My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.
Life is a journey that we find ourselves traveling through each day. I believe that we can compare relationships, experiences, and seasons of life to destinations; in a sense, they are like places we visit when traveling. With at in mind, a few years ago, I made a major lifestyle change.
After some personal tragedy, I uprooted myself and moved out of the United States. Having researched the pros and cons of the ex-pat life, I decided this specific change was just what the doctor ordered. As with any segment of a journey, this decision came with many rewards and challenges. The following is a chronicle of how I became an ex-pat and my recent decision to re-pat.
Why Do People Decide to Leave Their Home Country?
As I mentioned, I had endured immense personal tragedy. That tragedy, combined with the rising cost of living in the United States, the political climate, and what appeared to be the instability of society, all played a role in my choice to leave. But that's me and my personal circumstances. What comes into play with others making this choice? Currently, there are approximately 70 million ex-pats worldwide, with that figure climbing at a rate of about 5.8% annually.
For the purposes of this article, I am using the United States as the baseline (home country) country.
There is a myriad of reasons to become an ex-pat; here are a few of those reasons.
Reasons to Become an Ex-Pat
- Since our world has become digital, depending on your career/occupation, in many cases, a person can work from any place as long as stable internet and a computer are available.
- The cost of living in other countries is often less expensive.
- In general, the world has become more transient, and living abroad offers more options for ease of travel. Depending on where you settle, long-haul flights become short-haul, therefore significantly reducing the cost of flights or other means of travel.
- A change of scenery, learning a new language, and exploring other cultures and cuisine are also significant reasons people choose to become an ex-pat.
- Educational opportunities.
- The cost of medical care/health insurance often plays a big part in a person's decision.
- Seeking a simpler life without the complications of everyday living.
What Did I Consider?
The list above reflects the most common reasons people choose the life of an ex-pat. In many cases, such as my personal experience, more than one reason often plays a part in the decision-making process.
Personally, I was looking for new scenery, less expensive travel opportunities, a cheaper cost of living, and a simpler life. Of Greek heritage, I have family in Greece, which was my original destination. The pandemic and border lockdowns threw me into Plan B. I ended up in Albania, a neighboring country of Greece. It fit my needs in the following ways:
- 65% less cost of living than the United States
- An environmentally diverse country that offers beaches, mountains, and city living.
- Being a European country, travel was much easier and much less expensive.
- Albania offered a less commercialized life.
- The country was close to family, within a three-hour drive once the border restrictions were removed.
The Challenges and Benefits of the Ex-Pat Life
Living in another country is a beautiful experience but does come fraught with challenges. All countries have limitations on your length of stay. These limitations on a tourist visa range anywhere from 30 days to one year. It is much easier for an American citizen to obtain long-term residency in foreign countries.
Limitations of Stay
Some countries allow you to apply for a long-term visa in-country while others require that the application process be initiated in your home country. Albania, for example, offers American citizens the opportunity to apply in-country and provides residency for up to five years with a very simple application process. In Europe, if a country is part of the Schengen area, regardless of nationality, you can stay 90 days and must leave for 90 days before returning. Other European countries that are not part of the Schengen area have different requirements.
These limitations of stay force a person to remain transient, having to pick up and move at the end of one's visa. It doesn't allow someone to establish roots; travel becomes difficult having to move your belongings and requires a person to stay vigilant on their time in a country. There are often hefty financial fines attached to an over-stay (detected at the time of exit at border control) but can also include long-term or permanent banishment from a country.
I am not an immigration specialist or attorney. I make these points based on ex-pat experience and knowledge obtained through personal research. I bring up the points regarding limitations of stay so that personal research can be done as one weighs the options of the ex-pat lifestyle.
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While English has become somewhat of an international language, communication can be a challenge depending on where a person decides to settle. I was fortunate in Albania to have been fluent in Greek, the second language in certain parts of the country. That being said, when I moved to another city in Albania, Italian was the second language spoken, and all of a sudden, I became lost in translation. Having translation apps on my phone was a huge help! Thank you, digital world!
