Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #2: Giving Unsolicited (Beauty) Advice

“Your hair looked better yesterday.”

“You should wear red more often.”

“That dress makes you look skinny.”

“Why don’t you send your resume to that [university/publication/school/business even though it’s totally unrelated to your skill set or current job]?”

“You don’t have a Colombian boyfriend? You should have a Colombian boyfriend.”

“Have you gained weight? It looks like you’ve gained weight.”

One thing I’ve noticed over the last year and a half is a particularly large cultural difference between here and home in terms of the focus on appearance, and the corollary social acceptability of making comments based on that appearance. And not just from your mother or grandmother, which might be expected. No, this is co-workers, students, friends of friends, the apartment doorman, people sitting next to you on the bus. Friends of mine here are often surprised when I explain to them that, in the U.S., telling someone — especially someone you don’t know — that their hair looks messy or their clothing is unflattering is generally considered, well, rude. Here, it’s a public service. But wouldn’t you want to know?

And yes, okay, I understand that logic when it comes to spinach between your teeth or leggings that become upsettingly see-through in sunlight, but we Americans do seem to draw the line pretty quickly as far as commenting on physical appearance is concerned. Compliments are allowed, but anything that remotely resembles a critique is best kept quiet. Most of us have, at some point, been the target of a well-timed maternal “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

This isn’t to say that Colombians are rude — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. They tend to be much more complimentary about pretty much everything, pretty much all the time. Last year will undoubtedly be the high point in my life of being told that I’m beautiful, as it happened at least once every day. The thing is, though, most Colombians say “You look/are beautiful” like the rest of us say “How are you?” which does somewhat take away from the significance of the sentiment.

Disregarding overuse of complimentary adjectives, though, the fact is that things that are interpreted as rude, insulting or invasive by Americans are just normal here. It’s not an insult if it’s true, right? And why wouldn’t you want to know your hair looked better yesterday, so you can do it like that again? In a weird way, I do understand this logic — it comes from a place of wanting to be helpful, not cruel, even if that help does come out sounding like something that would be best left unsaid. Still, as someone who doesn’t pay much attention to my appearance beyond what earrings I’m wearing (always the most important decision of the day), it’s been strange adjusting to people feeling like they have the right to comment on how I look.

I think it’s partially tied to the whole American complex of independence: I can dress however the hell I want, goddammit, and you don’t get to say anything about it. I definitely grew up with a bit of this attitude, and it hasn’t gone away yet, nor do I want it to. But on top of that, I also have more than a bit of a strong feminist reaction to it — while telling people how they look and how they should look is liberally applied to all genders here, it’s far more often directed at women. This is linked to all sorts of other underlying factors about beauty standards and how women are judged here, but there does seem to be a general sentiment that this advice is more “useful” for women. Because we care more, or because our bodies are public property for commenting, or for a whole range of other reasons which I’m sure would make for a great master’s thesis. On a personal level, though, it’s mostly just annoying. Anyone who’s met me knows I’m not exactly the type who enjoys being told what to do, unless it’s coming from a really good editor, and I’m certainly not in the habit of taking advice from any grown adult who thinks that sparkly pink t-shirts designed for teenagers or leopard-print pants are an appropriate fashion choice.

Then again, this objection is probably why I don’t have a Colombian boyfriend. Which, as far as everyone is concerned, is almost certainly for the best.

 

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#3. Aguardiente

#4. Agua de Panela

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Advertisements

Boston, You’re My Home

You can't tell how cold it is just from looking.

You can’t tell how cold it is just from looking.

Things happened last year. Lots of things. Terrible things.

A bomb went off in a crowded intersection here in Bogotá, killing two people and wounding almost 40, including its intended target, a former minister in the Colombian government. We found out about it at school, late in the morning. Teachers began scrambling for their phones, calling loved ones, making sure everyone was okay. I didn’t have anyone to call, but I still thought of all the people there. I knew that intersection well. I know it even better now — it’s my TransMilenio station, fifteen minutes from my apartment. I walk through there several times each week. I never think about bombs.

