How to Travel Europe, or Who is This Schengen Guy?

Overlooking the entrance to the ancient city of Pompeii

Overlooking the entrance to the ancient city of Pompeii

When Florence and I developed our Six Monther plan of living in a different country every six months, we listed all the countries in which we were interested in living.

The Ponte de Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

The Ponte de Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

We came up with a list of twenty countries, and we achieved a couple of general objectives. First, we would set foot on every continent. Second, we would be seeing much of the world before we are too old to be as active as we would like in our travels. (I am 63, Florence is 53.)

Our bucket list of countries includes a number of European Union member countries. As we researched the visa requirements for these EU countries, we came across a law unique for travelers to the EU called the Schengen Visa.

View of Vulcano from the Aeolian Island of Lipari

View from the Aeolian Island of Lipari

The Schengen Visa is an entry permit issued by an embassy or consulate of any member country.  To facilitate a more convenient immigration procedure, the Schengen states have abolished passport and immigration controls at their common borders.  This single visa is now all that is required to enter any member country.

Here is where it gets confusing, because there are twenty-six Schengen states and twenty-seven EU member countries (with Croatia slated to join in July, 2013). Two EU members are not Schengen, the United Kingdom and Ireland. Norway and Iceland are not part of the European Union, but are part of the Schengen area.
Note: Do not try to remember all of this because membership in both the EU and the Schengen Alliance keeps changing.

Horse sculpture near Agrigento, Sicily

Horse sculpture near Agrigento, Sicily

The point of this is that a tourist visa in the UK is good for 180 days, which works great for our Six Monther plan. However, Schengen Visas are valid for only 90 days. Also, we cannot use a strategy of leaving the EU for a few days on some side trip and then return to a Schengen country and start a new 90 day clock. The Schengen Visa only permits travel for 90 days within any 180 day period. Thus, after 90 days we would have to exit for at least 90 more days before a new 180 day clock would start.

The Dual Citizenship Option

Church in Taormina, Sicily

St. Rosalia Church below Tindiri, Sicily

This leads to our strategy of obtaining dual citizenship with Italy for which we are eligible due to Florence’s Sicilian roots. This is a detailed process with a number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through. It is precisely this bureaucratic process that may force us to revise our travel schedule as we await approval.

If you are considering international travel beyond a vacation getaway, you should investigate your eligibility for dual citizenship. There are many benefits. First, you gain access to the same set of opportunities in two different countries including voting rights, purchasing property, and access to education and social services.

Florence in Pisa

Florence in Pisa

You will also have two valid passports which, in some cases, will provide ease of travel and lower reciprocity fees for entry into foreign countries. In addition, once you obtain dual citizenship, it stays in your family. You can pass it along to your children, a gift for which they will no doubt thank you someday.

Dual citizenship eligibility can be obtained through birth right, marriage, and naturalization. If you know your parents’ or grandparents’ ethnic history, it may be to your benefit to investigate the citizenship laws of their country of origin. Who knows what doors it may open for you?

living in Mexico

If the Tooth Hurts…

photo credit: deviantart.com

photo credit: deviantart.com

On our last day in Panama as we were waiting for our plane to Mexico City, I bit into a hard candy and broke a tooth. It was the first molar, top right – or to borrow from the technical terminology of the dentistry profession, tooth #14.

dentistI cannot fault the hard candies of Panama, which are actually quite yummy. This dental fracture was an accident waiting to happen. The filling in this tooth was probably 40 years old, and as you will learn as you get older, nothing lasts forever. I knew I was going to need a crown for this broken tooth. I have a few of those already, so I know from experience what is involved. Armed with this knowledge I did the logical thing. I put off going to the dentist for as long as possible.

Our deadline for departure from Mexico is looming, and I know medical and dental costs are less here than in the U. S. So I finally made an appointment based on my friend Jim’s referral. The dentist (orthodontist, actually) fit me in the following morning. He looked at my tooth, cleaned it up a bit, and as cheerfully as one can deliver this message he said, “You need a root canal.” He then took an X-ray of the tooth to take to Dr. Martinez, who he assured me, was the finest dentist in town when it comes to root canals. Dr. Martinez scheduled me for two days later.

Maybe I should have brushed more with Ipana when I was a kid.

Maybe I should have brushed more with Ipana when I was a kid.

I had never had a root canal before. Call me a wimp if you must, but based on all the root canal stories I have heard, I was seriously averse to this dentist visit. But I went anyway. Just like with any dental work she first numbed my mouth. Ha – I did not feel a thing! She was good with the needle, but how about with the drill? All I can say is the orthodontist was right. Dr. Martinez was the best. I caught a glimpse of her dental school diploma on the way out. She graduated from dental school in 1988 – twenty-five years ago. She did not look old enough to have twenty-five years experience, but she certainly performed like a seasoned professional! I was impressed.

Dental expenses in Mexico

The consultation with the orthodontist including the X-ray: 400 pesos ($33)
Root canal and filling on my broken tooth: 3,200 pesos ($264)

I looked up the cost for a root canal in the U. S. Figures range from $700 to over $1,000. Many insurance programs cover only 50% of a root canal, so I think I did pretty well. We will see what the crown ends up costing.

A Stitch in Time

In March, 2011, while we were still living and working in Las Vegas, I tripped and fell on my morning jog.  I banged my cheekbone against the concrete when I went down, and I knew right away from the amount of blood that I was dripping that it was a significant injury.  I used my sweat band as a compress and walked back to our home to share the bad news with my wife.  I’m usually a bit sheepish about admitting when I’ve been hurt, so I played it down saying I needed a couple of bandaids.  My wife immediately went into mother-mode.  She took one look at my wound and said, “Get some clothes.  You’re going to the emergency room.”

I ended up taking nine stitches and a day off work.  The medical team at the emergency room was first rate, and the scar is barely noticeable.  That’s the good news.  The bad news came when I got the bill.  The emergency room services including x-rays, a tetanus shot, and the local anesthetic came to over $2,500.  The doctor’s services came to another $2,300.  I had given up my medical coverage two months earlier because the premiums were too high, and I hardly ever needed to see a doctor.  That was a bad decision looking back.  Anyway, I was ultimately able to negotiate the total cost down to about $3,200, which hurt but we paid it.  Needless to say, I went to a local clinic to have the stitches removed a week later for $50.

Flash forward a year-and-a-half to the present day.  We moved to Boquete, Panama, just a month ago.  My wife started feeling the symptoms of a sinus cold which ended up in her throat and her chest.  Our neighbor was complaining of something similar, so they both went together to the local health clinic in town.  The doctor examined my wife and told her, in English, that she didn’t have a cold but was reacting to something in the air.  She and several hundred other people in town were experience the same thing.  He prescribed four medicines including antihistamines and decongestants and a generic prescription strength Tylenol, and my wife was out of there in about 20 minutes.

The next stop was the pharmacy for both my wife and our neighbor, which was good because my wife doesn’t speak Spanish.  They both returned from town about an hour after they left and I got the whole story.  I was amazed when I learned the clinic charged my wife $7.50 and the total cost of the four prescriptions was $33.00.  This was first rate care.  After doing a little research, I learned these are typical of everyday prices for health care not only in Panama, but also throughout much of Latin America.

I only want to add that I feel fortunate to have found a great living environment around kind and gracious people.  This whole experience just goes to reinforce my belief.

The Caldera River flowing down the valley from the rainforest.