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Couch-surfers, Philosophy, and Cyprus

Don’t get me wrong, I love Israel. But maybe I could live a more comfortable, less expensive, more balanced life just a one-hour flight away in Cyprus.

As many men do, my husband retains a close group of friends from his youth. While Israelis often form these lifelong friendships in the army, he made Aliyah as a child, so his cronies are from the absorption center they called their first home in Israel. They’ve all known each other since they were ten. One of the commitments that comes along with marrying a member of their crowd is that your couch is more or less open to the rest of them from time to time. During COVID, one of them occupied my couch for several months.

The couch-surfer made fresh bread daily for my family, so he was welcome to stay a while. He introduced me to a concept that I still value: “It’s better than good. It’s good enough.”

As a Type-A overachiever, for many years, I consistently strived for perfection. 110% all the time. Although I was uber-productive, I was also exhausted. In my late 30’s, with four kids, a business, and an active local community, perfection eluded me and I became increasingly disappointed in myself. Luckily, in my 40’s, I started to let go of some things and prioritize, but articulation of the concept and process seemed ambiguous – difficult to describe – which is frustrating to a writer. I had spent the last few years discovering what perfection cost me, identifying my values, and altering my choices and behavior to become more congruent with what was truly important to me, knowing that “everything” is not possible simultaneously, at least if one wants to remain sane.

Enter “good enough”.

The reason “good enough” is better than good is because in order to embrace “good enough” one is required to identify what’s critical and what can slide. The exercise has led me to work less (and yes, therefore earn less), and I’ve become both more flexible with my kids and more assertive (and therefore successful) at work.

Island Life, Island Mentality

When I was invited by a client to fly to Cyprus and find out what it has to offer, I blinked a few times. Cyprus? I’ve been to nearly 30 countries, but Cyprus never occurred to me, even though it’s a (cheap) 40 minute flight from Israel. I considered the impression of Cyprus that I had built in my head: looks like Israel, potentially sketchy people move there for tax purposes. It held no intrigue for me, but a client was willing to fly me to another country in the last week of August after spending the last 11 weeks with all my kids home 24/7. Off I went.

Within 24 hours of landing in Larnaca, I realized I had met my “better than good” match.

Israel is good; we have a good life here. And although I am a staunch Zionist, let’s be honest, Israel isn’t an easy place to live. We who have immigrated to Israel – we stay because we believe we belong here. We didn’t come for the weather, or the vibe, or the falafel. But what if we could have Israel… 40 minutes away? Almost… commutable? Would it be better than good? Would it be “good enough”?

If I were designing a life from scratch, I’d select my place of residence based on the level of balance and tranquility (or the Hebrew and much better sounding equivalent, “shalvah”) I can expect there, since those guiding principles have served me well and positioned me to enjoy the life I want. Cyprus offers the kind of lifestyle that I can only describe as “island”.

From Fiji to Bali to Honduras to the Caymans, every island I’ve visited offers a relaxed vibe. The lack of aggression in any form, the understanding that very little is actually urgent, the absolute absence of rush or palpable pressure – Cyprus let me breathe, whereas often, Israel does not.

Don’t get me wrong – people work there. And I’d still have to work even if I relocated. But people say good morning and offer you coffee, and actually sit with you to drink the coffee, before they launch their agenda. Employees take 90 minute lunches and enjoy each other’s company. Even upper level management is home in time for dinner. Faces are not exclusively and obsessively glued to phones. When I was running late for a meeting, I WhatsApp’d my client (I am mostly Israeli, after all) to alert him. The answer came back 10 minutes later – not instantly – saying “No worries, no rush” rather than “I have a 30 minute window”, even though he’s a busy executive. The culture is just… relaxed. I was intrigued.

While I value a less pressured lifestyle, the places which offer this option often come with a laissez-faire factor that makes regular (non-vacation) life impossible. Take India, for example. While I embraced the serenity that I found there, the “flaky” factor made bureaucracy and daily living (errands, contracts, visas) ludicrous to the point of futility. That’s not the case in Cyprus; I talked to lawyers, saw contracts, and grilled Cypriotes, Russians and Israelis about their daily life experiences as residents and citizens. The mundane being accomplished with ease is something I value; I need to know that the institutions I’m dealing with are both competent and efficient. It’s the first place I’ve found that is both bereft of stress and efficient enough to function seamlessly.

I could speak English, drive a TT Audi, and legitimately encourage my kids to teach

After establishing that I indeed respected the culture of equanimity that Cypriotes cultivate, I investigated further. Although some might call me impertinent, I prefer to view my tendency to ask lots of questions as “passionately curious.” I interviewed everyone I could find, from Gen Z’ers to middle aged professionals, from locals to tourists to expats, from parents to partiers.

