Hedi and Johanna are two children of the sea. The Mediterranean for one, the English Channel for the other. Hedi grew up in Sfax, the second largest city in Tunisia, while Johanna comes from Normandy, in northern France.
Their atypical love story highlights recurring difficulties for binational couples: practical complications in being together, misunderstandings on the part of the people around them, a complex adaptation to the other’s culture, but, above all, a common determination to make the relationship work.
The two lovers, who never thought they would meet, crossed paths while volunteering in Spain.
« It was after this volunteer work that we kept in touch and continued to talk every day. In the end, we remained friends for a month before officially becoming a couple.»
They first lived together in Spain and then Johanna finally decided to move to Tunisia to join Hedi.
« We live in Sfax since July 2020. Johanna found it obvious to come and live in Tunisia, since it is difficult for a Tunisian to get a visa for France. »
This decision was not very well received by Johanna’s father who had preconceived ideas about Tunisian culture.
« On my father’s side, this was not necessarily well accepted. The fact that I was in a couple with a Tunisian brought up a lot of stereotypes about Arab and Muslim culture… On the contrary, Hedi’s family was very happy to discover a new culture within their family.»
But other people’ opinions didn’t matter, Johanna was ready to leave her country to be with the one she loves. Even if the adaptation is not always easy…
She is still struggling to find her marks on a new continent.
« I had a hard time adapting to the Tunisian way of life, since the culture is completely different, and so are the mentalities. The fact that I don’t speak Tunisian makes me feel like a “foreigner” in Tunisia, but lately it’s getting better and better. »
A DAILY LIFE SPICED UP
Beyond the mentalities and the language, it was a central element of daily life that surprised Johanna: the food! And yes, as is often the case, the eating habits of a foreigner can be confusing, as much for the taste buds as for the stomach.
« What I miss the most is cheese, since in Tunisia there is very little “real” cheese, most of it looks like plastic and is made industrially… Eating a lot of food with your fingers and the omnipresence of spices in all the dishes that Hedi cooked was also very difficult at the beginning. I am now able to eat a chilli without anything else on the side! »
Finally, subtle differences in terms of hygiene, relationship to the family or religion aroused their curiosity.
« What surprised me the most at first was the fact that Tunisians don’t use toilet paper but a “douchette”, that is to say a small tap that you will find in every Tunisian toilet! Be careful, I am not saying that Tunisians are not clean, just less attentive to the rules of hygiene.
Hedi was also surprised by the value that the French place on family and friendships, we take things much more to heart than Tunisians in general.
As for religion, it was not a source of conflict but of questioning, since I had no religious education, whereas Hedi had a Muslim education. »
Finally, these differences are so many details that enrich and (literally) spice up their daily life. The real obstacles to overcome are more concrete…
« The Covid happened while we were both in Spain. Johanna was repatriated to France and Hedi to Tunisia a month and a half later. We spent several months in a long-distance relationship, since the borders were closed. It was very difficult, since we were at the beginning of our relationship, but in the end it made us even stronger and allowed us to realize how solid our relationship was.
Not being able to live where we want to is a big challenge for us. Visa problems are very difficult for Tunisians, unlike the French who can live anywhere in Europe without any problem. We discussed it a lot and Johanna did not want a long distance relationship, so she decided to come and live in Tunisia. »
A MARRIAGE UNDER CONTROL
As Johanna explains, France does not make it easy for foreign spouses to apply for a visa or get married.
«It is important to know that it is not “easy” for a French woman and a Tunisian man to get married, since an investigation is carried out beforehand by the French consulate, which then decides whether or not to grant a certificate of capacity to marry to the French spouse. It therefore takes about a year to get the “right” to marry or not. Some papers coming from France are also difficult to receive, since the postal network is quite catastrophic between France and Tunisia…»
Being aware of these difficulties, Johanna and Hedi have decided to start the marriage process now.
« We had planned to get married, but maybe not so soon. However, the law is quite strict in Tunisia regarding marriage and it is not very nice for a couple to live together without being married. Also, Hedi will be able to get a family visit visa more easily, which will allow him to meet my family. So marriage makes things easier for both sides, although of course love is the main reason we want to get married.»
Johanna and Hedi are excited about their future together and see their future bicultural family as a real opportunity for their children.
«We would like to have children. We think it will be an advantage since our children will be open to other cultures more easily. It is also beneficial for them because they will be used to several languages and cultures from a very young age. We will mainly speak French and Tunisian to them, and why not English since they will probably hear us speak this language on a regular basis.»
Determination and communication
Looking back, Johanna and Hedi feel that these complications have made them stronger and ready for the life together that lies ahead. In the future, they plan to move to Europe or America.
«It is true that we were not particularly aware of the difficulty that this would represent on an emotional and administrative level.
We advise binational couples to communicate as much as possible with their partner, don’t hesitate to share your questions and your difficulties in adapting to their culture if this is the case. Being understanding towards each other is also very important. Finally, be strong and don’t let the first obstacle get you down! You will have to overcome a lot of obstacles before you can live your love fully and serenely, especially if you are from two different continents. »
A message of hope for you
Johanna and Hedi actively followed the “Love Is Not Tourism” movement and wanted to share a message of hope for couples still separated.
«We would like to send a message of support to all binational couples who are or have been separated during this Covid period. It is quite unfortunate that the majority of governments do not recognize cohabitation, i.e. not being married to your partner, but unfortunately we have to deal with it and stay strong.
Think about your happiness first and foremost and do not listen to the judgments and remarks of those around you if they are not justified. It is YOUR LIFE and YOUR STORY! Many people will not understand you, but love can fall on us without us expecting it, which was the case for us. A French woman and a Tunisian man who meet by chance in Spain, can you believe it? »
If you want to have some fun, you can also check out this personality test to find out what type of intercultural partner you are!