Expatations: Soul Meets Soul On Lovers’ Lips

In her latest column, Lisa La Valle explores the differences between dating in English and in a foreign language.

Two lovers kiss, image for the Expatations column article
Two lovers in Rome. Photo: Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash.
“Soul meets soul on lovers’ lips.” — Percy Bysshe Shelley

The 18th-century Romantic poet may have been talking about intimacy, but I like to interpret it as language that binds me to others. English articulates words into feelings like a soothing string of pearls around my neck. For some, a foreign language can make dating difficult, but not impossible. Others may find the guessing game of meaning fun, but I need to form relationships in my language to have certainty while my state of living is so nebulous. Romantic or otherwise, I need clarity to be sure that what I meant has been understood. A common language can be a comforting tonic for sharing thoughts and feelings with others because, as immigrant expats, we are often alone and disconnected from everything and everyone we have ever known. What’s more, when we do find someone to talk, trust, and feel with, the space must be safe and supportive. This is a good start to forming any kind of relationship, but if you can find it despite language differences, that’s admirable.

There are many instances when people connect despite language barriers and become involved in relationships that are rich and fulfilling, but I can only say from my own experience that the deepest, most meaningful relationships I have formed while living abroad, have been with those who speak my language. Genuine communication bonds me to others, and when I have meaningful conversations, I feel connected and certain I exist where I have not existed before. I need this human glue to tether me when I can feel otherwise, unmoored. Taking the time to build a shared history through a common language is my emotional GPS system that also orients my mental stability—a real concern for many expats.

When someone understands my cultural references, I have a flashback, shot like an arrow to a familiar time and place, reassured my former self existed. I don’t feel like an outsider but rather part of a new subculture we have formed bridging the culture gap. What was once an alien territory becomes a more familiar space where I can land softly. This exchange of experiences also promotes a familiarity for sharing deeper thoughts and feelings that enrich the bonding process. It’s probably the most gratifying aspect of good communication in a common language: a mutually shared experience that affirms our humanity.

From there, the shorthand of lovers and other strangers coagulates, and over time, new experiences begin flowing. Relationships with clear communication are affirming and therapeutic. I don’t feel like such a foreigner, but someone who, despite the confusion of incomprehensible chatter swirling around me, is anchored and consoled. I continue to study Italian diligently as a beginner, but I am certain I am fluent in the language of self-love.

Next week’s column: We explore concerns about the lack of a professional network when careers may have defined us, compelling us to reconsider rebuilding a new work identity. Share your questions or concerns with me at info@italicsmag.com.