“So, are you glad to be back, or did you want to stay there?”
It seems like everybody asks me this after I return from an extended visit to the U.S., and some of them seem sincerely interested in hearing my answer.
This really is just a personal story, and I’m sharing it mostly for the people who might be about to move to Costa Rica–those who ask, what do you miss? How does it feel after being here for over a year? The vast majority of expats who come to Costa Rica (85%) will return to their home countries within three years. I’ve been here 18 months now, and I’m not really an expat, but maybe what I have to say will help those who are on the fence about uprooting their life there to come here. This isn’t about the nuts and bolts of making the move; it’s more about some of the emotional aspects of making the leap.
I started an article about this subject last year when I returned from my first long visit to the US after moving back to Costa Rica in 2016. This is what I wrote:
This was my first long trip to the US in a year. My two one week visits focused on retrieving personal belongings and spending Christmas with family, and those went by so quickly that I didn’t really have time to pay attention to anything else. In addition, neither trip was back to my home town.
This five weeks in June-July was significant on many levels and I don’t know how to even begin to answer the question, so I’ll tell you what stands out in my mind about it. I can tell you that I don’t have a clear cut response—my feelings are made up of a thousand shades of gray punctuated by vibrant bursts of colors when I least expect it.
It was exciting to land in East Tennessee, and I did so almost exactly one year to the day after leaving. The afternoon was clear and I was able to see all the familiar landmarks (Bristol Motor Speedway, Boone Lake, etc.) as we descended toward the airport. Spotting the ring where my daughter had spent years of horseback riding lessons brought to mind many sweet memories.
It was a little odd to have no one waiting for me at the airport, and renting a car there was a first, but it felt great to be back “home.”
Within minutes I was in a nice SUV driving on a smooth highway filled with…almost no other vehicles! Oh man. It was a fine feeling, let me tell you!
I stop briefly at “my” grocery store to pick up a couple of items, and it was all I could do not to wander up and down the aisles looking at all the things I pay a premium for in Costa Rica, or cannot find at all. Among the handful of things I picked up were fresh organic raspberries and blueberries. Yum! And it’s not crowded, and the parking lot was practically empty. Bliss.
Then another few minutes down the road and I was turning into my former neighborhood—the one I grew up in, and the one I spent 20 of the last 21 years in. A rainy spring meant everything was especially lush and overgrown with honeysuckle and blackberries. Wow, look at the deer! I love this valley.
Then I was driving beside the lake—my heart beat faster—past my childhood home, and my parents’ other house, and into my former neighbor’s driveway (where I would be staying for the week) where the SUV she bought from me sat. I knew it would be there but it was still weird. The Pura Vida sticker is still on it. Sigh. Only car I ever owned that I’ve missed.
Looking out at the lake was the best and the hardest thing. The quiet. How I miss this! Just sitting here doing nothing but watching the water, the geese, the kayakers, the fishermen. This was what I looked out on growing up and it’s such a part of me. My heart smiles and it aches, because I’ll only be here for a week.
I walk over to my small lot, which sits between the house I grew up in and the second house my parents built. I sit by the lake trying to imagine what it would be like to live here again, but the pain of my mom’s unexpected death is still too fresh, and I half expect her to walk out on her porch and call to me. The people who live there now see me and look at me as if I am trespassing. I don’t stay here long.
Walking past my own house I sold a year ago was not easy either. No, thank you, I don’t want to see what you’ve done inside, but yes, I’d love to walk around the yard. I’m so glad you and your family are loving it. I’m so glad to see the my mom’s roses blooming and thriving. Yes, I miss so many things about this home that I designed from the ground up, but I don’t miss the responsibility of maintaining it.
Walking these familiar country roads in the evening without my dog felt very strange and I am suddenly in tears. I miss him, and this place, and these walks, and for a few painful moments I fervently wish I could go back in time to the way things were.
But I can’t, and this visit really forced me to face the fact that my old life was not sitting here just waiting for me to return from a long trip; it’s all gone. Time for me to finish letting go of it. Time to get my head and heart back into the present, and so I do my best to focus on making the most of the few days I had left to spend in town.
I have a fun lunch with my international friends group. I go hiking in the state park along the lake with a friend, and another takes me out on the water on her jet ski. I get some necessary business taken care of.
The days fly by and at the end of the week I get back in the car to drive north, feeling somewhat unsettled and rather sad. It feels like another hard good-bye I’m not quite ready for. I spend the next several hours on the road mulling it all over. Fortunately there are loved ones (including a new baby) at the end of this drive, and that makes it easier.
Weeks later I am able to set aside the emotional losses of what I left behind in TN and think about the more concrete things that I miss about living there.
- Driving a nice vehicle that feels safe and, dare I say it, luxurious. Great headlights rock. I miss the security of the Volvo. Taking it to CR was not a realistic option, but…
- Driving on smooth roads with the lightest of traffic. Driving was almost relaxing in a place not known for good drivers. Five miles in 10 minutes—13 minutes if the lights catch me. Going fearlessly anywhere at anytime, with no delays, no strategies as to timing or routes. Sweet.
