The Un-Tourist Approach To Retiring Overseas
We lived our first two or three years in Ireland as tourists. Not intentionally, but, looking back now, I see clearly the mistakes we made.
We brought with us from Baltimore to Waterford the U.S. publishing business I’d been running for the previous 13 years Stateside. Our first priority, after we’d found a place to live and enrolled our daughter in school, was to establish the infrastructure required to transfer management of that publishing operation from the States to Ireland. We needed office space, office furniture, and computers. We needed to hire staff, to open a local corporate bank account, and to engage a local attorney, local accountants, and local auditors. We needed to set up payroll, to put employee contracts in place, and to source new vendors. Between renovating our new home, managing our own relocation adjustments, and addressing these start-up business requirements, we had no time to invest in becoming Waterfordians.
When family and friends from the States came to visit, we’d take them to nearby Bantry Bay for the weekend or to Dublin for a day of shopping and museums. We’d do the tourist thing. When they went home, we went back to business. We traveled internationally often, then as now. We came and went so regularly during our time in Ireland that the immigration officials at Shannon and Waterford airports came to know and greet us by name.
It’s no wonder, then, that we managed to remain tourists in our adopted hometown for years. If not for Kaitlin and Jack (born a year-and-a-half after our move), we might have lived our entire seven years in Ireland as visitors. Jack, though, was born Irish and welcomed at his daycare and preschool as a son of the Auld Sod. Kaitlin, too, made friends, participated in activities at school, and, long before the notion even occurred to Lief and me, she began establishing herself as a local. Kaitlin and Jack drew us into their lives. We met their teachers and the parents of their classmates, and we gained a glimpse of real Irish living.
In Paris, we made the same mistakes at first. This time I recognized from the start that we were depriving ourselves of a true Parisian experience, but we had no choice. Again, we were relocating a business, establishing an office, hiring staff. And, in Paris, we were working 12 hours a day with fellow English-speakers. We were fully insulated from the French-speaking world around us. It was not until our final year as Parisians that we felt we’d begun to penetrate the tourist level of this city. We improved our French, spent more time with local French friends, and joined in neighborhood activities–the annual June street party, for example, when our rue de Verneuil ropes itself off, lays red carpets on the ground, and sets up tables for pot-luck French-style–we hadn’t had time for previous years. As my friend Rose explains, it can take a lifetime to penetrate the French culture, but, our final year living in this country, we enjoyed a clearer view beneath the surface.
In Panama, we’ve worked hard not to repeat the errors of our past lives overseas. Four years on in this country, we’re more fully integrated than we ever were in Ireland or Paris. Here we arrived as full-time residents with an advantage. We’d been spending time and doing business in this country for more than a decade before we settled in more permanently. Again, we’ve established a business, hired staff, etc., but we had resources in place to help with this, local friends and contacts who made the getting-settled phase easier to navigate.
At home now in Panama City, we dine and drink where the locals do, and, in these places, carefully guarded secrets from the tourists, we’re welcomed as regulars. We run into friends at markets and fairs, and we’re invited to help them celebrate weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries. We still stand out as gringos when we walk down the street, but we’re doing our best to blend in otherwise, and we’re being rewarded with a chance to experience la vida Panameño.
The key is to make local friends. You want expat friends, too, of course. You want to know fellow English-speakers you can call for a round of golf, a game of bridge, or a drink after a particularly frustrating day in the land of mañanas and fiestas. But try not to give in to the temptation to spend all your time with fellow foreigners. They won’t be able to show you what local life is really like. You can live overseas for years, as we have, without gaining that knowledge, but you’re doing yourself a disservice. Why go to all the trouble of relocating to another country only to miss out on the chance to get to know what living in that place is really like?
How do you get started penetrating the tourist barrier? You understand and embrace the local customs and etiquette. This is a simple but effective first step. Much of the rest of the world is more polite and takes manners more seriously than do we Americans.
In much of the world, it’s impolite not to greet everyone and anyone you encounter throughout the day. In France or Panama, for example, walking in and out of a shop, getting on and off an elevator, entering and exiting a movie theater, an art gallery, or a café, you’ll be thought very rude if you don’t offer the appropriate greetings and farewells.
Before you arrive in your new country, therefore, make an effort to know these phrases. Bonjour, salut, au revoir, a bientot, and bonne nuit…Buenos dias, Buenos tardes, hola, hasta luego, and ciao…know a handful of polite phrases and understand how and when to use them. Panamanians, for example, switch from Buenos dias to Buenos tardes around noon and to Buenos noches when the sun goes down.
The French will think you mal-eleve if you do not offer a merci and an au revoir to every person you encounter when making your way out from a shop. Every single person, at least once. As you walk out the door, you might offer a final, general, “merci, au revoir” to the entire place. My friend John tells of an experience he had early on during his time living in Paris, when he offered but a single “merci, au revoir” to the cashier in the bakery where he stopped to buy baguette on his way home. He said thank you, good-bye, then walked out the door. The proprietress of the shop was so appalled by my friend’s obvious lack of acceptable manners that she followed him out in to the street lecturing him on proper social conduct. In France, when in doubt, it never hurts to offer one more “merci” for the road.
The point is to make an effort to show your respect for the local customs. This small thing will ingratiate and open doors for you. It’s the start of penetrating the tourist barrier and becoming part of the local scene.
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