Friday, July 29, 2011

Leaving America: Mind the Gap!

I've been thinking a lot lately about what prompts people to emigrate from their homelands to someplace "more desirable" and yet, inevitably, alien.

As kids, most Americans were taught to be proud of our immigrant-friendly culture.  Never mind that this myth is essentially mendacious (established Americans have seldom been particularly friendly or welcoming toward newcomers).  Still, as school children, we docilely took for granted that our ancestors from Europe or Asia had wisely and successfully exchanged their native cultures for an unquestionably "better life" in America the Beautiful.

Seldom did anyone ask us to reflect upon exactly what might have impelled our ancestors to make such a momentous life change.  And it never occurred to ME, at any rate, to ask myself whether Great Grandpa Denne or Great Great Grandma Gjefle ever doubted the wisdom of their decision to migrate.  Why did they do it?  And was it worth it?

These questions resonate with me today because, quite frankly, at age 67!, I'm seriously considering leaving the America my ancestors "chose" and living out my remaining years in an alien, but more appealing, more welcoming land.

As my Norwegian and German forebears must have thought when contemplating their decision, three generations ago, to COME to America, I must now ask myself:  why would I make a comparable decision to LEAVE?  And would it be worth it?

Since neither of my grandmothers ever told me much about their family histories, I can only speculate about the motivations of all those Dennes and Hermanns and Gjefles and Kirkebys as they embarked on their steerage passage to America (the Kellys, my mother's paternal line, are even more inscrutable--they seem to have immigrated in the 18th century, perhaps even before the Revolutionary War).

And I can only conclude that my forebears were as dissatisfied with their fatherlands as I am with mine.  Whether this dissatisfaction was primarily economic, political, religious, or just psychological, I can never know.  But I cannot help but believe that they experienced a trauma equal to mine:  surely they did not look forward with unmixed enthusiasm to their departure from their native land.  But just as surely, they had concluded that ANOTHER land offered them at least the "possibility" of a happier life.  And, like me, they must have been so frustrated with their existing lot that the mere possibility of something better was sufficient to persuade them to take a frightening chance.

More frightening, in truth, than any chance I might take, since those nineteenth-century migrations tended to be irreversible:  once the Atlantic was crossed, there would be no economically feasible option but to persevere, coûte que coûte, in the New World.

I, on the other hand, am not similarly obliged to burn all my bridges.  In this, I suppose, I more closely resemble today's Mexican or Asian immigrants than yesteryear's huddled masses.  I CAN come back to America if conditions "there" turn out to be worse than I anticipate OR if conditions "here" improve in significant ways.

Well, I seem to be rambling a bit.  Let me return to the central questions that prompted me to begin this blog in the first place:  a)  WHY do I want to emigrate?  and b) Would it be WORTH it?  (i.e., is such a move likely to be successful?)

Yes, I want to leave the U.S.  Here are my reasons:

  • A political climate that despises the notion of community and social responsibility.  Greed and selfishness prevail almost exclusively in today's America. With breathtaking impunity, the moneyed class scorns and exploits the disadvantaged.
  • A religious climate that supports and nurtures the politics of greed and hate.  Religious fundamentalism so dominates all American culture that even those who do not go to church seem to find it necessary to proclaim themselves "spiritual" or "believers in something transcendental."  Atheists, agnostics and humanists are either hated or shunned.  Such God-crazed fanaticism inflames believers to condone both physical and emotional violence toward "outsiders."  Thus, we are little better than the Islamic religious nuts we so piously denounce.
  • An economic system (mostly unregulated, survival-of-the-fittest capitalism) that forces everyone to be afraid, every day, of losing his/her livelihood.
  • A willful failure to ensure health care for all.  And precious little compassion for the ill and suffering, whom the privileged classes disdain as a mere financial "burden."
  • An indifference to education that beggars belief.  Many Americans are actually proud of knowing nothing. People who think, on the other hand, incite suspicion and are denounced as "pinheads" (as opposed to know-nothing "patriots").
  • A totally unjustified arrogance about American "superiority" and "exceptionalism."
  • An unconscionable passion for weapons of all kinds and a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for violence and bloodshed as a legitimate means of "getting one's way," "getting ahead," or "solving problems."
  • A deep-rooted racism that prevents us from creating the just society that we hypocritically pledge allegiance to.
  • A narrow-minded parochialism:  a purblind refusal to cooperate with other peoples and/or to try to understand and sympathize with other cultures.
  • A political system that no longer "works" (if, indeed, it ever did) for the good of ordinary people.  The wealthy have established a banana-republic plutocracy which serves only to further enrich the few at the expense of the many.  And the many accept this as God's will.
  • A tendency toward dangerous fascism.  Some readers (if there ARE any readers) may find this concern ridiculously overstated or melodramatic.  But in the Tea Party movement, in politicians like Michele Bachmann, Jim DeMint, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Virginia Foxx, in the pledges and pronouncements of the vocal right wing, I find distinct echoes of early Nazism:  a populist rhetoric; rousingly cheerful and unabashed demonizing of subgroups; completely irrational and willful denial of reality and fundamental truths; in short--delusions, demagoguery, damnation.  These people harbor dangerous ideas--and they have no qualms about threatening violence ("reloading") to implement their mad schemes.
So I want to emigrate.  But since American Medicare will not cover me outside of the U.S., and since it would be foolhardy for a man of my age and medical history to consider any move that would deprive me of health care, I  find that my options for a new homeland are rather limited.  As a Francophile and former teacher of French, I would quite naturally prefer to live out my remaining years in France--which has always been my "pays de prédilection".  But alas, French health care for retired foreigners has recently become an incomprehensible tangle that seems to grow ever more byzantine with each passing year. And private insurance, for anyone with pre-existing conditions, appears to be either unaffordable or entirely unobtainable.  Similar impediments apply for most other European countries and Canada (though I haven't investigated Australia).  Only Britain, with its much-maligned, but still available (to "residents") NHS, remains an option.  (The big "if" here, I gather, is whether I would qualify for the UK's retiree visa--which is granted on a one-year renewable basis to non-workers who can demonstrate 25,000 pounds income per year and a "connection" to the UK--pretty subjective.  The NHS is currently requiring that mere tourists and temporary visitors pay for their non-emergency medical services.)

The United Kingdom, then, provided I qualify for "permission to enter" visa status?  Should I join that stream of Americans who have "returned" to Mother England?  Ah, here's where the second question obtains:  would exchanging the US for the UK "be worth it"?  Would the gains outweigh the losses?  What WOULD I gain?

  • Health care--as I already mentioned and with the provisos discussed above.  A sane national consensus about caring for the sick.
  • A fairly rational and straightforward political system:  the party in power actually makes laws and enforces policies without perpetual deadlock.
  • A general indifference to religion and a marked distaste for religious fanaticism.  I am especially attracted to this feature of British life, since it suggests that the British make their life decisions based on practical realities rather than on metaphysical fantasies / delusions.
  • A respect for honesty in interpersonal relationships.  I may be sentimentalizing a bit, but I've always found that the British have a low tolerance for bullshit and euphemism.  I think I'd enjoy that.  I'm pretty fed up with American hypocrisy and faux niceness.
  • No particular attachment to guns or firearms or explosives.  No knee-jerk belief that the best solution to any problem is to "shoot the bastards."
  • Decent (albeit expensive and inferior-to-French) public transportation. I like red buses.
  • Better universities than any other non-American option.
  • They speak English, though oddly, and occasionally and always in certain places, ludicrously.
  • TV is pretty good; so is theatre; so are movies.  
  • Though not immune to free-market and lame-brained trickle-down economics, the UK still provides a less cutthroat, more compassionate economic environment than the US.  The COMMONWEAL still matters.
  • The British constitution is conveniently unwritten and can thus evolve gradually to meet the needs of an evolving society.  The US constitution, on the other hand, is an ossified document whose 18th century mechanisms increasingly PREVENT us from evolving as a republic.
  • London is cool.  And everywhere is close to London.

And now, the drawbacks:

  • Distance from my family.  I'm not willing to cut myself off definitively.  I value my connection to my siblings and I wonder how they would react to a possible move on my part.  Would I cause great distress?
  • The house.  I'm half owner of this condo and I thus have financial obligations here in the US.  I couldn't just "unload" my half of the house without causing both economic and emotional hardship for my sister.  So I would never make such an attempt.  But could I then afford to move?  Could I guarantee the 25,000 pounds income?
  • Possible loneliness.  I know no one in the UK--and I don't make friends easily.  I suppose my timidity and reserve would be even harder to overcome in a foreign environment.
  • Unfamiliarity and uncertain legal status.  I love London and Southeast England, but I really don't know the entire country, nor do I understand how things "work." Moreover, unless I lived long enough to take out British citizenship, I would always remain an "alien," subject to politically or economically motivated alterations in legal status.
  • Money/income/cost of living.  This would/will be a problem whatever I choose to do:  the Great Recessions has wiped out a substantial amount of my little 401K.  If our current Congress brings about a default, I could stand to lose still more of my nest egg.  If CalStrs goes under and my pension dries up, I'll have no money to live ANYWHERE.  In any event, England--and particularly London--are very, very expensive for Americans living on a fixed income paid in dollars of dwindling value.
  • Additional health insurance.  Even with the NHS, I would probably need a supplement.  This must be investigated further.
  • Boredom and depression.  Would probably be the same anywhere.

