The Holiday: Expat Movie Review

Well, it’s not exactly an expat movie, although various characters do travel to and stay in other countries. But it’s a sweet Christmas-time romantic comedy, so I thought it worthy of a review at this sentimental time of year. It also features an unusual character – the Home Exchange website, a great place to arrange for low-cost living arrangements in another country.

The film was written and Directed by Nancy Meyers, and stars Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jack Black and Jude Law. It’s about love – unabashedly and with a great many words of dialog. It’s also about opening up to change, in this case geographic change leading to important internal growh.


Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), a young British journalist, treasures an unrequited passion for co-worker Jasper Bloom (Rufus Sewell). Amanda Woods, movie trailer editor extraordinaire, has just broken up with her live-in boyfriend Ethan.

Scene: The newspaper’s company Christmas party. “And then, there’s another kind of love: the cruelest kind. The one that almost kills its victims. It’s called unrequited love. Of that I am an expert,” says Iris. “You know,” Iris’ friend remarks, “I’ve just noticed how pathetic you are.”

Suddenly, Jasper’s engagement to Sarah Smith-Alcott (Circulation, 19th floor) is announced. Iris leaves, and dissolves into floods of tears upon reaching the safety of her home, a darling little cottage in Surrey.

Cut to LA, where movie trailer editor Amanda Woods (Cameron Diaz) is throwing shoes at cheating boyfriend Ethan and throwing him out. No tears here! Amanda hasn’t cried since she was 15 years old. Instead, Amanda decides to go away by herself over Christmas. She searches the internet and finds the Home Exchange website. Amanda likes the looks of the little Surrey cottage and impulsively sends a message of interest.

Amanda and Iris exchange instant messages. “Where are you?” Iris asks, adding “Please say somewhere far away.” Amanda has one question for Iris: are there any men in your town? “Zero,” Iris answers. They agree to trade houses – the next day!

The huge differences in their styles of living are immediately apparent: on the airplane, Iris is squashed between two oversized, middle-aged ladies in coach, while Amanda stretches out in her chair-cum-bed in First Class, a stack of books on the table next to her and a pink-striped mask protecting her eyes from the light.

On arrival, Iris finds warm temperatures, verdant growth, colorful bougainvillea cascading over high walls, beautiful large homes, and the blue Pacific Ocean. Amanda faces snow, cold, and a lane so narrow the driver won’t attempt it so she has to hike, with her oversized suitcase, to the cottage.

Iris dances with excitement when she discovers the swimming pool, restaurant-sized kitchen, media room with an enormous flat-screen TV (as well as a terrifying amount of equipment and thousands of DVDs), an exercise room, an in-home movie-editing studio, and a bedroom with curtains that create a blackout with the touch of a button.

Amanda is so bored after six hours at the charming cottage that she plans to return to LA the next day.

Iris befriends Arthur Abbot (Eli Wallach), Amanda’s elderly neighbor. Graham Simpkins (Jude Law), Iris’ brother, shows up at the cottage at 1 AM on Amanda’s first night, after a long session at the pub. He’s insanely good looking, somewhat drunk, and very surprised to see Amanda instead of Iris.

Amanda explains that they’ve switched houses for two weeks, and Graham asks, “People actually do that?” “Apparently,” Amanda replies.

Graham asks how it’s going for her, and she tells him she is leaving on the noon plane. “I came here on a stupid whim,” she states.

“Honestly, I’ve never thought about anything less. It’s very unlike me. . . I didn’t want to be alone over the holidays, and I guess I thought that, if I were somewhere else, I wouldn’t realize that I was alone but then I got here and I’ve never felt more alone in my life.”

Graham ends up spending the night, and the next morning Amanda arrives at Heathrow for the flight home.

Meanwhile, Iris has spent a restful night alone, and wakes up to bright sunshine (once she remembers to flick the switch to open the blackout curtains.) Arthur Abbott, former Hollywood screenwriter, introduces her to the Hollywood of bygone times through his anecdotes and movie recommendations (all starring strong women with gumption). Arthur asks why she came to LA for Christmas, and Iris admits she is trying to get away from an ex-boyfriend who just got engaged. “So he’s a schmuck,” Arthur announces calmly. Arthur explains,

“In the movies, we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady. But for some reason you’re behaving like the best friend.”

