Get Out of Town

Americans head to Europe for cheaper schools, better lives

Joe Moline, a 23-year-old from L.A., first bought a ticket for Prague "not even knowing where it was on the globe," he says. He's been living there six months. Most of his new friends are doing odd jobs like teaching English or bartending. For a time, Joe had a job leading bike tours, earning just $10 per tour.

Even with this catch-as-catch-can work situation, "my quality of life here is better than friends' in the States," Moline says. "I know people back home who work 40-hour weeks and still are unable to make ends meet living in a two-bedroom apartment with three other people. My flat is pretty big and rather cheap. I am able to eat out at least twice a day, take weekend excursions, and not worry too much about money."

Fed up with uninspiring jobs and crappy, expensive apartments, young expats like Moline are again discovering that life is better in Europe.

The State Department estimates 3 million Americans are living abroad, a number that has doubled in the past 30 years. Some of them are chasing success. A New York Times story recently noted that large corporations increasingly prefer to send younger, single professionals overseas—they are cheaper in salary and relocation expenses than executives with families.

But while 37 percent of these relocated workers are in their twenties or thirties, a great wave of their peers arrived with student visas—nearly 175,000 in the 2002–2003 academic year—or no firm plans at all. While the move is not without trade-offs, expats from Barcelona to Berlin report refreshing economic differences in their new homes.

Like publicly supported education, for one. Sunnee Billingsley, 29, moved to Barcelona to earn a doctorate in political science. She says she looked abroad for graduate programs to learn a second language and "experience another culture, and so I could get an education that wouldn't put me more in debt." Billingsley says Spain's strong social-welfare protections support a relaxed pace of life. "The state takes care of so much that people don't worry as much as Americans and don't spend as much on things like insurance programs and retirement accounts," she says. The government even tries to protect the traditional afternoon siesta.

Billingsley and other expats also note a friendlier attitude in Europe toward the struggles of emerging adults. Here in the U.S., college grads who move back in with their parents are maligned as "boomerang kids" and developmentally delayed "adultescents," but in Europe it is the social norm for young people to live with their folks and save money while getting their lives together.

"It's a chicken and egg thing," says Paxton Helms, 34, also studying in Barcelona. "They are very close to their families . . . and depend on them financially, go to their parents' vacation homes, etc. Which came first? Beats me."

If you're on your own, outside the expensive cities of London, Paris, and Copenhagen, your money goes further than it might in America. Billingsley spends just 350 Euros a month for a nice apartment share with a terrace; Helms can skip the expense of owning a car.

The good life isn't just about how much money you have, of course; it's how you spend it. Colleen Kinder, 24, just published Delaying the Real World, a guide for twentysomethings on how to postpone the grind in favor of exotic or enriching experiences. "Recent college graduates are attracted to the expatriate lifestyle not only because the cost of living is often lower, but because they're at a stage of life when they don't need much," she says. "If you're in Germany or Thailand, you're not thinking about buying a TV, a car, an oriental rug—all of those things big and small that we think we need to be adults. Everyone around you is wearing a backpack, not griping about the cost of real estate in New York."

In Europe, it seems, more disposable income goes to having fun, and less to material goods. Marie Winfield, 28, lives in Berlin with her German husband. "Rent is pretty cheap here so people who are employed can afford to go out more, which is also cheaper than most major cities," she says. "I think there is less an emphasis on buying trendy or fads. I don't know anyone—not American—who has an iPod."

But in the end, the real reason to get out of town for a while is so you can sound like Paxton Helms, who e-mails, "Just living here in this great place is such a thrill that I think my quality of life is better than the folks' at home. I get a huge kick just walking out my door. I mean, I live in Barcelona!! The dark blue Mediterranean sky, the municipal markets, the beach. Where else can you live like this?"


akamenetz@villagevoice.com

 
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