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.
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.
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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