Dancing in the Fountain: Making the first move

Dancing in the Fountain: Making the first move abroad

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Got the urge to jump abroad? American author Karen McCann shares from her hilarious book to debase the myth that moving overseas is difficult.

People often say to me, “You have the best of both worlds.” (Wistful sigh.) “I wish I could do what you do.”

It began nearly eleven years ago with a visit to a friend’s timeshare on the Mediterranean coast, which led to a return visit the following spring to study Spanish. That’s when we took a side trip to Seville and found it too intriguing simply to pass through for a couple of days. We spent four spring vacations in Seville, staying for longer and longer periods, until finally we decided to move there “for a year.” We’ve now been living in Seville for six and a half years, in a slightly crumbling old apartment overlooking the sun-bleached tile roof of an 18th-century church.

And for anyone who might be seriously interested in doing 'what I do', here’s what I’ve learnt: living abroad is easier than you think.

What you don’t need to move abroad

Of course, moving abroad — or anywhere, for that matter — has its challenges and will take time and effort to plan and carry out. But you don’t have to wait until all the stars are aligned, the dog passes away, your grandkids are all happily married with good jobs, and you win the lottery. Many people are under the impression that living abroad is terribly expensive — and it can be, if you buy a penthouse in the best neighbourhood in Paris or Rome. But if you rent a comfortable apartment in a small, affordable city like Seville, your cost of living may actually go down or, as in our case, remain about the same.

Although we pay a bit more in airfares every year, our basic expenses (housing, food, clothing, entertainment, ground transportation) are far more modest in Seville than when we made our home in Cleveland. Among other economies, we live in a walking city and don’t need a car to get about. Without the car payments, insurance, garage fees, and maintenance, to say nothing of parking tickets, we can easily afford to hop a bus, rent a car, or take a taxi on those rare occasions when we need to.

Moving abroad may not have to wait until you’re retired, either. While not every career can be uprooted and taken with you, I have friends in their twenties, thirties, and forties, often with large dogs and/or small children, who have figured out how to work successfully from a foreign base. In these technologically advanced times, all it takes is a computer to manage projects with business associates, keep tabs on investments, and stay in touch with family and friends in other countries.

Dancing in the Fountain: Making the first moveAnd my initial concerns about missing family and friends evaporated when I learned that when you live in a destination city like Seville, they come to you. Sometimes the biggest challenge is getting them to leave again

While you don’t have to be wealthy, retired, or willing to restore a crumbling farmhouse to enjoy living abroad, there are some things you will need.

What you do need to move abroad

The first is a good sense of humor, which is essential to surviving the general upheaval of any major life change, and most especially the social and linguistic pratfalls you’ll inevitably be taking. Every foreign language is studded with little trip wires, such as the Spanish word embarazada, which sounds so much like the English “embarrassed,” but in fact means “pregnant,” creating endless opportunities for misunderstandings and faux pas. Or there’s the common word huevos, literally “eggs” but often used as a slang word for testicles. You’ll want to be very careful not to ask the guy at the farmers’ market whether he has eggs; he’ll inevitably reply “Yes, two big ones,” and everyone within earshot will fall about laughing until you flee in confusion and have to find someplace else to buy your breakfast groceries.

An adaptable attitude is also a great help when living abroad. Naturally we all make comparisons with our country of origin, but it’s best to avoid constantly demanding that other countries measure up to our standards and norms. I recently read a blog called “A Fantasy About Retiring Abroad,” in which a financial planner weighed the pros and cons of living in a foreign country. Her conclusion was that it would be utterly impossible for her (and, she implied, anyone with any sense) to live in Europe because the Europeans do not have a “can-do” attitude and frequently fail to meet American efficiency standards. Oh honey, I wanted to tell her, that’s the best reason I can think of for living in Europe.

Dancing in the Fountain: Making the first move
Karen and her husband Rich cooling off after dancing for hours under the stars in Seville

It’s such a relief to live among people who value other things — such as family, friends, slow-cooked meals, witty and intimate conversation — above optimizing time management. It says a lot about our culture that this financial planner couldn’t even have a fantasy that failed to achieve productivity benchmarks.

Respect for other cultures is essential too. There are times when all of us find it difficult to let go of preconceived notions of how things ought to work, especially in a foreign business setting.
That’s the whole fun of living abroad. You aren’t doing things the same old way. You can’t. Which means you’re going to have to be open to new ways of thinking about everything. Exploring new ways of approaching life can become addictive. “Abroad” is a very big place, and the possibilities are so intriguing that it’s often hard to stop browsing and choose where you’d like to live.

Know before you go

Before our move to Seville, whenever we saw alluring real estate deals I would remind Rich of our agreement that we would never seriously consider living anywhere that we hadn’t visited three times. I find it immensely comforting to know that today you can try out places before you commit to them, and you can keep your ties to the old country in case things don’t work out or just because you enjoy them both.

We’ve all read articles about how to keep your brain’s synapses firing by doing Sudoku, taking up knitting, or going bird watching, but frankly, I find life in a foreign country to be a far more interesting and effective way to stay sharp.

The French writer Émile Zola once said, “If you ask me what I came into the world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” And if you ask me, I will tell you there’s nothing quite like going abroad to pump up the volume on your life.

Karen McCann / Expatica

Karen McCannKaren McCann moved to Seville in 2004 and writes about her expat experiences in her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. "I loved this book,” wrote Lonely Planet. “I must have laughed aloud at least once in every chapter . . . The advice in the book is terrific." Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and traveling the world.


Photo credit: Karen McCann (photo 1, 3), Alexander Savin (photo 2).

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