Bogotá vs La Costa: Is change in the hair?

I have a new boyfriend. He is from a part of Colombia so famous for producing macho, chauvinistic young men that at first I didn’t want to go out with him. And when I did, I thought I knew what to expect. I would have to teach the “How to date a blonde girl 101” course all over again.

My boyfriend has never dated a foreigner. I have dated plenty – lets call them Colombians – so I know what the clash points are and how to soften them. I am fiercely independent – I like to make my own choices, buy my own drinks, travel alone to the ends of the Earth, speak awful Spanish and take an interest in politics, history and culture. But you don’t walk into someone else’s house and start re-arranging the furniture. I now eat chicken with plastic gloves, cake with cutlery, manage six ‘how are you’s’ before starting a conversation and I rarely offer my half of the taxi fare – because I know too many Colombian men who think either the taxi driver will judge them or their long-dead grandmother, who taught them to be a “gentleman”.

The key to it all is communication and the only reason I am in a relationship at all is thanks to conversations that begin with “I do that because…” or “When you do that, I feel…” or “I wouldn’t want you to think… but…” because culture is a tough cookie and it is best not to argue with it.

So far so good then, except, as anyone who read my last entry knows, the one thing I loathe having to alter is my clothing. The best reason for cultural adaptation is because something in your old culture causes offence in your new one, but a British girl in a floral dress is hardly the Colombian equivalent of bare shoulders in a Muslim country… is it?

I was still sore from the denim obsession when my new boyfriend invited me to a family party and, determined to show early on exactly what my “hard limits” were regarding cultural sympathies, I jumped into the taxi wearing a black top, gold skirt, ballet pumps and dark pink lipstick – even though I knew everyone else would be in jeans.

“You look lovely,” he said politely, before furrowing his brow. “But you know you are going to look very elegant at this party?” (elegant, in this case, means over-dressed)

“They are going to love me,” I said flatly, because I am 31-years-old and I have learned that the only way to respond to mild doubt is with flawless self-confidence.

And besides, I believed it. I may look every inch the tall, blonde, blue-eyed foreigner but I am half Colombian now and more acquainted with Colombian family parties than I am with English ones. Even though no-one knew what to do with me at first, I knew I would have to drink neat whiskey (tick) dance Cumbia with the birthday boy (tick) pick up a sobbing toddler and bounce him on my knee (tick) request La Gringa and dance enthusiastically, even though I am not gringa (tick) and offer nothing but praise, love and affection for my adopted country (tick, tick, tick)

(The following day four family members rang my boyfriend and told him to marry me immediately. That’s 1-0 for the gold skirt, in case you were wondering)

This made me feel safe enough to start mentioning the young man’s existence to the people in my life – which includes anyone from friends and acquaintances, to the woman who sells orange juice on the corner, the boys in the gym, the guy on the meat counter at Carulla – basically anyone who has formed the opinion that I am a perpetually-single, anxiety-ridden, over-thinking, over-writing alien who buys one glass of orange juice on a Sunday morning, one slice of meat in the supermarket and goes to the gym at anti-social hours. The fact I shared this new development with complete strangers probably just confirmed their suspicions, but there you go. I did it anyway.

The only sticking point is that now people have begun to ask how this will change my plans for Easter – revealing their assumptions that couples will have a splendid, romantic week next week, whereas single people will apparently spend it, well, going to the gym and buying individual portions of chicken.

I am going to meet my new boyfriend’s parents, I tell them, before revealing the name of his coastal birth town. There is a horrified pause. Each interrogator looks me up and down, takes in the full-scope of my Englishness then tells me exactly how I am going to have to behave in his homeland. Enhancing my bust and backside, talking less and doing my hair more seems to be the general gist.

The final straw came yesterday when I had the same conversation with a friend who works in fashion. “Where are you spending Easter?” he asked. I gave the incendiary reply. “Really?” he replied, eyes widening. “You know it is very chauvinist there?” I gave a curt nod. “Oh don’t worry honey, you won’t have to change anything about yourself,” he continued. “You know, you’re cool, like a hippie. Just, you know, get your hair done properly and put on a bit more make-up and maybe wear jeans and, well, a nice top or something.”

