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A fantasy of retiring abroad

By Barbara Whelehan ·
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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John Patrick Grace
June 29, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Having spent six years in Italy (Rome), five as a journalist, one as a student, and nine years in France (southwest) teaching language, I could easily see retiring in either country. I speak both Italian and French fluently and have taught both at the college level. Language is key; yes, you can "cope" in either Italy or France without speaking the languages of those countries, but your experience will be infinitely more rewarding if you can acquire some real fluency and a substantial vocabulary. Day in and day out, your interactions with the natives will be different--and better--if you speak their language. Better still if you speak their language reasonably well. Personally, I would feel uncomfortable living in a foreign country without having access to that country's language. Others may be able to gloss this point over. More power to you. In my book, however, language makes the difference, and makes the foreign retirement so much more worthwhile.
John Patrick Grace
Huntington, West Virginia

June 26, 2011 at 6:51 am

Thanks for an interesting and informative article. As a widower - I have to start planning for my retirement sans children and of course, sans wife. The french countryside is an option - although I do love the sea (sunrise, sunsets) - but I also love the mountains (not the snow and cold weather though).

I'm definitely NOT a city person - but prefer to "visit" the city rather than live in it - it's more fun that way.

Laurence Raybois
June 22, 2011 at 1:59 am

As someone who assists Americans who are retiring in France, I can tell you that there are plenty of issues to consider besides the ones mentioned in this article. I am not knowledgeable about other countries, but in France, there are types of taxes that do not exist in the US. Likewise, with a few exceptions, Americans retiring in France are not able to collect on the Medicare benefits to which they have contributed all their lives. Because things such as health care and property taxes are considerably less expensive than in the US, a person may still come out ahead. Yet, all of these should be considered before making the move. American retirees living in France should also pay close attention to the way French inheritance laws, which are drastically different from inheritance laws in most US states, will impact their estate planning. Lastly, for those retirees who may find it necessary, at some point, to resume working, it may be worth taking a look at French immigration rules beforehand to understand how they might impact professional options when the time comes.

June 16, 2011 at 7:03 pm


joe davies
June 13, 2011 at 8:02 am

Can I live abroad for 6 to 9 months of the year and not loose free medical cover when I return, I am retired.

June 11, 2011 at 11:13 pm

I moved away from America just for that reason. I wanted some place not like America. It is so nice. And I am happy now. first time I can remember. Oh yes some times it is difficult, but at the same time it makes it an adventure. If that is what you seek, than move. If you want to find just like home away from home, stay home please.

June 11, 2011 at 1:45 am

Jan, great comments, although I'd disagree that "living in France is relatively inexpensive related to income..." When I lived in France and the UK (in the previous millennium, which might explain it!), it seemed like they were both about equal in terms of day-to-day living expenses.

When it was time to retire, I considered both. London is my favo(u)rite city in the world, followed by Paris. But I'm just an average guy with an average retirement account, so they were both too expensive.

In the end, I chose Mexico City. I know some people are put off by the drug wars, but those happen in the North, not in Mexico City. Here I pay about 900 US for a nice apartment with WiFi. And it's not in the dodgy areas of DF, it's in the Zona Rosa. No laundry facilities but there is a nice lady who does my laundry for $20 a month. She likes me because that is about twice what most of her customers pay her.

Plus if you're a vegetarian (I am) you'll be surprised at how cheap produce is in the DF. Basics like potatoes, onions, cabbage and lettuce are about 1/4 the price in the U.S. Just don't expect arugula or mini pea sprouts :)

Barbara Martin
June 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Come to Panama City, Panama. From Orange County, California where
it cost $4000.00 a month to live. Here $1500.00. US home tax,
$3700.00 here $ 385.00 Car license US $267.00 Here $ 27.00. Maid
US 100.00 Here $17.00. Weather, wonderful. People great and I do
not speak Spanish. Home, 21st floor high-rise with view of city and Pacific Ocean. With security guard 24/7. I'm so very safe here. I'm probably young your thinking, NO,I moved here at age 79. Non-stop flights from US. Come visit us, you'll love us. Wish I had done it sooner.

June 10, 2011 at 6:38 am

As someone who will be retiring to New Zealand from the US, I can say that this article fairly captures the reality that other places are just like home -- everywhere has its good points, and everywhere has its things you wish were different. You may escape some of America's perceived problems, like expensive health care, by moving abroad, but you gain new ones. Family and friends are far away, some aspects of the cost of living might be out of sight, and even in first world countries things might feel a bit primitive at times (what? you don't have central heat even though it gets cold enough for it 3 months a year?)

June 08, 2011 at 8:54 pm

What!? A place might not be so great to live because they 'don't think like Americans'!? Get used to disappointment. Stay home if you can't handle different points-of-view. Hmmph. Freedom Fries.