Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thoughts on Living in a Foreign Country-Why Some Choose It

Folks, I apologize in advance. My cursor is jumping from place to place mid word. I believe I have edited properly, but should you see a few letters that obviously don't belong there, please bear with me as I work on this issue!!

In a previous post, I mentioned why I almost chose to retire in Europe. In fact the only reason I am not there is because with my husband no longer living my cost  of travel increased, and I have two children in the American West. I received quite a few emails and one or two comments wondering how I could consider, or even mention such a thing.  That, along with Tom's post this morning, led me to a blog post about why I would have chosen to retire in Europe.

Please note that this is not a treatise on why someone should retire overseas, or in Germany. This post is not about that.  What it is about is the observation that ALL countries have pluses and minuses, including the US, and that blinders are bad. I live in Colorado and I love it and will stay here for some time. However, I also love Germany and see that as a viable alternative for retirement. If my friend who is an opera singer in Germany traveled here to sing for the Central City Opera, I would have a list of pluses and minuses about living here as well. This is one person's anecdotal observation of her life and choices, based on living in Germany then, traveling to Germany on occasion now, and many, many expat and German friends who keep me up to date in between. 

I love America. I love living here. It is my home and I have no desire to change nationalities.  For me however, based on quality of life and lifestyle factors, Germany is also a wonderful place to live, and at this time in my life could in fact be the best place to live-at least for a few years. I am the girl who hangs her flag on every holiday, has Americana quilts on her table, and served her kids red white and blue food for years on American holidays.  However, I also appreciate the value of the experiences and advantages of other places, and wish that as a country, we would be willing to pick and choose some of the best parts of other countries as we move forward......... 

First, I should probably talk about what my previous life in Germany was like, to dispel a few myths. I rented a four story home with a small yard.  I had four modern bathrooms with huge tubs-one on each floor. I had modern tile floors.  My home was heated with modern, state of the art radiators (clean, cheap and always warm). I lived in a typical modern suburban home, with typical suburban neighbors. I shopped at modern groceries that usually had more choices than many groceries here in the US, thanks to the EU. This included American like TP.  We ate out regularly at good inexpensive restaurants. We had access, with a very few exceptions to quality items that were as good, and often better, than things I find in the US. My neighbors still live this lifestyle. The restaurant on the corner is still great, and the rent on the house has gone up less than fifty dollars. Our weekends were spent, in addition to traveling, much the way they are anywhere.  Skiing, kid activities, sporting events, shopping, and going to festivals, going to church.

Many things were different than living in the US. However, different does not mean worse, lesser, or not as good. Different simply means different. Americans (as well as other nationalities on occasion) have this philosophy that everything we have, or do, is better than other places.  That, put simply is bunk. It's nothing to do with patriotism, it's acknowledging that maybe some countries have some things that we could learn from, and that we are not the absolute best at every single thing, as a country or a people.  That belief has nothing to do with my flag hanging, military supporting, patriotic quilting self.

Secondly I will say that travel to a place is rarely like living in a place. So, when you traveled and had a bad experience in the Paris train  station, that really has nothing to do with living in France.  European and Asian tourists often have ugly American experiences in this country. Grand Central Station, JFK, and budget hotel experiences are not like LIVING and making a home in the US.  We would not say that would be what living in the US would be like. Europe today is not what it was like in 1970, nor what your father experienced during the Army of occupation, any more than this country is like what it was in 1969. By the same token, the fact that you LOVED Bali and cannot wait to go back does not mean that you should live there. One of my favorite places to visit is North Africa, with Malta being second. I could never live in either place. Nor, frankly, could I live in Jackson Hole, although I could certainly spend a week or so there every year.

Whenever we talk about Europe, the S word and democracy come up. Socialism is an economic state, one which many Americans  seem to have an automatic disdain of-even when it works well, which it often does, believe it or not. My experience is that socialism is about community and that is one area where we seem to be lacking in this country overall. Many of the reasons for loving Europe I give below are due to economic socialism-what many of my fellow bloggers would call the nanny state. My experience is that it, and the attendant taxes make what I might call the European lifestyle sometimes a superior one.  All European countries have representative democracy, and when monarchs exist, they are not rulers.  I often actually wonder if the European style of electioneering could not teach us something. Elect the party and let the party choose it's leader afterwards-but that again is not what this particularly long missive is about.

