Monday, November 29, 2004

Stop the Madness!

I died just a little bit inside when I saw that Julia Roberts had named her twin babies Hazel and Phinnaeus. Poor little Hazel is going to spend her entire childhood explaining that she is not, in fact, a 72-year-old chain smoker, while little Phinnaeus is going to be in high school before he can spell his name correctly on the first try.

But whom should we really feel sorry for? The teachers of America, because in just a few years our kindergartens and day care centers will be full of little Phinnys and Hazels, to add to the current crop of Mackenzies, Madisons, Masons, Barretts, Merrilyns, Aislynns and Jadens. Names have gotten really, really stupid, and this is from someone whose sister is named Skye. Oh, and my dad originally was going to spell my name with umlauts and a couple random consonants, until common sense (aka my mom) intervened. So I know whereof I speak.

To all you expectant parents of the world, I want you to do the following things for me when you’re thinking about baby names. If the name fails any of these tests, for the love of all that is good and holy, pick something else.

The Ten-Step Test of Baby Name Sanity:

1. Can you both spell and pronounce the name correctly on the first try?

2. Can you say, out loud, “Introducing the next President of the United States...(full name)” with a straight face?

3. Does this name remind you of anyone from Lord of the Rings? Or a mythical creature from a Dungeons & Dragons guidebook? If so, pick something else.

4. Would this name be suitable as a stage name for a porn star or exotic dancer? If so, skip it.

5. Did you pick this name out with the idea that your child would spend the his/her entire life as an infant? Names have to fit the adult, as well.

6. Are you picking out a weird name just for the sake of being weird? Some names, like Kaicie, seem like a continuation of those kids in high school who thought they were “noncomformists”, but dressed exactly like all of the rest of their supposedly weird friends. Besides, names move in cycles, and despite your better efforts Kaicie may well be Jennifer: the Next Generation. Don’t get wrapped up in picking something “unique.”

7. Does this name sound like the rich-kid villain of a teen exploitation film? I could totally see a Barrett shoving a nerd into a locker, then zooming off in an Iroc-Z to a kegger at the lake.

8. If you are choosing an “ethnic” name that is not of your own ethnicity, please do your research. Don’t inadvertently name your kid the Cherokee word for “pigeon poop.”

9. Person or disease? If it sounds more like an obscure tropical illness than an actual name, pick something else. Try saying aloud, “I’ve come down with a case of ….(name)”.

10. Finally, do your friends and relatives cringe when you mention your name idea? They may be afraid to tell you that you’re naming your child something stupid.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Conspiracy Theory!!

Have you ever wondered to yourself, "How did this crappy TV show/movie/torture device EVER get made?" There’s a reason for everything!

1. From Justin to Kelly: An American Idol Movie
Wow, this movie was bad. If you could call it a movie, or if you could call it "bad" – I’d call it atrocious. Take your pick: Beach ball choreography? Surreal subplots involving dancing waiters? A neverending boat ride where the two amateurtagonists (I wouldn’t call them PROtaganists) hum treacly ballads to one another? A dance routine to "That’s the Way I Like It"? Better yet, stilted dialogue like, "I am genetically incapable of a relationship with a woman"? Take your pick, there are literally hundreds of reasons to hate this film. So, how did it ever get made? An optimist might say it was greed, but I’ve thought of a more sinister reason.

The Culprit: College-age rock snob guys created this film as an insidious plot to get their girlfriends to stop listening to Top 40 music. I bet every 19-year-old girl who saw this film started to listen to Pink Floyd and Zeppelin in order to cleanse their brains.

2. Beverly Hills, 90210
In retrospect, this show sucked like a Hoover on steroids. The hair was always plentiful and gel-frozen. The plots were a universe of random. In the last week of episodes I’ve seen, Kelly attempted to adopt an abandoned baby (abandoned by a teenage Jessica Alba!), David walked away from his big musical break due to a payola scandal, Noah lost a $10 million lawsuit, and Donna got wacky on painkillers and stole another fashion designer’s ideas. Let’s for a moment ignore the fact that, in this show’s world, a 22-year-old is a major fashion designer. Let’s look at why this show was ever made.

The Culprit: Aaron Spelling. This entire show was designed to boost the ego of Tori Spelling. Over the course of 10 years, Donna is stalked on four separate occasions, becomes a model, beds a millionaire or two, and is told 100 times an episode by other characters that she’s beautiful and wonderful. All this for a girl who looks like Donald Duck? Yeah, I’ll put in for conspiracy.