In July, a deeply troubled young man with too-easy access to weapons turned a Colorado movie theater into a combat zone. One of our volunteers, one of my close friends here, was from Colorado. From Denver. Her then-boyfriend’s parents live in Aurora. It could’ve been them.

In December, while I was spending a few days in my favorite town, another deeply troubled young man with too-easy access to weapons killed 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school. I saw the news while making breakfast in the kitchen of my hostel. I didn’t believe it. It couldn’t have happened. But it did happen. Having just spent the year working in a school, Newtown devastated me. I was so overwhelmed by the whole thing that it took me a week just to figure out how to cry about it. One of my closest friends here is from Connecticut. It could’ve been her family. It could’ve been someone she knew.

Those things happened. They touched me in various ways, either through people I knew, my own experiences or just the part of my humanity that gives a shit about other people. We always think we know how to deal with things. We think we learn. And then things prove us wrong.

On Monday, April 15th, Patriots Day, Marathon Monday, two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Boylston Street, right there, was packed with people eight deep — there to cheer on their loved ones, to support people raising thousands of dollars for cancer research, or just to watch some of the world’s top athletes do what they do best.

Plenty of other people have written about this, some very eloquently, but it bears repeating. Patriots Day is a special, unique day in Boston. I’ve been watching small-town Patriots Day parades, the early Red Sox game and the Marathon results since I can remember. Almost everyone has the day off from work. Nobody goes to school, hardly anyone to the office. Even the Sox get to leave work early. It somehow usually manages to be sunny, college students treat it as just another opportunity for day drinking, and thousands of people line the streets from Hopkinton to Copley to watch their friends, family and loved ones run. People train for years and travel across continents to run the Boston Marathon. Even people who don’t like sports like Marathon Monday. It’s an event, a spectacle, a day to revel in the freedom that our city stands for (and, yes, the freedom from a 9-to-5 day, too) and just enjoy people being good at something they care about.

This time, it wasn’t the parents of a friend’s ex-boyfriend near the location. This wasn’t a transportation station I know, or a state I’ve driven through. This was my city. These were my streets. I’ve walked down that street hundreds of times, stood in almost that exact spot to watch the Bruins victory parade, sat in the square trying to tan during my too-short lunch hour. I know hundreds of people who were near there on Monday. I know people running in the marathon. I know journalists covering the marathon. I know people who work in office buildings nearby, or live a few streets away. Because Boston is the size of a postage stamp, my parents live only five miles away; my brother, probably less than two. I know those streets. I know those stores. In the background of the video footage of the explosion are places I’ve shopped, places I’ve bought coffee, benches where I’ve sat. These are my streets. These are my friends. This is my city. Since the September afternoon almost 25 years ago when I first opened my eyes in Beth Israel Hospital in the middle of Boston, this has been my city. This will always be my city.

These bombings are not just some senseless act of violence. This is personal.

In the minutes and hours and day following this horrific event, I saw and heard voices from all over telling us to have some perspective. To think about others. To remember that the streets of Chicago are choked with the bodies of murdered young people abandoned by the systems that are supposed to protect them. To think about how events like this are a reality of daily life for people in Israel, or Pakistan, or Iraq. To weigh it against the US bombing, that very day, of a wedding party in Afghanistan, which killed dozens.

To which I say: yes. Yes, these things happen, too. Yes, these things are terrible, too. Yes, we deserve to give these equal weight, and our country needs to have a very serious conversation about why we value the lives and deaths of some people more than others. This is valid. But on Monday, April 15th, it wasn’t. Not for me. My smart, liberal, caring friends, who are deeply concerned with the ills of the world — I wanted to grab them and scream at them.

