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Dreaming, Scheming on Where to Retire to for One's Sunset Years

March 04, 2001|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

More than 80% of Americans want to stay where they are when they retire, according to the AARP. I'm one of the remaining 20%. The more I travel, the more I dream about where I want to go when my hair turns gray and about what I want to be doing while collecting Social Security.

I don't like to call it retirement because that makes me feel old. Like most baby boomers, according to another AARP study, I don't plan to stop working. I just want to work more slowly, at something different and in some other place.

Nor am I concerned about spending my sunset years alone. In fact, one of my favorite retirement fantasies capitalizes on my single status. In it, I've rented a floor of a crumbling palazzo in a Roman neighborhood like Trastevere or the Campo de' Fiori. The last names of the residents are listed by the buzzers near the door, and I will appear there as the Contessa di Spano. Who's to know I'm really the granddaughter of Italian peasants. Other women I've talked to have retirement fantasies when they travel, of course. But like Priscilla Ulene, owner of the Traveler's Bookcase in L.A., theirs are more practical. Ulene wishes she and her husband, Art, a health educator, could spend a few years in the Peace Corps, working with children. Her desire to stay close to her grandchildren is the only thing holding her back.

Lillian Rachlin, an 82-year-old retired L.A. surgeon, told her employer, the Veterans Administration (as the Department of Veterans Affairs was called then), that she was leaving her job in 1986 and spent the next 13 months touring Southeast Asia, New Zealand and Fiji with friends. She says she couldn't imagine living anyplace but the U.S. Still, she has traveled nonstop since leaving her job, which is her way of living out her retirement fantasy.

After spending a week fishing for halibut and salmon last year in Petersburg, Alaska, a pretty town on the Inside Passage, I decided I'd like to settle there. I would go in together with my father, a retired journalist, and my older brother, an editor, to buy the Petersburg Pilot, the local paper. My dad was all for it and so was I until he said my brother would be editor in chief and I would be a reporter. As much as I liked Petersburg, I've shelved this retirement dream because I refuse to take orders from my brother.

In my latest retirement fantasies, I'm giving the orders as owner/manager of a hotel in Naples, where all my relatives work for me. Mom and Dad will serve as Neapolitan color in the lobby; my sister will be the head of housekeeping; my savvy bro-ther-in-law, the concierge. Meanwhile I'll sit back in the office, with knee-high hosiery rolled down, reading George Eliot and drinking espresso.

A trip to the South Pacific island kingdom of Tonga last spring gave rise to another retirement plan when I learned that the Tongans are mad about Kentucky Fried Chicken. I didn't see a KFC franchise in Tonga, so people bring crispy chicken back from Auckland, New Zealand. If I can get my family on board, I'd like to start a KFC in the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa on the island of Tongatapu.

The Tongans raise pigs, not chickens, so I'd need to start a chicken farm on the outskirts of Nuku'alofa, but that's no problem because my 13-year-old niece loves chickens. In this retirement scenario, my brother-in-law will be liaison to the king of Tonga; my sister will design our workers' uniforms; my parents will eat all the extra-crispy chicken they want; my sister-in-law, an Episcopalian priest, will give us legitimacy in her sermons; and my niece and brother will feed the chickens.

I'll never do any of these things. But in some deep way, my retirement fantasies nourish me.

On a practical level, however, you have to be careful about trying to make travel-generated retirement dreams come true. AARP economist Clare Hushbeck says she's sometimes amazed at the way people fail to think out retirement moves. "People spend pleasant moments on vacation somewhere and make the assumption that it would be a good place to live," she says. But it doesn't always turn out that way, which is why she advises prospective retirees to try out a place by renting before making the commitment to move or buy.

You can also test the waters by arranging a home exchange in the place you've set your heart on for retirement. Organizations such as HomeLink USA and HomeExchange.com can help you set up house swaps.

"Lots of people think about chucking it all and moving someplace," says Annette Zientek, owner of ChristineColumbus.com, an Internet provider of women's travel gear.

"Wherever you go, you can never escape yourself," she says.

"You always take that with you."

Still, I'll continue to fantasize, because I know that nothing can happen unless you dream it first.

*

HomeLink USA, P.O. Box 47747, Tampa, FL 33647; telephone (800) 638-3841, fax (813) 910-8144, Internet www.homelink.org.

HomeExchange.com, P.O. Box 30085, Santa Barbara, CA 93130; tel. (805) 898-9660, fax (805) 898-9199, http://www.homeexchange.com.

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