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Expat Exchange - 4 Months Later: Reflections on Living in Uruguay
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4 Months Later: Reflections on Living in Uruguay

By Chrystal Johnson

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Summary: Chrystal and Brian Johnson share their views of Uruguay after their first four months living in Uruguay.

Brian's Perspective:

So we've been living in Uruguay for just over 4 months now. We've had several people ask us about our views of Uruguay now that we've been here and it's a little more than a first impression.

From my perspective, Uruguay has surpassed my expectations from anything that I could have imagined. There is very little on the web about Uruguay. We came here blind. Meaning, we never visited, we just took the information we had in hand and moved here.

The city of Montevideo is beautiful. From the parts of the US I've lived in, you never see architecture like you do here. There are some amazingly beautiful old buildings. There are some run down areas too. The sidewalks may not be even, but they carry a lot of character… being that every tile was hand laid.

The city is very modern from what I was expecting. There are buses and taxis everywhere. You can buy a lot of US goods down here… It's very cosmopolitan here. It's funny that you see a lot of TV stars from the US on advertisements down here… Jack from Lost advertising cologne… The hot Desperate Housewives chick advertising hair products, it's kind of random.

The malls here are just like the malls in the US, except the food courts here tend to have better restaurants… but they do have McDonald's and Burger King here, they are a plague on the world. The movie theaters play the same movies that are being played in the US, except it's a fraction of the price to attend a movie in Uruguay (U$S 5 or less for a matinee). Even though the majority of movies in the theater are in English with Spanish subtitles, we watch all of the most current movies at home on Graboid… It's just easier because Zoë can't sit still for that long…

The bars here are similar to the bars in the US, except they are college town prices… A beer may be U$S 4, but it's a liter of beer… I have yet to see Captain Morgan in Uruguay, but hey… no worries. One huge difference is that bars don't close in Montevideo until the last person leaves… It's amazing how you can lose track of time. It's kind of funny to be drinking and having a good time, then look out the window and see that it's sunny outside. The great thing is, smoking isn't allowed in most bars here… Well, it's not allowed in any bars, but there are still bars that people smoke in… The game of pool is played differently here, I've played several times, but can't keep track of the rules… even though slop trumps about everything, I can't seem to win.

Montevideo is only about 1.5 million people, but it feels a lot smaller. Not because it is, but because all of the people here are very warm and welcoming. We have met a ton of absolutely wonderful people since we have arrived in Uruguay. Actually, there is a lot of city crammed into a small area here… It's no more than a U$S 5-6 cab ride from one side of Montevideo to the other.

What I've found out about the Uruguayans I've met since I've been here is… they are some of the most genuine people I've met. Living all up and down the west coast of the US, if I learned anything it was… If someone is nice to you, it's because they want something. If you trust someone, they will take advantage of you.

Uruguayans (for the most part) remind me of people from my hometown of Richmond, Missouri, USA (population just under 6K). Just like in my hometown, there have been a couple of bad apples we've run across, but it's not the norm. Also like in my hometown, people here in our neighborhood get to know the regulars and everybody knows everybody.

There are expats here… We hang out with some of them… I really like all of the Canadian expats I've met… Canadians are just rad people in general, ey… We don't focus our lives around hanging out with people from the north… It's good to have some interaction, but we like hanging out with Uruguayans… It also helps with our language.

Spanish here is different… Any Uruguayan will tell you it's the best and most proper Spanish in the whole world. But it's difficult. Understanding it is becoming easier, they speak it at 100mph… I find my favorite phrase to be "por favor hable mas lento" (please speak slower). When the language is slowed down, I get the majority of what people are saying. But when it comes to me speaking Spanish… I think I say it right, and then they look at me like I'm an idiot. Our friends Ali and Gerardo have been great in helping us learn how to say things properly… But it's difficult with the rise and fall of the language and not stressing every syllable… I can have basic conversations, but nothing substantial yet… Give me 6 more months; I'll have this language down.

Note to my porters: When you shut the doors to the elevator and I start to go up; I do hear and understand what you are saying… It's not nice…

There is petty crime here. It's strange to see bars on the windows of every place... everywhere… When we first arrived in Uruguay, it took a little getting used to. But it's not even something I notice anymore… We rarely see or hear cops with their lights and sirens on. We hear the occasional ambulance… But, it's nothing compared to the sirens we would hear in San Diego.

One thing I do notice is the poverty. It's not like the poverty in the US. There are people who ride around on their horse and buggies and dumpster dive in every dumpster… They collect all of the recyclables and whatever else can fetch some cash. If there's food that's edible, they eat that too. A lot of them have their kids with them. We live in a very nice neighborhood… but I see kids eating out of dumpsters… It's sad, but it is what it is.

We moved down at the beginning of winter. One thing I learned… When you move from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere at the end of winter… you get a year of winter… From what we've been told, this has been an unusually cold winter (so much for global warming), but it really hasn't been that bad… No ice, snow, sleet, hail or freezing rain… It's actually only snowed in Uruguay 7 times in the past 100 years. Tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes are unheard of here. There's only been 1 hurricane in recorded history. The winter in Uruguay is just like the winter in San Diego, but it's about 10-15 degrees colder. But, it's still winter.

