Five years into my expat life, I look forward to downsizing.
In fact, I recently bought a small, manageable, lock-and-leave property in Guanajuato, in the Colonial Highlands. It’s a far cry from what I thought I wanted when I first moved to Mexico…
Then, I’d wanted a good-sized house, instead of an apartment as I’d had in the U.S. With a back yard, so I could have a barbecue grill—and so I wouldn’t have to walk the dog anymore.
I also wanted a pool, partly because everyone says that you need one in the hot Yucatán Peninsula—but mostly just because I could. All goodies to enhance my quality of life… goodies that weren’t possible in New York, but which lower-cost Mexico permitted me to have. So I bought a house that had all these things.
Dreams like mine are common among would-be expats. All of us seem to arrive with a wish list—of both tangibles and intangibles—to fulfill. The freedom to wipe the slate clean and start new—and possibly radically different—lives is part of the appeal of moving abroad.
But in hindsight I’ve realized that we don’t exactly arrive abroad baggage-free.
We may believe that we’ve mentally “made the move” and are starting out afresh. (I know that’s what I thought.) We may have the visa papers, the language tapes, and the moving list.
But often we come with our old thinking patterns, based on a lifetime of stay-in-one-place, hold-down-a-9-to-5-job routines. We are influenced by our old life—by its rhythms, customs, and priorities—in ways we can’t imagine and that we’re often not even conscious of.
It can take a year or more to break free of that old way of thinking. And once you have—and have adjusted to your new life abroad—you may find that what you actually want is very different from what you originally thought.
That’s one reason why I suggest that you rent before you buy a property—so that you’re free to embrace the adventures and opportunities that come your way.
Because for most expats, life abroad does live up to their expectations of freedom, opportunity, and adventure. Often it surpasses them. I have met expats who uncovered business opportunities or launched fulfilling new careers in their new lives… opportunities that weren’t even on their radar when they first arrived abroad. I know others who have found love, meeting their perfect match when they least expected it.
And it’s always easier to pursue those opportunities when you’re not tied down by large investments.
The accepted wisdom is that renting before you buy a home gives you time to get to know a place, so you can decide if it suits you. The deeper truth, though, is that it gives you time to know yourself….
That’s not to say that making a lifestyle decision—like buying a house—based on the “old” you is a mistake. You may find that it fits your new life perfectly. Even if it doesn’t, there’s almost nothing that can’t be fixed, sold, or otherwise disposed of eventually. But it is worth noting that you, and what you think you want, will likely change once you move abroad.
That this happens shouldn’t be surprising. In moving abroad, after all, you’ve set your life on a new, vastly different trajectory from what it would have been if you’d stayed at home. From that point on, life is all wonderfully unexplored territory….
I’ve enjoyed my big house—though for totally different reasons than why I originally bought it. I love its convenient location and friendly neighborhood, for instance, and all the green parks nearby.
I love to sit by my pool, especially in the evening or for entertaining. But I seldom actually swim in it since I discovered the usually-empty, Olympic-sized community pool that’s a 10-minute walk away. It costs me $2 a swim, which based on monthly usage is less than the maintenance on my own pool, with none of the hassle.
I never bought that barbecue grill. Instead, I’m happy to make do with the griddle on my stove. And while my dog, Pippin, enjoys the back yard, she still insists on her daily walks.
In short, I’ve discovered that I prefer unencumbered convenience to material goodies. That for me, a high quality of life is having less and doing more. And that my dog, who prefers the fleeting but real-time pleasure of a peripatetic sniff-fest through our neighborhood to a sterile stroll in her private back yard, had the right idea—at least for us.
Moving abroad—which stripped away the distracting background noise and clutter of my workaday life “back home”—allowed me to realize these truths about myself more quickly than I might have done otherwise.
The life lessons you glean from your move abroad may be different from mine. But I’ll bet dollars to donuts that, a year or so after the move, you’ll be scratching out the wish list you came with and writing out a new one.
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