Can I Call You? And Other Approaches To Dating, Expat Style

Expat social hub, The Fisherman's Wharf, Baku, Azerbaijan- Dave and Sheila Churchman

Expat Social Hub, “The Wharf”

He made his way over to our table, then quietly leaned in and whispered, “Can I call you?”

I would like that…

“Ok then.” (Slight fist pump, Yes!.) But as he turned to go back to his mates, I tugged at his shirt sleeve, “Umm, aren’t you forgetting something?”

“What? Oh, yeah, your number. Right!” (Finding a dry cocktail napkin he scribbled my mobile number).

Four months later when I ran into Bachelor #1 at the Wharf again, I teased him, asking if he was “ever planning to call me?” He blushed and stammered and quickly retreated. “Oh, he is clearly not the one for me,” I thought.

What happened? He seemed shy but so charming over the summer as we flirted at the Wharf, the unofficial social hub of expat life in Baku, Azerbaijan. Fast forward a couple more months, and we eventually did go on a date to a local restaurant, and he really was charming, right up until I got food poisoning and made a mess of the evening… (needless to say, I never saw him again.)

There were other places, bars and hangouts for oil hands, but the Wharf was different. Families congregated there on Sundays after expat church; professionals hung out after the day’s work at Baku’s international law/accounting/oil firms. The Wharf was a sports bar and restaurant that had a slightly rowdy, good-natured, semi-wholesome appeal, known more for its Louisiana owner’s welcome than anything else. In other words, it was a safe place for single girls to have lunch, an after work happy hour or late night drinks with friends without feeling like being in a meat market.

The Wharf was the place to see and be seen. Sooner or later all the expats you wanted to meet showed up at the Wharf. You could see people out for dinner at Scalini’s, the Italian place across from the Hyatt, but it was a place for a fairly nice dinner and not so much for table hopping. No, the Wharf was the place for running into people, or positioning yourself to be found, if that was the idea.

And so it was that I found myself playing a game of high school tag with the tall blond American geologist that summer.

Expat Dating: How to Find Romance Overseas

In A Sea Of Men, And Can’t Find A Date

I had been divorced nearly 5 years by then and friends and colleagues thought it was time to “fix me up”. We didn’t have options like or eHarmony over there, so introductions, meet ups and the like were the only real opportunities to meet potential dates.

This Christmas photo is a measure of how hard it was to find someone to go out with as a female expat. As the Executive Director of AmCham, I was greeting all the attendees of our annual Christmas Gala where the first order of business fun was to guide couples to the Christmas tree for a lovely commemorative photo.

A sharp looking gentleman ascended the stairs alone. I teased him about taking his photo and he said no, not alone. “No problem, I don’t have a date either. I’ll take a photo with you.”

He replied, “Perfect! Although, I actually do have a date- he’s just not here yet.” We had a good laugh with the photographer- the two most eligible guys in the ballroom, and neither were interested in me! But it worked out just fine- the three of us took this photo together. I looked like a winner with two dates and they got a memory photo that didn’t cause any controversy in Muslim Azerbaijan.

Based on what I’ve been reading, it wasn’t just me (whew!), or females, that seem to have difficulty finding companionship abroad. Guys have just as much on the line.

Robert Leveson wrote from the male perspective in a post in The UK’s Telegraph expat online section:

Dating in Singapore – or how to fail where others have succeeded

—-Finding a girlfriend can be a hard slog, even when you’ve got a sense of humour.”

“In a nation of shoppers, where people come and go and choice is bountiful, it’s hard to snag a decent catch. It would be a lot easier if I were rich or spoke the language of big business whilst waving my BlackBerry. I considered becoming shallow as a tactic but realised that my integrity is worth a few more dinners for one.”

Considered “becoming shallow”? Ouch… Maybe he should try being Georgian: When our AmCham group went to Tbilisi on business (see Fear of Flying), at a dinner following our meetings, our hosts asked why I didn’t take a Georgian husband. I offered some excuse about not being my type, and the response I got back? “Well, they don’t all beat their wives!” Well now, wasn’t that was a ringing endorsement!

