Maybe just a teeny bit homesick....
Well, we just crossed over the nine month mark and now I can probably say we officially have our life “organized” here:
Homeschooling weekdays (*in-person school was just abruptly suspended by the Ministry of Education for 5 weeks to get all teachers vaccinated, a major blow to both the momentum the kids were finally getting with making friends with their limited in-person time and also the relief I was feeling at being able to whittle down homeschooling hours - big bummer across the board)
Morning walks or yoga with the dog
Art on the walls in the house and clutter throughout thanks to kids art projects, lego constructions and books mid-read
Family daily job routines
Thursday game nights
Friday night pizza picnics & movie nights
We finally tracked down a library (yay!), albeit it being an hour away and with a, frankly, outdated and sad selection of books. But it’s an excuse for a field trip. We know which grocery stores sell the cheapest butter and spring-roll wrappers. We’ve found music programs and virtual instructors and are signed up for a local online reading program each week. We’re meeting with a lawyer to prepare a will for our property here (Costa Rica defaults 50% to the kids upon death of one parent - yikes!). There definitely feels to be stability and a sense of routine in life now.
The produce store owner in a town 20 minutes from here that I very infrequently visit greets me with “Hola Corazon! Como me le va? Tanto tiempo sin verla. Y los chiquillos?” Hi sweetie. How are you? It’s been awhile. Where are your kiddos? It’s nice and gives me a warm fuzzy. Like we’re starting to become part of a community. Our mobile veggie vendor, who visits every Saturday, is dropping his kids off at our house tomorrow for a playdate during his rounds, and we’ll be bringing home some shoes for him purchased on Amazon during our visit to the US in July. At dusk I weed our veggie garden (something I very much enjoy, ironically, considering I recall griping daily to my parents about performing this same task during the summers of my youth….). While doing so, I chat with my neighbors, who are usually sitting on their front porch listening to the birds. Little by little things are falling into place.
So wouldn’t it be appropriate (or better, ironic and unfair) right about now to be stuck with a mild, but ever-present wave of nostalgia for Madison?
I think I’ve finally reached the “rejection” stage of our transition here. But not in the traditional sense of the word. I don’t hate anything here (other than the hardware store and the bank), the food isn’t horrible, and life isn’t overly stressful (other than having waaaaay too much time with my kids on a daily basis.) It’s not too busy (a regular gripe during life in Wisconsin), we get outside a lot, and I don’t necessarily find myself feeling sad about anything from back in the US.
Instead, it’s a feeling of lacking something. I’ve pinpointed it over the last few weeks as stemming from two things:
Lack of diversity (food, people, experiences)
Lack of tradition (this applies specifically to the community in which we live and the bleeping pandemic)
Here’s what I mean:
In Madison, pre-COVID, the kids and I stayed so busy (outside of work and school) that Johel and I actually toyed with selling our house and buying a condo one year because it seemed ridiculous to keep mowing the lawn and (kind of) keeping on top of the weeds in the garden when we were never actually around to enjoy them. Johel was a homebody and enjoyed being around the house, but the rest of us were always somewhere else: music festivals, farmers markets, art carts, libraries, gym, lakes, picnics, hiking, biking, you name it. While being busy stressed me out, not being busy and not taking advantage of all that was going on stressed me out even more. I had serious FOMO (a recently-learned acronym thanks to a former colleague:)
But now here we are in the exact opposite of a place that has a lot going on. Nothing is
going on here. And I don’t say that negatively: La Flor is an incredibly peaceful, safe
wonderful place. But as far as activity of any kind goes, there isn’t any. And with COVID,
it’s worse. There used to be periodic weekend soccer games to watch, but not right now. The country's response to COVID is confusing and, frankly, ridiculous (as an example, 4 people in our entire large county have died of COVID since the beginning. Four. Yet mega driving restrictions and school closures are in place. ?!?!) Our family, I imagine, used to get together for whatever with more frequency, but not now. Everyone sees everyone daily out on the street, but get-togethers and sleepovers and dinners together aren’t happening.
That, coupled with the fact that anything that would happen outside of La Flor in neighboring larger communities, has, of course, also been canceled. And Costa Rica seriously lacks common natural spaces that aren’t something epic and require at least a full-day commitment. Sure, the country has National Parks galore, but those aren’t someplace you head out to at a moment’s notice when you want to get outside for an hour or two. This makes it hard to, for example, head out for an afternoon walk just to explore. Of course,
every waterfall, lake, mountain, jungle, and beach we’ve been to has been great. But none of them are things we can walk to from our house if we want an hour-long family stroll in the evening. There are no bike paths where we can burn off a little energy and go exploring for an hour or two. No public parks for the kids to swing at. So everyday general enjoyment of the outdoors for the sake of being outdoors is very limited. In fact, it basically involves us working outside maintaining our cabin property and gardens and the kids walking the dog or swinging in the backyard (or, of course, playing soccer when the soccer field isn’t closed).
Today we (actually, just I) was so desperate for easily accessible, outdoor exploration time with the kids thanks to the four straight days of rain we’ve had that we found a break in the deluge this morning to walk down the road a few kilometers to the unfinished aqueduct storage building that is “in the works” (note: no progress has been made since we moved here in September). We set up camp in the three-and-a-half-walled, roofless cement structure to have our music class. The echo provided something interesting to listen to, and it made me a bit reminiscent of when, back in Madison, we’d set out on an evening bike ride and discovered some new little neighborhood park or a cool building mural. Something I miss a whole bunch.
This lack of communal natural space close by, combined with a general lack in diversity of life’s offerings (in the sense I’m used to...I know this probably sounds ridiculous - we moved to an entirely new country for goodness sake! - but it’s true), is a bit hard.
Take food, for example. Around here, there is nothing but sodas (read: small, traditional Costa Rican rice and bean joints) and restaurants de comida típica (read: larger, traditional Costa Rican rice and bean joints - seriously, how do these places all stay in business?!?) and one (thanks to significantly lowered expectations) semi-decent pizza place that provides us with our picnic pizzas on Friday. That’s it. And good luck even trying to buy unique stuff to cook yourself. We stocked up back in the US on hard finds like Oyster Sauce and Sushi rice (which was confiscated in the airport as a seed!), but good luck finding anything more ethnic than soy sauce at 99% of the local grocery stores. One store “nearby” (used loosely, as the road is in such bad shape it’s a 20 minute drive) has one little section of Asian products. There I can track down, in exchange for one of my three children, things like spring roll wrappers or peanut butter or rice krispies.
Johel & I have used this lack of food variety to enjoy attempting to make foods we miss: croissants (decent but lacking fluff), orange rolls (amazing!), Korean bulgogi (more than amazing!), sweet potato hash (great as long as we manage to track down real bacon - a very rare find here - a disaster if I accidentally buy the Costa Rican “bacon” - ham-ish-like meat sliced and packaged in strips to deceivingly look like bacon but taste grody). We’ve actually grown accustomed to always bringing an iced cooler with us anytime we head outside of the little nearby communities in case we come across a larger grocery store, a PriceSmart (the Costco equivalent) or (shh, don’t tell) Wal-Mart that might let us stock up on low-quality string cheese or something else that provides a little variety.
That being said, we’re eating more fresh fruit and veggies than ever - although organic is a thing of our past in these parts - consuming, easily, 5-7 mangoes a day between the five of us, plus a ton of other vegetables and fruits for snacks. I regularly fret over how I am rapidly undoing all the effort I made to buy and feed our family organic produce for years as I consume produce here in Costa Rica. I often run the numbers in my head of how much money we spent over the first 9 years of our kids’ lives at the local co-op and feel nauseated by how it’s all going down the tubes. Organic, unless in an uber-touristy, expat area, is non-existent here. And even in those touristy areas, it’s often hard to find.
