“This makes my heart sing!”
A perfect storm of health challenges, a job loss, and the 9/11 attacks in nearby NYC led Alison and Michael Olivieri to retire when they were both 55, sooner than they had expected. They left their long-time home in Connecticut for a new life in Costa Rica. Along the way they learned a new language, made new friends, and Alison replaced a former passion for bird-banding studies with hands-on involvement in a Cornell program that helps local school kids learn to appreciate the natural wonders all around them.
I interviewed her Alison from her home in San Vito, Costa Rica in March, 2015, about thirteen years after she retired. Here is a gently edited transcript of our conversation:
Nancy: What kind of work did you do before you retired?
Alison: I didn’t have an extended career in any one particular job, but the thread that ran through them all was writing. I started working at Warner Brothers Records in the early 1970s, and had a wonderful boss there who taught me to write, a gift that has followed me throughout my life. I worked for a time as a newspaper reporter, then ultimately at Connecticut Audubon in their development office. I had no background in that, so I had to go take workshops to learn how that whole thing about fundraising worked – as best as you can learn that. Certainly writing skills are paramount: you have to write eloquent letters, and you have to be able to express yourself clearly. People have to understand what you want and how they can help. So the writing thing, I think, is the theme in my pre-retirement days.
N: How did your retirement come to be?
A: We retired early, at age 55, due to a series of misfortunes. Michael had lost his job. He was hired by a huge telecommunications company, and it was one of those last-in/first-out. They went into a decline, so he lost his job. Just prior to that, he was diagnosed with a form of cancer that is rare and aggressive. Those would be the two words you never want to hear with a cancer diagnosis. So we had that to deal with. Then I, all in the same time frame, had an acute herniation of a disc in my back. It was just unbelievably awful.
We didn’t really have a face-to-face sit-down aha moment. We kind of stumbled along. But while we were stumbling along, we were mumbling to each other, “Things are going so badly here; this is so awful. Maybe it’s time for us to go,” meaning somewhere else.
In the way that life is so strange, we had already purchased a small piece of property in Costa Rica. We had a house there that we used for vacations, and had decided to build a slightly bigger house – with no thought of retiring there. That wasn’t in the program, but it became the program.
One thing I would like to say to all of your listeners and readers is that my husband and I fight about everything, including paper clips. But we never had a cross word about moving to Costa Rica together, which I find so strange that I can’t stop telling people that.
N: Had you had in the back of your mind the traditional retirement age of 65?
A: Yes, of course, we did. Absolutely, we did. But it just seemed like everything was going so wrong that it couldn’t get any worse at the time. We had to sell our house. It was just a disaster. I just can’t tell you how frightening it was.
When something like that happens – especially the cancer, I think – everything changes. You look at everything through completely different filters. Then it was like, “We love Costa Rica. We’ve had a lot of fun there. Maybe we should go there and see about retiring there. There are plenty of other people who have done that.”
We were intimidated by the language and the whole thing about the culture and there are laws you don’t know. There are all kinds of things to deal with. But it was a decision that was based on fear and the real knowledge that life is so short. Did we want to go live in a little house in Connecticut somewhere? Did we want to go to Florida? We didn’t really think so. We just thought, “This is a beautiful country. We love it there. We have friends there already. We love the climate, the food, and the general sort of mood/ambiance of the whole thing. We’re just going to try that.”
N: Was it “We are just going to try it, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll do something else?”
A: Yes. What happened was we had a very sizable house in a fairly upscale neighborhood in Connecticut, and we had to sell it, because we couldn’t pay the mortgage when Michael lost his job. We sold that house; we were lucky with the timing, and we made a profit. We used the money to buy a smaller, fallback house in a less fancy neighborhood in Connecticut, and to build a new home on our property here in Costa Rica.
We kept that fallback house for about two years, until it began to drive us crazy – fixing the screen door, trying to find somebody to do the work, and living here in Costa Rica, and not being there, and renters. Again, we were so lucky. The people who were renting it wanted to buy it. So Michael went back to Connecticut for a couple of weeks, sold it to them, and then we washed out hands of it.
