I stayed with a family this week that reminded me of the intense joy that comes from living with a close family. What made it more striking was that I had recently met travelers who had left everything behind to avoid precisely that.
I met up on Monday with Connor, a friend from Pittsburgh. I stayed for a few nights with la familia Flores, Connor's Costa Rican host family. When people talk about Costa Rican hospitality, they're talking about people like the Floreses. They are uncommonly warm as they ask me about my day, patiently correct my Spanish, and insist I take seconds at dinner. And Papá is a trickster. We conspired to convince Laura, a Chinese exchange student in the house, that I am a young millionaire from London touring Latin America to scout new markets for the family business.
The Floreses exemplify a typically Latin American multigenerational household. In preparation for a month in Medellín, I've been reading the great Colombian novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Just as the Buendía estate keeps growing to accomodate their ever-expanding family, the Floreses added a second story to house children, than grandchildren, then students who wander in from around the world.
Having all these people together can be joyous. Toro jokes with Connor before heading to his graveyard shift job. Dana, the grand-daughter, helps me learn to conjugate verbs in the past tense. Papá (abuelo to Dana) does some work at the kitchen table and cracks jokes. Mamá outwits me when we play cards.
Settlers and Wanderers
A few days before I left Pittsburgh, I had a conversation with a friend that typified a common fear of my friends in their young 20's. He graduated earlier than I did and had been working a job at a big corporation. I enjoyed listening to him vent about kafkaesque weeks when he couldn't do actual work, outrageously wasteful projects, etc.. He worried that he might some day be content to step on the assembly line, to stay at a job he dislikes because it pays pretty well, to stay in a city he doesn't like because it is familiar, and then to get married and buy a house just because that's the next thing a good adult does.
In Quepos I met Massimo, an Italian man who took that fear and went as far in the opposite direction as possible. For the last 15 or so years, he hasn't lived in a place for more than 6 months at a time. He's travelled the world and picked up seven languages. He was in New Zealand before Costa Rica. He blusters into jobs as a pizza chef using his Italian citizenship as a credential. I asked him if he intentionally chose such an unconventional lifestyle. He said something like:
Everyone always told me, "Be a good boy. Go to school." But I didn't want to go school, so I joined the Navy.
Then they told me,
"Be a good boy. Settle down and find a wife." But I didn't want to settle down, so I want where I wanted to go when I wanted to.
People always tell me what I should be doing, but I use my own head.
An Italian wanderer sounds like quite a romantic figure, right? But he seemed sad to me, or at least tired. We spent the better part of an afternoon together at his invitation, but he was distant the whole time. He always found something to complain about. He seemed just as burnt out from his travels as someone working a classic "soul-crushing" office job.
What Is Our Choice?
It's curious that young people worry about getting tied down to a family when a family can be as joyous as the Floreses. Of course, as a visitor, I only want to see their good parts. They certainly have their problems, as any family does. I would be silly to speak as if there were some binary decision between being a solitary wanderer and settling down in one house with a big happy family.
I tried to end this essay with a big reflection on what makes a fulfilling life, how we might learn to put others before ourselves, how family might help with that and so on. But I couldn't do it in a way that wasn't trite. So I'll just leave this post as an observation of the Flores family and Massimo, a study in contrasts.