23 July 2007

Ju speak espanish?

I was so excited as my friend and I drove to the adress on the flyer. Viva Colombia! Feliz Dia de la Independencia!
"Do you think that was it?" he asked as we passed the Imago Building.
"Yeah, there's a line...and they're wearing the hats!" I exclaimed excitedly.
He laughed at me. "The hats?"
"Yeah! The hats. The typical Colombian hats!..." He still chuckled but I couldn't see what was so funny. I'd know these hats anywhere.

Sombrero Vueltiao

We approached the door and my heart soared as I heard my Spanish being spoken, spoken with familiar, distinctive accents. I could hear somebody from Bogota, and another from the Caribbean Coastal region, yet another most likely from my own hometown of Medellin.
I greeted the door guy in Spanish and he replied in thickly accented English, saying he needed to look inside my camera bag. When he saw the serious artillery I was packing, he said to me, still in English, that I needed to get permission from the owner to have and use my camera inside.
I explained to him, in perfect Spanish that I'm a professional photographer but was just intending to photograph my friends and family.
"People will get mad if you take pictures of them inside. You have to get permission from the owner" he insisted in English.
I got the distinct impression he thought I was the white girl coming to make money off pictures of the Colombians partying or something. It never seemed to sink into his head that I was speaking to him in his own language. I thought maybe the guy was just an ass, but it was the same with the door girl. Everyone I spoke to in Spanish replied in Colombian-accented English and looked somewhat puzzled. As my friend and I walked up the stairs, I even heard the couple behind me say something about me in Spanish, which, while not terribly rude, was not something that they would have said within earshot had they assumed I understood.

There I was, in a roomful of my people, mi gente. The salsa was blaring and... I could not feel more out of place. Thankfully, my brother and his girlfriend were there. My brother's room-mates were there, too, much to my surprise. I thought it was sweet that these two boys, who are as white-bread as they come, would go so far out of their comfort zone to join Alex in celebrating a Colombian holiday. Or they were just there for the hot Colombian chicks....

I had hoped once I had some Aguardiente (the national drink of Colombia), I would feel better.


The OLCC decreed that was not to be. Wine and beer. That was it.
At least there was Colombian food. I peeked over to where the buffet was being set up. $8 a plate!
It had better be good...
I was feeling disheartened so far and not really in a dancing mood. My friend left soon thereafter. He gets bored pretty easily and had seen enough. I hung out and chatted with my brother and his friends and with the Leo Couple, who had arrived with another companion in tow.

One guy kept looking at me and finally approached, actually speaking in Spanish. It turns out I had met him at an Independence Day picnic about 7 years ago. He asked if I was there with my husband. I remembered then why we hadn't kept in touch. He couldn't seem to grasp back then why I, as a young woman, would want to live away from my parents seeing as I was neither a student nor married. When I had declared I had no intention of marriage he looked at me as though I'd spoken in Chinese or something.

I was starting to think I should have accepted my friend's offer for an early ride home. The buffet was brought out, and I saw a handsome lad serving himself a plate of food.
"Que estan sirviendo?" I asked, wondering if the food was worth it.
There was that puzzled look again, mixed with interest and maybe a little bit of embarrassment.
"Ah...hablas Espanol!?"
I told him I was Colombian and finally asked him why it was that nobody seemed to believe it. He told me I looked Eastern European...Czech. Or maybe a little bit Asian, which still puzzles me, though he's not the first one to guess that. The dark hair, dark eyes and fair skin...and the way I dress and carry myself, apparently, set me apart from my fellow Colombians. The clothes I understand, but as for the rest..
The region where I'm from had a large influx of Germans in the early part of the last century. There are plenty of very light-skinned blondes with blue or green eyes in that area. Eh...
We got back to my original question of the food. Plantain chips and chorizo (different from the Mexican style). Eight dollars for plantain chips?! No thanks.
I did end up chatting with the handsome boy for the rest of the evening. Latinos flirt so differently. It was refreshing. A latin man, at least one living in the States asks very pointed questions in order to figure out which category to put a girl in. Are you marriage material or only notch-in-the-bedpost material?
He went right to the heart of the matter...do I believe in God, am I romantic, what do I do? Oh, I read. Apparently Venezuelan women don't. They're bright, just not big readers. I ventured, jokingly, that Venezuelan women are some of the most beautiful women in the world...maybe they don't need to read.
He replied I had nothing to envy Venezuelan women.
Did I mention I like how Latin men flirt?
He also asked me my last name right off the bat. I've had friends here, close friends, for years and only by chance found out their last names, if at all. In Latin America it's a polite, subtle way of determining social status and family ties. As it's considered rude to speak of money, asking somebody's last name and inquiring about their father's profession is as almost good as looking at their checkbook. It's changing, of course, but you can still make some pretty accurate assumptions based on those two tidbits of information. In fact, I hadn't realized to what extent my last name gave me away until I met some of my neighbor's Colombian friends. One said "Oh, you're from Medellin. I knew as soon as I saw your last name on the call box at your apartment."

Anyway, having answered the young man's questions to his satisfaction, or at least having piqued his interest beyond the moment, he asked to see me the following evening. I was going to photograph an event, so he invited me out to lunch instead. A very direct, unmistakable "Yo te invito" ( I invite you). No figuring out if you split the check or offer to pay...
Maybe there is something to explore in dating Latin men. I usually avoid it, but my recent encounters with the non-citizens have made me reconsider. Those dreamy blue-green eyes, long dark curly lashes and golden skin of his could make any girl reconsider.
I am a bit conflicted. I think I'm too Americanized at this point to really date a recent Latin American transplant. I confuse them. With my background, education, class, and looks, I have all the makings of a good Latin wife, save for the fact that I have no intention of being one. I also have the appeal of the stereotypical "American Girl"...sexually liberated, or "easy", as they see it. They don't quite know what to do with me, or which category I fit.
Latinos tend to appreciate uniformity, conformity. Deviation from the accepted course of parents-school-career-husband-kids, any type of non-conformity in the way of lifestyle, baffles them a little. I think my family in Colombia is still holding out hopes that I'll abandon my "hippie" lifestyle (how they term any lifestyle but their own) and get back on track with a "real career" and a family of my own. Bless their dear, well-intentioned hearts!

The overall feeling I have coming away from that evening is one of unease. I do not feel wholly American (though I am applying for my citizenship soon), and somewhat shunned by my fellow Colombians.

While I ponder that one, I'll just practice my Latin flirting with the cute Venezuelan boy...

All Content Copyright 2007, Juliana Tobón. All Rights Reserved

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