We kept it initially because we weren’t really sure. We just didn’t really know how difficult it would be to learn to speak Spanish, how would we integrate into the community, how would we figure out what the laws are? What would I do in the supermarket, wandering around saying the word for owl instead of lettuce because it was one letter off? It was just kind of crazy in the beginning, but it was fun.
N: We both know people who simply leap off and then they can’t go back. So – great idea.
A: We were much too cautious to do that. But we did have a lot of friends say, “You’ll be running back here screaming in five weeks.” Some people were very positive and encouraging, and some people were very negative and not very nice about it. I think you have to be prepared for that, because that really surprised us. I think people feel that you are repudiating them when you leave.
N: Did you get any pushback that people were jealous that you were retiring, period?
A: Yes, we did.
N: What were you most glad to leave behind?
A: As it turned out, I couldn’t wait to stop working at the particular job I had. I’d been there for too long, and when you stay at a job too long, you don’t bring anything new, and it’s not exciting, and you’re not doing yourself or the organization any good. I was in that negative kind of head, so I was happy to leave that.
I was really happy to leave that weather. I can’t stand being cold. I never could, even as a child. I didn’t like skiing, skating, any of that. Out there in the ice with the car, oh, God, I just couldn’t get away from that fast enough.
N: What is it that you were looking forward to about retirement and living in Costa Rica?
A: I was looking forward – I thought – to never working again. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But I found out later in retirement that I need to work. This surprised me. Even though it turned out to be wrong, that’s what I was looking forward to.
In Costa Rica, I was looking forward to experiencing a different culture, because it’s a big world, and Connecticut is tiny. Philadelphia – where I grew up – is a tiny, little place. I know everybody wants to get away from where they grew up, and I understand that. But it could have been Thailand. It could have been Mexico. It could have been France or Portugal or someplace else, but just a different culture with this whole, huge warmth. All these different people, all these different cultures, and different art, and different food, and different laws. Why wouldn’t you want to see some of that if you had the opportunity to do that? Because your life is ending, and you know it. You’re in the last third of it when you retire.
There’s a lovely tranquility to the inner soul of the Costa Rican person, at least the people we know, most of them – you hate to generalize, but I’m just going to go ahead and generalize anyway – that’s much calmer and more caring. I’ll give you an example. When you’re in the fancy hospital in San Jose, at the Clinica Biblica, the nurses come in and ask you if you’re cold and if you’d like a blanket. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in the hall in hospitals in the United States with nobody even acknowledging that you’re there, and certainly not patting your feet and giving you a blanket.
N: Did you have any kind of a special event, like a party or a grand trip or something, to mark the break between those parts of your life?
A: No. You know what happened? September 11th happened. When that happened, we were scheduled to go the following spring. We couldn’t wait to get out of there, because we were so close to that event. It was right across Long Island Sound from us. We looked at the Twin Towers where they were every day, and they weren’t. It put people into such a state there – and other places – I cannot tell you. It became an atmosphere that you really wanted to leave.
We did visit people we wanted to say goodbye to – we made a point of doing that – and some friends of ours had dinners for us, and that kind of thing. But we didn’t have a retirement party. And we certainly didn’t have one when we got to Costa Rica, because we were so busy trying to figure out how to say hello and thank you, what is this vegetable in the supermarket, and how do we get the car fixed that it didn’t even occur to us. We just jumped in.
The thing that was the most worrisome about traveling here at the very end when we left was that we brought three dogs with us. I was so anxious. I’m sure it was a misdirected anxiety. I was so worried about those dogs on the plane, I almost had a nervous breakdown. But I think it was really that we were leaving the United States that I was really anxious about, but I focused it on the dogs. “Oh, my God, are they going to survive this flight?” Of course, they were perfectly fine. But I think people trick themselves like that.