Truthfully, I had no hesitation to dating inter-culturally. I recognized the obstacles and eventually did have a few relationships that I count as real treasured memories. I learned a lot about what I liked and what I didn’t. After all, I got married at 17 and had been married for 25 years when I got divorced. How much do you think had changed in those years?

Just about everything…

Inter-Cultural Dating Lesson #1, courtesy of an older gentleman who I met through work. We had been friends for quite a while and one day he invited me to dinner. There was a band playing and he decided we should dance- the old-fashioned slow dancing, what they used to call “hand-dancing”. As we were dancing he whispered, “I intend to spend the night with you.” Ok, I admit, I wasn’t very savvy, but even I figured out that he didn’t mean at the restaurant… clearly this wasn’t meant to be a relationship of equals. He planned to call the shots here. I began to see that in some other cultures men have a slightly different concept of the balance of power in a relationship with a female! Needless to say that didn’t happen.

Inter-Cultural Dating Lesson #2 had been one of my first clients, back when I was still married.  He would come to my library office for language training three times each week, promptly at 6:00pm. I knew he had a lady friend who waited for him outside each evening, and that he would walk her home from her workplace nearby. He graduated, got a good paying job and I felt proud of his progress.

Over the years I saw him from time to time. When he married, I was invited to dinner at his home. A couple of years later I heard he and his wife divorced- a rather rare occurrence. By then I was also divorced. We talked often after that, sometimes over dinner and sometimes just on the street. One night I caught sight of him near my office as I was leaving for the day and he walked me home.

We dated that summer and it was good. He was planning to fly with me over Christmas holidays to Houston so he could visit a cousin he hadn’t seen in 20 years. In August we went to the US Embassy to complete his visa application. I explained that he would travel with me, there and back. The Counselor didn’t seem to think it would be a problem if his background checked out.

Then, in September, the unthinkable happened. On our evening of the 11th, we got news that the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers had just been attacked and a plane had hit the Pentagon also. As Americans we were scrambling our network to find and account for everyone.

That was when this inter-cultural dating lesson came to an abrupt end.

I told M that I didn’t know what was happening but this was going to make things difficult for us. He was Iranian, and I, American. He was Muslim, and I was Christian. Everyone was being scrutinized, our associations were being questioned. He had been a military security officer in the Iran-Iraq war- for crying out loud, even I thought he looked like a terrorist, at least until you got to know the gentle individual behind the stern countenance. I was sure the visa would now be rejected so we cancelled plans for his visit to his cousin.

M later took a job in another country, travelling for his company because he spoke English, Turkish and Farsi- quite a catch. I didn’t see him for a long while. Until one day he showed up at my office with a lovely Russian girl and said they planned to be married. After congratulations all around, some bittersweet conversation, M then confided to me that back then, in that August, he had asked his mother and brother for permission to marry me… they had said yes, but he never got to ask me because of September 11th.

Just as well- I didn’t belong in Baku forever,  couldn’t live in Iran, and having to teach American culture in the post 9/11 climate, even I had to re-learn it. It would have been a monumental strain on even the most solid relationship.

Plan B worked out better for him because this young lady wanted to give him lots of children, and she clearly adored him.  Well done.

I met one more expat at an oil show reception. We were the ones “divided by a common language,” and destined to punctuate our relationship with bets on whether it was a Ford Taurus or Taunus. (I lost money on that bet, but he lost a fiver to me on Guernsey- I said like the cows and he meant like the island; told me the cows were Jersey. But he paid up when I faxed him a photo of a Guernsey cow!)

We had a great year as he traveled back and forth; it was just the right amount of time together and then a nice break from odd grammar and customs. But eventually he got transferred and I made plans to come home.  We still stay in touch, but just on our birthdays.

Dating, Expat Style

Marriage, Repat Style

I repatriated with the notion that I was ready now not to be on my own. But I decided I also wasn’t in the market for a Georgian, no matter how nice he promised to be. I wasn’t looking for a complicated relationship this time around. I had learned how important shared customs are and how much less complex it would be to share the same cultural touch points.

In an interesting way, I did meet a very nice American guy. But what about that shared culture?