Many American banks charge an out-of-network ATM fee and international transaction fee. Pre-departure research came in very handy. I found that a few banks cater to ex-pats and either waive or reimburse these fees. How did I even know to make these inquiries?
I knew, in advance, where I was going to locate myself, so I joined an ex-pat Facebook group. Points such as the banking issue had been brought up in the online discussions. Joining the online ex-pat group proved to be a very helpful decision not only with the banking issue but many other questions that popped up during the process.
Other than being lactose-intolerant, I have no specific dietary needs except for personal preference. I am fortunate in that regard. But, that's not the case with everyone, and specialty items can be difficult or sometimes impossible to obtain.
As a matter of act, shopping for groceries can be somewhat of a scavenger hunt. Large one-stop grocery stores are not on every corner as they are in the United States. More likely, an ex-pat will be shopping in small neighborhood markets. I found this to be great fun, but often, I found myself shopping in multiple markets to fulfill my shopping list. Neighborhoods are the core of living, and establishing these local connections and relationships can make an ex-pat experience very successful.
Prescription and Other Medical Needs
Now, this took some getting used to! Most pharmacies will dispense medications based on your stated request, not requiring a prescription. This method, in some countries, also applies to what we would refer to as "controlled substances."
Pharmacy brands differ from country to country, and I found that certain medications are or are not available. The pharmacist will, in many cases, act as a physician and often dispense medications based on their own diagnosis. Foreign doctors despise this practice, but in many places, it is the rule of the land. This practice worked well for me since my medical needs are pretty stable.
In many countries, primary care physicians still make house calls. Emergency room care is often free of charge, and many people use these facilities as non-emergency clinics. Depending on your personal health, this scenario can be a huge benefit or a huge hindrance. Lab tests work the same way in that you walk into a facility with or without a prescription and request a workup. Typically, the results are emailed to you, and if you have a doctor that you are communicating with, it is your responsibility to forward those results to your practitioner.
Having a Car and Driving
While I lived the ex-pat life, I did not own a car. I had examined the possibility of shipping my car to my new location and found it fairly inexpensive. But, most countries link vehicle ownership to residency. I found out that in most countries, you could only legally drive your car for six months without becoming a resident. The rules of ownership vary from those in the United States regarding licensing, insurance, personal taxes, road taxes, and required vehicle equipment such as road flares, emergency cones, tools, etc.
Some countries require an international driver's license. Others will accept a valid license issued from your home country. Rules of the road differ. For example, outside of the United States, a right turn at a red light is prohibited. Traffic violations and accidents are reported differently.
Choosing an apartment in the city center and in an established neighborhood eliminated my need for a car. More often than not, walking was my primary mode of transportation. Occasionally, I would utilize the services of a driver or if I was traveling long-distance, I would rent a car. Buses, fourgons, and trains are also popular options for local and long-distance road travel and are quite inexpensive.
I found the number of ex-pats in a given location important to assimilation. Others who have been in your chosen country for a while are a fantastic source of information. With the rising number of digital nomads and retirees opting for the ex-apt lifestyle, it's not an impossible ask when seeking a community. Socializing with people of like minds can be a huge bright spot in a new life choice.
I found that after about four months in a new country, every ex-pat goes through a period of questioning their choice or a bit of depression. It's a temporary state and passes quickly for most people. But, having a social circle that includes ex-pats is, in my opinion, essential.
Local relationships are equally important. Establishing yourself in your neighborhood and adopting the culture go a long way in my personal happiness sector. Locals rely on each other for support, and once I was accepted, I found myself with a new circle of friends.
Other benefits of establishing yourself would include the gifts of the land. Locals make their own wine and alcohol, olive oil, and other essentials. These traditions have been finely honed over multiple generations and yield amazing products! Being gifted these items is fantastic, but buying them from your neighbor can go a long way in their personal economic solvency.
