An Ode to the Barcelona Metro

On this 4th of July I have a wide range of thoughts on travel and I promise I’ll share them, but first a bit of an apology. I know I’ve been gone for a while. My wife and I went to Spain for 3 weeks. The day after I returned my employer of 14 years (with over 200K employees) advised me of their decision to eliminate my position as being unaligned with the new model for the department. Blah blah blah. Right business decision. No reflection on anyone we laid off. Blah blah blah. At less than a year away from eligibility for an early retirement pension, I was not amused. But it does open all kinds of doors, so I’m not terribly upset.

This means we get to fluff the pillows, wrap up our bathroom remodel, touch up the paint, and put our house on the market in order to manage costs. It also means we get to escalate our retirement planning in order to find a place to live that bridges the financial gap. At our house this is an exciting phase. Moving opens all kinds of new horizons. We meet new people. We find new places to love. We are going to miss some of the people in our current home town like crazy, but we also know that we will stay in touch. So the idea of moving is making us feel a bit festive. We’re strange like that.

Travel around Spain, a country approximately the size of Wisconsin… makes me realize how completely backward things are in the US. Spain has dedicated large sums to creating high speed train service that will get you from one large metropolitan area to another in an hour or two. Barcelona to Madrid? No problem. No checked luggage. No unfriendly security protocols. Reserve your ticket the day before and take a cheap taxi to the station. Barcelona to Girona, the same. There are also slower trains that stop at a long string of small picturesque towns. Most of the country is connected by rail. It’s fabulous.

The Barcelona Metro is a miracle of user friendly signage, automated ticket kiosks, with adequate but unobtrusive security. The bus and metro system in Seville is adequate to the needs of the city, if less spectacular than Barcelona’s.

There is an underlying assumption in Spain that one should acknowledge: private cars are not essential to living a comfortable middle class life.

Think about that for a minute. Imagine no car payment, no auto insurance, no money and time spent fueling up on a regular basis. Imagine walking five minutes to the closest bus or train stop, checking the clock that shows the time until the next train arrives. In under ten minutes you are heading toward your destination. We used a taxi once in our two weeks in Barcelona. Their Metro, by itself, was enough to make me want to stay forever.

Experiencing Spain’s commitment to mass transit does leave me pondering American attitudes toward transportation. I believe different generations have different feelings on the matter. Maybe it’s just the Gen Xers and our parents who wouldn’t feel complete without a personal automobile. I’m not sure, but having seen how well it all works in another country, I admit I’d be willing to give a car-free life a try.

Observations of a City – Seville Spain

I’m trying to capture some of my impressions of Seville, Spain before we move on in our trip. The Wife and I have wandered around here for almost four days, encountering the people and culture in various settings.

If, like us, you prefer to explore a destination by foot… peering into windows and catching glimpses of forbidden private spaces, Seville will prove as frustrating as most European cities. Space in Europe is constantly at a premium, so the local architecture is designed to ensure privacy and support family time. As a result the coy facades of buildings pressing against one another give the impression of life lived in dark, unwelcoming places. What the average passer-by is not privileged to experience, is the fact that most of these imposing and barren facades are simply the garage door and back gate into large multi-generational communities constructed around 2, 3 and even 5 story courtyards. The center of the space is the heart of the home and a way for the architecture to ensure natural light reaches into every level, and every room.

In most European cities, these “back sides’ of buildings are still a source of some care, embellished with tile, ornate iron work, and occasionally face-lifted with a bumped out sun room hovering lightly off the second story.

In Seville, they are often left untended and unkempt – perhaps to discourage the regular influx of tourists from hanging about. In fact, because the heart of Seville is built and rebuilt upon ancient foundations, streets designed to accommodate a horse and rider or a mule drawn cart, and old muddy foot paths (it’s not alone, you will find this in many older cities in Europe) – it can be positively hazardous to walk the streets. Automobiles thread these narrow passageways, and pedestrians are granted scant inches in many places to step out of the way. Your best bet, while visiting, is to scurry through the constrained blocks of residential buildings surrounding whatever tiny hotel you have found that allows you pedestrian access to the heart of town, to reach one of the larger boulevards. Once there however, it is no small challenge to make your way from one destination to the next… Google Maps for pedestrians notwithstanding. There are no straight routes, and wandering around looking for someplace interesting to explore, photograph, or shop – often leads to frustration and blisters. If you plan to use Google Maps and GPS to get around on foot, make sure to download the offline maps you need before you leave, and practice following the directions in a familiar place.

