“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? – Mary Oliver
As they approached retirement from their Bainbridge Island teaching jobs, it was the nagging question posed by a favorite poet that inspired Alice Mendoza and her husband, Carl Lindbloom, to move to Rabat, Morocco, for three years to finish out their careers. “We were comfortable in our teaching shoes and looked forward to the stimulation of doing work we knew how to do in a different culture,” says Mendoza. “We planned on returning so we kept our house, but we bought a car and rented a house in Morocco and stayed an extra year to fully experience the country.”
Fellow teacher Susan Morgridge spent two years working at an international school in Lebanon in her 60s before her first grandchild enticed her home. “I had a dream of traveling the world on a sailboat and teaching. Fast forward 30 years later, I still wanted to do it,” she says. “I talked to my kids who weren’t interested, so when my youngest turned 21, I realized it was then or never.” Waiting meant her choices were limited. “Many international schools don’t accept teachers who turn 60 during their contract,” Morgridge notes. “I had a choice between Lebanon and Bangladesh and picked Lebanon because I wanted a place where expats didn’t live a separate, privileged life from locals.”
A temporary expat life is one option for anyone considering re-homing themselves to another country. However, temporary plans can become permanent. That’s what happened when newly retired Poulsbo real estate agents Brenda Prowse and Hugh Nelson decided to follow Brenda’s dream and live in Paris for a year. “Brenda was determined to come here,” says Nelson. “I didn’t have a burning interest to move to France. At first, I told her that moving here was impossible. After all, how would we gather mail, care for our house, pay taxes? We were leaving behind a furnished house with no plan to care for it. There was also the question of how we would pay for our Paris experience.”
But after a year, the couple returned home, sold everything, and returned to Paris indefinitely. Why? As Prowse explains, “We hadn’t mastered the French language and had so much more of Paris and Europe to explore. We love the lifestyle here. We don’t need a car. We walk everywhere. We eat much more healthy food. It is easier to travel to other countries with Europe as a base. We found a great apartment in a neighborhood we like. I love the exhibits, museums, art, fashion.”
Former Seattle resident Mark Mains and his family made the same decision. At age 54, Mains decided he had five to six years left in his career. He wanted to work internationally, so—with a wife, two kids, and a dog in tow, plus a teaching degree and experience in hand—he took a teaching job in Guatemala. Before long, he decided to buy a house and resign his teaching position at the end of the school year. “It was the opportunity, climate, and economy that kept us here,” says Mains. “We can live here quite inexpensively. If we’d stayed in Seattle, I don’t think I could ever retire. Here I’m testing the water at age 55.”
For one retired couple, expat life doesn’t mean staying in a single country but making a long-term journey they’ve dubbed “the Grand Adventure.” Gig Harbor writer Laureen Lund and her husband, Arne, embarked on a trip in November 2016 that took them to two dozen countries in their first year as expat nomads. After selling their home and much of their accumulated lifestyle, they packed their roller bags for an itinerary that left options for detours. Home has been a series of Airbnb rentals, apartments, a boat, an RV camper while traveling in New Zealand, and hosted albergues lining the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Despite their varied approaches to expat living, these former and current expats give remarkably similar advice to anyone considering a move abroad:
Don’t try to transport your U.S. lifestyle. Learn to accept your new culture including all its inefficiencies and embrace the differences. “I’ve seen a lot of expats who had preconceived ideas and expectations and their experience has been clearly less satisfactory than ours,” says Mains.
Immerse yourself in the experience. Eat local foods. Shop local markets. Attend local celebrations. Make friends with locals and learn the language. It’s a great surprise “when we are able to spend quality time with someone we meet in our travels and change their view of the average American,” reflects Lund. “This means more to me than most anything else over the past year.”
Research before you go. Have some understanding of the history, politics, religion, and cultural mores of the country that will be hosting you, no matter how temporarily.
Take advantage of travel opportunities. From her home base in Lebanon, Morgridge used vacations to travel to India, Morocco, Jordan, Croatia, Italy, Romania, and Egypt. Mendoza and Lindbloom bought a car and traveled throughout Morocco.
Get familiar with technology. Stay in touch with friends and family via cost-effective applications such as Skype or Line2 for making calls and WhatsApp for texting. “The world is so connected,” says Nelson. “I’m still the webmaster for Poulsbo Rotary and we still listen to a Tacoma NPR station.” Nelson and Prowse avidly watch University of Washington Husky games from Paris; Mains does the same from Guatemala.
Appreciate a downsized lifestyle. “We discovered we were perfectly happy in a 450- square-foot apartment with a couple suitcases of clothes, a two-burner stove, and no oven,” reflects Nelson. “I’ve learned how little you need in day-to-day life to feel satisfied,” says Lund. “We’ve lived without a clothes dryer and sometimes without a washing machine. No dishwasher, no movies, no American TV. Don’t miss it. Don’t need it.”
Ann Randall is an independent traveler and writer who loves venturing to out-of-the-way locales from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. A former educator, she now observes international elections and does volunteer work in India. Her articles have appeared in online and print publications and she maintains two blogs, PeregrineWoman.com and ExploreKitsap.com.