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Expats: adventurers or foreign retirees?

Hemingway, as an expat, implied high adventure in a foreign land

The first definition of “expatriate” appeared in a French dictionary in the late 1700s and denotes a person who has been banished from his or her native land.


This elucidation came just in time for Napoleon’s exile to the island of Elba in 1814; he was the world’s first notable expat. By the time Ernest Hemingway was synonymous with the term expatriate, it implied high adventure in a foreign land.

Now, in the 21st century, the term expat is used mostly in conjunction with people retiring to foreign countries, like Canadians in Florida. Where’s the fun in that? Personally, I prefer the characterization of high adventure in a foreign land.

With our short pants, flowered shirts and voracious enthusiasm for Mexican beer, fresh seafood and charity events, the expatriates of Mexico are a diverse group of gringos that have settled throughout the country. Canadians outnumber Americans, but there are also Brits, Europeans and a few Aussies.

We have chosen Mexico for a variety of reasons — warm weather, economical accommodations and friendly people or, for some folks, impending incarceration elsewhere. However, the ethereal thread that binds our lives is eccentricity.

To move lock, stock and barrel to a foreign country, especially one as dangerous as Mexico, is in itself an audacious display of capriciousness. Most people north of the border view this relocation as sheer madness, a positively calamitous failure of acuity.

During my 10 years as an expat I have learned many valuable lessons while attempting to infiltrate a culture that is unique to Mexico. At first, I viewed the challenge as simply melding into Mexico, a culture that looked to me to be so homogeneous: all the cities, towns and villages use the same street names; Juárez, Zaragoza, Cinco de Mayo, and so forth.


Of course, the common bonds of brand names, sports stars and media reach to even the remotest of villages. However, by digging deeper, I have discovered Mexico to be a myriad of micro-cultures that reportedly speak 68 languages besides Spanish. And, to make things even more difficult for the average expat, Mexican Spanish comes in an abundance of accents and idioms that perfectly befit the region of their origins.

The Spanish in Mexico City is very precise and clear to the ear of a gringo, whereas deep into the outback, rural villages have developed their own unique vernacular over several centuries.

A few years ago I made a trek into the Sierra Madre with a Mexican friend who is as native as they come. When we got to our destination and my friend had spent some time conversing with the villagers, he told me he could barely understand their Spanish. This made me feel a bit better, as I could not understand one word.

I live in a beach town with its own sense of informality and slang-riddled Spanish. I discovered early on that the use of the local patois adds levity and breaks the ice with waiters, transito, general tradespeople and all vendors. With the revelation that my bad Spanish, laced with locally colorful phrases, could always produce a smile and sometimes a good laugh, it became habitual.

However, four years ago, while in Mexico City, it became immediately apparent that my provincially idiomatic Spanish did not ingratiate me with anyone, not even the lowly waiters in the neighborhood taquerías. There are so many ways an expat can bumble about in Mexico without any inkling of local protocol.

My first year in country I took several pairs of shorts to a tailor in Centro to have them repaired. When he refused the work, I left his shop a bit dazed and confused (more so than normally).

Some months later I learned the tailor was from Mexico City where dignified and proper men never wear short pants. To him, such a repair would be below his social station and thereby repugnant. Since then I have found several tailors, less driven by their sense of morality, who will gladly repair or even make new shorts.

One should be aware of the many cultural pitfalls for curious expats, but that should never keep any one of us from diving into this cultural quagmire and seeking high adventure in a foreign land.

Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time on the west coast of Mexico with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at

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  • Realista

    Well said and so true.

  • Joyce lyn

    We love being a mature ex pats on the cost of Mexico.

  • W. Jones Jordan

    I vacationed in México for years before I bought a one-way ticket 20 years ago and stayed–with no regrets, but living in México–at least outside the ‘American enclaves’ in San Miguel de Allende or Zihuatanejo–is something like dealing with one’s first computer. I began by trying to make the computer do things my way; but finally learned to things the computer’s way, and I’m happy here because I’ve learned to do things the Mexican way.

  • “one as dangerous as Mexico”? Oh, gimme a break. You want to move somewhere dangerous, move to Chicago, New Orleans or Detroit. I feel safer in Mexico than I ever did when I lived in Houston.

    • James Smith

      gov’t stats: mexico has an official homicide rate of 18 per 100,000 (and increasing yearly) which means in reality closer to 36 per 100 000. the usa has 4.5 per 100,000 and it is dropping every year. so much for the lie that nations which have restrictive private gun ownership laws are safer than those which mostly permit private gun ownership. but don’t feel badly. most of your compadre latino nations are even worse than mexico.

      • Let me state this another way. While the stats you mention may or may not be accurate — likely they are — to see the true state of affairs one must do a little mental body English, to to speak. There are two primary factors, I think, causing Mexico’s murder rate. One is that the narcos continue to duke it out, often with a considerable body count. The other factor is the Latino personality, which tends to be effusive. This can be nice until alcohol is stirred in, as it often is. Then they can grow violent. I have lived in Mexico 16 years now, and I know a number of Mexicans who have been shot, some fatally, some not. Some are my relatives. I don’t think I ever knew anyone who’d been shot when I lived in the U.S. Not one person. And I lived there for 55 years.

