‘House Hunters International’ Offers ‘Scripted Reality’ Tailor Made For Vagabonds

house hunters internationalI’m addicted to “House Hunters International,” the HGTV reality show that profiles people who are moving to another country or buying a vacation home outside the U.S. Aside from the fact that the program whets my appetite to visit the places that are profiled, I love the way it plants seditious seeds in my head about places that were never previously on my radar.

If you watch enough HHI – and the show is on about 14 times per day – the idea of picking up and moving to Buenos Aires, Bruges or Kathmandu on a whim seems downright normal. As someone who has moved to and from three foreign countries and several U.S. states since college, I find it comforting to learn about people who are even crazier and more transient than I am.

The show is what the network likes to call “scripted reality.” It’s essentially based on a true story stuff where they take a real situation and jazz it up to make a more cohesive story. Travel writer Matt Gibson, whose move to Taiwan was featured on the show in 2012, wrote an amusing take on his HHI episode entitled, “House Hunters International is Fake, So What?” in which he catalogued all of the details of his story that were changed.
I watched the episode, then Googled him and saw the post. I probably should have felt cheated, but I didn’t. The fact is that I got a chance to see what $200 a month buys in Taiwan and I don’t really care about the details that were scripted – when he left Canada, who his real estate agent was, when the decision was made to rent the apartment and so on.

For those who haven’t seen the show, the outline is as follows. First, a narrator shows the couple in their native habitat and explains why they are moving, against the backdrop of some annoying but very catchy music. Then they meet with a real estate agent – who may or may not be an actual real estate agent – to outline what they want and how much they have to spend. Then they see three properties and take a walk, usually somewhere scenic, where they hold hands, weigh the merits of each place, rule out one property, make the decision and then share a kiss.

The show concludes with a tour of the new home some months later, after they’ve had time to pretty the place up. Here are some observations from someone who has spent way too much time watching this show. (They apply mostly to expatriates, not people who are buying vacation homes, as I tend to skip those episodes.)

You’re Moving Where?

Many of the expatriates featured on the show fell in love with a place while on a vacation but some move to a place solely based on Internet research. And most who are moving to a place more or less for the hell of it, rather than for a specific career move, are going from some place cold to some place warm.

Slow Down and Simplify

It’s remarkable how often couples and families say that they’re moving to country x to “slow down” and “simplify” their “hectic” lives. But is this their actual motivation or do the producers of the show ascribe this narrative in order to appeal to the legions of “busy” Americans who have time to watch six hours of TV per day but claim to be too busy to do much else?

You Need What?

There are some people who want to completely go native and find a place abroad that isn’t at all like what they have in the U.S., but others have a list of amenities they “need” that can be somewhat hilarious. I’m always amazed by people who are adventurous enough to move from say, Kansas City to Antigua, Guatemala, but insist that they need an in-ground pool, four bathrooms, stainless steel appliances and 4,000 square feet of living space, all for $100,000 or less.

But our Dog Needs His Own Swimming Pool

I’m a dog lover myself but people who seem to have no criteria for house hunting aside from what their cocker spaniel, Fritz, might prefer crack me up.

Cheapskates of the World Unite

One of the appealing aspects of HHI is how it gives viewers an idea of what it costs to live in a variety of places around the world. And when you watch an episode where Americans move to a dirt-cheap country it’s hard not to feel the temptation to leave the country. For example, I remember watching an episode where a couple found a not-too-bad looking apartment in Potosi, Bolivia, for $200 per month, and thinking, “I can’t afford NOT to move to Bolivia!” despite the fact that I had previously never given a moment’s consideration to moving to this landlocked Andean nation of 10 million.

And HHI episodes can also reveal cheap places to live in relatively expensive countries, like Italy, for example. Recently there was an episode that featured an American travel writer named Valerie who bought a $40,000 apartment in Trivigno, in Italy’s Basilicata region. The place looked like a dive, but after the couple put $25,000 into a renovation, it looked pretty darn nice.

