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A fantasy of retiring abroad

By Barbara Whelehan · Bankrate.com
Friday, May 27, 2011
Posted: 1 pm ET

At a minimum, most people have some retirement expectations. Higher up are retirement hopes and dreams. At the helm are retirement fantasies, which are like dreams in a runaway car with no brakes to stop them.

I asked my husband where in the world he would want to retire outside the U.S., and his answer was Costa Rica. He loves to surf, and the Pacific side of the country offers a perfect playground for surfers.

It's a nice place to visit, I told him, but I wouldn't want to live there. Someone disappeared from a big national park near Liberia, I warned him.

It's a true story, mentioned in Carole Moore's book, "The Last Place You'd Look." In August 2009, a Chicago-based doctoral student "parked his rented car at the entrance to the Rincon de la Vieja National Park outside of Liberia, Costa Rica, then entered the rambling 34,800-acre park and vanished like a drop of water on a hot sidewalk."  

Moore's compelling book is all about mysterious vanishings -- hundreds of them -- and even though most focus on disappearances within the states, she devotes a scary chapter to Americans who disappear abroad. In any case, the anecdote about Costa Rica came in handy for purposes of redirecting the conversation.

What about France?

Ahh, France. The sing-song quality of its mother tongue is enchanting. The cafe au lait is as delicious as dessert. Art is everywhere. And the country is steeped in history. You can even buy a piece of it, with some castles for sale at reasonable prices -- relative to real estate in, say, New York City, that is.

For a vicarious thrill of day-to-day living in the south of France, I indulge in Anne-Marie Simons' book, "Taking Root in Provence," where the country's joie de vivre is apparent in every tale.

I emailed the author, asking a dozen personal questions about the cost of living there to put a fantasy plan in place. Simons obliged, telling me that in 1997, she and "fellow traveler" Oscar bought an apartment in the center of Aix-en-Provence for about US$200,000. It has 80 square meters, or roughly 860 square feet, and consists of large living and dining quarters, a sizeable library, and a big bedroom with fireplace, a full bath and a small, efficient kitchen. It sounds charming, with high ceilings, some 18th century touches "such as a carved marble fireplace, trumeaux and gypseries," she says. "Ancien in good condition is more expensive than nouveau."

They got the place cheap because they paid cash and the real estate market was soft at the time.

Cost of living in France

Gas costs about three times more in France than in the states. Dining out can be expensive. But, Simons says, "If you do not live like a tourist but do as 'they' do, you buy your fresh foods at the open markets, every day, from the farmers, fishmongers, etc. This is cheaper than the supermarket and of superior quality."

Sounds wonderful, n'estce-pas? While clothing and gas may be tres cher in France, "education is free and health care is very inexpensive," Simons says. "I cannot stress enough how excellent and affordable the French health care system is, and that applies to prescription drugs as well. Prices are government-controlled, which only in America seems to have a bad connotation."

Simons concedes that the disparity in the value of the dollar versus the euro means incurring a loss north of 40 percent for every buck spent -- a big cut no matter how you look at it. But she says the quality of life for them is worth it.

Reality check

So it was for partly selfish reasons that I assigned the story, "7 financial considerations for future expatriates," to Barbara Diggs, who lives in Paris. A move abroad requires careful preparation, whether it's part of retirement planning or an adventure for younger folks.

I asked Diggs if she enjoys life in Paris.

"My feelings toward Paris are a bit complicated," she says. "I do enjoy living here -- the quality of life is fantastic -- but it's not an easy place to live. You'd never believe how different the French are from Americans! But we are definitely happy here."

I wondered about those differences. Did she mean that the French know how to enjoy life, unlike Americans? They're known to take a month off in summer. I asked Diggs about it, and she replied:

"I hardly know how to start describing the differences between the French and Americans. Sometimes I feel as if I live in 'Opposite Land.' The French definitely know how to enjoy life in terms of wine, food and relaxation. But despite all their philosophers and intellectuals, they're not a forward-thinking people. 'Yes, we can!' is not a phrase that would motivate the masses here -- they just don't think that way. As Americans, we take for granted the attitude that we can do anything if we just put our minds to it and add a little elbow-grease. Maybe it's not true, but that's what we are taught to believe. That philosophy doesn't exist here. At all. And it's frustrating when you need someone to think outside the box to solve a problem. ... This 'can't do' attitude exists on every level and makes life endlessly and needlessly difficult." 

Whoa! That does slow down the fantasy train somewhat. And come to think of it, I kind of glossed over the chapter in Simons' book called "A scarred beauty," which revealed in the most tactful way possible that the people in France are serious litterbugs.

C'est la vie. The fantasy ride was fun while it lasted.

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44 Comments
Polly
July 25, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Of COURSE it is not the same as the US! But as several have said, different is not bad! And why is it that we Americans moan about people who move to our country and do not want to adopt our ways, yet we move to another country and expect them to adopt our ways too! It just does not work that way. It is refreshing to have a sense of "this is important but nobody is going to die" if my furniture is delivered on Tuesday instead of Monday! We need a perspective at times that is beyond our own....it doesn't necessarily make it bad or less "21st century"! Surprisingly these countries and these people have gotten along just fine without "our ways" for centuries! However, I, for one, plan to retire overseas and will be glad that those who see these petty issues as being a deal-breaker, will NOT choose to retire overseas too. As I am leaving them on purpuse.

stockmktgenius
July 22, 2011 at 1:38 am

I have a friend who's 81 and yet to find the perfect woman. When he meets someone, he fishes for imperfections- and always finds them, as every one he meets is unfortunately human. In the same way, the author has succeeded in fishing for problems with living abroad and magnifying them into perfect reasons for staying home.

I live in a medium sized town in Thailand- and mostly love it. I married a Thai woman straight out of my dreams. My wife and I built a lovely and large 3 bedroom home for $60k- it would be millions in Orange County, California. We go biking around a lake most evenings (25c to rent a bike) and then often dine at a wonderful restaurant on the lake ($6 for 2 depending on what we eat). I have no money problems here, and never have to worry about the future. But it's hotter than in Cal, and there are mosquitos.

You can always find things wrong with anything, but Thailand did indeed allow me to pursue "the fantasy of living abroad."

C Scott Jones
July 20, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Wow! As an American / NZ citizen living in Santiago Chile, with a wide history of living and travel experiences, the above article is an embarrassment of zenophobia and self congratulatory isolationism.....terribly sad, lame, lacking content and a great indication on why some people should stay in Kansas (with all due respects Dorothy..). The undertone is not "whether or how overseas retirement might be? Pros / Cons and Alternaives" but rather "what elements can I prune from 2 books and a conversation to bolster my pre-existing, fear based opinions."
-Nonwithstanding the tragedy of an individual's disappearance (in a vast natural park), this point is unrelated to personal safety in a any given nation. Google, if you will please, "Chicago crime wave" or "Casey Anthony" or "Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant". To quote more precisely, "most focus on disappearances within the states, she devotes a scary chapter to Americans who disappear abroad"

-Both of the actual foreign retirees interviewed were overwhelmingly positive about their experiences. Positive enough to continuing living there - despite differences in philosophy and functioning. Positive enough to write a book, outlining and praising their living choice. (!) How many of your neighbors back in the USA have done that for their neighborhood?

-The "fantasy train" of retirement is derailed not by the incredibly priced, detailed and well lcoated historic real estate, the free education, the superb health system, the "fresh, superior quality, market foods, direct from farmer and fishmogers"....no not these. Rather it is victim to litter (what part of the ecologically sensitive, mall based United States culture is free of this?) and the fact that the locals think differently. While I truly appreciate and understand the frustrations of being surrounded by a different culture (I have multiple overseas businesses)- this same difference is also a positive. Madoff, Debt Defaults, General Motors buyouts, Bailouts, 1 of 5 houses unoccupied are all products of "can do attitude" gone ridiculously out of control.

Different is not bad, it is different. Some elements can be more or less positive / negative / difficult. Diggs and SImons are clear on this. I would look forward to reading about these nuances, and how their elucidation could help my fellow, independent, out-of-the-box, forward thinking Americans decide what are their best options for retirement.

Patsfan
July 19, 2011 at 2:26 am

Do NOT try Singapore unless you like hot and muggy weather! However the country is awesome and except for the weather, housing costs and vehicle costs which are quadruple what they cost in the USA, it is where I will retire.....why you ask? Lucky for me my wife already bought a 900 ft condo so once it is paid off we have our retirement home and as she is from here I have a permanent guide. Have visited 3 times and love the people, food, culture, hustle and bustle, cleanliness and yes English is their first language. If you ever want to visit a country take it from me this won't disappoint you but come in the winter months as the 90 degree heat is less humid so it is a bit more bearable...