by Jeff Thomas, International Man:
I was fortunate to have grown up multinationally to some extent. Between the ages of about eight to fourteen, I had a second home that I liked a whole lot better than my primary home. This instilled in me a tendency to not identify fully with either country.
This, of course, is not the norm. We’re told to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or sing “God Save the Queen” or whatever other tedious repetitious act, in order to cement a sense of belonging into our brains. We’re meant to develop the belief that we have one home for life and that’s it. Little wonder, then, that so many people have such a hard time becoming independent thinkers and breaking away later in life.
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For me, the dual countries prodded me to always be comparing them as alternate possibilities instead of simply accepting one or the other as the norm.
And I’m still doing it. Throughout my life, whenever I’ve travelled, I’ve treated other countries as though I live there. I avoid hotels if possible, avoid the tourist restaurants and talk to locals about their daily lives. One of my favourite habits is to have breakfast each day at their equivalent of a diner. I sit at the counter and talk to the other diners and tell them where I’m from. Then I ask them about their latest election or some other political event in their country. I studiously avoid taking up sides or even offering an opinion. I say that I’m trying to understand what’s happening and offer to have them educate me. Generally, they relish the opportunity to expound on their own take on the subject. This invariably divides the diners into camps, each camp trying to explain to me which of their leaders is a saint and which is a demon. The conversation invariably gives me a very real cross-section of the thinking in that community and, often, that country overall. This can be a major factor in deciding whether I’d consider living there.
Rather than seeking out theme parks and water slides, I visit the supermarket to get an idea of what level and selection of products they have available. I also read labels on jars and cans. (If most of the goods are imported, you know that that country is dependent upon others and therefore incapable of acting independently during difficult times.) If I have time, I’ll also want to see the local hardware store to learn not only the level of products available, but what expense most people are able to go to, to improve their properties. This gives me an insight as to the economic level they’re accustomed to and how my level of wealth would be looked upon by them.
The objective is, rather than be a tourist and learn virtually nothing about life in that country aside from trying their own version of the drink with the fruit and the little umbrella, to come away with a greater understanding as to what it’s like to live there. Often, living in a country for three or four days is enough to develop an opinion as to whether it might be considered as a place to live. And, in truth, although I’ve accumulated documentation allowing me to live in a total of thirty countries, most of them are not places that I’d want to be full-time.
However, some countries prove surprising and offer quite a lot to me personally. In addition, different locations within the same country may differ greatly. In Argentina, Buenos Aires may be unattractive to you, except as a place to shop or catch a plane, but Cafayate is another world – one where you might be quite at home. Similarly, in Thailand, you might find Bangkok to be an appalling den of corruption and excess, but be quite happy in Chiang Mai, well to the north of the capital.
I’m sometimes asked how many countries I’ve lived in and I don’t quite know how to answer, as there’s no real definition of what length of time constitutes living as opposed to visiting.
However, the advantage to this approach to travel, in addition to being (in my opinion) much more interesting than being a tourist, is that the traveler has the opportunity to build up his understanding of the world around him and the relative livability of other countries. This provides him with a volume of knowledge that can be translated into greater freedom, should his home country become more regulated, more economically unsound, or simply too dangerous.
On a regular basis, I provide consultation to people who have spent all or most of their lives in one country and are facing the prospect of leaving. Many of them have visited a dozen or more countries as a tourist, yet have come back with virtually no understanding as to what it would be like to live there. As a result, when they begin to consider how to internationalise themselves, they’re often at a complete loss. Many of them, at best, say something like, “We had a good time when we went to Maui. Is that a good place to move?”