Your Kids Aren’t the Reason You Are Moving to Belize

HHI tends to gloss over the logistical aspects of an international move, but as the father of two young children, I always wonder where families who move to off-the-beaten track countries will send their kids to school. I don’t think the U.S. has a monopoly on good schools, far from it, but on several occasions I’ve seen parents justify their moves to obscure places based upon a supposed desire to “do what’s best for their kids.”

One episode in particular stands out. A family was moving to a remote area of Belize and I remember the dad saying that they were doing it because it was somehow better for little so-and-so, their son, who, as I recall was about 10 years old. Maybe so, but I found myself shouting at the TV screen: “No! You’re moving to Belize because YOU want to live in Belize. Be honest and quit trying to claim you’re doing it for your child!”

Nothing But Happy Endings

I love the show but my biggest gripe about it, other than the fact that they leave out important details (visa status, where will your kids go to school, etc.), is that they offer nothing but happy endings. In the final shot of each episode, where the expatriates show off their new homes, they almost always rave about how great the place is and claim that their decision to move to Puerto Banana or wherever was the wisest one they’ve ever made.

The truth is that moving to a place you fall in love with on a trip doesn’t always work out. Any place seems nice while you’re on vacation and have no responsibilities or work to do. It’s always nice to hear about people who moved abroad and love it, but I think it would be even more interesting to feature people who moved somewhere and hated it, or bought a house that turned out to be a complete disaster. Let’s face it; Americans like a happy ending but schadenfreude can be just as sweet.

[Photo credit: HGTV]

The Kimchi-ite: Life As A Foreigner In Asia

As a tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white American living in Asia, I tend to stand out in a crowd. It’s an interesting and bizarre thing that has become a part of my everyday life. Even living in Seoul, one of the biggest cities in the world, where more and more people of different ethnicities come every year, children on the subway stare at me unabashedly, store employees sometimes get visibly nervous when I come to pay at the counter and my students frequently ask me why I have gold hair.

When I was living in the smaller Fuji City, Japan, my presence as a foreigner was much more pronounced. While waiting at a crosswalk one day, a high school girl beside me turned and jumped, screeching “ah! Gaijin da!” “Ah! A foreigner!” I remember once at a hostel in Fukuoka, Japan, a middle-aged Japanese woman was asking the staff for directions to a certain temple when I popped into the conversation and told her, in Japanese, what train station it is near. The woman gave me a confused look, then asked the receptionist, “did he just speak Japanese?” To which I responded, “Yes, that’s right.” Again, to the receptionist, she replied “Wow, that’s interesting.”

Be sure to check out all the other Kimchi-ite posts here.No matter which Asian country you live in, there seems to be a certain subset of questions and comments that the foreign community constantly received. People will ask if you are capable of using chopsticks. Any use of the local language will yield extremely flattering praise, regardless if you simply said “hello” or if you gave an in depth appraisal of surgical medical equipment. Sometimes, white Westerners may get a little bit of superstar treatment, people coming up to them at bars, buying them drinks and saying that how much the Westerner looks like a movie star with a “small face” (the above photo is the result of a night like that).

But, the good comes with the bad. Once a friend of mine here in Seoul tried to set me up on a blind date with his female friends, and more than a couple turned me down simply because of the fact that I am a foreigner, saying that I am simply passing through Korea and not looking for something serious. Also, a foreigner can live in an Asian country for the majority of their life, get married, have kids, obtain citizenship, but to the public at large, they will always be seen as an outsider first. This comes with the territory. It’s important to know that people are often not intentionally being rude or discriminatory; they are just unfamiliar with foreigners. This possibly being one of the few times they have ever had to interact with one, having grown up in a homogenous society where 99% of people are of the same ethnic or racial background.

Growing up, I remember more than a few times when my teachers told the class, “You wouldn’t want to live in a world were everyone was the same race, with the same hair, skin and eye color, would you?” The truth is, not everywhere is a soup of diversity, even within the United States. The world is certainly heading in a much more connected, multi-cultural direction and it’s exciting to be bridging that gap between east and west.

[Photos by Jonathan Kramer]

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: (Not so) sexy time

Hugh Hefner wouldn’t make a very good Foreign Service Officer (FSO). FSO’s serving overseas need to disclose information about their lovers to the embassy’s Regional Security Officer (RSO), who in turn conduct investigations on foreign-born romantic partners to ensure that they aren’t likely to blackmail or manipulate them. There are no secrets and playboys tend to crash and burn before their careers can take off.

Managing relationships in the Foreign Service can be a travail, even for the monogamous. I was (and still am) happily married during my tenure in the service, but I have second-hand experience with this topic, vis-à-vis single and divorced former colleagues.

The expatriate experience tends to test marriages in a way that everyday life in the U.S. might not, and weak relationships don’t last long. My wife and I arrived at our first post as newlyweds and found that we needed to rely on each other more so than at home. When you arrive in a new country with no friends or relatives to fall back on, you spend an inordinate amount of time with your spouse and don’t have the same support network you would at home. In our case, and for many other couples, the experience brought us close together, cementing our bond. But that is not always the case.

I’ve heard people say that divorce rates in the Foreign Service are high, but I’m not sure they’re any higher than they are in the general population. But in the fishbowl world of the Foreign Service, where the line between one’s personal and work life is often blurred, divorce can take a toll on careers.

A former colleague told me that after he separated from his wife and arrived at a new post single, everyone seemed to already know his story. He said he was “the object of huge curiosity and scrutiny.”But it’s probably even harder for single women trying to pursue relationships in the service. Of the single men I know who joined the service, many found spouses while serving overseas, but most of the single women I know who joined in the last 5-10 years are still single, not all of them by choice. FSO’s typically move every 2-3 years, and many women find it difficult to find men in developing countries who are interested in a career woman whom they’d have to follow around the world. And even if they do find someone of interest, a moment of truth arrives at the end of the tour. When you live in Uganda and are off to Honduras next, what to do?

A single female I know told me that everyone knew who she was sleeping with at most of the overseas posts she’s served at. “You think the walk of shame is bad?” she wrote to me, in response to a question about the difficulty of dating in the Foreign Service. “Try having to call your Sudanese driver in the morning to pick you up in an armored Suburban. Talk about humiliating.” She said the “logistics” of Foreign Service life made it impossible for her to settle down.

At some posts, FSO’s live on a gated compound adjacent to the mission, and if one wants to bring home a lover to spend the time, they have to present an I.D. to an armed guard and pass through metal detectors and submit to being frisked on the way in. Not much of an aphrodisiac to say the least.

Some FSO’s, most commonly men, who might be considered slightly less-than-marketable products on the dating scene at home, do manage to trade up for attractive spouses they find in developing countries. Everyone has a story about a dorky guy with a lovely wife but, in reality, people marry for all kinds of reasons, including for money or status, even in the U.S., so odd relationships certainly aren’t the sole provenance of the expatriate or FSO.

Many a potentially good career in the Foreign Service has been ruined by philandering. Some lose their security clearances for serial cheating, which is thought to make one vulnerable to blackmail; others simply destroy their corridor reputations. The lack of privacy can be daunting, but, in reality, it probably encourages FSO’s to be faithful to their spouses, which is obviously a good thing.

The State Department has made strides of late in helping gay and straight FSO’s who live with unmarried partners, but trying to live overseas with what are called MOH’s (members of household) is also a huge challenge. FSO spouses, considered EFM’s (eligible family members) in the government’s acronym happy parlance, typically enjoy full diplomatic status overseas and can travel to posts at government expense. But MOH’s do not.

All this said, experiencing a new culture with a spouse or a new lover can be an awful lot more exciting than a stay-at-home marriage or trying one’s luck on eHarmony. But if you’re thinking of joining to the Foreign Service because you want to live like Heff, think again.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via Horrible Giant Jungle Flea on Flickr.

