We all have fantasized about picking up, packing up, and moving abroad a la Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. Meet one FOF who did just that.
[Editor’s note: The essay below, by FOF Karen McCann, is part of a series of personal blogs from our readers. Have your own story to tell? Email your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
If you’re ever in the mood to reinvent yourself, consider moving abroad. Ten years ago, I was working as a journalist and consultant in Cleveland, Ohio when my husband, Rich, a health care administrator, took early retirement. He continued to do occasional consulting but mostly lived his dream–spending endless days in the garden. As can often happen with retirement fantasies, that dream gradually put him in a rut. With perfect timing, friends invited us to join them in southern Spain. As avid travelers, we preferred more exotic travel destinations (hiking in Bhutan, doing volunteer work in Bosnia), but we decided to go. It was refreshing to vacation without having to worry about scorpions, bandits, unexploded land mines or life-threatening tap water. And, we were charmed and intrigued by Spain, especially the ancient city of Seville. After our first, brief visit, we decided to go back to Seville the next spring for a longer stay. Rich had always wanted to study a foreign language, so we signed up for basic Spanish, which I soon learned is a lot harder to learn when you’re in your 50s but can be mastered if you stick with it.
That spring, we also struck up a friendship with our landlady and her husband, who remain close amigos to this day. Our landlady introduced us to her own friends and family, and through our language school we met other expats of all ages. We quickly amassed a coterie of friends, and it became difficult to leave them when we had to return to the States. We returned to Seville every spring for the following four years, at which point, we began to reassess our priorities. Our consulting gigs back in the States paid well but weren’t very fulfilling. When we ran the numbers, we realized our annual expenditures wouldn’t change much if we moved to Seville. We’d be maintaining two homes, (we wanted to keep a home in the U.S. for visits) but the additional cost of renting an apartment in Seville would be offset by Spain’s much lower prices for food, entertainment, transportation, etc. We’d talked about living abroad ever since our first date and now we actually decided to do it.
Not everyone shared my sense of excitement about this decision. Rich’s relatives couldn’t fathom why we’d want to leave the U.S., and my five brothers and sisters, who had been aghast when Rich and I had moved from San Francisco to Cleveland for his job, shrugged it off as another one of our goofy whims. More surprising-–shocking even–was that some of my friends stopped speaking to me the moment they heard I was leaving. They felt abandoned and betrayed. Other friends were marvelous, supportive and helpful in a thousand ways. Still, it was a much rougher sendoff than I’d anticipated.
An Australian acquaintance helped us find an apartment and was one of many expats who gave us support and advice as we settled in. Another acquaintance told us: “Get a one bedroom apartment. Otherwise people will expect to stay with you.” I failed to grasp the wisdom of her advice, until guests started showing up in droves. Seven years later, we’ve had over 100 visitors, some of whom have arrived for the weekend and refused to leave for weeks. Missing family and friends turned out to be far less of a problem than I’d thought.
Left: Karen, at the Feria de Abril (April Fair) with friend Sarah Gemba, wearing the traditional trajes de flamenca, 2010.
Right: Book cover for Karen’s upcoming book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad.
More challenging was finding enough books to satiate my voracious appetite. Seville’s shops carry a very limited selection of books in English, and I was having a hard time sustaining myself on a literary diet of Stephen King, gushy romances and Charles Dickens. I spent a fortune on Amazon until I discovered a local women’s club with a large English library. The Kindle has also been a godsend. As my language skills improved, I started reading books in Spanish starting with children’s books, such as Harry Potter. Muggles are muggles in any language.
I’ve written a blog and a book (due out in August) about my transition to Seville The book’s title, Dancing in the Fountain, comes from one hot night when Rich and I found ourselves sitting on the edge of a large fountain. Dabbling our feet in the cool water, pretty soon we were wading, then dancing in the fountain. An old man passing by growled, “Hey you two, is that any way to behave? You wouldn’t do that back where you come from.” And that’s the whole point. Living overseas, you get to try things you’d never do back home. Rich and I began stagnating as we hit our 50s. Now, we feel more alive then we have in years.
Karen McCann is a writer, blogger, photographer and painter who has lived in Seville, Spain since 2004. A fourth-generation Californian, she has lived in Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Ohio, and maintains a cottage in the San Francisco area. Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. You can download her free booklet “101 Ways to Enjoy Living Abroad,” when you sign up for her website, which includes practical advice for rookie expats.
Images courtesy of Karen McCann, enjoylivingabroad.com