My name is Vicki and this is my number

My great-grandmother was a housemaid. She wore an apron, she cleaned, she scrubbed. She said: “Yes Ma’am,” a few hundred times a day. The next generation were more or less the same, on both sides. One grandfather was a bus conductor, the other operated a printing press (I like buses and writing, go figure) Then along came my father. He won a place as a bank apprentice, ended up running it and catapulted my family into the comfortable ranks of the middle-class. I was the first to go to university. My grandmother was very proud.

But I was naïve and class was never a thing for me. My school was free, but well-respected. There were poor kids, there were middle-class kids. The poor kids started fights and sometimes came to school with dirty clothes. We middle-class kids played netball and sometimes came to school with completed homework (most of the time, in my case, unless you include mathematics).

I remained naïve at university. A friend once told me that the “rich kids” were allotted different lodgings, which may explain why I never met them. My friends were like me, solidly middle-class. In fact, class wandered onto my radar just once and that was when I mentioned to a lecturer that I might like to work at The Times. “Nonsense,” he sniffed. The barrier was perception of my class. Off I went to work in regional news.

Local newspapers are havens for the socially-naive. They’re about “sticking up for the little guy” – the humbler your origins, the more you fit in. My job was best of all – working the streets, talking to ordinary people about extraordinary things. I quickly learned that the rougher I spoke and the shabbier I dressed, the more success I had. I used a coarse accent and wore a huge, shapeless Parker. When the Editor described me as “rough but funny” (the former being a word British people use for those from a lower social classes) I assumed he was joking. My accent was fake! Another time an older colleague told me: “The Editor is no working class hero you know.” I thought it was an observation. Now I realise it was advice.

Not once did I think perception of my class could influence my success. Not once did I try to classify or categorise myself. The first time I even thought about class, I was almost 30 and living in Colombia (now, of course, I could write a book on the subject. Maybe I already have)

A friend and I were chatting recently about another girl, who hadn’t wanted to attend a get-together I had organised with a different friend (I will never learn my lesson when it comes to mixing people)

“Hon, think about it for a minute,” my friend said.

“It was probably the class thing.”

“Eh?” I said. “But they are from the same class. Okay so one is a bit richer than the other now, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

My friend shook her head.

“You are thinking like a British person,” she said.

“You know Britain is the only country in the world where money doesn’t indicate social class, where you can have a poor aristocrat and a rich chav.”

(Okay, so she didn’t say chav, but it is the word British snobs use for members of the lower social classes and I like to demonise it wherever possible, so thought I would insert it here. It translates as ñero in Colombian Spanish, which is even worse)

Anyway, back to my friend.

“Think about it,” she continued.

“One of them takes taxis everywhere. The other takes the bus.”

Well if that’s not a classic Bogotá definition of social class, I don’t know what is. Can you imagine? The moment one of my friends became successful, well, successful enough to take taxis, she immediately moved out of the class and comfort zone of my other friend. Even though I know for a fact that my “high class” friend grew up in a rough part of Bogotá and was so poor when she started work, she lived on crackers and hot sauce.

Astonishingly (or perhaps not, sometimes I swear Bogotá is a mirage that only exists so I can write about it) the topic came up again a few days later.

This time I was talking to another friend when he mentioned a woman in Bogotá, who is single, about my age and whom I don’t really know but am convinced holds a grudge against me. Like a cat, I am always drawn to those who fail to appreciate my charms.

I enquired innocently about the woman’s health.

“I wouldn’t go there,” my friend sighed. “That woman is not exactly fond of you.”

“Why?” I whined, pulling a face. “Is it the blog? Is it the book?”

“Neither,” my friend replied. “It’s probably the class thing.”

I exploded.

“WHAT! She doesn’t like me because I am from a lower social class?” I squealed.

“Are you joking?” my friend replied, confused. “Isn’t it the other way around?”

A ridiculous conversation followed about regions and houses and schools and universities and I won’t bore you with it, except to say that my conclusion was that the woman and I am from the same social class (that would be the Sunday-gardening, cupcake-baking, rosemary-growing, child-psychologising, broadsheet-reading Middle England) I hope I never see the poor woman again because I am a snake and will be unable to resist bringing it up.

Of course it has troubled me. In fact I have done nothing since but thought about social class which, if nothing else, proves the extraordinary ability I have to concentrate on irrelevant, theoretical issues rather than the fact that, once again, I am back to writing full-time and I really need to pay my bills.

Anyway, I have always been one of those people who yearns for meritocracy – that utopian ideal that people will rise to the ‘top’ of a society thanks to their hard work and talent, rather than their birthright. Then I watched this video. The guy is basically saying that people like me, who go on about meritocracy, forget that in every society someone has to be at the bottom. And in a meritocracy, the ones at the bottom are assumed to be the ones who “deserve it” – in other words, the “wasters”. The rest of us ‘meritocrats’ will insist they deserve their low social status, regardless of the reality. Those people then end up feeling guilty, miserable and utterly rejected.