3. "Gigli", "Paycheck", "Surviving Christmas"

Granted, I’ve never seen any of these movies. I’d really rather not make my eyeballs bleed.

The Culprit: All that is good and kind in the world, in an attempt to end the career of Ben Affleck. Right on!

4. "7th Heaven"
Ah, my old favorite. Confused plots, ridiculous moralizing, 27 people living in a parsonage, and characters mysteriously moving to "Florida" (known in the rest of the world as "rehab".)

The Culprit: The atheists. This show makes organized religion seem so uppity, condescending and awful that people who see it leave their church in droves.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Every Time You See Underpants, DRINK!

My greatest discovery in Colombia hasn’t been the food or culture, or even the people, it’s how the music videos are so awesomely awesome that I can’t tear myself away. We’ve got HTV, "Este Es Musica Latina!" Roughly translated, "We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Clothes!" Here’s an alphabetized field guide to some of my favorites:

Bisbol, David is from Spain. He has pretty, bouncy girl-curls, which he plays with often. His songs are operatic and have titles like "Desnudate Mujer" (Honest-to-God translation: "Get Naked, Woman"). He’s always overwrought about something, and his videos always feature West Side Story dance-fights in bullrings, or at the very least, plenty of nudity.

Café Tacuba are Mexican art-rockers. Expect a lot of acid references, rather than sexual ones. This makes them unique in the Latino music world.

Chayanne is Puerto Rican, and his videos can make even the happiest person in the world want to leap off a balcony. My favorite is the one where he and his daughter drive for 12 hours to visit his wife’s grave. The depressing part isn’t finding out that the wife is actually dead, but that she’s buried in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere, and doesn’t even get her name on a headstone. Chayanne’s a jerk of a pseudo-widower.

Ferro, Tiziano is actually Italian, but he often sings in Spanish. He’s always in a café somewhere, smoking pensively and exuding the sexy. He wears more leather than a dominatrix.

La Oreja de Van Gogh are from Spain and follow the Blondie/No Doubt formula. Put a striking and fashionable woman out front and let her sing. Meanwhile the guys show up in t-shirts and count their money.

Mago de Oz: I've never been able to sit through one of their videos, but they're still something I want to share with the world. Why, you ask? They're a Spanish-language Celtic band. Uh, yeah.

Martin, Ricky: his Spanish-language videos are awesome. He’s always damp, half-dressed and writhing on a nightclub floor. I’m not sure if it’s sexy so much as unhygienic.

Nosequien y Los Nosequantos are unattractive men hovering on the brink of middle age. But don’t worry, their low-budget videos always have at least a dozen 20-year-old girls, dancing suggestively in miniskirts. They’ll also have a blonde get in and out of a bathtub three times per video (I call her "The Cleanest Girl in the World"). Count on lots of footage of the girlies leaning forward so you can see down their tops, spinning their skirts so you can see their panties, or cuddling one another.

Rubio, Paulina is a teeny little Mexican whose videos are softcore set to music. She’s the only petite woman I know of who can carry off sexy clothes. Personally, I always wind up looking like Jodie Foster’s character in Taxi Driver. Her most recent video features her writhing inside a bulldozer, wearing nothing but caution tape and some yellow panties. This same video features firehoses, suggestive jackhammer dances and a lot of girl-on-girl dancing.

Tisuby y Georgina: I have yet to figure out which one is Tisuby and which one is Georgina. They both dance around in skimpy outfits to poorly counterfeited Stones riffs. They’re rebels, or, like, something.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Matt and I are back from our 10 days stateside, and because I’m too lazy to write a real column, I’m making a list.

Rules and Regulations for a Shannon-Style Vacation

When making a side trip to Laughlin, Nevada, aka "Ghetto Vegas", do not attempt to play Spanish 21 in Spanish. This rule applies double after three Bloody Marys.

 Also, do not eat an In-N-Out cheeseburger immediately after said Bloody Marys, unless you have a stomach made of iron.

Special Rule for Skye and Merrill: tip your waitress and your blackjack dealer. It is not necessary to tip other players, and in fact in may weird them out.

However dirty it may sound, a "Tongue Burrito" is a legitimate entrée in Los Angeles ethnic restaurants.

