My last post to the Dictionary before Costa Rica’s unbelievable performance at the World Cup wiped every other thought from my head for a full month was about how to hacer un macgyver, the Costa Rican phrase inspired by the ’80s TV icon. As I wrote, it’s used to describe a low-key way of solving most any problem without getting your proverbial panties in a bunch. A Bangladeshi taxi driver and a hilarious product recall have since given me a few more things to say about this topic. Continue reading
Many Costa Ricans and their most fervent fans have been sitting in the eye of a storm for the past few weeks, struck dumb by amazement, watching wide-eyed as accolades all over the world for “the little team that could” have whirled around us in dizzying splendor. But today, as Costa Rica was eliminated, words returned. Here’s why this matters so much to me, what I want to tell my baby daughter someday about everything she’s seen and not understood these past few weeks:
I don’t know what it’s like not to be big. I’m from the United States, a big country in every way – size, population, loudness, impact on the world for better and for worse. I’m also 5’10”, a giant in Costa Rica, hulking and lurching my way through San José. Years ago, a man behind me in line for an ATM said to no one in particular, “Jueeeeeeputa, qué gringa más grande.” When we took our group photo at the Office of the President, I was asked to bend down at the knees in the second row so I would fit in the shot. I have, not a bird’s-eye, but a tops-of-other-people’s-heads view of many rooms I enter. Continue reading
Our neighborhood is usually quiet on Sunday morning, but this past Sunday it was as solemn and still as a church. As I trotted down the hill to start my run, I could hear the hushed voices of the altar guild, the barmen of Garros Bar, who behind their barricaded doors were cleaning glasses and righting overturned bottles after an insanely prosperous evening. I huffed and puffed up the hill beyond, past houses of Ticos dreaming of Jesus Christ – the Cristo de Río de Janeiro, that is, to whose photo someone added a Costa Rican soccer jersey in an image circulated widely on Facebook the night before. As I settled into the rest of my usual route, I realized that on this Father’s Day, men all over the country were waking up, looking skywards, clasping their hands in prayer, and thanking God for the best gift they could possibly have imagined. Continue reading
Perhaps I should explain myself.
Years ago, I was sitting at the rough cement table in our little garden with some friends. One was my former roommate here in this house, who had since headed back to the States and was now visiting Costa Rica once more. She posed an interesting question over our beers: what is it, exactly, that makes life in Costa Rica so much more relaxed than life back home? “When I lived here, I wasn’t lying on the beach all day,” she pointed out. “I had a demanding job and worked long hours, just as I do in the States. My relative income was fairly similar, as were my social and family obligations. This city is noisier and more crowded that my city back home. What is it, then? What is it about Costa Rica that makes life calmer?” Continue reading
The rainy season with you is lonely and cosy. We live in a city, and in summer it feels that way – we hear footfalls back and forth, one neighbor shouting to another, a conversation outside our gate, a honk for a friend, soccer ooooohs from Garros Bar down the hill. In the rain, though, with your dad out working at the restaurant, our house becomes a ship’s cabin in the middle of the ocean. Watching you walk around like a tiny, drunken sailor serves to heighten the effect; I’m the only one here with sea legs. As I write this, a torrential rain has been falling for six hours straight. You are finally down for the count. I patted you to sleep on your belly, watched your eyes drop shut like magic over a count of ten. Continue reading
To have a child in another country is to take on an entire nation as your mother-in-law. It’s a new family, or culture, into which you’ve married, and which once accepted you without much comment, but now has plenty to say about your every move. At least, it’s like that in Costa Rica, where the usual level of advice-giving bestowed upon a new mother reaches epic proportions. My actual mother-in-law is very relaxed and has never given me any unsolicited parenting advice whatsoever, now that I think of it. Of course, she doesn’t need to, because cashiers, waitresses, random passersby, and even our neighborhood drunk have been more than happy to instruct me. I’m not complaining – not much, anyway – because, as I plan to explain in a future post, this interference goes hand-in-hand with unbelievable kindness and support, but especially in the first few months of motherhood, the incessant instructions from total strangers can be a bit trying.
