In Placencia, Belize, unlike Paris, I settled in for a nap every afternoon in an audio space saturated with the melodious songs of birds. On the other hand, the sand flies in my bed kept me twitching and slapping, preventing me from napping as assuredly as the landscapers in the Paris garden below. ~ The first in a series of articles by Robin Sparks Daugherty. Join her in our webZine as she interviews expatriates around the world and shares the individual tales of escape artists from Belize to Paris, to China and the Middle East, down to South America and beyond. You won’t want to miss this series.
I’m trying to snatch an afternoon snooze in a third story Paris apartment on a gray November day, when the sudden rise and fall of an engine rouses me, just minutes after falling asleep.
rrrrrRRRRRREEEeeeeeeeee rrrRRRRREEEEeeeeeeee rrrrrRRRRREEEEeeeeeeeee
rrrRRRRREEEEeeeeeeee rrrRRRRREEEEeeeeeeee rrrRRRRREEEEeeeeeeee
Even a pillow scrunched over my head won’t block the noise, so I give up. A look out the window reveals landscapers just beginning to coif a long line of juniper bushes in the manicured garden below. The whine of power-driven weed whackers is just one more layer of sound in this crowded spot on the planet called Paris–the second stop in my search for a country.
Born and raised in the U.S., I’ve yearned for years to try life elsewhere. For almost a quarter of a century I floated through the privileged world of the young, white, professional – with – money world – - – bored stiff.
Suddenly single, with children grown and off to school, I realized that not only did I not have to remain in the miniature-minded town where I’d resided for almost 20 years, but I didn’t have to stay on this continent! (I would however, have to remain on the planet for now.)
There I stood perched on the edge of the second half of my life, ticket to anywhere in hand, ready to jump. But which direction?
“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.”
Expatriates! They’ve been there and done that. Curious about how, where, and why, I decided I to visit expats in Central America, Bangkok, Paris, India, South America, and elsewhere to find out first hand what expatriate life was like and to share with you their stories. It is to be sort of a large-scale house hunt.
In the book “Escape from America”, Roger Gallo says: “Are Americans walking away from America without saying goodbye?……Americans are perhaps the first people in history who have been able to afford the luxury of voluntary emigration unforced by famine, disease, imminent danger, religious intolerance, or the gnawing desire for economic betterment. It seems that what was once inconceivable is now reality. The countries that our parents left behind are quickly becoming more desirable places to return to and to live in for many of us, than living in America. The culture, the ambience, the pace, the attitude of the people; whatever it is we are seeking, no longer seems available in America. The ‘greatest country on earth’ has lost its charm. We would rather sit at a sidewalk cafe’ or piazza than a McDonalds…..Borders have suddenly become not much more than meaningless lines drawn on maps by governments…..They are a ring of defenses around nothing.”
Gallo goes on to tell about the increasing number of Americans who are choosing life in another country, and to describe some of the more favorable expat havens.
I began my search last May in Placencia, Belize. There I discovered the most pristine, white sand beaches, cerulean waters, and aquamarine skies I’d ever seen in my life. Did I mention the hundreds of islands scattered just offshore, or the untamed jungle with its wildlife? And that was just the scenery above the water. A few miles offshore lies the world’s richest natural barrier reef providing unmatched scuba diving and sport fishing.
In Belize I met expatriates ranging from 20 year Belizean resident, Kitty, who owns and runs Kitty’s Place, to retired Peter and Marcie who are supervising the construction of their ocean-front mansion, to hippies wailing Bob Dylan songs at the Lagoon Saloon, to Janet, hotel manager, recently arrived from South Carolina who, when I met her, was at Placencia’s sandy-strip-through-the-jungle-airstrip loading a vial of her blood onto a plane to be delivered to Belize City for malaria testing. (It came back negative. Too many rum and coconut drinks was the verdict.)
Richard and Linda arrived on the 42 foot Ocean Gypsy the week I was there, having survived Hurricane Mitch, the subsequent death of a friend who was thrown overboard in the storm, and six months of repairs on their boat in an electricity-less outpost coastal town in Mexico. In Placencia, Belize, unlike Paris, I settled in for a nap every afternoon in an audio space saturated with the melodious songs of birds. On the other hand, the sand flies in my bed kept me twitching and slapping, preventing me from napping as assuredly as the landscapers in the Paris garden below. .
This week—Paris, France. Talk about disparate locations. Oscar Wilde said about the Grand Dame of expat havens, “When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” 75,000 of those “good Americans” live in Paris and environs now. It’s a city where 300 year old buildings line the Seine, where lovers really do kiss on the Pont Neuf, and where boats chug lazily along the city’s main artery. As the curtain falls on another day, the warm lights of Cafe Flore glow, beckoning me inside where I join Cafe Philo, a philosophy discussion group consisting of expats. Twenty year American expat, Gayle Prawda, moderates tonight’s discourse on “Morality–Does It Impinge on Our Freedom?” Parisiennes disparage what they consider rampant American puritanism—as evidenced by the fact that almost no one has given up smoking in spite of popular opinion. It’s a city where intellect, culture, and style are valued above geographical beauty and solitude. Where every trade is considered an art, whether it be the daily baking of croissants or the designing of a building. Paris is a city where beauty and good taste are written on everything from the food, to street fashion, to its eighty museums, to the magnificent layout of the city, to its stunning architecture, and the parade of women so gorgeous that you wonder if it’s in the Parisienne genes. On the other hand, Paris is a city where the racket of the street cleaner (who scours the Paris streets 365 days a year including Christmas) comes through your morning window long before the sun does and where you can spend a whole day trying to extricate yourself from the traffic circling the Arc de Triomphe.
The reasons for expatriating to these two countries are uniquely different. One expatriate follows the pioneer call of his heart, yearning to be the first , if not the only settler, in an untamed country. He or she wants to regain control of their hard-earned money from government bureaucracy, and to escape the cacophony of urban life. They want to peel off their suits and wing tips permanently, and to sink their toes into the sand by the sea. The other expatriate yearns for an urban environment which stimulates and is saturated with civilization— in the form of grand architecture, intellectualism, culture, art, food, language, history, and all-around creative inspiration. And they want the company of millions of other like-minded souls—so much so, that they’re willing to pay 20% higher taxes in a country that invented the word bureaucracy.
Regardless of the locale in which they’ve chosen to live, American expatriates have a fundamental characteristic in common. They refuse to settle for “medium”. These are folks who live life large. Indeed, American expatriates are designers of their own lives.
“Where ever you go, there you are.” someone once said. I would add to that, that wherever you go, someone or something else will be there too. Be it man or mosquitos, it’s called sharing the planet. You get to choose.
Join me in future issues of EscapeArtist as I share the individual tales of escape artists from Belize to Paris, to China and the Middle East, down to South America and beyond. I’d like to hear about other pockets of the world where are Americans are escaping–send me your suggestions.
Robin’s mother recalls that since she could walk, Robin has been escaping through the front door of her northern California home, headed into unknown lands (or neighborhoods). “She pretended not to hear me when I called… she would show up hours later, and regale us with stories about her adventures, making me forget I was mad at her.” Robin has been at it ever since as a freelance writer and photographer, with feature stories appearing in over 35 magazines and newspapers. She is writing a book about the American expatriate experience.