Another challenge for us was to find a reasonable meal for a reasonable price. Our options ranged wildly, from a healthy breakfast at the hotel for the price of a good bicycle, to tiny restaurants where… if we were lucky, we could buy a cup of coffee and a pastry, or the usual bar menu of beef and pork cuts cooked without much interest in sauces, side dishes, or repeat diners – for less than I’ve spent on a single cocktail in most US cities. It frequently took us an hour to find one that was serving food, taking orders, AND willing to serve us at whatever ungodly hour we chose to appear. Breakfast is hard to find before 10am, lunch doesn’t appear until 2pm, and dinner is best from 9pm to midnight. Nap accordingly.

Every now and then we stumbled onto a neighborhood bar or up-and-coming hipster restaurant where the food was actually enjoyable, if not terribly healthy. We started marking these places on our map to ensure we could find them again. Needless to say, these were not places on our printed map from the friendly hotel concierge.

I am not a native of Seville, and as such I have no business passing judgement. I can only convey my various impressions of the city, which is unusually unkempt and inhospitable for Europe, especially Spain. Construction sounds are everywhere, restaurant staff clang dishes around loudly, narrow sidewalks are covered in suspicious substances, pedestrians shoulder one another aside, over-worked bar / food tenders snarl at potential customers about kitchen delays, and roughly boarded up store-fronts and properties for hire are a frequent part of the landscape.

After bustling Barcelona and tidy Lora del Rio, we were particularly surprised by the impression that business was not thriving in Seville. The sidewalks are awash with fast paced pedestrian traffic, but that same energy did not infect places actually providing services or selling products. Empty store-fronts were not neatly contained and ready for the next tenant. They were, in fact, frequently blocked off with shaggy chunks of cracked marble, poorly constructed brick pillars supporting the upper levels, old construction material, and many seasons of weeds.

Store face lifts often involved painting over historical carved marble and the application of pseudo-historical half-brick facing on top of graffiti-laden ceramic tile. It is difficult to know whether this was a deliberate preservation of history, or a lack of ambition on the part of construction workers. Was this irony, or urban post-post modern design? No se. Painters neatly covered filthy surfaces with a fresh coat of paint, obviously more interested in completing the job than ensuring the durability of their work. No one washed sidewalks, constructed window displays to entice buyers, or attempted to ensure the beauty of building facades. Layers of dirt built upon the residue left from previous generations.

There is a general air of exhaustion about the city. Old town squares and public courtyards are untended, or at best… allocated a desultory smattering of red geraniums and magenta bougainvillea in aging pots – planted hastily and left to survive under the tender mercies of a hot summer sun. During school hours, very young men hauled patched-together wagons full of debris picked from large public trash bins and scrawled desperate tokens of their existence on steel store shutters in the later hours.

You can imagine this city several centuries ago, with a few wealthy families providing protection and employment to many workers who kept vast gardens and large private homes clean and beautiful. That wealth has vanished, the gardens have been turned into open parks, and the city’s tax payers cannot afford to keep the streets and public spaces clean and well-maintained. Although the center of town is filled with commerce and a visual history of grand sculpture and design, most of it is now geared to sustain the tourist trade. While I have no doubt there are artisans, musicians, sculptors, painters and other creative spirits all over Seville, there appears to be little outlet for that artistry in Seville’s day to day life.

We stumbled across a number of places where current inhabitants of this city clearly struggled to reintroduce the idea of public art and civic pride. But the efforts were dying, ignored by a population bent on the struggle to evolve and grow amidst a social emphasis on historical traditions and symbols.

Flamenco, a cultural artifact borrowed from Gypsy tribes, is discovering a resurgence thanks to its arresting visual short-hand and lingering fringe of creative pride. Cynical fashion designers have stuffed the local department store with a section of mass-produced replicas of the Flamenco dance dress – flattering to a small-subset of females of marriageable age, and rather appalling on little girls, mothers, and the occasional grandmother seeking to relive that ‘princess’ moment with silk flower hair decorations, cheap lace shawls and a plethora of ruffles in synthetics so cheap even a proper dry-cleaning cannot give it a patina of sophistication. It’s a bit like Halloween in the US, if the only acceptable “costume” was expected to reflect a once-cool dance style from a hundred and fifty years ago.

