Love Without Borders: From Lebanon to Lebanon, N.H.


My first trip to Lebanon (the country) with Maroun in early 2009.
My first trip to Lebanon (the country) with Maroun in early 2009.

This is the first of a biweekly series on intercultural couples in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire/Vermont.

Today, there are more intercultural couples in the U.S. than ever before. Even our current president was born from an intercultural union. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of new marriages between spouses of a different race or ethnicity rose 15.1 percent in 2010, and the share of all current marriages that are either interracial or interethnic had reached an all-time high of 8.4 percent—that makes 26 million Americans in intercultural marriages, not to mention the millions who are dating, engaged, or cohabitating as intercultural couples.

By Elizabeth Kelsey For the Valley News
Friday, January 10, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, January 11, 2014)

I had just expressed my fear of flying to my husband.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked.

“The plane could crash. I could die,” I said.

“Aren’t there some dead people you’d like to see? Just think of all the catching up you could do.”

Coming from different cultures, Maroun, from a village just north of Beirut, and I, a military brat who grew up on American bases from sea to shining sea — are accustomed to differing perspectives.

Maroun lived in civil war while the only battles I knew were with bullies in my suburban Florida middle school. Maroun was devout in his Maronite Catholicism, while I was agnostic from an early age. And while he came to the States to pursue a Ph.D., fulfilling responsibilities as an only son, I followed my destiny as prodigal youngest daughter by spending my 20s as a vagabond in Europe.

Despite our different backgrounds, or perhaps because of them, we were drawn to each other when we met at a 5K road race in Tallahassee, Fla., six years ago when we both reached for the last beer in the refreshment cooler.

It was love at first sight, although it took some adjustment for our families. When my father heard I was involved with a Middle Eastern man, he gave me a DVD of “Not Without My Daughter,” the true story of an American woman who had to flee from her Middle Eastern husband, as a warning.

When Maroun sent his mother photos of me as an introduction, she phoned from her village of Nahr Ibrahim with the verdict, “She’s too blonde.”

But our families came around quickly: Maroun’s mom loved me for my hearty appetite; my dad sat for hours, enraptured by Maroun’s take on U.S. politics (my husband thought Obama and Palin should have run on the same ticket). And our siblings were our champions from day one.

When we got engaged in 2008, I joined Maroun in New Hampshire, where he’d landed a job and, where, to the confusion of my family, immigration officers and ticketing agents, we settled in the city of Lebanon.

Maroun and I traveled to his homeland for the first time a few months later. I gazed out the airplane’s window in a Valium haze at Beirut’s coastline, clutched his hand as we descended into my unlikely vacation destination, and knew I’d do anything for him. Once we arrived, I learned to belly dance, rode through treacherous traffic and ate my way through Maroun’s village. Oddly enough, I felt at home.

But just as I was getting comfortable in Lebanon, the country, it was time to return to Lebanon, N.H. The reality of cold, reserved New England was as bracing as the snow that showed no sign of stopping for months on end.

I settled into my new life and considered what marriage meant to me. I looked at other couples in the Upper Valley — they seemed to have so much in common: some went to church together, for example, and didn’t disobey U.S. State Department guidelines to visit in-laws. These other couples seemed alike and shared traditions.

Gradually, as New Hampshire began to thaw, I realized I wasn’t as alone as I had thought. Our state is statistically one of the least diverse in the nation, so finding fellowship was a challenge, at first. But gradually, while training with my swim team, attending a Fourth of July celebration and meeting people at work, I realized we weren’t the only intercultural couple in our area.

As I listened to my international friends’ stories, I found their tales so different, and yet so similar to my own. I met couples who reconciled Christianity and Islam. Who married despite a family’s opposition to someone from a different race.

There was one couple that struggled with a language barrier, and another in which an American wife didn’t understand the pressure her Japanese husband put on their son’s studies (in both cases, they found solutions). Differences in religion, dining, communication, educational styles … the intercultural couples I know have overcome universal obstacles.

Some of these couples will tell their stories in this column, which returns in two weeks.

Elizabeth Kelsey is working on a memoir, “From Lebanon to Lebanon (New Hampshire)” and blogs about the topic of intercultural relationships.

If you are in a bicultural relationship and would like to share your story as part of her project, contact her.