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Portland couple chucks it all to spend a year living in five different countries

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Louise Lague and Tom Lichty started their 12-month adventure with their spring 2013 departure from Portland International Airport.

In 2013, Portlanders Louise Lague and Tom Lichty sold all of their furniture, their car and most of their clothes, gave up their apartment, packed one bag each and set out on a yearlong adventure living abroad. They hopped from Spain to Greece to Italy to Mexico, renting apartments in each country, interspersed with a brief trip back to the U.S. to see their children and grandchildren.

They learned they travel differently: Tom did a lot of reading while Louise explored the towns they temporarily called home. They relied on the kindness of strangers during two life-threatening medical emergencies that landed Tom in a hospital in Spain. That was the low point of their journey, they agree: “The rest of it was all high points,” Louise says.

And over the course of the year, from April 2013 through the end of March 2014, they spent about $5,300 less than they would have if they’d stayed in Portland.

Tom, 70, and Louise, 66, who have been married four years, kept a blog of their travels and used it as the basis of a 116-page paperback book they have written, titled “The Expat Almanac.” Now back in Portland, they’ve been hitting the media circuit to talk about their book, their journey, how they did it and why.

How it all started

Tom and Louise both have traveled a fair amount — Europe, South America, Canada — “and we love it,” says Louise, a former editor of People magazine who grew up in Rhode Island and moved to Portland in 2005 after landing a job at Portland Monthly magazine.

“I was thinking I never had a junior year abroad in college, and I went to a college where a lot of kids did that,” she says.

Tom, a Portland native whose parents came from Eugene, has been a pilot, radio announcer, tugboat operator, newspaper publisher, graphic-design consultant and University of Oregon lecturer. For several years he had a wine exporting business “that didn’t make a lot of money, but I got a lot of travel out of it,” he says.

The two of them met in 2008 on eharmomy.com and married “two years and one day later,” they say almost in unison.

During a two-week vacation in Mazatlan, they were sitting on a beach when Tom told his wife, “I would like to learn Spanish, and I’m a real slow learner when it comes to languages, so maybe we could go live in Spanish-speaking countries.”

Louise liked the idea of spending a year abroad, but not the thought of having no home base. So they did a trial month in France, renting a place in the small Pyrenees town of Collioure. That worked out, so they began to plan a much longer trip.

Part of the planning was getting used to the idea of being together 24/7 for an entire year.

“What if we don’t like each other?” Louise asked Tom.

Among the first questions people now ask them, Tom says, is, “Did you fight? How did you get along so well without fighting?” His reply: “We don’t fight.”

Budgeting and packing

“We’re not rich and couldn’t have afforded it if we’d kept a home,” Tom says. So they jettisoned most of their possessions, packed everything else they weren’t taking with them — mostly keepsakes and their bicycles — in a 10-by-10-foot storage unit and vacated their Portland apartment.

In researching vacation rentals in the countries on their itinerary, they found a penthouse on top of a hotel in Girona, Spain, about 40 kilometers from the Costa Brava. They stayed there three months. Rent, including utilities, was about $1,700 a month, “which was exactly what we were paying in Portland with no utilities included,” Tom says.

And that wasn’t even the nicest place they rented, he says. Apartments they subsequently occupied in Chania, Greece (about a month), Bellagio, Italy (another month or so), and Puerto Vallerta, Mexico (six months) all included housekeeping services, which the Girona penthouse didn’t.

They didn’t skimp while traveling and ate in restaurants a lot, they say. So how did they end up spending less than they would have at home in Portland? No utility bills and no car expenses, Tom explains.

It also helped that they took just one medium-size bag and one tote bag each, “so if I bought something I’d get rid of something,” Louise says, admitting, “I had to tone down my shopping addiction.”

In the hospital

Three weeks into their adventure, they were sitting on their balcony in Girona looking toward the Mediterranean when Tom got a headache, “which he doesn’t often get,” Louise says. Tom already was blind in one eye, the result of a stroke, “so we paid lots of attention when this happened,” she adds.Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED - Less than a month into their adventure, Tom was hospitalized for two life-threatening health issues. He recovered, and they continued.

Tom had suffered a subdural hematoma — a clot of blood under the dura mater membrane covering his brain, as he explains it. He was hospitalized immediately and underwent surgery to remove the puddle of blood that had formed.

About a week later he had a heart attack, which they attributed to the blood thickeners given to him. He spent another week in the hospital.

But they continued with their trip. Long story short: “I’m fine now,” says Tom, who now rides his bike three or four times a week from their Pearl District apartment to the Oregon Zoo.

Not surprisingly, it took a while to sort out the $21,000 hospital bill they received. They had a Medicare supplement covering overseas care for medical conditions deemed life threatening, Tom says, but that didn’t include the hospital room, “and about half the amount was the room charge. So I spent about $9,000 of my own money.”

Still, he figures the cost in Spain was nothing compared to what it would have been here.

“Anybody who’s going to travel as we did, regardless of their age, needs to have access to enough money to be able to pay a significant hospital bill. I don’t care if you’re 18, you can still get into a car accident.”

What they now know

One of the biggest lessons Tom and Louise have learned is how differently they approach travel. Tom is the type who is happy to sit down, a pour a marguerita and relax with a book; Louise wants to see the sights. This extended trip let them go their own ways if they wanted.

“We didn’t just visit places, we lived in them,” Tom says. “You don’t feel compelled to take in everything in four days.”

“Our travel differences are the reasons we decided to stay for lengthy times in each place,” Louise adds.

They also learned how much they missed their family — Louise’s two sons and Tom’s daughter, plus four grandchildren. That was one factor that brought them home — “We had planned a year and thought if we were having a good time, maybe we would go longer,” Tom says.

Other factors beckoned them home: Their health insurance covered them for only a year abroad, and they missed their friends, the familiarity of their neighborhoods and native language, the convenience of good Internet service and Netflix.

“The whole point was to get to know the culture, which we did well in Spain,” Louise says, adding they now have good friends from Spain, England, Scotland and the Netherlands.

Tom and Louise are now talking about embarking on a new adventure. “We’ve been looking at housesitting in Ireland,” Tom says. “That may be the next thing we do.”

But the next time they leave the country, they’ll keep all their furniture. They had to acquire all new stuff when they returned to Portland. “I don’t want to rebuild all that Ikea furniture again,” Tom says.

Find their book and blog online

Visit Louise Lague and Tom Lichty’s website at http://expat-almanac.com to read their blog and learn more about their book, “The Expat Almanac.”