Finding a place to stay close to the bulk of the tourist attractions is of particular importance. Although Uber drivers are operating here, you cannot depend on the pricing, and it can be cheaper to take a standard taxi wherever you need to go. Beware the buses – signage and announcements are not reliable and anyone unfamiliar with the city will find it difficult to get around using public transportation. All of the Uber and Taxis we have used were clean and the drivers polite. The advantage of Uber is, of course, the fact that they use GPS to determine their route to your destination, so you can be sure they are taking the best route for the moment. We still aren’t certain that the first taxi driver took us on the shortest route given pricing from other rides, but as strangers to the city, it is impossible to be certain.

Since Spanish wineries are subsidized by the government, there is less motivation to perfect the product than in some countries and locations famous for alcoholic libations. Beware white wines, which are frequently “semi-dulce” (sweet) regardless of their underlying grape varietal. Red wines tend to be dry and high in tannins. That being said, you can get a litre of cheap tinto (red) or blanco (white) to make a Sangria for somewhere around 2 euros, and bottles of slightly better grape for less than 5 euros. Alcohol in general is far cheaper in Spain at the Bar-Restaurants than Americans encounter at our equivalent businesses. The wife enjoyed a double shot of Dewars for 2.5 euros. Of course, the fact that she drinks it neat did impress the bar keep, so that may be part of it. Mine, including half the alcohol because I prefer it with ice, cost the same.

While customer (and tourist)-facing Spaniards in Barcelona often speak more than a smattering of English, you will need to bring a pocket full of Spanish phrases to get around Seville… even in high end hotels and restaurants catering to the tourist trade. The gratitude of staff here when I strung together my rough Spanglish was more than a little surprising. Because I did speak some Spanish (un peqeno), they often mistook us for Germans, Swiss, or tourists from other EU countries. This doesn’t say good things about Americans, so for the love of all that is good about the US of A, buy Level 1 Spanish by Pimsleur and play it in the car while you run errands for a few months. I promise you it will come in handy.


Hable Castilliano? Un poco? Si? Do you love Seville? Why? What is your favorite memory? Drop a line in the comments for the rest of us.

The Food of Seville Spain

Food is an interesting way to explore the culture and people of a particular place. You can learn a great deal about the hospitality ideals of a locale from the way the hotels there serve an international client base.

In places where hospitality is a primary consideration, a hotel breakfast bar will convey the welcome in a way nothing else does. Food intended to please everyone from a Japanese salary-man to a family of American tourists, or a European palate, tells you that local management understands their customers. A breakfast menu designed around local dishes and scheduled for local mealtime preferences, tells you another story. These displays are generally unconscious and innocent of intent: but they have a significant impact on travel experiences.

The Seville area has a sunny Mediterranean climate with extended growing seasons that easily sustain olives, citrus, and a broad variety of fresh vegetables. It is also a brief hour away from the ocean. Despite this ready access to a broad range of possible ingredients, the traditional cuisine of the area is largely shaped by historical and cultural norms.

Dishes are meat-heavy, with a brief nod to vegetables in the form of potatoes and olives. Tomato and sweet peppers make their appearance as well, but more as ways to add flavor than as main ingredients. If you love meat and potatoes, Andalusian cuisine will appeal to you.

Breakfast, or desayuno, is generally coffee with hot milk added to your taste (cafe con leche), and various types of heavily toasted bread with meat toppings featuring Iberican smoked meat. Small hard-crusted loaves are split, heated on a hot plate, then softened with olive oil and tomato water. (Imagine dicing up a tomato very finely (think puree), removing the bulk of the tomato solids, and using the remaining liquid to render the hard bread soggy.) The temperatures of the food are also significant with hot bread combining with cold cuts, room temperature olive oil, and refrigerated tomato water… the end result being a lukewarm dish with a consistency suitable to all possible dental arrangements.

While some herbs make their appearance in Andalusian style dishes, they are lightly applied… often to the broth used to cook seafood or the common dish Caracoles (tiny little snails in a salty, herbed broth). If you prefer mild, unseasoned foods, this will appeal to you.

Thus far my favorite dishes have been a salad of fresh tomato chunks, chopped sweet green peppers, large pieces of chewy cooked squid, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and the inevitable Caracoles with a broth chaser.