And diversity in cultures or ethnicities? Mmmm, not so much. I’m the only Gringa I’ve seen in any of the neighboring towns except for a small Mennonite community that sells eggs near here. There are a few Chinese who moved to the nearby town to take advantage of tax breaks offered to Chinese who opened supermarkets...a confusing situation I still don’t quite get, but that’s it. The only other ethnic group we’ve come across that wasn’t a tourist was an Indian couple who owns an (amazing!) Indian restaurant in Liberia three hours from here. Them, and a few Nicaraguans we’ve befriended. That’s it.
As for lack of tradition, this is the hardest of all. In addition to all the above-mentioned activities my family regularly engaged in all year ‘round in Madison, my extended family had crazy-regular traditions that we always participated in: barn parties, bonfires, pool parties, sleepovers, weekly dinners, and more. Our community here is dominated by a religion that doesn’t encourage tradition and therefore, it doesn't exist amongst our Tico family. Do they, spontaneously, do sleepovers or dinners (when COVID is not an issue)? Of course. But all those traditions that existed back in the US - from celebrating birthdays to getting into the Christmas spirit to Halloween to everyday cookouts to cooking classes at the local grocery store - aren’t happening. It’s hard.
Hard on two fronts:
1. I feel like my kids are missing out on all those wonderful traditions you look back on from your childhood and remember loving. I once read that young kids don’t need extravagant vacations. Instead, they need consistent, smaller traditions (think camping outings, family gatherings), as those will be what actually sticks in their minds. Trick or treating with cousins. Movie nights with family. Birthday party traditions with friends.
And it’s not that they have to be US or Madison traditions, but they just have to be traditions. With more than our immediate family. And that is nearly impossible to create within our La Flor community and impossible while the surrounding communities aren’t holding any sorts of events or activities to get involved in.
2. Those activities give a sense of excitement in life and a sense of separation in time and progression of the year. Here in Costa Rica, we lost the change of seasons (now we just experience “hot and periodically rainy” to “hella hot and constantly rainy”) to mark the passing of time. Birthdays come and go and you barely realized they happened - even though I do my best to make them seem as big of a deal as I think they should be. But it’s hard when you don’t have the people around you to recognize these days or celebrate with you. This is a big deal. Without those events that you look forward to or the major time-markers, life can feel quite uneventful. I don’t know if that’s bad or good as a general rule, but coming from a life of extravagant birthday weeks and biking to multi-day festivals day after day and planning for halloween costumes: it all matters and when it’s not there, something feels like it’s missing.
Interestingly, I’ve been thinking about what may have kicked off this little bit of nostalgia, and I recognize two moments:
When my sister recently sent a photo of our old house as she drove past during a recent trip to Madison. While I don’t miss the house itself, traditions galore were born within those four walls and that made me a bit reflective.
When our youngest two kids, upon learning I’d confirmed their plane tickets to head back to the states for a month this summer, immediately packed for the trip. This was more than 60 days before the actual flight, but their bags today (30 days prior) still remain packed and ready - stuffed full of everything they don’t actually need: baseball gloves, swim goggles, a single wooden block, a superhero cape, a few beanie babies, and a puppet, for example. We’ll deal with that as the day gets closer. But the point is, they are soooo psyched. And it wasn’t a just-cause-I-confirmed-the-tickets excitement. It’s been oozing out of them for weeks now. I have to regularly update them on the days they have left. Periodically they restock their suitcase (because you never know when you’ll need your sewing kit and buttons while visiting gramma and grandpa!) and have grandiose plans about who they need to see and what they plan to do. It’s precious and heartbreaking at the same time.
Phew! So there you go. The official “rejection”-ish stage entry. It was bound to come, and it will be interesting to see after a month in the states, when COVID seems to be idling down a bit, how returning to Costa Rica will feel. I’m hoping all I need are a few good morning buns, a decent deli sandwich and a pickle spear, a couple good family bonfires with a s’more (ok, let's be real, 3 s'mores and any leftover Hershey bar...), a regular dose of deep fried cheese curds, a bike around the lake loop with a stop for some ice cream, and a couple outings to nearby state parks with friends for a hike to make me feel ready to come back.
We shall see.