Some months ago I went to visit a Colombian friend who now lives in another country and that’s the sort of trip I like to make because it means comparing notes on how it feels to be a foreigner. My friend has just two issues with his new country.
The first is that some of the women, and a few of the men, have mistaken his Colombian friendliness/ politeness/ enthusiasm (call it what you will) with inappropriate flirtation and that has caused him some awkwardness. The second is the fact the good citizens of his adopted home never, ever answer the phone.
You make think those two issues are connected, I certainly did, but he assured me that the former was only a problem on a few occasions. One woman in particular had accused him of outright flirtation and, as he told me the story, he looked at me with pain in his eyes and said, “Vicki, you should see this woman, I would never, ever have flirted with her, I was just being polite, I promise,” which was amusing if only for its earnestness and the fear with which he is now wondering who else he has propositioned.
The second is more of a puzzle. My friend has made several new friends and, as old-fashioned friends do, they call one another to organise social gatherings. Except sometimes, when my friend calls, they do not answer the phone. At first my friend thought he was being snubbed but he gradually came to realise that when his new friends were hanging out with him they were also ignoring their calls. Several abandoned their phones altogether. Rather than finding this a pleasurable throwback to a more civilised time, my friend is incensed. How rude are these people, he asked me, to be ignoring their phone calls?
When I first arrived in Colombia I had few friends and a lot of time, so I visited beauty salons. There I made friends, practised my Spanish and learned how to look after my nails. I was also given the inside track on the lives of women who helped me understand one of the many sides to modern Colombia. The only thing that irritated me about those hours of idleness was the fact the girls always prioritised their phones above their customers. I soon came to accept these interruptions because I assumed the callers were either potential customers, or the girls themselves couldn’t afford a missed call. Not once though, did they apologise for answering, even at the most inopportune moments.
I’ve lived away from England for some time now, so I have to be careful when I make comparisons with my home country. I’ve reached that stage of nostalgia that Marcel Proust described when he said, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” My England, on the good side, is high tea and Downton Abbey, sincerity and punctuality and a big dollop of decency. On the bad side, it’s scummy newspapers, and grumbling, and the fun planned out of life before it’s even begun. I’m not sure anything I say about England is accurate any more.
But I do remember, last summer, that I went to visit my old optician. In the middle of her examining the back of one of my eyeballs, her phone uttered the tiniest of tiny beeps. She shot backwards in horror. “I am so sorry,” she said, “I thought it was on silent.” It wasn’t a problem and I said so. I even suggested that she check her messages. She continued to look horrified. “Are you joking?” she said, “It shouldn’t have made a sound at all,” and then she took the offending phone and shoved it under some papers in her bottom drawer.
I am one of those people who ignores their phone. I find phones intrusive. I got so tired of my phone ringing at the wrong moment that I now keep it on silent and call back when I can. If the other person doesn’t answer, I assume they feel the same way.
When I am with the people whose calls I ignore, I want to hear what they say. I want to listen for the nuances and the sub-texts and collect their thoughts, moans, dreams, complaints, wishes and observations so I can see the patterns that I’ll probably end up writing about later. I can’t think of anything worse than my phone ringing and ruining our precious conversation. Isn’t that why they invented WhatsApp?
Now that I consider it, I am sure I have lost friends over this and Colombian friends they would have been, friends like my friend who considered it the height of rudeness that I never answered their calls. Unlike my friend, they failed to notice that I ignored calls in their presence too. Of course there are some calls you have to answer, but it doesn’t hurt to say, “I’m so sorry, I have to take this,” or “Please excuse me, I’ll be right back,” because there’s nothing worse than sharing your one-sided conversation with the rest of the world either. Unfortunately not everyone has taken note of this, but that’s the whole point of talking on the phone. You get to ignore the people around you.
I told my friend not to worry about his excess of charm. Those foreign weirdos will soon learn the difference between sleazy and sincere, I said, understand that he is friendly and not flirtatious, but I couldn’t help on the phone calls. I sometimes hope if that we ignore the social insistence that we are always available, it may just go away.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.