Now,  I could not possibly list all of my reasons for happily living in another country. Also, my reasons would be different than another person-and there are an awful lot of American Expats as well as Brit retirees living in Germany.  It's the number one non US location for US military folks to retire, for good reasons.

Since this is a retirement blog, many of my explanations are from a retirement perspective. Most reasons are anecdotal, and some are specific. No country is perfect, and there are certainly a list of cons that I will have to list in another post. With little ado, here are some of the positive reasons I would happily return to Europe to live-at least for awhile.
  • Health Care. Health care. Health care.  This is not a "well yea, but.." It's not a "sure, everyone should have access to minimal care" issue. I could have been paid with a weak dollar, spent Euros, and come out ahead. Way ahead, financially.  With health care good enough that the Mayo Clinic could not find anything better to do for my husband. This is not just about coverage for all, it's about cost, efficiency and alternatives. I cry out for German health care daily, and I have GOOD American insurance. It's about good quality, and reasonable cost for everyone not just the folks who have good health or good jobs. This bullet should appear five or ten times. American health care sucks, it's bloated, costly and in and of itself force some people to look elsewhere.  Hard truths, but there it is.
  • Proximity and travel costs. When I lived in Frankfurt, I could fly to Majorca in less than two and a half hours for a few bucks, with Stockholm the same flying distance in a different direction. I could jump in the car and be in Champagne for lunch or dinner, depending.  Retirement (or non retirement) travel and/or vacations are cheap, varied and close, no matter your interest.  Once there, I could have stayed in a nice pension (read bed and breakfast, sort of) with continental breakfast for a few Euros. I could experience a vastly different culture, or climate, in just a long weekend.

