Playing Twenty Questions: Life as Expats, Life as Travelers, Life in Lagos, Portugal – Part Two

 

There’s no getting around it: writing a blog is work. It takes time.  It takes discipline. It takes waiting around for a brilliant insight to hit you or an inspiring thought (a very rare event) and slogging ahead anyway when your muse is silent. However, the effort is well worth it when we hit the ‘publish’ button and add another page to our personal time capsule.  Because, by far, our favorite thing about blogging is the comments part where we get to interact with old friends and new readers, trade ideas, exchange experiences and share some of the things we’ve learned as full-time travelers, expats and now, residents in our adopted country of Portugal.

Occasionally, we have an outline that we follow for a post but often, we just kind of watch and see how our post evolves in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way as this post did.  In fact, it got away from us, growing into an unwieldy tome, which is why we broke it up into parts.  In case you missed reading Part One, you can find the link HERE.  And now, on with the countdown and our version of Twenty Questions.

 

 

LIFE AS TRAVELERS

13)  What are some of the upsides and the downsides of full-time travel?

The Ups.  For most of the three-plus years we were nomadic, we were slow travelers and spent an average of one to three months in each country.  This allowed us to immerse ourselves into a destination, get familiar with how to navigate our way around a village or city and find out where the ATMs, markets and restaurants were located.  Traveling slow also allowed us to settle into the not-so-exciting business of living our lives with the familiar routines of cooking, cleaning, laundry, paying bills, correspondence and researching future places to visit.  Actually living in a place, however short the time, also gave us a chance to explore and discover the landmarks and landscape at our leisure: sightseeing at its best.  We chatted up the locals as best we could in our fractured Spanglish and exchanged a lot of smiles, nods and the occasional shrug. Whenever possible, we tapped into the local expat community to ask questions and meet people, many of whom we keep in touch with still. Our favorite thing about traveling full-time was the feeling of being more in the here and now, and slowing down to appreciate the unique quality of each countries’ similarities and differences.  And always, there was the anticipation of our next destination.

Tip – We traveled like the locals too, using the low-cost and well-developed bus systems of Mexico and Central America to slow travel from destination to destination.  In countries where we were more concerned about possible violence or danger like El Salvador and Honduras, we checked with local travel agencies about shuttles and would hire recommended taxi drivers to act as our personal guides.  Many times we used public boats and ferries to take us to more remote places like Placencia in Belize, Utila, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, and Bocas del Toro in Panama. Once we reached South America where the distances are much greater, we used local airlines which are less expensive than their international counterparts.

 

 

The Downs.  To be truthful, there were very few things that got us down for the first two-plus years.  Maybe we were in the ‘honeymoon phase’ but the sheer freedom of structuring our days (or not) as we wanted to, was exhilarating.  We loved unfolding our big wall maps of Mexico, Central and South America (something we were always glad to make room for in our limited suitcase space) and figuring out how to zig or zag our way to our next destination. Gradually though, the idea of packing and repacking, living out of a suitcase, schlepping it from bus to taxi and back, just got plain old. Deciding what clothing to pack was easy in the one-season tropical climates of Mexico, Central and South America and some of the island countries. However, once we decided to shift our travels to Europe, the clothing needs doubled for a two-season climate and our suitcases got a lot heavier.  Visa restrictions, especially the Schengen Visa (click HERE for more info) made traveling more complicated. Living in too-small rooms and making-do with just the basics in an AirBnB apartment (every traveler has experienced a dull knife or two) gradually became less enchanting. We felt a growing isolation in places where we met few people and patching together our health care needs also seemed to get incrementally harder. The glow of nomadic life gradually dimmed in year three and we knew it was time to set up a base and use it as a place to launch future travels.

LIFE AS EXPATRIATES AND LIVING IN PORTUGAL

12)  Why Portugal?

Honestly, we’d always pictured ourselves living somewhere in a beach community in Mexico or somewhere in Central America.  As we traveled, we’d say, “Sure this is a nice place to visit but … could we picture ourselves living here? ” We kept a list of places that might work (interestingly, none of these were on a beach) but gradually we realized that the draw of many of the towns and cities we’d visited was more about the people we’d met than the actual places.  And, the more we traveled, the more we recognized our preference for places with historical landmarks and histories that went back centuries.  We wanted to be close to old world culture and museums as well as country landscapes including beaches and seas that we could look at for hours. We wanted to be close also, to markets and grocery stores carrying a selection of good foods and inexpensive restaurants that offered a variety of choices.  In a nutshell, we wanted our version of paradise:  a place where the cost of living was affordable, a mild climate and close proximity to many destinations for future travels.  We knew within a week of our first visit to Portugal that it had everything we were looking for – plus that indefinable feeling of coming ‘home’.  In fact, Portugal is rated Number 1 on Forbes’s 2017 Best Places To Retire Abroad and Number 3 on the 2017 Global Peace Index (right behind Iceland and New Zealand), ahead of Canada at Number 8 and a light year away from the US standing at a dismal Number 114.

 

 

11)  How do you get a Resident Visa in Portugal?

We wrote about how to get a 4-month resident visa HERE for US citizens with some explanations and links.  To give you a recap:  you need to apply in person or by mail to a Portuguese Consulate (information can be found HERE) or the Embassy in Washington, D.C.  Information listing the various types of visas and how to apply, including a list of supporting documents needed is available HERE.  Once your initial 4-month visa is approved and you arrive in Portugal, you’ll have time to settle in before you’ll need to renew it at the SEF (Service de Estrangeiros e Frontiers or, in plain English, the Immigration Office) and submit a few more documents.  Our post detailing our first experience at the SEF can be found HERE.  This visa renewal is good for one year. The next renewal will result in a two-year resident visa which is what we have now.

Tip 1–  If it sounds complicated, we’re not going to argue.  However, think about the bureaucracy in the US for a moment (or any ‘First’ world country for that matter) and you’ll realize how many years it took to assemble your paper life.  The ‘Great Document Roundup’ as we called it may seem daunting but only because you’re amassing all the required documents at once.  Just take a deep breath, muster your patience and break things down into steps.

