Best Books by Expats on Living Abroad

Reviews of my favorite books written by expatriates, journalists, and diplomats on what it's really like to live abroad

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Review: The Truth About Moving Abroad (& Whether it's Right for You) by Paul Allen

I hadn't realized how pervasive the dream of living abroad is until I read the stats in Paul Allen's new book, Should I Stay or Should I Go?: The Truth About Moving Abroad and Whether it's Right for You. Turns out nearly 10 million Americans are seriously considering moving to another country for at least a while, and nearly 50% of British citizens yearn for foreign shores (presumably sunnier ones.) However, roughly 25% of Brits who take the plunge and actually emigrate wind up moving back home again often because the reality of living abroad wasn't for them.

Should you get serious about your dream, or would you be happier as an 'armchair emigrant'? I know I've often wondered myself as my own family's target date for formally moving to the Balkans grows closer. So, I was happy to get Paul's book.

First he gives a light overview of some of the most popular countries - Australia, Canada, Mexico, France, the UK, and more. (Serbia didn't quite make the list.) Next, he examines the 10 'make or break factors' for living a happy life abroad. This was the most interesting part of the book for me because it's not information I can get from any guidebook.

For example, did you know people living in northern Spain may be plagued by flies throughout the extra-long fall season? Or that people in San Diego spend many sunny summer days cooped up indoors with the air conditioning at full blast just to cope with the heat?

And, the cost of living in most European countries is much higher than in the US. For example, Chicago is a bargain compared to Madrid. Cost of living overseas also fluctuates a lot more than I had expected, countries that were fairly cheap as recently as 2002 are now harder to afford. That could make planning hard for people on a fixed income. Healthcare costs for expats may also be rising as governments save money by restricting national healthcare systems to their own citizens alone.

Paul's 'lifestyles' chapter is perhaps the most insightful. For example, although he expected to explore all of Europe on holidays when he moved from the UK to Spain, he wound up spending every holiday back in the UK visiting family. Also, if you're lucky enough to land a job overseas, bear in mind that expats often have to work far longer hours than they did back home, especially if they're reporting back to an HQ in their original country.

The point of this book is to add a dose of reality to your expat dreams. Paul has included both personal stories of his own experiences as well as lots of charts and graphs from formal research studies. I like that mixture of anecdotal and observational data a great deal.

If you've already lived in another country for an extended period (longer than a holiday) then you may not learn much. But, if you haven't, and you're even remotely seriously considering moving abroad, I'd recommend this book strongly. Expatriating is too big a decision to make with nothing but stars in your eyes.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Review: French Dirt - The Story of a Garden in the South of France by Richard Goodman

The painting on this book's cover is absolutely marvelous, and sums up what Northern gardeners imagine when we have Mediterranean fantasies. A line of tall cypress lead to a red-tile-roofed villa. All around are grape vines, yellowed-hills, and in the foreground a gardener crouched down next to his watering can, tending to a row of vegetables grown huge in the strong sun.

The book was well reviewed by the literary establishment. But, I think not by anyone who's actually passionate about gardening. It's really a book for New Yorkers. A pleasant diversion for people who have never gardened and probably never will in the future. You'll find passionate descriptions of Richard's excitement about his garden, the first of his adult life, but precious little actual information on the specifics of gardening. So, on that front, it's a wash.

However, there's one bit I really do like. Richard describes how tough it is to get to know the locals beyond a polite smile. French people don't rush to include new neighbors - foreign or not - in their daily lives. There's a natural insularity and slight standoffishness that's natural to many cultures (I've experienced it in England but not Scotland. In Croatia, but not Serbia.)

Richard broke through this wall unexpectedly, when, needing money, he went to work as an unskilled laborer for a few local farmers. Most well-to-do retirees living in foreign countries will never discover that trick and they'll be lonelier for it. (In fact most living abroad books talk about the opposite, getting to know locals by cozying up to one's own hired help.)

In summary, this isn't a bad little book, as long as you're not expecting serious information about gardening. And, that cover is a delightful thing to display face-out on your bookshelf. I happen to own a full-blown poster of it, left over from a bookstore promotion, and I thank my lucky stars daily.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Book Review: 'Spotted Dick, S'il Vous Plait' by Tom Higgins

The author photo in the back reveals the Frenchest-Chefiest-possible-looking man. But, Tom Higgins is British and had no chef or restaurant experience prior to opening his own cafe in Lyon in 1986. Luckily, he was ready to work all hours of the day and night, had some great recipes, and the natives, surprising themselves considerably, liked British food enough to return again and again.

