20 October 2015

I Need to Address This

When the esposo was merely a pre-esposo and we were courting a través la distancia (bumbling about in a long-distance relationship), the misunderstandings due to culture and language happened even more often than they do now, and it usually took us longer to realize it.

Pretty much.

The esposo is a librarian, though he doesn't work in a traditional library. He's in charge of the document center at one of the government ministries. I worked in an academic library before fleeing the rainhole that is Seattle. We're both grammar nerds who suffer from anxiety over the mistakes we know we're unknowingly making in our second languages. We both like editing and proofreading -- he even edits the annual ministry reports that go to the president -- and we're both readers. He's more into the classics than I am and has read some in English.

When we first met, I noticed that he had an impressive maritime vocabulary. Even among native speakers, words like skiff and buoy don't often come up in everyday conversation, so this being his second language, I naturally assumed he must be some kind of badass fisherman. Lures, hooks, maybe even a gaff. At the time, I was still working on words like cow and hangover in Spanish, and I still don't know many nautical terms. He told me no, he'd never been fishing, which made me wonder if perhaps terms like mast head and harpoon might be his way of flirting. I decided I was out of there if poop deck came up. It turned out that one of the first books he'd read in English was Hemingway's The Old Man and Sea, and he'd made vocabulary lists.

Hey, you never know when you might need gunwale in a sentence.

On my visits, I noticed that not many people had books at home, even people who liked to read. Libraries exist, but having a big, up-to-date circulating collection is not really a thing. After I got my residency, I asked about checking out books from the local library. You'd have thought I'd asked to check the Mona Lisa out of the Louvre. Books are terrifically expensive here, and the average salary doesn't support a lot of book-buying. Books are shrink-wrapped in bookstores. No browsing. And don't even think about coffee near the books.

Students don't get textbooks here. They make copies of photocopies at little papelerías clustered around schools and universities. (That made me twitchy; my boss was the copyright officer at our college library.) The esposo's chess group downloads PDFs of chess books and prints spiral-bound copies at the same copy shops. He's in a book club at work, but they download PDFs. Buying books just isn't a thing here.

I decided I was going to buy my not-yet-esposo a book or two and mail them to him. What better gift for a librarian in a place where books were hard to come by? So I asked him for his address.

And that was when our long-distance relationship almost didn't go the distance.

Me (on Skype): I'm going to send you a present! What's your address?

Him:  ... emmm, that's ... a little difficult.

Me: What do you mean, "difficult"? What's difficult about it? Just type it out in the chat box.

Him: Well ... I don't really have an address.

Me: Okay, whatever you call it in Spanish. Dirección.

Him: No, I mean, I don't have one. Not exactly.

Me: How do you not exactly have an address? I mean, you live in a house, it's on a street, the street is in a town. How does mail get to your house?

Him: We don't normally receive mail, but if someone has mail, the post office has an idea where the house is, and someone comes on a moto and beeps the horn until you come out. Or he asks the neighbors.

Me: Okay, so the mail carrier can find it. What's your street name?

Him: It doesn't really have a name. 

At this point, the yellow flag that had been fluttering in my brain is about to snap the mast head. What does he mean his street "doesn't really have a name"? Something is fishy here.

Me: Okay, well what do people call it? What's your house number?

Him: Number? It doesn't have a number.

Me: ... [activates resting bitch face]

Him: People usually just say it's the house with the green steps next to the seafood restaurant.

Me: ... mm-hmm. What's your ZIP Code?

Him: What's a ZIP Code? 

Did I say fishy? I meant something's stank-ass rotten in TicoLandia. Why was he acting so weird, being so cagey? There's only one reason a man doesn't want you to know where he lives. Ladies, am I right?

This motherfucker was married. Oh, hell no. I curtly ended the Skype call on some pretext or other and sought the advice of an expert. Google.

What the ... ?

Okay, fine. So he wasn't married. I sheepishly packed away my righteous indignation and deleted the draft of the blistering farewell letter I was going to send. By email, of course, because the man had no address.

Fifty meters past where that fig tree used to be, then ... 
Turns out Costa Rica really doesn't have house numbers or street names. ZIP Codes were finally instituted about seven years back, but no one knows that or has any idea what a ZIP Code even is. Even librarians at government ministries. Wait, let me amend my first statement: In San José (the capital) and other larger cities, there technically are street names in the city centers. Any tourist or potentially two-timed woman can look on Google maps and see a nice grid laid out with sensibly numbered avenues and streets.

Fast forward to the first time I went to Alajuela on the bus by myself. I casually dismissed the esposo's advice to ask three people for directions in order to make sure they match. (Time out for culture: Ticos are extremely polite and extremely nonconfrontational. They'd feel rude saying "I don't know" when asked for directions. They'd rather be "helpful"  and guess wildy than tell you directly that they don't know. So ask three different people. Triangulate that shit. Old school GPS.) 

