When Belgian polyglot Séverine Naessens first saw Cancún in 1998 as a university student, she knew it was time to pack her bags and head for Mexico. Now, after living nearly two decades in Mexico’s most popular tourist destination, she knows all about getting the most out of life in Cancún.
Born and raised in a suburb of Ghent, Belgium, 42-year-old Naessens graduated from Hogeschool Gent, the largest university in the Flanders part of Belgium, with a degree in professional translation to help her pursue a career in business translation.
“When I was 15 I went to Málaga, Spain to study Spanish for the summer,” Naessens said, “and I really fell in love with the language. So I did my university major in Spanish and English.”
In her last semester, she found an opportunity to use her Spanish language skills working for a manufacturing company in Mexico City, which she needed to fulfill her thesis requirement. While there, she spent a week in Cancún soaking up the sun, and that, as they say, was it.
“After I graduated I worked for about six months in Belgium to fund six months of living in Cancún,” she said. “I so fell in love with the place that I decided to come here without a job.”
It did not take her long to find gainful employment. Fluent in Spanish, English, Dutch and French, she soon landed a job with a water sports company selling its services to tourists. She worked at the company for about one year, squirreling away enough money to get certified as a Scuba diving instructor.
“I worked as a Scuba instructor for two years,” she said, “and it was the best job ever. I had so much fun. You get paid to do what you like best. I think everyone should have an experience like that.”
Although she loved her job, the physical demands of working six days a week and lugging around the heavy equipment took its toll. A few months later Naessens met the Belgian counsel for the Yucatán Peninsula, who offered her a job as an assistant.
“I started out helping him with a lot of administrative things,” she said, “ but I got bored. So, I helped him out with his email marketing business and really got hooked on the digital stuff. We ended up becoming business partners a few years later. We were one of the pioneers developing websites and social media to promote Cancún and the Riviera Maya.”
About three years ago, she left the digital marketing firm to go into life coaching.
“I’ve been very lucky to be successful with it,” she said. “I’ve specialized in responsible communication because as a mom I started taking classes on how to make my personal relationship with my 9-year-old daughter, Inari, and my family better. So I started training and then got certified as a parent talk system teacher, which is a system of responsible communication set up by the Institute for Personal Power. I’ve been certified to teach that course and have extended that into life coaching, also.”
Naessens started a non-profit organization with a business partner about a year ago called The Parent Talk System Latino America. Their goal is to bring responsible communication to the local area as well as all of Latin America.
“I do lots online,” she said, “and I do teach groups personally. We have groups in Cancún that participate in a 12-week course, which is a combination of online and group sessions.”
The 12-week course costs about 4,000 pesos, or about US$200.
Naessens lives in a 3,500 square feet, 3-bedroom and 2.5 bath home near the Cancún airport. Now divorced, she built it with her Mexican husband in 2006.
“My neighborhood is very quiet and very green,” she said. “We’ve been blessed with a big chunk of land that is quiet and in the middle of nature, but only a 15-minute drive to the beach.”
She estimated that her home is worth about US$200,000 today but cautioned that prices in Cancún vary a lot, depending upon location. As for other expenses, Naessens told us the local cost of living depends mostly on how you want to live.
“If you go to the supermarket and fill up your cart with the same stuff you bought in California, for example,” she said, “you would pay about the same amount of money. The U.S. dollar is strong against the peso right now, so that helps, but it just depends upon what kind of lifestyle you want. If you want to live just like you did back home, it will cost you more than if you adapt to a more Mexican way of living.”
Naessens sends her daughter to a bi-lingual private school, which teaches in both English and Spanish, primarily because she does not believe the local school system is that good. She spends about US$170 monthly for tuition.
Cancún is home to many expats, including well over 100 Belgians, she said. The largest communities belong the Americans and Canadians but Italy, Argentina, France and the Netherlands are also well represented. There are about two-dozen consulates located in Cancún.
“I have expat friends but most of my close friends are Mexican,” she said. “Although I’m fluent in Spanish, that doesn’t have that much to do with my relationships because most of my friends speak English well. I just love the Mexican people.”
Indeed she does. Love for the Mexican people came through loud and clear when she described what she loves best about Mexico.
“I really love the community, the sense of family that is always present here,” she said. “Other than my mom, I don’t have other relatives living here. But I do have a very tight knit group of friends that I call family. My mom says she doesn’t recognize me any more because I have been Mexicanized quite a lot. I think it is necessary to adapt to the community in which you live for true integration. If you don’t, you will struggle.”
She clearly has not. In fact, she loves Mexico and life in Cancún so much that she became a citizen in 2008.
“I feel proud to be Mexican,” she said. “My friends always joke that Mexicans are always trying to get out of the country, but I’ve become a Mexican by choice because I really love the country. I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunities here and I feel at home.”
Naessens believes one of the main advantages to living in Mexico is the freedom she enjoys, especially the freedom to easily open a business.
“You can set up a business easier here than in Europe,” she said. “You don’t really need that much money to get going. The Mexican government is more open to business opportunities than many other countries.”
Cancún’s beaches, climate, multi-cultural environment and international beach resort ambience and attractions have always lured expats to its sunny Caribbean shore, but Naessens cautioned aspiring expats to spend some time living there before making a commitment.
“Before you sell everything, you should come down for about six months,” she said. “Get a place downtown and get a feel for living here. If you want a job, try one out. Make sure this is the place for you before you commit. And, please, learn Spanish!”