N: As you look back on the things you did to prepare for retirement, are there any that were especially helpful, and are there any that were just a waste of time?
A: For us, because Michael had lost his job and didn’t go to work anymore, he had more time to focus on this than I did, because I was still working. He ran around in circles finding a company to ship containers of our stuff to Costa Rica. This was hard to do, but it was certainly well worth it.
We had two totally conflicting sets of advice. One of our Costa Rican friends said don’t bring anything here that you can’t live without, because it’ll be stolen. The other said only bring what you absolutely cannot live without, because you don’t want a whole lot of stuff, and that person was right.
Getting rid of the stuff made me feel great. It made me feel wonderful. I loved getting rid of all that stuff. I just can’t advise people strongly enough to do that. I know there are people who can’t do that, but once you’ve done it, you just feel so much lighter and so much better. It was worth every minute of time figuring out who to give the stuff to, how to get the stuff in a tag sale, where to put it, and where to send it. Then the very minimum amount of stuff we ended up sending here. That was a huge struggle, but it was worth every second. It was really a good activity.
N: You once told me: “Don’t let yourself feel trapped.” Can you explain that?
A: I had this preconceived idea that we were going to go to Costa Rica and that our daughter would love that. She would come down on whatever vacations she could from her job, and she’d love it, and we’d have so much fun, and she would bring her boyfriends or whatever. This is a young woman who said, “I’m never going to get married, and I’m never going to have children.” “Okay, great. We’re going to Costa Rica.” Then, of course, that was the first thing she did. Three years later, she was married, and then two years later, she had a child.
I was like, “Okay, we have to leave. We have to leave Costa Rica now, because we can’t not have our grandson in our lives. We have to leave and go back to the United States.” I just got myself into such a state. Michael really was wonderful about that, and he said, “I’m not so sure we have to do that. Let’s think about it.”
Of course, the luck is the technology, because we can Skype with this child twice a week, talk to him, and look at his Legos or whatever he’s doing. As he gets older, it’ll probably be even more meaningful. And we can talk to our daughter, and there’s e-mail. We and all the people who are going to retire behind us are so lucky about that. I have a friend in Connecticut who says she sees her sons more now that they’ve moved to Australia than when they lived around the corner, because you make an effort to connect with the person.
N: It seems like there are two threads. One is technology, and the other is letting go of “this is what grandparents are supposed to look like or do” or whatever.
A: Michael made a very good point about that. One of the things he said – and other people have subsequently said – is that it’s not the worst idea in the world to give your grandchild or grandchildren the idea that you can live in some other part of the world, and it’s perfectly okay and normal to do that, and have this special, fun place to visit.
That’s part of what made me feel a little bit better about it, although I still feel like I should be able to drive over to my daughter’s house and have coffee and pick my grandchild up after school. Of course, I can’t do that except for when we’re visiting the States, but we make much more of an effort now to visit. And we don’t go on other trips that we might want to go on to Africa or wherever, because we are committed to this little guy. So you just have to balance all of that, I guess.
N: Exactly. I’m going to move on now to the early experience of retirement. Did you two have similar ideas of what you wanted your retirement to be like?
A: I don’t really think we did, and I don’t think we talked about it in those terms. But we were both looking forward to an adventure and an escape from what had become a very scary place to be with the injuries, the illness, and no job. We were both looking forward to something completely different and something that would be a little more peaceful, and we certainly found those two things.
My husband has completely surprised himself by becoming an artist in his retirement, which he never was able to do when he worked. Now that he’s gotten to the point where he can draw and paint pretty well, and does it pretty regularly, he’s added playing the piano to his life. So he’s full of learning. He’s full of expanding his knowledge and his abilities and learning.
Now, this is later retirement, so we shouldn’t probably jump to this, but with a group of people here, they’ve started a band that he’s in.
In the beginning, we didn’t really have any idea what we were going to do other than we were going to be entering a different culture, trying to learn a different language – which we really had to work on – and just trying to figure out how to conduct our daily lives in a different culture with different laws.
