May '13 - Feb '16
This is my last week as an intern at Tatiana Bilbao's office in Mexico City. In about two weeks, I'll be on a plane heading north. I have a lot of mixed feelings about leaving the office. On the downside, like many high-desirability offices, there is the expectation to work longer hours for a lower-end payscale. Actually, my average work week was under 50 hours, and I was only asked to work about one weekend in five. Really, not bad compared to my friends working in similar offices in New York and L.A.
Interns in Mexico are basically understood to be living with family, so the pay is generally low anyway. I was given more since as a foreigner, it was understood that I was going to be paying for my own food and housing. For the amount I was given every month, you have to give up Starbucks and craft beers- each latte and IPA is the price of a meal. I almost never take cabs, and I rarely went to bars or nicer restaurants. American restaurants are more expensive here, so you have to think twice about that lunch at Wendy's, and California Pizza Kitchen is definitely off the table. It kind of feels like being a college student again. Even living very frugally, it's been a struggle to make ends meet.
However, if you're going to live cheaply, Mexico is the place to do it. I can't think of anywhere else in the world where food so delicious can be had for so cheaply, and so accessibly. My typical lunch of chicken mole, beans, rice, sautéed Mexican squash, and hot, fresh corn tortilas was less than $3, about a five minute walk from the office.
Apart from the pay, the only other frustration has been the language barrier. Most people in the office speak English enough to be able to communicate with me, and I speak enough Spanish to communicate with them, but there is a big difference between being able to communicate and being able to have higher level conversations about design. The silver lining is that it precluded me from being a part of the phone-answering pool.
Overall, I have loved working here. The office is small, only about a dozen people, and most of them have only been a few years out of school. Apart from the partners, who are still considered to be "young, emerging" architects, I'm one of the older people in the office. (Another reason that it's time to hang up the "trainee" hat). The office is one large room (plus a conference room and a galley kitchen) a few floors up, with one entire glass wall overlooking the tree canopies on one of the biggest streets in Mexico City. The average age and the open layout give the office a feel of an architecture school studio. There's work and images pinned up everywhere, foam cutters, coffee cups, an entire archeology of a project buried in pink foam and chipboard strata. It's little surprise as both David and Tatiana teach intermittently.
DiscoveryChannel Mexico just released this two minute profile of Tatiana Bilbao and the office. The side of my head gets two seconds of fame in a slow tracking shot around the 1:25 mark.
We are generally treated pretty well- they bring in fresh bread for a mid-morning break, and the most expensive machine in the office is a fully automatic espresso maker. There's about an hour window when you're expected to arrive, and the expectation is that you'll put in your full hours and get your work done. Lunch is a leisurely affair, usually lasting between an hour to two hours depending on the mood. People usually bring their lunches to the office and we eat and socialize around the conference table.
I can hear you already- eating lunch together, how adorable- now get to the dirt about the boss. The screaming fits, the nightmare meetings, the bloated-ego principals. I hate to disappoint, but actually, I've really enjoyed working with Tatiana and David, mostly David, since Tatiana keeps a very busy schedule. (Last week, she was lecturing at MIT. She's also frequently in Europe these days). They are both really nice, and amazingly easy going. Whenever I have a meeting in Spanish with either one of them, they make sure that I understood at least the gist of the conversation. David's wife young son were also frequent visitors to the office.
There's also the occasional earthquake or mass protest in the street outside, but that's just one of the things about living in Mexico City. At least we have a good view of the protesters. This summer we had a protest march about once a week, and then about every other day for awhile.
As my internship drew to a close, they were considering hiring me full time. Why not stay? I've clearly enjoyed living and working in Mexico. It's a tempting scenario. There's really two big reasons I have a plane ticket out of here.
First, even with a pay raise, I'm not going to be making that much money here relative to the US. That would be totally fine if I was just considering living expenses and putting a little in the bank. However, it's hard to pay American student loans with Mexican Pesos. If you're living in New York and saving half of your income, that half is going to pay down your loans a lot faster than the half you'll be saving in Mexico City.
The second reason is personal- there's someone waiting for me in Germany whom I do not to wish to live without any longer. I don't have anything lined up over there, but in a week, I'll have a plane ticket to Germany, and in a month, if all goes well, I'll be enjoying the end of Oktoberfest with a particular Fräulein.
As such, I am currently looking for a position as an architect in and near southwestern Germany. Stuttgart, Basel, or Munich would be fantastic. Without an EU work visa or deutschsprachig, and in competition with all the rest of Europe looking for wirtschaftliche Sicherheit (economic security), it's an uphill battle.
Urban and architectural explorations from Mexico City to Stuttgart Germany through the eyes of a iterant architectural designer