Despite fish being a widely varied fresh ingredient, the locals feel the bounty of the sea should be allowed to shine through without assistance. They will serve a tray of five kinds of seafood, all breaded and cooked the same way with the conviction that this is the best way for the diner to enjoy the beauty of local cuisine. Sadly, my palate lacks the sophistication to appreciate this approach. Some of the fish seemed saltier than others, and the consistency of each allowed me to distinguish between various golden brown chunks, but over all – it was fish. Fresh, nicely cooked, but prepared for local tastes. I wanted to ask for tartar sauce or malt vinegar… but there were ample lemon wedges provided, so it seemed like I might risk insulting the cook. Insulting the cook, especially if you’re going to be around for a few days, is never a smart move. So I ate as much fish as my stomach needed and left the rest. The way things go here in Seville, I may just lose weight.


Are you a fan of Spanish, particularly Andalusian cooking? What should I look for on the menu? I’ve already discovered Secreto Iberico (a juicy cut of beef). What kind of vegetable dishes should I watch for that don’t showcase the humble potato?

Jet Lag in Barcelona


I’m a big fan of stepping right into the new time zone. Wasting time during a business trip, or worse, a vacation – calculating what time your body “should” think it is, is an utter waste of time. I keep the curtains/blinds raised so the sun can tell my body when to get up, drink a lot of water (amidst whatever else I might be consuming, depending on the occasion), and try to power through those draggy parts of the first couple of days.

This usually works. What doesn’t work, is to nap. Napping makes the insomnia / exhaustion cycle even worse.

So what did I do this afternoon, 3 days into our trip to Europe? Nap.

As a result I am wide awake after having spent four hours staring at the ceiling, with my brain on Antoni Gaudi, the visual equivalent of crack cocaine. Obviously, this is another case of do what I suggest, rather than what I do. On the other hand, there’s no point in beating yourself up if you do decide to succumb to the siren song of that oh-so-comfortable mattress. It is what it is, and if you’re on Holiday, you get to set the schedule. Tomorrow we have nothing booked until 4pm which is when my much-better-half and I are scheduled for a tour of The Cathedral of the Sacred Family (aka, La Sagrada Familia) – which is generally booked solid.

PRO TIP – if you’re heading to Barcelona, you will want to see the work of Antoni Gaudi. Book ahead on one of those “skip the line” deals.

I would post some photos but all I have is my Chromebook and a bunch of memory cards for my DSLR. Hopefully I’ll have some killer photos from the trip, but they won’t be posted tonight. If you want a sneak preview, check out the picture at the top of the blog page… that is the Mercat Caterina, which is full of seriously interesting food stuff, and as we discovered today, far less jam-packed than it’s older sister, La Boqueria off Las Ramblas. Just saying.


Jet lag tips of your own? Post them in the comments for the benefit of our fellow travel lovers.

What Makes a Good AirBnB

This blog slips between the cracks of my usual blog categories. Business travel rarely involves AirBnB’s with their lack of corporate contracts and general independence, and while this advice might be useful to travelers who are planning a trip, it’s not specifically for that audience. My advice on AirBnB for travelers is read all the descriptions, twice… then read it again before you book. I’ve read so many BnB profiles by now, I’ve probably violated my own advice. I’m hoping not.

I’m afraid this blog is simply some miscellaneous carping on a subject on which I have been forcibly educated in the course of plotting a trip for myself, my wife, and a good friend. We’re going to Europe. Yay! We had a loose idea of where we wanted to go, but the trip evolved from two weeks in Spain with a final stop in Lisbon… to a final week in Rome, all because of AirBnB costs and amenities. Why Rome? Well, why not? We considered Nice, but the Côte d’Azur is terribly thin on AirBnBs at any price… and the French hosts had a particularly annoying habit that got me searching further afield. More on that later.

This blog is chock full of unasked for advice for the many AirBnB hosts of Europe. (and elsewhere).. who clearly don’t “get” Americans, or haven’t grasped the main idea of selling a place for strangers to sleep, dress, and perform the usual bathroom rituals.

This may be, in your way of thinking, a good thing. I won’t contest that. Renting out a part of your home, or your second home, or an investment property is a matter of financial necessity, not fun. For AirBnB hosts in other countries, Americans with our diffident aesthetic, low power distance and low context culture and strangely arrogant politicians, must be a great puzzle, and our preferences impenetrable. Europe, with it’s small elegant spaces grafted onto ancient stone piles must find us particularly difficult to endure. I get that. So I’m going to spell out a few expectations, just in case anyone is looking for tips.

Mind you, as I searched there were a number of stunning AirBnBs that ticked all our boxes. I booked a few and am crossing my fingers that they’ll live up to the photos and descriptions. The good ones stand out. This blog explains why I scrolled right on past your lovely and lovingly (or not) furnished home.

