How to Fall in Love with Normal Life Again

I got off the plane and stepped out into the height of rainy season. The hard stuff struck me like the honeymoon glow of language school blowing its first transformer. Mold in full bloom on our car seats and furniture. Trash scattered on the streets. The cramped feel of our house after the heartland’s big wide open. Five years serving in Costa Rica grooved it all normal, but 3 weeks stateside lured me out of sync with pura vida rhythms.

As a missionary, stateside visits are a sprint effort. Work and play full out, all of it different from the routine of life abroad. It doesn’t take long to acclimate to the absence of pre-dawn roosters, childcare by grandparents, or hometown selection and prices.

I thought re-entry stress would dissipate as we became seasoned at life here. It’s always nice to get back into our own space, sleep in our own beds, cook in our own kitchen. Each time the bump of transition greets me with the new ink in my passport, whichever direction I’m going. I no longer see it as an assessment of my functionality at the destination. It’s just an admission that change is always a little difficult, wherever you call home.

How do we smooth the landing, or just shake off the everyday doldrums, and fall in love with normal again? When our nest is cozy, life follows suit, so that’s a great place to start.

img_9082Clean something.

No kidding. The best way to appreciate something is to invest in it. When I feel down on my digs, one solution is to grab a rag and use it. This doesn’t mean clean everything.  Martha Stewart is not the goal; progress is. I cut a deal with myself to dirty one dust rag or wipe one wall. The clean spot usually leads to another, a beneficial momentum. Clear windows aren’t my strong suit, but they do give a better view. Tackling dust bunnies, or let’s be honest–woolly mammoths–helps me feel in control.

I can make this place better. I can make a difference. I can love this again.

Let something go.

A statement I heard years ago stuck with me: what we love about all those Pinterest decor shots is really the lack of clutter. Everything inside our walls costs us physical and emotional space. Suitcases usually return from our passport country laden with goodness.  The abundance is like Christmas, but it all has to fit somewhere.

Use the happy of the new to help release the old.  Send it forward as donations or landfill, and revel in the order and openness. I can’t make my house bigger, but I can reduce the unnecessary and make it feel that way. Last week I went medieval on our storage. I pitched expired meds, outgrown clothes, ratty shoes, and that stuff set aside months ago to see if I would miss it. No surprise–I didn’t.

Side note: do not let “maybe I’ll need this someday” trick you into keeping PVC pipe joints or random extra parts of any sort.  You know your husband will go to the store and buy new things without searching the dusty “miscellaneous” box. Just say goodbye now and live free.

Save a bit of splurge for home.

Often we arrive at our doorstep with a back-to-the-grindstone attitude. The fun shouldn’t end the minute we cross the threshold. As we scrubbed mold and overhauled storage totes, my husband suggested we treat ourselves to lunch out after worship. I was surprised how nice it felt to have something to look forward to.  It reminded me that life in our mission country isn’t all DIY. There is much to be enjoyed alongside the serving. Plan something playful to help your heart transition back.

Knowing is half the battle.  

Expect turbulence in the landing. G.I. Joe had it right. Understanding makes it easier to walk through. Give yourself grace. Don’t pole vault into work the next day, if you can reasonably avoid it. Make time to reconnect. Message your friends on the ground and the ones you just hugged goodbye. Set a date for coffee or Skype. Leave white space to process.

What did you love about your time away? What bumped you about your home culture? What’s the good, bad, and ugly about being back?

Go to your happy place.

Sipping coffee on my balcony or getting creative in the kitchen puts new spring in my step. Getting outside of our walls into the sunshine is good for the soul. Sharing simple eats like popcorn or pancakes fill the house with something better than tasty smells–life.

So put your favorite tunes on, diffuse homey scents, light a candle, laugh together. Take space to be real and love real to see the extraordinary in the everyday again.

Lord, through all the generations
    you have been our home.  Psalm 90: 1a NLT


What are your favorite ways to reacclimate after a time away from normal routines? What makes you grateful to be home again?

Linked this post to VelvetAshes.com in The Grove: Content

Bowls on Shelf Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

Costa Rican Culture Shock: Cover Your Ears

Everyone’s stereo has its own groove. Culture is the same way. From headbanger to salsa, enjoy sound bites of daily life as heard by a prairie girl in small town Costa Rica.

