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Are Any of You Considering a Move Abroad?

A longtime expat explains the pluses and minuses.

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Woman walking into a new city, contained within a suitcase
Laura Liedo
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When I was young, I dreamt of living abroad. While I could barely identify most European countries on a map, I pictured myself in Rome or St. Tropez, sipping wine in a turret as I wrote great novels.

Now, thanks to my husband’s work and my writing career, I’ve been living in Geneva, Switzerland almost 20 years. Geneva is a quaint francophone city encircled by France. I often travel across the border for groceries.

“Oh my God, you go grocery shopping in France?” friends in the United States say. “That’s so glamorous!”

As more Americans face retirement — or worry about the state of our homeland — they tell me that they, too, are contemplating moving overseas.

Living in the heart of Europe does have its benefits. I have the privilege of traveling easily and cheaply across Europe and experiencing multiple cultures. I have become braver, wiser and humbler, as I’m constantly exposed to different perspectives and global news sources.

But while the dream of retiring to a farmhouse in Umbria is one thing, the reality is another. Especially as we age, living outside one’s native country becomes more challenging, as you truly do become a stranger in a strange land. Doing the simplest things — buying shoelaces, paying a phone bill — can make you feel like your IQ has dropped at least 40 points because you’re now doing them in a different language and system.

So whether you’re fantasizing about moving to Paris or purchasing a "fixer-upper" in Portugal, here’s a reality checklist to consider:

1. Even Western cultures are really different despite their similar standards of living.

Silly American moi, I used to think Europe was just like the U.S. except for the languages and the blue jeans. Non. While Western countries can feel familiar enough, they are different in subtle but profound ways — which can be trip-wires. Things like customer service, payment methods, manners, business protocols, attitudes towards religion, social customs and daily routines follow distinctly different rules. Until you grasp and master these, it’s easy to feel alienated, frustrated or stupid.

For example, if you tell a French doctor, "I think my husband has a sinus infection," the doctor may take offense and respond: "Why do you think so? Do you have a medical degree?" As my French tutor explained when I first moved to Switzerland, "In France, volunteering medical information can be seen as an affront to the doctor’s authority."

An American friend who lives in Paris concurs. "Saying, ‘I’d like to get a second opinion,’ is an insult," she told me. "I did this once, and my physician got really mad and almost refused to continue treating me."

In Switzerland, if you ask a salesperson for help but don’t say "hello" first, you’re likely to be given a cool rebuke.

In many countries, American directness is considered rude, even with simple questions like asking people what church they attend or what they paid for something. When I first moved to Geneva, I asked someone from Holland, "So what do you do?"

"You Americans," he snapped, "Why are you always trying to size people up and figure out how much money we make?"

It’s also considered rude to ask restaurants to prepare your food in a particular way. American diners think nothing of asking, “Can the chef grill the fish instead of frying it and give me lemon juice on the side instead of tartar sauce?” Yet in many European countries, such requests are akin to interrupting a performance of “Romeo and Juliet” and demanding that the actors repeat the balcony scene and cut the last soliloquy. Food is considered art, and Europeans believe you go to a restaurant precisely to experience their chefs’ way of preparing their cuisine — otherwise, why dine out?

Recently, my curious husband ordered gluten-free pasta in Italy. The waiter asked, “Do you have that disease?” When my husband said, “No,” the waiter responded, "Then why order this? Take the regular pasta!" Living abroad means coming up against cultural clashes like this all the time.

2. You will remain an outsider.

Even if you master the cultural sensibilities, speak the local language and integrate socially, chances are you’ll always feel like an outsider. You’ll always be regarded as one too. I have Swiss nationality now, but I’m eternally a New Yorker first — and the Swiss and I both know it. My bonjours fool no one.

3. You will be far from loved ones.

This, of course, can be emotionally challenging, as we miss people back home. The distance also becomes a physical challenge when there is an outright medical emergency. As my husband and I age — along with our families back in the United States — the ocean between us becomes more significant.

4. You’ll still need plumbers, accountants and colonoscopies.

When people think of moving abroad, they think how great it would be to live in Bruges right on a romantic little canal. They imagine watching the sunset from a Tuscan villa. They picture themselves on a Greek island from Mamma Mia!

Here’s what they don’t consider: Having to call a plumber and explain in Flemish that your toilet is clogged. Making an appointment in Greek for a regular colonoscopy. Even living the dream, you still have daily realities.

Several years ago, some relatives moved to the south of France. They loved the culture, the wine, the free medical care. Yet eventually, they left. Why? "Everything is in French," they said.

5. News travels fast.

Many American friends share with me that it’s a challenging time to live in the U.S. right now. "You’re so lucky you’re in Switzerland," they say. "You don’t see the headlines here every day."

Um, yeah we do. The days of news arriving on horseback are long gone. Overseas, we get CNN in real-time, breaking news alerts on our phones and access to all American news sources online. We live with the same headlines, anxieties and concerns. The one difference is that in Switzerland, we can go to bars and restaurants where people are talking about things other than what’s happening in America. Or, they’re talking in French, so we miss half of what’s said.

Living overseas is a great adventure, but it’s not a Great Escape.

6. Grocery shopping in France only sounds more glamorous.

Lastly, here’s what "buying groceries in France" really entails. We drive on a traffic-clogged highway to a megastore called Géant, which is French for "Giant." After battling for a parking space, we push a shopping cart in a glazed stupor through the cavernous French equivalent of Walmart.

Yes, the cheese section is superb, and two whole aisles are dedicated to yogurt. But there's also fluorescent lighting, toddlers having meltdowns in the candy aisles, Chris Cross’ 1980s hit "Ride Like the Wind" playing incongruously over the PA system, and people getting annoyed at the customer holding up the checkout line by paying with small change.

Some things are the same everywhere.

Would any of you ever consider moving or retiring abroad? Let us know in the comments below.

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