Because they saw that news alert and thought, oh, how awful. They didn’t see it and immediately wonder where their only brother was that day. Their minds didn’t start racing down the list of people running the marathon; their high school friends who had biked the whole marathon route in the middle of the night before; their former co-workers who were standing on the finish line; their father who, years earlier, might have been standing on that line as well. They didn’t grow up with “Yankees Suck!” as a mantra, spend teenage afternoons hanging out doing nothing in the grungy Harvard Square Pit, know every T stop between Alewife and Ashmont by heart. This isn’t their life. It’s easy to call for rationality when it isn’t your family or friends who might be lying in a hospital bed. It’s easy to watch like a movie when you’ve never eaten at the restaurant that is now a pile of broken pieces of metal and bodies. It’s easy to cast it against the world’s other ills when it doesn’t feel like someone just walked up to you, looked you directly in the eyes and then punched you right in the face. It’s easy to tell other people how they should feel. It doesn’t mean they should always listen.

And no, I don’t personally know any of the victims (as far as I know, yet), but that’s just a matter of pure, stupid luck. And, in a way, I do know them, because everyone in this tiny city, where half the population has allegedly met the mayor, everyone knows one another somehow. One of the three people killed, a little boy from Dorchester whose father had just finished the race, was 8 years old. He could have been one of my kids when I worked at a summer camp in his neighborhood in 2011. Another, a young woman who loved to watch triumphant runners cross the finish line, lived in my hometown of Arlington. She worked at a restaurant half a mile from my house. The third was a graduate student from China studying at Boston University, where my brother spent four years and my father still teaches. I don’t know these people, but I know who they are. More than 170 other people are in local hospitals, many with fewer limbs than they had on Monday morning — thank whatever higher power you believe in that we have the best medical facilities in the world, and amazing people who could respond to this disaster as well as anyone could hope. But still. There’s no reason they’re lying in Boston Medical Center or Mass General or Children’s Hospital, no reason there are still pieces of them lying in front of the Forum restaurant, no reason they will never run the same way again.

But there are other things, too, and these are things that go beyond your politics or stereotypes or what you think you know from the movies. These are the things we mean when we talk about driving away the darkness. Again, people have pointed these things out, but they bear repeating. When (or if) you watch the video of the explosions, wait until just after everything shakes, and then look. You’ll see people — cops, firefighters, medical teams, and just ordinary people who happened to be nearby, people like Carlos Arredondo and the sergeant who saved a young woman named Victoria — running, not away from, but toward the site of the explosion. There’s not even time to think — it’s just an instinct. You see these people tearing away barricades, clearing those uninjured from the scene, lifting people onto stretchers, motioning first responders over. You see two young men in military uniforms spring instantly into action, ripping away dividers to reach injured people. You see police officers remaining calm, directing others to safety. You see doctors and medical professionals who just finished the race immediately turn to help others, ignoring their own exhaustion and failing muscles. You see people allowing the best of themselves to come through in the worst of situations. You see what I see when I think about my city.

Boston is far from perfect. We have a long history of vicious and institutional racism, segregated neighborhoods, deep class divides, religious discrimination, belief systems that tend to lag behind our more progressive government policies, and a less-than-welcoming attitude toward outsiders. We have a reputation for being one of the less-friendly cities in America, to put it kindly. We’re always in a hurry. Our streets make no sense, people’s directions aren’t any more helpful, and where you went to school is often the ultimate test of your value as a human being. These things are true, and they are significant, but there are other things that are true, too. People in Boston believe strongly — sometimes too strongly — in the values we hold dear: independence, free speech, solidarity, the right to our opinions, the importance of family (both by birth and by choice) and the indisputable fact that the Yankees do, and always will, suck. We are fiercely loyal, and ferociously protective of the things we deem deserving of protection. We are convinced that our city is the center of the universe because we really believe it can be — the potential is there.

Platitudes come fast and easy after an event like this. President Obama is from Chicago (the other American city I consider something close to home). He didn’t grow up in Boston. He doesn’t know Boston (because this is what we do — if you’re not from here, you never will be). He doesn’t know just how true it is when he says that we are a resilient city. We are beyond resilient. We are unbreakable.

I have a necklace I received as a Christmas gift just before I moved to Colombia. It’s one of those popular Etsy ones, a sterling silver pendant in the shape of Massachusetts, with a heart cutout right where the city of Boston goes. I’ve worn it every day since I arrived here, to remind myself where I come from, who I am. Because no matter where I move across the globe, there’s a piece of my heart and my identity that will always be there, perched on the waterfront, looking at the lights.

And I’m not alone. We are a small city, but we contain multitudes. And we are too many, and too stubborn, to ever knock down.

Guess Who’s Back for Round Two?

¿Qué más, friends and lovers?

Yes, so I’m back in Bogotá, if the Spanish wasn’t a clue. I’ve actually been back for almost a month now, occupied with moving into the new place, job-hunting, figuring out the closest place to buy avocados (2 blocks away) and beer (3 or 5 blocks away, depending on price point), dealing with floor remodeling, playing with our kitten and so on. It’s been a busy month, as moving time tends to be, but I’ve still had time to be overwhelmingly gleeful about my return.

Sure, moving to a foreign country with the intention of working as a freelance something-or-other is not exactly the wisest move when it comes to job security (or health insurance, for that matter — miss you, Obamacare!), but it’s a pretty wise move as far as my happiness level is concerned. The proverbial “they” keep coming up with these studies showing Colombia is one of the world’s happiest countries, and whether or not those studies include misplaced gringas, they’re on to something. I can’t help but feel overjoyed to be back here, even when I’m sweating on a packed bus stressing out about being late for a meeting (maybe a little less so then, but hey, price of admission and so on).

The wonderful Brighid — who has abandoned me for the warmer embraces of Barranquilla (more on that later) — and I were talking about honeymoon phases this week, as one is wont to do after moving to a new city. It’s almost inevitable when relocating that you go through this part of the “culture shock curve,” for lack of a better term. You know — when you’re first there, and everything is NEW and EXCITING and DIFFERENT and you just can’t stop staring at everything (and sometimes everyone). The honeymoon phase is wonderful, but it almost always ends, sometimes with an abrupt crash.

 

But what if it doesn’t? What if it never ends, or if it never happened at all? What if you’re just happy from day one, and then you just… keep being happy? Because I think that happens. I think maybe it happens more often here than in other places, like the steppes of Siberia. And I think it’s happened to me. And I couldn’t be more pleased about it.

Bogotá, todavía te quiero. It sure feels good to be back.

actually, I miss snow. but not that much snow

I’m sorry — do you guys at home have a lot of snow or something?

 

25 Reasons Why I Love Bogotá

About four months into living in another country is when one allegedly hits that first real “low” of culture shock. It takes different forms and manifests in various ways for different people, of course — I’m overall a pretty upbeat, cheerful person, so anytime I don’t feel like hugging half the city is a warning sign for me. Luckily, this is fairly uncommon, and I usually just blame my bad-mood days on the rain, PMS, a painfully crowded bus or the fact that I cannot get my sixth-graders to shut up for two minutes, for the love of god.

Personally, I have yet to really hit that all-out valley of crap feelings — and, barring some sort of traumatic event, I’m not entirely sure I ever will, at least not completely. It’s barely been five months, and I already feel so at home here, in so many ways. The difference between how I feel at five months in Bogotá (blissfully happy) and how I felt at five months during study abroad in Buenos Aires (oh my god get me on a plane I miss baseball season and walking down the street without people saying creepy shit to me more than anything in the world) is just astronomical. I know this is blasphemy and everyone loves Buenos Aires and yay you can totally function there without even really speaking Spanish and blah blah blah etc., but all I can speak for is my own experience. While I’d love to go back and visit all of the parts of Argentina I didn’t get a chance to see the first time, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to live there again. The way I feel here right now, they’ll be dragging me out of Colombia kicking and screaming in December, if I end up leaving at all.

But back to the culture shock for a minute. Last weekend I was talking with a few friends about how a lot of us volunteers — who all arrived here at the beginning of January —  are probably going through similar low points around the same time. Living abroad, it’s even easier to feel isolated than it is at home; or to think you’re the only one feeling the way you are; or feeling a lot of pressure to keep up a happy facade, whether it’s for friends and family or because everyone else seems happy and you don’t want to be the only Debbie Downer of the group. This is normal, but it’s not positive. We all have bad days, but we also all have reasons why we came here, and reasons why we haven’t left yet. And those bad days are the times when it’s most important to remember those reasons.

One of my friends already wrote a very entertaining blog post about some of her favorite things in Colombia, and another excellent gringa blogger in Colombia has a really delightful list of reasons to love Bogotá. Encouraged by these ladies’ efforts, I want to toss my own hat into the ring. You can call it copying — I call it inspiration. Everyone else is talking about what they love about Colombia, and I just don’t want to be left out!

just, you know, about 40% of the time

See? It doesn’t rain ALL the time!

So, ladies and gents, in what I expect may be somewhat of a continuing series:

25 Things That Make Me Never Want To Leave Bogotá

1. No matter where I am in the city, I can see mountains. It is impossible to overstate how beneficial this is to my mental and emotional health.

2. It is totally socially acceptable for adults to walk around eating all kinds of sugary treats.

3. People stop to help other people change their flat tires. In the middle of the street. At 11:30 at night.

4. Crepes & Waffles. Oh my god, Crepes & Waffles.

5. At most tiendas (and grocery stores), a beer costs about US$1.

6. Random people at bars will buy you a beer, invite you to join them at their table and talk to you like they’ve known you for years.

7. Everyone has a finca outside the city. And they all want you to visit. You could spend months just finca-hopping every weekend.

8. Walks of shame do not visibly exist here (or are at least extremely covert), because tons of women are normally walking around in dresses and heels on weekend mornings.

9. People drink hot chocolate at breakfast and dinner.

10. Colombians will invite you to their birthday parties after knowing you for exactly two hours — or to their weddings after two months.

11. You can buy a cup of strong, dark coffee on pretty much any street corner in the city, for about 25 cents.

12. Also lollipops, if you’re into that.

13. When the guy at my favorite local bakery calls me “amor,” it actually does make me feel just a little more loved.

14. There are dogs everywhere. Everywhere. And they are beautiful.

15. Passengers on crowded buses will happily pass bus fare and change back and forth between fellow passengers and the driver.

16. The cops posted at every TransMilenio station are basically unofficial travel agents in flourescent jackets. The only things I’ve ever seen them do are text, give people directions and occasionally ask random people for identification if they’re feeling especially bored.

17. People keep their horses in the strangest, most surprising places. Like the field next to the Éxito on my walk home from school. Or their back yards.

18. Eggs are fresh, delicious, cheap and probably came from the chicken strolling down the sidewalk outside the store.

19. Reading is considered a worthwhile and normal use of personal time.

20. They have beer towers in more than a few bars. I missed you, college.

21. If you’re an hour late arriving somewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to blame it on the traffic, even if it’s not true. Everyone will understand.

22. Sundays are exactly the way Sundays should be: lazy, quiet, with empty offices and full bike paths and cafés. You can even get away with walking around in sweatpants on Sundays.

23. There is some sort of holiday almost every week. Most of them are celebrated on multiple days, and they often involve presents.

24. For some reason, stilts are really popular here. At almost any kind of large public event, there are guaranteed to be people on stilts. I think I’ve seen more stilts in my five months here than the rest of my life prior to this year.

25. Teenagers are not too embarrassed to be seen in public with their parents. Sometimes they even hug them.

#26: Chocolate-covered strawberries. They have stores specifically for these treats. I’m never leaving.

