What to do, what to do? (or, decision time)

I’ve recently had a couple of conversations with friends of friends who were directed to this blog because they’re gearing up to do what we’re doing: this great adventure of pulling up stakes and wandering about. The big questions they’ve had have been about decision making. I love to quiz people about how they make big choices in life, so I’m only too happy to blather on and on about how we go about it. Knowing that at least a handful of you are contemplating the same thing, this post’s for you. If not, see you next time! Disclaimer: if you’re looking to go full expat, I will do nothing but cheer you on. Looking for disconfirming arguments is up to you. People who hate their big decisions rarely blog about it.

For the getting out of dodge part, you can easily find details on the financial aspects, the nuts and bolts of the logistics. Getting those details figured out goes a long way towards realizing if your plan is possible. Insurance, visas, banking, there are other bloggers who have written lavishly on how to make all of that work. I only know what works for us and our particular circumstances. On the other hand, rambling philosophically is my thing. How will you know if this lifestyle is right for you? You can think and plan for years, but ultimately you have to try it on for size. A very long trip would be a start. Moving abroad is not at all like vacation. Not to mention that will-this-make-me-happy? is the wrong question to ask. The psychologist James Hollis put the ultimate question of decision-making beautifully: Will this choice diminish me or enlarge me?

Then there’s the when. If the downside of a decision is reversible, there is no harm in diving in right away. If it’s not, you are right to think it over for a while and to look at it from as many perspectives as possible. And then if you do it anyway, go all in. There’s something about the commitment of irreversibility that makes for a more satisfied life. That is to say, you’re not always looking over your shoulder for the what-ifs. You can look this up if you want more details on how your brain works to keep you happy in with your choices. Mine is no doubt doing just that, so take my advice with the proverbial grain of salt.

But people largely know what their goals are and how to make decisions, and if they don’t, much has been written about it by people far smarter than me. The question I was asked was how do we negotiate decisions as a couple? I was reminded of the time I was at a meetup with a group of largely single women. They asked me, how did you talk your husband into this? I said I didn’t. This was a mutual decision. Our secret is not esoteric. We talk about decisions. A lot. We get curious about why we think what we think and keep trying to drill it down to its core. We know each other’s weak points. Mine is getting enthusiastic about everything and wanting to do it all. Mark has learned to nod in agreement at first until I wear myself out. We review, at least once a year, what worked, what didn’t. We ask, what do you want more/less of? What do we have to trade off to make that happen? What do you need/want to do that we’re not? And we keep notes. We list the pros and cons. We rank them. The calendar is an important tool in all of this. I write everything down that we do. Memory is fallible. At our end of the year review, after our first trip back to the US, Mark said he regretted not spending as much time as he would have liked with people. I popped out the calendar and showed him just how packed our social schedule was, and especially how often we saw his family. What you think of as regrets and bad decisions might just be bad memory.

We try to keep the big picture in mind in the day to day-ness of life. (Noting the why of any decision is important. A poor outcome doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad decision, there are factors that will always be beyond control.) When all this information is well-digested, then it comes down to intuition and the all important gut-feeling.

So, for example, right now we are in the midst of a big decision. Are we moving? Something that factors into any decision is the status quo, and what your status quo is was once a goal that you’ve now achieved. It’s a powerful factor. An object at rest tends to remain at rest. We think more about what we’ll lose than what we’ll gain. Paris. The ducky little apartment. Then there are ultimate goals, that which gets you out of bed in the morning. For us right now it’s exploring as far and wide and long as possible. What fits that goal better, Paris or someplace else? Then there are the confounding factors: Covid is going to be with us for a long-ass time and that changes what is possible. That increases the appeal of settling down somewhere comfortable. And the practical: no one gets younger. I’m thinking about aging and the need for community, which takes time to build. Do I see myself at 70 in Paris, climbing the ship’s ladder every night to go to bed? Probably not.

And more specifically, are we moving to Nice? Because that’s what’s on the table. We’re all set for a 5 week test-drive trip there next month. How this all came about: on returning to Paris last February, since Covid wasn’t going to play nice and allow us to go back to our largely nomadic, exploring ways, we thought we’d like to repeat our Montpellier experience in another city, that is, parking it for a year and perhaps longer. The proximal reason was our lousy new neighbor. I’d had the epiphany thought that I wanted to live by the sea for a while, and Mark strongly seconded that motion, so we closed off any non-seaside options. We compiled a list of likely candidates. At this point we’ve experienced enough places in France that we could come up with those fairly easily. Nice fit a lot of our needs and wants: a big city, with its attendant cultural attractions. It’s by the sea. It’s in a region that we’d like to explore more. It’s less expensive than Paris and we could have a larger apartment. Its downside, at least I thought, was climate, and that was why we went first to La Rochelle. While there I decided to confirm historic temperatures in Nice and was pleasantly surprised to find Nice has fewer high heat days than Paris and a much warmer winter. Score one for Nice and for research! The downsides: leaving Paris, our first love, and the apartment that has served us well.

This was a nearly a done deal, we were 90% certain we were moving to Nice. Now some new factors have come into play. The lousy neighbor, aka the boy king, has been quiet. We heard from our landlady while we were in the US that he’d stopped having parties when the curfew was lifted. He may simply be on vacation and we’re being lulled into thinking that our Paris place could still be a viable option. That lull might just be the sweet song of the status quo, but on the other hand, we’re here, and we’re still here because we love it. But we also love to leave Paris, so where does that leave us? Giving the apartment up would be painful (see the above loss vs. gain). Case in point, the best neighbors in the world, Pat and Julie, the former tenants of the boy king’s apartment would love to get “their” place back. While they’re waiting for him to move on, they’ve talked to us about time-sharing our place. Covid-willing, this would be excellent for us and for them. We could have a Covid-allowing nomadic-ish life, with the bureaucratic benefits that come from having a single home address. But no long-term Nice.

As it stands now, Pat and Julie are going to stay in the tiny flat while we’re in Nice, and we’ll have a meeting of the minds afterwards. Because this plan only works if lots of other moving parts that are out of our control align, whatever may come, we’ll say it was meant to be. You make your best decisions and then fate likes to takes a hand. Whatever happens, we’ll keep checking in with each other and we surf this next round of uncertainty.




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