It’s also quite edifying. Here are a few things Costa Ricans have taught me about parenting. To clarify, these are lessons I’ve been taught, but not all are things I’ve learned. There’s a difference. Like any mother-in-law’s advice, some are gems, and others you hold at arms’ length. To wit:
1. It’s never too hot out to wrap your baby head-to-toe in another fleece blanket. I knew this one was coming years before I became a mother. I was out running on a scorching day, sweat pouring not only from my forehead but from every inch of skin on every person I passed, when I spotted a tiny baby wearing thick woolen pajamas, mittens, bunny slippers, and a Russian-ushanka-style hat with ear flaps. I’m dead serious. Why more babies aren’t hospitalized for heat exhaustion, I don’t know. I’ve been reprimanded for insufficiently clothing my baby more times than I can count, including earlier today on a muggy bus where we were all fanning ourselves desperately and you, my dear, were very sensibly clad in a sleeveless cotton dress. The woman next to me commented on the extreme heat, mentioned that you looked hot as well, and then asked, “But that’s all you put her in? Aren’t you worried she’ll catch a cold?” At which point I whipped out an ushanka and blanketed your ears in fur. All right, I didn’t, but I think that would have been the only acceptable response.
2. Chamomile tea solves everything. This is one I’ve taken on board wholeheartedly. In fact, it’s strange to think that there was a time in my life when I didn’t think of chamomile tea in almost any situation, for babies or adults. Gas or colic? A little tea in the bottle, and more for mom. Heading off for vaccinations? Put some washcloths in a jar of tea in the fridge so they’re nice and cool to reduce swelling afterwards. Teething? Rub a special chamomile powder directly on the gums. Bump on the head? Stressful day? Heart attack in the works? Everything’s better with a little té de manzanilla. It represents a broader characteristic of Costa Rica that I admire tremendously – an affection for simple, plant-based cures, not because they’re trendy, but because they’re simple, cheap and effective. My friend Amanda Cook writes a great blog about, among other things, the wisdom of our grandmothers, wisdom we should reclaim. In Costa Rica, that kind of wisdom is still common knowledge.
3. Baby carriers are unnecessary torture devices. I love my trusty, simple, canvas baby-carrier, and so do you, little girl. It’s allowed us to get around San José without a car for many months, hopping in and out of buses with the greatest of ease, striding over damaged and holey sidewalks that would derail a stroller, easy to protect with a single umbrella, perfect for your nap on a fussy day. Of course, I’ve received many unfriendly stares and comments such as, “Poor thing. I supposed she’s used to that contraption” – this as you’re peacefully sleeping or joyfully bouncing up and down. There’s a good reason for this, however. In Costa Rica, parents are used to simply carrying their babies in their arms. Imagine that! A good friend in the States told me a story about a fellow mom who’d left her car seat at home, or something, and couldn’t figure out how to get her baby along a sidewalk from point A to point B. My friend said, “In your arms, perhaps?” and was met with astonishment. Back in the US of A, we like to have equipment for everything, duly JPMA-certified and with an instruction manual the size of the Old Testament. In Costa Rica, this madness has simply not set in, partly for economic reasons (why on Earth is an Ergo so expensive, by the way?) and partly for cultural ones. That doesn’t mean I no longer get nervous watching a mother leap off of a rickety, steep bus staircase onto a crumbling curb while rocking mile-high stilettos, all with a week-old baby cradled in the crook of her arm. I think there’s a happy medium to be sought here – see item number 5.
4. Get over yourself with your organic quinoa baby food and five-point high-chair harnesses. When I was preparing for your arrival, I was reading the same articles and scouring the same websites as any U.S. mother, but in a country with nowhere near the same range of products to buy. I worried that I wasn’t going to be able to get you the right things, that you’d be unsafe and filled with chemicals and so on and so forth. The Costa Rican side of the family tended to greet my concerns with calm, compassionate smiles and not much else. I came to realize what was behind those smiles – the knowledge that babies really don’t require as much stuff, or information, as overly-connected new moms tend to seek out. I’m not knocking organic food or quinoa or five-point harnesses. I’m knocking the level of stress that, from what I can see, surrounds so much of U.S. babyhood, at least for people with the time and economic means for such things.
5. Every culture gets silly about babies in its own way. This is the most important thing I’ve learned, and it’s why I believe any parent, from any country, would benefit from living or traveling abroad. It might sound trite to say that there’s no correct way to raise a child, but receiving parenting advice from more than one culture really drives that home. Costa Ricans go overboard wrapping their babies in wool on sweltering days, just as Americans are obsessed with having a specific piece of baby equipment for every single conceivable occasion. A Costa Rican mother might run around town with her baby in her arms, while a gringa might be more relaxed about letting her baby play in the dirt. It’s all summed up by the common phrase cada loco con su tema, another favorite of your father’s and a key entry in your dictionary – every nut has his own pet subject. It’s especially true for parents, who are crazy with love.
