An interview about ‘Love’

This was an amazing week and I’m so grateful to you for your comments and shares! Earlier this year, Tico Times Managing Editor (and fellow writer-mom) Jill Replogle asked me some great questions about Costa Rica, writing, juggling family and the immigrant vs. expat debate. The TT published the interview on Monday and I’m proud to share it here as well. 

…Stanley, 37, arrived in Costa Rica in 2004 and has worked as a reporter, editor, speechwriter and freelance writer, as well as in a variety of roles in the nonprofit sector. After the birth of her daughter in San José in 2013, she began writing about Costa Rican language and culture, both on her personal blog, The Dictionary of You, and in a popular Tico Times column called Maeology. Many of these writings are included in the new book, which follows our Publications Group’s first title, “The Green Season,” by Robert Isenberg (2015).

“Love in Translation” has garnered praise for former President Oscar Arias, former First Lady Henrietta Boggs, author Carlos Arauz and National Culture Award-Winner María Mayela Padilla, who says it offers “a valuable lesson: that our language and culture are rich and worthy of preservation. We must carry in our souls the pride of being Costa Rican, just the way we are.”

We asked Stanley a few questions about the book, now available for delivery within Costa Rica from The Tico Times Store, and around the world on Amazon.

In your words, what is this book about?

I’m a New Englander, and we don’t throw the word “love” around a whole lot, but that’s really what it’s about and why it ended up in the title: love of the way Costa Rica talks and thinks, love of the country in general, and how that eventually grew into my family…  My view of the book has changed a little bit throughout 2016, which has been a hard year for lots of people in different ways. I hope it provides a little escape for readers but also a testament to the beauty that is created when different cultures meet and when people move beyond their own borders, literally and emotionally.

Tells us a little about the format of the book and the material that makes it up.

The blog it grew from, which I started as an outlet for all the thoughts whizzing around my brain when I was home with my baby daughter, was called “The Dictionary of You,” because my original idea was to write one letter to my daughter for every letter of the alphabet, looking at a Costa Rican phrase or expression that started with that letter.

That’s basically how it is set up: “a” is for “antiguo higuerón,” the once-and-future fig tree that looms so large in Costa Rican direction-giving, and the essay explores getting lost as a new arrival. “B” is for “breteanding,” a Spanglish spin you sometimes hear on “brete,” or work. And so on. These alternate with brief journal entries that trace my 12 years in Costa Rica and how my life changed along the way.

A lot of your writing, especially your Maeology column for The Tico Times, is centered on language and Costa Rican slang. How has understanding Costa Rican Spanish helped you understand Costa Rica?

The two have gone hand in hand the whole way. For one thing, my husband, Adrián, uses slang constantly, so starting to understand it was a key part of dating him and falling in love with him and his country. And to me, the process of understanding a language runs parallel to the process of understanding a country. You hear a phrase you don’t understand and someone explains it – fine – but it might be years later that the real meaning sinks into your bones, the philosophy behind it, what it represents. I expect that process to continue forever, just about.

When you were putting together this book and looked back at journal entries from your first years in Costa Rica, what struck you about the way you perceived the country and your place in it compared to now?

I think back to those early days in the country so often – they were so formative for me, so indedibly inked on my brain – that there weren’t really any big surprises, to be honest.

What’s your favorite Costa Rican dicho or slang term?

Manda huevo. Untranslatable, essential, so expressive. I am often very critical when native speakers of English, including me, sprinkle Spanish into their conversation with other English speakers – sometimes it’s done in a “oh, my Spanish is just so good that I can’t remember the English words anymore” kind of way – but manda huevo is one phrase I do sometimes use when I’m speaking English because there’s just no equivalent.

The letters to your daughter included in the book started as a blog that you began writing at a time when most people stop doing anything other than surviving: you had a new baby and multiple demanding jobs, and you were living in a city notorious for long commute times and frequent traffic jams. How and why did you decide to take up this project and continue to make the time to keep up with it?

It was actually an unusually quiet time in my life. I did juggle a lot of work from home, but I was still going very long stretches without exchanging a single word out loud with another adult. As any new parent can attest, when I did speak, it was usually to my husband, and those weren’t exactly quality conversations. My husband worked nights. I would put our daughter to bed and the house would be so exquisitely quiet; my brain would be so full of things I wanted to tell her. The blog just sort of spilled out of that. I see so many new moms start blogs, and I think it comes from that same kind of feeling: you have this new urgency to all the things you want to say, but the person you most want to hear them is not capable of listening yet. And you write.