Here’s what I learned:

Cyprus is an EU country on the Euro.

There are more sunny days (340) each year than in any other European country.

You can snowboard in the morning and swim in the afternoon, since the seasons overlap in Spring/Fall and the beach is 90 minutes from the mountains.

Used cars, compared to Israel, are cheap. Even luxury cars. I saw so many of them on the road that I looked up the prices:
2019 BMW for 35,000 Euro (118,000 NIS vs. 550,000 in Israel)
2020 Land Rover for 50,000 Euro (167,000 NIS vs. 350,000 in Israel)
2021 Porsche 911 for 165,000 Euro (550,000 NIS vs 1.2 million in Israel)

And “standard” cars (the ones we all drive here in Israel) are “grushim”

2019 Toyota Corolla for 20,000 Euro (67,000 NIS vs. 120,000 in Israel)
2019 Mazda 3 for 20,000 Euro (67,000 NIS vs. 103,000 in Israel)

Cyprus boasts the lowest crime rate of any European country. I wandered around alone in Limassol at 10pm amongst crowds of vacationing revelers and locals finishing service shifts, and nobody hassled me. I felt safe.

Everyone speaks English.

Private school (where all expats send their kids) runs 4,000 Euros per year for kindergarten and up to 8,000 Euros per year for high school.

Male Cypriotes are required to serve two years in the army, and are active in the military reserves for the rest of their lives. (No army service for girls.)

Teachers earn well; they are compensated at nearly three times the average Cypriote salary.

National healthcare (called Gesy) is available to all citizens. It’s also available to EU passport holders who contribute to National Insurance as well as to those who have the right to work in Cyprus, even for non-EU passport holders.

A Cypriote family of four can live comfortably on 3,500 Euro per month (about 12,000 NIS).

Luxury property costs 40% of what it does in the Tel Aviv/Herzliya area, and I’m talking European levels of luxury: 6 meter floor-to-ceiling windows, infinity pools, smart homes, concierge and valet services on-demand, on-site . And even if you’re only going to live there part-time, the real estate return on investment in Cyprus is 4-7%, compared to 2% in Israel.

It’s a Western, developed country featuring the British and European products I miss (looking at you, Cadbury).

Nuclear families are small, but weekends mean barbeques with extended family, and lots of it.

Expatriation and digital nomad life in Cyprus is bureaucratically easy: you show up on a tourist visa and apply for a “pink slip” which is a long-term visa valid for a year and renewable for up to five years. In order to qualify, you need to prove you’ve got the equivalent of 15,000 Euro in your bank account, and a consistent source of income outside of Cyprus. Either rent or purchase a property within three months, and your pink slip is valid for five years, after which you’re eligible for permanent residency. Two more years and you can become a citizen.

Since salaries in Cyprus are often 50% of those in other European locations (think Belgium) it’s much smarter to earn elsewhere than to get a job in Cyprus. Work visas are not easy to come by; you need a job first, and the company has to sponsor you.

Over 20% of the population of Cyprus is now comprised of expatriates (British, European, Russian).

It’s easy to integrate; since it’s not a homogeneous place, expats are not outsiders but rather, warmly welcomed. According to those who live there, they feel Cypriote within five years, whereas in other locations, it often takes a generation (or two) to feel local.

No matter where I travel, I’m still a Jew

Since I have traveled extensively, I’ve come across Israelis all over the world. While most of them don’t know (or care about) the rules of Shabbat and are happy to eat bacon on Yom Kippur, they do tend to maintain an attachment to Jewish culture and traditions, including recognizing lifecycle events. I know very few Jews, in any corner of the globe, who would forgo a brit milah for their newborn son, or some semblance of a bar mitzvah when he turns thirteen.

Naturally, then, amongst the myriad of questions I pelted at my hosts, I wanted to know about Jewish life in Cyprus. Certainly I didn’t come across any synagogues (and only a few churches and zero mosques) which shouted clearly that religion is not a governing factor there, but when my hosts cocked their heads sideways and came up short on information or resources, I located Chabad in five minutes flat, and marched in to consult with the Rabbi.

I had no appointment, and was suffering in the heat (think Tel Aviv in August) so I was without sleeves, but true to their character, Chabad immediately welcomed me. While there are six Chabad houses all over Cyprus, I happened to be in the luxury capital, Limassol, and met with Rabbi Yair Baitz, who introduces himself as simply Yair.

He’s been there about eight years, and when he arrived, he met the 60-Israeli-family Jewish community, most of whom had relocated because they were entrepreneurs and the tax laws in Cyprus offer an astounding low (and sometimes entirely avoidable, see the tax info at the end of the article) 12.5% corporate tax, as compared to a whopping 23% in Israel.

