Making an International Move

Why would you want to do that? That seemed to be the question that followed when my wife, Mary, and I announced we were making a move to Mexico. Our answer was a bit nuanced when considering making a move of both our house and studio to another country, and in our case, the other country being Mexico. Having entered retirement after 3 decades of teaching in higher education, which also included over 25 years doing research in Central and South America, and then looking at how to spend the next phase of our lives, it just made sense to consider a move that would be adventurous, challenging, and satisfying. Mexico was a natural choice, since we had years of experience traveling and working in Latin America. The customs and language were familiar, and while most of my research and time had been spent in South America, the close proximity of Mexico to the US seemed easier. We could travel back and forth by air or car, and getting home to visit family did not present the same logistical difficulties as moving to South America. With the knowledge that an international move would likely present many obstacles, the journey  to relocate from the US to Mexico, a nearly three-year process, began in earnest.

1 San Miguel de Allende (SMA) city center with view of the Parrochia.

2 San Miguel de Allende, Mexico—looking toward the Parrochia and city center in the middle ground.

A Great Starting Point

To begin the journey of making a move of this magnitude, we quickly discovered a whole world of literature that helped guide us and our thinking. After looking at our finances and retirement funds, we realized that a move like this could be most affordable compared with the options of living on retirement in the US.

We discovered a website that offered, in real time, a cost of living comparison for those hoping to live in a place outside of the US. This website, www.expatistan.com, allows the user to input the city they are leaving and the city abroad they wish to compare for daily, monthly, or even yearly expenses. It was a great starting point for us and helped narrow our sites to several locations within Mexico that were both affordable and compatible with our needs and interests. After visiting several places and narrowing the list  down even further based on criteria including the size of town, strong infrastructure (transportation, medical, food, cultural opportunities, etc.), comfortable weather, and safety, we eventually settled on the town of San Miguel de Allende,1 a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its ideal weather and location (located in central Mexico, approximately 6500 feet above sea level). With the discovery that the average cost of living is 42% less than our current hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, we were well on our way to making a commitment to move south of the border.

Adventure is Waiting

For us, the journey began when our 10-year-old home and studio, one we had built with the idea of it being the final place we would live in long after retirement, soon became affected by local industrial development. With an abrupt change such as this, and after the initial shock of feeling uprooted, we soon realized it could also be liberating by allowing us to entertain other options not previously considered. In short, the world opened up to us and we saw ourselves thinking outside the box, and as a result soon discovered that an adventure awaited us if we were willing to take some chances. Living in a new country, complete with a different language, food, culture, and ideas, all seemed invigorating. It was the perfect time and place to take advantage of our situation and to seek an adventure in living abroad.

Subsequent necessary knowledge on how to proceed with our move included learning about Mexican laws for expats purchasing property. After researching the rules and submitting our paperwork to be approved to buy a home there, we soon found a house that suited us both in size and cost. After making the purchase and acquiring a Mexican Will (a necessary move for those living in Mexico), getting our new home set up with utilities and furniture became our next focus. It should be noted that during this time we were regularly traveling back and forth since we also had a home in Kentucky that would eventually need to be emptied and sold.

3 Unloading items after shipment from Lexington, Kentucky, to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

4 Decorated street for an Easter festival in SMA.

San Miguel Clay Centers

1 Estudio Paloma San Miguel
Paloma #11, Fracc. La Luz
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
www.sanmigueldeallendeceramicworkshops.com
A local clay studio housing working artists as well as offering high profile ceramic workshops from artists both Mexico and the US.

2 Barro.Co Clay Studio
Sabino #16
Colonial San Antonio
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
www.barro-co.com
A local clay studio offering beginning and intermediate classes as well as hosting workshops with artists from both Mexico and the US.

3 Altofuego Estudio De Ceramica
Orizaba #43
Colonial San Antonio
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
altofuego.estudio@gmail.com
A local clay studio offering both individual and group classes.

Downsizing

With a house full of furniture in Kentucky and an empty house in Mexico, the initial temptation was to see how we might move all our belongings south. But, after careful consideration, which included seeking advice from others (both in person and through our research), we determined it would be less expensive to limit what we brought down to include only studio tools and equipment, our personal family treasures (mostly photos, files, etc.), clothes, artworks, and selected books. Furniture is something we could easily replace on site, especially living in a town full of craftsmen (including woodworkers, masons, blacksmiths, weavers, etc.).

Hiring a mover (someone from San Miguel de Allende experienced with moving expats and their belongings) was our next task. This was easy since there are several movers in town with experience and knowledge of border crossings. We quickly made contact and set up a date for them to arrive in Lexington to fill a truck with our possessions.

