Something Like Culture Shock
Weird how quickly things can deteriorate from situation normal to situation all fouled up. I mean, it wasn't the first time we had shared an intimate dinner in my campus apartment. There was nothing out of the ordinary, no warning flags. We were simply celebrating the three-month anniversary of our first date. After dinner, we talked across the candlelit table. Well, Catalina talked. I was mostly mute, content to sip the wine and listen, enthralled as usual. Her conversation was not simply a means of communication. It was visual art, a performance—it was captivating. Her glaring accent was no hindrance. She was articulate, even eloquent, as she wove her way through our entire three months together, dissecting every facet of our relationship, marveling at how we met, how our love had grown, how we shared common values.
I refilled our glasses as she sailed on about the closeness of family in Colombia, the sanctity of marriage, and hinted that divine intervention might have been a factor in her decision to attend school in Wisconsin, where we met. Catalina tacked seamlessly from one topic to another and I nodded enthusiastically. Her smile—brilliant in any light—was infused with a singular translucence by the candles.
Caution had already exited the apartment by the time I uncorked the second bottle of Chardonnay. The uninhibited cut of Catalina's neckline dared me to plunge into recklessness and say something outrageous, something dramatic, something like, "Will you marry me?"
Fully smitten and half-drunk, I took the dare. She was surprised. Even I was surprised. She accepted, tearfully, happily. More wine.
Next morning, Saturday, I woke with a deadly headache and a cotton mouth, certain that my well-worn exhortations to single friends about the evils of infatuation and the value of freedom would be providing grins at my expense for many years. I had always endorsed a two-year minimum for the dating and engagement period and now here I was engaged after a scant three-month courtship, my hypocrisy unmasked by wine and candlelight.
On Sunday, we moved Catalina's belongings into my apartment. Monday morning I awoke with a start from a dream too hazy to be remembered. Catalina was sleeping peacefully. She looked too young to become a married woman. I struggled with how to tell her that everything was happening too quickly, too casually, that we needed more time. I finally decided to act and lifted my hand to tap her awake. Her eyes opened to my poised hand.
"Hi, what were you going to do?" she said, yawning and arching her back.
"I was going to touch you."
"Okay," she said, smiling that perfect smile. The one with the teeth aligned perfectly and brilliantly white as a picket fence bordering a perfect house with two perfect kids playing on a perfectly manicured lawn. The next three mornings were close variations of this one. Each day I awoke early to the same misty, ill-formed doubts, which were quickly burned away by the smile.
By Friday morning, I had finally convinced myself that this was love, definitely not infatuation or its horny twin—lust.
Later in the day, we used much of my meager savings, intended for grad school and a Masters in Fine Arts, to buy Catalina an engagement ring. We called my parents who treated our engagement announcement with the nonchalance expected of parents who had already been through the three engagements of my siblings. I didn't mention the ring or the funds I had used to purchase it.
That same evening, she called her parents to break the big news. She pressed the speaker button and I listened in. Her father offered a couple of tepid words of congratulations before her mother stepped in to dominate in rapid-fire Spanish that was ebullient, but mostly unintelligible. When I finally realized that her mother was inviting us to Colombia over spring break, I started waving my arms and mouthing, "No! No!" Too late, Catalina had already committed us to squander our senior spring break with an awkward "meet the parents" type of crucible in Bogotá. Next morning, we booked the trip. We would arrive on a Friday night—the engagement party would be held on Saturday night.
"Mama's driver will pick us up and deliver you to your hotel and me to my parent's. They cannot meet us because they're going to a party."
Spring break came quickly.
We've been aloft for nearly five hours, on the second leg of the trip, when the pilot cuts the throttle and the plane dips down sharply for the approach onto the savannah holding Bogotá. Catalina, gesturing with her newly bejeweled hand, spouts a final review of tomorrow's activities.
"We will be picking you up at the hotel early, at 7:30. Be ready, Andy, Papi's no good at waiting."
"Damn, I've golfed twice in my life," I reply, still hoping to finagle my way out of tomorrow's outing with her dad.
"Papi doesn't care how you golf as long as he wins," she smiles. "Just try to follow his advice. He's a fanatico."
"Don't worry, mi amor, it will be over soon. And tomorrow afternoon I can take you to El Corral if you are having burger withdrawal. They have the best hamburgers and malts in Bogotá."
She slows to take a breath.
"Be careful with my father," she continues. "Don't mention the social conditions in Colombia, the politics, or religion. And please take care with your humor. Nothing personal, Andy, but remember that this isn't Madison, Wisconsin. Sometimes your jokes…"
"Thanks so much for appreciating my humor. So what're the safe topics?" I ask.
A pause and her dark eyes dart from side-to-side as if watching a tennis match. It's always the same when I make her think.
"The weather, or futbol, should be okay. Just ignore him if he tries to argue. He has strong opinions on everything."
"He follows our football?"
"Of course not, mi amor. I'm talking about real futbol, where you actually use your foot—'soccer' to you. His favorite team is the Millionarios, and this year they're fighting for the championship."
