The experienced expatriate
Author offers advice on living abroad in the golden years
A dozen years ago, Karen McCann never could have imagined her future self casually eating pig cheeks and lamb tongue while sipping a cold beer. Once a faithful vegetarian, Ms. McCann, who grew up in Menlo Park and Atherton, found that moving to Spain changed much more than her diet.
Her new book, "Dancing in the Fountain," is full of the expatriate situations that start as challenges and become chances for growth: ordering in a restaurant, making friends, learning the language, bringing pets overseas.
"I experimented with being a slightly different person," Ms. McCann said in a recent interview at a Philz Coffee in Palo Alto. "I think the person I am now is much more interesting."
She still considers the Menlo Park Library her "library of origin," where she was an avid reader as a child and teenager. When her book was published, she sent one of the first copies to the library. "It's a tiny token of my appreciation for the countless hours of pleasure and inspiration I found there," she wrote on her blog.
Later, she worked as a journalist for a long time in a small town outside Cleveland. She found the dramatic move across the Atlantic to Spain to be a welcome change of pace.
"Living in Ohio ... in a community that is more about stability than innovation, it was very easy to get settled and enjoy the feeling of getting deeper and deeper into things," she said. "Living abroad is all about trying new things."
She and her husband, Rich, were vacationing for the fourth time in Seville when they sat down at a cafe and decided to spend a full year in the city. Both were retired and did consulting in their spare time. Little did they know this "sort of a sabbatical," as Rich had called it, would become a permanent move to the city they have now called home for seven or eight years.
"One of the great things about living abroad is that you can't take anything for granted," she said. "You are never on automatic pilot. Even now ... at any second someone could turn and say something to me that even though I have a fair mastery of the language, I will have no idea what they are saying."
Language aside, her book often emphasizes what she calls "mentally unpacking your bags," an idea she compares to the Buddhist practice "be here now."
"What people do in any new place is naturally compare it to the old one, and a certain amount of that is inevitable and useful," McCann said. "But there comes a point when you have to focus on where you are now and start building your life there."
She believes it's one of the most important ideas in her book.
"I see a lot of women and men arrive in Seville, either for business purposes or on impulse and they spend all their time looking at their watch, saying, 'Back home, it's three o'clock in the morning, I must be exhausted,' or furious because it takes so much longer to do your shopping in stores there because the sales clerks think nothing of finishing their conversation with one another for a good 10 minutes," Ms. McCann said. "But the whole pace of life is different."
She encourages women of all ages to travel — if not live abroad — and hopes her experiences serve as some practical advice.
"I think women living abroad have it easier because culturally we're more geared to socializing and respecting the fact that we need a social life," she said. As for older women, "I would say this is a wonderful opportunity to reexamine options and think of that stuff that you've always wanted to do, whether it's travel or painting or whatever."
Her other point of emphasis is the importance of humor in daily expat life. "Rich and I bust up laughing a lot. We are always putting ourselves in situations where we don't know what to do; we screw up, and the Spanish are really gracious. They will bend over backwards not to embarrass us."
She recalls a time when Spanish friends of hers were telling a story about a recent trip to St. Petersburg.
"Rich didn't catch what they were talking about, and at the very end of the story he goes: 'St. Petersburg, I hear it's lovely. Have you ever been there?' And perfectly graciously they said, 'As a matter of fact, we just got back from there,' and told the whole story again much more slowly," Ms. McCann said.
"That's the Spanish way of doing it."
"The Spanish way" came in more forms than just social etiquette.
"My eating changed so radically," she said. "I arrived as a low-fat, vegetarian person and now I eat everything. I kept getting taken places where people would hand me a plate of meat and there was no way I could refuse it gracefully, and I didn't want to; I was trying to integrate myself into the culture."
She eventually even came around to "the Spanish love affair with ham," as she puts it in her book. "Ham is absolutely essential," she said. "It's like air, water, ham. It's everywhere and it's absolutely marvelous."
Along with the leisurely, late-night meals came the traditional social drinking.
"I didn't use to drink a lot of beer, but ... when it's that hot that's all you want," she said. "You don't have to drink a lot to be part of the convivial, social evening."
She recalls the night when her Spanish friends convinced Rich and her to prepare them some classic martinis.
"It was Rich's birthday and they had all been asking about them and you can't find them over there to save your life," Ms. McCann said. "We had this big martini party and everyone was dying to try them. They take two sips and they are just pie-eyed within half an hour because it's not (part of) their custom."
In addition to her many Spanish friends, Ms. McCann, who heads a welcome committee at a women's club, has also established an expat social circle with people of all ages.
"In the expat community, because it's so small, we're just so excited to meet someone we're sympathetic with that we put aside the whole issue of generation," she said.
She wrote a book once before, in Ohio, about alternative medicine. Titled "Taking Charge of Your Hospital Stay," it explained that staying in a hospital is like living in a foreign country. "It's got its own language, its own rules, its own monetary system; everything," she said.
As for her newest book, she grappled with the content and the structure for some time. She decided to self-publish the book, using a print-on-demand service; customers buy the book on Amazon, which prints a copy only after the order has been placed.
Despite being such an advocate of living abroad, she emphasizes that her experiences are only one example of living a fulfilling life in the "golden years."
"It's about a mental attitude, not a geographical location," she said. "I know a lot of people who have retired and moved to Florida and decided their goal was to live a life of total ease. I think that's a perfectly legitimate choice, but I don't think it's the inevitable choice. ... The most interesting part of your life may be just beginning."
Go to enjoylivingabroad.com for more information about Karen McCann and her book.