This page will be of most interest to someone thinking of adapting our lifestyle. We have been asked to describe some of the challenges we have faced living away from home in a foreign country for an extended time. We brainstormed challenges and divided up the writing as shown. If you have any questions, alternate possible solutions, or other problems you are worried about, please leave a comment. We will try to address all questions.
In general, it helps to have a sense of adventure and a willingness to go somewhat beyond your comfort level. After all, one of our goals is to experience different cultures. This inevitably means that we will like some things better and some things less than our own culture. Because of the differences and the challenges, there are bound to be mistakes. I look at it as all part of the adventure, try to learn from the mistake, try not to beat myself up over the mistake, for sure don’t beat my partner up over the mistake, and move on to the next fun experience.
Learning to use appliances – Susan
Household work, like cooking and laundry, are not easy in Europe. My first experience was our rental in Paris. We had what is called a washer/ dryer combination. We arrived in Paris with lots of dirty clothes after being away from home almost three weeks. I soon learned that each load would take about 2.5 to 3 hours and did I mention the clothes were still wet . We came and went and got used to the sound of the washer running. In spite of detailed directions that the owner left, we never got dry clothes.
In our apt in Sevilla we have state of the art appliances from Germany. The oven is a combination oven and microwave. I have given up on using the micro and only used the oven one time and never again.The stove top is induction which I was not familiar with. All part of the learning curve living in a foreign country. Keeping meals really simple when we eat at home helps.
Not being able to speak the language – Bruce
I speak only English, and I’m not so good at speaking that. I developed what I called a “restaurant Spanish” from working on jobs in Venezuela and I took a month of Spanish when we were in Antigua, Guatemala last winter. But the Spanish here is different from the Spanish in the Americas, so I am lost in most any conversation. Fortunately, if you can only speak one language, English is the best one to know. Most people in the travel business wherever we have been are able to speak enough English that we can communicate with them. Outside of the travel business it is hit or miss. The biggest problem comes with trying to book tickets or research local events on line. Frequently, they are only in the local language. My answer is to copy and paste into my Google Translate app. The translation is often not very good English, but it is usually good enough that I can understand it. If I am going to a store where I know I have to convey something complex to the clerk, I speak in English to the app on my phone; and then show the translation to the clerk in the store. It is all very tedious, but with patience and perseverance, I can usually understand or be understood. It also helps if you don’t mind if the food that arrives at the table is not quite what you envisioned.
A major frustration is that if you go to a site like Yahoo here, you will get the version for the country you are in and it will be in French, Spanish, or whatever the local language is. You can get the English version sometimes by typing /en at the end of the URL. However, as you keep navigating, it frequently slips back into the local language. This was even true in sites like paypal and Macys.
Finding our way around – Bruce
Paris was easy. The maps are good. The Metro is easy to navigate. The streets run perpendicular to each other. No real problem.
San Sebastián was even easier. It was relatively small and within two days we could find our way without carrying the map.
Amsterdam, Brussels, and Madrid were also relatively easy.
Seville and parts of Granada were impossible. The old towns, which is where most of the interesting things are located, have streets running in all directions and changing names every block or two. After one week, we are finally able to get from our apartment to the cathedral (something we do at least once a day) without any help.
My solution is Google Maps on the iPhone. I bought an unlocked iPhone and buy a data SIM in each country. You can get about one gig of data for 30 days for about 10 to 25 dollars. Google can show you the route for walking, driving, or public transportation. I have used it everywhere with good success. The hardest part is getting started in the right direction. Any new route in Seville or even most old routes you will see me holding the phone in front of me and hear this lady telling me to turn right. I don’t think I could find my way around Seville without her. Holding this big map and trying to walk would be too frustrating.
I recommend some practice with Google Maps in an area you know. There is something of a learning curve!
Living without TV – Bruce
At home we watch almost all our TV from Netflix streaming or DVD’s. But every evening we are home, we usually watch something for an hour or two. We have not stayed in an apartment this trip that has any English language station. A further problem is that if you subscribe to Netflix in the US, they block you from watching it overseas. This is true of most other streaming services as well. There are ways around this. You can install something on your device that makes it look like you are connecting in the US. UnoDNS is one such service. I came prepared with a Chromecast to cast the picture from the phone or tablet to the TV, but none of the TVs have had the required HDMI plug. We watched one show on the IPad using our free trial of UnoDNS, but it was just too small a screen for the two of us to watch together. The only TV we have watched was a few World Cup games where the words were not important. In reality, the lack of TV may be a blessing as we don’t really miss it that much.
Being together 24/7 -Susan
Do not attempt this life style if you are not ready for total togetherness. We were delusional about making friends and socializing with locals where we live. When you don’t speak the language the furthest you get is a smile and a jester. Fortunately for Bruce and I ,we are surviving. We try to give each other some space and quiet time every day. Bruce does all the planning and research and I do all the second guessing. He ignores me and we move on. We still enjoy each other’s company after 3 months so I think we have passed the compatibility test. We don’t skip meals so Bruce is happy most of the time. For quiet time I have read six books and have almost completed knitting a sweater for my Grandson.Remember we have no TV and although we go out at night almost every evening, we still have lots of time to fill.We are living here, not touring.