Do not mock Skye’s Hapsburg-level inbred cat, no matter how many times it stares at you cross-eyed.

Rodeo Drive has more people taking pictures of people shopping than actual shoppers. 

Don’t see a movie with an unemployed friend, as they’ve seen just about everything. You’ll wind up spending 9 bucks on White Chicks.

When flying Continental Drift Airlines, assume your flight will be late and you’ll only have an hour to get through Customs and Immigration.

Colombian airports were designed by a ten-year-old with ADD. Expect two disorganized check in lines, which then swap positions so everyone must crawl over each other.

 Do not drink an entire glass of Aguardiente under any circumstances. Except maybe a dare.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004


I've been sick for a month now - is that even biologically possible? Having a cold at high altitude is an interesting experience, thin air coupled with codeine is the cheapest buzz there is.

I've found that my dreams get really weird when I'm sick. Last night I dreamed that Matt and I moved back to Woodbridge and bought the house I grew up in. However, when we moved in, we discovered that the house was ten times as big on the inside as it was on the outside - sort of a middle class suburban TARDIS. It had a bowling alley, movie theater, stables, and an indoor swimming pool. I also had a dream where I was a roadie for Metallica, and another where I was a professional juggler. Analyses can be sent to

I've also discovered that even with my supremely slack work schedule, when I'm sick I get nothing done. I Netflixed Chicago four months ago and have yet to watch it. My hair is a relative hill of kudzu, as I haven't cut it since I moved here. This website collects dust, my emails go unanswered, and books go unread. I haven't even watched a 90210 rerun in weeks. Instead, I chug Nyquil and tell people I've "got the consumption."

I'm hoping a return to normal altitude will help, as Matt and I leave for 10 days in LA on Saturday. I'll hopefully be more coherent when I return.

Some personal messages: Jason and Merrill, update your websites. Your bored housewife constituency needs you. Happy 1st birthday to Collin Queen, thank you to Rob Anderson for explaining penalty kicks, and everyone watch the Amazing Race premiere tonight!

Monday, June 07, 2004

Of Politics and Press Releases

One of the great things about living abroad is that I can remain oblivious to the news stories of my choice. Reagan's death has slipped past me for several reasons, the most important of which is that I thought he was already dead.

I've often heard that it's wrong to speak ill of the dead, but I don't think that means it's necessary to whip out the idolatry. Remember when Nixon died and became a "great statesman"? Yeah, I laughed a bit too. Reagan was the president of my childhood (he was elected two years after I moved to the U.S., and left office when I was 12). He was also the president of Iran-Contra, he stood by while people whose lifestyle he disapproved of died of AIDS, and worst of all, he misintrepreted Springsteen lyrics! "Born in the U.S.A." is not patriotic!

Now for the main event. I've also been following this story with great glee: From the Post

As most of you know, I worked for Alan Secrest for two and a half years. I signed a confidentiality agreement a few years back, so unfortunately I can’t say whether I think Alan is telling the truth. I also don't believe in being negative about someone in print, even just on my blog. I can say I've been cackling all the way from Bogota. I can also legally and morally discuss the reporting of the story.

Where's the beef? With the Washington Post. An accusation of anti-Semitism is made against a Congressman, the letter is leaked to the press, and the Post just throws it onto the front page of the Metro section without any backup. How's that for journalistic integrity? So far, there is no proof of what Congressman Moran did or did not say. Alan is refusing to be specific, and no one else at the meeting in question says that anything happened. You'd think one of the nation's leading newspapers would do better than he said-she said, especially when their source is a letter from a disgruntled former vendor.

Not to mention the lazy reporting and research the Post provided. Here's some of the ways the firm has been described in the Washington Post: “Secrest, a prominent Alexandria-based pollster who has run 300 successful campaigns for Democratic members of Congress” and “one of the most successful pollsters in the nation” and, finally “A pollster for decades, Secrest has run the firm of Cooper & Secrest since 1985. Since then, the firm has helped elect more than 300 members of Congress and hundreds of state legislators and city council members.“ It took me a while to realize why it all sounded so familiar. Those descriptions are (only slightly) paraphrased from CSA press releases and marketing materials.. I've read them a hundred times when putting together proposals. They couldn't find an independent resource to describe the firm and its accomplishments?