First problem. You think of it as your home. In fact, you may even live there, so that makes sense. The problem is that for a period of time, you want someone else to feel at home there. The more “personal” and “cozy” your AirBnB room/home is, the less likely some random stranger is going to feel at ease there… because, you and they are strangers. However friendly you may be on the surface, they are in your space because of things they want to do outside your home. They are not there to make friends. I’m sure it happens, but if that’s your expectation, you’ve lost the plot. You are asking for money. They are asking for a comfortable place to stay. It’s a business exchange. Cluttering the room with family mementos, uncomfortable or ‘off limit’ furnishings, and failing to make sure all the electric sockets work, is just bad business. Walk into that room and look at it as if you were a stranger. Better yet, ask the next five people who stay there what you should remove from the room, or what it needs. Don’t rely on reviews. We’re all trying to be polite and we get that everyone is different, and we don’t want to make you feel bad… unless the situation is truly egregiously bad, in which case most of us will simply NOT leave a review. So if you’re not getting a lot of positive reviews, you are doing something wrong.

So that’s item #1. It’s not personal, it’s a transaction. You may think painting the kitchen red is festive. For someone who is already out of their comfort zone, in a strange place where they may not even speak the language? Loads of bright colors, particularly hot colors, are just disturbing. Guess what we want to do in the room or home we have rented after a long day of braving the ‘touristic’ crowds and walking 57 kilometers? Yes. We’d like to relax … somewhere pleasant, quiet, and soothing. No on the red. Likewise with orange, bright yellow, and anything resembling colored fluorescent lighting. We’re not there to disco.


It’s all about the beds. No, seriously. Bathrooms fall second because we’re sweaty, sore, and our digestive system has suffered a series of shocks. A great kitchen may snag a few more renters, but a lousy night’s sleep will override our happiness over the lovely living room, the dishwasher, and the snazzy shower pretty quickly. Even a great pool, spectacular views, and a nice garden can’t compensate for general exhaustion. Nice design and good photos are important, but they’re not what we really need. They get customers in the door, they won’t keep us happy.

One of the most annoying things I found in looking for a house or apartment to lease for a week for 3 older women were the number of places furnished with twin beds. Yeah, I know you have a lot of family hand-me-down beds that are twins, and the linens are cheaper.

In America children sleep in twin beds. Adults sleep in a full size, or even a queen. Couples generally sleep in a queen or a king-sized bed. These are very important distinctions. If you have furnished with a queen or king sized bed, make sure your AirBnB profile is correct. A full sized bed is quite a bit smaller than a queen and tiny compared to a king. It can make the difference between being considered, or skipped over. The FIRST thing I looked at on every profile I clicked on was the little bed diagram.

Twin beds may be all that fits into a room. Or you may be trying to attract a group of 10 college students who want a place to party. And if you want to attract a family with eight children, by all means furnish four of your five bedrooms with two twin beds, or (even less desirable) bunk beds. But children (especially drunken ones) are destructive. They don’t intend to be, but they’re children. They don’t know that things are not supposed to be scraped, jumped on, kicked, and generally stress-tested every time they’re used.

If you want to attract adults – mature and responsible adults, you need to recognize that they’re going to spend more time in bed than they are dashing around restlessly and partying. Large, comfortable beds with good pillows and decent quality cotton bed linens are expected. These should be prominently displayed in your pictures. You should plan on providing a minimum of 2 good quality, nicely fluffy pillows per person – with extras for people who need support of a bad knee, a shoulder recovering from surgery, or general lumbar support. If the pillow is a foam or fiberfill that is less than 2 inches thick after being ‘fluffed’, you need to buy a new one. And don’t keep it in the closet as a back-up either. Donate it if you really feel guilty. But get it out of guest circulation. (feather pillows are an exception here because even an older one can be fluffed up to serve as a good resting place for an arm or to cradle an arthritic neck) I know some people can’t handle feather pillows because of respiratory issues, but for my money, there’s nothing longer lasting or more comfortable.

Also, while 2 twin beds set side by side do actually equal a king sized bed, there is nothing sexy, romantic, or cozy about sleeping around the gap. No. Just no. If you have space for a king sized bed, for goodness sake, use a king size bed. Or consider using a queen to provide more room to move around.

