Posted on: May 18, 2020 Posted by: staubinink Comments: 0

Dating while living and working in a foreign country can either be 1 or 2 things — exciting and interesting or an absolute wasteland. For me it is a wasteland. The facts are this. I am a Black woman living and working in Budapest, Hungary. I have a decent job and a decent apartment, but a man — decent or otherwise, is nowhere in sight. And like Carrie said, “.. you’re always looking for a job, a boyfriend or an apartment” and I had 2 out of the 3 so I considered myself to be marginally blessed. Now, this is not a lament — this is just me stating some facts about my life as a Black expat living in Central Europe.

I left — read fled — New York at a time when my personal and professional life was in turmoil. My family had suffered a traumatic loss and my boss at the time was a heartless idiot who repeatedly questioned why I needed to support them as much as I did. So when the offer to move to Budapest came, I readily accepted and quit my job on the spot. Now, 5 years later I can say it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It is one that I have never regretted, despite the lack of any worthy romantic entanglements. Not to say I had a flourishing love life in NYC, no it was dismal too, but I was very focused on climbing the corporate ladder and enjoying my busy social life with my equally career focused single friends.

I am not climbing anymore. No — I have not reached the apex of my career but I am satisfied. I am no longer aggressively trying to prove my worth to the powers that be. Work life in Europe is a different animal. In the right job, with the right boss, and the right team behind you it can be less frantic and more satisfying. Don’t get me wrong, there is pressure but for the most part it can be managed between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm. The priorities here are different. People expect and are afforded a work-life balance.

I arrived in Budapest when the city was on the verge of becoming a popular tourist destination. It was finally climbing out of the shadows of its more popular neighbors to the West. I found the city to be vibrant and full of character and I was hopeful when I first stepped out and greeted the magnificence of the Parliament on that cool September night.

 

Photo by Alecia Aubin

What I have found is that the Black experience in Europe like the Black experience anywhere in the world, is not a monolithic one, but like Paris was for Baldwin and for Baker, living as an expat in Europe has been a freeing experience. It is an escape from the one off statements that you now recognize as microaggressions. An escape from the “Your mom must be so proud you graduated college” from the “For coming from such a poor country, you are so well-traveled”, from the “Excuse me, do you work here”? experiences you had back home. The burden of being a Black woman is lighter here, almost absent, and your status, whatever it is, never has to be explained. No one questions why you are in the position you are in, and you learn not to question it yourself. And with that weight gone, your shoulders relax and a lightness flows through your bones. The cloak that is your Blackness starts to feel internal and you imagine that for a small space of time that there are no consequences to your Blackness. That it just is; like a treasured feature, or a beautiful mark, and you start to feel as if you are raceless.

When attempting to date in Budapest, my naïveté about racelessness quickly fell away.

Now, there are universal truths that many Black women living abroad know for sure and it is that when they decide to dip into a foreign dating pool, especially in one where the number of people who look like them are few, there is a strong possibility that they will be fetishized — and boldly so. In Budapest, I am keenly aware of it — it is an environment where a Black woman, especially a Black woman who looks like me, is very much seen. For the most part, the men I have encountered don’t try to conceal the fact that my Blackness is something they find intriguing. They are honest when they tell you about the girl from Congo they once dated, they are honest when they tell you how much they love your skin, and with fingers outstretched, they are honest when they tell you how much they love your hair.

When dating, I don’t believe that a man’s curiosity about your Blackness is inherently a negative thing. You want a man to be curious about you, and in my case, I expect them to be. I am a Caribbean born New Yorker living and working in Budapest — there is a story there to tell and they want to know it. I find them curious too, these Hungarians with their penchant for celebrating failed revolutions, with their tragic history and pessimistic souls; proud in one breath and fragile in the other. They intrigue me, but I don’t feel this intrinsic need to experience them they same way some want to experience me.

I first encountered this fixation on Blackness when I reluctantly joined Tinder a few short months after I arrived . I admit here it was easy to know who the fetishizers were — they simply told you and once that was on the table it was easy enough to move on. Surprisingly, this wasn’t my biggest issue with Tinder or any dating site I used in Budapest — my principal concern was my inability to blend. I had this fear that one day I would walk down the street and some guy would come up to me pointing and loudly inquiring “Hey! Didn’t I see you on Tinder”? Here — in Budapest — it’s a completely rational fear. Here, without any effort — it is simply a fact. You are memorable, which is in direct contrast to my existence in New York where it takes such effort to be seen.

