Dear Field Notes reader,
The sky opened up here in Prague recently. One minute, a gray winter’s day, a bit below freezing. The next…a winter wonderland of brilliant white. Ultimately, inches and inches of snowy powder covered the city. I know lots of people shudder at the thought. They grew up shoveling snow, driving in snow, tracking muddy snow boots everywhere. I understand their distaste (it’s how I feel about perfect beach weather 365 days a year…blecch!).
But me…I basked in that snowy day.
I walked to one of the parks near my apartment and I sat on a bench and just watched it snow. The beauty of silence all around me. That’s one of the characteristics I love about snow: It magically muffles the urban soundtrack.
Snow in winter—better yet, appreciating snow in winter—is part of the “living abroad” concept for me. I know it sounds like some touchy-feely, hippy-dippy emotion, but one of the primary reasons I chose to take my life abroad in 2018 was my decades-long pursuit of something new and exciting and different.
I don’t mean different like the difference between New York City and South Louisiana, places where I have lived and which, despite their outward differences, are mirrors in many ways simply by dent of their centuries of shared American-ness.
I mean different as in “not something I know.”
I once read a fabulous travel book—No Sh***ing in the Toilet—by an Aussie writer, the premise of which was that the best travel is at times challenging and difficult and frustrating. You overcome those hurdles, you earn your victory, and the travel, thus, becomes more memorable. More meaningful. The experience is something you hold on to.
That idea resonates deeply in me. Those moments when I’ve overcome some annoyance or inconvenience in my overseas life, or I’ve learned how the system operates—it builds confidence. I feel somehow stronger for having expanded my ability to navigate a new situation. I feel like someone can drop me anywhere in the world, and I’ll get along just fine.
To be crystal clear here, I don’t mean to imply that living abroad should be difficult and frustrating. Or that it is. No one wants that on the daily. And, honestly, my life in Prague is so much simpler and calmer than my life ever was in the U.S.
I never—and I mean never—ever think about traffic, or finding a parking place. Or car insurance. Or remembering to buy gas when the tank is low. I never think about healthcare co-pays or whether insurance will cover a procedure, or if I need pre-authorization, or whether this doctor in my network. (Americans haven’t a clue how craven and anti-human U.S. healthcare really is). I don’t really have any time constraints. I walk wherever I want to go, or hop the tram just outside my apartment or the metro five minutes away.
Like you, right now I’m in the midst of tax season—paying Uncle Sam and the Czech version of him, Uncle Jakub, maybe?
That, too, is a reminder of my simpler life here. My U.S. taxes require real effort, and I’m never sure if I’m doing them right, even with TurboTax pretending to ask me all the right questions.
My Czech taxes? My accountant just needs a list of my income and answers to 25 questions, many of which don’t apply, don’t change from year to year, or require a yes/no answer. My Czech taxes are quite simple: How much did I earn? Write off 60% of that. Pay taxes at a 15% personal rate on the remaining amount. (Every month during the year, I pay just under 15% into the local Social Security system, and 6.75% for the state health system).
In all, my taxes are much lower here, and I benefit from the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion that allows me to exclude roughly $108,000 in income from my personal taxes in the U.S. That allows me to save and invest much more than I could in the U.S.
It also means a richer life because I can not only save more (goosing my financial confidence, which, honestly, was shaken after a divorce several years ago). As well, I have greater financial flexibility to do what I enjoy most in life: travel. Yes, the pandemic has corralled that for the most part in the last year; still, I was able to slip away to Istanbul for 10 days, and then to Montenegro’s Adriatic coast for more than a week, and those costs didn’t cause any consternation. They were well within my financial comfort zone.
So, here I sit, 27 months into my life abroad. I’m saving money. I’m traveling. I’m living in an apartment I love, in the heart of one of Europe’s prettiest cities, in a country I want to remain attached to permanently. Not that I’m a spendthrift, but I can pretty much buy whatever I fancy; I can travel without giving excessive thought to cost. I feel more secure financially.
Even if it’s only for a year or two, I encourage anyone reading these words to follow in my footsteps. Live abroad for a while. Pretend it’s one of those exchange-student programs from high school and you’re gonna pack up a suitcase and live in a foreign country for a time. You won’t regret it. More likely, you’ll love the experience so much that you want to make it permanent.
So, as this crazy COVID era begins to (hopefully) wind down with the emergence of vaccines, use this moment to think about where you might like to live. Figure out what it takes to obtain a temporary residence visa, and start looking ahead to a new adventure in the second half of 2021.
Jeff D. Opdyke
Editor, Field Notes