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Reversing Course

Jiab Wasserman

THREE YEARS AGO, Jim and I decided to retire to Spain. We were attracted by the promise of excellent health care, warm weather, low cost of living and travel throughout Europe. From there, we’d also be able to fly with relative easy to both the U.S. and Asia, allowing us to maintain family connections. All of this gave us a great quality of life for almost three years.

Then COVID-19 hit. Like everyone else, we had to say goodbye to many activities, events and travel. More important, we were cut off from family and friends. During the lockdown, we had more time to explore new things. But we also had time to reflect on the things we’d lost that had always been there, invisibly supporting us.

We came to realize three aspects of life were essential. First, it’s important for us to feel connected to loved ones and to reach them quickly in case of emergency, even if we were separated by thousands of miles. With the pandemic raging, Jim and I realized that if both of us became seriously ill in Spain or if one of our sons had an emergency back in the U.S., it was impossible for them to get to Spain and almost impossible for us to arrange a quick trip back. The unavailability of quick travel “in the event” was disturbing.

Second, living in a community with friends is crucial to our emotional well-being. It’s no surprise that the disruption strained mental health for everyone, causing increased stress and anxiety. Loneliness became more widespread. I’m fortunate to have a good companion like Jim. A few of the expats we knew felt such loneliness that they were willing to risk infection to meet others.

Third, as an expat, it isn’t easy to form deep friendships—those relationships where you become each other’s confidant. Such friendships build over time and grow out of shared experiences. Whenever expats get together, they share the commonality of being strangers in a strange land. But unfortunately, the expat’s transitory life makes forming sustained connections more difficult. We cross paths, and share stories over wine and tapas, but inevitably many are soon off to their next job assignment or their next exotic adventure.

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Jim and I met many expats during our three years in Spain and belonged to expat social groups made up of people from around the world. Still, there’s only a few whom we would truly call friends. By contrast, both Jim and I remained close to our friends in the U.S. and Thailand. In some cases, we became closer during COVID-19, despite the distance, checking in with each other regularly and offering mutual support.

In economics, opportunity cost is what we lose when we choose one option over others. In choosing to move to Spain, we accepted the opportunity cost of our decision, including knowing we would see family and longtime friends less frequently. We could stay connected via social media, but the true sustaining of our ties would be through regular face-to-face encounters when we or they traveled.

With the global pandemic, however, such in-person connections became impossible, made worse by not knowing when those opportunities would return. During the lockdown, catchups by telephone, FaceTime and Zoom with loved ones became the most precious moments in our day. But without the prospect of an actual rendezvous, they seemed cheaper and less fulfilling. We realized that there’s no substitute for meeting in person and being there for each other. This was amplified by my father’s sickness that ended with his passing away last December. My youngest brother in Atlanta and I weren’t able to travel to see him and to be there for our mom.

All of this led me to question whether our expat “freedom” was really worth it. What we once considered a liberating adventure to exotic places now seemed like isolation and alienation. I longed for more family connection. The opportunity cost of living in Spain rose to the point where it wasn’t worth it. It was like going to a favorite restaurant and finding that the prices had tripled. We still liked the food but weren’t willing to spend our money at the new prices. We could no longer accept the cost of living abroad.

Even though we had planned to return to the U.S. eventually, the pandemic sped our return and we’re now back living in Dallas. Reversing our earlier choice, we’re happy to give up living in paradise so we can be closer to family once again.

Jiab Wasserman, MBA, RICP®, has lived in Thailand, the U.S. and Spain. She spent the bulk of her career with financial services companies, eventually becoming vice president of credit risk management at Bank of America, before retiring in 2018. Head to Linktree to learn more about Jiab, and also check out her earlier articles.