If you are still with me, I have to say that the struggle for meritocracy was always one of the things that saddened me most about Colombia (here, if your Dad was President of a company, you are likely to succeed him. If your Mum sells chewing gum at the traffic lights, you are likely to follow. Most Colombians think “social mobility” is a brand of chiva, their much-celebrated party bus)

But if Mr de Botton is right, that meritocracy does cause higher rates of depression and lower tolerance for “failure”, does that explain why Colombians are supposedly so happy? I mean if you are President of a company because your father was, why would you worry about whether you deserved it? No-one will question it, because everyone knows that is how the system works. And if you are selling chewing-gum at the traffic lights, well, no-one is going to question that either, because everyone knows that is how the system works. Is this the secret to millions of happy people and a non-existent fear of failure?

England is the opposite. We don’t have true social mobility either (the biggest indicator of our future income is still our parents’ income) but it’s closer – my own family is an example and there are millions more. And yes, you will be asked your occupation at a dinner party but not your surname, nor your father’s occupation. And the personal responsibility that comes from living a little closer to meritocracy is making us bloody miserable. We have more depression, more suicides and Colombia kicks our ass in every “happiness poll” on the planet.

So bearing in mind the importance of my own happiness and self-esteem, I am going to have to ask you to stop judging me on my achievements. Perhaps you could use my social class instead. My great-grandmother was a housemaid. My father was a banker. Take your pick.

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

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17 Comments

  1. Orlando Guedez Calderin

    Hello. I do not know if you read feedback. Terrific material! I am also foreigner in Bogota. Venezuelan, movd abroad in 2000, lived in Argentina, Brazil and Spain before coming here last year with my wife (Argentinian). I do some writing under pen name Carlos Goedder but i miss your freshness. Would love to meet you in person. Orlando, bogota

  2. Meghan Johnson

    Great post, Vicki. It reminds me a lot of de Botton’s “Status Anxiety”. I was in a post-Soviet republic while I read it, which is another fascinating little bubble from which to explore class and social status! It shifted my attitude toward our beloved “meritocracy” from blind faith to doubt. Very interesting to hear your take on it from within Colombia!

  3. Barry Max Wills

    When I lived in London, as an Australian, I was outside the class system. While they were all busy looking for signet rings and old school ties, I was just classified as an Australian, something like a clever dog.

    Here, I feel we are also outside the system; we are extranjeros in a country that for far too long had very few foreign visitors. We are still popular. Nobody ever mistakes me for a local, and if they ask what I do I tell them the truth … I am a campesino … which never fails to cause amusement.

    I am not however expecting an invite to Club Nogal anytime soon.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      When I am rich and famous, I’ll take you to El Nogal Barry. In the meantime, coffee and empanadas it is, our conversations will only be the same anyway… although I should probably give up writing, well, if the above is really what I want… 🙂

  4. Talia

    Always enjoy keeping up with your blog Vicki – you were one of the first people to inspire me to travel after all! I owe a lot to you and your writing!
    Love this one. Rings very true: I am also the daughter of a banker, and my grandmother was a carer and my grandfather a PE teacher…in the centre of the world that is Weston-Super-Mare. It always amazes me that a lot of Brits seem to decide they know exactly who I am and where I come from as soon as I open my mouth…It’s an odd society we get caught up in in the UK!

  5. Seb

    I’m a Colombian living in London, it’s always a bit confusing when you move somewhere. I live in Labour voting Islington; I watch BBC 4 documentaries, and the occasional Jeremy Paxman. But I’m not necessarily a progressive liberal. I work in the city, I read the FT and I would probably vote Tory if I could, so I’m not really easy to classify according to the public vs. state school system. I’m getting better at recognizing the Oxbridge accent and the different social signals; Funny how football is middle class, while rugby seems to be more elite. It seems like football is universal in Colombia. And then there is Essex. You are absolutely right about money; it doesn’t come into the mix (as much).

    I wish it was a numerical system as in Colombia, which makes life easier, although I’m sure that by now you recognize that there are many shades of 6 (or 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 for that matter). I’m not sure about this ease by which we, Colombians, take our social standing, there is an unspoken social tension, take the whole fight for the “alcaldia de Bogota… but let’s not get political, we seem to be happy nonetheless,

    I’m afraid foreigners in Colombia go into “estrato” 6 or 5 until proven otherwise. Nice post.