Oh, and from Moran’s opponent: "Alan Secrest is a nationally renowned and respected pollster, with an impeccable reputation. For him to take a stand like this, especially only one week in front of an election, speaks volumes about Congressman Moran and the things he must have said." Or, Rosenberg, you could consider your own reputation and integrity, and not pass along a rumor. Sigh.

For the record, I hope Moran gets reelected, only because he's amusing as all hell. Has another Congressman ever attacked an 8-year-old child for allegedly attempting to steal his car? Or blamed the Iraq war on the Jews? Or, best of all, had the police come to his home after both his girlfriends showed up on his birthday and began a catfight? I didn't think so. Rock on, Jim Moran.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Reasons This is the Best Week Ever!

A Colombian stepped on my foot. And then apologized. Normally, Colombians step on your foot intentionally, then march on.

We're going to a party tonight. The last time I hung out with this crew, I got a concussion and one of the guys yakked into a flowerbed at the Mormon Temple. Let's hope for something tamer this time.

My former boss made a bizarre allegation of anti-Semitism about a Congressman and it was in the Washington Post. People should shoot themselves in the ass more often. Especially people I don't especially care for.

I helped a friend pack out to go home. Boxes to the loading dock, then back was like the Hokey Pokey. But with back support belts.

The maid came today. I don't care if she cleans the house or not, she makes a great cup of coffee.

I've got Rainy Day Bon Jovi hair.

Finally, and most importantly, CREED IS BREAKING UP!!!! All those voodoo dolls and hexes weren't for nothing!

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

How to Travel Like a Colombian
Just follow these easy steps to guarantee bedlam and ill will on YOUR next voyage!

1. Luggage...who needs it, when you can pack all of your belongings in cardboard boxes, sealed with plastic and what suspiciously looks like chewing gum? Since obviously boxes don't have handles, they're perfect for overhead compartments. Just pull and yank until the box falls out, and make sure everyone nearby gets a solid smack to the head in the process.

2. The Check-In Process Enter airport and come to immediate stop while you figure out where your airline counter is. If you block other people from entering, that's just fewer people to stand in line ahead of you at the check-in counter. Arrive at Aero Republica counter, henceforth known as GhettoAir. Stand in line, making sure you are close enough to the person in front of you that you may smell their perfume. Extra credit if their t-shirt tag is sticking out, and you are close enough to read the fabric contents. Check in, making sure your ID is at the very bottom of your bag. Engage in 15 minutes of small talk while the line grows exponentially behind you.

3. Taxes and Fees You will never, ever pay these when you check in, because that makes entirely too much sense. Instead, be sent to the airline’s other counter, where you will be charged a tax, a small portion of which you will see held in the clerk’s pocket for “safekeeping”.

4. Security If there are two lines, the waiting passengers should arrange themselves in four semi-symmetrical clumps. Claim as much space as possible with your luggage and stroller. Note: always travel with a stroller, whether or not you have children.

5. Boarding People with small children can board early, so why not pretend your two teenagers are still in diapers? If you present your boarding passes in a sufficiently hostile manner, the gate attendant will relent. As soon as you enter the plane, come to immediate stop and take a leisurely look at your seat assignment. Maybe you’ll sit there, maybe you won’t. Stand in the middle of the aisle and chat with your spouse about where to put your baggage. If you travel with cardboard boxes, make sure to force the nearest three people to help you. Then stand in the aisle some more.

6. In-flight Comportment and Etiquette Always use the seat in front of you as leverage when getting up to go to the bathroom, particularly if the passenger in front of you has long hair. They’ll appreciate the bald spot later. Also, while most of your fellow passengers on a redeye are sleeping, you should have your window open, as well as your mouth, because this is the perfect time for drawn-out conversations with strangers.

7. Airline food is always a rare form of lunchmeat with a side of mayo. Eat it as loudly as you can manage.

8. Disembarking should always be attempted two people at a time, with a healthy amount of pushing and shoving. Take as long as possible to remove your cardboard box from the overhead compartment. Then, when you get off the plane, stop right in the middle of the jetway to wait for your friends, never mind that your friends can’t get off the plane, because of the moron blocking the jetway.

9. Customs and Immigration Wait until you have reached the counter to fill out the necessary forms. Those two hundred people in line behind you aren’t nearly as important as you are. Also, let your small children play with the luggage carousel. If it starts up and they lose a finger or two, it will be a learning experience.