I definitely like the countryside a lot better than the city. We are definitely looking forward to our new baby getting here so we can bounce out of the city. We are either going to move East along the coast towards Piriapolis or East of Punta del Este… or to the interior… We'll figure it out when the time comes.

This is the first time I've lived in an apartment that was taller than 2 stories (we live on the 9th floor). And it's been years since I've lived in an apartment, but I do like having a porter. Luckily the majority of buildings here are made of concrete and brick, so we don't have very much neighbor noise… but there is street noise. Where we live, everything we could possibly need is within a 5-block radius. The park, feria, grocery store, mall, dry cleaners, laundry, butcher, ice cream shop, pharmacy, hardware stores, photo shop, sporting goods stores, banks, restaurants, "clubs" gyms, tennis courts, beach and pretty much everything else you can think of…

Chrystal absolutely hates it when I jump up and down in the elevator, but Zoë absolutely loves it… Yes, my daughter has me wrapped… I jump up and down like it's the cool thing to do.

My view and perspective of Uruguay since I arrived has gotten better. If you've been reading our blogs, you know I was back in the US for a quick bout about a month ago. Through all of the haze (smog), the rules and just overall feel of the US… I'm glad to call Uruguay my new home.

Chrystal's Perspective:

Well, we've officially been living in Uruguay for four months now. The time has flown by so fast! But, I guess that's a good thing because it means I'm acclimating to life here.

Living in Uruguay is quite different from living in San Diego. Before now, I had never lived outside of Southern California. I had traveled around the US and outside the country, but never for longer than 6 weeks. So it has been very interesting to observe and reflect on the cultural and lifestyle differences and how it affects me.

I think my opinion to this point has really been shaped by the fact that I have been pregnant pretty much the whole time we've been here. Being pregnant seems to limit (or at least alter) your experiences to some extent. But, I have plenty of time to experience all that Uruguay has to offer.

Overall, I really like Uruguay and I am very pleased with what I have experienced so far. I have tried my best to embrace the culture, and I think that has made my acclimation to life here a little easier. I think if you resist too much, or you try really hard to compare everything to how your former life was, you're cheating yourself out of the real experience of living abroad.

Not speaking the language fluently has been my biggest barrier to fully embracing life here. I know enough to get around – to go to the market or feria, to order my meals or to take a taxi. But, I'm not fluent enough to have a conversation with a non-English speaking native. Fortunately (and unfortunately), a lot of people do speak English here, so there is plenty of opportunity for social interaction.

The people here are extremely friendly and helpful, and more genuine than I could have imagined. We always talk about how if someone is nice to you in the States, you better wonder what they want from you. It's not like that here. People are genuinely friendly and helpful because that's who they are. They don't want anything in return. It's refreshing.

For a capital city, Montevideo is very nice. I've never lived in a big city before now. Although San Diego has an impressive population, it's pretty spread out and you don't feel too much like you're living on top of one another, for the most part. It's a big city with a small town feel. Since over half of the country's population lives in Montevideo, you definitely get the big city feel here (of course not compared to cities like New York or Buenos Aires).

One thing I do like about the city's layout is that everywhere there is space for a park, a park is built even if it's a tiny little park with a small patch of grass and one bench. There's a big park with a playground only two blocks away from our apartment. It's great because we can walk over any time. Zoë loves it – she is such social butterfly. She just loves being around the other kids. It took me a bit to adjust to the fact that safety standards on the playground equipment aren't as high here. But, she has fun and it's plenty safe enough, so we love going over there often (when it's not raining).

Our apartment is on one of the main streets in Pocitos, so I can hear traffic (and blaring car horns) all day from our living room. And, if it's a warm day out, the gym across the street (gyms are aptly called "clubs" in Uruguay) opens it's windows and we get serenaded with a strange assortment of music ranging from techno to Britney Spears to Michael Jackson blaring out of the "club's" windows. So, if we had it to do again, I think we may have selected an apartment on a quieter street.

In general, there are a lot of people everywhere and people drive like maniacs. For such a laid back, relaxed people, you wouldn't know it from the driving style here. I have never experienced anything like it. I would just assume walk 2 miles before getting in a taxi. But that's okay. I love the fact that I can walk to pretty much anywhere I need to go. The only place I regularly take a taxi is to my prenatal doctor's appointments.

Speaking of which, I have found the medical care to be just as good as it was in San Diego so far. They don't keep you sitting around waiting all day for your appointment and it seems like the doctor isn't in a rush to get you out the door once you're in either. If you need a test (like an ultrasound), they see you in a reasonable time. I never feel like I'm going to need to spend an entire day at the hospital for something minor like I did in San Diego. I hope that this impression continues when Kaylee is born.

Even though I have enjoyed the experience of living in a capital city, I'm really looking forward to moving out of Montevideo once Kaylee is born. Whether it's down the coast toward Piriapolis or to the interior of the country, it will be nice to live somewhere a little quieter and slower, since that was the intent of leaving the States in the first place.

