HOME FREE: International Retirement Without a Home Base

 Here is  the introduction to HOME FREE, the book about international retirement without a home base,  to be published May 2014 by Sourcebooks.  

Smart people do not loiter at the Columbia Bridge nor anywhere else near the border in Laredo, Texas.   Expats who often made the trip instructed us to use the bridge, not the more heavily traveled main border crossing, which is famous for delays and  gun-play.  Directions for the trip from our unlovely hotel to the bridge had been hard to come by, and as we struck out shortly after dawn, we were still not sure if we had it right.  The freeway intersecting the city was too new for our map, Google was inconclusive, and the hotel staff was clueless.

We’d stayed up too late the night before, iPhones and laptops blazing, looking for a route.  We had to cross the border before the crowds so we could arrive in San Miguel de Allende, in the mountains of Central Mexico, before dark;  a ten-hour trip if there weren’t any surprises.   Smart people avoid roaming around Mexico at night.

As we entered the building at the border early the next morning the employees were engaged in a lively discussion of their weekend activities.  An official, annoyed at our interruption, inspected our paper work, relieved us of several hundred dollars for the auto entry fees, banged our passports with a faded stamp, and instructed us to wait for the gate to open.

The challenge of pawing through the SUV, which was crammed with luggage and disguised gifts for our Mexican friends, was too much for the customs official. After a couple of desultory questions she waved us through the last barrier standing between us and our newly minted nomadic lifestyle.

The border crossing was the first step toward traveling without a net and living in places we longed to see.  Our ability to take on the world without a home base full of familiar things and a place to put them is rooted in our joy at finding one another after a thirty-five year hiatus. Our torrid two-year affair in the 1970s had ended painfully because our timing was wrong.  Tim was a brilliant, handsome, sexy lyricist living a financially risky Hollywood existence in the unfettered style of the period.  I was a dynamic tall blond with a demanding career in public relations.  I had two little girls and a ranch style house in the San Fernando Valley to support, and I didn’t have the courage or energy to marry Tim even though I wanted desperately to be with him.

Thirty-five years later, I answered the door and welcomed Tim into my home.  He had phoned a few days earlier, saying he was planning to visit Cambria, the seaside village in Central California, where I had lived for 15 years.

I had not anticipated the effect that seeing him would have. I thought surely our connection would have settled into its proper slot in my life’s experience. I told myself that he was a former lover from eons ago, and now was a valued friend, nothing more.  It wasn’t so.

“I’m so happy to see you, Tim,” I said, smiling.  Before he could answer my husband Guy called, “Who’s here?” from his studio downstairs.

My husband was a well-known illustrator/artist who was popular with everyone. We had everything we wanted — a happy marriage and comfortable life, a perfect garden, a terrific kitchen, a working art studio, and great spaces for entertaining.  It was idyllic except for one monstrous reality:  Guy was succumbing fast to Alzheimer’s Disease.

Tim had arrived on one of Guy’s lucid days and the three of us chatted in the afternoon sun, enjoying the views of the Pacific through pine trees that meander right down to the beach in Cambria.  Tim owned a small electronics manufacturing business and he amused us with wild tales about that frantic industry. Everything was going well, but when Tim mentioned that his marriage of 20 years was ending, I felt my carefully constructed world tilt.

He left the next day, and we parted as old friends should — with a peck on the cheek and a fond hug. We simply could not speak of the obvious.  Time would continue to rob us.

It was an impossible situation.  My husband, whom I dearly loved, required my loyalty and devotion.  My desire to never let Tim out of my sight again was equally compelling.  I was miserable, afraid, and jubilant. I was in love.

The next few months were pure anguish.  Guy lost ground every day and finally for his own safety he needed to be in a facility for Alzheimer’s patients.  Guy said, as we walked into the common living room, “My dear, what a lovely hotel.  Did you know that it’s know for its restaurant?”  He settled in immediately, and never inquired about our former life again.  He passed away three years later and my new life began.

The notion of traveling internationally full time came to Tim and me several years later as we sipped drinks on our friend’s terrace in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. We were staying in her lovely colonial house for a month while she was away. By then we were married and had a lovely home in California’s Central Coast wine country, and we traveled as much as we could. A cheerful blaze crackled in the outdoor fireplace as we chatted about where we’d like to go next.

This conversation presented the perfect opportunity for me to bring up a subject I’d been considering. I took a deep breath and said “You know, Tim, I don’t want to upset you or hurt your feelings, but I have to tell you this. I’m not happy living in Paso Robles.  It’s not YOU, God knows, but I’ve realized that there are a lot of places I need to see before I’m too old. I’m just not ready to quit yet, and a three-week vacation just isn’t enough travel for me.  I think we need to figure out how to be away more than we’re at home.” I closed my eyes, not wanting to see his expression.

He roared with laughter. “Oh my God,  we’re on the same page.  I’ve been thinking exactly the same thing for months but I was afraid you’d think I’d lost my mind. I thought you wouldn’t consider leaving the house and the grand kids.”  The plan was born.

We stayed up too late, gleefully chattering about long-term plans, short-term plans, how we’d get there, where we wanted to go, and on and on.  Our hearts hadn’t been that light for a very long time.  Anything seemed possible, but the thought of telling our children about our idea was so daunting that we decided to put that far down on our “to do” list.

By the time the coffee was made the next morning we were armed with a long yellow legal pad.  It’s tricky business balancing the rewarding life you know you deserve with the harsh reality of conserving enough capital to ensure comfort in your dotage. We aren’t wealthy, but we have a smart financial guy who shepherds our investments and sends us a monthly allowance. That allowance, combined with our social security, is the basis for our monthly budget.

We made a list of every expense we could think of and discovered quickly that our monthly nut was much larger than we thought.  Then we compiled a detailed projection of what our overhead would be if we lived abroad in rented houses or apartments, including every conceivable expense.  The numbers were exciting.  They were very, very close.  If we sold our house, we could live very nicely in almost every country in the world.

Although the notion thrilled us, we were both anxious about whether we could actually take on such a challenge.  Where would our plan take us emotionally?  Would our four daughters, who already thought we were flighty, ever speak to us again if we left the country for years? Were we ready to face an uncertain future, far away from our comfort zone and our family and friends? What would it be like to have no home, no place to curl up in our own bed and put our things in our own closet after a long trip? How would it feel to live for several years in other people’s spaces? We decided that we were up to it and, even more important, that we would never have a second chance to make it happen.

Then we started talking about the details:  what to do with the dog, the furniture, the cars, what could we store and what could we dump. Another question occurred to me. “Oh, God, what will we do about mail?  We’ll have no address.”

“You’re absolutely right,” he replied, “We’ll be home free!”  And so we are.