I printed out this map, see? Google. I mapped out all the places I want to go, and planned my route. I won't need to ask anyone. I've got this, babe. 

The esposo looked dubious and didn't quite know what to make of the map. He turned it around a few times and handed it back to me.

Well, if it doesn't work, just remember to ask at least three people.

How could a map not work? It's foolproof. 

I got to Alajuela, super excited, because my route included a gringo-run bookstore that had loads of used books and a bookshop cat. Browsing allowed. I planned to buy some books and then head to a place that makes Tex-Mex food, where I would settle down for the afternoon with some enchiladas, my books, and some ice-cold beer. I know, right? Afterward, I'd walk to the park and maybe get some ice cream before heading home. I didn't see a street sign at the bus stop corner, so I walked to the next block to orient myself. No street signs there, either. Uh oh. I asked for help locating the nearest street sign. No one knew what the hell I was talking about.

There were no street signs.

What good does it do to name streets without putting up street signs? Apparently, the street-naming was from a big push 20 or 30 years ago to organize things. It clearly lost steam. I still thought I could find my way on my own because that's what stubborn, independent gringas who know everything do, but it was high noon, so my already lacking skills in navigating by the sun's shadow were shot completely to hell.

I asked people. Three. I never did find the bookstore that day, so I guess I should've gone for four, but there were still enchiladas and beer. The beer was pretty damn refreshing after all that wandering around and doubling back and sweating. I think I even had it on ice that day, estilo tico.

I used the damn map as a coaster.

Since then, street signs have been installed in San José, and I'm seeing them pop up here and there in the larger cities. Foreigners were ecstatic, but it hasn't made much difference. Ask a taxista to take you to Avenida 2 y Calle 12, and you'll get a blank look. Tell him La Merced church, and he knows exactly how to get to that same intersection. Trying to meet up with a Costa Rican by using street names won't even get you a lackluster reach-around. Best go with 200 meters north of the soccer field, past the licorera, 50 meters east, then past the coffee fields to the karaoke bar.

So if any of you come a-visiting, go to the funeral chapel that's southeast of the vegetable stand -- you know the one, near that little bakery -- then head 100 meters east, 150 south, and then another 75 meters to the east. Or you can come the back way: just go down the "street of the turkeys" and go north on the gravel road before that house with the pit bull.  There haven't been any turkeys on that street for years, so it won't help to look for them, but if you pass the house with the goats, you're heading the right way. There are no doorbells, so stand out in the street and yell "Upe!" a bunch of times until I come out. Nothing to it.


  1. This is all hysterical. Seriously. And I'm glad you overcame your resting bitch faceness long enough to Google whether he was full of shit or not. Because, yeah, totes on your side up to that point. And also, while I'm glad that you are married and living an exotic life and things changed significantly for the better for you I have to inform you, with all the love I bear you, that it really doesn't rain here that much anymore. We're kinda making out as the winners in the whole climate change thing at the moment. Seriously. Driest year on record this year. Hot summer...shit grew...today was the fucking 20th of October and I went out in a sleeveless dress with no stockings. I'm tellin' ya.

    1. Yeah, I've been hearing that. My transplant BFFs who used to wallow in misery with me during the winters have been basically ecstatic from the overload of sunshine and heat they got over the summer. Of course, my other BFF who always loved the "cozy weather" there is probably putting foil on her windows, caulking the seams of her sleeping coffin, and cursing the light.

  2. oh mercy how I laughed. Does that make me a bad friend? I wonder who will play you in the movie of your hilarious adventures...

    1. Not at all. I would totally laugh at you were the situation reversed. And if you didn't laugh, that would mean you were one of those stick-up-the-arse people, which is just no good at all. Ooh, a movie ...

  3. ^I'm voting Sonda Bullock.

    "Lackluster Reach-Around" is now going to be the name of my future cover band.

    Curious how Siri would fare in a world of no street names. "Where is the library?" "I don't know what you mean by 'where'." And those car GPS thingies? "Recalculating... Recalculating..."

    1. The GPSs work just like the ticos do. "In 250 meters, turn right." But I've seen some that are (I guess) programmed according to one of those maps with street names ... yeah, you know where I'm going with that. "Turn right on Boodocks Avenue," but there are no street signs.

      Yes to Sandra. Yes.

  4. oh this is hysterical...I love it..I see a movie in the works with Meg Ryan and Antonio Banderas starring.

    1. If Antonio is in it, I'm auditioning for my own part.

  5. Every time I read about your adventures I think...She is amazing, brave, smart, beautiful, Jorge is so damn lucky. Every time. This is a great, funny post. A long time ago in a far away state, I took a sociology class. The professor had us do an experiment......describe where our building was on the campus. I swear on my blinged heart.....every single woman in the class including me described it by landmarks. The men described it by north, south etc. and distance from the parking lot. I do fine with landmarks...not having street names though would be nearly impossible to deal with. When you come to visit here is what you do; these are my standard instructions: Take 95 past Walmart to Selle, go right about 5 miles. Our street is the last one before you get to the cemetery (If you see the cemetery you went too far). Turn left go around the first curve and we are the big house on the left that looks like an airplane hanger. If you hit the sharp right you went too far. Easy Peasy!

    1. I have you marked on this map I printed out.

      Thank you for the kind words. I'm pretty sure I'm giving off a different vibe when I'm in the middle of these things. More like confused, flummoxed, agitated, baffled ...

  6. Fascinating!! Is this (was this, since it's all changing) a reflection of ... wow. I can hardly think what it could be a reflection of. A billion things. Do people - culturally - find things by accident? Stay local(really, REALLY local) or are they intrepid pokers-arounders? Or - well, you get it. Maybe not a billion, but nine million whys are bubbling in me. SUCH a fantastic story!

    1. Booda, yeah, there really is a lot of the cultural aspect to it. If I need some kind of local information, my first instinct is to go online. (In fact, that's why a lot of the foreigner FB groups have cropped up -- foreigners looking for information online that they can't find locally. We network with each other.) Costa Ricans, on the other hand, think first of asking someone they know.

      If I can't find bus route info online (I'd have more luck with the gringo-created "Buses in Costa Rica" FB page than actually finding a bus website), then I'd probably have the attitude of, "Well, guess that trip is out." Whereas the esposo would just leave the house and walk toward wherever he thought the bus stop might be, and ask three people on the way.

      When dealing with red tape (like for my residency), the esposo's first instinct is just to go in person to ask questions if there's an issue, even if it means a long bus ride to another city. To me that's just crazy. Why can't I find the info on their webite? Call, if nothing else?

      It really is a completely different way of looking at things and dealing with life. It's also why you either learn patience here or end up stroking out or going back up north.

  7. YESSSSSSS! You just took me back to my family's year in Turkey, where I bemoaned the lack of bookstores, libraries, and then, when I went to the big city and found a bookstore, it was, like $60 for a paperback.

    Imagine my astonishment, then, when I learned of Better World Books, which delivers FREE OF CHARGE around the world. I started ordering boxloads from them...wondering how the hell they'd ever find my family in the middle of Cappadocia. I should have known the mail carrier, on his scooter, would know to ask Assim Bey in the antiques shop how to find the American family housed just past the donkey but a few doors up from Neruttin.

    Oh, and you're hilarious.

    1. Oooh, already got them up on the Googles. Did you have an actual address that you could enter in the online order form, though? That's usually the problem. My "address" doesn't fit those rigid little order form boxes.

      Most things are fine on my Kindle (I was a reluctant convert, but now I'm all in) but some things, like grammar books or coloring books, just must be in real format. So excited -- a friend just muled me down some grown-up coloring books. Or rather, coloring books for grown ups. I realized afterward, however, that I should've asked for sheets and a garlic press. That would've been more sensible.

  8. Sorry I know I shouldn't be laughing ... but honestly I'm not laughing at you I'm laughing with yo... oh who the hell am I kidding - I'm killing my self at your expense.

    It reminds me of a story a friend from El Salvador told me about an old wealthy lady from his home town. She always wanted to go to Paris and finally made the trip. She wanted to go to Au Printemps which was no problem as every cab driver in town knew where that was. The problem when she wanted to go back to her hotel. She grandly settle into the cab with all her parcels and announced: Take me home. She was much puzzled that the driver need a hotel name and address - neither of which she knew.

    1. I could totally see that happening. And it's okay about the laughing and pointing. You're in good company.

  9. Oh my goodness. Getting lost is one of my nightmares. I'm all about GPS and Google Maps. On the other hand, verbal directions still tend to go - take the right just after the big chicken sign and look for the tan house with the red shutters on the right. And if someone is coming to my house, I'll often start with, "You know that Walgreens on the corner of Old X and Highway Y? You;ll go past that and we're the second street on the right." It's so much easier to navigate by landmarks. Still, there are times driving here when I can't find the damn street sign and it makes me twitchy.On the other hand, so many street names are a variation of "Peachtree" so you have to make sure you know if you need Peachtree Street, Peachtree Ave, Peachtree Way, Peachtree Circle, Peachtree Terrace. West Peachtree, Old Peachtree, etc.

    Anyway, as everyone has said, this is hilarious and you really need to do a whole book about your adventures.

    1. About my second year in, I bought my first smartphone. I had always dismissed the idea of having to pay so much more per month just to have an additional source of Internet while out of the house. I remember thinking that was for those pathetic, contraption-addicted people. Much like my initial resistance to the Kindle, it was a mistake. My data plan is worth it for the GPS alone.

      If I thought a book of adventures had any chance of competing against the forty-seven jillion hundred thousand million gringos who are already trying to ride that train, I'd do it, but that market is beyond saturated, mostly with crap. Pero gracias, that gave me a warm fuzzy.

      Also, I lived in Atlanta for a couple of years, and still occasionally dream about being lost in a Peachtree maze.


I've got a fever ...