I consider arguing that our kickers use their feet, but the flight attendant interrupts, ordering us to put up tray tables and our seats back.
"One more thing, Andy," Catalina continues. "Don't say anything about our 'living in sin,' as you call it."
"C'mon, Catalina, why the hell would I bring that up? I know your parents are old-fashioned."
"Mi amor, forgive me, but you do have a tendency for sometimes saying the wrong thing. And my parents aren't old-fashioned, it's just their culture."
"Uh, huh," I say, unconvinced.
"Anyway, I think they will really like you. Maybe Papi isn't very nerdish, but mother reads a lot and will probably want to talk about our most famous author, Gabriel García Márquez." I'm about to protest that I am more bookish than nerdish, but the wheels bite roughly into the tarmac and she takes my hand.
"Your hand is sweating," she says, frowning. "You afraid of flying?"
"Not at all," I say, wondering if Papi considers an American Literature major, soon to become an engineer, to be a suitable fiancé for his ambitious daughter.
We breeze through customs. Catalina has no trouble finding the driver, waiting in the crowd outside the baggage claim area. He is taller than the rest of the waiting people, more surly-looking too, and he guides us through the crowd to the car. An armored Land Cruiser whisks us to the hotel, where I am dropped off. The driver and Catalina continue on to her parent's condo. There will be no cohabitation in Bogotá.
Next morning, Papi's short, stout body is attired perfectly for golf—corduroys and a vest over an oxford shirt. Right out of Golf Digest. Catalina has told me very little about him. Has some kind of export business. The dullness of his black hair suggests a dye job. The top is puffed up, probably to give him a bit more height, and he sort of resembles a round-eyed Kim Jong-il on a bad hair day. His skin is darker than his daughter's. As we shake hands in the car, his smile flickers with a millisecond curl of the upper lip, like a dog snarl, before it widens fully. His eyes are black, with no apparent border between the iris and the pupil. It is easy to see where Catalina gets her beauty. Her mother must be a beautiful woman.
Papi is driving an Audi; the surly guy follows us in the Land Cruiser. Catalina is already in the rear seat of the Audi; I slip into the passenger's seat, next to Papi. After twenty minutes of moderate traffic, Papi takes a turn from the busy, noisy street to stop at the gate of the club. The driver of the Land Cruiser parks outside, to wait for us in the car. A private security guard hands Papi a clipboard. I hear the words visitante and identificacion and pull my passport from my jeans pocket. While Papiuses it to sign me in, another guard walks a bored-looking yellow lab around the car, sniffing for bombs—a reminder that I am in a country that has been struggling with a persistent FARC insurgency for over fifty years. The guard waves us in and we drive through the gate.
The transformation is immediate and dramatic; the cacophony of street noise is behind us now. This is a lush, green place of wealth and privilege, located smack-dab in the middle of the city. We drive past a small lake, shared by a water skier and several paddle boats. The road curves around the shoreline, past a corral of polo ponies, to the main buildings housing restaurants, a pool, and a gym, where we leave Catalina to her workout. As we approach the golf course, there are golfers walking along the road. They are dressed quite similarly to Papi. I begin to realize that golfing in Bogotá is more of a social event than an athletic one. It looks as if my jeans and tennis shoes will be the only ones on the golf course. Uniformed caddies follow the golfers. Everyone looks serious.
Trouble begins on the first tee, when I bop Papi with the driver on the backswing of my practice stroke. He doesn't acknowledge my apology, instead erupting with some declarative Spanish. He sits on a bench for a few minutes, elbows on knees, head in hands, fingertips massaging the injured forehead. Luckily, Catalina is in the club gym and is spared this strained moment. By the second hole he seems to have made an admirable recovery. I apologize again and he nods affirmatively, never really looking me in the eye. The rest of the round is predictable. I spend much of it in the rough, looking for balls, flailing away in sand traps, or knocking the ball around amongst the trees. The caddies try valiantly to stifle their chuckles. Papi has regained a certain degree of graciousness.
Papi's victory is assured by the fifth tee. I calculate his lead at twelve strokes. He tees up and blasts a drive down the center of the fairway. As I tee up, he asks me about my field of study. My answer is again met with the fleeting dog snarl smile and I slice my drive into a small creek at the edge of the fairway.
This isn't Wisconsin golf. Even the birds are foreign to me and a grotesque black one sporting a garish orange beak seems to follow me for a time, screeching incessantly as if even he knows that I don't belong on the course. After nine holes, the maiming of my male ego has mercifully come to an end, and Papi and I are back in the Audi. We pick Catalina up at the gym. She immediately notices the nasty bruise imprinted by my club on her father's forehead.
"Dios mio, Papi. Lo que pasó?" she screams.
"Don't worry, mi corazón," Papi soothes in Spanglish.
"But Papi, you should see a doctor."
"No, really, it is nothing. I should have trained Andy on how to take his practice swings," Papi says, in a curious sort of backhanded lament.