  • He’s an Irish Catholic; I’m a Scots Protestant.
  • He’s north; I’m south.
  • He loved Johnny Unitas and the old Baltimore Colts, Notre Dame, and Hockey.
  • I love Peyton Manning and the old Indianapolis Colts, Purdue (for my daughter) and… Hockey!

Well, whaddya know, 1 out of 5… that sealed the deal for us!

He was widowed and I was in shock. What a combination.

Seriously, I don’t know that I would recommend taking on a decision like this while trying to get repatriated- and as many will tell you, it’s about more than just moving furniture. But we talk a lot about what’s going on with both of us, and, by all accounts, it seems to be going well.

We were married in 2009, four years after I returned. He’s the reason I stayed in DC.

I think we make a perfect pair. xox!

8 thoughts on “Can I Call You? And Other Approaches To Dating, Expat Style

  1. Being the romantic fool that I am, I was worried, while reading this post, that you wouldn’t find someone. Phew. I am relieved you’ve found him! Have a wonderful life together 🙂

    I don’t know if I imagine it or not, but the inter-cultural relationship that seems to work best is the one where the man is white and the woman is brown [I use colours to describe the difference]. Or if the man, brown, is educated / liberated [if you know what I mean].

    Recently, I’ve tried match-making again [romantic fool in action again], they’re both the same race / religion but she said, after one meeting, the man was ‘too quiet’. Oh dear.


  2. Thank you for your kind wishes! I think this one’s a keeper… 😉

    And thank you for your comments about the inter-cultural aspects of relationships. I hope you keep up your match-making!

    While my dating “research” is far from scientific, I did see many relationships that support your point about combinations that work well or don’t. One example: When my daughter was 16, she and the son of the family I stayed with first became good friends, even to the point that the father said to me one day he hoped my daughter and his son would marry. I said, “Oh, please don’t wish that on your son!”

    My observation to him was that Azerbaijani girls with American guys are like heaven; American girls with Azerbaijani guys are like hell. I explained that when the Azeri man comes homes and asks an American wife for tea, Americans like my daughter would ask if his hands were broken! Not a good start to any relationship.

    On the other hand… with my Iranian friend M and his Russian now-wife, she was clear that marrying this Iranian meant converting to Islam and taking on his culture as the predominant lifestyle, and she loved him to the point where that was do-able. He cared for her in such a way that he understood her sacrifice and made it live-able. The now have three sons and are happy in a “neutral” country. Clearly their compromise worked because these partners each gave what was needed. (As you say, “the man, brown, is educated / liberated [if you know what I mean]”- in this case he was also very compassionate.)

    Fascinating thoughts. I wonder what the most successful combination(s) would be?


  3. What a great post, story. I am so happy you found yourself a mate. I did my inter-cultural dating at a young age. I’m Dutch and met my American husband in Holland after I had spent a year in the US as a foreign student. This made it easier of course because I had experienced American life and culture. Even though the cultural differences are not massive, they still do exist and even to this day they show up in our attitudes and behaviors.

    “Well, they don’t all beat their wives!” made me laugh, but really it shouldn’t have. I/we lived in Armenia for 6 years and could well imagine this little scene. It reminded me of another story, more gentle, told to me in Palestine. A Palestinian girl was trying to have her Danish friend hook up with her brother. Palestinian girl sang her brother’s praises, but Danish girl was not interested. Palestinian girl, desperate, said: “But he even has a microcwave!”

    And there you have it. Cheers to love!


    • “But he even has a microwave!”… what a great sales pitch!

      Thank you for sharing this story. It’s amazing what people think will seal the deal, isn’t it? Heaven help us if the Georgians start adding the microwave to their recommendations- why, they may become positively irresistible!

      I had a local army colonel ask his friend to ask the brother of one of my staff teachers to ask her if I would marry him. I commented to her he didn’t want to marry an American and she said, quote, “No,no, he said you would do.” “Would do? Tell him I’m not a would do kind of girl!” That became his nickname thereafter- as in, the “would do” guy is on the phone. Maybe if he had had a microwave… 😉


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