Finding the expat community and what travelers can learn from them

No matter how well-traveled you are, moving to a foreign country and living as an expat is a whole new ballgame. Your priorities and standards change, and hours that you may have spent as a traveler in a museum or wandering a beach are now spent in as an expat search of an alarm clock or trying to distinguish between eight types of yogurt. You become like a child again: unable to speak in complete sentences, easily confused and lost, and constantly asking questions.

Enter the experienced expats who can help navigate visa issues, teach you dirty words in foreign languages, and tell you where to buy pork in a Muslim country. Finding the local expat community is not about refusing to integrate or assimilate in your new country, but rather meeting a group of like-minded people who understand what you are going through and can provide a bridge to the local community and culture.

So what can the traveler learn from an expat? How about where to buy souvenirs that are actually made nearby and well priced, restaurants not mentioned in any guidebooks, bizarre-but-true stories behind local places and rituals, and inside perspectives on community news and events? And those are just the Istanbul bloggers.

Read on for tips on finding the blogs and a few of the must-reads for travelers.Where to find the expats:

  • Expat forums such as ExpatFocus, InterNations, and Expat Blog are good starting points for finding and connecting with expats, though some forums may be more active than others.
  • Local English-language publications: Many big cities have a Time Out magazine in English and local language, often with frequently-updated blogs or links to other sites. In Istanbul, the newspaper Today’s Zaman has an “expat zone” full of useful articles.
  • Guidebook writers are often current or former expats, so if you read a helpful guide or travel article, it’s worth a Google search to find if they have a blog or Twitter account.

Some stellar expat bloggers around the globe:

  • Carpetblogger: sarcastic, insightful blogger based in Istanbul but with lots of coverage on Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Indonesia. Stand-out post: expat guide to duty free shopping.
  • Miss Expatria: prolific writer and instantly-loveable American in Rome, a joy to read even if you have no plans to visit Italy, but you might find yourself buying tickets after reading about her life. Stand-out post: Italian idioms.
  • CNNGo: great round-up of finds in Asia from Bangkok to Tokyo with everything from restaurant reviews to a look at Tokyo’s elevator ladies. Stand-out post: Japan’s oddest vending machines, a favorite topic of Mike Barish, who has chronicled some of the vending machine beverages for your reading pleasure..
  • Bermuda Shorts: Enviable (and crushworthy, too) travel writer David LaHuta covers all the goings-on in Bermuda and all things Dark n Stormy-related. Stand-out post: name suggestions for new Indiana Jones movie set in Bermuda Triangle.
  • Fly Brother: Series of funny and poignant misadventures in Brazil and around the world from the African American perspective. Stand-out post: how an afternoon of seemingly simple errands can take up to seven hours.

The next time you plan a trip abroad, consider reaching out to a fellow American (or Canadian, Brit, etc.) for some advice or even a coffee meeting (assuming you aren’t a total psycho). I, for one, am happy to offer Istanbul tips and tricks, and I’d be even more amenable to helping a traveler who comes bearing Boar’s Head bacon.

Any expat blogs you follow or travel tips you’ve learned from them? Expat bloggers want to share your websites and your insights for travelers? Leave a note in the comments below.

Expats hit hard by economic downturn

It’s a popular dream–move to a sunny, beautiful part of the world where life is cheap and say goodbye to the home country forever.

But the BBC has found that the dream of many expats has soured because of the economic downturn. The article focuses on the tens of thousands of British expats living in Spain, but the story could be about expats anywhere. For the past twenty years the English have been moving to Spain in droves, especially the sun-soaked coastline of Costa del Sol and Mallorca (pictured here). They fueled a real estate boom that was one of the major factors of Spanish economic growth until the housing bubble popped, markets crashed, and Spain ended up with a 17% unemployment rate. Oh, and the change from the peseta to the euro caused inflation that ended the “cheap living” part forever.

Now some expats are headed home. Many had jobs related to the housing industry that have since disappeared, and new jobs are not forthcoming. English-teaching jobs may be next as Spaniards rein in discretionary expenditures.

Are you an expat? Has your job or lifestyle been affected by the economic downturn? Gadling readers want to know.