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.