Tip 2 – In our various posts, we talk about hiring a lawyer to help us through the visa process.  In hindsight, this expensive assistance really isn’t necessary although a little handholding is always nice. (However, we’d rather hold our own hands at this point and save some money.)  You can do everything yourself for the first step of the visa process when you’re gathering your documents to submit to the Portuguese consulate. Once in Portugal, there are a few times when you might need a lawyer but this is a pricey way to go.  A much less costly alternative can be found in the form of a Portuguese resident who can act as your fiscal representative in obtaining a couple of documents. Check with a local expat group when you arrive for recommendations.

 

 

10)   What is your Cost of Living?

This is the question that always interested us when we’d read about the lifestyle of other expats in various countries because, while it wasn’t our main reason for expatriating, it still played a major part in why Portugal appealed to us. We’ve kept track of our monthly expenses since September 2012, at first because we were curious as to how the countries we were traveling in would compare in terms of expenses, and as a way to monitor our own spending. We have an up-and-coming post where we’ll itemize our expenses but we have a quick and dirty estimate of our monthly costs for the last three months which includes rent, utilities, food, car maintenance and gas, health insurance, household goods and miscellaneous costs.  Excluded are travel and medical expenses.  Our monthly average is about USD $2500 – $2800 per month.  We probably eat out two to four times a month and our rent is about $900.  We’re mindful about how we spend our money but we like our comforts and splurge occasionally too.

Tip – Keep in mind that we live in the Algarve Region of Portugal which, along with the city of Lisbon, is the most expensive area of Portugal.  Your money will go farther if you opt to live in other areas.

9)   How do you find a rental apartment in Portugal?

There’s no such thing as multiple listing here in Portugal and finding a rental can be a slog, especially in the popular Algarve where you’ll find yourself working with multiple property managers.  Rents are all over the board with the area around Lagos one of the spendiest for a long-term rental.  Anywhere between €600 – €1200 is reasonable for a 1-2 bedroom/1-2 bath apartment.  To start your own research, check out the Facebook page called Long Term Rentals Algarve for listings or type Rentals in the Algarve region of Portugal into your browser for listings and property managers.

Tip – We tell people who are thinking about visiting the Algarve area and Lagos in particular to avoid the high season months June through August and maybe even the shoulder season months, May and September, when rents are at their highest and tourists crowd the streets.  AirBnB has listings for short-term rentals anywhere you want to visit and nothing beats the boots-on-the ground approach to finding a year-round rental you like.

8)  What about buying a house or condo?

We don’t know about the rest of the Algarve, but a common sight in Lagos are the cranes silhouetted against the sky and apartments and condos in various stages of building.  Signs saying ‘For Sale’ or ‘A venda’ can be seen wherever you look. It’s a hot market and the asking prices are still climbing way past anything we’d want to spend.  Having divested ourselves of our property back in the US, we much prefer the freedom of renting versus tying ourselves down anywhere. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be upside.  At the very least, wait until you’ve been here awhile and have had a chance to explore the variety of regions and the country to find what suits you best.  We happen to like the more rural, laid-back feel and climate of the Algarve but friends of ours prefer the central and northern coasts around Lisbon and Porto where there’s more of a cosmopolitan vibe.

Once again, this is a l-o-n-g post and many of you may be saying, ‘Enough already!’  Our fervent wish is to leave you hanging on the edge of your seats and wanting more (dare we hope?) rather than tuning out.  Part Three of Twenty Questions will conclude with our last seven frequently asked questions and start out with the lowdown on all things medical.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Playing Twenty Questions: Life as Expats, Life as Travelers, Life in Lagos, Portugal – Part One

 

Life is full of milestones and dates that mark important events and this month, we celebrated a significant anniversary.  On September 11th, 2012, we locked the door to our house on Padre Island for the last time, turned over the keys to a property manager and set off in an entirely new direction.  With the exception of our house (which we sold a couple of years later) and a safe deposit box, everything we owned was crammed neatly packed in our suitcases.  We each had a carry-on and a 24-inch suitcase plus a mid-size backpack when we set off for our first destination in Mexico.  Not more than two months later, we ditched the carry-ons and left a pile of clothes and extra shoes behind.  For the three-plus years that we traveled full-time, we carried everything we owned in the remaining two suitcases and backpacks.

 

 

A few months into our travels, while we were house-sitting for a friend in Antigua, Guatemala, we started our blog and, just as our travel style has evolved over the years, so has our blog.  And, while the main focus of our blog is still on our travels, we’ve also begun to write about life as expats in Portugal: the conundrums, the inexplicable differences between life as we knew it in the US and life as it really is in Portugal and some lessons we’ve learned – sometimes the hard way, sometimes the expensive way.

 

 

Which brings us to a major update and tweaking of our FAQ page – the questions that we get in our comments section, Facebook and emails and our answers: hopefully helpful, accurate and probably neither pithy nor profound!  Here’s our version of Twenty (pertinent) Questions.

THE BIG WHY?

20)  Why quit your jobs, leave a home you love along with friends and family and start all over in a completely new direction?

Clichés become clichés for a reason and the phrase “Life is short” seemed to be beating a drum in the year 2011.  We’d reached the age where gradually, a few of our friends and close family were battling chronic illnesses and life-threatening diseases.  Living the “American Dream” had increasingly lost its allure as the things we owned gave us less pleasure and we started thinking about how to restructure our priorities.  In short, although our lives were okay, we were mired in routines that no longer mattered and we missed the anticipation of the ‘What’s next?’ part of living.  Having more time to do the things we’d put off for ‘someday’ assumed a greater importance.  Instead of waiting for a someday (which might never come) we decided we were ready for a lifestyle reset now.

LIFE AS TRAVELERS AND EXPATRIATES

19)  But what did you do with all your stuff?

Imagine the unthinkable – getting rid of everything you own.  Selling it, donating it, or gifting it to friends, family and charities.  It took us a year to do it but that’s exactly what we did.  We passed on family heirlooms to other family members, digitized treasured photos onto DVD’s and uploaded them to our computers and the cloud, figured out what to do with our art collection, became Craig’s List experts and held two garage sales.  We leased our house and eventually sold it the third year of our travels.

