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.
Don Memo, the jovial patriarch, treated his gringo boarders like amusing pets, with excellent consequences for my Spanish skills. Whenever relatives came over, he’d make me stand in the middle of the living room and sing the national anthem, never dreaming I’d be grateful to him when I reported on, and then worked for, a series of Costa Rican presidents and had to sing the anthem at countless events. He’d also ask me to pronounce otorrinolaringología – the medical specialty we know as ear, nose and throat – and chuckle over my missteps. And along the way, he introduced me to my first dichos, some of them wildly inappropriate.
On at least one occasion, the stalwart doña Hannia overheard his instructions and said something along the lines of “Holiest Mother Mary! Katherine, don’t you dare repeat that under any circumstances!” (Come to think of it, I could imagine a similar scene going on between your father and me, should we ever take in a completely naïve college student who mimics him like a parrot. Or, say, a toddler who repeats everything he says. Oof. I may be in trouble here.)
A tamer set of expressions, and very useful in that house, were the uniquely Costa Rican phrases to describe hunger and satiety. When you’re starving, you’re como el león del Bolivar, the lion at San José’s Simón Bolivar Zoo. When you’re full, you’re como la perrita del cura, like the priest’s little dog. Why? Well, because the priest had a little dog and always gave her plenty of table scraps. That’s why. Which priest? Don’t ask so many questions.
In that house, I put away enough food to rival any lion. Every single morning, I’d stumble out of the little granny flat where I stayed up late reading Borges and Neruda, and meet the other boarders in the kitchen for a full Costa Rican breakfast: gallo pinto and eggs however we wanted them and fresh juice and fruit. Every evening (after a workday at La Nación that invariably included both morning and afternoon coffee breaks with sweet pastries, and lunch in the cafeteria), we’d put away vast meals topped off with hot arroz con leche from the restaurant where their daughter, Alejandra, worked at the time, and then pile into Memo and Hannia’s bed with the entire family, or at least all the women, to watch that night’s episode of Mujeres Engañadas, the telenovela that took my Spanish to a new level and taught me to say, “Nunca, NUNCA te perdonaré” with appropriate panache. In short: we ate a ton. That was the summer I began running in earnest to combat those meals, a habit that’s waxed and waned but never disappeared in the years since. Of course, I never knew I’d cover so many more miles of Costa Rican road a few years down the line. I left their house in tears one early morning in August of the year 2000, thinking I would never be back.
Sometimes I miss the hunger of those days, both literal and figurative. Every new food, I had to try. Every family gathering was fascinating. Every Friday night, we gringos would go out on the town, then rise at the crack of Saturday dawn – a few times, after staying up straight through and grabbing a Ticoburguesa to tide us over – and grab a bus to anywhere. I walked beaches in a state of bliss, stayed up all night dancing or talking about literature, drank my first and my tenth and probably my hundredth Imperial, listened to Sabina and Shakira for the first time ever, slept in a hammock at a jungle lodge near Puerto Viejo that I’ve never been able to find since. I was como el león del Bolivar, in every sense.
In this phase of my life, I’m the priest’s little dog. It’s Saturday night, quiet and dark. You’re asleep in the next room. I can’t go anywhere, and I don’t want to. I’m comfortable here, full of table scraps beyond my wildest dreams, as if the priest had put a full steak dinner under the table for me to feast on. This doesn’t bother me in and of itself, except that it makes me wonder if I’m a failure of feminism, like a career woman who has lost some part of my personality. What happened to that girl who wrote letters to every newspaper in Latin America until she got a summer internship, the girl who told the author Jonathan Kozol she’d cut off her left arm to work for him (just the left, though – let’s not exaggerate), the girl who dreamed of diving suicidally into the worst school she could possibly find in New York City and starting a one-woman educational revolution, the girl who came back to this city on a whim and a prayer? The drive I used to feel is only a memory. I know I should say that now that you’ve come along, I feel more motivated than ever to change the world, but the truth is that at the moment the only motivation I feel is to keep this little ship afloat, this house adrift in the rain.
Of course, part of turning medio treinticinco is that I don’t want to sell myself short anymore (nor do I want to imply that stay-at-home parents are lacking in drive – quite the opposite, my God). I have put in plenty of work since you were born, as a mother and a professional, and accomplished some amazing things. The difference is not so much in the result, as in the approach. I no longer pursue work the way I once did. When I push myself, it seems to happen out of force of habit, as if I’m on autopilot after so many years of overachievement. The ambitious part of me seems to be dormant, albeit contentedly so.
There’s no simple answer, but I find myself turning back to el león del Bolivar y la perrita del cura. I think that, at the risk of sounding overly biblical, there are times to be hungry, and times to be full. There are times to gulp down life one enormous steak after another, and times to loll under the table full of gratitude. There is room for a lion and a lapdog in all of us. I think that the ambitious girl I remember is still in there somewhere. Someday, surely, she’ll find a reason to roar.