How to Find Your Place in the Sun

You’ll recall that in my last blog I was scouting out the Costa de la Luz in Spain as a potential candidate for my “life after Malta” base. And I promised to reveal more about how I choose my next location.

I’ve heard so many horror stories about folks who sold their homes and cashed in all their chips to move to their dream “place in the sun,” only to realize they absolutely hated it and wanted to move back.

I never want to find myself in that position. And so I’ve never regarded any of my moves as permanent.

I don’t own any property, so that part is easy. And I don’t transfer my entire life to the country of my new base either. I open a local bank account to make sure I always have cash on hand for small expenses. But beyond that, you can use foreign credit cards just about anywhere, and doing all your banking online is quick and easy.

My mobile phone has a local SIM card too. But you can pick these up and swap them in anywhere you happen to be. And you can open a prepaid Skype or Google Voice number if you need to maintain one permanent point of contact. I rely on email for almost everything.

I take a couple suitcases with all my clothes, as well as my laptop and electronic stuff. And that’s pretty much all you need. You can buy the rest wherever you end up. [Note: I did ship all my books this time, but that was more a point of stubbornness and luxury rather than a necessity.]

Okay, so what do I look for when I’m evaluating my next possible temporary base? How do I avoid spending a lot of money and ending up in a place I despise?

I have a pretty simple checklist in my head, and ruling out potential candidates lets me get to a short list relatively quickly.

 

Country and Area Requirements

One of the first things I need to know is that city or location’s proximity to a good sized airport. I travel a lot, so I want a place that’s within an hour’s drive or less of an airport with good flight connections to a large long haul hub. So in Europe, I want a place with at least a couple flights a day to Frankfurt or London

Absolute necessity #2: high speed Internet. Fast and reliable. No exceptions. My work completely depends on it.

I also look at the prospective country’s tax rates and residency system. I want to live in a place where income taxes are reasonable for expats, and where the financial system is more or less stable. As an expat you don’t necessarily have to deal with the local banks, but it helps to have some cash on hand locally for day to day expenses.

In terms of residency, I want a place where things are straightforward when it comes to permits, bureaucracy and cost. The last thing you need to deal with is queuing up at some Kafkaesque government building every 6 months for a rubber stamp. Life is too short to piss around with a time consuming mountain of red tape thrown at you by some meddling bureaucracy. I opt out of those situations instead.

Next, the weather. Now there’s something that’ll affect you every single day of your stay. I spent the first 1/3 of my life locked in 8 months per year of bitter cold and snow. I think I got that lesson, thank you. These days I look for a place that is blessed by the sun all year round. I want warm to hot summers and mild winters. If it gets too hot, I’ll go hiking in the Alps.

Next criteria is landscape. I want a place that inspires me, that sparks my curiosity, or that otherwise adds options for my free time. My priorities may change in the future as I shift my base outside of Europe. But as of right now, I’m looking for close proximity to the sea but within driving distance of mountains, or of some other wilderness area where I can hike. I love the Mediterranean for that. But I want my seaside base to be in an area that isn’t hideously overdeveloped.

I’m also presently looking for places that have a food and wine culture. There’s that Mediterranean influence again. And I want to live in a place with excellent cultural events, museums and exhibits. A place where people care about art and literature. A place that feeds my mind as well as my sun-starved bones.

Finally, I want to live in a place where people are tolerant of others. Where no one is trying to control the way you live, or attempting to impose their religion or worldview on you. Yes, I often find myself traveling in such places. But when it comes to the base I’ll return to over and over again, I’m looking for a “live and let live” attitude.

That’s a pretty good summary of my Country and Region Checklist.

Okay, so what about my actual house or apartment?

 

The Property

In terms of the property I rent, I also have a clear set of criteria. This makes it very easy to narrow my search and rule out a lot of unsuitable dwellings. As an added bonus, when I use rental agents, I can give them a very clear list of what I want,  and I can immediately dismiss anything that doesn’t fit this without wasting my time on pointless viewings.

First, there’s space. I always need an extra bedroom to act as an office. A room where I can shut myself in and shut the world out. My minimum is 3 bedrooms. One to sleep in and one to transform into an office. The third bedroom can either be a workspace for my photographer wife or a guest bedroom, depending on our needs at that time. Right now I’m renting a 3 bedroom penthouse apartment on a hill. Before that I rented a palazzo with 8 bedrooms,  2 cellars, a courtyard and more. It really depends on the place and on what feels inspiring. But 3 bedrooms, no less.

Next, peace and quiet. I absolutely hate noise, and I can’t deal with it when I’m not on the road. So that usually rules out shared walls with neighbours — there’s nothing worse than being forced to listen to someone else’s babbling TV or the hell of a mechanically thumping bass. And no noisy party neighbourhoods either! If I want to visit a bar, I can walk to one.

After that, I look at what I’ll be sitting on. Because I’m only bringing my clothes, electronics and books, everything else — including dishes — has to be there already. Fully furnished, to a high standard. It doesn’t have to look like a designer magazine. But  I’m not a student anymore, and I don’t want to live with other people’s mixed and matched cast offs. My home should be a place I look forward to coming back to. A peaceful place where I can work and read. This may sound like a tall order, but it really isn’t all that difficult to find.

Modern appliances are great too. I’ve lived in both old and new places, and each has its advantages. But when it comes to appliances, I prefer brand new when I can get them, because it’s great to have stuff that works.