  • In the same vein, a mild four season climate and the wherewithal to leave it as needed. My cleaning woman and her husband could afford to spend two weeks in Italy every January. While  Germany gets cold, it does not have the winters that the Midwest or the Northeast have experienced in this country. I did not own a snow shovel.
  • Since I mentioned it above, the ability for the average Joe or Jonette to afford a cleaning person.  For five years I paid a woman to come and clean my house for four hours twice a week, for forty dollars a day, plus tips and Christmas gifts.  My cleaning person did this for pocket money, and could afford to do so because of the health care situation above (are we seeing a trend here?)
  • Cheap living overall. Low cost entertainment and culture. Quality goods at reasonable prices-not imports, German goods. Really good non chain restaurants really cheap. Money goes far when the health care elephant is out of the room. The same is true for many retirees in this country, only we still have the elephant.
  • Friendliness.  The guy in the produce department asks you how you are today.  When you go into a restaurant, you say hello or good evening and smile at the people around you  You make eye contact when you are walking down the street.  Everyone always says, good morning, good day, eve to the casual person.
  • Environmentalism.  Germany protects the environment in a pristine way. Car washing is done in a way that captures the water and you cannot just wash the car in your yard, when a tree is cut down another is planted. This is not a political statement, just an observation of how it affects the living experience. Homes are mainly heated with modern up to date steam radiators, not oil or gas.  If I were to build a house it would have radiant steam heat.  It gets very warm, there  is no mess and there is never any danger.  Bike paths everywhere, even in the forest, and public transpiration everywhere, even out to the boonies, to quote my son.  A clean and  always healthy place to live, and environmentally perfect (except the Autobahn, and it's speed limit, of course).
  • European football (also known to some as soccer). I live for the world cup, and lived in a town with a minor league soccer team and stadium. I also love American football, for what it is worth.
  • Fussgangerzones. In other words, every city center has a walking only zone that usually encompasses the primary shopping area. Germany has almost no traditional malls. They don't need to because they have they have these (picture on the bottom) areas.
  • Festival culture. On the first of advent, every town opens up it's own Christmas market-with music, hot wine, various booths and tents.  This is just one example. There are raspberry festivals, spargel (white asparagus) festivals, and mushroom festivals. Every town has it's own Easter market the weeks before the holiday. There are fried fish festivals and wine festivals. I could go to a festival every week and it would not be boring or repetitive.   
  • No gun or cowboy culture, and low gang culture, which is one of the many reasons we chose to raise our son overseas. Not a debate on the second amendment, just an observation on the safety of living in that particular place.  I often took public transportation, even at night, alone, and my son was riding the rails in middle school with confidence.
  • Quiet Sundays.  Stores are closed (restaurants and gas stations open). No mowing and hammering on Sunday.  Every couple of years they hold a referendum on this, and every time the populace votes to keep it this way, by choice.  There are no words to express the joy of sitting in the back yard on Sunday and hearing no yelling, no home improvement and no leaf blowing.  Yes, German couples all work as well, and some how they manage without shopping on Sunday. I miss this every single week.
  • No checks. period. Everything is paid via bank to bank transfer. I receive a bill in the mail (or online) from my doctor (insurance, mobile phone bill..).  At the bottom of that bill is a unique bank and account number alone with my personal reference number.  Either online, or in person, I send that bill directly to the bank. I can also do direct bank to bank transfers for ordering online, or just sending a friend some money
  • Culture as part of every day life, should you choose to make it so.  Almost every town has it's own opera company, an art school, historical buildings and more. This could be expanded on tenfold, but I think most readers understand what I mean-like when you are at the farmers market and realize that the statue in the middle is the Bremen town musicians.
  • Reasonably priced, good quality food.  Reasonably priced because of the Euro zone-no such thing as out of season produce, and except for veal all meats are reasonably priced and healthy. Germans do not have meat with  hormones, and almost all areas are GMO free zones . I don't need to purchase organic to eat healthily and safely. German prices are so good, that Walmart was a failure and had to withdraw from the country. They manage to reasonably priced goods that are good quality.  This is the country of Aldi, after all, folks.For those who wondered if this is still true, I just looked at the 2014 food costs online..yep!
  • Superior technology, in some cases.This is one of those things that has changed since I left. When I purchased my SUV in 2006, there was not an American car in the top ten of reliability or safety. Still I believe there is a superior quality of goods overall and a lack of throwaway products and fashion.  In 2001, I had a cell phone that did more than my current smart phone does-with the ability to take a Sim card and put it in any other phone I purchased-no contracts, no deals, no nothing.  The TVs, stereos and computerized sewing machines I purchased fourteen years ago are still going strong. I still have clothing I purchased in 2001-2003, they are items I wear regularly and are still in good condition.  I'm about to wear out a handmade tunic jacket and I'm crying inside because I know I will not be able to replace this item. Limited fast fashion and throw away products. While Germany imports some technology, unlike in the US, most of what is on the shelves and on the road is German made. Pffaff, Volkswagon, BMW, Audi, Addidas, Bosch, Braun and Henkle-buy them at German prices and ship em home in your household goods.
  • Education (this will be on the con list, as well).  Not the superior number of mathematicians part, the part where they acknowledge that not everyone is meant for a university education. The part where what we would consider blue collar jobs are considered professions.  Being a waiter is an honorable career with great pay and benefits, not a job until something else comes along.  My mechanic did two years of school and two years of internship before he could work on a car alone.  If my son had wanted to join the construction trade he would have had to take professional training and then do a long internship.
  • The nanny state and it's accompanying taxes. Again, this is not a political statement, this is an observation as to how this affects the lifestyle of a resident.  I never met a pothole in Germany.  I traipsed across Europe using cheap but high quality government owned public transport. Everyone in Germany has both health care and long term health care. Every citizen is automatically assumed to be eligible for (and therefore receive), food, good housing (not homeless shelters), training and education and health care. Is there homelessness? Yes, some, but the structure is there to deal with it, paid for by the state and not reliant on churches or other volunteer organizations. No one has ever (and this is recent) tried to wash my car window, stood on the corner with a sign, or slept by the underpass or on a grate so I had to walk around them.  
  • The Autobahn.  To those bloggers who bemoan those of us who drive over the speed limit, I say, sorry folks.  I managed to drive eighty miles an hour on high speed roads for ten years.   While I am a defensive driver, the fact that you want to drive 65 doesn't mean I have to, or should.
  • Kid's cannot drive until they are eighteen, and the driving test makes ours look like kindergarten. You have to be able to stop on a hill with a stick shift, and restart without using the parking brake, and go up without falling back. You have to be able to enter a traffic circle without stopping, and a first drinking and driving charge loses you a license while the second lands you in jail.  On the other hand, as my twenty five year old reminds me, you can drink beer at fourteen, and take the train to Amsterdam and back in a day (if I have to explain it..)
  • Summer Light.  Germany is north, meaning it has long summers and short winter days. While the winters will certainly follow in the con list, there is something wonderful to be said about being able to play golf at ten to eleven in the evening, or sit out on the patio for a late dinner.
  • Outdoor dining. Everywhere. This is not a German phenomenon by any means, but rather a European one. Be it McDonald's or a five star restaurant, in clement weather you will have the option to eat outside, under umbrellas and with heaters if necessary. While eating schnitzel and drinking good wine and wheat beer, and German Chocolate cake and Spargel (white asparagus with Hollandaise)
  • Chocolate-really good German chocolate for less than the price of M and Ms. German chocolate filled with liqueur. German chocolate filled with whiskey. German Chocolate filled with cream. 
  • No chain restaurants. No Red Lobsters. No Outback. No Olive Garden. That's right folks, with a few fast food exceptions, no chain restaurants. My local steak place was individually owned, as was the Italian place downtown. I'm sure some of my readers would consider this a minus, but for me-so much an advantage.
No place is perfect. I certainly love where I am living now. Every place has advantages and disadvantages and things that they do well and ways that they could improve. That includes the US, lord knows. It also includes other countries, such as Germany.  I could, and will in the next few days, list the cons of living in Europe. I may follow with the same kind of post on Colorado and the US.  I could also list many more pros.  

The bottom line is that European retirement living can be as good and as full as living in Colorado or Florida, if we open our minds just a bit. For now, I've made a happy retirement life here on the front range.  Other countries call though, so I leave, as always, my options open.  Your options may be different.


  1. I do not know about Germany, but we just returned from a trip to France where there were many homeless people. They were sleeping in doorways, phone booths, and even in the bushes outside our appartment.

  2. Karen, every country in Germany is different. In Germany there were no homeless. It used to be joke in my church-God guides us to care for the homeless and hungry, but in Germany the state takes care of that. I used to run a ministry for German citizens who had to return in adulthood after living in childhood (because their mom had married a GI and he had never bothered to adopt or make a citizen, or any number of other reasons). They had one social worker for every ten individuals and gave them apartments, what you would call a rental kitchen I guess, clothing, german lessons and the work. We were there for emotional support only!

  3. Is it easy to immigrate/ retire to Germany to retire? I was under the myth that their laws for immigration for non EU were much tougher then our own.
    I enjoyed our time in Germany. The travel was amazing and the medical care was wonderful. We were resourced out if the military hospital did not cover the problem. The police have a bit too much power from what I remember and the court system is very different. Your rights are a bit more subdued.
    My understanding is that homelessness has risen significantly in Germany because of the influx of immigrants from other EU countries. They do have a law that they can send you out after 90 days if you don't have a job. Sort of the old US solution of giving the homeless a bus ticket to the next city?

    1. Easy is a relative term. You can visit as a tourist for ninety days withio bloout any problems. After that you simply have to prove that you can support yourself, which as a government retiree I can, as can the military retirees there.It does require getting a residence permit, the same as people who want to live in this country who are not citizens. The Bureaucracy is of
      course always in full bloom,,

      I have friends who have traveled to the us and wanted to stay longer than the tourist visa-same conumdrum.

      A drawback for some is that Medicare does not travel outside the US. However because of the medical care low costs, this is not an issue.