Crowded bedrooms lead to people bruising themselves, tripping and breaking decorative items, or suffering incontinence as they shuffle around trying to locate the bathroom. None of these experiences will lead to positive reviews. My wife and I once stayed in a room so claustrophobic we left at 4am because neither of us could sleep in the airless closet that served as our bedroom.

Make sure the bedroom(s) get decent ventilation and can either be maintained at a comfortable temperature, or other accommodations have been made. If you can’t offer air conditioning for a space that gets hot, install a ceiling fan with a remote and make sure the windows open easily. If you don’t have heat in a home (or room) that gets cold at night, make sure you have warm comforters or extra blankets. Consideration of your guests’ needs will go a long way to getting you positive reviews.

Which brings me to specifics. Lisbon Portugal is a coastal city. It’s vibrant, full of history and crammed with amazing food, art, and creative activities. It also gets cold at night well into late spring. Cold and damp. I don’t care if you’re used to it. Imagine that your guest comes from somewhere hot and is used to having AC and heat. If your apartment doesn’t have heat, don’t have them discover this when they’re THERE to stay. Make sure you mention it in the description, along with the fact that you have lovely feather comforters for every bed and a space heater for the bathroom. Better yet, show this in pictures. And PLEASE, for the love of all that is likely to get your place booked, make the beds up before you take pictures. A photo of a naked mattress with a stack of folded sheets and towels sitting on it is Not Enticing Marketing. It looks more like you’re inviting people to stay in an army barracks than a comfortable AirBnB. Are we also expected to make up our beds and strip them when we’re done? Do we get a discount on our cleaning fee for performing this housekeeping chore?

Another practice I encountered in my recent education on all things AirBnB is the addition of fees for basics. I’m not talking about 15EU for a parking spot. That’s money well spent for folks who have a car. I’m talking about charging for things that should be included if you actually care about your guest’s comfort.

If you want to charge extra for the use of electricity, water, gas for cooking, or heating fuel… increase your rate. Guests are paying to stay someplace with the kind of amenities they enjoy at home. This practice brings to mind an Americanism known as “nickel and diming”. Tacking on a bunch of extra fees for features that should be part of the basic package is not going to go over well with your guests, especially if it was buried deep in the small print at the very bottom of your description. If you MUST charge extra fees, include it early in the description. Otherwise it seems sneaky and dishonest, which is not going to lead to a good relationship and most certainly not a great review.

And finally, my largest pet peeve of the whole adventure. Charging for sheets. Seriously? Is this 1689? A tuppence for a sheet sir, or you can share the straw tick with the last guest’s fleas. Sheets are actually as much for the landlord’s benefit as the guest’s. Do you really want someone to sleep on the bed without sheets? All their sweat and skin grease and hair products oozing into the mattress? BED LINENS are not something a traveler should have to pack along. This actually is a practice of some places along the Cote d’Azur… which just made me sniff and think, amateurs… and which is really why we wound up in Rome. 40EU for a set of sheets per person is highway robbery. You’re here now, pay up or go someplace else… and by the way, we already have your entire payment and you don’t get a refund. That’s a highly suspect business practice and guaranteed to get you an unpleasant review. I’m rather surprised AirBnB even allows it, but that’s not my job.


My job is to offer some helpful advice to folks just starting to look for an AirBnB and some insight into what your guests need to all those AirBnB hosts who may be wondering how to make sure their place is booked solid during peak season. What about you? Any pet peeves you have on the AirBnB circuit? Any really cool things a host did for you? Tell us all about it in the comments below.

Expat Destinations – Decisions, Decisions

If you are seriously considering spending your retirement years in a beachy, sunny, festive, low cost location SOMEWHERE outside of the United States, you are in good company.  The cost of health care (and insurance) in the US is a significant enough motivation, without adding in perks like travel discounts, exotic locations, and (sometimes) a low cost housekeeper for the later years when your knees/hips/shoulders make scrubbing floors and cleaning the refrigerator Not Much Fun. 

The challenge lies in determining what your priorities are, then winnowing down the options.  We have been considering Ecuador, Spain and Portugal.  

So first, language.  I have to admit that I have always wanted to learn Spanish.  I’ve lived in California for a third of my life, and the casual exposure to Spanish gives me a leg up on learning the new language.  (not to mention I have friends whose first language is Spanish… so yeah.)  Don’t get me wrong, Portuguese sounds flowing and sexy, which is incentive enough.  But I love the fact that Spanish follows English in frequency of usage.  Still, if learning a language spoken by the most people on the planet was my main criteria, I’d have to go for Mandarin.  Hmmmm.