Tip – Read a book or two on minimizing/simplifying and start slow.  It takes time and a major mind reset to let go of your stuff.  Two books that we read and recommend are Simplify by Joshua Becker and The Joy of Less  by Francine Joy.

18)  How do you support your travels?

The question everyone is thinking and no one wants to be rude enough to ask, right?  Richard receives a social security check each month (Anita is not too far away from the time she can double that income) and we withdraw savings as needed to allow for a comfortable lifestyle.  We’re not about to go bare-bones but we don’t live extravagantly either.

Tip – Either set up a budget or track your daily expenses to be more mindful of where your money goes.  It helps us to keep in mind the ‘want versus need’ conundrum.

17)  How do you access/transfer your money?

After some research on how to avoid the high foreign transaction fee costs, we decided that the Capital One credit card and Charles Schwab debit cards would work best for us.  Capital One has no foreign transaction fees and Charles Schwab reimburses all transaction fees, both foreign and domestic, at the end of each month.  Bank of America has a traveler’s plan with no foreign transaction charges also and we use their credit and debit cards as our backup plan in the event of a damaged, lost or stolen card.  Richard’s social security is directly deposited into the Charles Schwab account and ready to access by ATM.  Also, it’s easy to transfer funds online between Bank of America and Charles Schwab as needed.

Tip – We use our credit card sparingly and for large purchases only to avoid possible credit card fraud. (This might be an example of being too cautious since that leads to the loss of credit card points we could use for future travels.)  We withdraw the local currency from the ATM and use that for day-to-day expenses.

16)  But how do you get your mail and make/receive calls?

We use a family member’s address (a big shout-out to my sister, Kari, who acts as our fairy godmother) as our official address which allows us to keep a near normal presence in the US.  Whenever possible, we opt for the ‘paperless’ route and pay our bills online.  Since we’ve been gone for 5 years, the mail is dwindling although apparently, junk mail never dies.  We can review our bank transactions, pay credit card bills online, file our taxes and conduct other business as needed. We have a US Skype number that allows us to receive and place phone calls.  In short, unless we tell them, no one really needs to know we’re out of the country.

15)  How did you deal with your medical needs and emergencies while traveling full-time?

For years we recommended buying an annual policy from Global Medical Insurance (IMG) with a very high deductible to cover us in case of a catastrophic accident or illness.  We both had to submit medical records and ended up with different plans with one of us receiving coverage worldwide including the US (as long as we spent at least 6 months outside the US per year) and the other obtaining coverage for any country with the exclusion of the US. We never filed a claim and the costs increased each year at exorbitant rates until we finally dropped the plan.  BUPA and CIGNA are also in the same cost bracket.  We found that going naked (or without insurance) might be an option to consider as we paid out-of-pocket throughout our travels for all our medical, dental and prescription needs. Healthcare (doctors, dentists, labs) is very reasonable once you leave the US and we’ve been pleased with the professional and knowledgeable people we’ve encountered so far. Of note, our costs for doctor’s visits and prescriptions were ridiculously (but not in a funny way) less than what we were paying in the US for insurance premiums and copays.

Tip – We’ve had several friends recommend World Nomads which is much more affordable.

14) What do you do about your prescription medications?

We each have a list we update regularly of our medications with both the brand and generic names, strength and the condition the medication is treating.  This includes vitamins, over-the-counter meds for nausea, cold symptoms, pain and fever, etc. In Mexico, Central and South America as well as many of the Caribbean islands, we didn’t need a written prescription to refill our meds. European countries, too, will allow you to buy a variety of medications without a prescription.  Our advice is to stock up on those prescriptions that you can and check at a pharmacy when you arrive to see how to refill what you need.  If you need a written prescription, you can get recommendations for a doctor from expat groups, hotels and the local pharmacy.

Tip – Brand and generic names may vary from country to country. Some of the names may be similar to their US counterpart or you may find that a medication you take is not available in another country.  Almost all of the pharmacies that we’ve been to have internet access and will look up the medication name and availability if you ask. Sometimes they can order a medication for you, obtain it from another pharmacy or substitute it with a similar medication.

 

 

As we guessed, we’re way too wordy so we’ll continue our ‘Twenty Questions’ countdown in Part Two starting with some of the upsides and the downsides of full-time travel and then getting into life as Expats and Residents of Portugal.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Boot Sales, Hippie Markets and Chinese Stores

cliffs by Porto de Mos, Lagos

It’s been a ‘staycation’ kind of summer for us here in Lagos, Portugal, with lots of friends stopping by and making use of our guest room (if you want your friends and family to visit, just move to Portugal!) and day trips here and there.  We’ve met several new friends who have contacted us through the blog and are checking out both Portugal and the Algarve to see what all the buzz is about. We’ve also enjoyed some great conversations as well as mentally filing away travel tips and fascinating stories about future places to visit.  And, over and over, while lounging by the pool, enjoying the beautiful beach near us called Praia Porto de Mos or scarfing down a meal dining with friends, we’ve congratulated ourselves, several times in fact, about our decision to skip visiting the US this year and taking a time-out to enjoy our piece of paradise.

This summer we’ve also indulged in what seems to be one of the Algarve’s favorite past-times: the hunt for a good bargain that you didn’t even know you needed.

 

 

Boot Sales:  Flea markets are held in the villages and towns up and down the coast on designated days with traveling vendors.  The Brits call them “Boot Sales” as the items on sale are (theoretically anyway) sold from the “boot” or trunk of the car. Usually the goods are displayed on a blanket spread on the ground although a lot of the vendors set them up on tables, too.

 

Need your own copper still to make moonshine whiskey?

A boot sale we went to in the Central Algarve Region near Paderne had an herbalist displaying baskets of dried herbs and dispensing advice while a nearby couple deep-fat fried doughy rounds and dusted them with powdered sugar.  It might have seemed that the heat would have dampened our appetites but – no.  In fact, we were just a little tempted to split a third one between us!

 

 

Lagos’s Boot Sale is held on the first Sunday of every month and is as much a treasure hunt as a people meeting and greeting venue.  We always make it an event to visit and drag a friend or two along for the fun.

This may sound strange but by far our biggest score has been a circa 1970’s, pumpkin-orange slow-cooker that weighs about 25 pounds with a Euro-plug that’s been modified from the original UK three-prong.  When the seller saw my face light up at the find (slow-cookers aren’t sold in Portugal) he wouldn’t even bargain with us and we forked over the full €20 for an appliance at least 40 years old.

 

 

Chinese Shops: Every town and village we’ve visited so far in Portugal has at least one emporium (Lagos has several hiding in plain sight) literally stuffed to the gills with all sorts of paraphernalia and staffed by someone of Chinese descent, hence the name.

 

 

From floor to ceiling and usually piled in no particular order, you can find beach toys and bikini panties, thread and thermometers, shower curtains and slippers, paper goods and plasticware and Christmas décor year-round.  We tried to ferret out the origins of these Portuguese versions of the old five-and-dime stores or the newer Dollar Stores and all we’ve learned (unverified so who knows?) is that there are old trade agreements between Portugal and China that allow the owners to import goods duty-free.  If you have a little time, there’s no telling what bargain you’ll find poking around!

 

 

Hippie Market:  Going to this flea market held the 4th Sunday of every month, near the quirky village of Barão de São João, about a twenty-minute drive from Lagos, is kind of a blast from the past for us.  It’s as much fun to watch the retro European hippies, check out the “Pimp-my Ride’ caravans and make a lunch of the vegan/gluten-free pakora with mango chutney, as it is to look at the offerings for sale.

 

 

 

Sounds of live music and the smell of incense float in the scant summer breeze (our friends Roy and Ann hint that other smoky smells can be fired up too) and the whole scene reminds of us outdoor concerts in the 70’s when hair was long, clothing was billowy and we were weekend hippies ourselves.  Wandering about the area, you watch unleashed, happy dogs nosing around the dusty field for anything edible, scruffy kids playing or holding on to young mothers who look almost as disheveled in an appealing, exotic way and men looking laid-back and chill.  Like the other flea-markets we’ve been to, there’s a lot of junk and some interesting antiques and you never know what you might find as you wander round.  We’ve been tempted to buy some colorful paintings and jewelry by local artists, checked out the clothes straight from Thailand, bought some fresh herbs and sipped some fruit-infused water. The vibe is infectious and we always look forward to going – even if we do stand out in our uncool, buttoned-down way!

 

 

 

Of course, there’s always the Saturday farmer’s market down by the bus station in Lagos but we tend to avoid it in the summer as the crowds make the tented area inside a jam-packed, chaotic and sweaty event.  We prefer to wait until the cooler weather of fall and winter to visit the market and check out the fresh produce, baked goods, live chickens and rabbits in cages, and flowers, all offered at reasonable prices by friendly sellers.

It’s always a little sad to say goodbye to summer. But we’re looking forward to getting on the road again and traveling as well as taking advantage of the off-season prices for restaurants and accommodations now that the vacation crowds are returning from whence they came.  Our staycation was an all-around success this year and has us thinking that this might be the way we spend our future summers.  After all, why travel somewhere else during the high-season when you’re right where you want to be?

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

The Antebellum Houses of Natchez, Mississippi and Monuments of The Lost Cause

Natchez- Vidalia Bridge, Mississippi River

Like a lot of bloggers, we keep an idea list for future posts as well as rough outlines of posts we’ve decided to scrap or for some reason or other just couldn’t figure out how we wanted to write the story about our travels there.  But the events several days ago on August 11th and 12th in Charlottesville, Virginia, had us thinking about a road-trip we took last year in September on a loop through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.  We were intent on learning more about the history and culture of some of the southern States of the USA, visiting a few of the Civil War battlefields and following along the path of the Civil Rights Movement landmarks from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In September of 2016, in the waning months of our former president, we thought we were firmly on the path to social justice. Those members belonging to the radical fringe of civil society, the White Nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis and others, slithered underground until given a green light during the presidential campaign to come out in the open.  And, after the inauguration of # 45 and despite months of warnings with the “Muslim Ban,” the dismantling brick by brick of years and decades-old statesmanship programs and policies, the threat of our social safety net being ripped out from under us and the deportation of some of the most vulnerable among us, we were still taken aback.  We watched with horror and sick hearts, as raw bigotry and hateful, anti-Semitic and racial epithets spewed from the mouths of white men (and a few women) carrying guns, knives, clubs and shields as blatant acts of intimidation.  Parading along Charlottesville, Virginia’s streets, the marchers waved their Tiki torches and carried Nazi banners with swastikas along with Confederate flags.  It wasn’t hard to compare them to old documentaries we’d watched featuring long ago Klan processions, cross burnings and the news clips from Hitler’s Third Reich rallies. And the impetus? A call to “Unite the Right” and the threatened removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee, the military commander of the Confederate States of America and a potent symbol of the Lost Cause.

Which brings us to the pretty little town of Natchez, Mississippi, population somewhere less than 25,000, where we spent a couple of nights in September of 2016, en route to Vicksburg.  And our decision not to write about this town until now.  Because, just as Confederate monuments symbolize white supremacy and a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery, the stunning collection of beautifully maintained antebellum homes pay tribute to the Lost Cause and romanticize a genteel south memorialized forever in the tradition of “Gone with the Wind.”  Vast fortunes were made growing and trading cotton and sugarcane and shipping goods upriver on the Mississippi to Northern cities and downriver to New Orleans.  Staggering wealth made on the backs of black slave labor.

 

 

We’d first learned of this town through the Penn Cage novels of Greg Iles and wanted to see some of the heritage architecture he’d written of.  Unlike so many of the South’s grand cities of the era, Natchez came through the Civil War almost unscathed with many of the mansions built before 1860 still surviving.  In the historic downtown, block after block of antebellum homes can be admired from curbside with eighty-two of the Natchez homes in the historic downtown and along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi river, earning a distinguished entry into the National Register of Historic Places.  Natchez brags, discreetly and ever-so-politely, that half the millionaires in the US resided there before the Civil War and it’s estimated that almost one-hundred of the grand neoclassical and Greek Revival-style structures could rightfully be called Antebellum mansions.

