Rudyard Kipling, you know, that fantastically talented but controversial English writer, once wrote: “And what should they know of England, who only England know?” and he was right. Sometimes we have to take a deep breath, pack our bags and move away to understand the very thing that is staring us in the face. Of course it’s annoying, impractical and time-consuming but it’s true. As English people are fond of saying: “Sometimes you can’t see the wood, for the trees.”
I feel that way about England. As a good British girl, I was proud of my country, but I never really knew why. National pride is just something we grow up with and, given the deep nationalism here in Colombia, it’s apparently hard to escape. We grumble, but deep down we all tend to assume our country is the best – a bit like those soldiers who prayed so fervently during the Second World War. The only trouble is, if God is on your side then who, er, are all the other people talking to?
No, it’s only in Colombia, with 5,000 miles of distance, that I can see what is truly great about Great Britain. I am proud of many things, such as the National Health Service, the benefits system and the equality of opportunity but, above all, it’s that British sense of justice, honesty and fair play that nowadays I can only wonder at, because I live so far away.
I remember walking through a Bogotá park when I found a shiny, new BlackBerry nestled in the grass. About 200m ahead of me, I saw a dog-walker frantically going through his pockets. When I gave him back the phone, he looked startled and went into that oh-so-Colombian torrent of “thank you” and “God bless”. A few days later, quite by chance, a very good friend of mine – a total struggler, who worked and worked and never got a break – found an iPhone in a taxi. “You have to give it back,” I said immediately. “You are so annoying,” he said sadly. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you. We’re not all British you know.”
Of course, life is not that simple. I remember knowing a bus driver in England who would steal the lost phones honest members of the public gave him and, conversely, I once lost my own phone in a Bogotá shopping centre and a Colombian went out of her way to return it to me.
But generally there is a lack of trust in Colombia and frankly who can blame Colombians? Societies lack trust when they have no faith in their Governments, when they have lost their belief that justice will prevail, when they finally realise that they can only rely upon themselves. Without trust there is no honesty, there is only suspicion, self-preservation and the fear of “giving papaya” In other words, trust the wrong person and, sorry, but the fault is all yours.
British people, in contrast, walk around in a Care-Bear-happy-cloud, certain that the powers-that-be will protect them, that justice will always prevail, that society will collude and collaborate to ensure people and actions that are “just not cricket” are dealt with most severely. Trusting people is not much of a risk in Britain, you see, we have the system on our side.
A good friend and I were discussing this the other day (“This will end up on your blog,” she said, which proves I am nothing if not predictable) when she pointed out that in most countries, when you were in trouble, the first person you would turn to would be a policeman. In Colombia, she said, the policeman is probably the person causing you the trouble in the first place. And that doesn’t even have to be true. As they taught us in journalism school: “The truth is irrelevant. It is what people perceive to be true that counts.” If Colombians have no faith in their system then the reality doesn’t matter. They will just never risk it.
But the world is grey and one of the things I like about Colombians is that Colombians look after themselves. They take nothing for granted, they never rely on safety nets and they will do anything for family and friends because, if you don’t help your family and friends, who will? In contrast, British people are like babies wrapped in cotton wool. We expect everything to unfold in a fair, legal, reasonable and timely manner. Why? Because we trust that to be the case.
Still, that trust and sense of justice is, I think, one of Britain’s greatest societal achievements and if honesty, fairness and faith in others is something I can bring with me to Colombia, then there is one thing I hope I will take back and that is the total annihilation of British sourness.
I remember talking to an American, and you know the type of American, the soft, open-hearted, innocent sort of American, and I said to him: “Oh yes, I think I know so-and-so. He always seems a bit depressed to me,” and the American replied: “Really? I thought that was because he was British. British people always seem a bit depressed to me.” Gah! I got all haughty then and said something like: “What do you mean? We are sharp, droll and funny, we are self-deprecating and dry, we have a world famous wit, a much-loved charm and we never take ourselves too seriously,” but even at the time I thought: “What a crock of shit Vicki.”
Britain used to own the world. Literally. They teach us that in school, about heroes and Sirs who ruled the waves, who trampled around the globe stealing and organising and enforcing and ‘civilising’ and plundering and enslaving and teaching and stealing a bit more, about “mad dogs and Englishmen” who went out in the midday sun and were never, ever without their pocket watch. And then we have to learn that the world isn’t like that anymore, that we are a tiny little island and people still listen to us because they are in awe of us, not because we have any real power, just influence and, frankly, we’re a nation that is not unlike a grumpy old man, sitting in the corner, refusing to think about the glory days of the past and bitching instead about the upstarts of the present. And if Scotland goes, unfortunately, it is only going to get worse.
There’s an old joke about fancy cars and the man driving one in the United States where everyone goes: “Awesome man, seriously, I wanna get me one of those cars,” and then in England where the people flinch and say: “Gah, how vulgar, look the other way darling, we wouldn’t want him to get a big head.” British people love underdogs, the unlikely victors, the loveable losers and the humble winners because we despise long-term success. I should know, I spent years working in British newspapers where “we build ’em up, just so we can knock ’em down.”
One of my favourite examples is Cristiano Ronaldo, the Real Madrid player and I delight in being a fan of Cristiano Ronaldo because it is so defiantly un-British. I once worked in a newspaper where we had a picture of Cristiano on our dart board. He goes against everything we stand for as a nation. He is pretty, proud, obscenely successful, he smiles about it, he speaks his mind and, even worse, our irritation just doesn’t affect him. He goes on being just as pretty, just as proud and just as successful and it drives us crazy. I mean look at the guy, this lad who is an ambassador for Save The Children and Aid Still Required and who, when the news of his $1.5m donation to kids in Gaza leaked last year said: “Well, I believe in giving privately to charity…” yuk, his success is disgusting. Why won’t he just give up and accept that we don’t care how hard he works?
Moving to Colombia threw me into the path of people, often Americans, whose warm, generous and open-hearted attitude to success astounded me. They were more inclined to praise, admire and try to emulate brilliance than they were to be critical and snide about it. People would say things that sounded positively cringeworthy to me, a good citizen of the Queen.
But, nowadays, thank God, I can see that they were right. Every time someone else’s hard work, success and good fortune makes us feel bitter and uncomfortable, it exposes a weakness and fear within ourselves. All I want is to be happy, healthy and achieve my dreams so why shouldn’t I be brave and embrace the people around me who are just trying to do the same? It’s not like the two things are inversely proportional, in fact, if you are fearless enough to take pride and pleasure in the success of those around you, you will often find it is exactly the opposite. And if not, well, I guess there is always darts. Just whatever you do, don’t get too good at it.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.