I stared down at the impressively large mountain of caviar shoveled atop a piece of rye bread. Surrounded by a circle of pickles and herring, it was a plate-size parade of Russian cuisine — the first breakfast my now-husband ever made for me.
My jet-lagged stomach roared in protest at the sight of fish eggs before coffee. Though it might sound silly, I pined for the comforting flavors of my Italian-American childhood home, and I opted for the stack of pastries in the middle of the table. My eager buds were met with the distinct, unwelcome taste of salt, a reflection of German-Russian culinary fusion (sweets aren’t really their thing).
That infamous breakfast has become a favorite memory of my husband’s and mine. It was the first cultural difference of many we’ve experienced, and though my dissatisfaction with the meal was a dagger in the heart of my husband (who dutifully piled the caviar egg by egg in efforts to impress me), our multicultural marriage has successfully endured the test of Cold War-level differences in lifestyles.
My husband was born in the former Soviet Union and raised in Germany. I was born into an Italian family in Arizona. But the art of fusing our starkly different multicultural backgrounds with love, laughs, patience and curiosity is one of the feats of our marriage I’m undoubtedly most proud of. It opened both of our hearts to the entire world and created a culture within itself: our love.
Here are the 10 biggest lessons I learned from my multicultural marriage and why those wildly entertaining differences ended up making us stronger.
Communication goes beyond languages
My husband was blessed with the ability to speak six languages, while I came into his life knowing English (quite well, might I add) and rusty Italian. Let me tell you, communication between two cultures exceeds the lingual aspects — it comes from the heart.
Through overcoming idiomatic misunderstandings, accidentally hitting on my father-in-law and breaking sacred Russian taboos (so many times), we quickly learned that the basis of communication goes beyond linguistics and starts with understanding. Slowly, we created a language of our own.
Geography isn’t a big deal
This was one of the most dramatic lessons we learned in our young relationship. I was fresh out of college and he was three years into his career — but both of our professional lives were incredibly important to us. The problem: They had roots on opposites sides of the world.
With my insatiable curiosity to spend time abroad and having already endured years of long distance in our relationship, I moved to Germany. From stumbling over and eventually mastering the German language to overcoming awkward cultural differences, we saw that borders have nothing to do with lifestyle satisfaction.
In the right relationship, happiness can be created anywhere. It isn’t a place; it’s taking action together to achieve your dreams, and no border or cultural barrier will stop you in that precious process. In a multicultural marriage, we found ourselves capable of creating a life and home anywhere in the world.
Boundaries must be set with family — early
I was raised by my single mother and my grandmother, both of whom taught me to get an education, follow my dreams and start a career — in other words, be super-independent. My husband’s wonderful parents, on the other hand, were fond of late-night drive-bys during which they’d drop off a lovingly prepared pot of borscht to make sure we ate enough. They were a little more involved with their son’s life on a day-to-day level than I was used to. We learned that the stronger the boundaries with family, the better things are for everyone in the long run.
Every culture has a different idea of beauty
Growing up with a purely West Coast perspective on women’s bodies, I was always pining to be bikini-ready, and yes, I did try the awful lemonade diet (to the horror of my Italian grandmother). Joining my husband’s family was a bit of a shock: The more I worked out and the closer I got to getting Gigi Hadid’s six-pack, the more concerned they grew for my health. In eastern cultures, curvy women are healthy women and thin women are sick. While neither perspective quite rings true, it was a reality check for both of us that perceptions of beauty are hugely impacted by cultural norms.
Freedom to achieve is important for shared happiness
We’re both unreasonably ambitious people and having thriving international careers was a shared dream. Since we were both raised with a broad sense of the world through languages and the different cultures in our homes, one place was never quite enough. Our understanding of the vastness of the world (and all the wonderful opportunities in it) made us both hungry to explore it. We learned quickly that giving each other full freedom to travel the world and achieve professional dreams was absolutely necessary, even when we couldn’t always do it together.
Cultural perspectives on marriage can help
We were both lucky to come from cultures (Russian and Italian) where relationships were taught to be fixed when broken, not abandoned. When inevitable hiccups come up, we approach it as diplomats from two different countries who need to fix a problem and mindfully ensure a positive outcome.
From my Italian-American side, I come with passion, plenty of emotions and optimism. His German-Russian side comes with reason, clarity and strength. We do have Cold War days, like any couple — but using the strengths of our different cultural upbringings taught us to make our marriage the best of all worlds.
Travel is one of the greatest relationship gifts
Creating a life abroad gave us the opportunity to appreciate the importance of travel and experiencing other cultures with each other — so much so that we became addicted to it. Being thrown out of our cultural comfort zones so early in life ignited a lifelong affair with seeing the world we can’t get enough of. Instead of giving each other gifts for anniversaries, we give each other plane tickets and global experiences.
Values trump politics
While the Russian family parties with occasional Putin decor never quite feel normal or politically acceptable in my heart, what matters are the values we stand for together as a unit. In a multicultural marriage, you learn quickly that shared values and a strong moral compass transcend political affiliations. My husband held my hand as I emotionally masticated two whole pizzas post-Trump victory, and doesn’t mind when I shamelessly wear my pussy hat abroad. Those are the moments that matter.
Love beats cultural norms
The women in my husband’s family are Olympians at domesticity and running a tight ship at home. They can make a small feast while sleepwalking, while I at my finest hour am more apt to ignite fire when cooking anything other than my grandmother’s Italian recipes.
In my husband’s family, having a baby at 18 isn’t only acceptable, it’s encouraged. Despite this drastic difference in cultural norms, they all became impotent once we fell in love. We abandoned any oppressive gender notions and became fierce supporters of our portrait of happiness rather than living by the colors and strokes of others.
A custom food culture is the best one
My husband quickly learned that I’m not a caviar-and-sauerkraut-for-breakfast type of girl and stood with my Italian grandmother in the kitchen to learn her recipes. He fell in love with the West Coast cuisine of egg whites, protein shakes and guacamole.
Meanwhile, I searched for the best of both German and Russian comfort foods and actively encourage him to hold onto his food culture — so we’re no strangers to biweekly runs to Russian grocery stores. Our kitchen is now a fine multicultural fusion of everything we love and discovered together abroad, and most important, it’s ours.