Troubleshooting Section: Bonus Points

Airline Has Seated Your Small Children in the Exit Row: Change your seats, as well as all of the seats of the people around you. Afterwards, make sure your children are still in a different row than you are. Supervision is a drag. Extra Credit: when the people who are assigned to the seats you have claimed arrive, tell them it’s their tough luck. Extra extra credit: refuse to enlist the help of the flight attendant and insist that the people whose seats you have taken stand for the duration of the voyage.

Airline Seats are Scratchy: This is due to the space-age, sub-polyester materials used by GhettoAir. Squirm in your seat as much as possible, and give the seat in front of you a few kicks in the process. The person ahead of you is busy rearranging the hair you pulled earlier when you got up to go to the bathroom. The kicks will probably go unnoticed.

Airline Counter Isn’t Open Yet: Claim a space in line with your luggage and cardboard boxes, insist that everyone around watch your belongings for you, and go for a walk. Return ten minutes after the counter opens and become extremely upset when the line has moved without you. Extra Credit: Who needs lines, anyway? Just walk in from the side and cut in front of everyone else. The attendants will be too busy braiding one another's hair to notice.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Sarajevo on My Mind, Take This Job and Shove It, and The Honeymooners

I know it's been ever so long between updates. I guess for once I was living my life instead of writing about it. Here's all the latest news:

Sarajevo On My Mind, and a Thumpa-Whumpa-Thumpa in My Chest

After two months of throwing darts at maps and spinning around in their wheelie chairs, the State Department has finally told us where we're going next. We're off to Sarajevo! Sarajevo has been rebuilding since the war and is supposed to be very nice again. Skiing is dirt cheap (a lift ticket for a day on the Olympic course is about $9), and there's lots of cafes. All you have to do is dodge the landmines and make sure the Roma don't steal your purse. That's a big step up from Bogota, where we have security lockdowns and have to watch our every step. Sarajevo is also much smaller and quieter than Bogota.

The job is great for Matt, it's in line with his career goals and doesn't involve any visa drudgery. My job opportunities are also much better than here, and I would love to go back to work full time.

I'm not looking forward to the cold weather, but I'm trying to see it as an excuse to buy lots of pretty sweaters. Sarajevo is still considered dangerous, so Matt gets a handsome bump in pay. We're also only a 30 minute flight from Vienna and will be able to see a good bit of Europe. Best of all, this gets Matt's name out in the European Bureau so we may be able to live somewhere like Madrid later on.

We're not being provided with language training because English is widely spoken there. However, we will be able to study Bosnian from home.

Although it may change later, we'll most likely leave Bogota at the end of January, spend a month in Alabama on home leave, then about two months in DC while Matt is being trained for his new job. We'll leave for Sarajevo in May.

Take This Job and Shove It, or at Least Nudge it Gently Away

I am once again a productive, working member of society. Or, at least, for 10 hours of the week I'm productive. I got a job writing the embassy's newsletter from home, which means I type up a bunch of events (like "Shopping Trip to Raquira!") and decorate them with ClipArt midgets. I like the smiling midgets who hold up a globe the best. It's a nice bit of extra money, and it lets me socialize with the other wives. By "socializing" I mean women I have never met send long, detailed emails about how I should be doing my job, right down to the ClipArt midgets. I may start distributing Valium tablets with the newsletter.

I get danger pay with my job (all Bogota employees do), which amuses me to no end. Hazardous typing is really living on the edge, man.

The Honeymooners, or Lost at Sea

Matt and I spent part of March touring the Galapagos Islands for our honeymoon. We swam with sea lions, visited more bizarre wildlife than I'd seen since college frat parties, and lived on a boat for a week. The weather was perfect for our entire trip, and the sky was so clear we could see the Milky Way. We'd jump off the back of the boat for a swim when we got hot, hike with giant turtles, and watch rays and sharks swim past.

I wouldn't be me if I didn't have something to complain about, so let's just say it wasn't my idea of a honeymoon. We spent a week in separate twin berths, rising at 5 am because of our guide, Captain DeathMarch. The chef had recently discovered cilantro, and wanted to share that discovery with the world by overseasoning every meal (leading to quite a few gyppy tummies on the boat). I probably would have preferred a 5-day cruise to the 8-day one we took. Matt's making it up to me by taking me to San Andres in the Caribbean for Memorial Day weekend.