Really really tempting… but not in my late fifties.    Add to that the fact that a significant percentage of young Portuguese have been exposed to enough American movies to give them an ear for English… and I figure we can muddle through together.  I’ve always wanted to be fluent in other languages, let the games begin!

Acceptance of LGBT Couples: The whole ‘human rights’ thing is a critical element… especially acceptance of LGBTQ individuals like yours truly and my amazing spouse. Here Portugal edges out Ecuador by a hair, and Spain comes out at the front of the pack… if you can completely ignore its history.  I can believe in political change, so all three are acceptable destinations on that count in my mind.  

Health care… now that’s a kicker. Quality of treatment has to be sophisticated, but not profit-based like the US. There has to be a universal payment/coverage system, or affordable coverage. Equivalent drugs must be available. Physical, occupational, and speech therapy must be available. All three candidates qualify in the large cities… less so as you get into the countryside (and that varies significantly from country to country).   Do your own research based on your conditions and needs.  Research claims that sound too good to be true, even further.  The impact of Ecuador’s geography (elevation and proximity to the equator) on its residents should definitely be taken into consideration

We have a long list of our own interests including (in order of importance to us… yours may be different); 
* safe tap water
* air quality
* cost of living
* safe public transportation
* hot water heaters in homes
* status of cannabis usage for medical purposes
* retiree discounts
* access to good restaurants
* access to wine country and quality adult beverages
* arts and culture

 There are a number of web sites out there dedicated to the interests of Expats all over.  Most should be taken with a grain of salt… especially the ones that bubble over with enthusiasm about the idea of leaving your home country for somewhere *better* (i.e. cheaper, sunnier, friendlier…)

Expat life is an adventure. Of that I am confident.  There will be no guarantees. It will shake us up, irritate the shit out of us, transform our way of seeing others and ourselves, and will probably change our relationship significantly. The Wife and I are are fully aware of the possibility that we will spend six to eight months glaring at one another and thinking, “You, and your bright ideas!”  

We are also pretty confident in our ability to adapt, savor the process of learning new things, and enjoying whatever splendid foods, beverages, and vistas we find in front of us. It’s our retirement.  Let’s have fun with it!

Considering Expat Life – Decisions, Decisions

If you are seriously considering spending your retirement years in a beachy, sunny, festive, low cost location SOMEWHERE outside of the United States, you are in good company.  The cost of health care (and insurance) in the US is a significant enough motivation, without adding in perks like travel discounts, exotic locations, and (sometimes) a low cost housekeeper for the later years when your knees/hips/shoulders make scrubbing floors and cleaning the refrigerator Not Much Fun. 

The challenge lies in determining what your priorities are, then winnowing down the options.  We have been considering Ecuador, Spain and Portugal.  A friend recent recommended a couple of cities in Italy, and one in Mexico.  We have a lot of research to do. 

So first, language.  I have to admit that I have always wanted to learn Spanish.  I’ve lived in California for a third of my life, and the casual exposure to Spanish gives me a leg up on learning the new language.  (not to mention I have friends whose first language is Spanish… so yeah.)  Don’t get me wrong, Portuguese sounds flowing and sexy, which is incentive enough.  But I love the fact that Spanish follows English in frequency of usage.  Still, if learning a language spoken by the most people on the planet was my main criteria, I’d have to go for Mandarin.  Hmmmm.  

Lately we’ve invested in several CD programs to learn more Spanish.  Pimsleur, Living Language, and Fluenz are several good choices, but the Spanish dialect spoken in Ecuador is different than the one spoken in Spain.  The same is true of Portuguese spoken in Brazil and Portugal.  So even this is not as easy as clicking a link on Amazon to get the starter set. There are also online courses where you can video chat with a fluent language teacher, immersion travel adventures, and any number of combinations of the three.  Hopefully I’ll have something useful to say about this in a while. 

Acceptance of LGBT Couples: The whole ‘human rights’ thing is a critical element… especially acceptance of LGBTQ individuals like yours truly and my amazing spouse. Here Portugal edges out Ecuador by a hair, and Spain comes out at the front of the pack… if you can completely ignore its history.  I can believe in political change, so all three are acceptable destinations on that count in my mind.  

