercultural marriages and expatriation

E. Newman, a Swiss-German lady married to an Italian man. In this amusing articles, she tells us about her own intercultural experience.


Summer 1982

A small plane somewhere in the world. Seat 24A. I sat down. Tired, since I had just spent 8 hours on a long flight. Seat 24C. A young man. Physically, my opposite. Medium height. Black curly hair. Brown eyes. Strong Mediterranean features. Extremely well dressed. Inspection over.

I closed my eyes and tried to rest. I was going to spend 2 weeks in Switzerland with my family and friends whom I had not seen in 6 months.

Then I heard a voice: “Is dat yourr newspaperr?” Couldn’t he see I wanted to be left alone? “Yes“. And again: “Where did you get it?” “Overseas“. Very persistent: “Oh, you arre coming frrom overseas?” “Yes, and I am very tired.” He just burst out laughing… and so did I.

July 1986

We got married. Opposites attract.

It was a rocky road to get to this day. His family was totally opposed to me. A Swiss. A Protestant. Divorced parents. Nobody was going to buy a house where he and I could live. In his culture and social class this is expected from the bride’s family. Did I speak Italian? No, not at the time. I had to learn it really fast. And I did. Very fast. With this hurdle behind me communication with his family would be easier, I thought. Well, it was. A little. Now everybody had higher expectations. Since communication seemed possible, humor included, there were fewer excuses for those cross-cultural misunderstandings.

July 1988

Our first baby. My mother-in-law joined us at the hospital. Upset. I had done it all wrong. In the south of Italy giving birth is a family affair. Everybody attends. The grand-mothers, sisters. The more the merrier. Me, I had done it the Swiss-German way. Just the father, the MD and the mid-wife. Worse, I was not really complaining about the delivery. 9 hours for a first? It could have been worse, or so I thought. I was taught: you must give birth in pain, or you’ll never love your child. And there was still plenty left to learn: I did not want hordes of visitors in my room. I liked the peace with my new baby boy. Wrong again.

For the two children that were to follow, we compromised: I still delivered the “Swiss-German way” but I added lots of pain and bloodshed into my description of the deliveries. Mother-in-law was pleased. Where there is a will there is a way. It just goes to show that we can bridge some of those cultural gaps with a good sense of humor and an open mind.

But what about those gaps, that we just can’t bridge? Sadly enough I discovered plenty of them. Too many.

Opposites attract: not just physically. Emotionally and intellectually as well.

Communication and communicating: The language

Should both partners learn the language of the other spouse? Yes, by all means. No excuses. Why? Our mother tongue is what unites and connects us to our families, old friends and our previous lives. It was extremely difficult for me that I was unable to spend time with my husband and my family or old friends with all of us speaking German. It distanced me from old friends and my family. It became fastidious to spend time with them and I ultimately gave up. A huge mistake.

He had many excuses: too much work , he’d do it over the summer, the language was too difficult, I was too much of a perfectionist and would never let him talk… Ultimately, not making the effort to understand one’s spouse’s culture and share their language is a lack of respect and there is no excuse for it. Do I mean perfection? No. For most of us an impossible goal to reach. I mean lowering the language barrier. Reaching out to your spouse. The ability to truly welcome your spouse’s family and friends, making them and your spouse feel at home.

Communicating in a language that is not the mother tongue of either spouse: positive and neutral or negative and re-enforcing the cultural as well as the emotional gap? Probably a little of both. Even though I learned to speak Italian fluently, we continued our interactions in English. I don’t really know why. It didn’t matter all that much either. The language barrier between my “old” family and friends and my “new” life proved to be much more bothersome.

The religion

It was a difference we were never truly able to overcome. Our children are all catholic. In the beginning I was convinced that that was the right thing to do. Even more so, that I am not very firmly anchored in any church. As time went on though, I felt more and more alienated by the catholic church. Too dogmatic, too cold. I do not know what we could have done better. However it created yet another gap, that widened each time we attended mass and I had to remain in the pews when my family went to get the holy communion.

The truth is that I was not willing to convert before we got married or thereafter. Perhaps that was a mistake. In the meantime I have met other “mixed couples” i.e., Catholic-Protestant. Christian-Jewish, Jewish-Muslim, Muslim-Christian, the list could be endless. They raised their children in either an ecumenical or a non-denominational parish. Some of them had no religion whatsoever. From the outside they seemed much more at ease than we ever were.

True respect for the other’s culture

I can criticize my family, but you cannot. The same applies to cultural differences. During our engagement my husband was transferred from Belgium to Switzerland for an assignment of one year. He called me overseas, where I was still studying: “I will be the boss of 50 ‘sandale’ with brown polyester socks. I am moving out of Brussels in one month“. Of course I knew who he was talking about. My compatriots. He had just been transferred to Switzerland. (A great opportunity to learn the language by the way, I thought).

Throughout our entire life together I felt like the “bad, boring, heavy” Swiss-German, next to the “charming, easygoing, fun” Italian. Every culture has their own clichés and stigmas. Italians are fun, happy, easygoing, flexible. They know how to live. The Swiss are always serious, inflexible, stubborn, heavy handed. A real compliment from my husband’s mouth was: she is a “Swiss-German light”. It still made him the fun one and left me with the boring image. A feeling of helplessness. Solitude. Repeated transfers from country to country. Belgium. Morocco. France. The US. The mixed couple living in cultures that neither of them were really part of. With hindsight, Belgium was probably the country best adapted to our needs. Flemish and Waloons. The North and the South. Italy and Switzerland. Was it simply the loving beginning of a cross-cultural journey and were we blissfully unaware of what separated us or did the cultural environment we lived in make it easier?


