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Thoughts on living abroad

Living overseas for the 2nd time after 30 years of world travel

DISCLAIMER: Everything I say here is very USA vs the world. As USA person living in the world, it’s the only perspective I have. Unfortunately most USA people aren't world people (they live in the bubble). I’m sure many of the concepts would translate country to country or a world person trying to live in USA .

In the 1990s, I lived in Buenos Aires. I officed with a local customer and I commuted to the USA every 6 weeks. I had a nice furnished apartment, and a company-provided car. Also, I was comfortably fluent in Spanish both for work and for my social life.

At the end of January 2020, I moved to Germany for work with the assumption that I’d have the same set up. In principal, this is still true, but circumstances couldn’t be more different. I only knew three words of German (which I learned as a child).

Two weeks after my arrival, the office closed due to COVID-19. Two weeks after that the country quarantine started. My regular return trips to USA were cancelled, and I could only leave my new (to me) apartment to go to the grocery store and pharmacy. Rather than spending time with coworkers and taking the company sponsored face to face language training, I was here, by myself, in my sparsely furnished apartment with only a laptop and a phone for company, quickly getting fatter. It was 6 months before I had a chance to have dinner with a friend, much less casual social time.

I’ve always been very independent and am comfortable spending time alone, but 6 months without face to face conversation with anyone I knew, 6 months without touching another human being, 6 months of only speaking through barriers and masks and screens. I felt really lonely, isolated and homesick for the first time in 30 years.

I wrote most of this in response to a Lifehacker article "Understand the Cons of Living Abroad Before You Move". First,I started typing on my phone. Then it got too long, so I started typing on my PC. Then I decided I liked it so I moved it here.

These are the big lifestyle issues that jump out to me after my first 6 months in Germany:

Personal transportation

Being from the southwest USA (Colorado), personal transportation means hopping in the car and going wherever you need to go, with big parking lots, big roads, cheap fuel and gas stations in predictable locations. Outside USA, the personal car is not nearly as reasonable. Here in Germany they’re famous for great roads and super-fast highways, but often public transport is the faster option. Also, once you get off the autobahn driving is a completely different experience (NO RIGHT TURN ON RED, EVER!). The roads are narrow. Speed limits and traffic lights are very strictly enforced. Parking can be really difficult or expensive. And, off the highway, finding an open gas station, that accepts your flavor of credit card can be a challenge.

As a consequence, you opt more and more for public transport, and the language and culture barrier kicks in. Can you read the signage? Where do you get tickets /passes? Can you pay on the vehicle? Can you get change? Can you use a credit card?

Financial considerations

Using credit cards (or debit cards) is a way of life in USA. I usually carry cash, but mostly just for tipping. 99% percent of businesses will accept whatever flavor of card you like (MasterCard, AmEx, Cirrus?). Not so outside of the USA, especially for things like rent, and bills. In order to pay my first month’s rent and deposit, I had to go to the property manager’s office in a different city, and pay an 8% premium. Also, virtually no business accepts AmEx, except for hotels and restaurants that cater to business travelers. Many businesses don’t accept credit cards from the MC, Visa flavor, and many that say they do, only accept European credit cards. But many businesses, smaller shops, produce stores, restaurants only accept cash.

So, you need to get cash and debit in the local country, which means you need a local bank account, and a local, physical address (also, normal bill-pay transactions, person-to-person payments, and government fees also require a local debit account). When you’re getting set up, you need to set up a wire transfer to put money in your local account (with fees). I still get paid in USD in USA, and I have to transfer money on a regular basis to keep my local account topped up.

Finally, TAXES and government fees. Did you pay your radio tax? Did you keep track of each country you’ve visited and the working days in each country. Local fees represented about an additional 10% of my move-in budget. Not bad if you’re prepared for it, but could get you in hot water if you’re not. Also, as a US Ex-pat, you have to file in USA, and in your local country and possibly in other locales depending on duration of stay. I recommend professional help. I don’t think I could figure it out on my own (I’m not entirely confident KPMG can).

Food

I love food. I have some every day. It might not be as popular as breathing, but it’s close. One of the very best things about travel is discovering new smells and flavors and styles of cuisine. When it comes time to cook at home, this can become a challenge. First of all, when you go to the grocery story, you’re not going to see the produce you’re accustomed to, and if you’re from the Whole Foods and jumbo-supermarket world, you won’t see the variety. You might have to go to two or three grocery stores to find a head of broccoli. You’ll have the same challenges at the meat counter. You’ll have lots of cool new meats and charcuterie, but you might not find the cuts you’re used to, and things can get pretty expensive (here in Germany chicken is less expensive, but a good steak will set your wallet on fire). Then when you get to packaged goods, you have to learn new brands AND you have to accept what they have. You won’t be able to choose between 4 brands of canned beans, and 6 flavors. You’ll only have 1 brand, and you’ll like it. Unless they’re out of stock. I worked in a supermarket as a teenager, and the idea of an empty spot on the shelf is anathema (“Keep it fronted and faced”, “When I walk the store, I better not have any gap teeth in my aisles”). This culture of keeping the shelves full, and stocking stuff that’s not needed causes a lot of waste in the USA due to expired food, or unappealing produce. In Europe, they’re leaner and more efficient, but it often means lack of choice, or lack of option.