Health care… now that’s a kicker. Quality of treatment has to be sophisticated, but not profit-based like the US. There has to be a universal payment/coverage system, or affordable coverage. Equivalent drugs must be available. Physical, occupational, and speech therapy must be available. All three candidates qualify in the large cities… less so as you get into the countryside (and that varies significantly from country to country).   Do your own research based on your conditions and needs.  Research claims that sound too good to be true, even further.  The impact of Ecuador’s geography (elevation and proximity to the equator) on its residents should definitely be taken into consideration

We have a long list of our own interests including (in order of importance to us… yours may be different); 
* safe tap water
* air quality
* cost of living
* safe public transportation
* hot water heaters in homes
* status of cannabis usage for medical purposes
* retiree discounts
* access to good restaurants
* access to wine country and quality adult beverages
* arts and culture

 There are a number of web sites out there dedicated to the interests of Expats all over.  Most should be taken with a grain of salt… especially the ones that bubble over with enthusiasm about the idea of leaving your home country for somewhere *better* (i.e. cheaper, sunnier, friendlier…)

Expat life is an adventure. Of that I am confident.  There will be no guarantees. It will shake us up, irritate the shit out of us, transform our way of seeing others and ourselves, and will probably change our relationship significantly. The Wife and I are are fully aware of the possibility that we will spend six to eight months glaring at one another and thinking, “You, and your bright ideas!”  

We are also pretty confident in our ability to adapt, savor the process of learning new things, and enjoying whatever splendid foods, beverages, and vistas we find in front of us. It’s our retirement.  Let’s have fun with it!

Is Early Retirement Possible?

The Wife and I are planners.  I’m a Project Manager by trade and my better half is a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer.  Our plans have contingency plans, risk management plans, communication plans, and vendor management plans.  We’re perfectly willing to make the best of any situation, but we don’t leap before looking, double-checking with other people who have had a similar experience, triple checking our resource inventory, and weighing the bad press against our skills. We do our best to mitigate risks and ensure smooth transitions.  When things don’t go well, our ‘fix it’ mode kicks in and we can totally stress ourselves out trying to take care of everything at once. 

Retirement planning takes all those habits and kicks it into high gear.  What kind of weather do we enjoy?  What activities?  We love to entertain, eat out, explore new sites and experiences, and spend time with our menagerie (two small dogs and an extremely sociable cat).  While I love my career when its in full swing, my employer has undergone an extended transition that has left me sitting on the sidelines, twiddling my thumbs.  

So lately we have been discussing early retirement for me (my wife retired from the Navy after 20 years and is now a Realtor).  I could collect a small pension, that along with hers would be adequate if we were to go abroad as expats.  Since we both  love to travel this idea seems like an exciting adventure.  (I am fairly certain we will have a number of moments when it will seem more like the last crazy act of people on the verge of senility.)

True to form, we’re researching possibilities.  Although neither of us speaks a second language, I’ve always felt comfortable picking up a few phrases for trips to Paris and Japan. Given an environment where I’m forced to learn a new language to get around, I think I can pick up the basics and grow from there. The Wife is the same.  So language is not an impediment.  

But we’re looking for a culture that is human rights and LGBT friendly.  The Wife prefers cannabis as a pain management solution to opioids, so that has to be legal.  We want access to high quality health care, housing with some 1st world amenities, safety and proximity to an urban environment with shops and restaurants.  We also want to bypass vehicle ownership, so access to public transportation is a must.  Cost of living is a consideration until we reach official retirement age and have access to our long term investments and whatever is still available from Social Security.  

While I’m trying not to be an alarmist, I’m already experiencing arthritis in hips, hands, and I recently injured my knee.  My wife has had her shoulder joint recently replaced.  We are beginning to realize that time is not on our side, so retiring at 58 doesn’t seem quite as irresponsible as it once did. Now we just have to find a way to make it financially doable.  Hence the expat scheme.

I have been fortunate in my employment, in addition to socking away a significant percentage of my income into retirement accounts, my employer offers a pension.  This is something I just learned recently.  Until a few weeks ago,  I thought my retirement funds were my sole source of retirement income until I was able to collect Social Security. So this is my first bit of advice,  involve a financial planning professional earlier in your calculations.  I am preparing to take my own advice. 

Meanwhile we have come up with a short list of Spain, Portugal, and Ecuador. The more we research, the more we recognize how little we know. So the next course of action is to take a trip to experience these locations first hand. Fortunately, we like to travel.  I mentioned that, right?  

Stay tuned.  I’m going to continue to write about our planning and preparations for life abroad.  Who knows?  I might actually learn something of interest to you.