"When you were a kid in New Jersey,” I said to Rich, “did you ever think you’d move abroad?”
“Me either. I thought it was something that people only did in books and movies, not in real life.”
So you can imagine how gobsmacked we were a dozen years ago when we found ourselves leaving Cleveland, Ohio to settle in Seville, Spain. How — and why — do (reasonably) sane, (mostly) normal people like ourselves decide to leave behind all that's comfortable and familiar to venture forth into the unknown?
To get to the heart of this question, I decided to interview the one person who could really shed light on the subject: my husband, Rich.
What took you overseas for the first time?
I was in the Navy from 1966 to 1969. First I was on a refrigerator ship out of Norfolk, Virginia carrying supplies to the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean; later I went to Vietnam. But it wasn’t until I was out of the service and visiting relatives in Ireland that I realized how great it was to connect with another culture. Looking back, I regretted that I’d wasted the opportunity to get to know the Vietnamese, Italian, French, and Spanish people I’d encountered during my time in the military. I vowed to make up for that in the future. Since then I've traveled to more than 60 countries, and I always make an effort to talk with locals.
[Note: For more about how to connect with locals, click on any of the photos below.]
What inspired you to move abroad?
After I took early retirement, I felt like my world was getting smaller and smaller. I needed a sense of adventure. Visiting southern Spain, I realized I’d found what I was looking for. It's challenging but at the same time much more relaxed and less money-driven. Family and friends are treated as genuinely important, not something to fit into the margins of your day. In the US, even something as simple as having a coffee has to be scheduled weeks in advance, but in Seville, it’s far more spontaneous; friends ring your doorbell in passing and invite you to join them at the corner café. In some ways, it reminds me of the America of my childhood years.
What’s the most embarrassing moment of your expat career?
Oh God, there are so many. OK, here’s one. When we first moved to Seville, I wanted to make a small repair requiring a screwdriver. I checked the dictionary, and all the way to the hardware store I kept muttering “destornillador, destornillador, destornillador” (screwdriver, screwdriver, screwdriver). Unfortunately, the minute I stepped through the door, my mind went blank and I blurted out a similar word, ordenador (computer). This caused such intense mutual confusion that I was forced to abandon the attempt and flee the scene without buying either a screwdriver or a computer.
At the time, I was pretty chagrined, but afterwards it struck me as funny and I’ve been telling the story for years. Living abroad has its challenges, which add a lot of zest to the daily round. Scientists tell us such challenges keep our brains sharp, so I figure I must be at the top of my mental game by now.
[Note: For details of other road disasters and embarrassing moments, click on any of the photos below.]
Any advice for those considering expat life?
Expat life is not a 365-day-a-year vacation. Do your research, and if possible visit several times so you know what to expect — not just about great places to lie in the sun drinking sangria, but in terms of cultural vibrancy, work opportunities, and your particular interests.
[To help you get started, click here for the new InterNations poll in which 14,000 expats give their opinions of which destinations you should put at the top of your list.]
What do you say to those who equate being an expatriate (someone living outside their own country) with being an ex-patriot (a person who is no longer loyal to their nation)?
That’s nonsense. Americans never stay put; on average we move eleven times during our lives, usually to pursue new opportunities. Just as going away to college doesn’t mean you stop loving your parents, living abroad doesn’t mean you stop loving your country. I am a very loyal American. I served my country. I pay my taxes. I always vote. I spend part of every year in the States. But I am also pursuing new opportunities in a larger world. Travel helps me gain fresh perspective — which in my opinion is needed now more than ever.
What do you miss most about the USA?
Burritos. To me, that’s the taste of America.
And what about the future?
I consider myself a permanent ambassador of goodwill for our nation. Many people have said, “You two are the first Americans I’ve ever really talked to. You’re not at all what I expected.” And that’s when the conversation gets interesting.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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