For years, the trouble was I couldn’t think of another word.
Merriam-Webster defines “retire” as “stopping a job or career because you have reached the age when you are not allowed to work anymore or do not need or want to work anymore.”
Three decades ago, when I began covering this beat, that was, indeed, what I was talking about when I suggested people: Retire overseas.
Today when I say “retire overseas,” I’ve got something else in mind.
I’ve recently returned home (to Panama) after two months in Paris.
Each morning in Paris, I’d wake early and walk to the bakery at the end of the block for chausson aux pommes (apple tarts) for Lief and me and pains au chocolat for our son Jackson. I’d take the pastries straight back so we could eat them still warm. Then I’d fire up my laptop at the desk in the corner of the living room of our apartment and write for four or five hours, until it was time for lunch.
Lunch was a highlight of the day and an event. Lief, Jackson, and I would head out the door of our apartment building and take turns choosing a direction, then we’d walk until we came to a restaurant or café we hadn’t tried before. After a few weeks, we had to walk farther but still managed to find new options. Central Paris is dense with great places to eat.
Mussels and carpaccio… roasted chicken and duck confit… steak-frites and salad niçoise… baguette and red wine by the carafe… enjoyed in rotation, al fresco, with a different view each day. One lunchtime, we’d dine alongside the Seine, the next in the heart of Montmartre.
After eating, we’d take turns deciding where next before calling an end to lunch break—some days to W.H. Smith, the English-language bookstore, to browse, and once, for example, to see the new exhibition of John and Jackie Kennedy photographs we’d noticed advertised in the Metro.
Back in the apartment by 4 or 5 p.m., I’d get online again to connect with the folks I do business with, most based on the other side of the Atlantic. Six, seven, and eight hours behind Paris time, they’d just be getting into their days, meaning I had a window to communicate in real time.
Fires out and questions answered, two or three hours later, I’d sign off and turn my attention to dinner. Some evenings we’d meet friends, others we’d walk to the grocer a few streets over. In any grocery story in Paris, you can buy the stuff of a great meal, even last minute and for not a lot of money. Grocery store wine in Paris is one of the world’s best buys. A drinkable bottle can cost all of 6 or 7 euros.
The makings of our next Paris meal under our arms, we’d choose which direction to take back to the apartment—this way to walk along the river, that way to see the lights coming on along Boulevard St. Germain. We’d take our time, savoring every step.
This was our routine. Many weekends we’d travel outside the city, by train or rental car. When we didn’t, we’d carry on Saturday and Sunday as we had the Monday through Friday before. Maybe we’d spend a little less time online and a little more time wandering the streets of Paris, but why take weekends off? Off from what?
Which gets to the point…
Those recent two months in Paris, I wasn’t retired in a way that Merriam-Webster would recognize. I hadn’t stopped my job or my career, and, though I’m older than I once was, my fingers and my faculties aren’t yet failing me. Nothing’s keeping me from working… so I carry on working. Because I like my work. As long as someone’s interested in reading, I’ll keep getting up each morning to write. What else would I do every day?
Back in Panama, I’m still at it, but the experience is different. I’m up early not for a walk to the corner bakery but to suffer through the commute from our Cinta Costera apartment to our El Cangrejo office. It’s a couple of miles as the crow flies, but lunatic Panama City drivers who run into each other with incomprehensible regularity and ever-changing Panama City traffic patterns mean the drive can be 20 minutes or it can take an hour-and-a-half.
At the office I spend the next 10 hours or so in meetings and racing to meet deadlines. Lunch is often a sandwich at my desk or take-out shared with others also eating while working. At the end of the 10 hours, Lief and I climb back into our car to brave Panama City’s mean streets once more. By the time we arrive home, we’re too tired and stressed to be interested in venturing back out.
No question, here in Panama City, I’m not retired. If I were living in this town according to Webster’s definition, without any work agenda, my experience would be dramatically altered. I wouldn’t have to fight rush-hour traffic. I wouldn’t be inside an office 10 straight hours every day. And I could take as long as I wanted for lunch…
As I did in Paris.
Was I retired in Paris?
Nah. I was as productive there as I am here in Panama City. More productive even.
What’s going on?
Finally I have a word for it. In Paris, I was “unretired.” I was working and productive, but I was in control of my day and my time. I wasn’t tied to a conventional work schedule or to conventional anything. I organized a non-conventional schedule that allowed me to indulge in the best of Paris every day I was there while still meeting all my deadlines and business-building objectives. Again, I was more productive than ever because I was more content and less stressed.
Here in Panama I’m plain old working. I’m all out pursuing an entrepreneurial agenda that means an office, a staff, overheads, and management. I could give up on this agenda and flip the switch to full-time unretirement, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to stop building the business I launched seven years ago, and I understand and accept the consequences of that position. When I’m in Panama City, I’ve got to lead a working-woman’s life. When I’m ready for full-time unretirement, I’ll hop the first plane back to Paris. Now that I’ve taken unretirement for a test drive in that city, I’m sold.
Your unretirement plan likely looks different than mine. Not many are crazy enough to commit to what I committed to seven years ago. Now I’m in this Live and Invest Overseas thing and keen to see how far my team and I can take it. I tried being traditionally retired. Eight years ago, I left the company where I’d been working for 23 years with no thought to go to work for anyone else. We were living in Paris at the time, and my plan was simply to be in Paris.
After three months, a friend noticed me sitting alone on a park bench at 2 in the afternoon.
“What in the world are you doing?” she asked… starting a conversation that jolted me out of retirement for good. I don’t have any interest, I found, in being retired. Unretirement, though, that’s a different ballgame.
You can unretire at any age and with any level of income, assets, or savings, and you can unretire anywhere in the world that supports your unretirement agendas.
You could be unretired, period, living a mas o menos conventional retirement lifestyle but in a new country, meaning days filled with adventure and the exotic.
You could be unretired and earning an income (think laptop business). You could be an unretired entrepreneur, as I intend to be. You could be unretired for fun and profit, investing (in local real estate, say) as you embrace this free and flexible lifestyle.
You could unretire with school-aged children or your aging parents. You could unretire to a penthouse or off-grid and self-sufficient.
Bottom line, unretirement is about taking control of your life and how you spend your days… making it possible for you to spend them wherever you decide you’d really like to spend them.
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