There.  At least I've gotten this all on paper (or on a web server somewhere).  Now I can re-read and re-work it.  Perhaps the mere act of listing pros and cons will help me make a responsible decision about the rest of my life.  I must, after all, mind the gap!


  1. I've thought for years I'd be happier elsewhere. Might still be true. However, I haven't yet found that sweet spot — may be for lack of trying, and I think I still have a couple attempts left in me. So far, though, the "lite" version of expatriate life that I've had hasn't been as seamless as I'd maybe secretly imagined.

    I understand the impulse. My reasons are also much the same as yours — France just *makes more sense* to me in some ways, but not in all ways, and you're if anything more familiar with France and the French than I am, so I may not need to elaborate.

    Boredom and depression are not to be taken lightly. They're a big part of why I appear to have given up on the Côte d'Azur for the time being — it's a gorgeous place but it's surprisingly dreary and boring for much of the year, and the expense compounds the drag. London tempts me because I've never been bored there: you're right, London IS cool. But you're also right that it's expensive.

    Right now the pound is worth a little more than a buck-fifty — about where the Euro was a couple of years ago. That might change, but from the little I understand of international economics, I wouldn't be surprised if the Euro weakens more quickly than the USD in the near future, and the pound as well. Not that we'll do great, but I think I understand that they might be in even deeper trouble over there, and those who trade currency, giving it their value, might be even more skittish about the Euro than the dollar.

    The loneliness was tricky, too, even for me. I DO make friends easily, and I have a loner streak, to boot.

    Distance from my family — and here, I include lifelong friends as well — is one of the other huge reasons I'm not there now. It's a big deal to me, and I haven't found the balance between satisfying that need to remain close and the desire to be elsewhere. Stuff has happened in the last year that drove that need home, and I'm still trying to figure it out as well.

    I largely agree with your stance on our society and the decline it's threatening to complete, and the governmental weaknesses that result, even if I might have used milder language to express them. That's one huge reason I would like to continue exploring options elsewhere, too.

    But nowhere's perfect. Everywhere is going to suck in one way or another, given enough time, and almost any place will have something to recommend it. It's just a question of which tradeoffs you're happiest making, I suppose.

    If you move to London, I'll come play checkers with you in your local pub or something. Any excuse to visit that city.

    Thanks for leaving comments open and indulging my aimless rambling. ;)

  2. Oh, Rick, you're right. No place is perfect, but some places have better beer. When I wrote this blog I was so depressed, so discouraged, so TIRED that I wasn't even attempting to be balanced in my reasoning. So there's a lot of hyperbole up there. Still, I DO think that I might, at some point, feel compelled to move, in spite of all the obstacles. Maybe I just have to keep "moving around" until I drop. If I were your age, though, I don't suppose I could really consider life as an expat: how to earn money???

  3. As an Englishman I find your comment that we speak English "ludicrously" offensive and arrogant. So we should all speak American English should we? WE invented the sodding language. However WE speak it is correct. Typical Yank who is completely ignorant of any other form of communication other than your own mangled version of our language. If you cant understand us you better not come, or open your mind and ears first and maybe start watching mote UK TV etc. No-one elase has a problem and I mix with people from all over the world.

  4. Oh, dear! I had no idea that I was guilty of mangling YOUR language,(though I confess to having employed typical American hyperbole in my blog). I'm a retired teacher of English. Partly for that reason, I find that English is often spoken carelessly and yes, ludicrously, EVERYWHERE in the English-speaking world (perhaps more frequently in the U.S. than anywhere else). But I stand by my statement that Brits, too, abuse our shared mother tongue and often speak it abominably. Sorry, you don't get any points for having "invented" the sodding language: it belongs to me as much as to you. I also cannot resist pointing out that you, in your sanctimonious correctness, have managed--in one brief comment--to neglect needed commas, to forget a necessary apostrophe (cant/can't), to misspell several words (elase/else, mote/more). I do hope that you will continue to enjoy your mixing and mingling in your superior English.