You’ve raised your child almost entirely in Costa Rica thus far, but what have you found surprising about raising a child here that seems different in the United States?

That’s a big part of the book, too, and hard to sum up. I’ve been surprised by how kind and accommodating people are here, including in professional situations – I can’t really compare it to the States, since I’ve never had a kid there, but from what I gather from friends, I am fortunate in that sense. And on the sillier side, I was surprised to find that no matter what your baby is wearing, you will always be told to put more clothing on her. Always.

What do you hope your daughter learns from her bicultural upbringing?

That’s a great question. I’ve never really thought of it quite that way – I tend to think of all the benefits of a bicultural upbringing as a huge bonus, like that’s a given, and then worry about what I hope she doesn’t get from it. Like, I hope it doesn’t make her feel rootless or lonely. But what I hope she does get from it: sensitivity, I guess, and an appreciation for other people’s complexities. I hope, for example, that she will be slower to judge an immigrant, or a person learning a new language, or a person trying to fit in, because she will have been exposed to a lot of people in that category. Of course, it could go the other way and she could move in between cultures so easily that she is arrogant about that ability.

Do you consider yourself an expat? And have your thoughts about that word and concept changed over time? 

I consider myself an immigrant, although that’s a whole topic all its own and a column I’ve been meaning to write. When you look up a definition of either term, they both apply to me and in fact are pretty much interchangeable on the page, but in real life they have so much baggage and so many connotations.

The fact that I came here more or less on a lark, with a lot of educational and economic privilege that allowed me to hit the ground running as a teacher and then a reporter, would suggest that maybe I should be called an expat, and I haven’t had to face all the challenges that many immigrants face and for which they deserve so much respect. However, I have also made a life here and integrated, or sometimes failed to integrate, often in entertaining ways. Now I’ve put down some pretty serious roots here, and feel that I am an immigrant.

Of course, just the fact that I get to choose how to define myself represents a huge level of privilege. I guess I also use the term because I am so angry about the negative way it is being used in the United States, and am conscious that we apply it to most any foreigner with no regard for that person’s story. Basically I just wish we, especially in the United States, could free “immigrant” from some of its baggage and celebrate the incredible diversity that the word carries with it.


What I would whisper in the ear of my new-mom self


whatsthatpicture, Hanwell, London, UK
whatsthatpicture, Hanwell, London, UK

That is the name of the baby a friend of mine is waiting to bring into the world at any moment. I have been thinking a lot about this lovely word, the Spanish for “island,” and have concluded that it’s the perfect name for a baby because birth sets us adrift. She comes and lifts your anchor and you are off to sea, just the parents and that baby in one little boat. Even among partners, within your family, there are times when you’re all in your own vessels, sailing close but separately, a wobbly fleet of love.

That is why no one can quite understand new mothers in those early days or weeks. That is why any and all advice you receive, and there is lots of it, is barely intelligible, as if it were being shouted across some vast space from a distant, unimaginable world. It is. It’s coming to you across the water. It can be comforting or even useful, but the fact remains that no one knows what’s going on in your own boat but you and the captain.

The captain is not you, by the way. Your baby has a plan for you, and you are along for the ride. In my view of things, parenthood doesn’t start with birth. Not all of it, at least. It phases in, like childproofing. Many, many months down the road, your child will do or say something that requires a stern retort, and you will come to as if out of a fog, and think, Oh, shit! It’s starting! But that’s later. For now, just ride. You are there to comfort and sing and feel your way in the dark and bail the ship out of the many fluids of newborn babydom, but you are not calling the shots. Not yet.

Continue reading What I would whisper in the ear of my new-mom self

A letter for my daughter about Clementa Pinckney

Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier via AP
Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier via AP

On Friday, I left you with your dad and headed to work, stepping out of a hot, sunny morning and into my office.

When I left, hours later, to head back home to you, it felt as though I were stepping into an entirely different world. Wind whipped my clothes and hair; the sky was heavy and low; my heart felt full but also broken. I felt changed, somehow, as a person, as a citizen of the United States, and even as a mother.

