Sometime between cave dwelling and Airbnb, human beings managed to develop not just the concept of private property but also the notion of private space. We developed the idea that, regardless of ownership, we all need a place where we can rest, a place to display the truest version of ourselves, a place that allows for intimacy – that deep familiarity that becomes manifest when we reach for a light switch in the dark. We call this cultural invention a “home,” and even though it is nothing but the modern-day equivalent of a tent or a yurt, we have constructed a rather complex psychological structure around it. We believe that the place where we live is, or should be, a somewhat sacred space.
Some of this attachment is inseparably linked to our feelings towards family and the experience of growing up among those who typically populate our childhood: our parents and our siblings, if we are lucky enough to have them. As we grow older, other expectations get thrown into the mix. Houses become a symbol of classic married adulthood, of eventually settling down and raising our own children. Perhaps because this tends to be the standard, because we think about family and life partners when we think about a home, it is sometimes hard to imagine living with a friend or a stranger.
Enter the roommate.
Roommates were an absolutely alien idea when I was a kid growing up in Alajuela. They belonged to the category of fun things that people did on TV, like ice skating, summer camps and eating hot dogs on the street. In my mind, sharing an apartment was something that happened almost exclusively in New York and almost exclusively among best friends. It was an arrangement people chose to do for the purpose of entertainment, with barely any practical considerations. It was, above all, a foreign phenomenon: I didn’t know a single person in Costa Rica who lived with a roommate. I still know very few.
It is therefore not surprising that when I first moved to the United States to go to graduate school, I immediately chose to live in a dorm by myself. Never mind that this implied paying more than the rent for a room in a three-bedroom apartment on campus. Never mind that it involved sharing a bathroom with eight other students. Never mind that it meant sleeping in an extra-long single bed that appeared to be made for a very tall and thin nun. I refused to live with a stranger – even a stranger I’d be going to school with and with whom I had, by virtue of career choice, a modicum of common interests.
Because what if they were, you know, weird? What if they had pet iguanas or played Megadeth at three in the morning? What if they started a bonfire in the living room? I mean, the Internet is filled with horror stories (and I mean horror stories). Even if my own experience never reached such extremes, I was still hesitant to deal with the tension arising from trying to accommodate my lifestyle to someone else’s.
Like many Costa Ricans, I’m a bit of a clean freak. This extends from the constant showering and brushing of teeth to the curious sleep disorder I experience when I know that there are dirty dishes in the sink. I was concerned that this might pose a challenge. I was concerned that others might not understand my strong and healthy relationship with Lysol. I was also concerned that they might not like to socialize as much as I did, or that they might like it a lot more. I got caught up in a mental Goldilocks loop where I assumed others would always be too much or not enough. I assigned unpleasant traits to abstract strangers while conveniently deciding I had none.
I now realize that I was undergoing a serious episode of fear. Fear of opening up that private, sacred space I had so far only exposed to people who shared my DNA. Fear of others and of otherness. Fear of entering the Sartrean hell of having to deal with people I couldn’t escape from. Fear of confrontation and the need to compromise.
But isn’t that what life is? Perhaps not hell, but an inevitable shared experience with random people? Perhaps not confrontation, but almost incessant negotiation? By turning away from the opportunity to live with roommates, I was discarding one of the most instructive experiences in the world: the chance to get to know myself through an intense interaction with someone I wasn’t related to. I was passing up a chance to get to know someone else, too – actually know them, beyond the hour-long curated exchanges we often have with our acquaintances.
The next summer, I decided to share an apartment in Washington, DC with two friends. Four years and four roommates later, I feel I can safely say that Costa Ricans are missing out on something.
It’s not just the company, though you certainly appreciate that when it’s freezing outside and you’re seriously concerned you might break a leg if you venture out into the ice-covered world. It’s not just the finances, though on my own I’d probably end up in one of those tiny studios where you can fry an egg and wash your hair at the same time. It’s not just the sense of safety, though whenever my roommate is out I hear burglars and zombies and gremlins climbing through the window. It’s the actual living with someone: the getting an up-close look at their humanity. Of course I might be romanticizing it a little bit. It surely doesn’t help that I’ve lived with some of the most compassionate, fun and intelligent people I’ve had the privilege to know. But even still, let me lobby for the roommate.
Costa Rican millennials, like millennials everywhere, are marrying older and delaying having children (if they ever do). They want to study more and have more romantic partners before they decide to settle down. They are going through that awkward figuring-it-out phase when they are no longer teenagers but feel strange even thinking of themselves as adults. They are having trouble saving and finding accessible finance to buy property. Yet they continue to live with their parents until they can buy a house of their own, or until they marry or move in with their partners. Wouldn’t it be easier to split the cost of an apartment? Wouldn’t it be easier to go through this phase alongside friends?
There is something to be gained by temporarily sharing a home, something to be learned and embraced. It has to do with accepting another person’s flaws as well as your own. It has to do with understanding variance and being comfortable with otherness. It has to do with knowing that even though you were not raised together, don’t believe the same things or don’t have the same habits, that does not prevent you from improving each other.
At the very least, you can make sure that someone’s around when that gremlin comes to hunt you.
Read previous Please Send Coffee! columns here.
Raquel Chanto is a lawyer and policy wonk trying to survive international bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. In her monthly column “Please Send Coffee!” she explores aspects of Costa Rican culture and how they contrast with life abroad.