As for further travel, we'll be in Los Angeles visiting Skye from July 10-22, and in Alabama for Betsy's wedding at the end of September. Then it's a long quiet stretch without travel until it's time to pack out and return to the land where shops are open on Sunday, pedestrians walk without fear, and cheddar cheese is not considered "picante." Ah, home sweet home.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Horses, Gentlemen, and Peeled Eyeballs

So, I packed up my life and moved to a South American country most people misspell (dude, it’s Colombia, not Columbia, I have not been hiding out in South Carolina all of this time). Somehow, despite the chaos and subtitled sitcoms, it hasn’t been until recently that the reality of my new life has sunk in.

Case in point: Saturday Matt and I went on a horseback riding trip with some friends. If you’ve ever gone in the US, you sign releases, receive copious instructions, and are supervised every minute. Colombia tosses you onto a horse, gives you a guide, lets you do what you want, and, best of all, two bottles of liqueur come free with the trip. Trail shots! Afterwards, we went out for steaks and bitched about our sore butts. I also discovered the limits of my Spanish: I caught myself saying “voy a montar caballeros” instead of “caballos” - in other words, “I am going to ride gentlemen.” Boy, was I popular! Perhaps I had too many trail shots.

I also got to experience the Colombian health system on Friday when I took my friend Worth to get Lasik surgery. First, we went to his doctor’s office...which turned out to be in a completely different part of town from where the surgery was actually going to be performed. We got back in a cab and crawled across town (including one exhilarating shortcut through a mountain shantytown/police station/point where we thought about pretending to be Canadian). We arrived an hour late...only to discover that the doctor would not show up for another 20 minutes. Latin America rules. Worth was led into a tiny little room in back, and I waited, drank coffee, and chatted with some of the ladies - several of whom thought I was Worth’s wife or mistress. I thought about blowing their minds and saying Worth was MY mistress, but instead I laughed and explained that he’s a friend.

Also, a couple weeks back, Matt and I had the first big party of our married career. Mardi Gras, complete with shrimp creole, red beans and rice, and (of course) jambalaya. I also served up three batches of Jell-O shots for the Colombians to try for the first time and the Americans to guzzle with abandon. We also hired the Ambassador’s bartender for the evening, known to women here as “David, the cute one.” The party ended at 3:30, with Matt’s former boss and some friends cavorting to Bon Jovi in masks and top hats. I had spent about a week on the decorations, which have now been up for almost two weeks. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of those people who take down their Christmas decorations in February.

In other news, my stuff got here last week. I am now fully aware of how much I own, as it’s completely covering the living room in semi-organized stacks. The maid hasn’t been able to set foot inside there for a week. I’ve spent the last two days trying to organize our books, unfortunately, every time I do so Matt finds a neat book he absolutely has to show me then and there, or has the nerve to offer an opinion on household organization. This completely derails me, and I’m convinced that the books will just sit in stacks until our next post.

Finally, speaking of our next post, we got our bid list last week. We have to submit ten bids for posts that are either English or Spanish-speaking, plus one to five random places. We’re so far basing our decision process on places with funny names. Windhoek, Suva, Ashgabat, Bujumbura, here we come!

That’s it for this week - tune in next Tuesday to find out who won: me or my shoe collection.

Pet Peeve of the Week: As I've said before, I live in Colombia, not Columbia. Please stop sending me emails asking me about life in South Carolina. Uh...Go Gamecocks?

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Spanish for the Masses

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in Colombia, it’s Spanish. Not the Spanish of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), which provides my booklets for class. Through FSI, I learn scintillating sentences like, “Sanchez is sad because he didn’t prepare his lesson for today.” Throughout these books, Sanchez continually asks people if they are married, fails to prepare his lessons, and lives alone. I wonder if he is some form of Foreign Service cautionary tale. The booklets also include many conversations to translate, including my favorite: Jones walks up and down 14th Street late at night, trying to find Sanchez’s apartment. Really, an abundantly lost dweeb wanders 14th Street in Washington and does not get mugged. I love FSI-land.

All of this points to one thing: there’s really only so much Spanish you need on a day-to-day basis, and very little of it is formally taught. Sure, you need to say pleasantries (“Buenas tardes”), inform people that you do not speak their language (“No hablo español”), and apologize (“Lo siento.”) Beyond that, you need to know kinds of food (“pollo” is chicken, “lechuga” is lettuce, and “Shakira” is an artificially blond singer the size of a pimento loaf), directions (“izquierda” for left, “derecho” for right), and “Embajada de los Estados Unidos,” which most cabbies comprehend as they’ve waited in line there on many occasions.

