Expat Outlook: Interview with a Happy Costa Rican
Miguel Mena is originally from San José, the capital city of Costa Rica, a country which, according to recent studies, has the merriest people in the world. The bubbly Ticos (Costa Rica natives) abolished their military, have a long life expectancy, high education standards, and produce only one-third the ecological footprint of the US.
I only met a few people from Central and South America, and I found Miguel quite intriguing. He came to Germany a few years ago in search of a new challenge. It wasn’t all easy breezy, but he eventually landed a job in a large corporate group. Since then, he’s been enjoying the life he wanted in an international setting, making friends easily and spreading the shine wherever he goes.
I asked Miguel to be our today’s guest and here’s what he happily shared with us.
How did the move to Germany come your way and what are you doing here?
I’ve always had the constant need to experience different cultures, connect with people from different countries, and learn as much as I can from them and about this world’s diversity. After finishing my MBA studies in Costa Rica and working for four years in the outsourcing business for an American multinational technology and consulting corporation there and in the US, I decided I needed a new challenge in my life. Moving abroad was always in my mind so I decided to take some risks. I quit a promising job and career opportunity and applied for a traineeship program that, at the end, brought me to the beautiful city of Bonn, Germany, where, after some struggle and even some sacrifices, now I have a job that I enjoy very much at the headquarters of an international logistics company. I work in the marketing and sales arena for a division that it is mostly present in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
What were the most challenging aspects you’ve dealt with when you moved here?
For a person with Latin blood like I am, family ties and friends are always important. The first year was extremely difficult since I missed them a lot. Even though I thought I had a good idea of how to deal with international environments, nothing really prepared me for the Germany move. I had to face many culture shocks since day one (including clarifying often that my country isn’t an island). The funny story is that now, when I go home, everybody tells me I am in many aspects “Germanized.” I think dealing with two worlds at the same time can be a bit overwhelming, but still it’s quite a learning experience that I still enjoy deeply.
How long have you been living now in Bonn and how much time did you need to adjust to your life there?
It’s been five years now. Honestly? I’d say one never ceases to adjust completely. However, I would also say that there was a point when, after a while, I was already able to speak the local language. My opinion is that no one can really start getting into a culture until they’re able to communicate with the locals in their own language. Now I have very good German friends not only in Bonn but in other cities far away, like Nordhausen in Thuringen. I even became the godfather of a beautiful little girl here. Although I am still adapting myself day after day, in time it becomes easier.
How is your German now? Do you need to speak it or are you fine by speaking English in your daily routines?
Languages aren’t difficult for me to learn. At the moment I have a good command of German although English is my primary language at work. But I can understand why many people say German language is complicated. Before coming here I thought I’d be learning it by ear. I thought watching TV, listening to the radio and jumping in conversation with the locals was enough to learn it fast and easy. That wasn’t the case, of course. For a proper German level, it’s absolutely necessary to join a class and start to learn it methodically. It wasn’t easy. Since Spanish is my mother tongue, I am a bit tired after speaking English the entire day at work, so imagine how I feel after work in a 3-hour German class. It paid off though. Once you reach the point where you lose the shyness, it is like surfing.
Do you hang out more with other expats or you do mingle with the locals?
Both actually. Since I came to work in an English-speaking environment, at first I was going out with expat colleagues and their friends only. That helped me to create a circle of contacts which allowed me to feel more comfortable in my new home. Some of the colleagues I met in the beginning left to other regions, but that doesn’t mean we lost contact. Quite the opposite.
I was able to visit them in places like Dubai, and some others are planning trips to Costa Rica or were there already with me or with my family, if I didn’t manage to take vacation in the same time. Some of those who stayed in Germany are now part of my closest friends.
Also in time, with openness and a bit of patience, I’ve made some German friends that I’m sure will last forever. They have given me support and great feelings. Did I mention I’m a godfather?
What did you learn from your experience in Germany in terms of people, work and culture?
Germany is an incredible country. I am fascinated with its history and with the amazing achievements Germans have gotten in just a few decades after almost complete destruction. I know that one should never generalize, but compared to my country, and even in comparison to many other European countries, I feel here a greater sense of order and structure in any aspect of day-to-day life, personal responsibility and security.
For sure, being this organized has made Germany become the engine of the European Union and one´s reference when speaking of education, technology and development in general. Sometimes though, I think that’s a factor that limits the spontaneity that I believe is also key in order to have a balanced life. Especially in the beginning, after being used to a bit of chaos in my daily life, I struggled to follow the rules that even some Germans sometimes consider to be “too much”. Like I said, I have adapted myself to such an extent that, even when I go back home, I need to adjust my mindset accordingly. Otherwise I wouldn’t fit in anymore.
What do you miss the most from Costa Rica other than family and friends?
Can I go for the food? Well, it is absolutely true that sometimes I dream of some of the typical Costa Rican dishes , but what I miss the most is the constant and easy contact with nature. Costa Rica has only 51,000 sqm, and yet in such a tiny tiny land we have mountains with a height you cannot find in Germany, Caribbean coast, Pacific Coast, many active volcanoes, rain forest, dry forest, rivers for rafting, waterfalls, caves, lakes, hot springs. Eco tourism is our brand. Now when I fly to be on a crowded beach in Spain or Italy, I think back home to the large empty white-sandy beaches, the jungle, palm trees and monkeys.
Also, since Costa Rica was the first country to declare peace to the world by abolishing its military more than 60 years ago, I do recall the times when no military man or women were in trams or buses like sometimes happens here. The first time I saw a soldier was here.
What do you like the most and the least about living in Germany?
Besides the life style, the challenges at work, the enormous possibilities to entertain yourself in large cities like Cologne, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf or even Amsterdam and Paris, learning a culture and creating deep connections with local people, there are other small things that I really enjoy here. I like the seasons for example. Back home we have a dry and a rainy season only. I love taking in the fall foliage. I am fascinated by the snow. I love the nature waking up in spring.
On the other side I have to accept that some small things are still nagging me though. Not finding a grocery store open on Sundays is one of them and yes, I accept it. Also, I feel uncomfortable waiting as a pedestrian at red light when evidently no car is driving by.
You travelled a lot in Europe, Middle East, Asia and the Americas. Is there any particular place out there that you’re really fond of?
I admit. I am a travel junkie. Probably that’s my biggest hobby. I am passionate about preparing myself for a journey with new surprises and discoveries. Believe me, that happens quite often. As soon as I have the time, I pack a small suitcase and I just go. All places have their own magic, but for me Europe and its vast richness is my favourite region. I bet anybody will tell you it’s quite difficult to choose a specific place. Since I got here, I am constantly fascinated by how easy it is to jump from one language, customs, food, and sceneries to another. From Gibraltar to Reykjavík, from Lisbon to Istanbul, all my journeys feed me with knowledge, positive energy and extreme joy.
What advice would you give to anyone who would like to move to Germany or anywhere else for that matter?
Research a bit the culture and the language before you move. I know some people that couldn’t really fit in and left. In all fairness, I have noticed their efforts to connect with the locals here, their language and their culture were insufficient.
A good preparation and being open to a new experience will certainly help you live a memorable expat life in Germany.