Travel 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.”
When I worked in English-language education and visited an advanced young-adult class in San José, I asked them what their biggest challenge to language learning was. Lack of time? Mastering irregular verbs? The delightful traps with which the English language is laced, such as the multiple pronunciations of -ough, with no rules to follow whatsoever (think tough, bough, through, dough, cough)?
Nope. Their answer was none of these, and they all had the same one. El choteo, they answered in unison, a few sheepish glances flying across the room. When they opened their mouths to speak English, they told me, they knew that if they made a mistake, they’d be ridiculed by their peers. On the other hand, if they spoke perfectly, the mockery might be even worse – who do you think you are to speak so well? So they kept quiet, which is of course disastrous for a language learner. Their oral proficiency suffered because they were afraid to speak up.
To chotear is to take someone down a peg, to mock, particularly when people show aptitude for something or getting too big for their britches. “Uuuuuuuuuy,” you might hear if you’ve done something right, with the intonation that goes with a strut and a la-di-da hand gesture. It goes hand-in-hand with Costa Ricans’ love of fun and wordplay, but many Costa Ricans have told me it is also rooted in a cultural aversion to standing out, to individual achievement, to ego. On several occasions I’ve heard Costa Ricans compare this aspect of their culture to the famous analogy of the crabs in a bucket that pull down any fellow crab that starts to haul itself out.
Constantino Láscaris, in his excellent book El Costarricense, outlines this view of choteo as well, but ultimately dismisses it in favor of a lighter, more positive view. “El choteo is funny,” he writes. “The jokes might be good or bad, accurate, dirty or less dirty. But it represents an extraordinary popular wisdom. A people that tells jokes gives an outlet for passions… The President of the Republic is the delicious object of choteo, as well as all legislators, no matter who they are.”
I think both interpretations are probably correct. I have often been grateful for the fact that in Costa Rica, it’s tough for someone to get high and mighty, or to go to extremes, because someone will also be there to make fun. At the same time, I think it is also true that this might inhibit some people, and maybe even keep them from following certain passions.
I found myself reflecting on el choteo in an unexpected context recently, and in a beautiful place: San Gerardo de Dota, where, on a cabin dangling off the edge of a mountain, I read A Room of One’s Own for the first time. In air just about as cold and crisp as you can find in Costa Rica – which is to say, utterly delectable, demanding warm socks and wood fires at night – and in a silence that, aside for birdsong, is just about absolute, I read Virginia Woolf’s brilliant analysis of what happens to women who try to climb out of the crab bucket, artistically speaking.
I read Virginia Woolf’s imaginings of what would have happened to Shakespeare’s sister, if he had had a sister whose brilliance was equal to his own. In that patient, detailed way of hers, she paces through the possible actions Shakespeare’s sister might have taken in order to pursue her passion and live as a writer. No matter what thread Virginia pulls on, it does not end well.
Months ago, when my obsession with “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was at its peak, I read that his family works to give him and his wife a support system, especially in terms of childcare. The article said something like, “Their priority is to make sure he has the space he needs to create.”
It sounded so delightful – and necessary, for all those of us who think that Miranda (speaking of Shakespeare’s relatives) is the Bard’s Nuyorican spiritual twin. I want his family to give him space to create. Please, provide him with whatever he needs to make the Next Great Thing.
I also want that space for myself. When I think about claiming it, though, I feel presumptuous. A voice says, “¡Ni que fueras Shakespeare! ¡Ni que fueras Lin-Manuel Miranda, mae! ¡Ni que fueras Virginia Woolf!”Ni que fueras: a classic choteo opening. “As if you were.” Think again. Come back down to earth. Ubíquese.
I am choteándome a mi misma, pulling myself back down into the crab bucket, which many people – particularly women, I’d argue – are all too good at.
But here, right here, as if she could hear my inner choteo, is what’s so brilliant about Woolf’s famous essay. She has doesn’t argue with these voices; she sidesteps them. She makes no pretense that everyone in her audience have works of genius stored within, waiting to pour out. Rather, she argues that no matter how talented we may or may not be, we all have a role to play. All books are the continuation of the books that came before, and all original thought, even if imperfectly expressed, moves the ball forward for the team she imagines of women writers throughout history.
She says that Shakespeare’s sister “would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.” We must recognize “the common life which is the real life and not… the little separate lives which we live as individuals.”
The common life, which is the real life.
That’s why I think el choteo has an upside and a downside. It has an upside because the common life is the real life. No one of us is such a big deal, all on our lonesome. When we start to think that we are, it’s good for our friends and family to shake us out of it with a little humor. I can think of some people in my home country, the United States, who would be much better people – and leaders – if they were doused on the daily with some healthy choteo.
At the same time, each of us has a chance to contribute something to that common life. We do have a worthwhile reason to carve out what we need for that purpose: a room of our own, whether literal or figurative. We do have a mission to fulfill, because whether we produce masterpieces or only mediocrity, we have a shot at providing the next genius, Shakespeare’s sister, with a boost. A leg up. A starting point a little further down the road.
So to every tentative English student, every aspiring writer, every one of us feeling a little pretentious as we claim our space as artists or thinkers or learners, I think Virginia would say, if she were here in Costa Rica: accept your fair share of choteo with a nod, and let it keep your feet on the ground, rooted in our common life. But after that, simply carry on. Don’t stop. Create something. No matter what they might say.
I woke up early this morning on your birthday. I’m not sure why, but it was a gift: your birthdays make me wistful, and it was nice to start it face-to-face with you as you snoozed, looking just the way you did at one month old, or even in that ultrasound photo.
Sometime last year you started slipping into our bed in the wee hours of the morning so that we awake to find you nestled between us. Occasionally one of us gets a foot in the face, since you have always been such a contortive sleeper – your dad in particular seems to be a magnet for your toes – but we wouldn’t trade it for anything, not even bruiselessness.
In just a couple of hours you would start your new preschool, a big girl in a brand-new uniform of foolhardy crispness, not yet indelibly stained by finger paints or pudding. A big girl in brand-new shoes, not yet scuffed and intentionally dipped into as much mud as possible. I couldn’t believe the size of them when the saleswoman brought them out after measuring your feet: they looked massive, as do you sometimes when I come home from work, or whenever you wear jeans.
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.
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)
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.”
(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)
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.)
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)
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 másgrande.” 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