I remember once going for a drink with a friend who put down his glass in the middle of the conversation, laughed to himself and said: “You’re one of those people aren’t you?”
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“You know,” he continued. “One of those people. The ones who still think they can change the world.”
Apparently there is a time limit on optimism, you see, like the time limit on being left wing or drinking white wine. You’re supposed to grow out of it. I think that is so ridiculous, I hardly know where to begin.
A friend, back in my early days here, once told me that foreigners like myself were doing a great service to Colombia. “Hmm, I’m not sure,” I said, still all British and skeptical, faded and jaded beyond my years. “I mean, we come here, we make our money, we hardly even pay taxes.” (Government’s fault, not ours)
“Rubbish,” he said. “It’s an effect so small, you probably don’t even see it – the ideas you bring, the language you share, the confidence you give back to Colombians, the Colombians who come home because they see people like you here…” The longer I stay, the more I see his point. Nowadays you would have to go a long way to find someone more pro-immigration than me. And not just in Colombia. Sometimes I fight the urge to jump on a plane, knock on the door of 10 Downing Street and tell them every Keep Out sign they shove on top of the White Cliffs of Dover drives yet another nail in our country’s coffin.
But maybe I wasn’t always such a believer. Colombia has changed me in ways I never thought possible. Old friends taught me early on the value of “Todo es posible. Estamos en Colombia,” (Everything is possible. We’re in Colombia) and my ex-boyfriend taught me never, ever to accept “no” as an answer if the question was reasonable. Colombia is full of barriers, you’re just supposed to view them as diversions. There is always another way and if you haven’t found it yet, you’re just not looking hard enough. Or being creative enough.
Experts know people become more creative when they live abroad, more ingenious, more able to problem solve and, frankly, I think the results of their study would quadruple if they only looked at people who had lived in Colombia. Colombia is the most ingenious country on Earth. Of course, not all Colombians use their instinct for ingenuity for good. If those Colombians put as much energy into strengthening their system as they do looking for a way past it, they would live in the most powerful country on Earth too.
But every country has its potential and its problems, which brings me neatly back to change and my belief that todo es posible. Of course we can change the world. We change it without even trying. We don’t live in stagnation, we live in fluidity. The world changes whether we like it or not. And if progress is relentless, well, it is hardly a big stretch to reach out and grasp the rudder.
I have spent almost a year writing a book about Colombia, the good, the bad, the strange of it all. My friends are naturally curious about the project, particularly because I share so little. They do know it is one of the hardest things I have ever done, chronicling a country that is not my own. “But why are you even writing it?” they say, when they catch me in the full throes of despair. “Do you want to change Colombia?”
“No,” I say wearily. “Colombia will change whether the book is finished or not. And change isn’t the word. It’s tweak, like when women get married and want to work their magic on their husband. They don’t want to change the husband. They just want to tweak the bits they don’t like.” Do I really think the book will change anything? I’d love to pretend not. But if I thought it was pointless, would I really have spent all that time researching it and writing it? Surely I would have spent the last year eating oreos and watching 80s movies. I had to believe I was playing my part, just so I picked up that pen, day after bloody day.
Secretly, I know that two things make me crazy. One is that belief that everything is possible. Honestly, if you gave me enough money and time, I would tell you I could turn water into wine. I know that technically gives me a Messiah Complex, but it’s more my certainty that, even if I couldn’t do it, I could find someone who could. Secondly, as you may have guessed, I am infinitely positive. One of my Colombian friends recently described me as “the ultimate Care Bear” and said if there was a word that best described my personality it would be “Eeeeeeee.”
I remember one newspaper where I worked, an editor told me a food writer had been sacked because, no matter how beautifully he wrote (and the guy was a genius) someone had noticed he only ever ordered steak and chips. Turned out he only ate steak and chips. I ate everything, so I got the job and I reviewed a bit of music too. I thought I had hidden my secret well until the same editor called me over to her desk one morning.
“I love how you write,” she said. “But you do know it’s okay to write negative things too?” Fat chance. I once gave the Backstreet Boys ten out of ten. I got away with it though and it was lucky, because I just cannot help it. No matter what happens, what I see, what I feel, I can’t help but know that things could always be worse. And I cannot help but believe that things will always get better. The trick is figuring out how. And writing lots of lists.
Attitude is the best insurance. It immunises you against everything. As Viktor Frankl – and you know I love him – told us: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing – the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” So delight in being positive to negative people. Be polite to rude people. Their attitude may be their choice but they sure as heck don’t get to control yours.
And there is good news kids, there is always good news. We dinosaurs of positivity are in good hands. I love all this stuff about the millennial generation, I think they’re on the way to getting it sorted (I am not a millennial, although one of the boys in my office did politely tell me that being millennial was about attitude not age. That’s probably because I give him chocolate)
I watched Jobs recently and I loved that too – of course, I love everything – and I thought about them, the ones who are not faded and jaded, the ones who stare curiously at wisdom and experience (because they know how often such things come wrapped in cynicism and bitterness) the ones who say “Yes” and “How?” instead of “No” and “Never”, the ones who are positive, the ones who think it’s possible, the ones who secretly believe that they – the cynics, the critics and the doom-and-gloomers – are the truly crazy ones. They’re the ones we need. And as for the rest? Well, I guess we get to smile at them politely.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.