Food Friday: Coffee, Ambrosia of the Gods (in Tiny Styrofoam Cups)

Forget the fruit: I’m really a terrible Colombia blogger because of the coffee. Or rather, the failure to discuss coffee at least four times already. After cocaine and Sofia Vergara, coffee is probably the only thing most people around the world associate with Colombia, and yet here I am, twiddling my thumbs and talking all about (admittedly delicious and worthy of mention) buttered corn on the cob and pastries instead. Oddly enough, Colombia actually exports the vast majority of its coffee, so the stuff we drink here isn’t as high-quality as the beans you can buy in some fancy shop in New York, for example. Still, it’s pretty hard to find a genuinely bad cup of coffee around here, so I’ve got no complaints.

except they don't give you lids. WHY.

This was my very first cappuccino in Colombia, at a cozy Oma in Candelaria. An auspicious and tasty beginning to the year, for sure.

But I digress. To the coffee! For the record, I am slightly biased on this subject, as I’m essentially incapable of human speech, in either Spanish or English, before I’ve had my coffee in the morning. One of the first things I did upon arriving here was to warn my co-workers about this, and luckily, because Colombia is nothing if not a coffee culture, they’re pleasantly understanding about it. My students have yet to grasp why I just blink at them if they speak to me before about 8 a.m., but they’ll understand someday.

Coffee culture here doesn’t meant the same thing, though, that it does in Rome, or Istanbul, or Seattle. There are several near-ubiquitous chain coffee shops (I’ll get to those in a minute), but one can also find tiny, double-shot cups of strong black coffee (tinto) sold from carts or backpacks on nearly every street corner, from morning until well past dark. People don’t linger over frappuccinos in comfy chairs here — rather, they stand around the carts, chatting and taking small sips of steaming black liquid. Drinking coffee, like so many other actions here, is more of a social occasion than it is at home — you’re almost obligated to speak to someone else at some point, which is nice on the one hand, but, as I’ve mentioned, tends to be a bit of a challenge for me. My school alone has at least two different places to get coffee, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility of more that I haven’t discovered yet. Naturally, I frequent both of them at least once a day — more often, if I have class with seventh-graders in the morning.

I often consider ordering more coffee just to get more cookies

Oh, did I mention that they give you tiny cute cookies with your coffee? Because sometimes they give you tiny cute cookies with your coffee.

Of course, since Colombia is a modern country and all, carts, cafeterias and random dudes aren’t the only place to satisfy a caffeine craving. Pretty much any restaurant, bakery or bar worth its potable tap water offers a small variety of coffee drinks, though obviously the quality varies. There are two major national coffee chains: the Greek-sounding Oma and the somewhat more renowned Juan Valdez. For reasons I cannot fathom, both companies chose practically the same dark red shade as their main brand color, which makes them rather hard to distinguish from a distance. Luckily, this isn’t much of a problem, since there’s at least one of each roughly every two blocks in most busy neighborhoods. Both places offer your Starbucks-style range of drinks, from basic Americanos to fancy blended frozen arequipe-flavored concoctions (which I will never try, given my ironclad opposition to cold coffee beverages. But they look nice!), and some tasty pastries. The one thing they don’t give out freely are lids for the coffee cups — you have to ask them for a lid when you pick up your drink, or you’ll be spending the whole walk trying not to spill steamed milk all over your shirt. As a clumsy person, I am still not used to this. Juan Valdez are also rockstars at branding, and sell everything from coffee presses to T-shirts at their stores. Oddly enough, their clothes and bags are are actually fairly popular here — can you imagine people walking around downtown Philly in Peet’s t-shirts? I guess Colombians just love their Juan so much they have to wear it on their sleeves.

(Sorry. That was a really terrible joke. I’ve obviously been speaking Spanish so much lately that I’m forgetting how to be funny in English.)