“Living abroad is a lot of work,” I tell people who ask me what it was like to live in Mexico for decades. I recently moved back to the United States, and I thought I’d share my first-hand knowledge with everyone who is considering the big move after retirement.
Everyone fantasizes about a different life. And while living abroad can be rewarding and exciting, it’s also a lot of work. Best that you go into it with your eyes open so you can deal happily with the challenges.
While you may call yourself an “expat” – such a chic, romantic word – you are considered an immigrant by the immigration authorities of your new country.
You need legal status to live in a foreign country, and that means lots of visa paperwork that must be renewed yearly. If you don’t renew, you will be deported.
In addition to your immigration paperwork, your adopted country will have a different bureaucracy, which will function in ways you couldn’t have imagined. They will have different rules for everything – from applications and transportation permits to new rental contracts.
You’ll need to get acquainted with your nearest consulate to figure out how to vote from abroad and get the help you need in order to navigate civil and government formalities, such as registration of birth and death abroad, social security issues and notarial services. The U.S. Consulate, for example, can charge up to $100 to notarize a document.
Your financial life doubles in that you’ll have two bank accounts, one in your home country and one in your new place of residence.
You’ll be paying bills in two places because even if you’ve moved lock, stock and barrel, there are always financial obligations that will continue in your home country. You still have to pay taxes in your home country and might have to pay taxes in your new country too.
Bill paying becomes a job. In the U.S., I was able to pay bills online. In Mexico, a country with poor mail service, bills are paid in person and in cash. I devoted a day each month to bill paying, driving to the phone company, the electric company, the cable company, etc.
In Mexico, you have to buy a gas tank (or two) and call for delivery before it runs out. You have to be sure to stay home that day to receive the gas truck and pay in cash. (Many a Sunday night we had no gas for cooking or hot water.)
Same thing for purified water, which was delivered twice a week. You had to be home to wait for the water truck honking and announcing its arrival. Payment in cash, and what happens if you didn’t get to the bank earlier? No water.
In the beginning, you will be enthralled by local markets and different holidays and customs. But as time wears on, daily life can be work. Take a simple thing like grocery shopping.
Anyone seen cream of tartar? Where can I find fresh cranberries? Why are there ants in my pasta? Anyone seen beefsteak tomatoes? I can’t find sour cream!
There was a Facebook page devoted to supermarket sightings, where people photographed flash finds like a bag of sweet potato fries or a tube of crescent rolls.
Where I lived, it was impossible to decide what I wanted to cook and then go to the grocery store for the ingredients. It was the reverse: first go to the grocery and see what is in stock, then decide what to cook.
I hunted ingredients, figured out substitutions, and shopped stealthily. Stumbling onto a find, I would stockpile it because I never knew if I’d see it again. You will ask visiting friends and family to bring your favorite things like custard powder or a certain brand of yeast.
Whilst English is considered the lingua franca of the world, you really must learn the local language to fully live in the country and function in social and business sectors.
It’s also respectful to learn the language of the country you live in. Think how you feel in your home country when foreign residents don’t speak your language. Do you get annoyed with them? Learning a language requires time and money, plus the usual intellectual fatigue and frustration.
When I lived in Mexico, my Spanish was excellent, and I became a Mexican citizen. But I had the same conversation for decades, with taxi cab drivers and doctors, and whoever I crossed paths with.
“What are you doing here?” “Where are you from?” “How do you like our country?” – as if I had just arrived. I was always having to explain my existence.
Know that there are entire social media groups that deal with daily life in your new country. Quite likely, most (if not all) of the questions you have will already exist in the threads.
How do I drill a hole into cinderblock? I have a new rash I’ve never seen before – what do I do? What is this bug? What bank has the best exchange rate? An English speaking dentist? Does wax paper exist here? How do I buy a bus ticket?
There is constant chatter about expensive trips back home, the cost of a New Yorker subscription (140 USD a year), the inability to find shoes if you are a women’s size 8 or above. The fact that a doctor keeps no records on you whatsoever. (It’s your job to keep your records.)
It’s serious work to find your tribe. You will find yourself befriending people you would never want to know back home, simply because they speak English. Don’t hang out only with other expats; you want to live local. Learn the language and get involved in your community.
When you live abroad, you are constantly on view: always noticed, observed and watched because you are different. This is wearying.
It’s work, constantly having to explain cultural references or having no one with whom to share your cultural references. Where I lived in Mexico, most people have never heard of, much less listened to, Handel’s Messiah. You find it charming at first, but it gets wearying later.
Of course, life differs from country to country, and my experiences come from living in Mexico. I can imagine some places will have a lot of the same, but others may function differently. So, before you embark on a post-retirement move to another country, it might be wise to research it first.
It’s all doable and fun if you have an adventurous spirit and are prepared for the challenges. Go forth and discover! And drop us a line!
Are you thinking about moving abroad? What are some things that excite you and concern you? Let’s share our experiences and talk it all out here!