I was fuming. In fact I was so furious I strode home to hunt out some cheer-up chocolate in the boiling late-afternoon sun and nearly tripped over one of my favourite people in the world, an out-and-out bogotano who wouldn’t set foot on the coast if you paid him. Really. He cannot stand it.

I pouted and poured out my troubles in a dangerously high falsetto.

“Darling,” he said, giving me a hug.

“Do you know what they have there? In that town of his?”

“No,” I said sulkily, brushing off my leggings and scuffing my ballet pumps in the dust.

“Absolutely nothing,” he giggled.

“You’re going to be just fine.”

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.


  1. Melissa

    Where is your boyfriend from anyways? I feel like you’re talking about Cartagena somehow and I feel I bit bad for you for having to withstand all of that and for the rest of Colombians that think that coast people are so judgemental, I mean we are but not with foreigners jajajaja i’m sure you’ll be fine tho. we will receive you with open arms (if you are indeed coming to Cartagena anyways) happy Easter!

  2. alittlecameo

    You will be fine and will charm them all with ease!

    I remember the first time I met my suegra. I was so nervous and had no idea how you greet your Colombian’s costeno family and what the done thing was, I mean, I was just a backpacker. He said to wear my cut-off denim shorts but I wanted to wear a dress. In the end, and after consulting with all the staff at the hostel, I decided I felt more decent and presentable in jeans (despite the horrendous heat). In short, I didn’t want to feel like I was heading to the beach. I remember being scared stiff on the bus and asking questions like “What do I call your Mum?” “Senora Magally”, “Do I use the formal usted?” “Of course!!!” and the predictable “Will she like me?” “Sure she will, don’t worry about it…”

    Despite my pretty poor Spanish I managed to get through the meeting. I commented on her house being so lovely, I expressed gratitude at being given the best seat in the house, I commented on her grandchildren, I struck up a relationship with soon-to-be stepson, I smiled lots and only made the faux-pas of measuring the height of a child with a flat palm and then when told of the mistake blushed suitably red and mumbled an attempt at why I didn’t know that. I went on to live in her house for 7 months and now she prefers to stay with us when visiting Bogota rather than with her daughter because she feels comfortable with me and has a like-mind to lament the submissiveness of her daughter.

    It’s also not impossible to find a non-chauvinistic costeno. My costeno does almost all the cooking, pretty much all of the cleaning and gets his child ready for school without waking me.

    Have fun on the coast, relax, and just sit through the novelas.

  3. Debs

    woah – Chicken in plastic gloves??? You’re gonna need to clarify that one – is it you or the chicken in the gloves and in the name of all that is unholy WHY??

      1. Alvaro

        First time I read your blog. It’s nice to see someone who likes us for what we are and for what we are not. I’m one cachaco that has no desdain for costeños (even with the fact that i don’t like them being so loud!!), and i DO like to lick my fingers with some chicken legs from Surtiaves de la 22 with maduro con queso y bocadillo and yuca frita (talking about yuca makes me remember about carimañolas, one of the best inventions from la costa. That and refajo made with Kola Roman!!) . I’ll be coming back for more posts. Good luck!!

  4. Whitey

    Vicki, Vicki, Vicki … puhlease … not only are you gringa, you are bien gringa (just as all asians are chinos, and the rest of the world is either turkos or negros).

    Despite that, you seem to have picked up the cachaco disdain for costenos … even though they are usually much nicer than cachacos and don’t have to suffer in an overcrowded, congested, cold, and rainy environment. 😉

    I’m not sure how many or what kind of dinners/parties you have been to on the coast, but dresses and looking nicely done up is not at all unusual. I don’t get the issue with tight jeans either … but hey … I have one word for you … jeggings … you should be able to get your bachata on with those … and your novio plus any other male around will thank you.

    P.S. Enjoyed your article, as usual.

  5. cassandragambill

    Since my costeño boyfriend and I met abroad and still live in Spain, I was (mercifully) ignorant of some of these customs. For example, I had no idea women were supposed to wear jeans to meet the family. I ended up doing this unwittingly, as we came straight from Bogota and I hadn’t changed.

    I wore make-up perhaps twice in two weeks. Reading this post has clarified why my ‘suegra’ started giving me hair tips near the end of week two…

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