That’s about it.

Those are my ideals. But I have been willing to compromise slightly when I’ve found a really unique house with a great deal of character. Apart from quiet and an extra room in which to work, I’m really not very picky.

Now comes the icing on the cake.

 

Additional Preferences

Where possible, I try to find a place that has a good public library system with English books. It’s a huge bonus if I also have access to a university library. As someone who reads around 100 books per year, this is very important to me. Yes, I own a Kindle. But many of the books I’m after are obscure or out of print. Kindle just doesn’t stock them. So in the absence of a good library, I end up spending a fortune on eBay and Amazon.

The other “quality of life” criteria I look for is a properly equipped gym. Sure, I’ve got some portable gadgets and bodyweight exercise options that I use when I’m on the road or based in hotels. But when I’m at home, I prefer lifting weights. I don’t need a place with fancy machines. Just bars and plates, some dumbbells, a power rack, a bench, a cable station and a pull up bar. If that’s close to my house, then I end up saving time on commutes 3 or 4 times a week. Even better if I can walk there.

 

Now Just Show Up!

Once you’ve narrowed things down that far, you simply have to put “boots on the ground.” Visit your top candidates and spend some time there.

Don’t bog down your schedule with sightseeing and activities. Instead, rent a flat for a week or two and try to get into a normal routine. Stick to your regular work hours. Check out a few restaurants, and scout out the grocery stores. Drive or walk around the nearby towns and neighbourhoods.

Your goal is to get a sense of what it might feel like to live there for a few years.

If your finalist is a major tourist area, you might also want to visit it in both the low season and high season, to see if you still like it when the place is crawling with vacation types. Or, like me, you might just plan to go abroad during those busy times instead.

 

So How Does My Current Base Stack Up?

So how does my current Mediterranean island base score on my list?

Malta’s quite good on the airport front. It was a 5 minute drive from my previous house, and maybe 20 minutes from where I live now. I can get flights to Frankfurt, London, Dubai and Rome several times each day. And I can also get some surprising direct flights to places you might not expect, like Cardiff, Cairo, Istanbul and more.

No complaints about the internet service either. So far so good — or as good as any of those monopolies can be.

Malta’s good on the taxes and residency front too. On the tax side, it’s very competitive compared to other European countries, with a few unique incentives for expats who aren’t employed here. And it’s a lot cheaper than Canada. A low tax rate goes a long way towards improving your cost of living, because it means you actually get to keep most of your own money.

In terms of paperwork, residency for EU citizens is pretty straightforward. Once you suffer the complete chaos of getting yourself registered, and then shoving through the refugee-station-like office to pick up your permit in person, you’re normally good for at least 5 years.

Malta doesn’t rate as highly as a place like Spain on the landscape front, though. The water is clean but the beaches are small and crowded. And there aren’t many places to get out for a walk. Partly because the island is so small and overbuilt, but also because hunting enthusiasts take over the rural areas, and shotgun blasts split the air throughout the nicest Fall walking season.

The weather, on the other hand, is excellent. Something like 3,000 hours of sunshine per year — one of the highest in Europe. We generally only get rain from December to February (but I can still sit outside in a t-shirt right up to Christmas). In summer, you can guarantee there won’t be a cloud in the sky. And best of all: no snow.

Unfortunately, the picture isn’t very rosy on the cultural front…

Malta sucks when it comes to libraries. The staff is friendly, and they do their best with the resources they’re given. But this is a country where people don’t read. According to the Times of Malta and a recent Eurobarometer poll, 44% of Maltese admitted to not having read a book in the last year. And many houses are completely without books at all. Malta and Cyprus routinely bottom out the lowest rate of reading in Europe (and Malta charts the highest rates of obesity for both men and women).

Even the regional branch libraries here are quite small. Mine is a single room. I get the sense that they’re mainly patronized by expats and retirees from the UK. The collection has that random feeling of having been donated by users rather than purchased. I’ve had to buy a lot more books than I normally would have in Canada or Tokyo. But thankfully eBay and Amazon UK ship here quickly and reasonably cheaply.

The same goes for culture. Malta’s outstanding when it comes to history, and the ability to walk around the corner and see remains that cover the entire span of Mediterranean civilization. But when it comes to culture, it’s a bit of a backwater. There seems to be much less interest in cultural events here (as was also reported in that same Eurobarometer poll). And if I’m totally honest, what I do see reminds me of a high school play. It isn’t a place where you’re likely to find those great exhibits that tour the major cities of Europe. You have to hop a plane for that.

What else? The gym? Challenger in Qormi. Old school bodybuilding and lots of rusted iron. Perfect. The food? A bland and repetitive local cuisine, with decent Italian food, very good Mediterranean seafood, but not much international variety. In terms of the grape, some reasonable local wines, with great access to Italian, French and more. Tolerance? It’s a very Catholic country, so you aren’t going to find any nudist beaches here. But as long as you aren’t bothering anyone else, for the most part no one will bother you.

All in all, it’s been a good place to live for the past few years. But I’m feeling that itch to move on.

So yeah, that’s it. A detailed — and very long — summary of how I find cool places to live in obscure locations, while minimizing the hassles and avoiding expensive dead ends.

It’s up to you to put this knowledge to good use.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and create the life of your dreams!

 

 

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