After putting our house on the market in Lexington, we began the tedious process of downsizing (the most difficult task of all). Sorting out all we wanted to keep against all we needed to let go seemed an endless effort that took several months. The difficulty in facing the emotional ties to all of our material world was probably the most challenging part of our adventure.

5 Bellas Artes building located near the town center in San Miguel.

6 Bellas Artes’ handbuilding studio.

I decided to bring most of the studio equipment and tools that I used on a regular basis. I did not want to find myself needing a particular tool or piece of equipment (slab roller, extruder, wheel, etc.), since I already anticipated a slow process in locating clay and glaze materials. If I had to do it all again, I would still move the equipment I did since getting these items in Mexico is more expensive than shipping them. Selling used equipment in the US would not cover the expense of replacing these items.  Even if I rented space in a community center, there is no guarantee they would have the equipment I need (or want). When the sorting was all completed, we had a storage unit full of items that were packed and ready to ship to our new home in Mexico.

On a sunny summer day in 2017, the movers arrived, loaded our goods, and off they went south to the border crossing into Mexico at Laredo, Texas.

With the sale of our house complete and the removal of all the items we no longer needed, and with our belongings en route to our new home in Mexico, the feeling of adventure, excitement, and yes, fear, permeated our lives.

Challenges and Setting Up a New Life

Setting up in a new country presents all sorts of challenges, compounded by the fact that a different language, food, and rituals affect your daily decisions. Learning about visa categories for expats (for individuals, families, or even cars) and the necessary paperwork for bringing family pets (in our case a dog and two cats) into the country, as well as finding health-related and banking services were all part of our move and the settling-in process. Other local expats with years of experience, along with many books on the subject, often came to the rescue in helping to guide us as our questions mounted.

With time, it became increasingly clear how we were learning to live in and to know Mexico more through our senses than our minds. The colors, smells, sounds, as well as the regular festivals celebrating all aspects of daily Mexican life, were gentle reminders of where we now resided and how our new neighbors lived their lives. The comfort of a steady life in Lexington was now behind us, and a new day in a new country reminded us of the adventure we had hoped for.

7 Worker decorating pottery at the Castillo Talavera factory in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico.

8 Open studio space at Alto-Fuego Studio.

Basic Moving Timeline (2–3 years)

Year One:
• Research locations, read literature about making this type of move, and seek advice from expats in areas you are considering.
• Choose location based on finances, accessibility to the US, and cost-of-living analysis.
– For cost comparisons, use the website, www.expatistan.com.
– If you are going to be making a living there (not yet retired):
– Consider taxes, visa requirements, employment as an expat.

– Consult with a local attorney on the legalities of employment.
– Refine your options based on site visits:
– Considerations include weather, location (coastal, mountains, etc.), local resources (health services, library, social offerings, busses/taxis, shopping, markets, etc.), local economy, cultural amenities, and safety.
• Research laws and paperwork required for moving to your

chosen country.
– Find out what type of visas are required for long-term stays.
– Identify paperwork needed to get permission to own property.
• Locate a neighborhood and property that is suitable.
– Find a local realtor through word of mouth or realtor offices.

Year Two:
• Purchase/rent property:
– Renting for a year is advised before making a purchase to become familiar with the town’s neighborhoods and services.

• Estimate how many possessions will be included in your move:
– Don’t try to move everything; you do not need it all. Purchasing locally is often a better, and less expensive, way to proceed.

• Downsize over a period of weeks/months:
– Base the time needed on how much you need to downsize. We downsized twice: to sell our house and then once it was sold.

• Locate your studio options, and network prior to the move:
– Once you have decided where you plan to relocate, attend art openings and speak with gallery owners to find others working in the arts, and specifically clay.
– Visit artists who have studios in town to connect to the larger art/clay community. Be patient, this takes time!

Year Three:
• Make the physical move:
– Sell and clear out your house, then determine what items will be moved. Consider furniture, studio supplies and equipment, art books, and any artwork.
– Determine how you will travel to your new home (drive, fly) Price our the cost of the trip.
• Find movers/shippers:
– Make arrangements with international movers. This is critical. You can find these once you have decided on where you plan to relocate. Call several movers to get estimates on the cost.
• Set up workspace/renting space:
– Once you have made connections with other local clay artists, find cooperative clay spaces or rent something locally.
• Locate materials/tools:
– Local clay artists offer invaluable help in locating materials.
– Don’t purchase materials from the US—shipping makes this cumbersome, slow, and expensive.

– Finding local clay sources takes time, but is worth the effort.
• Build networks with local artists, and businesses.
• Determine and develop options for selling your work:

– In our case, and in our town, there are many galleries where artists sell work, and since San Miguel is a popular tourists destination, selling work has great potential.
– Research the availability of local galleries and the strength of a local market carefully if selling your art work is a priority.

9 Lexington, Kentucky, storage unit filled with studio equipment, books, and personal items ready to be shipped to Mexico.

10 Joe’s SMA studio.

Setting up the New Studio

Months after relocating and finally feeling settled into our new home, the task of setting up a studio awaited me. Having to locate a space and finding local materials were the first two obstacles I had to overcome. After spending time seeking other clay artists in the area, I soon discovered several places in town where one could find space to work (see left). These clay centers, mostly cooperative in nature, offered classes, workshops, and adequate space to rent, complete with varying equipment access. Finding these studios proved instructive in both meeting other artists as well as seeing how they were able to work together in a shared space. Having spent a great amount of time in academia, the thought of working with others was appealing. In almost every case, the artists I met were generous with their time and support as well as being serious clay workers.

Despite this, since I had my own studio equipment that I had shipped down from Kentucky, my initial efforts were to locate a space near my home where I could set up a small studio until later when I might decide to work in one of the studio cooperatives in town. Fortunately, the downstairs of a house on our street was available. It was raw, but spacious and most affordable. I quickly rented it in time for our belongings to arrive. After unloading our possessions, it was the first time in our new country that I saw the potential of creating an active clay studio.

11 Alternate view of Joe’s SMA studio.

Setting up a new work space required finding studio furniture (tables, chairs, etc., mostly from a local junk/antique yard), places to get buckets for clay and glaze, and of course, various ceramic materials and the clay itself. The nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo2 is a ceramic center with generations of clay workers still producing pottery today that is mostly colorful slip-cast decorative and functional wares as well as tile work), so local suppliers of raw materials were readily available. Learning about Mexican material equivalents became the first obstacle to overcome, and testing clays and glazes became part of my daily studio work. Once my kilns were installed and connected, and the wheels, slab roller, tables, and extruder in place, a working studio slowly emerged.

In the early days, I was besieged with the thought of again being in graduate school and simply trying to figure things out. The excitement (and of course, frustration), was everywhere, every day. Fortunately, having spent valuable time working to connect with other ceramic artists in town proved to be most useful. Suggestions on where to find materials and supplies, as well as simple camaraderie, proved to be the tonic to cure the frustration of trying to get a studio up and running. And while I am still in the infancy of starting over again in a new studio, with new materials, in a new country, with new friends, the excitement and challenge that we anticipated have never let us down.

I cannot say what my work will look like as I begin to make decisions based on new materials and influences, but I am not afraid of the task. I welcome a new paradigm requiring me to familiarize myself with the unknown and to discover a new voice in clay, one influenced by a Mexican environment and surroundings. The known for me is working in clay, whatever clay that might be, complete with new glazes, temperatures, processes, and of course, new ideas inspired by a foreign land.

12 Barro.Co Clay studio’s general work space in San Miguel.

13 Private studio spaces at Estudio Paloma in San Miguel.

Books

1 Should I Stay or Should I Go?: The truth about moving abroad and whether it’s right for you by Paul Allen
2 Retirement Without Borders: How to retire abroad–in Mexico, France, Italy, Spain, Costa Rica, Panama, and other sunny, foreign places (and the secret to making it happen without stress) by Barry Golson
3 How to Retire Overseas: Everything you need to know to live well (for less) abroad by Kathleen Peddicord
4 The Expert Expat: Your guide to successful relocation abroad by Patricia Linderman
5 The International Living Guide to Retiring Overseas on a Budget by Suzan Haskins
6 Getting Out: Your guide to leaving America by Mark Ehrman
7 A Better Life for Half the Price: How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live by Tim Leffel
8 Living Abroad: What every expat needs to know by Cathy Tsang-Feign
9 The Expatriate’s Roadmap to Successfully Moving Overseas by Cynthia Caughey
10 The Grown-Up’s Guide to Running Away from Home by Rosanne Knorr
11 101 Ways to Enjoy Living Abroad: Essential tips for easing the transition to expat life by Karen McCann
12 The Happy Expat Family: 8 challenges expat families face and how to overcome them by Dena Haines
13 The Best How-To Book on Moving to Mexico by Schmidt, Hair and Brook
14 Becoming an Expat Mexico: Your guide to moving abroad by Shannon Enete
15 Retire in Mexico–Live Better for Less Money by Dru Pearson
16 Living or Retiring in Mexico by Leo Buijs

the author Joe Molinaro, professor emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky, lives and maintains a studio practice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. To learn more, visit http://joemolinaro.com.

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