16. Reading: Lo que no aprendí

Many novels are announced as treating memory and family, or memory and gender, or memory and politics, or memory and whatever else. Memory seems to be a particularly well vending attribute. Unfortunately, so many of the books announced that way don’t actually talk about memory, but in memories, and confusing these two, one could easily guess everything was memory. One of the blurbs to Margarita García Robayo’s Lo que no aprendí (Malpaso, 2014) therefore allerted me. It said, Margarita would unite memories as if they were flowers. Aesthetically, the comparison of her writing with flowers does most definitely hold. But what Lo que no aprendí has to say about memory is more complicated than that.

Contrary to the common-sensical idea, the difficulty of remembering (read: re-member-ing) in the novel might actually be the invention. To handle those flowers creatively, as if uniting them in a beautiful bouquet for the funeral of a controversial figure, effacing any trace of a more complicated, more nuanced, personality, is the real work for Catalina, the protagonist of the novel. The author presents us with this bouquet of Catalina’s mostly happy childhood memories in Cartagena. In a second part, however, she explains the uses, not of the flowers, but of the bouquet, to us readers, and we come to realize that beautiful flowers can be conventions covering up for the things that cannot, and in the case of funerals conventionally should not, be said. The flowers, it turns out, are memories of a different life, of a different Catalina who has little to do with the woman that today lives in Buenos Aires.

How did I come across the book?

I saw a good friend of mine mention it in a Facebook post from a bookstore in Bogotá, asking for the best book its customers had read in 2016. It is most definitely in the top three of my 2017, thus far.

When and where did I read it?

I found the time and place particularly matching in this experience: A warm summer week in Constance can at least temperature-whise keep up with Cartagena, where the first part of the novel is set. I finished the second part on a lazy sunday morning in bed, which also combined well with a loft in Buenos Aires. But it made me wonder: is Buenos Aires Latin America’s sunday morning in bed?

… si no te gustan mis recuerdos, empieza a juntar los tuyos; y si tampoco te gustán ésos, cámbialos, y así: es lo que hacemos todos. (p. 182)


What it means

I write a sentence that
goes something like
… the obvious signs
like massacres, bombings,
kidnappings, extorsions…

– and I‘m tempted to end it with

but realize:

How on earth are words
even remotely reflecting

What that means?

There‘s no way to convey
the meaning of a
through the word

And that clearly is
the preferable solution.

and I guess, this is
the heart of the matter
for me:

I must tell you about it,
about the massacres.
Worse maybe:
I must let you know
what it means.

14. Reading: Chapinero

Without knowing, I already had a book (edited) by Andrés Ospina, of which I am very fond because it has a CD with it. On that very CD is a song called Río Bogotá by a band named Sociedad Anónima. This song has always fascinated me for a line that goes: “Nunca se te ocurra ir con tu novia al Río Bogotá”, which translates to “It should never occur to you to go to the Río Bogotá with your girlfriend”. In the rest of the song, the singer explains that people throw trash into the river and that it’s a health risk to go swiming there. I who I only know the smelly and murky version of the river, was fascinated by the very idea of people actually bathing there. What is more, I never really considered the climate quite warm enough to go swiming outside. But as a Colombian saying goes, gustos son gustos. You can listen to this precious late 1980s rock jewel on youtube.

However, Chapinero (Laguna Libros, 2015) is a novel in which the river Bogotá is never mentioned. But those familiar with the city’s geography might have guessed, rightly, that it’s about the Chapinero district. The history of the quarter, which when Bogota was founded was a distinct settlement, is told in the voices of five different characters through various generations. The first is a Spanish shoemaker arriving around 1655, followed by a struggling father of the late 19th century. Then follows a young adult witness of the quarter’s transformation of the 1930s. The era of rock and hippiedom, in turn, is recounted by the only female character. They are all related to the main protagonist of the novel, who lives in todays Chapinero, through an antique shoehorn.

How did I come across the book?

I was hanging around in bookstores somewhat frequently during my last field trip. And I literally saw it in any one of the ones I visited. Plus, it was on the “Colombian authors to check out” list I had made when I got a gift certificate for a bookstore, together with Carolina Sanín, and Margarita García Robayo.

When and where did I read it?

It took me a while. As can be guessed from my bookmark – a plane ticket from Msocow to Riga – I have started it during my vacations to Moscow. I needed almost a month to finish it, because the number of characters was a little overwhelming in the beginning, and the middle part had it’s lenghts. Only as I started to realize all the characters could be related through family ties and the antique, did I become curious how their stories would unfold. I might read it again, reading not in the order of the book, but each character’s story by itself to better grasp the connections.

Para eso están los vivos. Para preguntales, y no esperar a que se vayan ausentando, hasta eternizarnos la duda. (p. 212)

11. Reading: The Republic of Cousins

Germaine Tillion’s Republic of Cousins. Women’s Oppression in Mediterranean Society (Al Saqi Books, 1983), apart from being a study about kinship and marriage in the southern meditarranean countries, is also an impressive plea for a political approach to the study of culture. From a feminist point of view, Tillion engages in the study of historical and current gender relations in the Mediterranean. She compares data from her own field work with historial sources back to the prophets to show how the place of women in Mediterranean societies is – just like anywhere else – anything but a natural given.

Tillion proposes, furthermore, an “ethnography devoid of virtue”, if it’s a virtue to observe and participate without interpreting what is observed and described. Since Geertz, latest, anthropologists understood that no such thing is actualy possible, because every observation is already shaped by our understandings, and therefore, interpreted in terms of the things we already know. However, it was interesting to see, that these ideas had been around way before Geertz wrote them down (the original work is from the late 1960s). Tillion’s writing offers an interesting mixture of scientific discourse about marriage rules without the pretence of a false objectivity, yet manages to include her political position. She does this transparently but without ever using “I”.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended to me by my supervisor, because I was searching for more experimental/engaged forms of anthropological writing. I’m not sure it fulfilled this purpose, because I expected something more in the style of Michael Taussig. But it was good to see that “experimental” could also mean something else, and especially Tillion’s willingness to judge other’s customs was interesting to see in an ethnography.

When and where did I read it?

I started during a vacation I was taking right after my latest field trip. I read the first part on my way to and in Berlin, mostly on trains. The second part I finished in Moscow on several nights before bedtime.

13. Reading: Works and Lives

This has been fun! Clifford Geertz is one of those anthropologists whose writing has inspired generations of anthropologists and scholars from other disciplines, as well. I have to admit, however, that I find his theoretical works much more interesting than his fieldwork-based writings. While the latter once are beautifully written stylistically, for my taste they often lack the theoretical vision of his other works. In Works and Lives. The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford University Press, 1988), he dissects the writings styles and construction of a verisimilar perspective on the Other in the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, Bronislaw Malinowski and Ruth Benedict, some of the discipline’s big names.

In six short essays, he shows how these four authors partly owe their place in the discipline to a particular style of writing, each relating to specific aspects of their actual field research, and in alingment with their theoretical proyects. While overall balanced and sensitive to racism and sexism (especially in the cases of the latter three of utmost importance, given their ways into their fields), I found it disappointing to see that only in the essay about the only female anthropologist analyzed in his collection, he found it necessary to speak about her pressumed mental health. While he did judge the other author’s personality traits, only in her case did he go as far as to insinuate “issues”, which was furthermore innecessary to understand her writing.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended to me by my second supervisor after I presented a chapter on writing affective ethnography at the grad school’s colloquium.

When and where did I read it?

Over the weekend in Konstanz/Zurich. It’s entertaining, insightful and at times very funny. Especially Geertz’s non-fieldwork-based texts have always struck me as beautiful in both scientific and aesthetic aspects, and I am especially thankful for this programmatic advice:

The most direct way to bring field work as personal encounter and ethnography as reliable account together is to make the diary form […] something for the world to read. (p. 84)

10. Reading: Ponqué y otros cuentos

As I said a few times, already, I am not a big fan of short stories. This, mostly, because I really like slow character development and a story that takes time to reveal itself on at least 100 pages. Which is a totally arbitrary approach, I know. Nevertheless, there are always exceptions to my rules, and Ponqué y otros cuentos (Laguna Libros, 2016) by Carolina Sanín is one of them. The collection contains 7 short stories, all of which star strong female characters. It is this aspect I liked most about the stories, which depart from everyday situations like riding a train, listening to the radio, or reading a hand-written note, and usually revolve around quirky aspects of the main character, if not her surroundings. Especially the last two stories stroke chords with me, the darker Carolina en su funeral for its factual approach to loss, and Ponqué, the title story, because it reminded me of the Satanic Verses. This, mostly, because it combines a story of a young woman from Bogota going out to live in New York with the biblical narrative of Joseph (son of Jacob) from the book Genesis.

I was utterly impressed by the accuracy of descriptions and wording. For a long time I haven’t read anything as precise and therefore enjoyable in Spanish, and I am often bored by too long and too forced sentences when reading Colombian authors. I was very happy to see that a different style is possible, and one that appeals to me both in topics and style. And as if marvellous writing wasn’t enough, the book is also really pretty. The edition and illustration are beautiful, and the thick paper makes for a pleasant tactile experience, as well. For so many reasons, this is a book I did not want to stop reading.

How did I come across the book?

I took a creative writing seminar with Carolina Sanín, which turned out to be a live-changing experience. Not because I think writing fiction could be a thing for me – I still don’t, really – but because it happened at a complicated moment in field work and brought back the curiousness about the topic and the willingness to write. I started reading her books only after the seminar, in a way attempting to continue the conversations on writing. Turns out Carolina is not only an amazing teacher, (so if you have a chance to take a course with her: GO DO IT!) but also sticks to all of the rules she teaches. Speaking of authenticity in teaching, she is most definitely a new role model for me to follow.

When and where did I read it?

I started on the plane back from Bogota to Zurich, to make the passage a little lighter. I finished it within the first days while trying to get rid of the jetlag. But fortunately, there are several other works from her left to read in my bookshelf.

Possibly the Best Coffee in Bogota

As someone who recently started to explore sensuous ethnography, I use every opportunity to train my senses. What better way to do so in Colombia than checking out the best coffee places? The following alphabetical list is 100% fieldwork approved. All the places use coffee from Colombian farmers in different parts of the country and roast themselves at the respective places, so that the beans are always freshly roasted and ground, sometimes only minutes before serving.

Abadía Café, Calle 119 # 14A-14

It’s a grey sunday afternoon on a long weekend, few people are on the streets. I stroll down the small side alley that is Calle 119 at this height, and after a few steps find Café Abadía. I feel immediately confortable, the ample space is full of cozy sofas. There are two other guests, both reading books in their chosen corners, and enjoying a coffee. I sit down and order a cappuchino and a chocolate cake which looks amazing. It doesn’t deceive me, and neither does the cappuchino. They are served on handmade pottery, and I am convinced at that moment that I found the perfect place for a lazy sunday afternoon read surrounded by people who seem to think the same.

Amor Perfecto, Calle 119 Bis # 5-37

It’s a Saturday afternoon, my husband and I have just had lunch with his family at a vegan restaurant in Usaquén. We’re all pretty full, so Juan and I decide to go for a coffee at Amor Perfecto, which is close-by. We walk up the few blocks, the streets are bustling with locals and tourists alike, because Usaquén is a nice area to go for breakfast, lunch, coffee, drinks, etc. We arrive at Amor Perfecto, and before we can lay eyes on a cosy sofa right at the entrance, we’re escorted to a “table for two” somewhere inbetween the bustling front and the quiet patio. The decoration is tasteful, but somehow the elements don’t combine. All details have been carefully selected, but the overall atmosphere is a little cold. We order two Macchiattos, which arrive promptly, decorated with hearts in milkfoam. As I take a sip, I am surprised by a strong bitterness on my lips and prominent citric notes on the tip of my tongue. The coffee is otherwise rather tasteless, between those two sensations exists a vacuum, that is only filled by the background noise: “What a wonderful world” is playing, and I think I agree. But there’s still room to improve the coffee here.

Azahar, Carrera 14 # 93A-48

It is already rather late for coffee, for my standards, when Juan and I arrive at Azahar a Wednesday evening at 7:30pm. Before, we were checking out recent novels by Colombian authors at a bookstore close to Parque 93, and when they closed at 7pm, we headed to the café. On tripadvisor, people had bemoaned the site, as Azahar is not a proper place, but rather a small stand with a roof – but still offers a few tables. Even though the nights have been cold recently, we’re fine under the roof, enjoing Macchiattos with banana cake and almond croissant. The macchiatto arrives with flawless latte art, but develops many bubbles in short time. The aroma is strong and earthy, exactly right to renew energies for another few hours. The banana cake is fluffy and tasty, only the chocolate decoration is the tiny bit too much for me.

Bourbon Coffee Roasters, Calle 70A # 13-83

I am showing around a friend from highschool, who is visiting Colombia for the first time and has a day to spend in Bogota. As I am always keen to show what I think are the best places in town, I propose we have a coffee first. I am almost two hours late to our appointment, because I was stuck in a traffic jam that surprised even my otherwise patient nature. She agrees, so we walk south the 15 blocks from where she is staying to Bourbon’s. As we enter the little street that is Calle 70A, the buildings become much more charming. Lush green trees and romantic, small front yards mix with red brick buildings, a few cafés, a theater, and one or another embassy can be found here. We enter Bourbon’s, I order a cappuccino and an almond croissant, and we sit down in the patio, which is filled with succulents hanging from the walls. Through one of the windows, we can see the roasting machine, and the air fills with the smell of roasted beans every time the wind changes its direction. The cappuchino arrives, and as I take the first sip I am overwhelmed. No, seriously, I have tears in my eyes. I’m not exactly sure that’s an appropriate reaction to coffee, but thinking about it in terms of that scene from Ratatouille, when the restaurant critic get’s a childhood flashback, I guess that’s fine. The soft, then stronger coffee flavour finishes with slight citric undertones. Combined with the delicious almond croissant, this is the clear winner for Best Coffee Ever.

