The Bitter Truth About Brie

No-one ever knocks on the door at night. In fact, no-one ever visits at night, but if they do, they’re announced by the doorman, portero in Colombia, whose job it is to formally announce all visitors, from the plumber to the priest. It’s a bit like the way young girls were announced at London debutante balls in the 1920s, albeit with fewer feathers.

“Are you expecting anyone?” my boyfriend asked, puzzled. He opened the door and there stood the doorman.

“Bless him, I’d forgotten about that,” he said, as he returned to the kitchen. We were propped up at the side, eating brie and chorizo with hunks of bread, exhausted, barely speaking, both of us in pyjamas.

“I lent him 20,000 pesos a few weeks ago,” he said.

“He asked for 50,000 but the last time I lent a portero 50,000 he quit his job and we never saw him again.

“I had 50,000 in my pocket I could have lent to that guy, but we do actually need our porteros, so I thought it was best to only give him 20,000.”

Poor portero, I thought. Coming to our door to return the money, while we sat in our pyjamas, eating brie and chorizo on a nondescript day, in the middle of the week. I’d bought the food on my way home from work. I couldn’t even remember how much I’d paid for it. Our portero is a family man on the minimum wage. He went home freezing, on a cold public bus.

We did the maths. Our food had cost 35,000 pesos, we estimated. That’s around $13.80 or nine English pounds. It’s a full day’s wages for our portero who’d been forced to borrow even less – perhaps $7.85 or £5.

A few weeks earlier, I was walking down the street in brilliant sunshine, drinking the last mouthful from a fancy bottle of sparkling water from Bogotá’s most expensive bakery. I couldn’t take another drop of coffee that day, so I’d ordered the water even though it cost more than your average glass of wine.

“Can I have that?” a homeless man asked.

I drank the mouthful that was on my lips anyway and handed him the empty bottle.

“That’s no good,” he laughed. “You’ve drunk it.”

I looked at the man as though he were an idiot.

“Take it to a restaurant and ask them to fill it up for you,” I said.

“Oh, right,” he answered, surprised.

“And then, when you’ve got a bottle of water to get you through the day, you need to find the nearest person who is mopping with a bucket and ask them if they’ll fill that up for you, so you can at least have a wash,” I thought.

“Once you’ve got the necessities covered, you need to get into the property game and you need to move fast. We’re having a bit of a boom in your sector Sir, and if you’re not careful, all the best bridges will be taken.

“But seriously, if you need to take all that advice from me, you’re probably not going to last long in this town anyway.”

And then I forgot all about him until the portero knocked on the door.

Then, of course, I cried because the shitness of it all is a million times worse when you realise you’d forgotten, perhaps for as long as a year, exactly how shit it all is. That some people eat brie and others freeze on buses and it will always be like the only words in literature I’ve ever committed to memory, the words of Oscar Wilde, who said: “So the Swallow flew over the great city, and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates.” And then I cried my guilt into my brie.

“You see?” my boyfriend said, leaning over to hug me in a manoeuvre that brought him suspiciously closer to the remains of the cheese.

“That’s why I always, always make sure we eat all our food.”

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


  1. Ric

    It’s complex, isn’t it? And even if you wanted, you couldn’t feed everyone in the world or even in the city of Bogotá. But you can live consciously, mindfully, and share when you can.

  2. alittlecameo

    It is so strange to get a random knock on the door. When our neighbour 2 doors down wants to borrow a bike or vice versa, she and Edwin both go downstairs to the reception desk to phone up from there. I’ve always found it bizarre but it is probably related to a heightened sense of security and effusive politeness. (although in Santa Marta I found the usual approach is to grip the neighbour’s fence and call out to them, although most neighbourly conversations happen between the gaps in the high wire in the street and never include inviting in your neighbour).

    I was so pleased when D decided he would give away his old bike (with busted but fixable gears) to our new portero who had asked to buy it for his son as he had promised his son a new bike for Christmas but couldn’t afford it.

    I’m reminded of a comment from yesterday’s TEDx Bogota Mujeres event where we fill our homes with stuff that supposedly demonstrates what we have, but that’s only the material things and not the human spirit, kindness or love that is the most important.

  3. Ceri

    That’s unfortunately life and it’s always been something I can’t forget.

    I grew up working class and I remember how my parents struggled. This is the first job I’ve ever had where I’m actually able to afford things and put away savings. I live in a poor rural town full of shanty houses though and can see how desperate people around me are and how much privilege my job affords me. It’s weird though. Even now that I have money there’re still so many things that I can’t bring myself to do or feel alien and strange to me. I’ve been invited on skiing holidays, asked to stay in 5* hotels – Just random things like that that make me feel like a class traitor if I were to go ahead and do them.

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