A few years ago, I was travelling somewhere or other with an Irish girl I’d met. Everywhere we went, she was the centre of attention. People loved her accent, her dark hair, her blue eyes and they always wanted to buy her Guinness. “It’s very cool to be Irish, isn’t it?” I asked her one evening, when she’d managed to fend off a crowd of admirers on the basis that one pint of Guinness has roughly the same amount of calories as an English roast dinner.
“Yeah, it is now,” she said, with that lilt people love so much. “But a few years ago it was definitely very uncool to be Irish. I’m not really sure what changed, but now three-men-in-a-pub jokes are out and St Patrick’s Day is very much in.”
We Brits know what it’s like to be cool and uncool too. There are some places where I’m automatically adored because I carry an imaginary holdall filled with good manners and fair play, stiff upper lips and milk in my tea. Then there are the places where I’m loathed, a sticker-in of noses, a hoity toity colonial with a penchant for pillaging. I’ve travelled to ex-British colonies all over the world (because half the world is an ex-British colony) and my first toe on their soil always falls somewhat tentatively, just in case they’re going to blame me for what my grandparents did, or their grandparents before them.
Now, of course, I live in Colombia and the cool/uncool thing is becoming a lot harder to pin down. When I first moved here, it was definitely uncool to be Colombian. You could barely get beyond immigration. I’ll never forget the near stand-up row I had with a border bully in Miami, who saw me in the “just landed from Bogotá” line and assumed I must be funding my chocolate and red wine addiction with an epic cocaine empire. “You’re a writer?” he said, with a smirk. “In Bogotá?”
Then there were my English friends and family. The cocaine jokes were abundant there too (much like the substance itself. They even have it in the water in England) and the concern and confusion was yet more widespread. Why on Earth would I choose to live in Colombia? Did I dare to walk the streets? Do they even have the Internet?
But something has changed, my loves, something has changed and I’m not sure whether we should fear it or embrace it.
It all started in my local supermarket. Not Carulla. My local supermarket in England, where I happened across a delicious-looking offering with “Colombian Coffee Cake” emblazoned proudly across the front. We know Colombian coffee has long been revered in England… but was it ever up there with Victoria Sponge?
And the comments were different too. Now all people want to know is whether Colombians really do dance as well as their football team, whether James will continue his form at Real, how Falcao will fare at United. They want to know whether the travel tips and “must visits” they read in the newspapers all the time are really true. Is Colombia honestly one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world? Is Bogotá really as bike friendly as everyone says? (Don’t answer that)
It’s nice, you know. The cocaine and crime thing was really getting quite tiring and it’s not like it’s up to the average Colombian to defend a situation over which they have very little control. They just want to go on holiday, or study and work abroad, without some smart ass raising his eyebrows and wondering what they’re really carrying in that case.
But I dunno. Everything comes at a price, doesn’t it? The bigger they are, the harder they fall. We knew where we were when no-one knew the truth, when only Colombians and a few brave travellers could see the gem hidden in plain sight. But what now? There’s only one thing I’ve heard about being cool. And that’s that it ain’t no piece of cake.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.