On Finding the Cure for Homesickness (Acabangada)

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.


Our northern corner.

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.

My San José Gandhi Traffic Fantasy (Estamos furris)

You were conceived in the middle of a San José rush hour.


The Tico Times

All right, that’s a lie. (Did I make you throw up a little there? I’m sorry.) But even if you weren’t, someone must have been. Think about it. This is a city where an enterprising, or perhaps very bored, reporter wandered around on foot last year during the hora pico, as this daily ordeal is known, interviewing exasperated drivers through their car windows. When he came back around the block and recognized the same drivers, he did some quick calculations and realized that they were moving at a rate of one kilometer per hour. That’s right: one kilometer per hour. In urban sludge that thick, people do lots of things to pass the time. They straighten their hair, buy the cell-phone covers and roses proffered by strolling salesmen and women, watch movies on the DVD players they have installed on their windscreens in a special affront to road safety, perform root canals, make five-course dinners on dashboard hot plates. It stands to reason that people must be taking advantage of the proximity of a totally immobile back seat, plus a spouse, or carpool member, or perhaps a passing pedestrian who, compared to the cars, is moving at the speed of LIGHT and therefore seems inordinately powerful and attractive and worthy of a spontaneous shag.

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Love Is Its Own Country (y cada cabeza es un mundo)

These words have dropped from your father’s lips so many times over the past ten years, tiny soothing antacid pills for my latest emotional heartburn. Like Costa Rica itself, they remind me that acceptance is often the wisest path, especially when it comes to human foibles. Every head is its own world. We can fret and spin, or we can throw up our hands and shrug our shoulders, remembering that we ourselves are every bit as maddening and mysterious as anyone else.

If every head is its own world, then a couple is the strange and miraculous country that is made where two worlds overlap – the territory inside the place where the two orbs cross, the center of a Venn diagram. Every such country is different. It can be the most wonderful place imaginable, where the loneliness of the cold universe is forgotten, or it can be desolate and silent. It can change over time: large and expansive on exhilarating, invulnerable days, cramped and airless when times are bad. It passes through seasons, frosts and thaws, leaves that fall and grow again. It is the small sliver of our vastness that we share with another person. It is home to our giddiest nights and bleary-eyed breakfasts, bitter sighs and hands that find each other despite themselves. It is the place where our children are born. It is their whole universe, until they begin to venture forth beyond it.

I have learned many things during my ten years in Costa Rica, but none more important than this: that love is its own country, wherever it is found. Ours, your father’s and mine, is limited to the south by Panama and to the north by the stone wall at your grandparents’ house in Maine. Its official languages are English and Spanish, with the regional and familial linguistic quirks that are ours alone . Its national dish is the chicharrón. Its national anthem would surely be the subject of fierce debate, though it’s definitely by Joaquín Sabina. Its population of native-born citizens is one: you.

That might sound like a lonely proposition, but there is loneliness in simply being alive. After all, I hear that every head is its own world. As Milton put it, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” May you never have to do either. May your world be full of heavenly things you take from your past and make for yourself. May you save yourself the pain that comes from believing that we can ever completely know, let alone control, another person. Whether that person is your parent or your partner, half a world away or brushing against your arm on the couch, Costa Rican, American or Azerbaijani, you will only ever know one fraction of the depths within. If that little sliver that you share is a happy place, that is enough. More than enough: it’s marvelous.


At your northern border.

My Long-Lost Inner Gringa (Ningún cura se acuerda cuando fue sacristán)

You, with a priest we knowNo priest remembers being a sacristan. I looked up that last word, years back, and found that a sacristan is a church official – but since I didn’t grow up with that title, I’ve always imagined that the priest forgets what it was like to be an altar boy (one of my favorite words in Spanish – monaguillo). At any rate, the point is that with the exception of U.S. politicians, who boast about their humble beginnings to the point of absurdity, we try to leave behind our lesser, unsure selves. That’s why immigrants are often rude to more recent arrivals. We don’t want to be reminded of our own past, fumbling, vulnerable. We want to stay protected by the acquired knowledge that makes us feel at home and in control, even when we are not.

On my first day in San José when I moved to Costa Rica in 2004, I got hopelessly lost in a bad neighborhood. I got off the bus from the sleepy town where I was staying and, finding that no one could tell me how to get to the newspaper office where I wanted to ask for a job, took off at my usual brisk pace for my first of hundreds of walks across the city. I walked past strip clubs and adult theaters, huddled addicts on the sidewalk, and emerged, still lost, into the district where the Judicial Branch looms high in nondescript beige buildings. I walked along the block where I would soon be hired as a reporter, past the hospital where you, my daughter, would one day be born. For the first time, I trod the sidewalk I would cross thousands of time on my way to and from work, or to and from appointments at the fertility clinic – the sidewalk where I would take my last steps as a non-mother. It is strange, today, to imagine ever being lost in a neighborhood I would come to know so well, one that would bring you to me in more ways than one. But no priest remembers being an altar boy.

On my second day in San José, I took a bus to try to find the boarding house where I’d end up living. I asked the driver to tell me when we reached the rotonda the landlady had told me to seek out, but he didn’t. I stayed on until the depot and sheepishly found my way to another bus starting its route back down through the pouring rain. I was the only passenger; the driver struck up an uncomfortable conversation with me. At one point he asked to shake my hand and, when I warily extended it, planted disgusting kisses on my indignant wrist. My arm snapped back to me like Elastigirl’s and I thought: am I going to be raped on a public bus? What do I do? Thankfully a reassuring señora got on at the next stop, my savior in a sweater set, and I scampered back to sit near her, sure I’d escaped from certain doom.