N: But it isn’t like one of you wanted to go backpacking around the world and the other one wanted to open a restaurant or something like that?
A: No; we were really very united on this endeavor. We took Spanish classes together. We tried to do things together so we could help each other, like go to the car repair shop, or go to the market, or go to the dentist. We had friends here. We leaned on them a lot. You do when you’re in a foreign country. The director of the Wilson Botanical Garden and our friend in San Jose were probably so tired of us they could scream, but they were unfailingly generous and compassionate.
N: What was the biggest surprise to you?
A: We started to meet other expatriates from the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world. And we were very surprised that they weren’t just like us. Because it never occurred to me that anybody would retire to Costa Rica and not love birds, and animals, and nature, and wildlife, and plants, and be interested in the culture, and interested in the children and the schools, and interested in the government and everything that goes on here. But believe me, there are people like that.
Somebody once said to me that this is the difference between running away from something and running to something. I thought that was brilliant.
N: I like that.
A: There are people who are running away from paying their taxes or running away from unhappy marital situations or I don’t know what, people who want to live off the grid, people who want to hide, people who want to drink themselves to death.
N: Or they don’t like the president, maybe, or something.
A: Yes, that’s a big one, the politics.
I think this is probably true all over the world. One of my nephews said: “Auntie A, you ought to see them on the beaches in Thailand.” There are people who just can’t cope, and it’s easier to be poor in a nice-weather place. If you can afford beer and sleep on the beach, that’s what they want to do.
Some of them, I’m sure, are tragic stories. I’m not condemning them all; I’m condemning myself for not realizing any of that. We would run into people who didn’t share our love of nature and certainly didn’t share our politics but follow you around in the supermarket because you can speak English.
N: Did you have some semi-awkward situations where someone wants to be your friend because of that commonality of English but you’re not interested in pursuing it?
A: Yes, it’s extremely awkward, because it’s such a small community. You really have to be skillful, I think, about letting the person know that you are going to be polite and nice, because that’s who you are, but you’re not going to going out to dinner with them once a week or complaining about everything that’s wrong with Costa Rica with them on a daily basis. It’s tricky business.
The way to handle it – now looking back on it, I can give all this fancy advice – is to be busy. If you’re busy, you’re busy. You’re not just avoiding them for the sake of avoiding them. You’re busy. “I’m sorry, I’m having my piano lesson now, or we’re going to Panama this weekend.” You have to find a way of dealing with that, and that was a real pickle for us. We spent lots of hours discussing that.
N: That’s a terrific piece of advice that I think would not even be on most people’s radar screen beforehand. And you don’t have to move outside the US for it to be an issue.
A: Yeah. It’s important.
N: What did you miss most and least about work? Did you have any kind of identity crisis when you and others no longer looked at you in terms of your job title?
A: No. For me, it was more about a compulsion to be needed. This is just my personality. I need to have a job to do that I feel matters to me and hopefully to someone else, as well. After I got over the whole business about learning Spanish, so that I could speak to people and, for example, ask directions and follow them, that was a big breakthrough. That took the fear out of it. That was a great moment when that happened.
After I got to that point – this was maybe five years or six years into it – then I began to understand that I really wanted to have something to do that was in some way meaningful, and because we were here, I wanted it to be a give-back to here, because this place was giving us so much that was so wonderful. Because of my need to be needed, I got myself involved in a ten-year research program that you know well.
N: Which was how we met. Yes.
A: I got involved in that because I wanted to have some place to go. I wanted to have something to do. I couldn’t sit in the rocking chair for endless hours. It was fine, but it turned out it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I didn’t know that when I went into it. I found that out by going through it and doing it.
This is an avian monitoring project, mist netting. I did it in the United States, and I did it here. I had made a commitment to do it, so I went through that whole commitment of ten years. This was an interesting point, because these were all these threads that tie up and pop up that people don’t expect and surprise us. Indirectly, through the mist netting, I found out what I really what I wanted to do, which is to go into the school systems, which are somewhat impoverished in this very poor area of Costa Rica, and give them something special.
