Sunday, 28 June 2015

Two things I learnt from a year in Costa Rica

At the start of 2014, I moved with my family to Costa Rica. A year later we moved back to the UK after a memorable 12 months. I learnt a lot of things in that time, but here are two that seem particularly important.

On immigration. This move to Costa Rica was EASY: I had a nice job lined up in a good university; I caught a plane straight there with my family; I had my papers all sorted; I had some money in the bank to ease the travails of moving; I was healthy as was all my family; we'd had plenty of time to prepare; I'd been learning Spanish but the university let me teach in English for the first six months; my wage might have been low by Western standards but it was pretty nice compared to your average tico; Costa Rica is a stunningly beautiful place with great food, great beaches, great weather; a bunch of people at the university went out of their way to welcome us, make us feel at home, look after us, and give us advice.... But despite all that, this easy move was HARD.

Which is hardly surprising, because moving across the world to a new place is inevitably damn difficult. We had a load of times when we felt lonely, disconnected and abandoned; when we just wanted to flee screaming back to where we came from.

So now imagine what it must be like for those without all those advantages. People bang on endlessly in this country about all the immigrants swamping the country. It's bollox from start to finish of course. But even if it weren't, how bad must things be where they're coming from that they're prepared to move across the globe to some alien new land, where they will be received with suspicion, rejection and blame for all of the ills of the place where they find themselves?

A little empathy would go a long way.

On housing. Our housing in Costa Rica was a tale of two halves: for the first six months we were in a tiny two-bedroom flat with a piece of concrete outside and some razor wire; for the second six months we had a big flat with a magnificent garden.

What's interesting is that the two-halves experience of housing also made for a two-halves experience of parenting. In the first six months I shouted at my kids a lot. They were continually making noise in my ear just when I needed some calm; there was nowhere for me to go to avoid them; there was nowhere for them to go to avoid me. I ended up being a very angry daddy.

And I didn't even realise what had been happening until we'd spent our first month in the nice new flat. A whole month had gone by and I'd hardly needed to raise my voice. If things got hairy I just walked out the door into the garden, or kicked them both out and told them to play football for half an hour. Suddenly I was a good dad!

It made me realise just how much the state of our housing affects our quality of life. I want to be a good dad more than just about anything else in the world... but I just couldn't do it in that first place (and it wasn't even that bad; lots of Costa Ricans have it much worse). It made me realise anew that when governments and councils and powers-that-be short-change people on basic needs like housing, the effects are not just the physical discomfort of a shit place to live, but the damage of fundamental family relationships.

I have in my head a classic stereotype of a working-class mother screaming at her kids as she pushes a buggy down the road; I'm walking by in my middle-class bubble trying to be sympathetic but secretly, snobbily, disapproving. Well for six months, I was that mother. I don't want to blame all my bad parenting on living in a shit flat, but I know for a fact that it didn't bloody help. If I was a better person, my parenting would still have been OK... But unfortunately I've got to start from where I'm at, and it turns out that I find it hard to parent if I can't get away from my kids every now and then. Who'd've thunk it?

No comments: