Expatriatism: 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Your Country, and Your Voting Record Behind
After the 36-day election ordeal in Florida this past November, followed by a tight-sphinctered, regimental-striped coronation in our nation's capitol in early January, a little disembodied voice kept snorting, "Why don't you leave America?"

It wasn't a new idea. There was an idyllic excursion to Belize in the mid-'90s that first hatched the notion. A recent winter trip to a small town in Mexico, one with warm beaches, fresh watermelon, and no ubiquitous Golden Arches, didn't help. Nor did the discovery that the Web offers perfectly innocent primers on expatriatism and could help in ways unheard of even five years ago.

In Mexico, we met a woman we'll call Faith (not her real name -- sometimes expats like it that way) who has lived on a cozy beach near a small fishing village for the past 30 years. A former resident of San Francisco during its Summer of Love heyday, Faith chucked it all in and headed for warmer climes. "I just didn't like the way it was all going," she says, referring to a president named Nixon, a war called Vietnam, and volatile, pervasive and increasingly uncomfortable civil unrest.

Faith eventually married, had two sons who were raised in the bilingual bliss of dual citizenship, and eventually came into property. She rents out two of the three casas on the lot, and lives happily ever after, maintaining close ties to an American bank account, her email, and American friends who stay in touch.

It all looked easy. But is it? Can one just walk away from the daily grind and creature comforts of the most powerful nation on Earth and find peace, happiness and a carefree lifestyle?

According to the American Citizens Abroad, a group based in Geneva, Switzerland, "There are at least three million Americans living overseas, and this number appears to be growing at an unprecedented rate."

With the explosion of the Internet, it's easier than ever to discover the ins and outs of living overseas, from housing and employment, to food, local culture, and how the local constabulary feels about your recreational pharmaceuticals.

Says Jeff Freeburg, who moderates the ACA's Expat Forum site, "Anyone can be an expat - assuming you can get the foreign government's permission to reside there. That approval is easier said than done and it usually requires a sponsoring employer or enough money to ensure that you will not be a social burden or have to work for a living. Governments generally welcome tourists and tourist's money. Without exception, they don't like semi-permanent invasions of foreigners."

Freeburg, who grew up with expat parents and who's lived in Venezuela, Iran, Libya, and the UK, says it basically comes down to the thrill of being in a new place with new faces, with little or no idea of what will happen next, and the notion that all the cultural assumptions that have worked elsewhere - things like personal space, time, communication styles, values, even beliefs - become invalid. "If that scares the hell out of you (and it should scare the hell out of 90-plus percent of people), then don't be an expat."

But if you've got the gumption, there are some good online resources for doing some homework before you go.

A good first visit online is to the ACA site at www.aca.ch. It provides solid information about living abroad. Another is Escape Artist (www.escapeartist.com) which accompanies a popular expat magazine by the same name. It features sections dealing with every aspect of expatriate living, and a directory of destinations. Also check out Expat Access (http://www.expataccess.com/).

A dry but reasonably useful site is Expatriates.com (www.expatriates.com). It's simple and no-nonsense, with good information about mundane topics like insurance, telecommunications, and vehicles.

A juicy read about the expat's lifestyle can be found at Tales from a Small Planet (www.talesmag.com/).

So what advice does Freeburg offer the would-be expat? "Pinch yourself - and then think twice," he says. "I'd bet everyone in the world has dreamed of eating bon-bons on the banks of the Seine or of finding the girl from Ipanema. But the minute you go beyond the tourist stuff and are forced to do the daily stuff of living and working overseas, then the fantasy of living in exotic places becomes a lot more real. Ever tried to find a furniture or a hardware store in Africa? If the plumber says manana does he mean manana or does he mean that you'll actually have running water tomorrow? Ever tried to conduct business in Europe in August. Or stayed up regularly until 2 a.m. to make your calls to the US because your boss there has no idea what a time zone is?"

It's probably no accident that expats have much higher divorce and illness rates. Most are woefully unprepared for the experience. But successful expats have a unique sense of identity and accomplishment - no matter where they're from or where they've lived.