To that end, here are the Top Five Most Useful Phrases in Colombia:
1. “Solamente estoy mirando,” I’m only looking. As I’ve mentioned before, salesclerks are really aggressive here.
2. “Un poco mas despacio, por favor," A bit slower, please. People talk FAST when they think you speak their language, and they must be smacked down to reality.
3. “Dos cervezas y un ron con Coca-Cola,” Two beers and a rum and Coke. If you can’t remember the word for something, just use a brand name. Actually, I always say Coca-Cola because the Spanish word for soda, “gaseosa,” sounds like an intestinal disorder.
4. “Donde está el baño?” an oldie but goodie. However, it’s important to know that “Hombres” means Men and “Mujeres” means Women, so you don’t walk into the door marked “M” and unzip your fly in front of a female audience. It happens, dude.
5. “No soy norteamericano. Soy de Canada.” Never underestimate the value of fictional Canadian citizenship. It deters both terrorists and street beggars.

Also, here are some phrases you will absolutely not have any use for, but are fun to know.

1. “Hay una fiesta en mis pantalones,” There’s a party in my pants.
2. “Por favor, no secuestreme. Tengo diarrea,” Please don’t kidnap me. I have diarrhea.
3. “Pareces como un tiburon cuando sonrisas,” You look like a shark when you smile.
4. “Los pollos pueden usar el Metro si pagan la cuenta,” Chickens may use the Metro if they pay the bill.
5. “Tu cabeza es mas grande de mi zapato,” Your head is bigger than my shoe.

As for personal life events, I’m living in groovy housewife style. I’ve restarted Spanish classes, which arrived just in time - I’d finished my second jigsaw puzzle in a week. The dining room table is starting to look like that scene in Citizen Kane where we see Susan Kane do 100 jigsaws from sheer boredom. I’ve also applied for a job (more on that if I get one), learned to cook non-glue white sauce, and started planning for our next party (Mardi Gras!). As for Matt, he switched over to the Consular section, where he interviews people for visas and stamps them “rejected.” The job has gotten to him and he dreams of it often. Last week, I woke to him mumbling the word “rejected” and hitting me on the head. Ouch.

Next week, tune in as I answer the question I’m most sick of hearing. Not, “Are you old enough to drink?”, but “What do you do all day?” Many, many things, some of which are interesting.

Pet Peeve of the Week: Did you ever notice that whenever a character on TV reads a magazine, they start at the back page and flip forward to the front? Seriously, watch for this. Does anyone in real life do that? The most egregious offender: “That 70's Show”.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Safety and Security in the World’s Kidnap Capital

Calloo, callay! The Embassy security restrictions have been lifted, leaving me free to roam overcrowded nightclubs, stores with rude salesclerks, and the joy that is Bogota’s TGIFriday’s. Dude, there really is a TGIFriday’s - America has a lot to answer for. In other words, if you’re planning on visiting, now’s the time. The sun is shining, nothing's really blown up lately, and it’s bullfight season.

I thought I’d use this week’s column to dispel some American notions of Bogota (including Americans who have no notion of Bogota and think it’s Spanish slang for “knockers”). The biggest misconception is that the ongoing Colombian Civil War is being waged on the streets of Bogota. Most of the fighting takes place in either the countryside or in towns I’ve never heard of. Which is a good thing, because Bogota is chaotic enough on its own.

Bogota is New York City fifteen years ago. The population is about the same (7.5 millionish), it’s a dirty place except for the ritzier neighborhoods, and the rule of law is hilariously nonexistent. Hell, we’ve even got Squeegee Men (including my favorite, a Squeegee Man who serves as a distraction while his buddies pry out your headlights with a screwdriver). I haven’t run into any con men yet, but they’re cool too. They dress as policemen and claim they need to “count your money” by which they mean “take your money.” Then they give you an awesome fake receipt for a refund. No, I haven’t seen this in action. I doubt I’d fall for it, but then again, I was 15 before I realized Spinal Tap wasn’t a real band. If you’re real lucky, you might get slipped a mickey, by which I mean the Colombian plant Scopamine. If you’ve ever wanted to wake up naked, in a warehouse, in the worst part of town with empty bank accounts and an emptier memory, get Scoped. You may even wake up with fresh breath. You can avoid getting Scoped the same way college girls stay away from roofies: keep an eye on your drink at all times, don’t accept free drinks from strangers, and go out with at least one buddy.