- Long days of summer. It’s great to have several hours of daylight after supper to enjoy the evening. It’s dark in CR by 5:30-6:00 all year around.
- Stores of every kind that are not crowded and that carry a wide variety of products to choose from. Prices that don’t constantly stun me. Abundant parking everywhere.
- The ease of walking into my bank to do any kind of transaction at all in minutes.
- The lake. The lake. The lake. My brother and I recently discussed how special it was to grow up there but it was so normal to us, we didn’t fully appreciate it at the time.
- Having a house of my own. I don’t miss the responsibility and I’m quite happy in my condo, but there are things about having one’s own stand-alone house that are nice.
- Motorcycles that stay in their lanes and in their place. One pulled up behind me at a traffic light, and when the light changed I immediately looked for it in front of me before moving—Oh, he’s still behind me! Oh, yeah, I’m not in Costa Rica!!
- Driving 400 miles in 6.5 hours on a well maintained interstate. Takes me that long to drive 120 miles in Costa Rica! I made this drive 3 times and each time I thought how much I miss being able to drive like this.
- Having consistently good internet service. CR’s internet structure is woefully inadequate for demand and almost daily “pauses” in service drive me nuts, since it makes research and writing difficult (saving my draft as I write this is currently not happening, for example, because internet is out!), and even pulling photos or documents down from “the cloud” can be impossible. Streaming movies can be frustrating as well.
- And this one that I’m pretty embarrassed to admit—after years of hating being called “honey” by cashiers who don’t know me—I found it quaintly sweet and welcoming. Yeah, there are things about small town life you don’t appreciate until you’ve been gone a while.
That was as far as I got with the article last year, so let’s jump back to the present-January 2018—and I’ve just returned from another five week stay. I didn’t fly in and out of TN on this trip, but I did drive down from Washington, DC. I was in TN for ten freezing days to usher in the new year.
I looked back at the above article start and of course the first thing that stood out to me was how many things on my “I miss” list had to do with transportation. Nice car, nice roads, no traffic. So all of those things still top my list of things I miss. Insane traffic, night driving, having an older car, and personal safety concerns mean that I often miss out on things I would love to go to, or stay longer at. I have friends that I barely see because the time we would each spend stuck in traffic to cross town is such a deterrent to us both.
My article on driving in Costa Rica will clarify this if you need more explanation. I almost didn’t move back here because of the traffic situation and it may some day end up playing a part in my deciding not to stay. Living in the Central Valley is non negotiable for me, but the hours spent at a crawl are hard to swallow, even when I only have to deal with this a few times a month. Yes, we have public transportation here, but it is caught up in the traffic like everything else since there are no dedicated lanes for buses, nor is there a metro type of train system.
Having said all that, I don’t miss having to drive everywhere for everything. I love living near a small town where I am a 15-20 minute walk from practically anything I might need on a daily basis.
I do miss being able to easily find a wide selection of almost anything at reasonable prices within a half hour drive. CR is a very expensive place to live in that respect. You don’t walk into a store here for one thing and walk out with a bunch of other impulse purchases, and while that’s a good thing, it also means that you keep a running list of what you need to get from the US. I know I’m not the only one who starts ordering stuff on Amazon a week or two before their trip! (For the uninitiated, getting things sent here is both uncertain (things get lost or stolen) and costly (in postage and import taxes).
During my stay in January I got to see the lake each day from the homes of the former neighbors I stayed with for the week. This is undoubtedly what draws me back the most—the mirrored surface on calm mornings, the dazzling sparkles on sunny days, the beautiful fall colors reflected on it, the otherworldly fog on cold mornings, and those glorious days when the white frosted trees around it turn it into winter wonderland. Yes, I must one day have a place on the little piece of land that I still call my own on this lake.
Just so you know, six months made a big difference in my feelings about visiting TN and leaving again. I still wanted to stay a little longer, but my heart wasn’t so heavy when I left this time. Not spending the last couple of days in my old neighborhood helped, but mostly I was able to make peace with not having an actual home there for now.
Then there’s the weather. Last year’s visit was in June-July, and it was hot as blazes, but this recent visit took place under totally opposite conditions, and I can tell you I’m not sure which is worse—95 degrees with 90% humidity or 12 degrees with 10% humidity!
Pulling on bulky coats and gloves and a hat every time you walk out the door gets tiresome. The air is so cold it hurts to breathe outside, but the dry heated air inside had my nose bleeding within 24 hours. I used more moisturizing cream in 2 weeks than I use in CR in 2 months. Humidifiers help, but I felt like I was becoming a prune and it didn’t feel good on any level. Not having experienced the gradual change in seasons that gives us thicker skin and improved tolerance, my body was not ready for this at all. I started to acclimate right about the time I left.
I don’t miss the extreme weather (or the power bills that go with it!). I love knowing that where I live in CR it will be between 63 and 75 degrees virtually every single day. No heater, no air conditioning. If I want heat I can be at the beach in 2 hours, and it still won’t be over 90 degrees. The moderate climate in Costa Rica is a major plus, and is something I missed when I lived in TN. Deep blue skies, full rainbows, and spectacular sunsets are regular views from my place here in CR, and I am still awed by it all.
I don’t miss the lack of good restaurants in my TN hometown. Although they’re making some progress, they’ll never measure up to the number of great places I have to choose from here in CR. I don’t miss the lack of national and world news in the local newspaper, or the lack of cultural diversity that enriches my life in CR in so many ways.
Last but definitely not least—I Miss Family and Friends
This is the most difficult aspect of being torn between two countries.It’s why I put off writing this part for last. I have family and friends in both. What can I say? It’s a blessing and it’s the pits.
I should clarify that I left CR in 1996 and returned to TN not because I wanted to leave Costa Rica, but because my dad’s days were numbered. I made several emergency runs north before deciding to move back there, as my mother made several emergency runs south to take care of her parents over the years. Having aging parents on the other side of an ocean can really be challenging.
I try to see as many friends as possible when I’m in the US and we talk from time to time, but we’re no longer part of one another’s regular lives. Having said that, not seeing them doesn’t have the same effect on me that not seeing my immediate family does.
On the plus side, I see my U.S. based globe-trotting brother a little more now that I’m in CR than I saw him while living in TN. But, leaving my daughters behind in the US to move here in 2016 was the biggest challenge of all for me. It’s pretty normal for kids to grow up and move away. It requires a totally different mind set as a mother to be the one who moves away–and to another country, no less.
My girls were born here in CR, yet this is no longer home for them. Yes, they’re grown and they have their own lives and families. No, they didn’t live near me in TN. They’re on opposite coasts! And now I have two little grandsons on one of those coasts. One who asks me every week when I’m coming back, and an infant who tries to see if I’m behind the screen he sees me on. I can’t hop in the car and be there in 6-7 hours like I could before. Technology is a wonderful thing, but you can’t send or receive hugs, kisses, or tickles through a screen. It’s painful to miss out on all we do together when I’m there, and I understand all too well how quickly they grow.
Yet, this two country thing is normal for us. Those two flags in the top image flew in my parents’ yard my whole life; symbolic of our bi-national reality. I grew up in TN visiting my own grandmother in CR one month each year. My parents lived in TN while I was living with my girls here in Costa Rica. We usually saw each other only once a year, too. Yet we all managed to maintain strong ties to one another, despite the lack of modern technology, so I know it can work. But as I said in a yet unpublished article, I’ve learned that being the mother in this scenario is much harder than being the daughter ever was.
I thought I’d be able to see them more often. But, plane tickets have not become cheaper, and budgets and work schedules come into play. It’s more complicated than I anticipated. I would not be happy living where they live. I have my own life too, and for now, I’m living in this beautiful other country that I have called home for over half my adult life.
As always, the right thing isn’t always the easiest. I’m not complaining. I just want my readers to understand that this kind of move can involve a lot of mixed feelings on a number of levels, and you must give yourself time to make a new life in a different country.
Returning here was my best option 18 months ago, and it continues to be best for me for now. I figured it would take me two full years to settle in, and everything seems to be progressing on schedule at various levels.
It’s curious that when I arrive in TN for a visit, I feel at home the second I arrive, but it’s a quiet return. It’s like slipping in the back door to a regular life. It’s comfortable and predictable, but I sometimes felt like a square peg in a round hole, and I often felt bored and isolated during the last few years I lived alone there. It’s unfortunate that just as a more active life was becoming possible for me there, other constraints made moving away necessary. As the French say, c’est la vie–such is life.
I enjoyed my recent visit with my daughter and family, and I was sad to leave them, but I was ready to get back to my own space and my own routines. I was also ready to leave the cold winter weather behind.
It was pretty wonderful to wake up to a warm sunny day and look out at my awesome view of blue mountains, flowering trees, and blooming flowers. 36 hours after landing I was stepping out into 86 degrees of sunshine onto a deck overlooking the ocean and getting ready for a day of food, fun, and laughter with at least 40 family members.
When I arrive back here in CR, it also feels like home as soon as I land, but it’s different. I was gone for 20 years. The transition period is done, but my everyday life is in an active phase of discovery and evolution.
There are reconnections with friends and family, of course, but there are also countless new friends, new groups, new work, and new opportunities. I dearly needed this kind of revitalizing energy in my life and as I’m learning where I fit in, I’m also creating a totally different life from the one I was leading a few short years ago.
It’s a bit of the old and a lot of the new. It’s unpredictable and it’s not entirely comfortable yet, but it’s definitely not boring and I’m not isolated!
There is no perfect place. There are pro’s and con’s about living in the states and living here. Each person has to figure out what will work best for them, because some sacrifices always have to be made. I’m generally pretty good at accepting how things are in living this way, but I have my days. Fortunately, the pro’s shine brightest the vast majority of the time.
It sort of boils down to “when I’m here, I miss being there; and when I’m there, I miss being here.” I’m happy but I’m not always content. It’s the eternal internal struggle of belonging to two places, and alternating between them as best one can.
So, am I glad to be back in the Central Valley of San José, or did I want to stay in Cooks Valley of Tennessee? The answer turned out to be easy: both!
Images of Tennessee and Costa Rica are my own. All rights reserved.