Why? Well, when I sat down at my desk for what was to prove one of my more distracted workdays of all time, I learned that the Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage in all 50 states. With a decision ending in four words, “It is so ordered,” a measure of long-delayed justice was delivered at last. I wanted to run around in circles and scream and shout with joy. Instead, I sat quietly and read jubilant Facebook posts. I basked and sniffled. I watched Barack Obama give a speech we could barely have imagined just a few years ago. It was like Christmas.

Then I watched him eulogize the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, shot along with eight others at a Charleston church eight days before in a horrendous act of racist terrorism. My ears belonged to our President, but I couldn’t take my eyes off that casket in front of him, that casket that should not have been there, that casket whose occupant was meant to continue doing great things. Continue reading A letter for my daughter about Clementa Pinckney

Traveling while parenting (juntos pero no revueltos)

Every time I get to New York City, the first thing I want to do, right after I set down my suitcase, is run. INYCt seems like the only appropriate response to a place with so much gorgeous ground to cover, so much energy steaming up through the grates. Twenty minutes after I got off the subway this time around, I was huffing and puffing my way through Central Park in the fresh, sunny sweetness of a spring I hadn’t earned, happy as a clam. The words bouncing through my head like a mantra as my feet slapped Stateside sidewalks were “juntos pero no revueltos. Juntos pero no revueltos.”

Juntos pero no revueltos is an egg-inspired expression: together, but not scrambled. Together, but still independent. It’s used to describe that need for breathing room and independence in a romantic relationship, friendship, or most any situation. It’s been on my mind because I’ve been dreading this trip, only my third of any kind away from you, and the longest. I’ve been dread our un-scrambling, however temporary.  Continue reading Traveling while parenting (juntos pero no revueltos)

Dear Mothers – We MUST Stop Putting Each Other Down

2015-03 HuffPost pic

I’ve had it.

I read a piece online this week called “Ten Ways I’m Ruining My Child by Living Outside the United States.” In it, the author makes some good points with which, as someone who lives outside the United States herself, I wholeheartedly agree. She discusses how great it is to watch her daughter learn other languages and appreciate other cultures.

She also boasts of what she has done for her daughter by giving up a high-stress U.S. lifestyle including a big house with “two living rooms and three bathrooms.” She is proud of trading that in for a tropical existence in which her daughter can say “her mother has time for her, all day, all night, rarely stressed, no car, a basic phone for safety, together 24 hours a day adventuring and sharing and laughing and being unstressed and happy and free.”

Continue reading Dear Mothers – We MUST Stop Putting Each Other Down

Famous last words (hablando paja part II)

Baby papá agua gracias.

Woo-woo uh-oh hot wow tick-tock pat up hi ok shoes ¡gooooool!

Quack daddy moo cat cold shoes socks eyes shh! 


No, that’s not a drunken, New Year’s Eve haiku. Those were your first twenty-five words, as faithfully recorded by yours truly in the back of the little black-and-gold notebook I kept on you this year. They are on my mind tonight as you watch Mickey Mouse, I drink my beloved afternoon coffee, and the last traces of sunlight die away on this last day of 2014, a year to which I hate to bid farewell. After all, this was the year in which you learned to walk, run, and wear a full, upside-down bowl of cheesy spaghetti as a hat. Most of all, it was the year you learned to talk. Continue reading Famous last words (hablando paja part II)

Ten Years of Fig Trees (el antiguo higuerón)

Little Duck.

Dear Small Busy Person: It’s typical of parenthood that one of the reasons I started this project was to mark my ten-year anniversary in Costa Rica, but the date itself blew by in a bleary-eyed blur three months ago and I never posted what I had written about it. But you’re asleep now, with Minnie Mouse under one arm and Little Duck under the other, so I’d better get it out before ten years becomes twenty.

Ten years ago today, I sat on an airplane listening to the “all right” chorus of Float On by Modest Mouse, and hoping it would be. All right, that is. In the belly of the plane just beginning to break through the clouds, revealing the damp green valley below, was a suitcase holding some clothes, two paperback books, and a few other sundries. The damp green valley held no reliable work prospects and only a temporary place to leave through a former colleague. For once in my life, I had no idea what I was doing.  Continue reading Ten Years of Fig Trees (el antiguo higuerón)

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)