Some like it loud.

Toucans and macaws fly the friendly skies here in the tropics.  Their unique calls sound for miles, but they’ve got nothing on the people. Local eardrums must be made of sterner stuff. Be it church worship or vendor trucks that loudspeaker their way through the neighborhoods, volume is set high. Fun and resonance just go together. Every grocery store promo has musical hoopla. When your neighbor rents a karaoke machine for their backyard party, earplugs and fan noise are your best friends. Or if you’re keen, go over and join them.

Curbside delivery available.

About those bullhorn trucks: it was a glorious day when our ears first caught the muffled words of the jingle we’d heard for weeks. “Eggs, big and fresh!” was so catchy it became a family joke.

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While not always easy to understand, the assorted ding ding men are convenient. Many people rely on feet and public transportation to get around. From my front gate, I have options to buy fruits & vegetables, nursery plants, tamales, get rid of scrap metal, donate to charity, change my political leanings, and hear the latest toy store Christmas sale.

My all time favorite, though, has to be the broom man. With his own voice and a loaded shoulder, he walks the block singing out, es-CO-bahs. That sounds so much cooler than brooms, you have to admit.

No mail for you.

One thing that never comes your way: mail. Sure, we get junk flyers tucked into our gate now and then, but no correspondence or bills to the house. There is a postal service. You can rent a P.O. box and do your own pickup. Why don’t they deliver? One reason is address. As in, we don’t have one. In language school we filled out government forms with something like: 150 meters south of the school, blue house with the green gate. Even in the middle of the big city, things can still feel down-home country.

If you never get paper bills, how do you know what you owe? You go online or to a store with your ID to check and make payments. Fast shut off for no-pay is a great motivator for personal responsibility.

One new arrival’s learning curve went like this: Each morning he looked at his gate for bill slips. Cable adverts showed up, utility statements did not. Water went out. That’s normal here, right? Power went out. Interesting. After a bit of this double deficiency, he asked the neighbors how they were coping. What? Did you pay your bills? What bills? Go to the liquor store on the corner and pay them. How much? Don’t worry, the lady at the checkout will tell you. It sounds crazy but works pretty well and saves trees to boot.

img_8693Mini Marts Everywhere.

Since many families do life without a car, little convenience stores called pulperías dot the neighborhoods. All the basics within walking distance makes life easier. An old story plays out the day of a mama Tica going out in the morning to buy an egg for breakfast, then back out in the sunshine to get an egg for lunch, and later stopping in for the egg for supper. Small houses, invasive critters, and preference for fresh cooked meals sway people away from big pantry stock ups.  Temps never get cold enough to keep you indoors, either.

I’m still a big fan of the big chill, though.  I joke with ladies about my batch cooking/freezer meal strategy. They shake their heads and smile. Poor gringos. My family seems well-fed, so they don’t worry about us too much. I took a sliced, frozen loaf of banana bread to a neighbor once, stretching my vocabulary to explain slice-by-slice versus whole-loaf thawing. New territory for both of us: me with words, her with an ice block on the counter. The next day she raved how it tasted delicious after being *eyes wide* frozen.

My shelves tend towards apocalypse-prep abundance, but I’m told stores do an excellent job of keeping food handy until you need it. Every week’s shopping pivots around the community farmer’s market. Plantains, avocados, pineapple, and mangoes: the tropics do them right. The best prices and selection of all things fresh draw crowds all morning. Bakeries are also popular; family kitchens and recipes run to stove tops rather than ovens. Bread with sour cream makes a nice addition to afternoon cafecito, so baguette loaves parade the sidewalk for the traditional “little coffee” break. Whatever time of the day you like it, locally grown coffee is a mountaintop highlight.

One of my favorite Costa Ricans recently moved to Florida. She vetted this series for things lost in translation or needed to complete the picture. Her verdict: “This makes me miss home. I’d kill for a pulpería.”

It’s no shock that life is different in the land of pura vida. Whether you put in earplugs or sing along, buy only for today or pack the cupboards, Costa Rica is a great place to live a soundtrack with the ones you love.