“You’re so right,” Iris replies. “You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for God’s sake.”

Miles, a young movie music composer, and Iris become friends as well.

After several romantic interludes, Amanda discovers that Graham is not the footloose bachelor she thought, but a widower with two young daughters. Their situation suddently goes way beyond complicated. Graham tries to explain:

“Until I get to know somebody really well, it’s easier for me to be a normal, single guy because it’s way too complicated for me to be who I really am. . . . I have no idea how to date and be this.”

On Christmas Eve, Iris and Miles are in the video store together (with a cameo by Dustin Hoffman as himself) when Miles sees his actress girlfriend Maggie, who was supposed to be on location in New Mexico, walk by clutching another man. He rushes outside and confronts her, returning dejected. Back at the house, Iris tries to console him and describes her own situation with Jasper. Iris tells Miles:

“And after all that, you’ll go somewhere new and you’ll meet people who’ll make you feel worthwhile again. And little pieces of your soul will finally come back. And all those years of your life that you wasted, that will eventually begin to fade.”

Graham and Amanda try to figure out whether they can maintain their relationship long distance. Miles and Iris are lunching when he gets a phone call from Maggie and rushes off.

Jasper shows up unexpectedly in LA, looking for Iris’ editing help on a book he’s writing. “I don’t want to lose you, babe,” he tells Iris. Jasper suggests they sneak off to Venice together after she comes back to London.

“Are you free to do that?” she asks him. “Are you not with Sarah any more? Is that what you’ve come here to tell me?”

“I wish you could just accept knowing how confused I am about all this,” Jasper responds.

“Ok, let me just translate that. So, you are still engaged to be married.”

“Yes, but. . .”

Iris explodes at him.

“But you waltzing in here on my lovely Christmas holiday and telling me that you don’t want to lose me whilst you’re about to get married somehow newly entitles me to say ‘it’s over.’ This twisted, toxic thing between us is finally finished! I’ve got a life to start living! And you’re not going to be in it. Now, I’ve got somewhere really important to be, and you have got to get the hell out.”

Iris shoves Jasper out the door and slams it in his face. Later that evening, Miles tells her he’s through with Maggie, and asks what Iris is doing for New Year’s Eve. “I’ll be back in England by New Year’s Eve,” she responds. “I’ve never been to England,” Miles tells her. “If I go over there, will you go out with me New Year’s Eve?” “Love to.”

Meanwhile, Amanda and Graham have a serious parting. As she leaves the village in the back seat of the hired car, her eyes fill with tears. She orders the driver to turn around, and rushes back to the cottage where Graham meets her, red-eyed. “Why would I ever leave before New Year’s Eve?” she asks. “That makes no sense at all!” “ I have the girls New Year’s Eve,” he tells her. “Sounds perfect” Amanda responds.

They all gather for a New Year’s Eve party at Graham’s house with Iris, Miles, Graham, Amanda and the little girls, Phoebe and Olivia.

Will Amanda exchange the verdant abundance of her LA lifestyle to stay in England with Graham? Will Miles decide to experience London and Europe a while longer? Will Iris go back to LA with Miles? Or will their holiday become just another holiday, another blip in their “normal” lives?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m pretty sure that Iris will move forward with self confidence and gumption, and Amanda will have a more open heart as a result of their willingness to try on each other’s lives for a brief time.

Death In The Andamans: Expat Book Review

Death in the Andamans by MM Kaye takes place over Christmas in the late 1930s. Copper Randal’s school chum Valerie has invited Copper (christened Caroline Olivia Phoebe Elizabeth) to stay with her in the tropics. Valerie’s stepfather, Sir Lionel Masson, is the Chief Commissioner of the Andaman Islands, a group of islands governed by the British in the Bay of Bengal.

Copper has spent the previous two years working in drab London:

“… at about the time that Valerie was setting sail for the Andamans, Copper had been reluctantly embarking upon the infinitely more prosaic venture of earning her living as a shorthand typist in the city of London.

“For two drab years she had drawn a weekly pay cheque from Messrs Hudnut and Addison Limited, Glass and China Merchants, whose gaunt and grimy premises were situated in that unlovely section of London known as the elephant and Castle. The weekly pay cheque had been incredibly meager, and at times it had needed all Copper’s ingenuity, couple with incorrigible optimism, to make both ends meet and life seem at all worth supporting. ‘But someday,’ said Copper, reassuring herself, ‘something exciting is bound to happen!’ “

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Preparing to Move Overseas

Preparing for an overseas move is a lot more complicated than preparing to move across town, or even across the country. The cost of bringing your home furnishings and personal items with you can end up costing you tens of thousands of dollars instead of the hundreds you will pay to move within the US. While you may be able to get away with packing everything and moving it across town, the financial burden to do that with an international move is staggering.

My solution is to downsize before I go — eliminate, give away, sell, pass along and otherwise divest myself of stuff. To do this takes time and planning.

    1. InventoryStart by conducting an inventory of your possessions, then designate which ones you want to keep and which ones you want to get rid of. Divide the keepers into two groups: what you will move, and what you will store.
  1. Be realistic about the items you want to get rid of. Are they really in saleable condition? If you saw it on EBay or someone else’s yard sale, would you buy it? If something truly isn’t in saleable condition, put it out to the curb.
  2. Garage and Yard SalesOnce you have your list of items to sell, determine the best venue for them. I’m not a big fan of garage sales — way too much hassle for way too little return, in my opinion. Some people love them, though, so if you enjoy a good garage sale, it can be a good way to trim down your belongings.
  3. Craigs ListMy personal favorite place for selling large items like furniture is Craigs List. Craigs List started in the US and has recently gone international, with listings for Canada, Asia, the Americas and Europe. You can list items you have for sale at no charge, with pictures, and the listings are good for 30 days. I’ve sold desks, tables and chairs, office furniture and equipment, art, and other items with great success.
  4. EBay EBay is an excellent way to sell small, light, easily shipped items. You have to set up a free account, and they charge nominal fees for listings and a percentage of the sale price when your item moves. Some items move very well on EBay, others not so much. Electronics, books, DVDs, designer sunglasses and the like do very well there. Second-hand furniture, clothing, jewelry and such, not so much.
  5. EtsyA relatively new online marketplace site, Etsy, advertises itself as “Your Place to Buy and Sell All Things Homemade.” If you have one-of-a kind jewelry, craft items or art, this is the place to sell it.
  6. AmazonFor books in new or like-new condition which are still in print, Amazon allows you to sell your copy alongside the new copies they have available. Just search for the title and the matching edition, then click the link on the right that reads, “Have one to sell? Sell Yours Here.” Follow the prompts to enter the correct information, and leave the rest to Amazon, including collecting the money.
  7. Specialized Collections, Art, Crafts or MemorabiliaIf you have specilized collections or memorabilia, there may be specialized websites where you can offer your items for sale.
  8. CharityUltimately, you may end up donating some items to charity or needy younger relatives. Don’t neglect to get a receipt for tax purposes if you give household goods, used clothing or other items to Goodwill, Salvation Army, your local church, homeless shelter or other charity.

Corporate Cubicles: I’m Just Saying No

Those of you who have followed me for a while know that I don’t often get super-personal. Once in a while, I do share my personal circumstances occasionally, when it’s relevant to our overall discussion. When I lost my job in March as part of the US financial meltdown, I let you know about it, because it was going to effect my ability to explore new places to live.

I spent the next seven months, approximately, without a job, picking up some freelance writing here and there with unemployment insurance as my safety net. In Florida, where I live, unemployment is not very generous. The maximum benefit is $275/week. And unlike some states where they recognize that an individual’s education and skills should be considered, Florida insists that if you reject a job – any job – you lose your unemployment benefits. I actually asked them, “so, if I am a concert musician and I’m offered a job digging ditches, I have to take it?” The answer was, “yes.”

That’s how I found myself in what I describe as the totally terrible, soul-sucking corporate cubicle job from hell. TTJ for short.

I wasn’t planning to write about it, feeling that it was my own burden to bear and would be of no interest to readers. Then tonight, after a particularly grueling day in the cube, I realized that was not true.

Because anyone who is innovative and creative enough to seriously consider moving to another country is going to be like me in some important ways: like me, you are an outside-the-box thinker, you’re independent, curious, creative, and you probably even feel good about taking on responsibilities. So, like me, you probably don’t fit very well inside a cubicle. If you started young enough, you may have learned to adjust and accept, but a bad fit is a bad fit, and putting me into a cubicle is a very bad fit indeed.

