Some Do’s and Don’t’s of Travel in Barcelona…

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It was a conversation we were to remember with bitter irony for weeks–months, years–afterwards.

We had just arrived in Spain and gotten ourselves settled in a nicer-than-expected Barcelona hotel.  We were excited about getting a three-course lunch and then sightseeing the rest of the afternoon.  Once we figured out the hotel room safe, Will asked if I wanted to put anything in there aside from our passports.  I was about to put my wallet in as well, but he asked if I might not want it with me.  I wasn’t going to carry a separate purse, but he offered to carry our messenger bag with our travel guidebooks and camera and put my wallet inside it as well.  Laughing (oh, how we regret this now), I impishly replied: “Well, only if you promise not to let it get stolen.”

Well, I think you all know what happened that day.  The details are irrelevant–and a bit embarrassing and painful to recall.  Let it suffice to say that we came to no harm, and that we didn’t even realize we were being robbed as we sat in a crowded and noisy Barcelona restaurant, enjoying our gourmet meals.  Will had the bag draped behind his chair, and a pair of men simply cut the bag’s strap from behind.  Precise and well-executed.

Of course, there are several lessons to be learned: Be aware of your surroundings, be vigilant in a new city, lock up your valuables in a hotel safe (duh!), and hold on to your bag!

But aside from these obvious lessons, there are a few more as well:

DON’T BE SMUG ABOUT YOUR TRAVEL EXPERTISE

We readily admit that EVERYONE warned us to be careful in Barcelona.  We loved the city, but it was one that many guidebooks–and friends and colleagues–rated as the western European city in which one is most likely to become a victim of theft.  But all that just rolled off our backs.

The Spain trip was coming at the very end of a year-long stay in England, and we’d already visited Norway, Ireland, France, Italy, Switzerland, Wales, Scotland, Belgium, Austria, and goodness knows how many areas within England proper.  We had become so “expert” at flying in and out of Stansted, using Ryanair, familiarizing ourselves with each different city’s metro system within hours of arriving.  Surely, we need not be reminded to be careful!

Hopefully we didn’t really think that we were immune to being robbed, but we weren’t really registering the possibility either.  Never again will we be so complacent because…

YOU FEEL PRETTY STUPID WHEN YOU’RE FACED WITH YOUR STUPIDITY

Which is exactly what happened when we were filling out a report on the theft.  I’m not sure why we even bothered to take the time out to go to the police.  I believe we thought we needed some proof of theft so that we would have an easier time getting me a new driver’s license, new bank card in England, and expediting new credit cards to us.  In any case, we took a cab (thank goodness Will still had his wallet on his person), and we visited the Barcelona police.

We were interviewed by a young woman who spoke excellent English–a fact which made our own deficiency in Spanish more humiliating.  Will, who actually knew some Spanish, was spared most of the ridicule, but I felt pretty stupid during the whole process as she queried whether it’s possible I really did not know the language of a country I planned on visiting for two weeks.  (I didn’t really feel it was the appropriate time to mention that I spoke some French and that I could read a little Latin.  And my first language was actually Korean.  But, all that aside, it was indeed true that I did not know any Spanish.)

Then she asked us to catalogue everything that was inside the stolen bag, and approximate the value.  This part was even worse.  Digital camera (it was 2007, and we didn’t all take pictures with our phones), guidebooks, but most of all my wallet.  Containing?  A US Driver’s license, several credit and debit cards, and way too much cash in pounds and euros.  (In our defense, we’d JUST arrived in Spain from England and had gotten some money out.  Thus, we had substantial amounts in both currencies.)  She asked, incredulous: “And you were carrying all that in your bag?”

We left the station knowing that we had been idiotic, and that nothing could quite save us from our own stupidity.

IT’S INTERESTING TO SEE A CITY AS A LOCAL WOULD

Well, it was clear that we weren’t going to get ANYTHING back.  So that meant that we now needed to purchase new items: new bag and camera to start with.  Our second day in Barcelona had us shopping, not as tourists who fancied a memento but rather as people who actually NEEDED these items.

