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Swiping through the Arab world #1: nomadic dating 101

Feb. 7, 2018

Salam Aleikum, readers! I’m Caitlin, your slightly-peculiar-yet-fierce “professional” in the field of international dating. (Qualifications: I have been successfully disguising creepy behavior as charm since 1992.) I hail from Orange County, California, but I’ve been collecting controversial stamps and questionable visas in my passport since graduating college in 2015. I support myself abroad by teaching English and renting out my spare room on Airbnb, and I love that my work revolves around building a rapport with fascinating people.

Diverse cultures and impossibly difficult languages are passions which have led me to extensively travel the Middle East and live in the south of Spain, Jerusalem, and now Tunisia—a geographically small yet hugely badass country in North Africa with enough history to fill a room with books. #arabspring, anyone?

Each place I’ve lived in has been a higher hurdle to jump in terms of safety, politics, religion… but I have to say the journey has been quite extraordinary so far. Locals ask me every day why I left my country, and I tell them the honest truth: The U.S. might be what I know, but the Arab world is what I want to understand.

I crave adventure, seek challenge, and thrive in stimulating environments. 

Speaking of stimulation, if you’re guessing this nomadic lifestyle has had a significant effect on my love life, you wouldn’t be far off. Somehow, even after 3 years of globetrotting, Tindering, and wearing my heart on my sleeve, it always feels like the end of the world when a relationship ends. Perhaps I’m a sucker for love, but I can’t help but let myself “catch feels”, as I hear social media refer to it these days.

Each city I once called home also symbolizes a past relationship. Spicy, sweaty Sevilla, a mesmerizing city I owe my Spanish to, wouldn’t have been the same without my English jock of an ex, Ronald (name changed to protect his fragile male ego). I’ll never be able to understand why I fell for Ronald, but I think it had something to do with his alluring English accent, his chiseled soccer bod, and a little of my own naiveté. After a gluttonous year-long stint of cerveza, tapas, y sol with Ronald, we bid each other a tearful adieu, and I moved to Jerusalem, which I didn't yet know would change my life forever. 

I’d been hearing about Jerusalem my entire life, mostly from being raised in a church-going household and singing songs about it on Sundays, but moving to modern Jerusalem to volunteer in a hostel was a whole different ball game. And it was during that time I met Glen—a Seattle-raised, Israeli-passport-holding journalist and singer/songwriter working part-time at the hostel bar. Intrigued by his flamboyantly colorful shirts and sharp intellect, I began to request the bar shift to spend time with him. I looked forward to washing pint glasses and sipping Goldstar together, our youthful energies fortified by all that Kendrick Lamar blaring in the background. We shared a passion for archaeology and the Holy Land, and I won him over with my quirks and obsession with languages. Glen and I quickly became an item, and I eventually moved in with him once I was given a language scholarship there to expand my Hebrew and begin studying Arabic.

Jerusalem truly became like home to me, but after 8 months of volunteering, studying, and absorbing the cross-cultural experience, my Hanukkah candle savings began to burn low, and I needed to look for an actual paid position. Despite speaking decent Hebrew and having teaching experience, there was just no luck for a goy (non-Jew) like me, and I began considering jobs outside of my beloved Yisrael.

Many sent applications later, I got a bite from an American educational organization in Tunis, Tunisia. It was well-paid and included a settling-in package and a visa. The North African lifestyle looked exotic, and it would be a perfect place to continue studying Arabic and also learn a bit of French. I tried to persuade Glen to run away to Tunis with me and start a new life together across the sea. He spoke Arabic and French, after all, and could have easily found a job with a newspaper. No one had to know he also had an Israeli passport…

To my surprise, he said no. But how could he say no to me? His counter-offer was for me to go back to Seattle with him so he could record his new album and we could be together, living in his parents’ basement. Being the two strong-headed nomads we were, neither party was willing to back down and sacrifice our personal and professional growth to prolong a relationship. I was 24 years old, too young to move somewhere just to be with someone else. Aren’t I supposed to be the most important person in my own life? I still had some time before my language courses finished, but my visa was ticking, and I had to organize for my next move to Tunisia: cue "Africa" by Toto. 

In the months leading up to my departure from Israel, I had some real breakthroughs in my language-learning, and Glen was traveling a lot to cover stories. I stressed every day about what would happen when I left, and it took a toll on our romance. Our relationship slowly became more platonic when it had once been so alive and exciting, and my confidence and stability took a blow from the lack of romantic interest and emotional capability from my support system. I’ve only recently been able to accept that it wasn’t meant to be, and not just because I "wasn’t enough" to move countries for. Glen and I now have a healthy friendship, and my best memories of Israel, Palestine, and even Egypt still took place while traveling alongside him, and I’m incredibly proud of the person he is.

What I have learned since then, with 6 months of single wisdom under my belt, is that I have to put myself first. It’s too easy for me to get caught up in a fun relationship and lose myself in it. I need to have my alone time to pursue creative interests, not be too tired to study after work—and, for fuck’s sake, wash my face and floss every night. I still enjoy the warmth of a man, and I recognize that it adds liveliness to my life, but what I’m through with is moving to a new place, finding a man, and allowing the success or failure of the relationship to determine my feelings towards my time in the country. It’s not right to blame the city I’m living in when a man lets me down; nor is it right to live somewhere you don’t want just because there’s a great guy there. Maybe I’ll never find “true love” because I think every relationship has a deadline, or perhaps my views will change as I get older. But for now, I’m wearing the pants—my pants.