You know I’m a worrier and on days when I’m not worrying, I fret that I have forgotten what I was supposed to worry about. Sometimes, when my worry reaches fever pitch, I call my mother in England. “I’m a bit worried,” I tell her. “I know,” she says. “That’s something you inherited from your grandmother. It has nothing to do with me,” which is ironic, because my mother worries about everything and always has.
My grandmother was a worrier though and I will never forget when I was eight or nine, drinking a can of coca-cola with a new ring pull. You remember the old ring pulls right? The ones you could pull away completely, compared to the new ones which fold back inside the can? Anyway, I had drunk half my drink when my grandmother, my babysitter, asked me for the ring pull. “There’s no ring pull nan,” I told her. “It’s a new can, the ring pull is still inside.” Only the grandchild of a worrier could possibly understand the pantomime that then unfolded. My grandmother, of course, was convinced I’d swallowed the ring pull and I, the only daughter of her only daughter, an only grandchild, was facing imminent death.
I still can’t see the funny side, so that worrying family trait was probably inevitable. My mother was one of those rare parents delighted when I met my first boyfriend at 18 and openly admitted it made her “worry less” about my safety. Since then the following phrases have always littered our conversations: “Just in case you were worried,” “It’s just that I was worried,” and “I was worried you might worry so…” I am ashamed to say, I occasionally consider what it would feel like to be kidnapped and can only conclude that I would be unbearable. I would be frantic with worry, because I know what crushing, claustrophobic terror would be felt across the ocean.
It is probably ironic, then, that I became a journalist. Ha! On my first foreign assignment I was searched by the child soldiers of a classified terrorist organisation who also showed me how to avoid the landmines (it wasn’t Colombia, before you ask) Gangsters threatened to punch me inside court and out. My full name appeared on the top of reports of more unmentionable crimes than I care to remember and I was called every name under the sun. Once a woman came into our reception to have “a quiet word” with me before being politely escorted from the building.
I never worried about any of it, not even when that thug told me, quite affably, that he would punch me in the face if he ever saw me again and the judge banned him from the trial. It was as if I left my real self at the newsroom door and became a cold, clinical, efficient cog in the machine; go to the house, knock on the door, drink the tea, mop up the tears, write down the words, file the story, go home. Everybody did it. Frankly, they were all a lot more talented than me.
But something changed, when I was 27, and here I am, for no tangible reason. I once asked my mother: “What do you really think about me living in Bogotá?” She thought for a moment. “Honestly, it makes me happy,” she said. “I don’t worry about you out there. I worried about you when you were up in Liverpool, chasing after those awful people, writing what you did.”
I knew within seconds that Bogotá was for me, but it has always frustrated me that I could never explain it, not even to myself. I have given the following illuminations, some you’ve heard, some you haven’t: “Well, it just feels right, you know, I’ve learned not to plan, look how my journalism career turned out,” or “Bogotá is very creative, you know, big and chaotic and stuff and I like that. I like the anonymity,” and best of all: “When I drink my morning coffee in Bogotá, I sometimes see humming birds. Humming birds! Can you imagine? Why would I live anywhere else?”
Anyone I love, who has ever called me unexpectedly, knows I answer the phone like this: “Hello, are you okay? Is everything alright?” which even my Colombian friends find amusing and which I find frankly hypocritical considering bogotanos become anxious if you so much as visit the supermarket unannounced.
I just finished The Sound of Things Falling and I am sitting here alone, trying not to cry with all of Chapinero stretched out before me (I should have written about Chapinero. Damn it, I wish I planned these blogs rather than relying on my frankly unpredictable emotional state. I should have written “10 ways to ride a Bogotá bus” which, statistically, I know you would all prefer) Still, I am trying not to cry and the book isn’t even that sad. It’s just a novel.
Maybe it’s because, every day, I understand this city a little more and, more importantly, I understand why I belong to it. When I imagine the dark days, the scarring days, the horror this little town has endured, I feel that pain and, weirdly, I find it all so natural. I don’t know if bogotanos have a monopoly on fear, maybe they do, maybe they should, but I think of my grandfather, proud, no doubt emotional, weaving his way home on that clear night (they only bombed on clear nights) when my father was born, the spring of 1943, smack in the middle of a raid, smack in the middle of a besieged London, a tiny, defenceless little being in a world where no-one knew if their loved ones would ever come home and worse, whether there would even be a home, whether there would even be a country, when they finally did.
Then I think of my parents, my father all grown up and working in that same town, that same battle-scarred place where he grew up, the one that’s supposed to be so different from this one right here, working in that little bank when they were blowing things up left right and centre and everyone worried about everyone else (My Dad hates Bogotá, by the way. He says it’s like London. I thought he meant the traffic and the fumes. Now I wonder if it was something else entirely)
Then I think about myself, that day in 2005, at the first newspaper, chatting to a police officer when suddenly all went quiet. I felt him turn ashen before he hung up the phone. Within minutes we were clearing our pages. “The tube,” my editor muttered, shaking her head. “It’s always the tube. They always get us on the tube.”
I don’t know what it is about my family history, it’s an ordinary history, a national history, something I share with millions of my countrymen, but has it made me worry relentlessly about those I love? I know they understand me here and I understand them, even though we have nothing in common, not a continent, nor a language, nor an economy, nor a political system, certainly not a history. But when I pick up the phone and say: “Is everything okay?” a Colombian voice at the other end will sound just like a British one. They will laugh and they will say: “Everything is fine. I just walked in my front door. I called you because I knew you would worry.”
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors