Gazing over the sea with a drink in hand, what overseas vacationer hasn’t fantasized about chucking it all and settling permanently in paradise?
The expat dream takes on new resonance immediately following certain elections, when disgruntled partisans — usually Democrats — threaten to move to Canada. After Trump was elected this month, many Jews entertained the idea of making aliyah to Israel. “I’m betting we’re far from the only Jewish family having that conversation,” tweeted Yair Rosenberg of Tablet Magazine.
Having gone through the process on both sides of the pond, I can assure you: Emigration can be rewarding, but it isn’t easy. Travelers are shielded from unpleasant local realities like healthcare bureaucracy, sky-high electricity bills, linguistic and social alienation, insufficient heat in winter, or not having a Trader Joe’s nearby. There is a reason I’ve never seriously tried to live in Italy; I adore my Italian vacations too much to sully the fantasy.
But I’ve also had more than my share of Trump-heiling Twitter trolls threatening to pack me and my family onto cattle cars (and far uglier things), so I’m not discounting the very real sense of alarm motivating emigration-leaning American Jews. But bear in mind that few destinations guarantee a respite from nasty politics or infuriating politicians.
Canada comes fairly close, though. Nearly everyone swoons over the dreamboat-handsome president, Justin Trudeau, who preaches tolerance and progressive liberalism with a charming twinkle. Canadians have long been smug about their civilized national discourse, universal healthcare and sensible gun control laws.
Those long, cold winters do give many pause — a whole country north of Buffalo! But for Americans, proximity and the English language are huge draws. Canada’s legendary boringness suddenly seems attractive to refugees from Trump and Giuliani. And unlike most of Europe, Canada has the advantage of easy immigration, with fast-track residency procedures for skilled or educated applicants.
Here it’s worth noting that while Americans can travel to many places without paperwork, staying longer than a few months or working abroad generally requires either a visa or residency papers. Such permissions are never automatic and take months to process, even for spouses of citizens, and can be extremely difficult to come by.
In countries with tightly restricted immigration —including the U.S. and most of Europe — long-term status is generally restricted to employer-sponsored workers, big-ticket investors, citizens’ immediate family members, self-sufficient retirees and the descendants of citizens with proven national heredity (Sephardim from Spain, for instance, or grandparents from Ireland or Italy). The simplest way to live overseas for a year or two is to enroll in a local school, which is expensive and impractical for most, and student visas generally prohibit employment.
For Jews, it’s unlikely that any other country will facilitate immigration as thoroughly as Israel. Nonprofit organizations like the Jewish Agency for Israel and Nefesh B’Nefesh coordinate the aliyah process for many North Americans; approved immigrants are eligible for subsidized one-way flights with additional baggage and transportation upon arrival, an initial living stipend and health insurance, Hebrew immersion classes, rental assistance and a variety of other educational and housing programs to integrate newcomers.
Of course, American Jews make aliyah every year for a variety of reasons, and many end up happy with their choice. Successful immigrants are likely to be familiar with Israel already, with family or professional ties; speak some Hebrew; and work in fields that are either well-represented locally, easily transferable, or allow for telecommuting as a transition (technology, academia, medicine, even journalism).
But many popular expat countries — Israel, Spain, France — have a lot of the same problems we face here. Locals complain about rising costs, crowded urban housing, stagnant wages for a lot of workers, ethnic tensions and a fractious political scene.
Even countries that regularly top “Best Places to Live” lists can prove unsatisfying for newcomers. Denmark, New Zealand and, yes, Canada check off all the right boxes for strong economies, high-quality healthcare, clean air, efficient infrastructure, and so on.
But will you be happy? Day-to-day wellbeing can’t be measured by those metrics, which is why more than a few immigrants return to their less-perfect home countries. They’ve struggled to learn the local language, to find a professional niche, to feel at home among people whose inside jokes and reflexive customs will always leave some feeling like outsiders.
All too often, immigrants are forced to descend a few rungs on the career ladder. And universal healthcare may not compensate for the strain of living time zones away from elderly parents or dear friends.
Which is why — though we’re grateful for the options afforded by our family’s multiple passports — for now America remains home for us, as I suspect it will for the vast majority of those threatening to decamp for Tel Aviv or Toronto.
And if you’re contemplating a holiday in Brussels or Barcelona, consider that Spain didn’t even have a national government for most of 2016…while Belgium recently went a staggering 589 days with no one in charge. Whichever your party, suddenly the U.S. looks a whole lot more functional.