We have a really special class for them that comes from Cornell University. It involves experiential learning, and critical thinking, and art, and a little bit of theater, and a big field trip at the end where kids get to go on a bus to the Wilson Botanical Garden and have a professional guide lead them around. It’s called Detectives de Párajos or BirdSleuth International, and I am the lucky person in the world who’s able to bring that to this part of Costa Rica.
N: Was there any particular time you felt something click and you just settled into this life?
A: Yes. This was before our grandchild arrived. It was when we began to understand the language, when we began to be able to speak with people. That was a huge click. When you’re in a foreign country, I can’t imagine a bigger click than that.
Again, back to this expat thing, there are people here who don’t even know how to speak Spanish. I don’t know how they can manage. I don’t know why you would go to a foreign country and imagine you would not speak their language. But there are people here who think that everybody ought to speak English, which of course, is crazy. I’m serious.
That’s a huge click for me. I still can’t speak the way I’d like to. I’m still working on it, kind of – not as hard as I did in the beginning, because I’m busy doing other things. But I really could never have a conversation with a native Costa Rican about politics or the economy or religion or philosophy, because I don’t have the vocabulary to do that.
But I can manage my daily life, and I can have people over for dinner who don’t speak any English. It’s exhausting, and at the end of it, you just have to go to bed and pull the blanket over your head. It’s really a challenge and it’s really fun. We do that together, and we really enjoy it.
N: That element of still learning and growing seems to be weaving through this – Michael’s things, your things.
A: It’s incredible, yes. I think that’s how you get up every day. You think, “This is a new day. I can go into a new school, or I can learn a new chord, or I can manage to go to the supermarket and say hello to everybody, and be nice and polite, and everybody’s happy, and they talk to me about the vegetables, and I understand what they’re saying, and I’m not afraid to go.” It takes a lot of work, but it’s different work than when you’re working in the office. People who retire in a foreign country have a whole different map laid out for them.
N: What would you say is your proportion of friends who are Ticos versus other expats that have moved there?
A: I would say close friends – having people for dinner and swimming pool parties and stuff like that – it’s about 50-50. It’s not a huge circle. It’s not a lot of people. We have neighbors, and we have friends, and people we’ve met who have helped us who we don’t hesitate to interact with socially, because they’re so interesting. They think we’re interesting, too, of course, because we’re foreigners. It’s wonderful. We’re really, really lucky with that.
N: You mentioned that one of the reasons you were eager to get away from the northeastern US was the 9/11 attacks and the atmosphere. Do you feel like the experience of throwing yourself into a foreign culture, foreign language, having new friends from all over the world – will that help you be more resilient, whatever happens in the future?
A: That’s such a good question. When you’re in the United States, the news that you get is all about the United States. You don’t really even have a sense that you’re living in a huge integrated world with other countries, and populations, and governments, and economies.
But when you live in a foreign country, we found here news from all over the world, not just the United States. You feel smaller, but it feels more comfortable. “Right. Of course, there’s news from Europe, and Australia, and China, and Asia.” You do get a sense in another country of being a citizen of the world as opposed to a citizen of the United States.
N: Maybe it’s like building a muscle with exercise. When you gradually increase the resistance or the effort or whatever the term is, then when the unexpected happens, it seems like you’re not going to break like someone who never left the town that they were born in would.
A: That’s exactly right. I think it’s so important.
N: How has the reality of your retirement compared to what you thought it would be?
A: We’ve been through some bumps because of the grandchild and all of that. But the reality of it is much more pleasing than I ever could have known without having done it. Every day, we talk about how lucky we are to live here and the beauty that surrounds us. If you’re a person who loves nature, you should try to live in it. In the environment in Connecticut, nature is controlled. Here it can be out of control. There’s extreme weather. There are earthquakes. There are unbelievable plants and beautiful things growing outside that can go completely haywire if you don’t curtail them, and there are snakes and birds and all kinds of things.