We stopped by the Natchez Visitor Reception Area and picked up tickets to see a few of the Antebellum Mansions which have been turned into living museums with tours offered hourly.  Depending on the time of year, as many as twenty of the mansions may be open for tours.  The tours we picked lasted about an hour each and we split them up, doing two the first afternoon of our visit and a couple of tours along with a stroll about the Natchez City Cemetery (also on the National Register of Historic Places) the following day.

Stanton Hall –   Occupying an entire two-acre city block and surrounded by a wrought iron fence, this Greek Revival residence perfectly met our expectations as to how an antebellum mansion should look. Built in 1857 by Irish immigrant and cotton merchant, Frederick Stanton, the mansion was occupied by Union troops during the war. The Stanton family lived there until 1894 when the building became the Stanton College for Young Ladies.  The Pilgrimage Garden Club purchased the home in 1938 and restored it to its former splendor using many of the original furnishings belonging to the Stanton family.  If opulence ever needed a picture to define it, the inside of this mansion would do it. (No pictures of the inside were allowed, so you’ll have to take our word for it!)

 

Stanton Hall

Auburn – Completed in 1812, the Auburn home was “designed to be the most magnificent building in the territory” and was built for Lyman Harding, the first Attorney General of Mississippi.  After his death in 1820, the home was purchased by Stephen Duncan, a physician and wealthy planter, and his wife, Catherine and remained in the Duncan family until 1911 when the heirs donated the home and 210 acres adjacent to it, now a park, to the city of Natchez.  Unfortunately, the original contents of the house were sold at public auction with few being returned and the home is furnished with donated period pieces.  If we haven’t conveyed it yet, we were duly impressed by the house but by far, the most striking thing about the mansion is the free-standing spiral stairway that rises between the ground and second floor completely unsupported.

 

Auburn Mansion

 

Rosalie –  With sweeping views and located on the Mississippi River Bluff near French build Fort Rosalie (1716), the mansion was built between 1820 and 1823 for the original owners, Peter and Eliza Little.  The home was purchased in 1857 by Andrew Wilson and his wife, also named Eliza, and was occupied by the family and their descendants until the home and the original furnishings were sold to the Mississippi State Society, Daughters of the American Revolution who maintain the home and give the tours.  Occupied by the Union Army in 1863, General Walter Gresham protected the house and its contents and returned it to the family after the Civil War. (Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the home.)

 

 

Longwood – If we had to vote for our favorite mansion, Longwood would win hands-down and it wasn’t even completed.  Still the largest octagonal house in the US and known as “Nutt’s Folly,” its original owners were Dr. Haller Nutt and his wife Julia, members of Natchez’s planter elite. The couple hired a Philadelphia architect to design an “Oriental villa,” complete with a bright red, Byzantine onion-shaped dome. Construction of the eight-sided, six-story, 10,000 square-foot mansion which had original plans for a total of thirty-two rooms and twenty-six fireplaces, began in 1860 but was halted in 1861. The exterior is mostly finished but only nine rooms on the ground floor were completed when construction workers literally dropped their tools, collected their pay and abandoned their work at the onset of the Civil War.  The Nutt family moved their fine furniture inside the finished rooms, living there throughout the war and into the 20th Century with a total of three generations of the family living in the never finished home.  The upper five stories remain just as they were when the construction ceased, making the home a great analogy of the South’s rise and fall.  The Nutt’s grandchildren owned Longwood until 1968 and the property was deeded to the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez in 1970 who maintain the property and open its doors for tours of the historic house museum. (This time we were allowed to take photos of the unfinished part.)

 

Longwood Mansion

 

And here was our conundrum.  Should we write about how beautiful we found this pretty town filled with antebellum homes and selling a romantic story of Old South nostalgia?  These fine and stately homes are indeed works of art: designed by gifted architects, built of the finest materials, containing the work of talented craftsmen and filled with the finest furnishings. The homes of slave owners, many passed down to their descendants, offer a glimpse into the lives of the wealthy southern aristocrats and are treasures for sure but their beauty is tainted by their history and only tell one side of the story.  And the other side? Generations of enslaved blacks who did the work that made the fortunes that built the houses.  Generations of people bought and sold throughout the South, who did their owners bidding, cared for other peoples’ needs and wants, raised children belonging to someone else, cooked and cleaned and planted the crops for their owners.

Somewhere over the decades following the tragedy of the Civil War that left 620,000 dead, “The Lost Cause” has evolved for some into a State’s Rights issue where slavery has been romanticized as a benevolent institution and the patriarchal society of the Confederacy as a grand, genteel civilization.  And unlike the Antebellum homes that offer a glimpse into the lives of the townspeople of Natchez and the wealthy Southern aristocrats who owned slaves before the war, most of the approximately 700 Confederate monuments standing in public spaces today were erected well after the Civil War.  They’re monuments celebrating slavery, secession and white supremacy and were erected as a direct corollary to the rise of Jim Crow laws and the violence and oppression of African-Americans.  And, despite what # 45 says, there’s nothing in those monuments that represents the USA’s rich heritage of diverse cultures, races and religions.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Bohemian Rhapsody: Cesky Krumlov

 

We set off from our temporary home in Prague one sunny morning and drove south through the countryside of the Czech Republic, heading for the small town of Český Krumlov close to the Czech-Austrian border. The landscapes of the Bohemian region were the kind that artists dream of: blue skies with wisps of clouds, rural farmhouses and fields freshly tilled or planted with various crops in checkered hues alternating with huge swaths of bright yellow canola well over two feet high. Time passed by almost dreamily, as we gazed out the car windows at mile after mile of flat land and gentle hills and places where timber logging and sawmills seemed to be the main industry. In some areas, we tunneled through thick woods growing almost to the shoulderless, two-lane road. Here and there the highway wound through picture-postcard towns of small businesses and houses, many at least a century old, set close together, with steeply pitched roofs to discourage the accumulation of winter snow.  White lace curtains hung in the windows, like a throwback to some gentler time.

 

 

The GPS took us right to the little pension we’d reserved for two nights, Hotel Krásné Údolí, dating from 1568.  The smiling owner opened heavy wooden doors that had us guessing how old they might be and we entered into a cobblestoned enclosure.  Straight ahead was the owner’s apartment, to the right was the dining room for guests and at our left was a steep set of stairs leading to the hotel’s six rooms.  Walking down the short hallway we had a chance to peek in the rooms and were totally charmed as each room had its own beautifully painted mural featuring a fair maiden from long ago and a country landscape embellished with flowers. The en-suite bathroom had an ultra-modern, glassed in shower with multiple jets, the Wi-Fi was acceptable and there was even a little dorm style fridge and a comfortable sitting area.  Throw in an ample breakfast that was included in the price of 53 US dollars a night and an innkeeper who did his best to answer our questions and we were doing a happy dance!

 

 

And then there was the town of Český Krumlov itself which topped the quaintness scale and then some.  Called “one of the most picturesque towns in Europe,” this jaw-droppingly, beautiful medieval town situated on both banks of the Vltava River is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due largely to its intact architectural heritage spanning more than five centuries.

 

 

With more than 300 Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque houses, most of which date back to the 14th through 17th centuries, the passage of time has not done much to alter Český Krumlov’s appearance.  Careful renovations have preserved details that had us swiveling our heads: an assortment of gabled roof profiles, frescoes painted across many facades, ornate sundials, shutters, and decorative iron grills over windows and the pleasing harmony of red-tiled roofs.

 

 

Inside many of the former grand houses are restaurants serving delicious Czech dishes, boutique hotels, souvenir shops, museums, jewelry stores offering the semi-precious Moldavite stones found only in the Czech Republic, and shops selling traditional Czech crafts such as wooden toys, Czech puppets and sparkling crystal.  The street layout follows the horseshoe bends of the Vltava River which flows through the medieval town and the feeling is like stepping back a few centuries.  We strolled about the narrow and winding streets, admiring various houses, window shopping, stopping for a drink here and a meal there, in no rush to be anywhere but exactly where we were.

 

Plague Column

Eventually, all the streets we wandered would lead us back to the central town square, flanked by colorfully painted buildings with a fountain and tall Baroque sculpture anchoring one of the corners. Known as the Marian Column or the Plague Column, the statue dates from 1714 and commemorates the victims of the 1680-1682 plague epidemic. At its top and wearing a golden halo, is the Virgin Mary accompanied by the eight patron saints of the town.

 

But then, we’re getting ahead of ourselves because, before and during the evolution of the town, came the State Castle and Chateau Český Krumlov.  Built on a rocky outcrop alongside the river Vltava, the castle overlooks and dominates the old town which was built around it.  Second in size only to the Prague castle, the original buildings date all the way back to 1240 while additional palatial buildings were added between the 14th and 19th centuries.  The massive complex of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque structures totals an impressive forty structures with a covered bridge, gardens and five courtyards.

 

 

Of all these eye-popping gems, however, the stupendous mid-13th century Renaissance tower which stands out at its 178-feet height and magnificent, beautifully restored frescoes in all their pastel beauty.  A cheap admission of about $2.50 will pay the entrance fee to the tower for the privilege of climbing the 162-steps of the spiral staircase to the very top for a heart-stopping panoramic view of the city.  Two of the four bells hanging in the tower date back to 1406 and other small bells known as clock bells are estimated to be four-hundred-plus years old.

 

 

Perhaps because of its awe-inspiring size, the castle enjoyed centuries of quiet and prosperity and the Vltava River served as an important trade route in Bohemia. The castle and its lands passed peacefully between families from the original Lords of Krumlov in the 13th century to the Lords of Rosenberg who reigned over the region’s Celtic, German and Slavic descendants for three centuries until about 1600 and played host to artists, scientists and merchants from all over Europe. The Castle was sold to the House of Eggenburg and the town became the seat of the Duchy of Krumlov for about a century until it passed in 1719 to the House of Schwarzenberg who governed for over two centuries. Seized by the Nazis from its last private owner, Adolph Schwarzenberg, in 1940 and then confiscated by the Czechoslovak government in 1945 during the Communist era, the castle was neglected and ill-maintained as was the town until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Today, careful restoration and its inclusion into the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 has guaranteed that this fairy-tale city and castle can be enjoyed by the citizens of the Czech Republic and people from all over the world.

 

 

As far as we’re concerned, Český Krumlov is a town that zaps you back in time and can only be described in superlatives.  We spent much of our time there gawping, head-swiveling, jaw-dropping, finger-pointing and stretching our lips into wide grins while we rhapsodized over this Bohemian treasure.  Be sure to include it on your “Must See” list and don’t forget to wear your comfortable walking shoes!

 

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

A Rant-A-Thon From a US and a Canadian Expat: Bureaucratic Contortions

Sagres, Portugal

A few weeks ago my Canadian blogger friend, Frank, at The Travels of BbqBoy and Spanky  reached out to me with an idea he had for a collaborative post called, “The Absolute Worst Thing About Being a Fulltime Traveler,” comparing our different perspectives.  What made his idea intriguing was that our worst experiences actually have nothing to do with traveling full time or with being an expat, he in Croatia and myself in Portugal.  This turned into a rather fun and enlightening rant-a-thon by both of us, so I thought I’d reprint parts of Frank’s post here with his permission. 

 

The US Perspective  By Anita @ noparticularplacetogo.net

Six years ago I decided that I wanted the life my husband had: early retirement. We’d worked hard over the years and, lucky for us, weren’t hit too hard by the great recession. We had savings, our home was well on the way to being paid for and we’d had a recent epiphany that life was short. The lifestyle that I was working for (house, cars, stuff) was no longer important to us.

Rant 1 Exorbitant Healthcare Costs. We quickly found out that the US isn’t set up for middle-class people who want to retire early. The biggest problem that we ran into right away was how to pay for our health insurance. My employer picked up half the cost of an excellent health care plan but I was still paying $800/month for the two of us. We solved that problem by deciding to leave the country and “going naked” (that’s what people from the US say when you don’t have health insurance) except for traveler’s insurance policies. We took a year to sell everything, leased out the house and became nomadic expats in 2012, slow-traveling through countries where healthcare was affordable.