Instead of tourist areas, we sought more reasonable prices at mid-level department stores frequented by locals.  Would you believe that there is a lot LESS English spoken there than in tourist areas?  We found ourselves haltingly explaining what happened to us with urgent references to our pocketbook Spanish phrase book and were heartened to discover that hardened sales clerks were immediately more sympathetic once they found out why these obvious tourists required a bag and a camera.

In retrospect, Will and I actually enjoyed our interactions that came about because of the theft.  We too often confine ourselves to the sightseeing areas, and so we don’t really ever have contact with people who don’t immediately switch to flawless English and who don’t really believe that their livelihoods depend on pleasing tourists.

SUCH EXPERIENCES ALLOW US TO MAKE CONNECTIONS WITH LOCALS

A few days later, we were in Granada to visit the wonderful Alhambra.  On a wet and dreary afternoon, Will and I took respite in a tea house for a break from sightseeing and the inclement weather. To dry our wet umbrella a bit, we hung it off a table ledge–though Will’s new bag was plastered to his body.  (Yes, yes, closing the stable door after the horses are gone.  Tell us something we don’t know.)

An elderly lady who was by herself seemed concerned.  She pointed to the umbrella and was clearly expressing her worry that some nasty no-good individual would come along and swipe our (5 euro) umbrella.  Ah, how thoughtful of her.

My Spanish having vastly improved with the repeated use of a few key words in Barcelona department stores, I engaged our new friend in discussion.

I started, “En sábado” (on Saturday), “en Barcelona, nos han robado!” (some no doubt wrong verb tense of “we were robbed”).

She gasped, and I warmed to my theme.

“Mi bolso,” I declared, almost proud to produce something so grand.  She repeated, aghast at such treachery, such tragedy, “Bolso?!”

I nodded, sad but sage with experience.  Then I muttered uncharitably under by breath, “Mi marido es stupido.”

 

 

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Unexpected FIRE Lessons Learned from a Fitness Watch

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Last Saturday, I got a Fitbit Blaze watch.  No worries: It was a gift, so our hard-earned retirement savings didn’t go towards fluff purchase.  In any case, after only a few days of use, I’ve already learned some valuable and unexpected lessons applicable to FIRE.

SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

Will is a runner.  He has competed in biathlons, triathlons, and marathons.  I, on the other hand, get exhausted just watching him put on running shorts in the morning.  I prefer leisurely strolls–if I have to exercise at all.  (Yes, walking the camino was a HUGE stretch for me…)

This is all to say that I was a bit dismayed when I saw that the Blaze watch had a default setting of five miles of daily exercise that I was not even approaching the first couple of days of wear.  Sure, Will easily dispatched that goal in his morning run, but I walked and walked and walked and didn’t seem to go near that goal.  (More on that soon.)

After giving up in frustration at not reaching my goal, I made a decision.  I simply re-set my goal to four miles.  My reasoning was that I didn’t appear to have difficulty reaching three miles, but the additional two miles seemed so impossible for my daily activity routine that I threw my hands up in defeat.  On the other had, once I re-set my mileage goal, I found that I pushed myself a little harder in the hopes of actually reaching my goal.  One night, as we were returning from walking our dog Katie, I noticed that I had 3.88 miles.  Then I did something Will has never seen me do before: I ran back and forth in our condo parking area.  I was so close that I was not about to admit defeat a mere 0.12 of a mile short of victory!

Likewise, I think it’s important that we all set realistic but challenging goals for our FIRE plans.  If you KNOW you cannot save $50,000 dollars in a couple of years on an annual salary of $30,000, then you need to adjust your expectations.  Otherwise, this savings plan is doomed for failure.  But if you earn $100,000 a year, then make sure that you have a goal that you need to push yourself a bit to achieve.  Surely you can save MORE than the default settings!