I let this fear of visibility dictate my life for many years in Budapest and I didn’t date — I felt that by dating here, that I was somehow setting a standard. In retrospect, it was an egotistical belief that I could set a standard for anything or for anyone — but this is my trauma of being Black in white spaces. I always felt the pressure to represent well. Nevertheless, with this burdensome weight of representation on my shoulders, I threw caution to the wind and dipped my feet in the dating pool.

Shortly after, I met a waiter who wooed me by leaving his business card in my jacket pocket with a note requesting a coffee date. I was so impressed with the smoothness of the pick up that I texted him later that night and accepted the date with only a vague memory of how he looked. I could tell from the beginning what it was. He was eager. He had worked on a big cruise ship line in his youth and had traveled to a few Caribbean countries of which he had fond and vivid memories. He was smart, well-read, and attentive in his ministrations — we went on dates and he introduced me to districts I had yet to visit. He introduced me to obscure books and randomly bought me flowers and plants — some of which are still alive today. Some evenings we met for languid walks along the Danube and we talked. He asked all the right questions, did all the right things. He would often tell me that he was having a surreal experience, one he couldn’t quite believe he was having. He told me that when he first saw me that something shifted in him and I made him feel alive.

Photo by Chris Yang on Unsplash

Sexually we were not compatible; he was crushed and I was only slightly disappointed. I say slightly because I was relieved in a way — something was off — I liked him but I later realized that my attraction to him was a direct correlation of — and was buoyed by — his attentiveness. We parted ways — he couldn’t understand how it was possible since I was his ideal woman. I reassured him that it was okay and I went about my life. I wasn’t hurt, I knew that his inability to maintain a hard-on was not my fault or my responsibility. I stupidly texted him 2 weeks later — my brain, usually like a sieve, remembers the birthdays of people I don’t necessarily want to remember — and he responded immediately with a “Thank you, I have been thinking about you, can we try again” message with the enticing teaser, “I spoke to a therapist and I would like to explain what happened.”

Of course I was intrigued. So again we met. He explained that he believed that our lack of compatibility was due to his eagerness — and I let him take the brunt of the responsibility. We picked up where we left off and when he offered to cook me a 4-course vegetarian meal at my place, I recognized it for what it was and accepted. I could see he was on a mission, he wanted to prove his prowess to me. His ego was bruised and I selfishly thought this could be advantageous to me and my satiety. So he cooked and I watched and enjoyed his efforts. We took pleasurable breaks — and they were freeing. I was amazed at myself for so completely letting go and allowing myself to have experiences I had so long denied myself.

It was a dizzying build up — and a spectacular fall. We had gotten careless — somewhere between stuffed paprika and chocolate covered strawberries we had a brief moment of unprotected contact. I was furious with myself and he tried to reassure me that he was safe and that I shouldn’t worry — of course his reassurances meant nothing to me. I was busy scheduling in my head a trip to the clinic the next morning. Back in the kitchen, staring at the uneaten desserts and my forlorn expression, he tried one last time to reassure me that he was clean. It wasn’t reassured — and in a last ditch effort he said, and I quote, “I have been in a relationship with my fiancé for 11 years and I have only had sex with her”. I looked up at him and stared. Time stood still. I couldn’t — I simply could not believe my ears. In that moment, everything fell into place.

When I asked him why he lied, he told me that I made him feel like he was living another life — a life he always wanted to experience and that his relationship with his fiancé had nothing to do with us. I was calm when I asked him to leave. I blocked his number and I haven’t seen him since. Truth be told, I haven’t been looking.

In the end it turned out well, a few days later on a scheduled trip to New York, I paid a visit to my doctor, and after settling my $1575.06 lab bill, my anxiety was eased. (And before you ask yourself “Why didn’t she just avail herself of the famous European universal healthcare system?” Stayed tuned — we will revisit that later.)

I remained worried once I returned to Budapest that this encounter would somehow increase my visibility — that it had made me easier to identify on a crowded street, in a restaurant, or on a tram. I also worried that somehow I had fulfilled someone’s compulsion, that our encounter was somehow motivated by his curiosity about my Blackness. Whatever his motives were, a few weeks after the encounter my ire had cooled — I went back to the restaurant where we first met, determined to be as free to wander the city as I was before, refusing to be hyper-vigilant, and overall less anxious about being seen or identified.

At times, it is still unnerving for me; dating as a Black woman in Budapest — but I have since realized that perhaps my apprehension was also a by-product of my own confidence issues. While I am keenly aware of my Blackness here, I have learned to be less skeptical about the motives of the men I meet because there is so much more to me than my Blackness — this I know for sure.

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