In a comment on a recent post, Mark asked about how we choose where to live:
How do you go about choosing locations, and what other locations you have on the list? I imagine you look for cheaper places that still have decent internet, along with easy access to lots of culture and sights. Are there any sites you use to find out about the net or apartments?
Any thoughts on Buenos Aires, Cinque Terre (Italy), or Cyprus?
I described my rationale for choosing Malta a year ago, but I figured I’d revisit my philosophy and try to extend it to a generalized, goofy theory of choosing foreign homes. I call it the Foreignness Index.
The Foreignness Index is a value of 1 to 100 which describes how foreign a new home is to you. Using the Index is personal–the value you ascribe a place is particular to you, today. For me, living in an apartment in Vancouver might be a 1, while living in a cave in Afghanistan might be a 100. Obviously those numbers would be very different for, say, an Afghan.
What factors contribute to rating a place? Here’s what I can think of, in vague order from more important to less important. When I use ‘new home’ in this list, I mean to refer to a variety of scales–the destination country, city, neighbourhood and your actual dwelling:
- Do locals speak the same language as you? If not, how much of your language are locals able to speak?
- How safe–in terms of crime, war, disease, and so forth–is your potential new home?
- What religion are most of the locals?
- How open and welcoming is the culture? This speaks to how important is it that you meet and befriend locals.
- How different will the weather be?
- How different will your actual dwelling be from what you’re used to. If you’ve always lived in modern apartments, how weird will it be to live in a mud hut?
- How different are the environs from what you’re used to? Are you an urbanite moving to the countryside, or vice versa? Will your new home’s population density differ from what you’re accustomed to?
- How difficult will it be to obtain the products and services that are really important to you. For me it’s reliable web access and Coca Cola. For you it might be Neiman Marcus and caramel lattes.
- Is the locals’ relationship to time different? Are shop hours more fluid? Is timeliness important?
- How different is the food? This one’s a bit tricky to objectively measure, but you can, both figuratively and literally, just trust your gut.
- Does the alphabet use the same character set as yours?
The list could be much longer, and each person will have different criteria, but that’s a good start.
The Foreignness Index in Action
Now, let’s apply that list and arrive at some values for places I’ve lived, and might go.
- Dublin, Ireland – 20 – Same language, similar social structures, similar weather, lived in somewhat different environs.
- Gharb, Malta – 35 – Plenty of English spoken, North African and Arabic influences, radically different location and environment, significantly different weather, limited access to usual products and services.
- Essaouira, Morocco – 55 – French is a second language here, radically different culture and religion, different weather (I walked on the beach wearing only a t-shirt yesterday) easier access to stuff than on Gozo, but not as good as the West.
Let’s put those and a few other values on a map (you’ll want to click for the big version):
A Dearth of Data on Living Abroad
To answer Mark’s specific questions: I like to find a couple of country-specific forums, particularly those frequented by ex-pats, to ask dumb questions. Here’s one I used in Malta.
There’s actually a real dearth of centralized information about living in foreign countries. I guess that it’s a hard data set to assemble, but the only book we found was Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America. It wasn’t bad, but it was US-centric, and focussed on permanent relocations instead of temporary time abroad.
Buenos Aires was actually on our short list, along with Malta and Panama. To select a country, I printed out the Wikipedia list of all the nations in the world. Julie and I then went for burgers and milkshakes and eliminated all the countries we definitely wouldn’t consider. That got us down to about 40, and we winnowed it down from there.
Argentina felt a little too foreign for our first time moving the business, and it’s a long way from Canada. Plus, we knew that if things went south business-wise while living in Malta, we could always scare up local business or make a quick trip to Europe. I didn’t fancy trying to make a solid living earning Argentinian pesos.
Italy is my dopplenation–it’s beautiful, but I’ve never cared for it. Cyprus might have been nice, but it seems like it wouldn’t have been that different from Malta.
Presumably the next time we live abroad we’ll choose somewhere more adventurous–a higher number on the Foreignness Index. Or maybe not. Who knows?
What about you, dear reader? What nation would you rate at, say, 50?