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[Listen to an audio version of this blog entry here.]
Getting used to the cultural quirks of one’s adopted land can take some time. Indeed, there are certain mores that the outsider may never fully understand or accept.
From a Colombian perspective, this blog has looked at some of these over the years.
Always someone else’s fault
For example, there’s the pestiferous fear-of-the-hot-seat syndrome, something, mercifully, I rarely see these days as I seldom take public transport in Bogotá (it’s at its most prevalent on urban buses).
Then there’s, let’s just call it the very relaxed attitude to customer service. It could be said that in places where one would expect this to be front and centre, it’s actually at its worst. Add in some customers’ inability to respect queues and one can regularly expect an infuriating experience when shopping and suchlike.
Another worthy mention is the verbal politeness, an overall (superficial) formality that is then often betrayed by actions that are anything but polite or praiseworthy. Just say the magic phrase ‘que pena con usted’ and all shall be fine. And one must never accept personal responsibility for an error, misjudgement or whatever. It’s always somebody else’s fault.
‘I have a fair idea of what might “offend” the locals but this doesn’t mean I’ve learnt to simply sigh and accept it.’
Linked to the previous is the refusal to engage with anyone who gets angry when something isn’t done as promised or a paid-for service fails to meet the stipulated standards. Reacting with rage to injustices, even if they may be of a serious nature and this is obvious to all, is a no-no in Colombia. A significant no-no.
It’s those who can keep calm, stay level-headed and even make a joke out of the situation who tend to get their issue resolved more quickly than the hotheads. Alas, I’m a rather slow learner on this one.
While the above refers to Colombian traits that outsiders from certain countries may find inane, irritating or outright infuriating, there is, of course, the flip side to this. There are things that some foreigners do that vex the Colombians.
For one, there is that aforementioned tendency for some of us to get angry when we’ve been wronged or at least feel we’ve been wronged.
It is, however, aghast reactions to what I consider harmless, victimless practices that baffle me. OK, after eleven years in the country I have a fair idea of what might “offend” the locals but this doesn’t mean I’ve learnt to simply sigh and accept it. No, not when no logical reason can be given as to why certain acts are deemed as attacks against Colombians’ well-being.
No doubt, though, most locals reading the following will agree that the practice in question is a philistine one and worthy of a sanction.
Here goes. I currently live in shared accommodation in an apartment complex, one which is managed by administrators — administrators who often double up as dictators from what I’ve experienced. They’ll say, of course, that they’re just enforcing agreed-upon protocols.
‘The four horsemen will be galloping through the apartment complex next.’
The violation that my now former housemate committed was to place his recently washed shoes on the window sill, in view of not just the passing public — who, I wager, couldn’t really care about it — but also fellow residents. Goodness me! Declare martial law! (By the way, my South American housemate’s departure had nothing to do with the offence, he was leaving in any case. In fact, he had already left by the time written notification of his misdemeanour was delivered.)
Such effrontery to Colombian etiquette has resulted in a fine, which the non-resident landlady will have to pay, I hasten to add. I’ll do time before paying a penalty for something I didn’t do.
Now, that this is viewed as an offence according to the administration is down to, I assume, the adverse effect of such a display, aesthetically speaking. In other words, visual pollution. Colombia does indeed have statutes for this. It doesn’t appear, however, that placing items of clothing in one’s window is prohibited.
One could understand the aversion to this a little more if we were talking about an exceptionally well-kept area. But we’re not.
Yet, even if it was one of the finest neighbourhoods in Bogotá, punishing a resident for airing his shoes on the window sill is ridiculous as far as I’m concerned.
Are people actually mentally hurt by such an act? If they are, I think the bigger problem is with them.
‘If it’s working, break it’
I would argue that noise pollution is a far greater offence, one that can cause both mental and physical damage to many people simultaneously.
I’m not sure, though, if my neighbours get hit with fines when they play music loudly. Or how about when those who live on the floor above me appear to be trying to come through my roof, a racket that raises my ire. My guess is that this goes unpunished.
Yet, inanimate objects drying in one’s window? The four horsemen will be galloping through the apartment complex next.
Taking this further, surely I would be within my rights to demand the removal of curtains or the like that I find unsightly, wouldn’t I? Indeed, in an apartment complex in which I lived previously, I was given a verbal warning for drying my clothes on the curtain rail of my bedroom window. The rule was that residents could only air clothes at their laundry-area window.
Some will say it’s a weak defence to argue that of all the things wrong in Colombia, demanding retribution for clothes or shoes drying out a window is far from the most pressing concern. The counterargument for the zero-tolerance approach is the idea, akin to the broken windows theory, that it’s a display of decadence and must be corrected.
Really? Drying clothes at a window is a symbol of moral decay?
I think it’s more a sign of many Colombians’ inability to tackle the real issues afflicting this country. They get a sense of satisfaction about “fixing” things that aren’t broken whilst they neglect to deal with the practices that are truly damaging society.