Let me tell you, this glacial transition toward being an expat is not about escaping reality, semi-retirement or joining Margaritaville. This move is a master-class on handling life.
For years, we were simple paycheck-earners, doing what we were told, cashing our checks, and living pretty well. Now, we’re co-CEOs in Expat Inc, and we’ve had to up our game when it comes to managing projects and people.
We were green as can be, on so many levels, when we started all this.
Had I ever had a house built before? Much less directing the project by email over 1,000 miles away, with people who don’t speak English as a first language, and dealing with technical terms that Rosetta Stone and Spanish 102 never prepared me for? Of course not. We’re also not confrontational types, especially in a foreign country. So there were many built-in disadvantages when it came to building Casa Nana.
You might have come to Mérida because you heard it was an affordable paradise. And some things are cheap — like taxi cabs and labor. But even with a weak peso, paradise isn’t cheap or easy. Paradise mocks you when you think you can just throw money at a problem and not really supervise things in person. If you think you’re going to swan around Mérida as lord of the manor, grateful servants in tow, just forget it. (At least we didn’t fall into that trap — but we’ve seen people who have.) Your transition to expat living requires a firm grasp on reality. Also smarts, good judgment and lots of work.
It’s different in Connecticut, where I’m still living for at least a few more months. I’m a manager at work, and I know how to manage people. But I’m not an executive. Except now, building Casa Nana, we are called upon to be executives as well as our own management team. And just like at your corporate day job, you sometimes strain to hold your tongue, keep your temper and stay professional. My corporate overlords once enrolled me in a Dale Carnegie course that implored us to maintain warm relations with our colleagues. I think that has served me well … except in the cases when a well-timed meltdown might have brought better results.
So here’s the blog post I’ve been waiting to write.
Here are our lessons learned:
It’s up to you to pay attention. I made too many big decisions while multi-tasking. That was dumb. Even though you have experts under contract, you’re still the decider. I’ve used the phrase “I’ll trust your judgment — that’s what I’m paying you for” more often that I should have.
Read your contracts. You will often be pressured to sign things that you can’t read and don’t understand — but you trust your peeps, so you sign it. Then your stomach aches. Contracts have to be in Spanish to be legal in Mexico. That’s business. The contract might be accompanied by a translation, but who wrote the translation? Have an objective third party look it over. Don’t be shy about asking questions. And haggle. That’s business, too.
Don’t react instantly. After you’ve gotten to know your “team” in Mérida, take note of their techniques. Where I used to be prone to answering every query immediately, it’s actually smart business to allow silence to remain for a day or so. That’s a standard negotiation strategy. But me, I’m so eager to please and I’m super accessible. I once stood in the middle of a supermarket aisle, food melting in my cart while I talked on my cellphone trying to find a quick and tidy solution to a conflict at Casa Nana. I should have let the call go to voicemail when I saw the 999 area code on the caller ID. That’s what the people we deal with would have done. Nobody is that anxious to take my calls, and I’m the one paying out fees.
Business is business. You bought in to the Mérida expat lifestyle on a romantic notion, but now you have to sober up. People doing business in Mérida have different attitudes about money than paycheck-earning people because they have to hustle for every dime. Expats and Yucatecans alike drive hard bargains, and there is a way to be tough while still being civil, fair and calm. Friendships and business relationships will often blur, and we all have to play nice together, but don’t lose your head.
Take time to anticipate. Think through all the possibilities. Who gets keys to your house? Do you have a go-to guy for emergency repairs while you have tenants? How much control over the rental price do you have when a property manager expects a percentage of the take? Who pays for things that break, and who is responsible when a contractor or subcontractor goes rogue? Ask questions and don’t rush through the process.
There’s nothing like conversation. If you were living here, you could actually talk to people. Important things might come up in conversation, but from a distance, a “conversation” is an email sent, a reply received the next day if you’re lucky, then a followup question and hopefully another reply within 24 hours, but maybe not. If you’re far away, try to find professionals who are generous with their time on Skype, and use the video option. Reading expressions is valuable. It’s the next best thing.
All pretty much standard-issue advice to people in business. And once you’ve decided to move your life to Mérida, believe me, you’re in business.