Now, leaving the US and moving to another country in a fit of pique to get away from the cubicle is a bit far-fetched, even for me. But after occupying the cubicle for a month – one very short or eternally long month, depending on my mood at the moment – my resolve to move is stronger than ever.

I love my country, but the US is sick right now. The illness is economic, political and cultural. I’m in the corporate cubicle as a direct result of our ailing economy. And, let’s face it, there’s something really awful about a system which is supposed to provide a safety net for people in that position – unemployed through no fault of their own – insisting that they take completely unsuitable work just to get them off the (stingy!) payment rolls.

We have lots of failing systems right now. We’re the only Western democracy where hard-working individuals stand to lose everything they’ve worked for their whole lives just because they get sick.

We have an educational system that responds to students’ inability to compete in the global marketplace by lowering its measurement standards to make those same students look better. They still aren’t educated, they still can’t compete, but just look at those improved test scores!

We have a financial system where a handful of individuals can trash the life savings of those aforementioned hard-working, middle class Americans, then receive taxpayer subsidies to get them out of the mess they’ve caused, and then receive multi-million dollar bonuses to reward them so they’ll have an incentive to do it again.

I realize that no country is perfect, just as no family, town, or state is perfect. But I’m in total agreement with Harrison Ford’s character in Mosquito Coast. “Nobody loves America more than I do. That’s why we left. I couldn’t bear to watch,” he states.

I can’t bear to watch either. Instead, I’m going to go after a lifelong dream of mine, to immerse myself in another culture, another society, another way of life. It might take me a little longer to get there, and I may have to exercise more ingenuity to accomplish it.

I’ll tell you one thing for sure, though. It certainly won’t include any corporate cubicles.

Health Care and Expatriation

A few days ago, I asked the question, “Is US health care driving Americans to move abroad?” The response was swift.

“Of course it is,” wrote Lya Sorano, Atlanta businesswoman. “Hardly a month passes in which I do not hear about a friend-of-a-friend or former neighbor decamping to Mexico or Costa Rica. I may be next . . . :-)”

Mary Duckworth Mimouna, living in Morocco, responded:

“It was one of the major factors prompting me to move overseas in 1993 when I did with my foreign husband. We had no health insurance in the United States, and an uncomplicated one night delivery in the hospital at that time, plus about eight pre-natal visits was running $10,000. In Morocco, at that time, specialists were charging $10 a visit, and three nights in the hospital with the slightly complicated delivery (vacuum extraction) cost about $500.

“However, if I had not been ready to consider a move overseas anyway, it might not have happened. However, I cannot see how I could ever come back unless they do something about health care.”

A real estate agent in Mexico commented, “I would have to say yes. Many US expats I have talked with share the same view on the US health care system.”

Carol Schmidt, from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, wrote:

“US and Canadian citizens aren’t moving to Mexico specifically for cheaper health care but for an overall lower cost of living and improved way of life, in which lower medical costs are a big part.

“I don’t think anyone is flocking to Mexico just to get treated at Mexican general hospitals and sign up for the Mexican social security health insurance, IMSS.”

Michelle, expat in the UK who blogs as the American Resident wrote:

“I greatly appreciate the NHS [National Health Service] in Britain and with aging parents I hear a lot of the downsides to the US system. It’s frustrating at best and really enraging at worst. Pathetic that such a great country has got this wrong for so long–or more accurately, that such a great country has let Big Business rule their decision making for so long.”

One site visitor went even farther:

“You have got it right on. This country is no longer by the people and for the people. It’s by the big corps and for the big corps! We are planning our move within the next year and it’s out of here.”

However, a journalist living in the Netherlands disagrees.

“How many people can just pick up and move, obtain live/work visas, get jobs, and organize their lives in a new country just like that? How many have the money to do this? Do they sell their homes in the US? Can they speak the language of the new country? Are they willing to accept third-world health care?

“No, I don’t think this is happening at all.”

“. . . 6.6 million Americans do not live overseas because of health care. There are other reasons to go abroad. Moreover, as I said before, it’s not like you can just pick up and move to another country at whim. It doesn’t work that way. “

We’ll be looking at this topic more in the next few months, I’m sure. In the meantime, if you’d like to discuss it further, please fan the Future Expats Forum page I started on Facebook, where it’s a little easier to carry on an actual conversation.