Over the last decade, however, Yair explained, that population has boomed to 700 Israeli families in Limassol alone, and over 3,500 Jews nationwide. Apparently, the Cypriote lifestyle and low cost-of-living has become an increasingly attractive yet initially well guarded secret. Israelis are now relocating to Cyprus in droves.

Yair now facilitates the local Jewish community in its entirety, even founding a (culturally Jewish but not religious) kindergarten as well as a growing elementary school. Of course he performs weddings and bar mitzvahs, and runs a store featuring Bamba, Telma cornflakes and imported Israeli techina, but he also serves as the resource for all connections, from “Which car dealer can I trust” to “Can I give birth here or is it better to return home?”

Corporate taxes, pink slips and Non-Dom status; what does potential relocation look like?

As I delved further into expat Israeli life in Cyprus, I discovered Roni Schwartz. Roni is active in a number of Facebook groups for Israelis in Cyprus. Since he moved his family there four years ago, he organically found himself advising prospective Israelis-turning-Cypriotes about relocation – what it means, what it costs, how it works.

These are some of the Facebook Groups for Israelis living in (or considering relocation to) Cyprus that Roni frequents:

General Facebook group for living in Cyprus

Facebook group for Israeli who have relocated to Cyprus

Roni is an absolute wealth of information on everything Cypriote from real estate to private schools to healthcare. Recently, he founded a consulting company offering relocation advisory services to Israelis. Roni gave me the skinny on real pros and cons, and “tachliss” living costs as a foreigner.

True, he says, a Cypriote family of four can live comfortably on 3,500 Euro/month (just under 12,000 NIS) but an Israeli family cannot, for two reasons. Israelis send their kids to private schools (4,000 – 8,000 Euro per kid, per year) rather than the local schools which teach in Greek. In addition, he says, Israelis may need to pay for private healthcare since they are often ineligible for National Healthcare.

Since Roni is the Expat Expert, he dug a little deeper into the financial/taxation side of relocation. There are upsides and downsides to the Cyprus tax code. First, the bad news: as a tax resident of Cyprus, one needs to pay 8% of their paycheck earnings (not rental income, not retirement income – just employer-based income) to National Insurance, their Bituach Leumi equivalent. In addition, tax residents, regardless of origin or passport, must pay 2.4% of all reported worldwide income (yes, everything that comes in – all earnings regardless of source) to the National Healthcare fund, whether or not they are eligible to receive this benefit. Many Israelis opt out of becoming a tax resident of Cyprus for this reason. They prefer to remain on the “pink slip” (residency without tax status) and although the law dictates that you must declare yourself as a tax resident after 180 days of residence, no one ever checks.

While the standard corporate tax rate is 12.5%, there are potential exceptions in high-tech. Think of it as half loophole and half smart business for Cyprus: they’re looking to specifically attract companies dealing with intellectual property, patents and technology. Hello, Startup Nation. Although it’s an exception rather than the rule, if you’re in this group, talk to a tax attorney – you may end up a winner on corporate tax.

Now, the significant upside: welcome to “Non Domicile Status”. As a foreigner, from any country (including the EU), you are invited to prove that you are not of Cypriote origin by presenting your father’s birth certificate. Once you’ve proven this, even as a tax resident of Cyprus, you are exempt from any income tax (provided you take dividends instead of salary) you’ve earned working for a Cypriote company… for 17 years. I’m no tax advisor – and neither is Roni – but bottom line, what this means in practice is the potential to establish a Cypriote company as a resident of Cyprus, pay 12.5% (max) corporate tax, and take your salary in dividends, which means you pay ZERO INCOME TAX. In addition, if you have other money-makers in other places (if you own property and receive rental income, etc.) you pay 0% to the Cypriote government on that too. In addition, Cyprus levies a tax to both foreigners and citizens that they call Special Defense Contribution (SDC), to maintain the army. With Non-Dom status, you are exempt from SDC as well.

Of course! But Maybe…

Sky Tower in Limassol. Hilary Faverman.

Back to the guy on my couch.

Since he wasn’t working, he made it his daily business to curate memes and comedians that I would appreciate, and even to this day sends me a few each week, to make me smile. Among them, couch-surfer introduced me to Louis CK who, while controversial, debuted his Of Course! But maybe wisdom in 2013. The concept is “truths” that we all know and accept and live by… 95% of the time.

Of Course I’m a Zionist.

Of Course my home is in Israel.

Of Course I love this land.

But maybe…

Maybe I could live under an hour away, take a cheap, easy flight for family gatherings and holidays, and live a more comfortable, less expensive, more balanced life. Maybe Cyprus is better than good. Maybe…

Maybe it’s good enough.

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