        Neither of these factors normally affect Gringos or Canucks living in Mexico. We get a pass, and that means that we rarely are involved in the mayhem. I maintain that Gringos and Canucks are significantly less likely to be victims of random violence in Mexico in 2016 than they are in much of the U.S.

        As for gun-control laws and violent environments, yes, Mexico has strict gun-control laws side-by-side with a rather high murder rate. But Mexico routinely ignores its own laws, lots of laws, so the two are not well connected, the murder rate and the fact of gun-control laws.

        A better example is Chicago, which has one of the strictest gun-control laws in the U.S., where laws are indeed enforced, and it also has streets that run red with blood on a regular basis, one of the nation’s highest murder rates.

        Americans are, I am absolutely convinced, safer on the streets of Mexico than they are on the streets of the United States.

        • James Smith

          agreed if you limit your comparison to the 10 largest cities of the usa with, it must be said, a larger than average black population. otherwise, the stats do not compare. black men between the ages of 15-60 comprise less than 6% of the total population but commit more than 50% of all total violent criminal offenses. in the largest cities they are however a percentage far larger than their total population average.

          • Yep, where there are black ghettos there is bloodshed.

          • James Smith

            true. the big coverup in the us is that violent crime is race neutral. it is not. one of the safest cities in the us is el paso, texas on the border with ciudad juarez. why? it has a very low black population yet a very high of course hispanic propulation. the safest cities in the us all have lower than the national average of black people. so much for the lie that mexicans are a cause of the high crime rate in the us. they are not.

        • Bodie Kellogg

          I will believe Mexico to be a safe choice until I see dead Canadians in the streets.

    • Bodie Kellogg

      See above reply.

  • I think there might be 2 ways to view this statement… “one as dangerous as Mexico”… Either you actually believe that the entire country of Mexico is actually dangerous (really?) or you are trying to keep some ‘uneducated’ gringos from coming here. Can you help us out here?

    • Bodie Kellogg

      This is just a jib at the folks that think Mexico is dangerous. The last edition of MND had an article about the month of July having 70 homicides throughout the country. Just today, I read that the murder rate for Chicago, in the month of July, was 65. So, you tell me, is the USA safer than Mexico? Also, in Mexico you would have to be in the drug industry, or really stupid, to be a fatality.

  • Hickmen

    Good read, I like the story of the guy who would not sew shorts. lol

  • Happygirl

    I love being a snowbird – spending half a year in Canada and half in Mexico…that way I get the best of both worlds. I am more relaxed and bored in Canada, while my mind is active and everyday I am learning something new in Mexico…it becomes too much after a while, so I return to Canada to recuperate. I have no real plans to become an expat. I have come to view (a generalization) expats in two groups – the wanted (for crimes, debts, or they were thieves back home and now practice their art in Mexico) and the unwanted (mental disorders, misfits (such as old hippies, drunks), the lonely, dreamers) which become targets for the wanted. The unwanted become wary with time of newcomers and the wanted become more desperate to earn their next peso (so beware newbies) as the unwanted become wise. It becomes real sad when the unwanted want to return home but can’t because they can’t afford to…last year I know of an expat who committed suicide. Deciding to give up everything for a dream… in a country with a different culture, language and weather…where you know no one can be dangerous…start off slowly and educate yourself.

    • R Damon Combs

      And which group are you?

  • Bodie Kellogg

    I need to clarify a statement I made in this column. I wrote that Canadian ex-pats out number those from the USA. Actually, there are more ex-pats from the USA than Canada. However, there are more Canadian snowbirds than ones from the USA.

  • Ricardo Perry

    Saludos Bodie, I am a Canuck-ian here (now also living in Holland for 4 years, as well as still managing house&gardens in Oaxaca for 18 !) Enjoy your writings and musings…….the “short pants” story brought back a good Mexico City memory of 25 years ago……staying “on the cheap” at the Quaker “house/pension”, I met a young, smart, wild, Scotch man (from India, born there, then raised in the Highlands……thus, thick Scottish accent) – he was fresh from 6 months “being wild” among the lassies in Brazil ! Shared a room for 4……we went out, daytime….he in his usual “Brazilian gear” (sleeveless T, blue flimsy shorts)………..I “advised” him that he would NOT appear “normal”………THAT gear would “show” that he was gay (he was nonchalant, and not offended…….it was very humourous, and he finally understood – from “starings” – what I had meant…….. Mexico City then was such a conservative city then, as was (and still is, in many respects, Oaxaca – I still never go “out ´n about” in a T-shirt or shorts – only expats or chilangos do!) As an aside, while at the house, we – both being smokers – in a non-smoking VERY strict and religious setting, had to empty the “ashtray” – he opened the 2nd floor window, tossed out the contents……….onto the head of the “Director” leaving from the kitchen door below…………….we received a “talking to”, were allowed to stay………….wonder what they did with the empty bottles of Scotch under the beds after we left !

    • Robin Anderson

      I’m wondering if this former Canuck-ian is the same Ricardo Perry missing from my village for about 8 years now…