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Rant #415
(published January 1, 2009)
International Relations
by David Erik Nelson
This past August my wife, toddler, and I were invited to attend a wedding in Costa Rica (I'm including the link because many, many Americans—including basically anyone who answers a phone at the US State Department—believe Costa Rica is a Caribbean island. I don't fault anyone for not knowing where a tiny Central American country is, I just don't want you to feel stupid later.) The bride was one of my wife's high school pals—a West Michigan girl, like my wife—and the groom a Costa Rican lawyer she'd met while studying international law in England (globalization of the heart!) At the wedding we were seated at a table consisting of all of the bride's gringo lawyer friends and a very nice tico[*] couple: the wife was a lawyer at the groom's father's law offices (incidentally, the groom's father is also a radio personality and former Attorney General; he literally wrote the book on Costa Rican administrative law), and her spouse was an industrial engineer. The tico couple were very nice, despite having been stranded at a table with five gringo lawyers who had about a cantina-menu's worth of Spanish among them, and were all travelling together, sharing hotel rooms and a tiny Chevy Tracker 4-by-4; the gringos' rapidly forming feuds and alliances were unstable and volatile. Although this was stimulating to observe, you felt like you should be handling the situation with tongs and a rubberized lab apron.

Since we'd neglected to bring proper eye protection, my wife and I elected to spend dinner chatting up the ticos. Their English was pretty solid (most tico professionals speak Spanish and two other languages; English is always one of those), and our Spanish could fill in the gaps pretty solidly (my wife is a high school Spanish teacher). At some point, my wife was talking about our wedding, and mentioned that I'm Jewish. This was pretty surprising to the ticos, and got the sort of reaction you'd expect if she'd said, "Why, my husband is a !Kung bushman": Yes, they had heard of !Kung bushmen, and felt like they sorta-kinda knew something about them, but it was still pretty odd to meet one at a wedding where other guests included famous journalists, radio personalities, the Minister of Finance, and at least one former tico president.

"A Jew?" they asked.

"Yes," I said, "Probably the only one in this room right now." (I thought one of the gringo lawyers was Jewish, but she had gone out to smoke, so I felt pretty safe with this claim.)

The tico husband nodded his head sagely, smiled, and said, "The Jews control all of the money," and then his smile froze and eyes went wide as his ears registered what his mouth had just said.

I want to stress that I didn't feel there was any actual anti-Semitic content to the statement. During both this most recent visit to Costa Rica and my last, the groom had cause to emphatically insist that there is no anti-Semitism in Costa Rica, sorta out of the blue, which I take to be an indication that it's pretty common in some circles. But ticos are, on the whole, the least aggressive or confrontational people I've ever met. As far as I'm concerned, they can hate Jews with as much vigor as they might muster, as I can't imagine that ever building up to the point where someone would even bother scratching a swastika into a bathroom stall door, let alone killing my entire family and incinerating the corpses. It's just not a tico thing to do. They don't even yell at stray dogs, stupid drivers, or smarmy guys whistling at female joggers from passing cars.

I don't believe that the tico husband had an ounce of hate in his heart as he read off the Protocols of the Elders of Zion cue-card; it was just that he'd been thrown a conversational curve ball, and when he searched his memory banks for Jews: Things I Know, all that came up was a short entry on International Banking, and so that's what came out of his mouth. I totally identified with him, because the day before I'd been sitting around the pool talking with Evo the Bulgarian Lawyer (a refreshing change from all of the Mexican, American, and tico lawyers we'd been hanging around with during the run-up to the wedding; the invisible borders of class seem to be a bit less permeable than the international lines of demarcation) about nice places to vacation in Europe. He favored Rome, but also felt Bulgaria was nice (if you like beaches or skiing), as was Bosnia, "although they're still rebuilding, of course." I'm not much of a world traveler, and in an attempt to hold up my end of the conversation, I almost blurted out "Bosnia! Hey, my dad did a little economic development work with the president who bombed them!"

It's funny, how our enthusiasm to meaningfully connect with other humans constantly verges on disaster. The cafeteria at the United Nations must be an incredibly stressful place to lunch.

Back at the wedding, the tico husband was still frozen over his coconut shrimp appetizer. In an attempt to diffuse a situation that was clearly on the verge of drifting into totally awkward mortification, I said something like "Well, yeah. Some Jews. Not me, unfortunately," and then segued directly into a question about logistics and shipping by truck on Costa Rica's terrible roads. You can basically rely on a good logistics question saving your ass, I've found.

* Costa Ricans refer to all United Statesers as "gringos;" the term isn't generally pejorative, it's just that there are a lot of Americans wandering around Costa Rica, and estadounidenses is really awkward to say. Likewise, Costa Ricans refer to themselves as ticos, although I have no idea why.

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