A conversation with Joe Baur on ‘Without a Path’

Without a Path InterviewTravel writer Joe Baur interviewed me on the latest episode of his fascinating podcast, “Without a Path.” We share not only a love of Costa Rica but an obsession with Costa Rican slang, to the point where we both wrote books about it – check out his, “Talking Tico” – and it was great fun to shoot the breeze with him.

Listen in to our conversation about reasons travel is particularly important for U.S. citizens, why “the greatest country on Earth” is such a ridiculous concept, the immigrant secret identity and more.

Also, subscribe to Joe’s podcast for weekly interviews with “creative types, adventurers and the occasional hope for humanity about the travels that have helped define their lives.”



Why learning another language keeps us young

IMG_3653Published in The Tico Times on June 5, 2017.

When you’re tuckered out from a long day using Costa Rican slang at every conceivable opportunity, how do you announce you’re ready for bed? With a little local color, of course. So when my husband needed our four-year-old daughter to hit the hay the other night, he said to her, “OK – a planchar la oreja.”

Planchar is “to flatten” or “to iron.” When you’re off to “flatten your ear,” it means you’re ready to put your head down on your pillow. It’s my favorite expression for going to bed, followed closely by “voy pa’l sobre.” A sobre is an envelope, and the expression conjures up the cozy feeling of slipping between tightly tucked sheets; I love the mental image of someone slipping into an envelope and snuggling up to sleep.

Our daughter burst into tears and grabbed her ears in a true panic.

Continue reading Why learning another language keeps us young

The amazing true story of tuanis and brete – words to be thankful for

Hi there – just wanted to say thanks so much for your support and readership, and to share my first two columns in The Tico Times, which are inspired by (and will sometimes overlap with) “The Dictionary of You” and will run every other Monday from here on out. The column, “Maeology,” looks at Costa Rican culture and the expatriate experience through the country’s language and slang. I will continue to add them to the “Portfolio” section of the blog as they appear.

A love letter to Costa Rica’s second language, Nov. 10, 2014

The amazing true story of tuanis and brete, Nov. 24, 2014


On motherhood and hunger (como el león del Bolivar)

I’ve come to Costa Rica three times in my life. The first time, I was seven, and I remember absolutely nothing about the whole trip except seeing an enormous crocodile in the canals of Tortuguero. The third time, I was twenty-five, beginning the six-month visit that has continued for ten years. But in between was a college summer when I worked as a highly improbable intern at the national newspaper La Nación and lived with the greatest family in Costa Rica. Don Memo and doña Hannia sealed my fate, planting the seeds for my return years later. They ensnared me in a net of good food, exuberant kindness and costarriqueñismos that I would never quite escape. In a very real sense, they paved my way to you. Continue reading On motherhood and hunger (como el león del Bolivar)

Endings (murió la flor)

Part of becoming a parent is gaining the ability to wax poetic about some pretty mundane shit – including, well, shit. Enough bleary-eyed diaper changes will make a philosopher out of anyone. Nothing, though, can compete with a bubble wand in terms of making a person ponder the fleeting nature of life. In the movie “Knocked Up,” Paul Rudd’s character describes it: “I wish I liked anything as much as my kids liked bubbles… It’s totally sad. Their smiling faces point out your inability to enjoy anything.”

Paul RuddIt’s really true. Watching a kid chase bubbles puts us, as adults, to shame: the simplicity of the game, the intensity of the joy. Continue reading Endings (murió la flor)

If this is insanity, then call me crazy (medio treinticinco)

(My dear: This is one is for me to ask you to read when you’re a teenager, for you to actually read in your 20s, and for you to appreciate, maybe, when you’re… well, 35.)

I had heard it a few times over the years, but now that I myself am 35 years old, one day it hit my ear in a new way, and I had to ask your dad. “Why is that medio treinticinco means crazy? Is that the age when you lose your mind?” Uuy, pero ese mae está medio treinticinco, huevón.

He explained that, no, there is a simple explanation: 35 is, or at least it was at some point, the police code for a nutcase. It’s the number that crackles over the radio when a cop picks up a guy who thinks he’s a chicken, or a wild-eyed woman who believes herself capable of driving through San José in less than two hours during Friday rush hour. However, despite this clarification, I can’t help but associate the expression with my age – which is my favorite age thus far. That’s partly because of you, but also partly because blowing out candles thirty-five times seems to have freed up something in my brain. Or maybe it knocked something loose. Continue reading If this is insanity, then call me crazy (medio treinticinco)

Home Sweet Home (mi choza)

I slip out of the house into the cool evening. It’s late-summer twilight in New England, God’s attempt at justice for those who live in cold climates. These endless sunsets that stretch long past dinner make it possible to end the day with a run – a luxury impossible in Costa Rica, where the sun drops like a dead weight at six-ish, year-round. (I know, I know. I can feel the wrathful eyes of Mainers upon me. I’m not complaining, and yes, I know I haven’t scraped the ice off a car in 15 years. But you know it as well as I do – a Maine summer, for all its brevity, is perfection.)

Mi choza

I’ve got a good hour of light left, but it’s dim enough that the living-room window looks cozy as I pass it, and I pause, torn, reluctant to turn away. Inside, two heads lean together, conferring in front of the record player, your grandmother’s grey, yours brown, both equally tousled. A Sesame Street record starts to play. I make myself keep going, past the For Sale sign and into the street. Goodbye for now, mi choza, I think. Choza, one of the first words your father taught me. Literally a hut made of palms, but also a comfortable slang word for home. This home, for a few nights more at least, is mi choza gringa, my stateside place to hang my hat during the pat thirteen years. Continue reading Home Sweet Home (mi choza)

When You Are Engulfed in Fruit Juice* (macgyver, part II)

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 When You Are Engulfed in Fruit Juice* (macgyver, part II)

What I’ll Tell My Daughter about La Sele, 2014

photoMany 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 What I’ll Tell My Daughter about La Sele, 2014

The Fearless Ones (futbolísticamente hablando)

ImageOur 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 The Fearless Ones (futbolísticamente hablando)