Learning A Language For Love In Costa Rica

Navigating love in a new language can be a challenge, but the rewards make it all worth it.
Two parrots deeply in love with each other in Costa Rica

In the pitch darkness, as the hammock swing swayed slightly with the buffets of summer winds, my husband of one year tried to choke back tears of disappointment and anger at his family. I sat quietly by his side, my hand on his leg, whispering, Está bien, está bien. Esta noche no, lo sé, pero todo estará bien. Somos tú y yo contra el mundo, un equipo junto con este bebé en mi vientre. Va a estar bien.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. Not tonight, I know, but it’s going to be okay. It’s you and me against the world, a team together with this baby in my belly. It’s going to be okay.”

A year before I couldn’t have communicated my support in the same way. Maybe I could have eked out a few words — something to convey how much I loved him, but certainly not full sentences with properly conjugated verbs without having to think twice about what to say. But love makes you do crazy things. Learning a new language may be one of the less crazy commitments inspired by our love. 

What may be even more surprising is the path that brought us here, together. The path that led me from my “standard” suburban life outside of Austin, Texas, to the life of a Latin American rancher’s wife in a tiny town in the heat and rolling hills of the Guanacaste province in northwestern Costa Rica. 

It was just over two and a half years ago that my first husband Lance — a man I loved for 18 years — died in my arms after a short, terrible battle with cancer, leaving me a 36-year-old, lost and heartbroken widow.  An experience like that changes you. It changes everything

Humans are meant to connect and communicate, and when I made the decision to move to Costa Rica, I made the decision to learn the language, as well.

And in response, I changed everything about my life. In the months that followed Lance’s death, I traveled, seeking some hope that I could find peace, or a moment away from my grief. I was searching for the part of me that was me, at my core, and wasn’t the me that was a “we” for 18 years. 

My travels led me to Costa Rica — to the heat, sunshine, and warm waves of the Pacific Ocean that seemed to wash away some of my pain, even if for just a moment. And at first, the Spanish language being buffeted around my ears, in the music and chatter of strangers, helped calm my senses. I couldn’t understand what others were saying. I couldn’t effectively communicate my story. And for a time, that gave me peace. I didn’t have to explain that my husband had just died. I didn’t have to listen to kind words of support that would never do anything to lift my grief. 

But of course, that doesn’t work for very long. 

Humans are meant to connect and communicate, and when I made the decision to move to Costa Rica, I made the decision to learn the language, as well. So I immersed myself. I rented a tiny bar with a friend in a tiny town and slowly started picking up words and phrases that would allow me to communicate with my clientele: ¿Cual tipo de cerveza? (“What type of beer?”) and Va a pagar en efectivo o tarjeta? (“Are you going to pay in cash or with a card?”).

And then Jose Raul walked into my life…into my bar. Or rather, he rode up on his horse. 

He understood very limited English, and spoke even less. I understood some Spanish, but my ability to communicate was laughable. It didn’t matter, though. Sometimes you connect with another person in a way that communicates beyond words. And our first kiss led to our first night together, and our first night together led to every night together. 

We became inseparable. I rode with him to check his cows and drive them between fields during the day. He accompanied me to the bar at night and fired up the grill to serve kabobs to the clientele. We ended our nights in each others’ arms, first in the house I rented, then in a house on his land. Within weeks he told me he wanted to marry me — something he’d sworn his whole life he’d never do.

And this immersion in love and lust and grief and recovery, all in a relationship that required constant communication to work and play together, meant one of us had to quickly learn the others’ language. Living in Costa Rica, that was obviously going to be me. 

For the most part, I didn’t use apps or language classes to do it. I’m a hands-on type of learner, and I knew I couldn’t learn what I needed to know in the context of a classroom. A teacher wasn’t going to tell me how to communicate that I needed to pay the electricity at the bar, or that I needed help corralling a calf that kept sneaking past me. 

I was determined to make this man understand, through words in his own language, how much I appreciated his commitment to me — how his actions and love were helping me stitch my heart back together.

So I learned as I went. With hand gestures and a general understanding of what a person was trying to convey, I was able to start understanding Jose Raul. Traeme el mecate he might say, pointing to a rope as he put a saddle on a horse. I didn’t understand the word traer (“to bring”) or el mecate (“the rope”), but between gestures and understanding of needs, it was easy enough to put together. 

And everyday was full immersion — exhaustingly full immersion to try to understand and slowly learn the language of the person I loved. There were days when I would say, Podemos ir a la playa — a un restaurante — quiero escuchar un poco ingles? (“Can we go to the beach — to a restaurant — I want to hear a little English?”) to be near the tourists when my brain just couldn’t soak up any more Spanish. 

I also felt like my “super power” had been taken away from me. As a writer, words are my tool. The richness of language allows for a type of communication that’s deep and intimate, one I value immensely, and that I felt was an asset in my first marriage. If I needed to share my feelings, to communicate my needs, to let my first husband know how much I cared, I could do it in a way that was steeped in beautiful word pictures. 

I lost that in the early days with Jose Raul. I could say Te amo (“I love you”), but I couldn’t explain how witnessing the way he cared for his animals, or how he would bring me sparkling water and chocolate bars, and how he’d voluntarily clean my house, making me feel safe and secure for the first time since Lance died. 

So I worked harder. I would look up words of emotion. Write them down. Repeat them out loud, then practice them with him when he would grab my hand or place his hand on my leg as we rode horses through the Guanacaste hillside together. I was determined to make this man understand, through words in his own language, how much I appreciated his commitment to me — how his actions and love were helping me stitch my heart back together. 

We were married seven weeks after we started dating, on February 29, 2020. Having been through the type of loss I had been through, I knew that, while the timing was crazy, it also wasn’t crazy at all. When something beautiful comes into your life, it’s OK to do the “crazy thing” and let yourself go all-in with commitment. 

One year later, my Spanish still isn’t perfect. Language is complicated, and people spend a lifetime learning new words and ways to convey a particular intent. I continue to learn every single day. But one year later? My super power is coming back. And when my son is born in June — when our son is born in June — I’ll be able to communicate to both of the men in my life the love and affection I’ve learned through this crazy journey. And I’ll be able to communicate it in English and in Spanish. 

This article is part of a series commissioned and paid for by Babbel, but it represents the journalist’s views. It was edited by Michelle No and Thomas Devlin.

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