VERIFY YOUR SETTINGS AND RE-CALIBRATE AS NECESSARY

At first I was puzzled that it was so difficult for me to approach five miles since I wasn’t having the same problem reaching 10,000 steps.  Well, it turns out those default five miles seemed so hard because of pre-set stride-length settings for my height.

So then I pulled out the big guns of research; that is, I turned on the GPS on my smartphone.  I walked a part of a path wearing my watch and also carrying my phone and discovered that the two yielded surprisingly varied results.  My watch said I walked 1.0 mile, but the GPS on my phone said 1.36.  So I attempted recalibration.  The next day was slightly better when my watch said I walked 2.0 miles to my phone’s 2.49.

This discrepancy is going to push me to do something this week that I do not normally like to do: I’m going to have to run.  Apparently when I go running with my watch with the GPS bluetooth connection to my phone, the stride length will eventually re-calibrate and adjust to the correct length so that I can get the credit I deserve.

My experience with the calibration of stride-length reminds me that we can’t just set up our asset allocations and then completely forget about it.  That 75/25 (equity/bonds) allocation might have turned to 80/20 in a couple of years.  We need to adjust according to the reality of our current situation rather than relying on default settings or even our investments goals (or stride-lenghts) of five years ago.

SEEK AND ENJOY POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT

Here I am, in my middle age, and hopefully approaching early retirement.  And yet I feel ridiculously giddy at being told by my watch that I did a good job of reaching my daily fitness goals!

But that’s the point, isn’t it?  If we DON’T get a thrill out of each little bit of success and each milestone reached, we can’t actually sustain a long-term goal, whether fitness, financial, or otherwise.

Do I feel slightly silly reporting to my Fitbit app that I drank another 8 oz glass of water and that it now needs to reflect 56 instead of the current 48 ounces it’s recorded?  Yes, of course.  Do I feel like I’m cheating that I take Katie out for a walk 7:50am-8:10am so that I can get TWO dots for activity that spans two different hourly segments?  Well, sure, a bit.  Will I keep insisting that my app credit me with each step taken and each flight of stairs climbed?  No doubt.

I’ve even started “cheering” on Fitbit friends, the same way I’ve started commenting on FIRE blog posts and responding to other readers.  We are social creatures, and it’s important to feel that we are not saving (or exercising) in isolation.  We might be mature and successful people approaching early retirement, but it’s difficult to go against the flow of consumer culture (or physical inertia) unless we’re getting regular and reliable positive reinforcement.

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We all need to be told, every now and then (ok, maybe every day!), “Wow, that’s a lot of green!”

 

 

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Should We Take A “Gap Year”?

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Yes, a “gap year” is something we should have taken right after college, when we were in our early twenties, before we went straight into a job (Will) or to graduate school (me).  But we didn’t then.

So…the occasion for this post is that we now have an opportunity to take that “gap year”  as we approach our 50th birthdays next summer–nearly 30 years late and with some complications we need to work through.

Trying to operate rationally, I’m organizing the list of pros and cons of taking this gap year:

How are our FINANCES?  We cannot take a gap year unless we are reasonably certain that we can stop working RIGHT NOW and still be assured of a comfortable retirement.  Looking at fairly conservative figures in assuming a 3% withdrawal from our investments, are we confident that we have enough saved?  Or being even more careful, do we have 45 times our annual expenses, hoping that we live to 95 without going destitute?  (Depends–on inflation, on the solvency of Social Security, and on whether or not we want to travel and eat well.)

Because, really, there is no guarantee that Will is going to be able to find an equally well-paying JOB, ever again.  He is in “high tech,” and this industry is really for young people–as suggested by all those t-shirt-and-jeans-wearing twenty-something Silicon billionaires.  Right now, Will has his current job and still more opportunities for positions, but they probably won’t be around after he returns from a “gap year.”  Things move very fast in this field.

Without jobs, HEALTH INSURANCE is starting to take on some scary dimensions.  We were hoping to have Will’s “gap year” coincide with my academic sabbatical year.  However, I’ve already maxed out on how much on-leave insurance I am eligible for through my university.  And I just discovered that my out-of-pocket costs for continuing our health care would exceed $15,000 for the year!  Yikes!