Rant 2 Capital Gains Taxes. About three months into our new life we knew that we’d never live in Texas again and probably not in the US either. Deciding to sell our home wasn’t difficult but the whole *when to sell* decision was taken out of our hands. Rather than waiting for the best time to sell our house, we were forced to sell between years two and three of our travels in order to avoid paying hefty capital gains taxes on a place that was no longer our primary residence. (Not that we had any residence at that point!)

Rant 3 Transparency. We consider ourselves to be fairly honest. However, having a US street address is important for so many reasons we’d never considered. In fact, it seems that you need an address to prove your very existence. And so, we use my sister’s address. Simple things like keeping our money in a US bank, having domestic and international credit and debit cards, keeping our US driver’s licenses current, paying income taxes, remaining active voters, etc., all need a US street address. We’re not quite comfortable with the deceit but …

Rant 4 And speaking of honesty and transparency: Be careful to whom you mention that you reside outside the US. Banking and investing places seem to equate opting to live abroad with offshore wealth, tax havens and money laundering. If you want to avoid needless hassles and make your life a little easier, you might opt for, “We’re living out of the country for a while …” not, “Hell no, I’m never coming back!”

Rant 5 Taxes. Aren’t taxes always worth a good rant? And yes, we’re still paying them, on time and every year. We have an accountant who keeps us up to date on changes. All to stay law-abiding US citizens with piss-poor representation and absolutely no benefits.

Rant 6 Banking. It was fairly straightforward to open a bank account in Portugal where we live now unlike a lot of other countries that are refusing to open accounts for US citizens because of onerous reporting requirements and paperwork. However, we had to present our social security cards to open our accounts (who carries those when traveling? Or anytime?) and we’re careful to maintain our account balance under $10,000 to avoid complicated paperwork. (Try paying for a car using your debit card!)

Rant 7 Healthcare. And we’re back at where we started. Richard now qualifies for Medicare and we pay $110 each month for that luxury. However, Medicare is only good in the US and the insurance is not something you can cancel and pickup at a whim when you’re in between countries. So, he has “cheap” insurance (by US standards anyway) and I have none for the occasional visit back in the US. Our solution, should I ever get sick during a visit, will be to hurry up and get the hell on a plane and anywhere else before we’re bankrupted.

Our expat life has been all about minimizing what we have and simplifying where we can. Seems that our country of birth could be a little easier on us too and make the hoops to jump through just a little closer to the ground!

 

The Canadian Perspective By Frank @ bbqboy.net

Three years ago, after 20+ years of working in Quebec (Canada), paying a shitload of taxes every year (Quebec has the highest tax rates in North America) we decided we wanted to leave our 9-5 lives to travel.

It’s not that we didn’t enjoy our lives or didn’t love Montreal, Quebec or Canada. We were getting older and we just wanted to see more of the world before we died.

When we left to travel, we continued paying Canadian taxes. No issues with that, we’re Canadian, we’ll pay our taxes just like we suffer through 6 months of winter. But paying a shitload of taxes doesn’t mean we get any of the benefits that come with been Canadian.

Rant 1 Health Care. Two years into our travels we were no longer eligible for Canadian Health care. We’ve used up our “exception year” (I wrote about Canadian health care/insurance in detail here). Ask any Canadian why we lose our health care after 6 months out of the country and they’ll just shrug. Nobody seems to know. So we ended up getting expat insurance which, at 50 years of age, costs us about $3,000/year Canadian between the 2 of us. Basically we’re double paying because as Canadians our taxes are supposed to cover our health care coverage. That sucks.

Rant 2 Capital Gains Taxes. So we’re into our 3rd year of travelling, loving it, we don’t want to come back to Canada.

After renting out our Montreal condo for the last 3 years, our tenants decide they want to move, they want to start a family in the suburbs.  After weighing our options (rent? sell?) we decide that we would face reality – we love our lives travelling and have no plans to return to live in Canada.

So we put our condo on the market. It takes 2 months to sell but we’re happy when we find a buyer. Great!

Until the government bureaucrats get involved. “You’re a non-resident. This complicates your file. You will need to obtain an accountant in order to obtain for the provincial and federal governments a certificate of disposition. Furthermore, we must put a hold on the sale price in our in trust account until we have received confirmation of these certificates and the payment of the required taxes”.

Exact words with bolds and underlines cut and pasted.

Lucky for us, we have an excellent tax accountant who took care of this. It helped that a few years ago he made us fill out a form stipulating that our condo was never intended as an investment property and that it is still our primary residence and exempt from capital taxes.

Note: Just because you have an overseas address, that does not mean you are not a resident of Canada. As long as you stay a fiscal resident (ie. pay your taxes) you are still deemed a resident (although, as I say, without some of the most important benefits).

What would we do without an army of tax accountants and lawyers dealing with this bureaucratic shit?

Rant 3 Home Insurance on the rented property. When renting out our Montreal condo we had to get “renter’s insurance”. I specified to the company that we needed the insurance because we wanted to travel and rent out the property while doing so. Easy enough. But when year 2 came TD Insurance kept calling me, asking me when we would be coming back to Canada. Our renter’s insurance depended on it they said. By year 3 they said they could no longer cover us because we were out of the country too long. WTF? It ended up being another factor in the decision to sell.

Why would I get renter’s insurance if I came back to Canada? I’m renting out the condo because I don’t live there…

Rant 4 Needing a fixed address. We found out that you need a fixed address for everything: banking, investments, anything to do with government… Everything. In the first 3 years I used my condo address. Now I’m using my son’s address. You’d think in this day and age, with more and more people working remotely, that businesses and governments would keep up with the times. They haven’t. In fact, if you don’t have a fixed address or telephone number you realize pretty quickly that you are a rare species (I’ve had people look at me, wondering if maybe I was a vagrant…). It took full-time travel to bring home to us how totally non-existent you are as a person if you don’t have a permanent address and fixed telephone number.

Note: I should have used my son’s address as my address when selling the condo (Rant 2). Would have saved me and my accountant a lot of hassle.

