Monthly Archives: July 2017

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.

 

 

 

Terezin: If A Picture Paints A Thousand Words

It’s the children’s drawings that linger in our minds, haunting us long after our tour of the town of Terezin that once served as a concentration camp. We’d seen some of the drawings years before at an exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and then at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. Pictures showing happier times with houses and gardens, holiday celebrations with family, children playing, flowers and trees.  Pictures showing darker times too: the day-to-day life in an impoverished ghetto, the faces of sickness and starvation, acts of savage cruelty and the endless transports by train of people arriving from elsewhere or departing for the camps.

 

Field of canola with the Small Fortress in the background

Terezin, better known by its German name Theresienstadt, is a little over an hour’s drive north of Prague.  It was originally built as a fortress in the late 18th century by the Habsburg emperor, Joseph II, who named it after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. (Incidentally, the Empress was also the mother of Marie Antoinette of the “Off with her head” fame.)  The fortress, divided into two parts, never served its military purpose as protection against Prussian attacks but instead proved useful as a prison for dangerous criminals, eventually evolving into a political prison for anyone (which numbered thousands) who the Austro-Hungarian authorities deemed a threat before and during the first World War. (Another interesting factoid is that this is the prison where the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, whose murder set off WWI, was incarcerated.)

 

Small Fortress, administrative offices and barracks

Small Fortress

Following Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, the garrison town of Terezin would also prove to be the perfect place for the Nazis who, in 1940, modified the political prison known as the “Small Fortress” into a police prison for the Gestapo to interrogate, torture and imprison its enemies. The town of Terezin itself, called the “Big Fortress,” met the Nazi requirements for a Jewish ghetto since it was surrounded by thick ramparts which would facilitate guarding of the prisoners. It was located about a mile-and-a-half from the Bohušovice nad Ohří railway station and had several barracks buildings.  Additional barracks were built by Jewish prisoners with triple-tiers of bunks constructed to make the most of available floor space in anticipation of the large populations (ranging from 35,000 to 60,000) who would be “concentrated” and crammed into the small town. The townsfolk of Terezin, numbering about 7,000, were evacuated and the ghetto opened for business. Between 1941 and 1945, Theresienstadt served as both a concentration camp for many prominent Czech Jews (musicians, writers, artists, poets and prominent intellectuals) and as an intermediate stopping place for other populations including communists, the Gypsies or Roma people, the educated and elite, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and religious leaders.  Tens of thousands of Jews deported from Germany and Austria, as well as hundreds from the Netherlands and Denmark were in the transports into Theresienstadt.  All too soon, many of these prisoners would be outbound, selected for transport to Auschwitz and other death camps in the east.

 

“To the Train Station” by Petr Ginz February 2, 1928 to October 24, 1944

Artist Unknown – Transport – Jewish Ghetto

And yet, despite the abysmal conditions – severe overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, insufficient supplies of potable and even non-potable water, vermin (rats, fleas, flies and lice) starvation rations, illness, disease and death –  a semblance of life went on. In between the work details and selections for transport going to the death camps, noted musicians gathered themselves into orchestras and played concerts, poetry recitals were given, writers wrote, operas were performed, artists sketched and painted with whatever supplies they could find and clandestine classes were held to educate the children.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944)

In December of 1942, Freidl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944), an Austrian Jew who lived in Czechoslovakia, arrived in the Theresienstadt Ghetto with her husband.  A talented artist, she had chosen to fill much of her limited luggage allowance of 50 kilos (about 110 pounds) with art supplies which she used to give surreptitious art lessons to over 600 children in Theresienstadt between 1943 and 1944.  Serving as a reminder of a world outside the camp, the lessons also provided a sort of therapy to help the children deal with the harsh reality of life in the ghetto and the constant fear and uncertainty that surrounded them.  Freidl Dicker-Brandeis encouraged her students sign each of their works with their names and ages and collected the pictures from her pupils after each class. Over the two years that she worked with the children, she assembled a collection of almost 4500 drawings, watercolors and collages. Before she and 60 of her students were deported in the autumn of 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, two suitcases filled with these pictures were carefully hidden in one of the children’s dormitories. The drawings were recovered after the war and have served as a reminder of the names and lives lost that might have otherwise been forgotten.  An important part of Prague’s Jewish museum collection since the war’s end, the pictures have been exhibited around the world.

 

 

Almost from the beginning of Theresienstadt’s existence, the Nazi’s had maintained the fiction that the ghetto was a place for resettlement, a haven of safety for the Jews of Czechoslovakia (and later, other countries) and a model city of great culture with its high proportion of musicians, writers, artists and prominent leaders.  No one really cared to follow up on their story until a group of 466 Danish Jews (we wrote about them here) were transported to Theresienstadt on October 5, 1943.  Soon after their arrival, both the Danish and the Swedish Red Cross Organizations began asking questions about their whereabouts as well as their treatment and living conditions.  In a move of astounding audacity, the Nazis decided that they would invite the Red Cross to the camp and prove to the world that the Jews were being treated humanely by their benefactors. A huge cover-up ensued to hide all outward signs of the ghetto’s true circumstances: deplorable sanitary conditions teeming with vermin and pests, widespread disease and rampant starvation. Seven thousand, five hundred of the ghetto’s sickest population along with all of the orphans were deported east to the death camps to reduce the severe overcrowding. A predetermined route for the June 1944, visit was decided upon and buildings were spruced up with paint, flower boxes and curtains while the grounds along the way received more flowers, grass and benches.  Shop windows were filled with foods and goods and an elaborate play unfolded with bakers baking bread, a load of fresh vegetables being delivered and people singing. Prisoners were nicely dressed, cued with pre-rehearsed praise for the camp and carefully placed along the route to present a picture of a charming village filled with happy people.  Musicians played music in the background and the Red Cross fell for the ruse, never deviating from the route nor probing too deeply.  In an ironic twist, the Nazi’s liked their elaborately staged hoax so much that they produced a propaganda film called, “The Führer Gives a City to the Jews.”  After the film was completed, the director and most of the cast of prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz.

 

 

Terezin was a way station for almost 150,000 people from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Hungary to the extermination camps of Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz-Birkenau, to name a few. And, while it wasn’t a death camp by the usual definition, approximately 35,000 people died there between 1942 and 1945 from exposure, starvation, disease, torture and executions.  Fifteen thousand children under the age of fifteen passed through the Terezin Concentration Camp.  Only 132 of those children were known to have survived.

 

 

It’s not easy to visit a place like Terezin, nor is it fun.  And yet, we believe that visits to places like Terezin are necessary and that we owe it to ourselves to learn what hatred based on religion, race, political beliefs and sexual orientation can become.  We need to take those lessons and draw parallels to what we see around us today.  We owe it to the victims to honor their memories and never forget.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash