I have just returned from a month in England with a mountain of new cotton leggings, a rapidly diminishing supply of decent chocolate and a new found respect for the importance of etiquette.
During my month there I attended one wedding, one funeral, met two new babies, numerous new husbands and negotiated the delicate business of being a frequent house guest or, worse, a frequent house guest who would rather run the London Marathon in a nightgown than overcome her anxiety in a kitchen. I could burn stuff for England.
You already know I was a little nervous about how my Colombian mannerisms would sit on the mother ship, but that was fine apart from one accidental Spanish exclamation at Victoria Station and the odd “gracias” – especially when I was tired.
No, it was more the considerations about what is right, wrong or downright inappropriate in a formal situation. Do people still dress in black to funerals? Is it okay to pop in and say hello to the bride as she’s getting ready, if you’ve known her since you were three but haven’t seen her for two-and-a-half years? Can you take a bottle of wine to a new mum or, worse, can you compare a beautiful, super-smart toddler to a particularly well-trained labrador?
These challenges certainly put the emphasis on etiquette for me. It’s really rather important. So, while I can’t answer any of the above questions (I like black anyway; the bride seemed pleased to see me and my new mum friends know I don’t know the first thing about babies) I can be helpful in the event that you should ever find yourself moving to a mountain-top city, populated by around
seven million people and in possession of its own peculiar brand of modern-day etiquette.
1. Even feminists must gracefully accept gentleman-like behaviour.
Whether it’s opening doors, ushering a woman first or, weirdly, helping a strange woman step from the bus like she’s a 90-year-old granny – Colombians ‘do’ automatic gallantry. If you refuse a proffered hand, on the basis that you’re a keen hiker more than capable of leaping from a bus – you will cause offence.
2. Apologise profusely whenever you use a big note.
Colombians loathe large notes, so even if you buy a 35,000 peso toaster with a 50,000 peso note, you will be asked if you have anything smaller. This loathing knows no bounds. Yesterday I bought a 6,000 peso lunch (£2) with a 10,000 peso note (£3.50) and had to employ Gwyneth-esque acting skills to convince the woman I felt truly terrible about it. Anything less? Poor etiquette.
3. Never chastise anyone for their tardiness.
The chaotic nature of transport and traffic in this city gives you an automatic get out clause for being late for anything. Never mind that they should have left earlier, commenting on a person’s lateness or, worse, looking sulkily at your watch as they approach, is just plain rude.
4. Don’t take offence at personal comments.
My female Colombian friends have gently chastised me on everything from my hair and clothes to my choice in handbags (and boyfriends) but my favourite personal comment arrived just recently. I went to England looking somewhat peaky and, thanks to biscuits, roast dinners and hearty puddings, returned more cuddly. “Wow, your bum is bigger,” exclaimed a Colombian friend. I was momentarily horrified until I remembered that’s actually a compliment here. Phew.
5. Sometimes etiquette is made to be broken.
Colombians think it’s disgusting to sit on a recently vacated bus seat, because the warmth of the previous person’s behind may lead to the spread of germs (yep) so it’s obviously poor etiquette to sit down immediately because it freaks everyone out. However, having given up my seat to an old lady once too often – only to watch her cling on desperately as she hovers above my seat as if my body heat were catching – I think it’s time we set this one to rest.
So yeah, respect the etiquette about money, knight-like behaviour and having a humongous ass – but the next time someone vacates their bus seat for you, sit on it and swivel.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.