Move overseas and you join a distinguished clan of expats. Think Marco Polo, Rousseau, Einstein, Hemingway and the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor. Think early Australians, forced to live down under after being sentenced to transportation back in England. Think businessmen, colonial administrators, agricultural workers, missionaries and mercenaries.
Here, I offer a highly personal history of expat retirement over the past 60 years or so. I conclude, and I think you'll agree, that overseas retirement looks better today than ever before. These days, expats move seamlessly to Panama, Ecuador and Belize; to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam; to France, Ireland and Spain.
As near as I can tell, reasonably large numbers of Americans and Canadians first began retiring abroad in the 1950s. Most went to Mexico, most often to San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic/Chapala. They were pioneers. Friends Paul and Vicki Terhorst, called the "George and Martha Washington of retiring overseas" by SmartMoney magazine, got to know some of those pioneers. Those old-timers, often in their late 80s by the time Paul and Vickie met them, remembered a Mexico where no one spoke English. English-language newspapers and magazines showed up in the mail weeks and months after publication. Only governments and big businesses had phones. Moving money from one country to another was a big deal and required a major effort.
Perhaps as a result of those challenges, expats in Ajijic/Chapala, for example, tended to hang out together at the cafe on the lake. Every afternoon at cocktail hour, the bar would fill up. Later in evening others arrived for dinner, music and dancing, maybe a show. They received mail at the cafe, and, by the 1970s, those who recently returned from the United States brought movies on VHS.
Many of those pioneers in the 1950s and '60s built modest houses, often on large, beautifully landscaped grounds in or near the city. Some of those compounds were later donated to churches, charities and the American Society.
My friends Paul and Vicki became expats in 1981, not in Mexico, but in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentina had introduced color television three years before, as part of hosting the soccer World Cup. The four television stations offered programming in Spanish, never any other languages. In all of Buenos Aires, an urban conglomerate of maybe 10 million people in those days, you could make international phone calls in only one tiny office downtown. People waited in line for hours, even days, for access to one of the few international lines. Private, direct-dial phones had recently been introduced in downtown businesses, but, if you could get one at all, it cost you upwards of $20,000. Fewer than 5% of Argentines had bank accounts, and cashing a check required about the same effort as getting gold out of Fort Knox.
Paul and Vicki and other expats in Buenos Aires in those days got their English-language news from the Buenos Aires Herald, still published today, and via shortwave, usually the BBC. During the 1982 war between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands (Argentina calls them the Malvinas Islands), Paul and Vicki hosted a cocktail party every day after work at their Recoleta apartment. They and their fellow expat friends would listen to the day's war news on BBC shortwave. Argentina broadcast the war news, too, on Argentine TV. But local censors delayed the news for so long that the Argentine TV reports were out of date.
By this time, international air travel was well established. By the time Paul and Vicki retired in 1984, Ronald Reagan had deregulated airlines in the United States. Paul, Vicki and the rest of the American expat community were now able to travel more often and enjoyed lower fares.
Paul and Vicki eventually became PTs, perpetual travelers, along with a handful of other expats, moving from place to place from time to time.
Along with lower airfares, a second game changer in those days was the introduction of money market accounts and the debit cards (now called cash cards or ATM cards) that went with them. With a money market account, savers could get 15% interest on cash savings, instead of the old 3% or so when the Fed capped deposit interest rates.
Debit cards meant expats and retirees overseas could travel without traveler's cheques and without large amounts of cash. At first, they had to go into banks to get money, slapping down the debit card and passport to get the local currency they were after. Later, with the introduction of ATMs, they could access their cash even more efficiently.
Then came the biggest game changer of all: personal computers and the Internet. With the Internet came email, Skype telephone calls, online airplane tickets, online bank accounts, online hotel reservations and online tax return filing. Suddenly, communication was so much easier.
Paul Terhorst tells a story about his father's death in California in 1992. At that time, he and Vicki were running around Thailand. To notify Paul, his brother in Los Angeles called a nearby friend who had traveled with Paul and Vicki in Thailand. The friend said that, if in fact Paul and Vicki were in Bangkok (they were, as it turned out), they would probably be at such-and-such hotel. Paul's brother called the hotel, but couldn't understand anyone there. So he jumped in his car, drove to a Thai restaurant nearby, and asked if the cook spoke Thai. The cook did. Paul's brother arranged for the cook to make the call for him and eventually got Paul on the line. What a thing!
Today, Paul's brother would simply send an email or call using Skype or a cell phone. What in 1992 required luck, persistence and a Thai cook, these days can take only a simple click.
We expats and retirees overseas come a long way since the cozy, cafe society of Ajijic in the 1950s. We may miss some of the community camaraderie -- I imagine it was great fun to waltz down to the cafe and see friends every evening -- then again, we can see friends today, too. And for sure we can get in touch with much more easily, with all of cyberspace at our disposal.