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Lynne
Lynne
6 months ago

I retired to Mexico from NYC about when you moved to Spain, so I’ve followed your life there with great interest. I’m disappointed it didn’t work out, but I understand. Here in Merida, the main reasons expats leave is the unbearable heat much of the year, missing family, not learning Spanish well enough to really integrate into local life, or they came because it’s cheaper and that’s never reason enough. You have to truly enjoy the local culture to succeed.
I speak Spanish, don’t have kids and worked abroad for years, so it’s perhaps easier for me to be happy long-term in a foreign country. Pre-Covid I did a lot of volunteer work I never had time for while I was working, and look forward to getting back to that.
Merida has actually been a much better place to spend the pandemic than my small NYC apartment would have been. I rent a house with a huge outdoor terrace, pool and big garden, so even during lockdowns I was outside most of the time. We have a mask mandate here, and we all wear masks even on the street. So I feel safer going out than I would in many U.S. cities where not everyone wears a mask.
I’m renovating an old colonial home in the historic district, which has given me something to focus on and look forward to. The pandemic makes its more challenging, but also rewarding to be providing jobs and supporting local suppliers and businesses in a tough economy.
Sorry this is so long. I just wanted to offer a different perspective on being an expat in the time of Covid.

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
6 months ago
Reply to  Lynne

Lynne,
Thanks for your comment. Honestly, I am disappointed too that we had to leave Spain so soon. If we don’t have children, we would have lived in Europe much longer or permanently. We truly enjoy the laid-back culture and how much they value family and friends. Our Spanish friends totally understand our decision because they value family and friends so much that most stay within close distance of where they grow up. Most expats that we know who live there permanently have no children or have small children that move with them. An American couple we know who have grown children in the US choose to live 7-8 months in the US and 4-5 months in Spain so that is something we may consider after the global pandemic is over.

But for now, I am very happy to see our boys again after over a year. The simple thing is life becomes so precious like this weekend, watching Jim and one of our sons played double in a USTA league together was so priceless!

holylandphotos
holylandphotos
6 months ago

Yes, the intangibles are important. We lived in the Middle East in yyy for 7 years, and in our church, for example, people and their children would typically leave in less than 1 year. In the process of moving back to the USA and our middle son, about 6 years old, said “now I won’t always be having to say ‘goodbye’.”

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
6 months ago
Reply to  holylandphotos

Good luck with your move back to the US!

Ben
Ben
6 months ago
Reply to  holylandphotos

What is yyy?

Einar Hansen
Einar Hansen
6 months ago

I call it “Burning the Dream”. Act on your dreams, you gave it a shot and, if it doesn’t work or facts change, well you tried and there is now room for a… new dream. Financially comfortable I have chosen to stay in my neighbourhood. In fact I “shopped” the neighbourhood intensely, far harder than I shopped for the house and so far I am 31 years in the same neighbourhood so it worked for me. Relationships built up over decades have a strong intangible value- neighbours, friends, medical, transportation, etc are hard to put dollar value on but are very valuable, at least to me.

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
6 months ago
Reply to  Einar Hansen

Einar,
Thanks for the comment. I like your perspective about “burning the dream”. I felt pretty good about making the change; I see it as a part of getting wiser as I get older. We live, learn and grow from these experiences.

I agree with you about a relationship built over decades has a strong intangible value. With the isolation last year, I value much more simpler things in life like having a meal with one of our sons in person.

Ben
Ben
6 months ago

Jiab, thanks for sharing this update and the story of yours and Jim’s time in Spain. I’ve always enjoyed your posts and perspectives.

Your story resonates especially with me as I spent 5 years living & working as an expat in the UAE. On the one hand, I had a fantastic experience there. It was very broadening personally and professionally, and I was able to meet people and visit parts of the world which I realistically would have never otherwise made it to had I remained in the U.S. On the other hand, I struggled to form meaningful relationships while abroad, and I found the longer I spent there, the weaker my relationships back home in the U.S. became. So I returned, and while my life is in many respects less exciting/glamorous now, day-to-day I am happier. Who knows, maybe in another 5 years I will go back for another turn abroad.

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
6 months ago
Reply to  Ben

Ben,
That is exactly my perspective, too. We may go back after the global pandemic is over and spend a few months in Europe but most likely won’t be a big move like we did 3 years ago.

Kevin Knox
Kevin Knox
6 months ago

Thanks for this great post! I’ve so enjoyed reading about your adventures over the years and am grateful to you and Jim for your honesty and wise perspective.

My wife and I lived for a cumulative 5 years as expats in Mexico and came to some of the same conclusions. Even if you become fluent in your adopted country’s language (something that very few do – or even aspire to do – if we’re being honest) you still didn’t grow up in that culture, read the same books, watch the same TV shows, or live the same realities when it comes to roles, class, culture and politics. I suspect Spain is just about as close-knit and family-oriented as Mexico and I often think about how astonished Mexicans were that not only were we a childless married couple (unthinkable!) but that we could move to a foreign country without bringing our entire extended family with us (even more unthinkable!) since family is everything in that culture.

For sure the #1 predictor of long-term success as an expat is the quality of the friendships one has in one’s adopted country – with fellow expats! Especially as a retiree, that’s who you’re going to end up spending much if not most of your time with. The only expats I’ve known who’ve truly been successful in “going native” are those who’ve married a native and even then it has been tough going.

Kudos to you and Jim for putting family and community first. I’m sure you’ll keep traveling and hope you’ll continue to share your insights with the rest of us.

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
6 months ago
Reply to  Kevin Knox

Kevin,

Yes, Spain is such close-knit and family-oriented as Mexico. Most live close to where they grow up. I agree with you about the expats who are successful are those who have married a native or those who have brought their small children with them. An American couple who lived in Seville for 16+ years even moved back to California last year to be closer to friends and families.

Don Southworth
Don Southworth
6 months ago

I’m sorry about losing your dad. I’ve been following your & Jim’s adventure the last few years. Your posts have been inspiring and educational. As is this one. None of us really know what awaits us in life and how it will change our “plans”. Who knows all the changes the loss and grief of the pandemic have created and will continue to create.

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
6 months ago
Reply to  Don Southworth

Don,
Thank you. I totally believe that there is no such thing as a “perfect” plan. We start with a rough idea and make adjustments along the way.

Richard Gore
Richard Gore
6 months ago

Thank you for a great posting. I think living for an extended period of time in a foreign country gives you a perspective that simply can’t be gained through vacation travel. I’m sure you will always value your time in Spain.

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Gore

Richard,
Thanks. Yes, I will always remember fondly my time in Spain. We hope to go back for a visit when the pandemic is over.

Helpful Neighbor
Helpful Neighbor
6 months ago

Sorry about the loss of your father. Also thank you for being so candid.

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
6 months ago

Thank you.

R Quinn
R Quinn
6 months ago

First let me say I’m sorry for your loss and that the impact of the pandemic is certainly understandable.

I have read your HD posts and many on your blog which made life in Spain seem pretty rosy. My reaction always was, what are they thinking?

Why would anyone pick up and leave family? I can’t even understand retirees leaving their kids and grandkids and heading off to Florida.

No doubt it was an adventure with plenty of good times. I love Spain and Portugal myself as places to visit, but as you seem to have concluded, a third life effectively in isolation from the most meaningful part of your life isn’t worth the price.

DrLefty
DrLefty
6 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I subscribe to International Living magazine, and I will admit to occasional daydreaming about an expat life somewhere. But we live in easy driving distance of our adult children (no grandkids yet), our siblings, and my mother. My mother-in-law and her husband live 400 miles south, a 7-hour drive or an hour flight away. It’s hard to imagine walking away from those ties.

But from reading the magazine, not everyone’s lives are like mine or yours. If there are no aging parents or no kids or grandkids to think of—or maybe the kids/grandkids are scattered around the U.S. and you hardly ever see them, anyway—then life elsewhere might make more sense for you.

Ben
Ben
6 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Hi Dick. What were they thinking? Well, many people might ask the same question about someone like you who spent nearly 50 years grinding away at the same job and never had the guts to go and try something different…

R Quinn
R Quinn
6 months ago
Reply to  Ben

Not a matter of guts, a matter of enjoying the job I had, being able to create new things, working my way up from mail boy and getting to help a lot of people including many who even after being retired 11 years contact me for help.

parkslope
parkslope
6 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Richard, Ben wasn’t actually criticizing your work history. Rather, he was likening your comment about Jiab’s and Jim’s decision to move to Spain to unwarranted criticism of your decision to spend your entire career at one company.

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
6 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Thank you. And thanks for your honest comments. I am happy to be back.

holylandphotos
holylandphotos
6 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

After trying (with great difficulty) to help aged parents in Florida (from Minneapolis, and sister in San Diego) I totally agree with the post and your “I can’t even understand retirees leaving their kids and grandkids and heading off to Florida.” In the end, the last survivor had no “in-person” advocate or personal support/comfort.

IAD
IAD
6 months ago

Great article! Thank you!

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