  6. cafealeman3690

    Another brilliant piece of writing. You build synapses in my brain. I cant thank you enough. When I met you at the Irish Pub a few weeks back I should have mentioned it then but I am afraid the arguadientes with my buddy took over. Please accept my apologies. Enough about that. I have run into this status thing with Colombians and it almost seems silly to me to make those kinds of assumptions. I come from what most people would call good stock. My Dad was a general vascular surgeon and my mom, well she is what some people would call a trophy wife, lol, sorry but its the truth. I love you mom! I say this because I dont feel I judge people by there social class or at least try not to. I judge them by what comes out of there mouth. I will be in Bogota permanently very soon and I will continue to act accordingly. I hope I never fall into that trap. Again thanks again Vicky you are truly a gifted woman, very rare indeed. Also I would like to get my hands on that book, maybe I can pick it up in July when I am there.

  7. Pamela Slingsby

    Hello Vicky. I’m from Harrogate, Yorkshire and came over here as a volunteer in 1972 (!!). I find your analysis of Colombia very interesting and enjoy your fine language skills. I also consider myself very naïve, especially in this country. If you’re born here you have “malicia indigena”. If not, you simply don’t have it. But this country is special : you never, ever feel bored here !!

  8. steveh

    Sometimes I reckon Colombia´s caste system is as ingrained as India. I am never sure where I fit in, over the years I have been variously addressed as Don, Señor, Vecino, Compay, Hermano, Viejo etc. People insist on calling ´Don´ some of the worst characters I know (it is often used ironically) so I like that the least.

    One bit of genius here is the ´strata´ system of housing that raises or lowers the household bills according to the wealth of the neighbourhood. So living in Strata 6 gets you good bragging rights, but you pay for the privilege! Last week ETB refused to install a basic phone line in a flat I am renting out because, being Strata 4, I could only chose the more expensive ´all-in´ packages. I hung up on them.

  9. Mauricio Torres Madrid

    Hi Vicky, long time since I read you the last time (Reallly I missed the book signing event at Filbo), but it refreshing to read again, great reading again. Looking forward to buying and reading your book, looks exciting.

  10. r

    I noticed that, to those in Santa Barbara and area, some because of their mafia, narcotics trafficking connections or those of their parents, family, would prefer to ptretend that Ciudad de Bolivar didn’t exist. Sneer at and spit on the poor. Money seems to be above all. In some countries you could be rich but if known your money is from crime and narco trafficking, not really on the uppermost social Strata.
    Here l’m sure Pablo Escobar was the belle of the ball many times. I assume protocol would include not asking how many people he had whacked that month, and church tithes. Or those in charge of the falso positivo killings.
    It is more like no questions asked, money means you are upper crust, superior.
    Only surprised more poor dont rob or attack some of these people. Most have gunmen to protect themselves, though

  11. Conor

    In my five years in Colombia (4 in Bogota and nearly a year in Barranquilla) and for me the idea of social mobility is a fantasy.

    I do love the look on people’s faces when I tell them I get the bus in Bogota… They honestly think I will get robbed at least twice a week…

  12. Miguel

    You have, as per usual, hit the nail smack centre of the head. This class consciousness thing is so deeply ingrained into all us Colombians that in spite of our political and philosophical beliefs, of how rationally we approach societies and how much we enjoy the ‘class-less’ system of certain European countries, such as Switzerland where I live now, the awful truth is we clearly see and experience how much class still exists… Moreover, for someone who grew up on the periphery of 6 in Cali, I have to say I have never felt so excluded based on class as I have in certain places in ‘class-less’ Switzerland. I sympathise with Barry Max Wills on the feeling of being a stranger; funny thing is, after a few years you go back and you’re still a stranger in your own country. In a way, you’re country-less!

  13. Faye Griffiths

    Interesting that class never played an important role in your life before. I´d always found Britain to be a classist society – marked mostly by our obsession with home ownership. If you compare us even to our (stereotypically intellectually snobby) European cousins, I think we´re far more classist. What I find funny here is how a lot of Colombian people assume we´re from the wealthier classes just because of where we come from. I often find myself thinking, well, if you could see my dad´s front room you wouldn´t hold me in such high esteem. …

    But the debate about meritocracy is interesting. In an ideal world yes you´d be rewarded for hard work, but who would determine what work is more worthy than other work and deserving of more credit? For example, a journo or a teacher like me might both work long hours, have to put in some intellectual work etc and would probably always earn more than a hospital cleaner.But whose work is more valuable?

    The very true example about the chewing-gum sellers is also interesting. Obviously because of such high unemployment and lack of welfare state in Colombia so many people work informally, but if that work were a little more formalised and secure, would it matter that people only did that as a job? Is it any less valid work than signing forms in banks? That´s not to say that social mobility isn´t a good thing, but there is a danger in the idea of meritocracy and social mobility (I think) that many politicians tap into, which is that there is something shameful in having lower aspirations, not wanting or working towards being the richest or most recognised you can be. In reality, most of us won´t be either rich or well recognised but as long as we can learn a living wage and access some of the things in life that make it worthwhile (though a doubtless most chewing – gum sellers here cannot) then it´s ok to just be.. ..

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