For example, I was looking for plain white fitted sheets and had been to countless stores with no luck. Asking a neighbor, I was told the sheets I was looking for were typically custom-made. I picked out my own fabric, took the measurements of the beds I needed to fit, and two days later had fabulous hand-sewn sheets for a more than reasonable cost. This situation saw winners on both sides; I got what I had been looking for, and a neighbor not only was paid but received the gift of giving, which is how these exchanges are viewed.
Everyone "knows a person," and after a while, you establish your own list of go-to people. It's a pretty cool way to do business!
Finding a Place to Live and the Cost of Living
Again, not opting to own a vehicle, I lived in the city center. My rent for a two-bedroom, fully furnished penthouse apartment overlooking the Adriatic Sea was $500.00 USD. Using Airbnb or other online services is a good start, but the prices are aimed at tourists and short-term stays. I found that utilizing local connections (a person who knew a person, who knew a person) was much more cost-effective. I was close to local markets, restaurants, beaches, and social venues. My internet was stable, as was my electricity. My elevator was NOT!
A word of caution: what an American thinks of as standard is not always the norm in other countries. When choosing a place to live, check on running water 24/7, heating and cooling depending on the climate and the presence of an oven. These are just a few examples that I encountered or knew others who did.
Going to out to eat was a real bargain and often less expensive than cooking at home. For example, at a local restaurant, I could get a great meal, including wine, for about $8.00 USD.
Including rent, food (home-cooked and restaurants), entertainment, occasional transportation costs, toiletries, clothing, and incidentals, my monthly spend was about $1100.00 USD. (This was in Albania, so please bear in mind the cost of living differs. For example, in Mexico, my monthly spending was twice that amount.)
As you all know by now, I love to travel. This point was an important consideration for me when choosing my destination. All European flights were short-haul, mostly all were non-stop, and the cost of flights was about 1/3 the cost of the United States domestic flights. For example, I flew from Albania to Athens roundtrip, business class, for about $150.00 USD. Gate-to-gate time was about one hour. I found this to be roughly the same for Rome, Paris, Barcelona, London, and other European cities.
When I left Europe for Mexico, it was more costly. I was flying one way, which played a part in the higher cost, and it was also a significantly longer flight but with only one connection.
Was It a Simpler Life? A Better Life?
Was it a simpler life? A better life? That's the $64,000 question! My answer, after much thought, is, "it's complicated!"
First, let me say that there is no Ward and June Cleaver, no Wallie or the Beaver. Life is full of wonderful things, but sometimes those wonderful things have complications. Depending on how, as individuals, we view things, life is simple or not.
- Language challenges gave me the opportunity to broaden my language skills, but it was a ton of work. Was it worth it? Absolutely! My Greek, although I was already fluent, is much better. I have learned Shqip, the language of Albania, although I am not fluent. My French and Italian skills have improved, as have my Spanish skills. I am a huge proponent of education, and so to me, improving my language skills was a great benefit.
- Traveling, as stated, was much easier, and I view that, based on my personal desires, to have been a huge success.
- Medical needs were sometimes a challenge in that with my specific needs (even though they are pretty basic), I sometimes had difficulty communicating my situation. Obtaining medication was at first a challenge, but once I learned where to go and who to ask, it was a breeze. I found the hospital and primary care to be an easy maneuver, again once I learned the ropes. I found the services to be much more personal and tailored to the specific needs of an individual. The initial stress fell away once I was able to get a network of care in place.
- The cost of living was fantastic. I lived exceptionally well for a fraction of the costs in the United States. That is until I went to Mexico. My pre-relocation research failed me, and I found the costs to be in line with the States and ridiculously expensive and over-priced. My rent in Mexico was $1200.00 USD, and the accommodations were nowhere near the quality of European homes. Dinner out, including wine, was about $30.00 USD per person at a medium-priced restaurant.
