Anyone who has studied Spanish in Bogotá will remember the content of those first few classes. Every one of us, oh-so-diligent, students went through the same. We dedicated our first, precious hours to the art of the Colombian greeting, because we understood that this skill is not just limited to the many mutations of said greeting, but also extends to the correct number of times each one must be given in conversation. In this city, at least, the rule is at least three.
That’s certainly how it was for me, three years ago, when I started studying Spanish at the National University and couldn’t believe how many trees were sacrificed with ¿Cómo estás? (How are you?) ¿Cómo te ha ido? (“How have you been?”) ¿Cómo vas? (“How’s it going?”) and ¿Qué más? (“What’s up?” or, in my home town, “Alright?”) It is not the number of salutations – sure, we all have them – but how many times they must be imparted in the same interaction.
My friends and I – foreigners and Colombians alike – were laughing about this the other day and wondering if anyone had ever created an exact formula to prescribe exactly how many times you have to enquire after someone’s health before you are allowed to smile and press on or, even better, move the conversation on to something more purposeful.
My favourite is when a good citizen of this city (and it is this city, formal as we are, our customs forever sealed by those mountains that contain us) asks me, twice, how I am, then takes a deep breath with the obvious intention of saying whatever it is they really want to say. But at the very last moment, just as their lips form around the true thrust of the conversation, that politeness cortex in their brain kicks in and they realise they have only said “How are you?” twice. Instantly they feel obliged to revert back to formalities.
It looks something like this (apologies for my Spanish, but this is how I speak):
Hola Victoria, ¿Cómo estás?
Muy bien, gracias, muy bien, ¿y tú, que más?
Bien, bien, gracias y ¿Cómo te han ido?
Bien, bien, juiciosa como siempre, ¿y tú, que me cuentas?
Todo bien, si… pero, bueno, ¿y tú, como estás?
[At this point curiosity kills Victoria, who needs to know where all this is going]
For those unfamiliar with Spanish in general, and Bogotá formalities in particular, that conversation contains the words “How are you?” in one form or other, a whopping five times including the requisite third time because, heaven forbid, the conversation should be allowed to move forward without appropriate attention being paid to one’s health.
Believe it or not, this is one of the many, many things I love about this city. I have finally begun to admit that, yes, we do live in a time warp here, that at some point at Heathrow or wherever, you don’t get on a plane to come to Colombia, you get in a time machine. I always felt like a protective parent whenever I heard my adopted home referred to as a developing nation but the longer I stay, the more I’ll admit it. Colombia’s trajectory is behind England’s. Sometimes it’s bad (citizen rights, the pursuit of meritocracy) and sometimes it’s good (people instead of machines, less rush/more life) and, of course, the best thing about walking behind someone else is not that you get to decide which of their successes you emulate, but that you get to decide which of their failings you avoid.
There’s the big stuff everyone knows about – the Colombians who have less chance in life than other Colombians (and let’s not think for a moment that my homeland has eradicated that little gem) the basic societal entitlements that most Colombians still consider a valuable prize, a distant dream or an idealism rather than a genuine probability; the haphazard application of law and order; the look-after-yourself-and-your-family-because-no-one-else-will attitude… the list goes on and it’s exhausting. We’ll get there in the end, though, whether we trot along behind the big boys or discover some golden solution that surpasses any of theirs.
Like many foreigners who have arrived and many Colombians who have stayed, I live here because I hope I will do my bit, however small and I would love to peer into that crystal ball and see where it will take us. But let’s not think about the future, please, I’m a romantic and I like thinking about the past. Let’s talk about Bogotá, a city lost in time. Because it is lost in time, isn’t it?
It’s not just the formalities, but the language too. Even stroppy Spaniards will tell you they enjoy hearing cachacos speak because they use so many gorgeous old words that are long lost across the ocean. There are so many old-fashioned courtesies and values at play, I am convinced my grandmother, who was born in 1917, would have adapted quicker to Bogotá life than I did and my grandfather’s best friend – who never failed to remove his hat at the passing of a funeral and taught me to do the same – would have passed for an old-school bogotano within seconds.
We can laugh about how many times social convention dictates that we greet one another, but somehow those courtesies and traditions, that over-dose of decorum, is sort of beautiful and it saddens me that even as we progress (my cleaner is well on her way to achieving a free qualification that may just change her life, I haven’t seen the disabled man who begs on my street for days and am desperately hoping he has found a way to claim what Colombia’s shiny, yet oft forgotten, disability laws entitle him) I am wondering, not unlike a person of my grandmother’s generation, what exactly must we sacrifice?
Everything, perhaps. Maybe those formalities are symbolic. Perhaps they are the very thing that holds us back. Could it be true that in a world where we don’t dare to challenge our conventions for greeting one another, we have absolutely no hope of staring down the big stuff? If that’s true, then so be it. I’ll give up the salutations if it means I can eat the over-priced chocolate I buy in Carulla, rather than feeling sad on the way home and handing it, inevitably, to the old man in the wheelchair who really shouldn’t have to beg at the traffic lights at 8pm on a wednesday.
I was thinking about this last night, tucked up in bed with the chocolate I am finally able to eat because I haven’t seen that guy in days (something I am trying not to worry about) I was watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, laughing at Mr Darcy because he enquires after Miss Bennet’s health so many times you would swear he was bogotano. I decided I would have enjoyed Jane Austen’s time (more than the author did) what with all the formalities, the bobs and the curtsies, the loopy-handwriting, the constant letter writing. Well, I decided that for exactly two seconds, because then I remembered the women who were forced to marry, have children and crochet all day long (and that’s just the rich ones) that being accomplished was more important than being compassionate; that all the big stuff was, er, left to the men.
Alright, you win. Some things should be thrown into the dustbin of the past. It’s just that… well… how are you?
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.