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An Expat Talks about Living in San Jose, Costa Rica

Sep 16, 2019


San Jose, Costa Rica

A woman who moved to San Jose, Costa Rica talks about her dreams and expectations vs the reality of life in San Jose. She had envisioned a Hemingway-like lifestyle, but has found that the reality is much different.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

San Jose

Describe how you "dreamed" expat life would be before you moved overseas. Please provide as much detail as possible.

As a writer and former professor with an interest in politics, my main expat fantasy involved hanging out with other expats and locals discussing politics and ideas. I imagined a group of us gathering at a regular bar or coffee shop with a few fawning graduate students joining in to soak up our collective wisdom. At minimum, I hoped for a Hemingway-like lifestyle.

As a fallback, I at least hoped to have fun. I knew from having visited as a tourist that the "party atmosphere" is a blast.

I also figured that I'd live in a well-run social democracy of nice people with affordable socialized healthcare.

How has your expat experience met the expectations you dreamed about before you moved abroad?

I have been pleased to encounter locals with a broader exposure to ideas than I was accustomed to in the US. Ordinary businesspersons, engineers, and schoolteachers here are for example acquainted with Marxist thought and interested in discussing it. They don't simply dismiss it without understanding it, as is common in the US. On the flip side, most understand Adam Smith and can discuss his ideas. They also generally know more about the world -- even more about the US -- than Americans do. I have found a regular bar near the major university where a bunch of us gather. A couple are writers too, and while here I've published two books and numerous articles.

Also, especially during my first year or two, I did party a lot (and had a good time). I'm in the socialized healthcare system for a low tax and the people really are nice. On the balance, I'm content with my experiences in the country.

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How has your expat experience NOT met the expectations you dreamed about before you moved abroad?

My first disappointment was failing to meet other expats with similar intellectual interests. I'm sure they exist, and every now and then one writes a thoughtful letter to the editor in a local newspaper, but I've mostly encountered retired military enlistees, firefighters, blue-collar workers, and bail-jumpers whose interests don't seem to extend beyond sports and complaining about the local culture. During the Obama years it also seems that a lot of angry and vocal right-wingers moved here. I have a few expat acquaintances but only one expat friend because I just haven't found the bunch to my liking. In fact, I tell locals that Americans in the US aren't as bad as the expats and they shouldn't judge us all from the ones who show up here, and pretty much only associate with locals.

Over time my romance with the local culture has also waned. Sometimes instead of considering my barroom buddies as intellectuals I consider them public employees. They're seemingly more interested in their pay and benefits than ideas, and a lot of their ideas are typical of public employees. Graduate students seem more oriented toward their future careers (mostly as public employees) than ideas too, and the only fawning they do is fawning that leads to advancement. The writers, it turns out, work on commission, and most who commission writers are rich students paying someone else to write their theses and dissertations for them. It's cheating, but normal. And everybody watches way too much soccer on TV.

The party scene is of course make believe, and after awhile I realized that I had to leave it. Lots of people get hurt in that scene, where dishonesty is common. One expat commented that the 3 month limit on tourist visas is "for your own good." He was right. You can't party like a tourist forever.

As for the social democracy with socialized medicine, it's actually sloppily managed and you get what you pay for with socialized medicine. There are lots of glitches. The people are still nice, but it's more superficial than I initially realized and often seems to mask incompetence.

On the balance I'm satisfied with the lifestyle I found as an expat and prefer it to the US, but reality is different from fantasy.

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