Catch the rest of the Culture Shock experience in this three-part series: Up Close and Personal & Talking Trash


What does “home” look like for you? What do you miss most when you travel? Share your favorite stories and tips in the comments.

Macaws Photo by Alan Godfrey on Unsplash

Costa Rican Culture Shock: Talking Trash

Culture quirks. Everyone has some, whether on a personal or national scale. Do you squeeze the toothpaste in the middle or from the bottom? Does the roll go in front or behind the end of the bath tissue? Talking today about some local flavor we experience as expats living in small town Costa Rica.

Bathroom humor.

Allow me to get this out in the open. We don’t flush any sort of paper products here. None. It all goes in the waste basket next to the toilet. Plumbing aperture and septic systems set the law of the land. But if you do forget, don’t go after it. This is not a hill we die on.

However, when you travel back to the states after learning the rhythm, you are going to look around “holding the bag” in a lot in restrooms during re-entry. Enjoy the naughty glee when you remember you can do the drop.

It’s a dirty job.

Trash: we all have some. Especially those of us who can’t flush the Charmin. A block-wide barking chorus hales the 3x/week pass of the garbage truck. Maybe dogs think the scruffy workers are thieves on the prowl. Humans are grateful the bags of junk depart quickly to a better place.

A word of warning: canines are so earth-friendly, they sniff out stuff that’s “still perfectly good” in the elevated trash baskets. They recycle it for you—puppy piñata fashion. All you have to do is pick up the scattered carnage the next morning. What could be more helpful?

Getting there.

Roads here are both man’s best friend and white knuckle events. Highways span mountains and rivers to coastline and cloud forest, enabling tourism to carry the economy in a big way. Swurvy, scenic routes introduced this girl from the land of flat, square grids to her first taste of stop-the-car sickness. The obstacle course of pedestrians, traffic as close as latin air kisses, and weaving motorcycles, make driving practically a full contact sport. Whatever the destination, you are paying attention. Narrow gravel and asphalt tracks without shoulders keep you on high alert.

Before smartphones hit the scene with GPS anointing, our family traveled by map and faith. We watched the stores on the roadside, often named by town, to see if we had struck the right road. It went like this: guess the correct turn. Look up the next few towns on the map and chant the unfamiliar words to keep them in your head. Scan the businesses as you enter each town for a Ferretería (hardware store) Lindora or a Soda (diner) San Mateo.

Now the Waze app gives directions without having to stop and ask, with a side of humor when the pronunciation software goes bilingual. Ticos probably feel the same about my Spanish.

As involved as driving is here, I have it on authority that locals like it that way. A friendly Costa Rican in line at the airport told me about his commercial transport career. Twists and turns are interesting. Driving in the Midwest was Novocain to his brain. To every interstate system, a time and fan base under heaven.

So no need to talk trash about the land of Pura Vida. If you forget the pickup schedule, don’t worry. The dogs will let you know.

Be sure to catch last week’s culture shock debut: Up Close and Personal, and stay tuned for next week’s wrap up: Cover Your Ears.


What culture quirks do you prefer? What has bumped you? We’d love to start a conversation.

Bottle on the Beach Photo by Scott Van Hoy on Unsplash

Costa Rican Culture Shock: Up Close and Personal

Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home.” She’s right, but each nest has its own charm. Mission life is an opportunity to get cozy in many places. As we hug friends back in the prairie over the next few days, it’s a great time to share some cultural quirks of living in small town Costa Rica. You won’t even need your passport.

Hello is an art form.

Once you adapt, you may never go back. Here ladies greet everyone (male and female) with a slight embrace and a kiss to the air beside the cheek. Repeat, kiss to the air. You are giving the sound, not the real smooch. If you feel comfortable, go ahead and touch your cheek to theirs. It’s like the Christian side hug, but with faces.

Always go to your left, so that right cheeks are side by side. Trust me, it’s just driving in your lane. Everyone’s right cheek is common ground. Do not be tempted by any force of nature or physics to change this up. Even when it works, it’s awkward. And if one goes left and the other right, you end up in one of the few spots that bump the Latino personal space bubble. So be wise: go left.

Man-to-man hellos happen by handshake here like normal. In my opinion, girls have all the fun. For someone who once debated if hugging a non-husband, non-family male was kosher, this style of greeting has become sweet. The bit of physical touch is zero about romance and all about courtesy. Try it. You might like it.