Café Cultor @ Wilborada Bookstore, Calle 71 # 10-47, Int. 4

The bookstore is crowded to overflowing on that saturday afternoon. Several baby buggies are cramed in the entrance, and from upstairs the voices of a woman and a girl can be heard singing songs to the sound of an accoustic guitar. The café within the building is equally exploding, and I have to share a table with a woman and her baby. Apparently I entered a parallel dimension beaming me right back to an Eltern-Kind-Café in Prenzlauer Berg. I feel completely out of place, as I am at least five years younger than the average woman around, and have come by without a child, but still order a cake and a cappuccino. As I eat the first bite, which is surprisingly tasty (I expected much sweeter), even the singing child sounds nice to me. The cappuccino comes with flawless latte art, the milky white leaves forming a perfect contrast to the otherwise caramel coloured foam. I am surprised to find notes of peanut in my coffee, a soft scent and low accidity. The coffee is indeed very good, but I will have to come back on another, less crowded day.

Café Mundano, Diagonal 40 # 7-40, Local 03, Semisotano

I almost don’t find the café. It’s noon, the sun is shining so bright I just want to hide somewhere but still run around the block clueless for about three times, until I realize I’ve tried to early. I find the café a block away from where I was searching. There’s only two more people here, but the place will become crowded during the 30 minutes I spend there. The place is small, but has a charming industrial chic and welcomes with the smell of coffee. The place mats display the coffee variants on offer, and I decide for a capucchino, a glass of water and a vanilla-blueberry cake. The coffee itself smells very nice, but doesn’t have a strong taste, and the vanilla-blueberry cake has only few blueberries, but convinces in terms of taste. Plus, the sparkling frosting makes for a glamorous experience.

Catación Pública, Carrera 120A # 3A-47

It’s my birthday, and my husband and his family invite me for lunch in Usaquén. After a delicious Italian meal, I want to have coffee and desert at another place, using the opportunity to get to know new locations. We head a little north-east from the plaza to climb up to Catación Pública, a coffee place dedicated to educating locals and foreigners alike in terms of how to make the most of the precious bean. My husband and I are the only coffee lovers in the family, so while everybody else it getting down for desert, we decide to use the opportunity and have a selected bean prepared in three different styles: french press, metall filter, and siphon. We’re skeptical about the french press, and have tried with a Chemex at home, but are fascinated by the sciency aura of the siphon and willing to be surprised. We select a variant from the Huila, that is supposed to have notes of blackberry and black tea. As we try the three different preparations, we’re surprised to actually taste differences. The french press again deceives us, even though without milk it leaves soft notes of coffee on our tongues. The metal filter brew surprises with heavily acid notes, bringing out this quality of the selected bean. The siphon gets closest to an Espresso preparation, as it emphasizes both the earthy notes and the citri acids, without overemphasizing any. I don’t think this is going to become part of our own kitchen, however, as the sciency aura with the Bunsen burner like aesthetics doesn’t seem to be an everyday option.

Salvo Patria, Calle 54A # 4-13

I’m around for lunch on one of my last days in Bogota. The neighborhood is beautiful, some taller buildings, but mostly two- to three-story houses made of brick, similar to those around Bourbon’s. The first thing I like about Salvo Patria is that guests get a carafe of tap water right when they take a seat, as I am thirsty from walking. I then order an Amazonian fish filet for lunch, with blue potatoes and salad as sides. I’m a huge fan of lulo juice, so I get one of these, too, which comes with the sugar on the side so that guests can decide for themselves how much they would like to add. My main dish arrives with delicious homemade mayonese that combines nicely with the blue potatoes. The fish is very tasty as well. I order two kinds of chocolate mousse for dessert and accompany them with a macchiato. The dessert is amazing, but I have to take half of it home because I can’t finish it there and then. The macchiato is from Azahar. The strong variant from the Huila region is full-bodied and finishes with some citric notes, making it the perfect side for the chocolate mousse.

Varietale, Calle 41 # 8-43

It is Dia sin Carro, or car-free day in Bogotá and I get to Varietale surprisingly easy. Many people are riding their bikes, and the area around Javeriana University is crowded. I meet a friend in front of the university and we walk down the two blocks to Varietale, as we catch up on the news. The street is crowded with food stalls and cafés, so it’s not easy to see the cute white and teal coloured façade from afar. Inside, it is crowded as well, but we manage to find a place in the ample patio. I order a cappuccino and a Pastel Gloria, a bocadillo- and arequipe-filled pastry, which is one of my favorite Colombian sweets. The order arrives as we exchange news on current projects and plans. The cappuccino is very soft, generally good in taste, but not too varied in nuances. I suspect they use too much milk. The pastel is amazing, however.