I think the answer is to learn from each other’s oddities and obsessions: the Tica mother taking off that extra sweater, the gringa carrying her baby to her neighbor’s in her arms. The answer is to remember that the reason we’re so nuts is that we want our kids to be okay. The answer is to teach each other the one thing that almost any parent needs to learn, and learn, and learn again: that really, all of us are making it up as we go along.
I am terrible with directions. I am so terrible that, one morning during my visit to Costa Rica as a college student – the same morning that I managed to get my sneakers stolen and sold back to me by the same enterprising thief on the beach at Jacó – I had actually gotten up early to run and watch the sunrise. As the sky slowly lightened over the ocean and the sun failed to appear, a similarly gradual enlightenment took place in my top-notch brain. I realized I was on the Pacific coast, looking west, and that the sunrise might best be contemplated on the other side of the country; this was a place I might someday visit, if I could ever get my shoes back. Did I say “terrible with directions”? I believe it might be more accurately translated as “más tonta que las gallinas de noche” – “dumber than hens at night.”
At any rate, you won’t be surprised to learn that it took me nearly ten years to realize the orientation of our house. I was outside with you a couple of months ago, watching the sun set beyond our gate, when it occurred to me that my favorite spot, the back corner where I sit at night as you fall asleep, is also our northernmost corner. It is the place where I read you Pat the Bunny or Baby Listens, then pull out my own book, and read, and wait. From our armchair, I can look out over the whole quiet length of our little house. Over the sound of your little noise machine, just enough to mask throaty motorcycle engines and loudmouthed neighbors, I can still hear the crickets outside or, one evening during Lent, a somewhat toneless but oddly beautiful chorus of old ladies at the stations of the cross I’d seen them putting up earlier in the day, their dutiful sons and husbands following the women’s orders as usual in the gated porches and entryways of our neighborhood.
I sit like this until you’re fast asleep, eyelashes lushly curved against your cheek, hands curled. Some nights, it’s not that simple (look in the index under “crankiness,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians reruns,” “begging” or “maniacal laughter”), but when it is, it’s the most peaceful, quiet, and happy moment of my day, my week, my life.
So I was thrilled to discover that when I sit in that armchair, I am at the northernmost point of our house, looking south. It makes sense. It means I’m sitting as close as I possibly can to the place I’m from. I sit as close as I can to long, shadowed summer evenings made for the far-off sound of a tennis-ball thwack or the swoosh of a net, to bare feet on cedar chips in my mother’s garden where I fill my outstretched T-shirt with arugula leaves and butter beans. I sit as close as I can to autumn, crisp leaves on top and muddy below, scuffed up by age-old Bean boots my thrifty father keeps resoling. I sit as close as I can to winter, to red, numb legs after a run, to dark mornings that I don’t miss in the least, to muted heather sunsets that I miss terribly. I sit as close as I can to spring, to the joy of the first bare leg and the first sandal, even when you realize halfway out the door that you jumped the gun and are freezing cold. I sit as close as I can to the seasons of an earlier life, seasons that now pass without me, and I feel a little acabangada – the Costa Rican word for the particular melancholy of missing a person after a breakup, or an animal that has died, or a place. (You can also estar de cabanga or, the best, tener un cabangón, a serious nostalgia attack that in my world would require a box of wine and a rainy window to gaze through.)
But the cabangón is not for me, not tonight. I sit in the north corner, knowing that at my back, behind the window and the neighbor’s flower-covered wall and the streets and tin roofs beyond; behind the Nicaraguan border where ladies in frilly aprons sing about the cheeses they have to sell; behind all the borders after that, the state lines, the rivers and lakes and ocean waves of increasing frigidity; behind me, way behind me, is the life I left, but before me, to the south, is the life I came to find. Before me, to the south, is the land where the streets have no name or logical layout, where rain falls in sheets, where MacGyver is a noun used in daily conversation, and where I have so often found myself “a lo chancho chingo” – as happy as a naked pig.
At any rate, for now, none of it matters, none of what’s behind or before us. Because for now, for right now, the only latitude and longitude that matters are the degree, minute, second, and circle of lamplight that hold the two of us together. That’s why I linger so long. That’s why I take my time setting you down. I want to delay the moment when thought resumes. I want to delay the moment when the lamp goes out. I want to delay the moment when the armchair creaks goodnight, the northern corner empties, the bedroom door closes, my feet take me back into the world, the world begins to move once more.