I glance to the backseat to endure Catalina's glare. I quickly cobble together a self-deprecating statement, employing words like "stupid," "careless," and "fool."
Papi has pulled away from the club and we are heading towards my hotel. We ride silently. The streets are clogged with people and cars now, much busier than earlier, and soon we're mired in heavy traffic. The radio plays Vallenato, the Colombian version of country music, while Papi´s perfectly manicured hand taps the gold band of his ring on the steering wheel of the Audi. He interrupts the silence with yet more golf advice.
"Never try to hit out of the trees, Andy," says Papi, pointing one finger to the car roof. "This must only be done by the pros."
"Yes, I should've listened to your advice," I say, the sound of the ball knocking against tree trunks still echoing.
We speed through a yellow light to stop abruptly at the next red. Three young men with clown noses run out in front of the Audi. Two have juggling clubs. They build a three-man tower and begin their act. A mime, his semi-nude body painted gold, stands on the curb completely motionless, privates covered by what looks like some type of indigenous loin cloth, golden feathers atop his head.
"It's like driving through a circus, no?" says Papi.
I glance to the backseat. Catalina looks tense.
"Yes, it certainly is," I reply.
I want to tell him that, if this is a circus, the director must be Tarantino on a three-day cocaine binge. The caveats that Catalina delivered on the tarmac help keep my mouth clamped shut. There's a tap on my window—the fingernail of a young woman nursing a baby. She holds her palm out.
"I have to exchange some dollars," I say to Papi and Catalina.
"Don't worry. We aren't even positive there's a baby under that blanket," says Papi, smiling.
"Bogotá would be so much easier if all these people weren't on the street."
"Yes, I'm sure the people on the street would agree."
Whoops. Papi glances at me quizzically. I recover quickly, "Great weather. Wish we had some of this in Wisconsin!"
Catalina and her Papi begin babbling together in Spanish. His ring seems to drum more loudly on the steering wheel.
With perhaps thirty seconds left of the red light, the juggling pyramid tumbles down and the golden mime becomes animated and steps down from his perch. They all file by the windows of the cars, hands out. The light changes and we race off, dodging cars to gain a few places by the time we're stopped by another red light. Nothing exotic at this traffic light—no entertainment, just vendors selling pirated videos and books, calendars, and the sundry gum and candies. A man in tattered, filthy pajamas, decorated with an unlikely teddy bear pattern, is on the sidewalk to our right, trudging a bit ahead of us, face not visible. The light changes. We quickly overtake him.
He has stopped and now has a papaya tucked under his arm like a football. He's talking to a uniformed security guard. Traffic takes us farther down the street and we stop again. I look back in the side mirror and manage to see that the pajamas man and the guard are still talking. The guard is gripping the collar of the man's pajamas.
Papi lurches the Audi forward and we gain a couple of car lengths before we stop again. Another glance in the mirror frames the dirty pajamas man, jogging clumsily and weaving through the cars behind us, sans the papaya. He passes us, gaunt face contorted by an almost beatific smile, as if he had just touched the Shroud of Turin or, more probably, as if he had just escaped incarceration. Yes, it's the smile of freedom.
Apparently, he would rather be filthy, hungry, and free, than locked up in a cell, clothed in clean prison garb, getting three meals a day. We take a left turn and the hotel beckons, now just a block away. The traffic and my anxiety eases.
"See you tonight, Andy," Catalina says from the back. "Take some sleep. The party will be late."
"Catalina's right, Andy. Take some sleep. And I hope you sleep better than I did last night. My wife is a beautiful woman, but she snores like an old man with asthma."
Finally, something Papi and I have in common, a morsel to be used for male bonding. I pounce.
"Aha! So that's where Catalina gets that snore—from her mother!"
"What?" Papi says hoarsely, as he brakes the car to a halt under the portico of the hotel.
"Hey, how about those Millionarios?" I blurt out, as I push open the car door and step out. I turn and lean down to look at Catalina in the back. Frowning, she draws an index finger across her throat.
Colombian courtesy calls for a kiss on her cheek and a handshake with Papi before parting. I do neither. Managing a tight smile, I wave to Papi, and say, "Hasta la vista!"
As I close the car door, I notice that his black eyes are twitching around all herky-jerky, exactly like his daughter's. I scurry up the hotel stairs to the entry.
"Damn," I whisper, as I step inside. I'm free, like the pajamas man.
About the Author
Dennis Vanvick is a retired, self-employed technical consultant. He winters among the 8 million inhabitants of Bogota, Colombia and summers amongst the flora and fauna of northwest Wisconsin. Dennis has been writing fiction since 1997, after taking a creative writing course at the University of Minnesota. His fiction has appeared in Rosebud, NOÖ Journal, Boston Literary Magazine, The Humanist, Neonbeam, Flashquake, Clockwise Cat, Gold Dust, Birmingham Arts Journal, Wilderness House Literary Review and Lowestoft Chronicle. His non-fiction has appeared in Computerworld and InformationWeek and CollegeJournal.com (sister site of The Wall Street Journal).