We thought about purchasing travel insurance and LIVING ABROAD since it turns out that many companies would allow us to purchase insurance at more reasonable rates that could kick in just about anywhere, except in the U.S.  But, exciting as it sounds, living abroad obviously has its own challenges: Can we in good conscience leave our PARENTS, possibly for a whole year?  How to transport our DOG Katie abroad?  Is it getting more difficult to obtain VISAS?

And all those other nagging DOUBTS: Are we being selfish and feeling entitled?  What would happen to the workplace if everyone took a “gap year”?  Are we being childish in retreating from life’s responsibilities and wanting to “take a break” for a year?  Is this merely a form of midlife crises we’re going through?  Are we deluded in thinking that we could come back from a gap year unscathed and just bounce back into the old routine?  Is that even fair? or desirable?

These doubts are then countered by other, equally compelling QUESTIONS:

  • What if this is our last opportunity to travel about and experience a different sort of life?
  • If we don’t grab this chance now, will we regret it at 80, 70, or even 60?
  • Are we that concerned about financial security?  Haven’t we proven that we can live frugally?
  • Can’t we economize as necessary to make sure that we take advantage of this gap year opportunity–even if it turns out that we don’t come back to Will’s lucrative profession?  (After all, we do have the safety net of being able to return to my less financially rewarding job after the year off.)
  • How is waiting longer going to make it easier to leave our even older parents or transport an even older dog abroad?
  • If we get bored with our gap year or find that it wasn’t that special after all, won’t we have a better attitude towards work when we return to it later?

Right now, we’re leaning towards taking the gap year, and we have another camino in our sights.  But I suspect this to-ing and fro-ing will go on for at least another few months as we sort out details…

 

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Preparing to Retire Abroad Series, Part 7: Going with the Flow

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When I grow up, I want to become the Postmistress of Castrojeriz, Spain.

Imagine a job where you come in Monday-Friday from 9:30-10am.  You get to enjoy a bit of “office” camaraderie, interact with a few local residents, help out struggling tourists who want to send a postcard from their Camino route, and then go home in time to have a  proper breakfast and start the day.

Of course, if you are a tourist–or, for that matter, a resident–who needs the post office to be open beyond 30 minutes in the morning, these hours could be a bit frustrating.  And–gasp!–what if you needed something  on the weekend?  Then, you might be missing the Chicago-area suburbs with their 24-hour grocery stores, Saturday hours for the post office, etc…

We have had enough adventures with European ideas of public services to know that all will not be smooth sailing if and when we finally do move there.  In fact, in just about every country we are contemplating living in, we’ve had some memorable mishap occur.  Our trick now though is to plan ahead to prevent major disruptions, go with the flow, and enjoy kindness of strangers when we come across it.

ROME

In summer of 2009, we arrived in Rome for a short jaunt before our train reservations took us to Naples (with Sorrento being our destination).  Since our red-eye flight landed in the morning, we had almost an entire day to re-acquaint ourselves with this beautiful city before moving on early next morning.  We were raring to go!

As we stood with a crowd of people on the airport terminal platform for the commuter train into town, we realized that there wasn’t as much noise as we were expecting.  Something wrong with the trains?  Surely not, since we were able to purchase our tickets without hearing any information about problems…

Of course, it turned out that the commuter rail workers were on strike.  It could be for an hour, a few hours, or the entire day.  No information about what we could do, no offers of refunds, nothing.

While the majority of the other would-be passengers waited in the hopes of further information, we decided to chalk up our losses for the train fare we’d already paid for.  Instead, we went over to the now-growing taxi queue and then asked the young couple who next joined the line if they wanted to share a cab into town with us.  They seemed even less certain about what to do, so they were glad to have us take the lead on the cab ride.

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

We were supposed to have three days to relax in Santiago after the conclusion of our Camino (de Santiago) walk in 2013.  It turned into five.  We were scheduled to fly from Santiago to Paris on a Wednesday, but we ended up traveling on a Friday.

We cannot really blame our low-cost European airline for the fact that French air traffic controllers decided to go on strike Wednesday and Thursday–which, by the way, are favorite striking days, as we were to find out later.  In fact, Vueling was quite accommodating and let us re-book the flight to Friday for the same price.

But, of course, that meant that we were staying in our Santiago hotel for two days longer than we planned–fortunately, easily arranged–but also that we were wasting part of the two weeks we had already paid for on our Marais apartment in Paris.

At least we had the luxury of time to be able to pick from different options about how we would handle the situation.  Other camino pilgrims in similar situations but who had tighter international flight schedules had no choice but to travel by train and rental cars for 28 hours in order to get to Paris in time for their flight back to the U.S.

ST. JEAN DE LUZ

Our last trip to France brought us up close and personal with (the normally very reliable) SNCF on several occasions.  We had no fewer than three fairly significant train debacles on this trip, but I’ll just go straight to the one that caused the most worry.

After traveling in a few not-so-luxuriously-appointed trains, we were really looking forward to our TGV reserved seats to depart from St. Jean de Luz around 11am.    Our plan was to enjoy our final breakfast in St. Jean de Luz, stop by their le halle market to pick up a gourmet lunch, then leisurely stroll over to the train station, plop into our plush seats in the always on-time TGV, and relax and read in comfort the 5 1/2 hour trip to Paris.

Our train reservation to Paris was for Thursday, and our flight to the U.S. was on Friday morning, so it was imperative that we get to Paris some time Thursday.  But alas, we discovered on Tuesday that SNCF had scheduled a strike for Wednesday and Thursday–Wednesday and Thursday again!–and that they would have “limited service” overall.

What is limited service?  About 50% of train service from the southwest region.  Which 50%?  Not ours.

After hours of frantic internet searching on our last days in St. Jean de Luz, it was determined that we could get on the earlier 7 o’clock train to Paris and attempt to sit in unoccupied spaces until someone with reservations for those seats kicked us out.  It didn’t sound relaxing–and it wasn’t.

Instead of our original plan, we had to wake up early, hurriedly consume pastries we bought the day before (since even bakeries don’t open before 7:30am in this resort town), rush over to the train station, hope that a Paris-bound train would in fact arrive, attempt to find seats that others already wouldn’t have a claim to.  Sadly, all that turned out to be the easy part!

Sure enough, after a couple of anxious stops, we were indeed booted out by someone who had our seats.  And, with others in our same situation, we were playing musical chairs in an increasingly crowded train–after each train stop, going back and forth between the cafe car (which also had no seats) and the train car.  Especially after having gotten up so early, 5 1/2 hours of this was exhausting and wearying.

At last, it seemed that we arrived at the last major stop before Paris.  We snagged the seats of two departing passengers, and we were hopeful that our quest for 30 minutes of unmolested rest had ended successfully.  Then, in a gesture that belied all those unfounded criticisms of the French being unfriendly (which, by the way, we’ve never experienced), a lady who was leaving said to me (roughly translated): “I’m very glad to see that you have finally found seats.  We’ve been feeling bad for you as we saw you go back and forth in this car.  I think this is the last stop, so hopefully you should be ok now.”

We were very touched by her sincerity and concern, and then promptly sank into 30 minutes of sleep once the train took off.

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Hierarchy of Retirement Hurdles

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Will and I have been reading blogs, checking out books from our library, and talking with each other in preparation for our impending early semi-retirement.

We’ve had to accelerate our coming to terms with early retirement because of recent changes in work circumstances.  Long story, but there is a complicated scenario involving a possible transfer and accompanying economic and professional commitment to staying for several years after the move.  Depending on how the next few weeks go, we might be retiring one year EARLIER or a couple of years LATER than we had originally planned.

So…  Now is a really good time to take stock and really figure out how ready we are for this rather momentous move.

We know that plenty of people retired way younger than we are now, but since we started thinking seriously about early retirement fairly recently, only about 18 months ago, having that retirement date pushed FORWARD by a whole year makes it that much harder for us to contemplate.

On the other hand, since we wanted to retire in early January 2018, does pushing it BACK another year amount to a defeat of sorts?  We will both turn 50 in the summer of 2017.  It’s one thing to retire AT 50 like we planned, but does 51 (or later) not sound so good psychologically?

I’ve been thinking that there are–broadly speaking–three major hurdles we need to overcome as we consider (unexpectedly) early retirement.

FINANCIAL CONCERNS

If we retire before we hit 50, can we feel confident that we have enough saved to last us a 40+ year retirement?  The stock market has been very hot the last few years (aside from a blip or two), and how realistic is it to assume that we can continue to count on that sort of return on our investments?  Isn’t this all an economic bubble that will surely burst?  Possibly right after we pull the plug?

Sure, we’re healthy now, but we hear of catastrophic illnesses and accidents ALL THE TIME, not just from freak news stories but even from our close family, friends, and co-workers.  What makes us think that we can safely weather a debilitating tragedy without depleting our resources?

While we don’t want to keep repeating the ONE MORE YEAR mantra, isn’t it wise to save as much as we can, as long as we do indeed put that stick in the sand?, draw the line?, etc.

EARLY-RETIREE GUILT SYNDROME

What this second hurdle amounts to is “Survivor’s Guilt.”  Sort of like: Why should we be able to leave the workforce so much earlier than others who have been working just as hard?  Do we feel a sense of entitlement, that we deserve early retirement?  (And, frankly, I’m not a big fan of people who feel entitled about anything.)

Yes, we could argue that we worked hard for the decades we were in our professions.  But really, don’t tens of millions of others, including our family and friends?

Perhaps we were more frugal about saving money and investing wisely than some?  Sure, but plenty of people didn’t have the resources–mostly, income from our professional degrees–to save money even if they counted every bean sprout they purchased (like my parents did).

And, truth be told, isn’t it at least part plain LUCK that we did as well as we did in school, in getting our jobs, in landing the right promotion, in being at the right place at the right time?

Also, let’s not forget, we are DINKs (Double Income No Kids).  Our childless state did not come about by choice, but it has been mighty convenient after-the-fact, once we started planning early retirement.  We know so many good people who feel they cannot pursue their own retirement dream when they need to save for exorbitant college tuition and the generally ridiculous cost of raising kids these days.

BUT WHAT WOULD WE DO IN RETIREMENT?

We’re getting more comfortable with the first two hurdles.

We think we will have enough to meet our regular spending needs and minor emergencies; and there’s not too much we can do about catastrophic life-challenges anyway that one (or ten!) more year of work might have solved.  I will still feel Retiree Guilt, but the two of us working longer and denying possible employment to other, perhaps more needy, workers will not alleviate that guilt.

But before we can ride off into the retirement sunset, hopefully in a coastal southwestern French town (photo above), we need to address the final hurdle.  If the first two retirement hurdles represent the equivalent of lower rungs on Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, then this final hurdle might be the one that equates to that top triangle, Self-Actualization.

What is our full POTENTIAL?  What were we meant to ACCOMPLISH on earth?  What makes us most FULFILLED?  How can we make our retirement years not only SATISFYING to ourselves but MEANINGFUL to the world beyond our little selves?

For good or for bad, perhaps working so hard allowed us NOT to confront some of these vexing issues.  At this point though, should we have answers to some of these questions before we cut off our apron strings to full-time employment?  Or, can we not SELF-ACTUALIZE until after we are off the work treadmill?

FINAL THOUGHTS

We haven’t cleared this final hurdle yet.  We’ve been approaching it from various angles and still trying to figure out how best to make the leap.  We’re comforted by the notion that perhaps it’s not really possible to clear this particular hurdle before we retire.

It may be the project of the rest of our lives to figure out how to achieve self-actualization DURING our retirement.

 

 

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