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Side note: A funny little dance happens as a gringo when you meet someone and you size each other up to see if you’re going tico-style hug or stateside handshake. Especially between two expats.

And when you travel back to the states, it’s just going to feel cold to offer the business handshake. So my apologies in advance, Nebraska peeps. I love you too much not to pull you in for a moment.

Don’t forget to ask about their day, their family, their pets, and how they are feeling. More questions means more love.

When you enter a room, plan to make the rounds greeting everyone. It’s the best way to kick off any gathering.

Near and far.

Culture here is zoomed in. People stand closer. Cars drive closer (to people and other cars). Houses are built closer, often sharing walls. Land lots on our block span about 22’ wide, so homes link together Lego-style to make the most of space. Laws delegate who owns and cares for each side based on the compass rose. Taxis zip up and down our narrow street, sometimes within arm’s length of the foot traffic. From jeans to grocery aisles, life is just lived tighter. It feels normal now.

But you can’t come right up to our front door. After 5 years here, that would freak me out. Gates and walls are everywhere, reaching to the sky, holding passersby a comfortable distance away from doors and windows. People stand and chat through their wrought iron. For good reason, everyone makes security a priority. Even warm climate culture has healthy boundaries.

So please, come say hello. Tap your keys on the gate and let’s chat. We aren’t afraid to get up close and personal in the land of pura vida.

Be sure to catch the second serving of this three part series: Talking Trash.


What’s your culture of hello? Has your personal space ever been breached? Please leave a comment and tell us your story.

Tree Frog Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash

Eliana’s View: Learning Love Through Spanish Slip-Ups

Spanish–one of the heartbeats of Costa Rica. I joke with kids, give instructions, and connect with people, all in a second language. A knack for accents gives me some native flair, but I know grammar goofs aren’t hidden by trilling my r’s. Teams marvel at my conversations with the staff, but they don’t notice my mis-conjugated verbs and mixed up pronouns. Like when I gave the time as 10 o’clock and it was 2, or my tongue twist flubs in front of large groups, mistakes are just part of the landscape when I speak.

The other day a little sweetheart ran to me and asked for “ostillas.” You want tortillas? No, ostillas! Puzzled, I found a tía and asked what was up.

The wise women spoke Spanish in both grown up and toddler dialects. She burst into laughter, then explained the request was for costillas*. It translates on any menu as ribs, but in kid-lingo means tickles.

Tickles, not tortillas. I laughed, too, but was still discouraged. I’ve been practicing for 5 years. Why aren’t I perfect by now?

img_8340Then I thought about my Spanish when I first arrived. My vocabulary was slim, and my grammar worse. I threw nouns and verbs together and got mishmashed results. It was a miracle that I could communicate anything back then, but I did.

People were kind; they were glad I was trying.

As time went by, I improved. My sentences started coming together, components working in the right order. I learned how I do, she does, they did, and we didn’t. I practiced that everything has a gender and where it goes in the action of my phrases. Little words make big differences. They are easy to forget, too. I get better, day by day.

But still not perfect.

And that’s the way I am without God. Imperfect. Incomplete. But with him, I am made new. His love offsets my flaws, physical, grammatical, and spiritual.

Even my Spanish ones.

The kids don’t see me for my errors. The tías don’t judge me for all my mess ups. So why should I?

God’s love fills in the gaps of my mistakes. His grace covers my subjects, verbs, and pronouns. His joy laughs with me over my blunders. His peace soothes my heart when discouragement comes knocking. He is working in everything, even my Spanish slip-ups.

Perfect love casts out fear. 1 John 4:18 ESV


Kris’s note: It’s always fun to write with my girl. She brings the diamond and together we polish it. I am proud of her for pressing into a skill that doesn’t come easy and learning about love in the mishaps.

*Case in point: a beautiful Tica just explained to me after reading this, the real word is “cosquillas.” So even now we’ve slipped up, writing about slip-ups. And even grown up Spanish can be misunderstood. Thanks for laughing along with us.

How difficult is it to do things you aren’t great at? Have you ever found yourself growing in unexpected ways as you make mistakes? Leave a comment below and share your story with us.