America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
Millions Fleeing US for Gap Year
By Elaine Kendall
21 December 2016
Though spending a month abroad could be possible, a year away fanciful, or four years in another country beyond imagining, at least two million Americans are suddenly thinking seriously about renting a villa on the other side of their nearest ocean or continent. Why not? Technology has made it possible to manage a whole corporation from an iPad. People are considering house swaps with professors on sabbatical; home-schooling their children, and renting anything from a condo to a castle, chosen from catalogues offering a world of possibilities. Although these options may present some initial confusion, the difficulties are entirely surmountable. There may never again be so attractive and sensible a reason to live elsewhere for a while. Potential expats just need a lessee’s dictionary to help them to decide.
The language of rental catalogues closely resembles Basic Travlish, but is significantly more advanced. Realtorspeak can differ in essential ways from the familiar prose of hotel brochures. Far more is at stake. Given time, words that once meant one thing can become their own antonyms. A “verdant” and “lush” landscape is alluring for a short holiday, but a season of verdant and lush might morph into daily downpours. “Tranquility” is appealing for a weekend, but more than two weeks of it quickly turn tedious. ”Cozy” is a euphemism for tiny. Any word beginning with the syllable “un” should be thoroughly researched. “Undiscovered”, “unspoiled”, and “untouched” subtly imply that there’s no Wi-Fi, cell phone service or fire department. Realtorspeak has no pejoratives except “starter house”.
Even before creating your personal dictionary, you should remind yourself that leaving a disappointing hotel after a single sleepless night is easy, but extricating yourself from a lease is considerably more complex, especially now that anyone can photo-shop a picture of a house. From a cell phone, furniture can be reupholstered, rooms can double their size and missing sections of a roof can be instantly replaced. Adjoining buildings can be cropped into non-existence. Catalogue views are never panoramic. You won’t know what’s next door or across the street until you wake up on the morning after your arrival.
A first step should be selecting a country, preferably one without too many silent letters in its language. Countries where all the letters are pronounced make life abroad simpler. Spain and Italy both qualify there; Portugal less so, though South America remains a viable possibility. The Roman alphabet itself is a tremendous help. Learning to read street signs or a menu won’t be so difficult, but understanding the spoken language can be an ordeal, like the dreaded dictée segment in high school French class.
Hospitable for decades, Germany now has a severe housing shortage, so an Eigentumswohnung (condo) might not even be available. While English and German share many linguistic roots, those roots have sprouted branches and twiglets in German, obscuring the resemblance, often totally. Would the short form be Eigentum or Wohnung?
Though English speakers can be found all over Europe, they’re still scarce in the “un” places and “pristine” locations. Right now, they’re somewhat scarce even in England, though that’s hardly a reason to reject the UK. When you finally pick your country, try to find one where the climate hasn’t yet changed radically. Being an expat is challenging enough without face masks.
Major cities are often described as “bustling”, a word that translates to cranes, bulldozers, and other noisy signs of new development. “Centrally located” is within earshot of buses, sirens, and the famous bell tower. “Historic” villages tend to be reachable only by flights of steps, originally Charlemagne’s precaution against Saracen invasions, but no longer as effective. “Breezy” settings suggest gentle puffs of country air, but that isn’t always an asset on beaches, golf courses, or even porches. Between November and April, “breezy” might indicate a considerable wind-chill risk. From May to October, it could mean you wouldn’t miss non-existent air conditioning. Happily, there’san upside to Realtorspeak.
Beware of “renowned”, “celebrated” or “legendry” locations, all of which earned those adjectives by drawing busloads of visitors. “Bucolic”, especially when in the same paragraph as “secluded” carries the chance of utter isolation. Accommodations that once served another purpose, like convents or monasteries, can have grand entries but minuscule sleeping quarters. Monks and nuns didn’t need queen-sized beds or spacious closets. A narrow cot and a single hook suited them perfectly, though sometimes there was space for a candle-stand or a kneeler. Beautiful as they are, these remodeled structures seldom become full-fledged contemporary condos. As cherished national monuments, they can only be “restored”, not radically altered.
Include ‘awe-inspiring”, “spellbinding” and that all-purpose workhorse, “enchanting” in your dictionary. All three of those words have been entirely glamorized by real estate agents. Awe-inspiring began life as terrifying; spellbinding as incapacitating and enchanting as the result of witchcraft. Think at least twice. After all, you may decide to stay for the whole four years!
A journalist and playwright, Elaine’s books of American cultural history were published by Little, Brown, Putnam and Capra; her plays by Samuel French, Smith & Kraus and Art Age. Musical plays are An American Cantata; The Would-be Diva; Isadora! and COLE and WILL: Together Again! Non-musical dramas are The Chameleon; Two Margarets; The Trial of Mata Hari and The Nominee. The “I” Word; Gun Show Follies and Secrets of the Showroom are short comedies. She has written for many national magazines; The New York Times and the LA Times. Current articles appear monthly in the aptly-named online journal The Satirist.