La chronique d’une mort annoncée”. The beginning of the end. First: Overwhelming solitude for me. How to behave? What to say? How to dress? I am blonde, tall, blue eyes. Pregnant. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Very intimidated by it all.

The first year the gap between the locals and me seemed impossible to overcome. Not for my Italian husband. He felt right at home. This was so close to his roots. Calabria in Morocco. He knew instinctively how to act. Not I.

I was intimidated. Scared of the unknown. Falsely overburdened with prejudices and clichés about this new environment. The gap between us widened. More arguments and discussions.

When I was really upset I’d tell him: “you are just like THEM”. After a year I had adjusted to Morocco. I started appreciating the immense hospitality, warmth, the sense of humor. So why couldn’t we close the gap in our marriage? We did not know how to communicate anymore. Was that “cross-cultural” or male-female?


A city he knew extremely well. Finally a place where we both had family. An aunt per spouse. My closest friend. I was thrilled. A new beginning. A new chance. A gorgeous house. A baby girl. I ran after my toddler, nursed the baby, fixed the house, took care of the boxes. Nothing special, but I felt useful, efficient.

And then, an accident. Serious. My son spent 6 weeks in the hospital. And again: the gap. It was back. With all its might. We did not have the same priorities. Cultural or male – female? I wanted to devote myself to my two children. They needed me. Both of them. My little boy in the hospital and my little girl for her feedings. I simply had no room left for the adult who was their Dad.

All my strength went to my children. For a long time. It took my son almost two years to recover. I needed moral support to maintain my inner strength. This time, I am certain we faced serious cultural differences. My husband considered it my “job” to take care of the children. No matter what. Under normal circumstances I had no problem with that. I loved it. Not now. My son’s condition put an enormous strain on our relationship.

I needed some warmth, some constructive feed back. My husband seemed helpless. So I decided to turn to a specialist. A psychologist to help me deal with my own feelings and support me in helping my son. I tried to discuss this with my husband. “No, absolutely not. Psychologists are only for crazy people. We cannot tell anyone in Italy that you are seeing a shrink. A public embarrassment!” Alone again. And unable to comprehend what I had just heard. This was a cultural difference we were not able to overcome.

Ultimately, 6 months later, I went away. First on my own, then with my son. It helped to put things into perspective. But the gap widened. It is common knowledge that men are much less likely to seek psychological support, no matter where they are from. Women need to accept that as a given. What we were not able to reach was a status quo, that worked for both of us. In my view: who cares? Understanding your limits is a sign of intelligence. In his: the public shame.

Our son was not to talk about the lady he saw on Tuesdays. It was a sign of weakness to seek help. We never found a compromise. This leads us to our value systems. I discovered that each culture has their own values and there are no “wrongs” or “rights”. Does it really matter whether our children go to bed at 7PM or 9PM? At what time we eat? These are the easy ones.

What about our perception of truth and honesty? What is considered a blatant lie in Switzerland might be considered a polite way of “putting it” in Italy. A simple “yes or no” question in Switzerland gets just this answer: yes or no. No offense! Not so in Italy, especially in the South. My Germanic replies were the cause of a lot of friction, until I understood. I was perceived as rude. But then, I wondered, how could I communicate what I had to say, by “saying yes”, but “doing no”, when I felt that it was needed.

Mother-in-law taught me: in Italy, you cannot say “no”. I felt disarmed. Helpless. How to communicate? Where was the compromise? How could I communicate the “Italian way” and get “Swiss-German results”. The reader might say, why does she want “Swiss-German results”? Of course they were not needed most of the time.

Yet, there were those times when they did matter to me. Those times when compromising was not enriching, but rather meant giving up my own identity. A very difficult choice. Our sense of shame. Earlier I mentioned consulting a therapist. Is there any need to elaborate? Can we pass judgment on either one of the spouses? I do not believe so. Each one brings his own values and education into the marriage. In this case, so different. Life in a “neutral environment”: an attempt to reach equality. A deliberate choice. Not to live in Italy or in Switzerland. Earlier I had mentioned Belgium as a compromise for our specific case. Then I cited Morocco, the place he had so much more affinity with. A compromise? Equality? Later, the US. A country I have always loved. A sense of “belonging”. Not for him. We were not on the same page at all. Does this mean “neutral” does not truly exist? I believe so. This does not mean all is doomed. I believe however that it takes a great deal of sensitivity, an open heart and mind to enter a cross-cultural union. The risk for misunderstandings is higher. As a result we need to increase our level of tolerance. Cross-cultural relationships can be extremely enriching and as today’s world gets smaller and we are raising our children in a more and more international fashion the challenge to re-evaluate our own thinking is growing constantly.

There is no way I have covered the entire spectrum of cross-cultural relationships. The field is fascinating and immense. I simply attempted a little “awareness-building”, for anyone who considers entering such a union or is currently involved in one. Every case is different and nothing is written in stone. My little article is meant to be one thing, and one thing only: “Food for Thought”

… needless to say that any resemblance to actual events or people are purely accidental and fictional.

E. Newman
April 2005
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