I just find it fascinating every single day. On top of the compassion from the people who we love, and the food, and the climate, there’s all this wonderful abundance of life, of wildlife. We live in a coffee-producing region, so there’s a lot of agriculture, and also beef cattle. One of the things I’m trying to do with my San Vito Bird Club is to bring an awareness to people that they can temper clear-cutting and they can leave trees, and that’s a positive thing to do, and try to bring a little bit of conservation awareness to local people. I’m working with the Wilson Botanical Garden on that, because that’s another reason why we chose to come here.
N: Can you tell us what you’ve done to form a local bird club?
A: Sure. Again, I mistakenly thought every expat here would be interested in birds and wildlife, and there would be hiking clubs and I don’t know what – bird clubs and all kinds of things. That turned out to not be the case.
We chose San Vito partly because it had a hospital, two 24-hour gas stations, several supermarkets, and also this wonderful facility, the Wilson Botanical Garden, belonging to the Organization for Tropical Studies, as a biological research station. So many interesting people coming in and out of this place, and lots to learn from that. I gravitated toward that, and became a volunteer to help them. I started by helping the director with gift acknowledgement letters, since I had done that in my former job. It was hard for his staff, because they were all Spanish-speaking people, to write these gift acknowledgement letters in English. So I did that. Whenever guests came, we took them there and said, “Wouldn’t you like to make a contribution to this wonderful place?”
Gradually, it dawned on me that this is a place to have a bird club, because we the Garden could be our clubhouse – kind of So with two or three other friends who also were fascinated by nature and wildlife, we got together, and we formed this crazy thing: San Vito Bird Club. It’s huge! We have 80 members, international and local.
We have some very loyal local members. We provide binoculars and books, because people don’t have those. There’s a big issue with transportation, so we try to change the locations every now and again to make it easier for some of the local people to come. It has to be free, because the average local working person doesn’t have any extra money. The other thing that’s really important, is to be consistent. If I can’t lead the bird walk, I find somebody who can, so we’re doing what we say we’re going to do when we say were going to do it.
There are many good ideas that people have, and they start things, and then sometimes they just get frustrated by something – I don’t know what – and they stop doing it. You’ve built up an expectation on the part of the local people and you’ve fallen by the wayside, so why would they trust you again? If you’re going to start something, it’s really important to be consistent.
N: It’s a great tip. You’ve given a lot of things for people to think of. To wrap this up: What have you learned about yourself since retiring? What has been your greatest source of joy and satisfaction so far in your retirement life?
A: What I learned about myself was that I needed to do something. I need to work. I needed to be needed. I need to feel like I’m being productive and giving back. I have a need to give. I need to do something for this wonderful country and this little, tiny, impoverished part of it that makes me feel like I’m [Pt 2, 33:08 inaudible]. It’s important. That’s a key thing.
The joy has been in finding that and being able to go to the schools, and look at the little faces of the children, and having them hang all over you, and wanting to use your binoculars, and kiss you hello, and being so excited to see you. I think if one kid out of all these kids grows up and says to the other one, “Remember those crazy gringo ladies that came into the school with the birds?” and becomes a scientist or something related to that, that would be just heaven.
N: That’s so neat. You’re really connected there. You’re not just a long-term tourist.
A: I hope not.
N: Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. One final, more generic question: Do you think the experience of retirement for baby boomers is this going to be different than for our parents and grandparents?
A: Technology; it’s just made everything possible. You can really literally follow any dream you have, any crazy thing – “I’m going to go live with kangaroos” – and you can go do it and not lose your family as a result of it. It’s a miracle, don’t you think? It’s just amazing. We’re so lucky. It makes it so there are no excuses to not do what you want to do. You can’t say, “My daughter needs me.” Maybe she does, but maybe she can talk to you on Skype twice a week and she’ll be fine. It’s just so freeing. My God!
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