This enjoyable memoir is the perfect book to give anyone who dreams of opening their own restaurant in a foreign land. It's humorous, honest, and sweet.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Book Review: Notes From an Italian Garden by Joan Marble

I love the story of how Boston-born journalist Joan Marble first became obsessed with gardening ... adding one little potted plant after another to her small Roman balcony. Finally, she and her husband bought a piece of land north of Rome and built a summer home there, so she could expand her plant collection.

The land was dense, red clay -- terrible for gardening. We're talking pick-axes. In fact, they had to dynamite holes to plant the long rows of cypress trees lining the driveway. But Joan and an assortment of helpers persisted. This memoir, written 30 years after the founding of the garden, gives a behind-the-scenes look at how it evolved, and the lessons learned and friends made along the way.

My favorite part describes her research into green houses for warmer climates. You can't use a traditional glass greenhouse in the Mediterranean because your plants will fry. Instead, you have to create a shady-greenhouse. Joan's sounds delicious, but I do wish she'd included some actual blueprints or photographs to illustrate. The book is packed with artistic line drawings which are pretty, but not much help for me at least.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book Review: O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen

I can't imagine how they stayed. No, really. When the Niall and Christine abandoned their just-taking-off publishing careers in New York City to move to a small family farm in County Clare, they were as hard-working and positive thinking as you can possibly be. There they were, living their dream, and it mainly turned out to be as dreary and dreadful as life could be.

The darling old cottage was dirt-floored and drafty, and they didn't have enough stored turf to burn to keep it warm. Their crop was threatened by blight. The potential pool of local friends were nearly all senior citizens or close to it. They learned they could not have children naturally. They desperately missed basics such as orange juice, doughnuts and a fat Sunday paper. It rained and rained and rained and rained and rained. Then it rained some more.

But, despite everything, they stuck it out. They learned to cut turf, plant a garden, own chickens and cows. They started a local exercise class, put on a play, learned to paint, finished novels... Life, despite everything, got better.

Book Review: A Pig in Provence by Georgeanne Brennan

When I'd heard famous, California-born, cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan had written an autobiography of her life in Provence, I was expecting, well, an autobiography; but, that's not what this is. Instead, it's a collection of eight autobiographical essays, each centered around a particular Provencal food item. For example, one is about aoli, another on wild mushrooms, and a third about freshly butchered pork.

I'm not a true foodie, but most of the details she mentioned were things I already knew about from other books or personal experience. So, there's nothing unique in here, although the eight featured recipes look fairly useful. Frustratingly, Georgeanne includes just enough biographical details to get your taste whetted... and then goes back to food again. You can tell she's got a great memoir inside of her, but it's not this book.

Perhaps the most illuminating information in the book are little side comments strewn throughout about how much Provence has changed since Georgeanne first moved there in 1970, and indeed how lucky she was in 1970 to witness the very last of the oldtime customs. Tellingly, her son was the first child born in the village after an entire decade. Her local friends, at that time, were nearly all old age pensioners. Today the people inhabiting those same homes are mostly well-off vacationers from places like Germany, the UK and Paris.

Georgeanne has asked many of her oldest French friends if they miss the old days. No, they all say. It was too much hard work and isolation. But I can tell she's nostalgic for those times, if only because the food, then all homegrown and homemade, was slightly better.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Book Review: Ninety Dozen Glasses by Marguerite Cullman

Back in 1958, near the peak of America's golden years, President Eisenhower appointed Marguerite Cullman's husband to be the US Commissioner General to the Brussels World Exhibition. Her charming memoir, published January 1960, has long been one of my favorites -- the sort of old, beloved book you dig out to read on a rainy day every few years.

I suppose it's partly because this is the sort of book you expect when you imagine diplomatic wife memoirs. Lots and lots of cocktail parties, much being made over who sits precisely where at all official functions, dealing with the servants (should one find a drunken butler amusing, or fire him?), house hunting with a fat budget and perfect taste in a European capital city, and unexpected friendships with one's diplomatic peers from all sorts of exotic countries.

One of the most memorable parts of the book is Cullman's description of what each nation chose to display to symbolize the power and might of their culture. The Russians put a giant piece of agricultural equipment on display. The US put a big fat copy of that week's Sunday New York Times.

BTW: The ninety dozen glasses of the title refer to the massive cabinet of cocktail glasses of every size and description that were a requirement for the job. Too bad I never had a job like that!