At the heart of Costa Rican language and, in many ways, the heart of the way my husband talks, is the word mae. A little like “man” (as in “hey, man”), a little like “dude,” with complex origins and rules of use I won’t get into here, it is the way many Costa Rican men – and some women in specific contexts and age groups – address each other.
I sometimes refer to my husband El Mae, or El Mejor Mae que Hay (The best there is). Before our daughter was born, we called you “la maecilla.” It’s actually engraved inside my wedding ring, as a bit of a joke. I kept trying to think of something to put in there that would capture the feel of us in a few characters. When the woman told me to just put my finacé’s initials, I smiled and gave them to her: M. A. E.
The thing with “mae” is that when my husband, like a lot of Ticos, really gets going, he can fit it into a single sentence about ten times. I noticed this when we first started dating and we’d get into a taxi. “Mae, a Vargas, mae, pero subimos por Sabanilla, mae, entrando por el antiguo Gallo Pinto, mae.”
I loved it. However, I teased him a bit one night and instantly regretted this. All he said was, “Oh,” but the next time we got into a taxi, his instructions were mae-less. I felt awful. Over a period of weeks, I was able to reinstate the reign of mae in our lives. When he talks to his friends or family about a Saprissa game, it’s a popcorn of maes, the way it should be.
I was thinking about my mae misstep recently, and it made me realize two things. First: in a bicultural, binational relationship, the person who gets to live in his or her native country doesn’t always have the upper hand. Sure, I go on and on about being the foreigner, about having to deal with homesickness and awkwardness and not always understanding what’s going on – but I also get to remain the expert on my own background and language. How are things done in the United States? Well, let me tell you. How is that said in English? Allow me to expound. There’s no one around to contradict me, because no one else in this house has lived in my homeland, and yet I get to analyze Costa Rica all I want, which is a lot.
There is no one here to correct or comment on the way I speak English – at least, until my daughter gets a bit older and start to correct everything I do – but I get to opine on the number of maes in a sentence. (That’s why expats are often annoyed when other expats turn up unexpectedly in their neighborhoods, in my opinion: those other expats are blowing our cover, interfering with our vision of ourselves as unique and exotic. We’re the odd one out, but we like it that way. Have at us, psychotherapists.)
At any rate, while the best advice I ever received about marriage was not to keep score, I do believe that in the mathematics of a cross-border relationship, we may be more even than we think. One of us is at home, but over time, the other comes to be at home in two places at once, which is a very powerful thing.
The second thing I realized was more general, and this is I am thinking about this Valentine’s Day. It’s how vulnerable the people we love really are when they are with us. No matter how serene and confident and calm people might seem, no matter if they are much older and wiser, we are all babies underneath. We are toddling around on fat little legs hoping for a pat on the head. Unless we are unusually toughened by terrible circumstances, we are so easily hurt, so quickly bruised. When it comes to the people we trust the most, a careless putdown can shake the very maes from our sentences.
It became a a little easier for me to remember this once my daughter came into being, running through my life in a diaper and covered with magic marker, tossing Cheerios into the universe wherever she goes. But I hope I will remember it always: that even as husbands or wives, partners or friends, maes or men, we are babies first and foremost. We live best when we treat each other the way we would if we really understood that every day. That is to say, with reverence, with respect, with a careful, almost breathless love.
Katherine Stanley Obando is the editor of The Tico Times and the author of “Love in Translation: Letters to My Costa Rican Daughter,” a book of essays about motherhood, Costa Rica’s unique street slang, bicultural parenting, and the ups and downs of living abroad. This piece is adapted from the book. She lives in San José. For more from Katherine about Costa Rican life and culture, follow her on Facebook or Twitter, or subscribe to the Love in Translation blog.