- Everyday shopping, scavenger hunt style, was at first fun. You know, the art of the hunt! But after a few months, and once winter set it, it became grueling. Provisions in a home weren't purchased on a weekly or bi-weekly basis as in the United States. (Freezers and storage space aren't what I was used to, so shopping was on a daily basis or at least every other day). In one sense, this was nice in that I was always assured of fresh products. Basic items, for example, nutmeg or a boxed cake mix, taco seasoning, and similar items, weren't available, requiring making things from scratch, finding alternatives, or simply doing without. Shopping for household items (like plain white sheets) was also a huge ordeal. This was a big reason taken into account in my decision to re-pat. It was simply put: Tiring! With that said, Mexico did have more options, such as big-box stores, department stores, and large supermarkets.
- Sanitation was not as I was used to. Water was not potable in Albania or Mexico. Sewer systems are not up to par and prevent the flushing of toilet paper. Consistent hot water was also a challenge. I found this very disconcerting.
So, Was It Better Living as an Ex-Pat?
My overall experience taught me a lot. I met people from all over the world and was exposed to different cultures and ways of doing things. And, I had the benefit of learning and broadening my opinions on many things. Friends were made that will be part of my journey for a lifetime.
Perhaps, I am spoiled, but for the reasons listed above, after a few years, I was ready to come home to the United States. I longed for the comforts, creature comforts, that I had taken for granted in the years prior to leaving the country. And so, I decided to return to my home country. But, that also came with challenges that I had not anticipated.
The Re-Pat Experience
For the first few weeks, I felt like a foreigner in my own land.
- It had been a long while since I had driven. I had to purchase a car and obtain insurance. Did you know if you don't have vehicle insurance for more than 61 days, you are considered "high-risk," and obtaining insurance is difficult and costly?
- Obtaining health insurance had its challenges as well.
- Watching TV has become a treat. Using streaming platforms, I had not watched mainstream TV while I was out of the country. The commercials, which I once thought were annoying, I now find ridiculously entertaining for a plethora of reasons! The availability of live sports to watch is something I look forward to on a daily basis!
- My first few trips to the grocery store found me like a small child in a candy store! I went nuts with all the choices! I felt like I was in "food heaven"!
- Even though I used Wi-Fi calling apps while out of the country to stay in touch, reconnecting in person with friends has been awesome!
- I have had some difficulty re-assimilating to everyday things like new technology. (Maybe I'm just too old!)
- The prices of things, including homes and apartments, cars, groceries, toiletries, etc., have been shocking!
- The thrill of being out and about and hearing English being spoken is amazing! I know that sounds like a very small thing, but to me, it's been like heaven. As an ex-pat, even though I was earning new languages, I always felt very insecure about my skills. I was afraid I would say something wrong or insult someone with my pieced-together sentences.
But for the most part, life has been wonderful as a re-pat. While I am happy with the ex-pat experience and have no regrets, I am happier to be back stateside. Yes, the political climate is still not perfect, the cost of living seems out of control, and while away, life moved on without me, but as a famous fictional Kansan once said, "There's no place like home!"
My Final Thoughts on the Ex-Pat Experience
I left the United States, as stated, after some personal tragedy, and with the overall climate of life, I felt like a big change was needed. My original intent was to stay abroad and never return. There are sayings like "you don't know what you have until it's gone," and I found that to be true.
Is the grass greener on the other side of the pasture? It can be but sometimes not. For me, it was until it wasn't. Again, no regrets. I have found that we tend to take things for granted and sometimes get lost in the fray of everyday life. Yes, there are some changes in the United States which are a result of natural progress. But, for the most part, it's the same. It's my home.
So, what's different? I am. My ex-pat experience has helped me grow, my opinions and tolerance are on a different level, and I learned to appreciate the little things, which to others are inconceivable luxuries. The journey we call life is one big adventure as we travel through those relationships, experiences, and seasons of life. I have learned to seek my best life, and I encourage all of you to live those dreams too. Don't settle. Be brave and embrace the good as well as the bad because life, after all, is what we choose to make it.
When asked the question: can we successfully re-pat after the life of being an ex-pat? The answer is a resounding "Yes!"
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Dee Serkin