This post is by guest blogger Victoria Thompson, a U.S. expat who is excited to share her experience abroad in Argentina with others exploring the idea of living abroad.
In the wake of healthcare law changes, inflated premiums and rising housing costs, life in the United States can be a struggle. But if you’ve the free time and flexibility retirement affords, you might want to consider a move to another country — not only to save money, but for the adventure of a lifetime.
“But I can’t do that, I’ve got pets, grandchildren, responsibilities, health problems,” you protest.
I assure you, you can.
In the wake of a divorce in my 50s, the Great Recession, my son leaving for college, getting laid off, and massive changes to my professional industry (print publishing), my life resembled the spin-cycle of an overloaded Maytag. When my house had to be sold as part of a divorce agreement, I shouted to the universe, “You want to see change? I’ll show you some change!” I did what I felt was the only sensible thing: I moved to Buenos Aires.
“Madness!” you may think — but it was a calculated madness. The U.S. dollar was worth four times the value of the Argentine peso. My Minnesota winter was an Argentine spring. So, into a storage unit went the accumulation of 20 years of married life stuff, and onto a plane I stepped. I spoke no Spanish, but I had lots of free time, no responsibilities, and a cache of cash from selling the house. I’d planned on staying six months, with the option of a longer stay if I found the city agreeable and Buenos Aires would have me. The recession would be almost over by then, right?
If the idea of packing it all in and departing to lands unknown is appealing to you, here’s some hard-earned wisdom I’d like to impart:
Research the countries that interest you, taking into consideration favorable exchange rates and quality medical care. A good site to begin reading is internationalliving.com. Many sites have discussion groups where you can ask question of expats already living there, and their assistance is invaluable. I used BAexpats.com a little before I left (and a lot when I arrived). I got help on everything from how to activate a Spanish-language cellphone to what bars showed American football. I used it to get invited to parties and to invite others to mine, and make a lot of new friends in the process.
Finding a Place to Live
You can arrange an apartment or house to rent online, but I wouldn’t recommend it. One needs to learn the neighborhoods, or “barrios” as it was for me. Photos are well and good, but sometimes don’t match up to the real life experience. It’s also good to meet your landlord so you know what kind of service you’ll receive. Airbnb or Vacation Rental by Owner are good options for a short-term stay while you hunt for a residence. In some countries where corruption is the norm, it’s helpful to bring an interpreter or friend with you as you visit rental agencies. I brought an Argentine friend to help me when looking for apartments. After we walked out of one agent’s office, she told me he bragged to his assistant (in Spanish) that he was planning to scam both the homeowner (and me) by skimming money off the top. He’d forgotten that my friend was Argentine.
It’s also helpful to know cultural and societal norms. In Argentina, to rent a dwelling for a year you need to pay a year in advance in cash, and have a citizen vouch for you to get a lease. Otherwise, you’ll pay tourist rates. I paid tourist rates. I found my home on Vacation Rental by Owners and because I was staying for six months, negotiated a lower rent. Educate yourself on how to negotiate a long-term rental. Once again, expat websites are your new best friend. Another option is renting a room in an established household. I have a friend who teaches English all over the world and she prefers to live in other people’s homes for the company. She’s become close to several families this way and still keeps in touch. You’ll learn more about the culture living in someone’s home, and it’s often much less expensive.
It’s important to understand the options for healthcare in the country you choose. In my case, the BAexpats site was very helpful as a research tool for choosing a health insurance company. For $100 a month, I purchased a comprehensive plan with no deductible and no copays. During my stay I needed a root canal and a crown, and it paid for those as well. I also had a full physical. As an American, the reasonable cost astounded me.
I made friends with my hairdresser, the guys who owned the cafe across the street, the two Argentine guys who owned the local expat bar, and the man who fixed my laptop, as well as friends and acquaintances from BAexpats. I went to a fabulous New Year’s Eve party at the former Russian Embassy, attended several “pop up” dinners, danced tango and hosted Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas party, and Australian Day parties at my home. I had a much more vibrant social life in Buenos Aires than I ever did in Minnesota, made even easier by being single.
Spend some time learning to understand the cultural norms around affection and friendliness where you go. Argentines are warm and outgoing generally, and the expat crowd — because they’re away from their homes too — are very easy to meet. If you’re moving alone, consider what the cultural norms might mean for your social life. (If people are generally more reserved and slow to make friends, are you okay with having a small social circle?) I’ve heard from other expats that it is difficult to make friends when people find out you’re only there for a finite time because they don’t want to make the social investment, but wasn’t the case for me.
Being in a large metropolitan area with a subway, buses, trains, and cheap taxis made getting around without a car easy. You can always rent a car if you want to explore more of the country, but in my case that was unnecessary. I walked many miles every day — an excellent way to get to know the neighborhood. It also was the source of some wonderful memories: it’s while walking that I came upon the stunning Art Deco building, the surly French coffee shop proprietor who warmed up when asked about the vinyl records he’s playing, the pet store where puppies ran free and visitors were welcome to play with them.
Because I spoke no Spanish, I prioritized finding a reasonably-priced tutor who came to my home three times a week. Most Argentines in Buenos Aires were not bilingual, even in the professional classes. And I never met one taxi driver who spoke English. But, with a little creativity you can get by. I always wrote my destination address on a piece of paper to give to the driver. It also helped that I’m also totally unashamed to make a fool out of myself: I once employed pantomime to act out the action baking soda takes when it’s incorporated into cookie dough (which I was attempting to make). As I swooshed my arms upwards in imitation of a chemical reaction, I gathered a small crowd in the store. People began shouting out their guesses to me. It felt like I was in a game show!
Putting it All Together
People often ask me “How did you find the courage to move to another country alone?” The hardest part is adjusting your attitude. Once that’s accomplished, the rest falls into place.
If the country you choose is not what you envisioned, consider your options and context.
- Culture shock can be extremely difficult, especially if you’ve had a very monocultural upbringing or social context. Consider that perhaps you need to be there at least a year to acclimate to the culture or build social connections.
- If you’re certain this isn’t the locale for you, move to another country. If your stuff is in storage and you’ve tied up loose ends at home, you’ve nothing to lose. Spend some time figuring out what it is that was difficult for you, and research how those challenges might surface or fade away in other cultural contexts.
- Or simply go home. There’s no shame in that.
Thank you for reading about my journey. I’ll be starting a new one soon as I approach retirement age this year and prepare to move to Madrid. One expat experience usually leads to another. In my case, three friends from my stay in Buenos Aires are in Madrid, waiting to welcome me.