    2. How is your house hunting going by the way? I do miss the east coast, and in otther couple years could end up there-part of my non-home buying strategy now!

    3. House is great. I am excited about East Coast things to do with Delaware taxes! Thanks for asking.

  4. Excellent post! I am a few years from retirement, but living abroad is something I am considering. Thanks for all of your insights. A lot of food for thought.

    1. Anne, I would say to do your homework. and if possible stay in that country as a tourist for as long as it is allowed, in one place to get a feel of the lifestyle. Every country is different and most parts of any country are different. I could not live in Mexico or Central America, for example, but I have friends for who that is the perfect lifestyle. I for example thought I would love warm Texas but ended up back in Colorado.

  5. A vert eye opening post. Thanks for all that info. I think it's Germany that just opened free university to anyone. Even US students. Do you have any info on that?

    1. Interesting question Christina. First let me say that many universities werefree (or almost free) to residents-or had a tuition of only 600 dollars a year. Second, I think it is wonderful, but American students (undergrads especially) should compare apples and apples. German universities are classrooms, public buildings and the most basic of dorms. College as such is not a place to find oneself. You choose an academic major prior to entering, often live at home or in a shared a apartment, and while you socialize, the college as such does not feed you, host get togethers, have clubs, host fraternities, have sports teams or stadiums.

      That said, all of my American and British friends who studied in Germany were primarily music majors (opera, composition) or linguists, who went there as grad students and LOVED it.

      I recently took German for the easy A and as a refresher (I am a college student), and half of the kids in my college class were taking German so that they could go and study.

    2. Your blog is interesting by the way Christina-I've bookmarked it to check it out as I am able!

  6. Well done. I agree with every one of your points. We had the opportunity to live in Europe back when our kids were young but I shared custody of my son with my ex-husband and he would never have allowed us to go not to mention our son's interest in American baseball. We might have been able to work around all of that but didn't so that will be one of my lifelong regrets because I love Europe and have always wanted to experience living there. And now as a retiree myself and my husband still working, I think the moment has passed. But you wrote a wonderful post that was right on! Rosy (AKA Rosy the Reviewer)

    1. Thanks Rosy. Choosing where to live is a conundrum, and I can just imagine the shared custody thing and twelve hour plane rides, lol! Perhaps a couple month vacation in an apartment in a single town might fulfill your needs. I've thought for awhile that I would do that here in the us, rent an apartment in say Boston, and then explore that place in depth. If I did that in Europe outside of Germany it would either be florence, or somewhere in Provence.

  7. Well said. Good for you! It is possible to love our country and still understand that we are not better than everyone else.

  8. Hi Barbara, this is a convincing post. But what I was saying in my post is pretty much the same thing as you -- I was observing that ALL countries have pluses and minuses -- including the European countries -- and that blinders are bad. One question: Your cleaning woman made $10 an hour, and could afford to spend 2 wks. in Italy every January? That seems too good to be true.

  9. Rethink the geography and it probably makes sense. It cost her sixty bucks to fly there. Cheap Pensions near the beach begin at about thirty dollars and her husband makes at least as much as she does. With thirty days of paid vacation. I've gone to the beach in italy under similar circumstances.nim missing it more as I have these conversations.

  10. I think the differences in culture and "what's important" in European countries vs. the USA makes a huge difference in how life goes and how comfortable an American would be living in a foreign country-- Europeans get more vacation time and are encouraged to TAKE IT.. Americans are work and stress -a - holics! It isn't hard to find cheap travel.. here OR there, you just have to value time off and adventure! And be a bit creative, not spoiled! Deciding what is IMPORTANT TO YOU really does help define WHERE you need to live.. Is it fine dining and museums? Woods and quiet? Proximity to academia? Near the family? FAR AWAY from the family? LOL!! I believe you can have a great life anywhere you make your mind up to! Choosing a place where the climate suits you is important too.. just all my humble thoughts... I am not one to go live in another country--although my move from the suburbs of Phoenix to the DEEP WOODS 2 hours North of everything FEELS like a foreign country some days!! In a good way... (mostly..)


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