Street crimes and muggings are fairly rampant here. I’d advise against wearing anything nice, including jewelry, watches, or any piece of clothing you didn’t dig out of a bin at the Super Wal-Mart. Simply by virtue of being American, you’re rich. So it’s a wretched idea to stand out as an American. Don’t wear anything with American brand names, and don’t yammer in English at the top of your lungs. (Of course, one of the big rules of living anywhere in the world: stand out as little as possible.)

You’re more likely to get knocked over by a Fiat or burro cart than anything else bad that could happen. Saying that pedestrians don’t have the right of way is an adorable understatement. Always cross the street at intersections and run like your daddy’s chasing you with a belt. Bogota’s government puts little stars on the ground where pedestrians have been killed. Matt and I call them Death Stars, and they include a bizarre abstract one-legged dead stickman. He kind of looks like he’s doing a one-armed Funky Chicken dance.

As for kidnapping, I don’t worry my pretty little head about it. Most of the people kidnapped are either politically connected, wealthy, oil workers, or abysmally stupid (I’m looking at you, Robert Young Pelton, author of “The World’s Most Dangerous Places” - dangerous if you’re a moron, and hike in FARC territory, sure). My favorite political kidnapping was the governor who was taken at an anti-kidnapping rally. To avoid being kidnapped, don’t hail a taxi on the street (always call), don’t stick out as an American, and for the love of Mike, don’t roam around the jungle. (Israelis and Europeans don’t really take the threat seriously enough, and generally get scooped up during group hiking excursions. It’s almost funny.) Remember that the FARC is the world’s only profitable Marxist organization, and most of the revenue comes from cocaine and kidnappings. Don’t mess with them.

As for terrorist attacks, it’s not that big a deal. Follow all the other rules about not sticking out as an American. Also, don’t eat on patios - the people injured in the Bogota Beer Company attack were sitting around on a patio, right next to a space heater. A FARC operative simply lobbed a grenade onto the deck, and the place went up in flames. Patio dining isn’t worth it.

Really, Bogota’s not that scary. If you have a sense of humor, it just might be the coolest place you’ve visited. That’s it for this week - next week, I’ll teach useful Spanish phrases that you won’t find in any textbook.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Year End Edition:

It’s a new year, meaning not only will I continue signing checks with the wrong name, I’ll sign them with the wrong year.

I have good news and I have bad news: the good news is that my New Year’s resolution is to update this site more often. The bad news is that I’m too tired from the trip Matt and I took to the U.S. to write a column about it. Instead, I’ll offer a highlight reel:

• Humming the national anthem in front of a display of Slim Jims in a Georgia gas station.
• Roaming the eastern U.S. in my father-in-law’s big red truck, listening to Skynrd.
• Consuming non-Colombian delicacies like dill pickles, dark beer, Thai food, and cheddar cheese, sometimes simultaneously.
• Seeing the Washington gang, the in-laws, Robert’s double TiVo, and meeting Matt’s Atlanta crew.
• Sleeping on not one, but two air mattresses over the course of the trip.
• Road-trip hypnosis: the act of misinterpreting road signs to dirty effect. Bullocksville becomes Buttocksville, for example.
• Television! In English! No subtitles!
• Eating venison, personally shot by my brother-in-law to be.
• Shopping for $3,000 wedding gowns and pronouncing Am-sa-la as Am-SALE. I got an eerie reminiscence of that scene in Showgirls where Jessie Spano brags about her dress from Ver-SACE. Rule for clothing you’ll never be able to afford: the more syllables you use, the more accurate you will be.
• Putting Armour Potted Meat Product in everyone’s stocking, and watching my daredevil mother-in-law try to eat it with mayonnaise.
• Registering for china and crystal at Macy’s. Cripes, I’m married. I have uses for fine china.
• Pentagon City - stores galore! Filene's Basement! Target!
• Eating on patios without looking for grenades. Eating out anywhere, in fact. For that matter, going wherever I want without security restrictions.
• Being expedited through the Bogota airport by fast-moving, non-English speaking men who ran away with my passport (it was returned).
• Realizing that Bogota is my home now, and that I was not only willing but eager to return.

Well, that’s it for now - I’m going to try to write a short column once a week, instead of a big long one every couple of weeks. Let’s see how it works.