You might think that when I moved to South America four years ago, I received some sound advice. Advice about ducking and diving perhaps, or succeeding and surviving – the sort of advice that might prepare you for the ever-shifting sands of a continent that seems to be writing its history twice as fast as anywhere else.
Nothing of the sort.
“Watch out for the Sundays,” they said. “It’s the Sundays that’ll get you in the end.”
Bogotá is a strange city, a sort of over-sized sponge that has spent decades absorbing other people’s problems. That’s the reason most of us here are adopted. It’s not for nothing they call our town “la cuna de pocos, la casa de todos,” (cradle to few, home to many) and let me tell you, it’s we sheltering Bogotanos who feel those Sundays the most. They’re near impossible to avoid.
Of course it was Bogotá’s most famous adopted son who put it best:
“On Sunday afternoons my most fruitful diversion was riding on the streetcars that for five centavos travelled without stopping from La Plaza de Bolivar to Avenida Chile and where I spent those adolescent afternoons that seemed to trail behind them an endless train of many other lost Sundays,” he wrote.
“The only thing I did during that journey in vicious circles was to read books of poetry, perhaps a city block for each block of verse until the first lights were turned on in the perpetual rain. Then I made the rounds of the taciturn cafes in the old neighbourhoods in search of someone who would have the charity to talk to me about the poems I had just read and we would stay until after midnight, smoking and talking about poetry while, in the rest of the world, all of humanity was making love.”
He wrote later: “At times I find among old papers a few of the photos taken of us by street photographers in the atrium of the Church of San Francisco and I cannot repress a roar of compassion, because they do not seem like pictures of us but of our children, in a city of closed doors where nothing was easy, least of all surviving Sunday afternoons without love.”
And so the maestro rode his generation’s equivalent of the TransMilenio, almost 70 years ago, to escape the tentacled, isolating grip of the average Bogotá Sunday and it won’t surprise you to learn that nothing has really changed.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked a friend once, after a lazy Sunday lunch.
“I think I’m going to take the bus somewhere,” she said. “I’ll just see where it goes.”
“Really?” I said, pleased to have a friend capable of weirder, more solitary behaviour than me.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll have a look out of the window. Anything to avoid the suicide hour.”
That’s a real thing, that suicide hour. There are some statistics or other that show people are more likely to shuffle themselves off the mortal coil at 4.15pm on a Sunday.
Which means it’s time for a confession. Those deserted, eerily silent, ever-so-slightly ominous afternoons we suffer at least once a week here don’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, Sunday is probably my favourite day of the week.
I remember Sunday afternoons in England, late in my newspaper career when I’d begun to feel the weight of that hovering blankness, whether I was making the long drive home or staring at the television from the safety of my sofa. Once I called my father, who worked at the same bank from the age they started paying him to calculate stuff until the day he retired.
“Oh that,” he said, with conviction. “Everyone who works gets the Sunday feeling. It’s just part of life.”
Not for me it isn’t. At least, not the me who lives in Bogotá, Colombia, a city of infinite possibility somewhere in the mountains in South America. Sunday is the only day we get to stop. In fact, Sunday is a day of knowing what it’s not. It’s not fighting our way onto transmi, it’s not touting our wares in the street, not wheeling, not dealing, not surging relentlessly forward, not scheming, not inventing, not plotting, not creating. Just not, for once. N-O-T.
My boyfriend and the maestro have plenty in common if you consider he’s also a costeño-adopted-cachaco, who arrived in the capital very young and very alone. In fact he’s spent 20 years surviving this town with little in the way of Sunday family support.
“What do you do on Sundays?” he asked me once, on a Sunday morning.
“On Sundays I like to order pizza for lunch, eat it in bed and watch a film,” I said. “And on a really good Sunday I manage two films and have enough pizza left over for dinner.”
“Do you know something?” he said, visibly trying to digest the complexity of that agenda.
“Before I met you Sunday was the worst day of the week. Now it’s my favourite.”
“Obviously my love,” I said, trying not to roll my eyes while I wondered where I’d hidden the pizza menu.
“Don’t you know it’s the Sundays that get you in the end?”
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.