A couple of weeks after we moved from the beach to Grecia, the new school year began for public schools in Costa Rica. This provided a fun shopping experience, getting the kids outfitted in the uniform that all Costa Rican kids wear, everywhere in the country. The blue shirt (gabacho) Django is wearing signifies that he is in either materno (preschool) or kinder. The white shirt Suki is wearing is what kids first through sixth grade wear. Here are some pre- and post-first day of school pictures.
One of the draws of moving to Grecia was that we had heard good things about the public school across the street from our house. I have to admit to having all sorts of feelings about them starting yet another school, their third this year. I think I was more nervous than they were.
Maybe the best thing about our new house is that I can see Suki on the playground from our front yard.
The first day of school I saw her at first recess and she smiled and waved and pointed to a girl next to her shouting, “This is my new friend!” What a difference from the first school we went to here!
The school and the community are very welcoming but also very insular. Of course the kids are dying to make friends here and have play dates but I’m having difficulty figuring out the rules. I had heard from expats who’ve raised their children in Costa Rica that things are different in that regard. Family is huge here, both in size and importance. While the parents may consent to having their child play at your house it does not go without saying that the invitation will be returned. Additionally, in our case, we’re the newcomers in an extremely small, tight-knit community. Everyone knows each other and everything about them. We’re the newcomers about whom they know nothing.
To make matters more challenging is our appalling lack of Spanish. Now, we can manage all the day to day aspects of living here. We can procure things, find things and even have friendly chats with people while we do so. All of this comes crumbling down when trying to make friendly conversation with the other parents waiting to pick up their kids. This is especially true in a small mountain community where different slang is used and the ends of words are often left off. It’s challenging to make new friends, even in your country and language of origin. It’s exponentially more difficult in a new culture and language. I have been utterly humbled by the experience.
I remember reading a post in my friend’s blog right before we moved here. She was returning from a year in China with her family and was talking about what a “language barrier” really meant. I had heard the term my whole life, but never really stopped to think and imagine what that might feel like. Now I don’t have to, since we’re living it. And it’s profound. I have a whole new respect for the immigrants of the world. It is an act of will and determination to go out every day and try to speak in a language not your own. It’s humbling to be an educated and articulate person in your own culture and only be able to speak like a child in another language. I suspect people underestimate us. Or maybe I’m paranoid. All I know is that is hard to continually sound foolish and not be able to express oneself fully. Much easier to stay home and not interact. I really do understand how people can be in another country for years and never really learn the language.
In any case, the school is going well for the kids. They play with others at school, they’re willing to go, they seem happy when they get home. However, they are truly each other’s playmates. This is simultaneously wonderful and hard.
We love that we have an opportunity to experience another country’s public education system. School here is fundamentally similar to the States. Django comes home weekly with an art project and seems to do a lot of singing, playing and coloring in preschool.
There are some differences, though, that really threw us for a loop. One is Suki’s schedule. In small communities with fewer children, the school does not have the funding to employ a full-time teacher for each grade. As a result, a teacher will teach one grade in the morning and one in the afternoon. This means that all the school books have to come home with Suki every day. Her bag must weigh 15 pounds!
Happily, it’s a short walk. Additionally, she alternates weeks. One week she’ll go in the morning, the next she’ll go in the afternoon. Below is an image of her schedule.
For each subject Suki has a book, a notebook and sometimes a folder. She also has a homework notebook, a dictation notebook and a “communication” notebook, the primary means by which we communicate with the school. I’d like to think we’re pretty functional, with-it adults but man, the second grade is killing us. We just can’t seem to get her to school with every single article she needs every single day. This results in stern notes from the teacher asking us to please make sure she has everything as it is really affecting her performance. Yikes! Talk about humbling.
But matters are made more complicated by the fact that we get weekly notes from the school that either or both of the kids’ schedules are changing. Sometimes school is cancelled and we’re notified the night before. Sometimes we get no warning and Suki just shows up at home an hour early. “What are you doing here?!?” we say. “My English teacher didn’t show up” or “There was no music today”. Ack! Good thing we’re generally home! The schedule is so incredibly variable that we’ve come to the conclusion that this is a system dependent upon extended family. Because Django always goes in the morning (except when the schedule changes) and Suki flip flops, we sometimes have a few hours a day every other week when both kids are at school at the same time.
This crazy school schedule is contrasted by our ridiculously simple and peaceful existence. The unpredictability of the kids’ school means we spend a lot of time in or around our home. Fortunately, it’s gorgeous around here.
There are avocado, mango, banana and papaya trees all around us. From our front door we can walk about a mile up the road and the coffee fields suddenly give way to pine forests. At an elevation of about 4,500 feet the steep roads and paths we hike are a serious workout.
We have also found out that some our neighbors have farms where we can buy food. One of these farms is a dairy farm that also sells eggs. They have about 10 cows who must have very luscious grass to eat because there is some serious cream on this milk. We have to get there by 8am or after 5pm because the milk from the morning milking is sold off after 8 and the cows aren’t milked again before 5. It’s fun to go to their farm and chat with the owner while she pours fresh milk out of the huge vat. To make it even better, one of their grown daughters is an animal nut who keeps pheasants, rabbits and canaries. There have been at least two litters of rabbits since we’ve been here and if you’ve never seen a child’s reaction to a baby bunny, I suggest you find a way to see it.
I also really appreciate that the owner likes to talk. It is one of our opportunities to work on actual conversation. Like most people I’ve encountered here, she is gracious, kind and patient with our efforts. This is also true of the lettuce farm where we buy lettuce and basil. The farmer there is very curious about us and she always wants to chat a bit while we pick out lettuce and basil. In stark contrast to the beach, our only option up here is to speak Spanish. When I’m struggling to find a word, the person I’m talking to never switches to English. They just patiently wait and work with whatever I come up with. I am so appreciative.
Our landlady has also been incredibly helpful. She is about my age and very involved in the community. She invited me to come walking with her and a friend, another neighbor. This has provided many wonderful opportunities to get to know people in the neighborhood, speak Spanish and learn about my neighbors as we walk by. Through my landlady I have learned the professions of most of them. The most surprising was a lingerie maker who runs her business out of her home with several other seamstresses and, sadly, a breeder of roosters for illegal cock fights. That was an interesting conversation in which I learned lots of new words. She also helpfully pointed out a neighbor who does mending. Her going rate for seemingly any project is 500 colones, or a little less than a dollar. For the first time in my life all my pants are hemmed to the right length!!
As far as we can tell, this relocation within Costa Rica will help us meet our primary goal of learning Spanish. Secondary to that is being able to afford to stay here to do so. So far, so good.