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.
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.