Missing Family – Susan
Being on a 6-8 hour time difference has made phone communication more difficult then expected. There is only a small window I can call people and so often get an answering machine. Our family and friends are following us every day,if they choose to do so, by Bruce’s steady blogs. We on the other hand, know little of what’s happening at home. It’s surprising to me,nhow much we enjoy getting responses to the blog or just email. Being away 4 months is a long time to not be in touch so keep your cards and letters coming.
Life without a car – Bruce
Like most Americans, we use a car to go everywhere at home. On this trip, we are using our feet and public transportation exclusively except for our two weeks in Ireland. This has required a little conditioning for all the walking and standing on my feet on my part. It also means learning to use the public transportation system wherever we go. Rick Steves guidebooks are a great start. Locals are also usually willing to help. Often you have to buy tickets from a machine that doesn’t always have an English option. And don’t get me started on why the US seems to be the last country in the world to adopt the chip and pin credit card. I have three cards with a chip but the are all chip and signature. One time I was trying to buy bus tickets from a machine that only spoke Spanish. I got through to the final step of paying, but it rejected my card because I had no pin. However, that is the only time my cards haven’t worked. In reality, I think a car would have been a liability everywhere we have been.
The Weight Challenge – Susan
OK this topic is only going to be interesting to the women, but it really is a challenge that needs addressing. To start I must confess my obsession with my bathroom scale. There isn’t a day at home that I do not weigh myself morning and at night. So here I am , three months later with no clue as to my weight. Those of you following our blog have certainly realized that food is a big part of our travel experience. There is also the mind set that you are only here once,so you have to try it. Added to this equation, there Is no gym facility to frequent. Are you getting the picture?
In Paris I walked our beautiful park every morning for one hour and then rewarded myself with a French pastry. In Northern Spain, we had the wonderful Pinchos and I again walked every morning on the promenade telling myself it would work. Now we are in southern Spain and it’s 100 degrees. How faithful can you be to exercising in this heat? Did I mention the food is wonderful here too. So I guess I should run a contest as to who can guess my correct weight gain when we go home in a month. All I can say is it was worth it!
Always being on guard -Bruce
Once you have had your pocket picked or been robbed, you become rather paranoid about protecting your money. In the places I have lived in the US, I wouldn’t consider street scams or pickpockets a concern. However, they are relatively common in Europe. To be fair, your chances of being shot or robbed in a violent crime are probably much higher in the US than Europe. Since I had my pocket picked, we have started taking the following precautions:
We don’t carry things we don’t need in our wallets. This would include drivers license and US insurance cards. If you will never need them on the trip, leave them at home. We carried Medicare and supplemental cards with us to Europe since we could need them on leaving or returning to states.
We only carry one credit card and one ATM card with us at a time and we both carry the same card. The backups we leave at home. If you lose your credit card, your wife’s duplicate card will be no good either.
If we are not going to the ATM, we leave that card at home.
We split the money between us, so if one is robbed, we don’t lose everything.
I have a pair of shorts with a zippered cargo pocket. It is difficult for me to unzip the pocket, so I am sure I would notice if a pickpocket tried it. When we return to Europe next year, I plan to have only pants with a zipper pocket.
Things at “home” are locked in the hotel safe, or at the apartments, are locked in our luggage.
Tour books such as Rick Steves have warnings about the various street scams and we have encountered almost everyone he mentions. The most surprising is what he calls the rosemary scam. A woman approaches you and gives you a free sprig of rosemary. She then grabs your wrist, reads your fortune, and demands a tip. Since they are gypsies and superstitious of coins, the smallest tip they will accept is 5 €! Most of them are passive if you just say “no”, but we saw one who grabbed the woman’s hand and would not let go despite the yelling of the husband. Unfortunately, the whole thing makes you suspicious of anyone who approaches you.
Being around so many smokers – Bruce
Smoking is far more common in Europe than in the US. We are both nonsmokers and try our best to avoid inhaling smoke. Smoking seems to be prohibited inside, but is permitted when sitting outside. In Paris, it seemed the definition of outside could be stretched if you were sitting in a window and blew the smoke out the window. Almost everyone sits outside and we prefer to sit outside, so we just try not to sit next to someone who is already smoking and hope for the best.
Metric units – Bruce
The metric system (more properly known as the SI system today) is used in nearly every country in the world except the US. Fortunately, I am an engineer (I know that revelation explains a lot) and worked for a company that did a lot of international business. We gave up years ago and did all our work in the metric system. Susan has no familiarity with it, so when she goes to the grocery or market where everything is priced in Euros, grams and kilograms (kg), it doesn’t mean much to her. Since a kg is equivalent to 2.2 pounds, the price in kg can look pretty scary. If you aren’t familiar with the metric system, I suggest having a good conversion app on your phone.