Nearly ten years have passed, and I now know these streets far better than any of my childhood roads. Your grandmother and her sister used to scrunch down in the back of their parents’ car on the way home from the market, closing their eyes and trying to figure out where they were on the familiar journey from Concord to Dunbarton, New Hampshire, feeling every curve and turn. I can do the same now, but in a far-away city that would have seemed very strange and noisy to those young New Hampshire girls, or to an earlier version of me. I suppose this makes me proud.

And yet. One night, six months pregnant with you, I rode my usual bus home late from work, texting with a colleague. I didn’t notice that I’d missed my stop. The bus rumbled on to the end of its route. I had no idea where I was and am embarrassed to say that I even called your father in a momentary panic as I walked the dark streets in bemusement. I soon came out onto the main road and saw I’d been less than twenty feet from my usual running circuit, fifty from our supermarket. That is the fate of the foreigner: no matter how long we stay, how fluent we become, how assiduously we memorize local shortcuts and shorthand, we are only one block, one stop, one unfamiliar slang word away from being lost once more.

Sandra Cisneros said it best: “When you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven… You feel like you’re still ten. And you are – underneath the year that makes you eleven.” Our previous selves are still inside us, nested like Russian dolls. I find this very comforting. It means that when you, my girl, are big and too cool for me, I can at least believe that the nutty toddler I know now, and the sweet, determined baby who came before that, will still be in there somewhere. Within the priest is the sacristan and the altar boy, awkward, new. Within the not-lost gringa is the lost gringa. Our old selves are just below the surface, and all it takes is a nudge, a glance, a taste, a sudden memory, a missed bus stop, to rearrange us. This is usually humbling. With a little luck and grace, it does not have to be shattering. Life is easier if we can learn to smile upon the ten- and twenty- and thirty-year-olds who pop up to the surface unbidden. Life is easier if we can remember our nesting dolls, our forgotten altar boys, and extend a hand to them as old friends.

One for the Road (El zarpe)

The zarpe of choiceWhy not begin at the end, both alphabetically and chronogically? This is one term that most visitors learn, almost like pura vida. El zarpe is the departure of a ship from port, but it’s also the sailor’s last drink before climbing on board. I picture an old man in yellow waders and a cable-knit sweater, tossing one last whiskey past his grizzled beard on a gloomy Massachusetts day, but the term really belongs to a fisherman with an icy beer or bottle of guaro in a place like Puntarenas. As you know, my dear, that’s a hot, flat, narrow Pacific port town. As you might not know, it’s where your father bought your mother her first copo, knowing that the shaved ice, sweet syrup, condensed and powdered milk would keep her from falling flat on her face at a patron saint’s festival. Why was I in danger of falling flat on my face? That’s a story for another time. Or never. But I believe the medical term is “too many zarpes.”

For landlubbers, this term helps ensure that another round of drinks will be ordered over some sensible soul’s objections. You say, “Come on! El zarpe, el zarpe! One for the road!” The person always relents. Repeat this for five or six rounds more and you’ve got the correct usage, both of the term and of those nice cold bottles of Imperial sitting in a bucket of ice, ideally in a dimly lit bar on a rainy afternoon with the best of the ‘80s piping through your brain.

I’ve had a lot of people set sail on me in the past ten years, off to other lands. Such is life, and certainly the life of the expat. When I first arrived here, I lived in a boarding house near the Rotonda la Betania, filled primarily with kindly Nicaraguan dental students who spent most of their time at class but left their plaster models arrayed around the dark kitchen. On the rare occasion that I went out, including the night I met your dad, I’d bid farewell to the empty house, the silent jaws and giant molars, and leave my journal open on my bed to a note – Went to such-and-such a show on July 28th – imagining that if a nefarious stranger did me in, my housemates might break down my door weeks later and at least find a lead. Odd and fairly pointless, but it made me feel better at the time, gave me the illusion of a watchful eye.

The tide came in. My life filled with friendships, the really good kind, the ones you can only make when you’re far from home and a little bit lost. Then, as the years went by, the tide went out again. One by one, or sometimes in pairs, people peeled off and headed back home, leaving me sitting on the beach once more. I’ve been cast up on a different part of the shore, of course, and I’m no longer alone. I keep the greatest possible company. It’s just that I no longer have many folks around for whom Enrique and Beto are really Ernie and Bert.

I’d like to say that these many departures have made me appreciate the people who are around me now, every moment of every day, but that’s not always true. I don’t think that’s even desirable. If we really achieved that, we’d cry every time anyone left the house (just like you do. Hmm. Perhaps you’re on to something there). However, I have decided that the zarpe is not only an outstanding tool for developing a drinking problem, but also a good approach to life. It encourages indulgence in pleasures because of their finite nature. We have one more with our friends because our ship, or theirs, might sail at any time. It is a jolly way of keeping in mind the fact that our time on shore, at the bar, and in life, is always limited. To me, that jovial awareness of mortality is very Costa Rican.

With you, little bean, the zarpe is just a little bit different. Shall we squish one more of our neighbor’s spectacular flowers into pulpy red mush in our hands? Ok, el zarpe, el zarpe. (Shhh.) Go up and down the driveway again pointing at oranges? Ok, el zarpe, el zarpe. Pretend your comb is a phone and stomp around naked? Go for it. No time like the present.

What’s that? Sounds good. One more, one more. I’m over here watching, with your dad, and maybe a little zarpe.