Also, if you’re looking for that late night pasta fix, tough you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Change of pace

This is probably the most shocking thing for me: Supermarkets close. I’m not talking about shortened hours on Christmas, but grocery stores close early EVERY DAY, and they don’t even open on Sunday. It sounds silly, but if you’re used to doing your shopping after dinner, and taking advantage of an uncrowded grocery store, it’s quite a change of pace. Most retailers in Germany close by 7:00 PM or 8:00 PM. For me, this means I have to plan my work schedule around the grocery store, the barber, the pharmacy. I do really enjoy the quieter pace, and the notion that I can’t really run errands from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. At home in USA, it seems like, we’re always working and always doing stuff. Here in Germany, I’m (slowly) learning to accept the sanctity of “der Feierabend”. Feierabend loosely means “Evening Festival”, but it doesn’t have an equivalent in English. We might think“happy hour”, but that’s not the right sentiment. Outside the USA (and Japan), most European-style cultures have this idea that when the workday ends, your personal time is deserved, enjoyed and celebrated. It’s amazing that you can say, “I can’t have a call at that time, my workday ends at 6:00 PM” and the answer is a sincere, “Oh! I’m sorry I’ll rescedule, enjoy your evening!” The same is true for weekends and holidays, they belong to you no questions asked, and you’re expected to use them.

It’s really really a great change! I think it's a much more healthy way to live. But when I want other people to be working (for my convenience), it’s a pain in the butt. So, while I enjoy it as a concept, I’m still working to internalize the idea. Talk to me in another year.

Healthcare

For 90% of situations health care outside of the USA is SO MUCH BETTER. It’s staggering the BS that we ‘mericans believe about our “efficient, capitalistic, competitive” health care system. Small, poor countries, have more accessible, less expensive healthcare with a higher standard of care. When I had the flu, I had an office visit, a lung capacity test, an O2 absorption test and an EKG, and I went to the pharmacy and got antibiotics (see note below), prescription decongestant, non-steroidal inhaler AND a steroid inhaler, and my total out-of-pocket expense was €100. In USA, with Cadillac insurance, it would have been easily $200-300. If I were a citizen or a permanent resident here, it would have been part of my taxes.

BUT, it’s very uncomfortable having a doctor who is not a native speaker of your language. It requires effort to communicate, and there’s a lot of potential for confusion. Also, your patient instructions may not be legible. Do you trust google translate with dosages and indications?

It would be very scary if you were seriously ill and required crisis care, but when you recovered (and you probably would have a better chance), you wouldn’t be bankrupt.

Phatic communication

I hate small talk. When some chatty Cathy heads my way, I head for the hills. BUT when you can’t have small talk, when you can’t overhear conversations, when you can’t exchange pleasantries or talk about the weather, you will miss it.

Like being able to touch someone, or shake a hand, or smell their perfume, or hear about their kid’s school, non-essential communication is a part of being a social animal. We all have our desired level of it, but its complete absence leaves a big hole in your life.

Home

I think it should be required by law that all US citizens have to live 2 years outside the USA before they are allowed to vote. Other countries have compulsory military service. I think US citizens should be required to have 2 years foreign service. When I say this people think I’m joking, but I’m dead serious. 99% of the problems Americans create for themselves are due to ignorance of the outside world. With the wealth, gluttony and ferocity of the USA, I think we can afford to require 2 years of public service after secondary school. Either in the military or in other public outreach services, our citizens need to experience the “not us” up close, in order to appreciate what being “us” means.

For all its warts, I love my home and my culture, but spending time outside of the bubble, lets me appreciate what a wonderful place it is, while at the same time seeing the reality of the problems.

One other thing, even if you have a high-degree of fluency in a foreign language, working in a foreign language, corresponding in that language, and doing your day-t0-day conversations in that language is exhausting. It takes a long-time to make that jump to feeling normal in your non-native tongue.

When you dream in a foreign language, and find your self translating from a foreign language to your native language in conversation, you know you’re there.

Regarding antibiotics for the flu

In the original, Lifehacker article, a sarcastic internet doctor replied to my post saying, “Nothing says quality healthcare like antibiotics for the flu.” to be fair, antibiotics do not treat influenza.

When you’re an idiot with man-flu like me and you wait until you’ve been sick for more than 10 days. And it’s just unbearable. And you’re not getting better on your own. And your mucus went from white to green. And you can’t sleep for coughing. You’re probably over the initial viral infection, there’s a chance you’ve picked up a secondary bacterial infection because you’re lungs just can’t do their normal work. Hence, the amoxicillin.

So rather than saying I had the flu, it would have been more accurate to say, I had a secondary upper respiratory infection following an influenza infection exacerbated by asthma, and the doctor prescribed the inhaler for the bronchitis and the amoxicillin for the probable bacterial infection with instructions to use the inhaler to help my lungs clear especially while sleeping, and to start the course of antibiotics, if I didn’t see measurable improvement after 3 days or if symptoms worsened, and to check back in if I weren’t feeling better in 7 days, and to complete the antibiotic course once started.

Nah. F*** that. I’m just gonna say I had the flu, and get on with the rest of the story.