I love being able to get our fruits and vegetables at the feria. In San Diego, it would've been necessary to get in the car and drive to the farmer's market. It's nice to be able to walk a block and half and have everything we need right there. However, I think I'm going to love when we can have our own garden, and grow our own fruits and vegetables, even better.

Living in Uruguay, I've really come to enjoy the art of cooking from scratch even more than I already did. It came as a necessity since you can't buy a lot of prepared or processed foods here like you can in the States. I consider that a good thing. We don't need to be putting that processed junk into our bodies. I've actually never felt better.

Even though I love it here, I am definitely homesick at times. This is the longest I have ever been away from my family (my entire family lives in San Diego – parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, niece, nephew… you get the picture). That has definitely been hard on me. Especially since most of my family isn't very supportive of our move.

But, I have to do what's best for me. And right now, that's living in Uruguay. Hopefully my family will come around. Several family members are talking about coming to visit once Kaylee is born. So, hopefully once they see that Montevideo is an urban, modern city (with an old time charm), they'll realize that I'm really not living in a mud hut in some obscure African country drinking Kool Aid. ?

But seriously, I do miss my family at times and that has been the hardest transition for me. However, I know that I couldn't live the same lifestyle in the US that we are living in Uruguay. And this is the lifestyle I want to live.

About the Author

Brian and Chrystal Johnson -- and daughter, Zoë, live in Uruguay and started the site ExploringUruguay.com. They had trouble finding information on the web about moving to Uruguay, especially for young families not of retirement age. So, they decided to create the Exploring Uruguay Website, Blog and Forum to help other expats. In addition to their Website, they also wrote The Expat Cookbook designed to help expats cook favorite foods from scratch. A great option your favorite foods either aren't available abroad or are too expensive!

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Dec 17, 2010 00:00

Thank you for your many insightful comments. I lived in San Diego from '85 to '94 (and got my M.S. from SDSU) so I find your comparisons to SD very helpful. Sincerely, Mark

Jan 2, 2011 17:23

I've been thinking of doing the same thing, packing up and heading down there. We are of retirement age but have a child in grade school. I've thought about Uruguay for the past 25 years! Time to 'git ta gittin'!! I am really thinking that we need to spend a week around Montevideo and just get a feel for it. Everything I've read or seen sure has piqued my interest even more! Hope you are still enjoying it!! Ellie/Santa Barbara CA

Jan 20, 2011 02:04

Thanks for a great read! We are thinking of just moving to another country too. My husband grew up in the San Diego area, but we live in Eureka now. I'm curious about how you chose Uruguay, since you just "up and moved there". We are still trying to choose a country. Money matters. We are on Social Security. Would love to get your insight about Uruguay as compared to other Central and South American countries. Gail

Apr 27, 2011 11:05

I think what you did is awesome! It takes a lot to move away from all you've ever know. I am new to the exchange, so pls bear with me. I'm curious about money... how do you make a living? Any tips for those of us who will absolutely have to work to get by? Anything is appreciated! Thanks.

Aug 24, 2011 19:52

hi Chrystal and Brian. My family and I are looking to move back to Uruguay. I am uruguaian but my husband is australian and we have two children. We're a bit scared to go back as we don't know if we will get jobs. What do you think? My husband Grant is a manager of a news paper and I am a cheese maker and piano tuner. I think I can get a job but I don't know about Grant. He can do Marketing and also he knows the solar industry and environment. Can you give me a tip about jobs there now? tell what you think are the possibilities. Thank you, Ana

Jan 30, 2012 00:18

what year did you move?

Aug 23, 2013 03:22

HI Chrystal and Brian, By now you have been in Uruguay more than 3 years, based on your first report after 4 months. How do you feel now about living there? I have had Uruguay on my short list for a year now, and come November we will visit the country for two weeks and take a look around. We have lived in San Diego since 1993 and I want to get out of the USA, as I do not like the political climate any more. In fact, I hate it. I am from Germany and my wife is from Argentina and we are both naturalized citizens. I want to live in a place that you described in your original 4-month report, with nice, friendly folks who don't want something from me for being nice. We also need to live in a place that's a bit tax-friendlier than California, where the government now steals half of my income! Eventually our Social Security income will have to suffice, plus some savings. I would be interested to know how things have turned out for you and your family by now. Thanks for sharing and best of luck to you and your family. Herbert

Sep 3, 2013 20:47

I thank you for the practical objective approach to Uraguay. That's the most and best insight I've read

Jan 8, 2014 13:55

Hello Brian Johnson ( my brother's name) and Chrystal, we will be coming to Montevideo FEB 2014 to investigate living there . Your help would be greatly appreciated re a B&B or rental for 6 weeks. I found your article matter of fact...are you now out of Montevideo? Hoping you are still there and enjoying all that URUGUAY has to offer...we are wanting the same. Thank you, Emily

Oct 5, 2016 17:09

Thank you so much. I look forward to reading more about Uruguay thru your eyes.

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