Expat Essentials

Sarah Nagaty on expat dating, Pt. 1: The challenges for female expats in Lisbon

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(Editor’s note: This is Pt. 1 of a two-part series on expat dating in Lisbon. These posts are drawn from Sarah Nagaty’s research and interviews.)

There is something exciting about dating in a new country: it is one way of venturing into a new culture. Also, you get a bit of the excitement from the unknown and the unfamiliar.

Travelling usually marks a fresh start, so you really can leave behind baggage of unhappy relationships you might have had in the past and start over in a new place.

On the less exciting side, you may want to date in a place where you do not have a social network yet, or a rather limited one. Moreover, every culture has, more or less, its “dating protocol,” and there is a chance you aren’t familiar with the socially acceptable dating norms and the challenges that come with them.

Dating in Lisbon has been a recurring topic of lengthy discussions on some Facebook female-only expat groups. Lisbon has become an expat hub for people from all around the world in the last few years. Thus, it is only normal to find so many female expats discussing the issue repeatedly, sharing their curiosities, queries and concerns about the dating life in Lisbon.

Three basic problems

After reading through 712 comments in three conversation threads on a women’s expat Facebook community – dozens of heterosexual experiences – I managed to identify three common problems:

• expectations with spending.

• the living situations of many young Portuguese men.

• the trap of casual relationships.

The conversations were quite rich as they didn’t only include women from the United States to Lebanon and from Australia to India, as well as women from neighboring Spain and Italy, but it also included Portuguese women, adding their own insights to the matter.

Expectations with spending – who’ll pay the bill?

This issue, when brought up, turned into a heated argument. On the one hand, some women do not accept having their dinners paid for by men and believe that women can’t ask for equality while expecting to never pay for their own food.

On the other hand, those who disagreed argued that it is not about money but about men coming across as stingy when they don’t offer to get the bill. Moreover, they say that as long as men and women don’t get equal pay,
women should not always be expected to “go Dutch.”

There was a clear cultural barrier there. Women from the U.S., where it is customary for men to pay (especially if it is the man who asked the woman out), were quite surprised they had to share the bill in Lisbon. Some of them also felt that while they admired the macho culture in Portugal and how it brought something refreshing and new to them, they were unsure about why this macho attitude disappeared when the bill arrived.

Again, the main point for many women was not the money but rather
the fear they might be dating a stingy man.

And here is my two cents on the ‘stingy’ affair:

Stinginess is mostly cultural (this excludes those who would not give you 50 cents when you urgently need change in a shop; these are stingy in all cultures.) For example, in many Arab cultures, it is stingy to ask for money which you loaned to someone (of course, this only applies to small amounts). It is also stingy not to refuse your money the first few times when someone is returning it to you.

In Portugal, neither women nor men are making much money. Generally, people grow up with less money to spare on luxuries compared to other areas of Europe. The average Portuguese man can’t simply build that sort of expectation in a relationship as he won’t be able to keep it up. He can’t afford it.

There is a difference between “not affording it” and being stingy. I am pretty certain once we decipher the cultural codes around these two matters, we are able to tell the difference.

The living situation – dating guys who live with their parents

Many women expressed distress about dating men who are still living with their parents. While the default setting of expats is that they are living away from their families, this simply does not apply to locals. Moreover, it certainly does not apply to young Portuguese men and women.

As in my home country, and due to the difficult economic conditions, people live with their families for quite a long time. I don’t find this issue strange as I lived with my family until I was 27. I admit that it is not exactly healthy, though, as:

a) it takes away from certain aspects of one’s own development.

b) it makes your dating life less private.

Many young expat women likely to date Portuguese men given that they live in Portugal, spoke of some difficulties associated with dating men who live with their families. Again, I personally am not in a place to judge that. Leaving your family’s house or remaining there is a situation which stems from material conditions.

However, I also empathize with the difficulties this may create for the more independent partner. My very honest opinion on the matter can be summed up this like: “If you can’t handle it, don’t let yourself be involved in it.” His problems will seem incomprehensible to you, needless to mention how incomprehensible your problems will be to him. You can’t punish people for having different economic or cultural backgrounds, but neither is it fair to put up with such big differences if you can’t.

Casual relationships

This was the most common problem mentioned in the threads: “Most men are seeking casual relationships in Lisbon. No one is looking to commit,” said Sara from Lebanon.

First of all, I believe this is city life and not a matter exclusive to Lisbon. Second, if we are using dating apps, yes, there is a chance we come across the “casual type” more than the serious one. While there is nothing wrong with “casual,” many women expressed “casual dating fatigue.” This led to a longer discussion about dating apps and our expectations of when using them.

Coming up – more on that discussion in Pt. 2.

About the author:

Sarah Nagaty is a PhD researcher of cultural studies in Lisbon. She’s lived in Portugal for three years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

See all of Sarah’s Dispatches posts here.

See Dispatches’s Lisbon story archive here.

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