We don’t mind paying Canadian taxes, Canada is still ‘our’ country. We have Canadian passports, Canadian driver’s licenses, Canadian bank accounts and investments, Canadian credit cards. I have Canadian family living in Canada. And I pay Canadian taxes. But why is the government taking away our benefits (notably Healthcare) or trying to screw us over with Capital Taxes? And it’s not just us, I know older Canadian friends who are not entitled to the GIS (Guaranteed Income Supplement) because they chose to live overseas (where they can get by with less money. Some can’t afford to come back to Canada). It just doesn’t make sense.

I wish the Canadian and Provincial governments would have a more modern and open approach to how people live today. With more and more people working remotely from overseas it would be nice to see a little more flexibility in the system.

One last thought.  For those of you thinking about making the jump to becoming either full-time travelers or expatriates, maybe this post will address some questions you haven’t thought about yet.  As for me, and I think I can speak for Frank too, I feel just a bit better now that I’ve done some ranting and raving about the bureaucratic contortions we go through to live outside our respective countries.  And despite all the hassles, it is, without a doubt, worth it.  It’s a whole ‘nuther world out here!

 

Lagos, Portugal

 

Konopiste Castle, The Heir to the Austro-Hungarian Throne and The Great War

 

Just 50 kilometers southeast of Prague in the Czech Republic, Konopiště Castle sits high atop a hill, surrounded by a thick forest.  Built as a Gothic fortification towards the end of the 13th century, it was a huge and sprawling rectangular edifice with plenty of towers, seven in all, for the most effective defense.  Over the centuries, the castle passed through the hands of numerous owners and was the site of sieges, revolts, occupations and plundering.  It’s appearance also changed through the centuries with a stone bridge replacing the drawbridge, the demolition of some of the towers and after 1725, the transformation of the castle into a Baroque style château. Frescoes were painted on the ceilings, marble fireplaces with carvings installed, gardens planted and statues scattered about the grounds.  At the time of its purchase in 1887 by its most famous resident, the estate was vast, its densely wooded forests filled with abundant wildlife stretching almost as far as Prague.

 

And here’s where our story starts, with the purchase of Konopiště Castle by the Duke Frantisek Ferdinand d’Este.  Better known as Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he was a man with an immense fortune inherited from the last reigning Duke of Modena (now part of Italy) and an eye for only the best.  Employing the services of architect Josef Mocker between 1889 and 1894, he refurbished Konopiště Castle into a luxurious residence fit for a king or, in his case, fit for an emperor and the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.  Among some of his innovations were the installation of electricity and modern plumbing, including a new-fangled flush toilet, along with one of the first electric elevators. The extensive grounds became an English-style park; more statues were brought in and placed about the terraces and rose gardens (a passion of the Duke’s) were planted and lovingly tended.  And then he filled the castle with furnishings of museum quality: collections of the finest antique furniture, paintings, tapestries, crystal chandeliers, Meissen porcelain, and ivory carvings in addition to his hunting trophies and an armory – one of the best in the world – filled with antiquated weapons and medieval suits of armor.

 

 

Not that we weren’t blown away by the immense luxury and the fantastical display of the best that money could buy a century ago, but it was the hunting trophies that caught our attention. Because, competing with the priceless furnishings and countless artifacts, are an estimated 4,000 hunting trophies.  And all those headless antlers arranged like patterned wallpaper, stuffed animals whose glass eyes followed our movements, birds of prey with wings outstretched and animal skins stretched out across walls and floors moved our tour into our favorite category of “This is plain weird and just a little creepy.”  Now here was a side to the Archduke that piqued our interest!

 

 

History hasn’t been kind to Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Described as “not a very likable man,” he had a reputation for a hair-trigger temper.  In fact, his rants and raves were so terrible that many questioned his very sanity.  He was an obsessive collector and his passion for trophy hunting around the world or in his own well-stocked forests was extreme, even by the trophy-hunting elites’ standards of the time.  Wikipedia says that, “In his diaries he kept track of an estimated 300,000 game kills, 5,000 of which were deer.”  According to our guide, the Archduke kept twelve taxidermists in his employ full-time, ready to stuff at a moment’s notice so-to-speak, and his hunting collection of trophies ranks as one of Europe’s largest collections.  And when he wasn’t hunting live animals, he amused himself by doing a little plinking on his indoor shooting range, a unique and elegant toy with moving targets.

 

 

However unpleasant and arrogant the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s reputation may have been, there is no denying that he loved his wife, the former Countess Sophie Chotek, who he met in 1894. Franz Ferdinand’s wish to marry his beloved Sophie was unfulfilled for several years because he was a member of the Imperial House of Hapsburg and she was neither a member of a reigning or formerly reigning European dynasty.  Franz stubbornly refused to even consider marrying anyone else and the Archduke’s uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph, finally gave his permission for the couple’s marriage in 1899 but not without some stipulations.  Any descendants from the marriage would not have succession rights to the throne nor would Sophie share her husband’s rank, title or other privileges.  In fact, whenever the couple was required to spend time with other members of the imperial family, Sophie’s inferior royal status forced her to stand apart from her husband, with the lesser mortals. The couple agreed to the humiliating conditions and were married in July of 1900.

 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie (source)

No doubt, the Imperial family’s disapproval of their marriage and the snobbish treatment of Sophie led the couple to spend as much of their time away from the royal court as possible.  Konopiště Castle, far away from Vienna and private, became their favorite residence. It was there that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, by all accounts, lived happily devoted to each other and their three children.

 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand , Duchess Sophie and their children (source)

And so, Konopiště Castle is most famous, not for its own magnificent history and beautiful setting, but because it was the last residence of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, Duchess Sophie.  Their visit to Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and their subsequent assassination on June 28th, 1914, led to a chain of events that eventually triggered the Great War, World War I.  By the end of the war in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more. Maps were redrawn enlarging Italy and Romania and creating the new countries of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, the Republic of Austria and the newly reestablished State of Poland.  However, the peace was tentative and resentments and violence flared again only a couple of decades later into an even more devastating war, World War II.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Note:  We were not allowed to take photos inside the castle but wanted to share an awesome video that we found online of a tour that Rick Steves made.  Click here.  It’s just a little over 2 minutes and will give you a glimpse of what makes this castle such a must-see if you find yourself in Prague.

 

 

 

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