Confessions of an Ex-Expat: The Dream vs. Reality
For the past four years, I lived in South America as an expat Canadian. The retirement plan that my husband and I had envisioned included settling in the city of Montevideo, Uruguay, where the moderate climate, low cost of living and lively cultural scene provided an attractive alternative to our life in North America.
The reality of living in a foreign country includes a host of positive and negative aspects that even the most well-informed, open-minded person would not anticipate when formulating an exit plan. Beyond the initial phase of culture shock, there are harsh lessons and unexpected pleasures that present the expat with challenging situations and exciting adventures. Tolerance levels and flexibility are bound to be tested as you make your way in a different milieu, always the outsider vacillating between despair and delight, confusion and comprehension. In Uruguay I discovered my own limits, a personal revelation that supported my decision to return to Canada.
The climate of Uruguay is Southern sub-tropical, with coastal areas moderated by Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic ocean. This means that it is comfortably warm in the summer; mild and humid during the winter. Frost is rare and snow unheard of, so lush vegetation offers year-round colour in gardens and parks. Nature is close at hand in urban green spaces filled with palm, eucalyptus and plane trees. A riverfront boardwalk that runs along sand beaches provides a recreational area right in the heart of the bustling metropolis. Our house was located just two blocks from Parque Rodo, a central park where flocks of parakeets nested in the trees and rabbits populated the islands in a lagoon. It was a great place to walk, jog or cycle.
Montevideo is a city with an active program of cultural events that includes musical concerts, art exhibitions, films, dance and opera. The government of Uruguay supports the arts and that generous funding keeps ticket prices for the symphony orchestra concerts affordable. The arts are not restricted to an elite, upper-crust group—free concerts and exhibits are offered regularly in the parks, churches and plazas. We immersed ourselves in Montevideo's arts scene and spent many enjoyable evenings at Teatro Solis and Sodre taking in world-class performances.
The Down Side
Montevideo has many beautiful areas, but it also has garbage disposal problems that make inner city neighbourhoods filthy. Household trash is collected in large covered bins that sit on almost every corner. Municipal trucks empty the dumpsters and haul the refuse away on a weekly basis. The system would be fine if the garbage stayed in the bin, but unfortunately that isn't the case. Street people (an army of them) use the dumpsters as their primary source for food, clothing and any other items that they might need. Along with the homeless, there are horse and cart drivers who sort through every bin in the city looking for recyclable materials like glass, cardboard and tin. The result of daily rifling through the bins is garbage tossed out on the street. When the weather is hot and humid, the stench is often overwhelming.
It's not just the area around the garbage bins that is dirty. The city of Montevideo's bylaw requiring pet owners to clean up after their dogs is generally ignored and unenforced. We had a neighbour who routinely led his German Shepherd to the sidewalk directly in front of our house to do his business. A polite conversation with the dog owner made absolutely no impression and every morning it was our duty to clean up the animal's mess.
The limit of our tolerance for filth was reached when a homeless man set up camp near our house. This is very common, even in good residential neighbourhoods, as a recent boom in new construction is forcing the poor to move out of low-income rental accommodation. Lacking free public washrooms in the parks of Montevideo, street people simply use the sidewalk as their toilet. Suffice it to say that being responsible for cleaning up the human's mess was more than I could handle.
Noise was another annoying issue that we could not resolve. City dwellers thrive on loud parties, loud engines, loud horns, loud shouting, loud music, loud drumming and loud fireworks. When I mentioned street noise to a Uruguayan friend, she informed me that loud is an integral part of Latino style. Nights in Montevideo were often sleepless as the patrons of neighbourhood "boliches" —small bars that stay open from 11:00 pm to 4:00 am—enjoyed high-volume techno dance music. We found ourselves constantly fatigued and cranky, suffering from long-term sleep deprivation.
Customer service is difficult to find in Montevideo. I cannot count the number of times that we were initially told "No" when we asked for something. There is a pervasive attitude of slacking off in offices and stores that makes it difficult to get anything done. I recall visiting the city archives, searching for a photograph of a heritage building that was slated for demolition. The clerk behind the counter was drinking mate and reading a newspaper when I approached her with my request for information. She shook her head and said, "No, we don't have photographs." I tried again, rephrasing my initial question. "No," she insisted and turned back to her reading. A person who was using a computer nearby to search the collection took me aside and showed me how to access images following a few simple steps. Why couldn't the paid employee have offered to do this? It is almost impossible to fire a public employee in Uruguay, so the lazy mentality in all departments has become an accepted part of the culture. "Es lo que hay," a phrase that roughly translates as "That's how it is," is a favourite saying used to deter a customer who complains.
Time to Leave
When our dream lifestyle in Montevideo turned out to be encumbered with so many cultural differences and daily frustrations, we decided to repatriate to Canada. Along with a wealth of good memories and a few souvenirs, we brought back a renewed appreciation for our homeland. Canada is a clean, quiet, safe haven that offers a higher standard of living than many countries in the world. Four years in South America was a great experience, and I have no regrets about our sojourn there. As I shovel snow from the driveway in New Brunswick, I feel right at home, happy to be an ex-expat.