I was once asked out on a date by a guy who was half-Argentinian. I mean, he said his mother was from Argentina and he had that lovely slurring “juh” accent all Argentines have, except when I mentioned this to a good, Colombian, friend of mine he said, “Darling, you do realise that guy’s more Bucaramanga than he is Buenos Aires?”
I obviously looked a bit confused, so he followed that up more gently with, “What I mean to say is… his accent is fake.”
And it turned out that, as usual, I was the last person to know, or suspect, that things were not quite what they seemed.
The same friend tried to make me feel a little better.
“I knew a girl at university who said she was Mexican,” he said.
“She spoke with a Mexican accent for two years until one day, someone realised she wasn’t Mexican so she went back to speaking normally.”
“But where was she from?” I persisted.
“Colombia,” he said and that was that.
I became fascinated by these non-“non-Colombians” because, it turns out, there are quite a few of them. In fact, I’ve discussed this subject often, with various friends and the conclusion is always the same: I may be a writer by profession, but that doesn’t always mean I understand people and I’ve certainly struggled to understand this.
I mean, I find lying difficult and I find long-term charades near impossible. I do know foreigners, here in Colombia, who pretend to be from more glamorous parts of their own country than they really are and I probably do that too. “London,” is easier for me to say than: “I come from a town one hour south of London, that’s really a million miles away from it,” although I have to say, I always feel a bit fraudulent and, if pressed, tell them I’m a bit more Kent than Kensington and, if really pressed, offer them a Colombian town – one hour outside Bogotá – that makes for an-easy-to-understand comparison.
Perhaps I’m unusual. Who doesn’t love Holly Golightly, Audrey Hepburn’s timeless invoking of Truman Capote’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Yet who remembers she’s really Lula Mae Barnes from Texas? Everyone knows, but nobody cares. As OJ Berman says of Holly, “She is a phony but… she isn’t a phony because she believes all this crap she believes…My guess, nobody’ll ever know where she came from. She’s such a goddam liar, maybe she don’t know herself any more.” And that’s Holly, Holly. I told you four lines ago and I bet you still can’t remember she’s really Lula Mae.
And Holly – who when asked at her own party, “Who are all these people anyhow?” replies, “I don’t know, word gets around,” – reminds me of Jay Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald’s hero who, yeah, wasn’t Jay Gatsby at all, but James Gatz from North Dakota. I have loved books ever since I could read them and yet, I’m still surprised by all of this?
I asked my boyfriend, who is generous and kind no matter how humanity fails him, and he laughed and shrugged and said, “Well, you know what it can be like, being Colombian. I guess some people just prefer to opt out,” which seems a good enough explanation if you’ve ever tried to get through customs in Miami, on a foreign passport, on a flight from Bogotá and your memory of the “little room” involves an overweight immigration officer looking at you (advert for an anglo-saxon) and your boyfriend (costeño, costeño, costeño) and saying, “Hmmm, can you blame me for being suspicious here?” and it’s only your super-lovely, super-patient, accustomed-to-being-Colombian boyfriend who stops you drawing on the full force of your height, British accent and acidic ability to be informed, condescending and downright furious at the same time.
Except, it does have one major drawback and that’s that you begin to suspect, well, everyone.
My friend of old came to our house for tea and happened to mention a French guy we know.
“Are you sure he’s really French?” he said. “I have my doubts.”
“For God’s sake,” I said. “I’ve been to his house, he cooks amazing food, he’s snobby about wine and he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist. He couldn’t be any more French.”
“Hmmmm,” my friend said and looked down at his perfectly brewed tea, in its union flag mug.
“Hang on a second,” he said. “Are you sure you’re…”
“Don’t even go there,” I said.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.