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.

Living Memories at Londres 38

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Londres 38, a former torture centre, is in walking distance from my friend’s place, so we stroll through the neighborhood to get there. Before the official visit starts, we’re invited to explore the house on our own. It’s a beautiful building with light-flodded rooms with wodden floors and big windows, a dream for anyone with a taste for period property. But I have to imagine living there on my own, because the rooms are empty and don’t offer any anchors for the imagination. Or that’s what I think then, because when the visit starts, I will be told about the meanings of the holes in the plastering. The visit is conceptualized as a dialogic encounter, inviting the visitors to engage with the place in their own terms, rather than explaining and lecturing about historical events. This is why we are not considered visitors, but rather, participants in the construction of memory. I am not entirely sure that’s what we did there, because as a non-Chilean I am not too confident about my ability to help in this construction. But I do my best trying to relate what the guide tells us about the place with what I have heard and known about other episodes from the German past. Among these thoughts is the questions of what the neighbors knew, since the house is in the middle of a busy quarter, and the adjacent houses a stone’s throw away. It’s impossible to imagine that they haven’t heard or seen any of the extralegal proceedings. Then again, they wouldn’t be the first to ignore these kinds of activities, be it out of fear, ot because they believed that surely, the people abducted there must have done something to deserve this kind of treatment. Which is what brought me to wonder about what I would have done. Sure, I like to imagine myself as the kind of person who courageously intervenes, accuses and resists. But I have never been in a situation like that. How would I know?

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If you liked this post, here is another one about my visit to Villa Grimaldi.

Estadio Nacional

This time, creative writing pratice was a collaborative effort. I invented two characters, another participant a conflict. The task then was to bring both together. Sorry, again Spanish only.

Gloria va al Estadio todos los años. Cada once de septiembre, se compra una entrada para asistir al evento que haya ese día. Es su forma de hacer memoria desde que la tenían allí detenida con los otros cinco mil. Estaba embarazada entonces, pero eso no les importaba. No sabe que pasó con ese niño que iba a tener. Algunas veces hizo el esfuerzo de buscarlo, pero nunca salió nada. Dejó de buscarlo, aunque sigue creyendo que está vivo. Pero tendrá su vida sin saber nada de su madre, o creyendo que es la que le tocó. No hay que despertar a los demonios de los demás. Sus propios demonios, sin embargo, están despiertos, y por eso todos los años va al Estadio.

Ese año le toca un concierto de los Red Hot Chili Peppers. Hay mucha gente joven y tatuada alrededor de ella, que a Gloria no le incomoda para nada. Viene también para conocer, ya sea otro estilo de música, o de deporte, o de vida. Un joven con el pelo mojado se siente a su lado y ella, chismosa, le pregunta si se mojó el pelo por el calor. Aunque es alto y tiene una espalda bien ancha, parece muy tímido. Mira hacía abajo cuando le habla y le cuenta que es nadador profesional y que acaba de llegar de la práctica en la piscina olímpica que tienen en ese mismo campo.

En ese mismo instante empiezan a volar los aviones. Gloria los reconoce de inmediato, pues se parecen demasiado a los que habían atacado a la Moneda. Todo el mundo los mira confundido y la tensión en el Estadio es palpable. Empiezan a dar vueltas y piruetas, con humo blanco, rojo y azul que les sale de la cola:

Únanse al baile de los que sobran

Gloria sonríe porque reconoce la frase de una canción y de pronto, todos empiezan a cantar: Nadie nos va a echar de más. Nadie nos quiso ayudar de verdad. Los jóvenes tatuados se levantan de sus sillas y saltan las rejas, reuniéndose en el centro del Estadio. Allí empiezan a bailar, y Gloria lo pregunta al joven nadador si la quiere acompañar. El la mira por primera vez a los ojos, y en este momento Gloria siente un rayo en su corazón.

– ¿Miguel?

– ¡Mamá!

Genderella’s Stories [pt. 3]

So Genderella uses Facebook. Already her fault, right? One day, Genderella read an article and reposted it on Facebook, because she found it interesting and worthy to share. How dumb of her to think that on her own timeline she could post things just like that. Not long afterwards, the troll was there, making his first comment mansplaining everything the article said was dumb. So Genderella thought, “Hey, maybe I can point out what is actually good about the article.” She was so young and so naive. Comment after comment followed, in which the tone of the troll stayed equally arrogant, and dismissed all of her arguments by exaggerating his perceived reality. Until she finally exploded. So dumb, right? Why would you ever show your emotions in a social media discussion? Of course, the troll happily accepted this failure, and send another comment pointing out her emotional reaction was inappropriate. Genderella, now determined to not leave the discussion first, wrote another comeback, and finally, the troll exploded as well. Genderella wrote another comment, pointing out again what she thought was worthy of sharing of the article, and stating how the debate could have been enriched. Then, a white knight showed up. He took time and words to explain to the troll how he was wrong, and how he apparently had no interest in a real discussion, either. He also emphasized his own expert position in the debate. He mentioned the same aspects Genderella did, but in the words of a white knight, of course. And then, the unimaginable happened: the troll gave him a “Like” and stayed silent. Genderella was saved. Of course, a white knight had to end the debate. Who has ever heard of a fairy tale princess saving herself?

1. Reading: Memory, Subjectivities, and Representation

The Year in Readings started with a mission: more ethnographic monographs. The first book I finished, however, does not fit into this category. On the upside, at least it is remotely related to what I do in my research. Memory, Subjectivities, and Representation. Approaches to Oral History in Latin America, Portugal and Spain by Rina Benmayor, María Eugenia Cardenal de la Nuez and Pilar Domínguez Prats (eds.; Palgrave Macmillian 2016) is meant to be an introdcution to oral history work in Latin America, Spain and Portugal. I’ve been doing a more formal review for the Oral History Forum d’histoire orale from the Canadian Oral History Association, which you can find here, if you’d like to have a look.

For the purpose of continuing with my subjective review series, I am just going to mention a few key points. Overall, reading edited volumes is often a challenge, because personally, I am rarely interested in all the contributions. This one had the great advantage, that it were those articles I thought wouldn’t fit my interests, which were the most inspiring. Some of the topics are innovative, like the articles on Lisbon’s tattoo scene, or the performance piece on the Portuguese dictatorship, and I especially liked the articles focusing on female militants from the Southern Cone and on migrant sex workers in Spain. But I would have liked more of that. Most articles are concerned with worker’s history. A real downer was the fact that articles on Latin America were restricted to the Southern Cone and Mexico, giving a somewhat eurocentric idea of the continent, and completely leaving out any indigenous contributions. Given that it is particularly this area where Oral History flourishes in Latin America, I found that quite disappointing. Apart from this (serious!) flaw, the volume is a solid contribution, and might be of interest for people wanting to know more about current trends in the region.

How did I come across the book?

Actually, the journal approached me to ask whether I would review it. I found that flattering and agreed.

When and where did I read it?

In one of Bogota’s amazing public libraries around New Year’s.

Mermaid Memories

Yet another practice in fiction, this time in English. Enjoy!

I’m not exactly sure what it is about mermaid hair that fascinates me this much. It exudes an air of peace and tranquility in otherness, I think. Colors flow in ways that make it impossible to know which one exactly it is one is looking at, because it always already changes into something else. People with mermaid hair look strange, unnatural, as if from outer space, and yet known and familiar (it is still hair, like most of us have on different parts of our bodies). It is irritating to the same degree as it is serene.

Mermaid hair is exceptional, unruly, yet never dangerous. Somewhat like Berlin in the 90s. Or that’s what I’ve heard, because I myself was to young to remember. In 1993, I was only five years old, and even though my mom and I lived pretty close to the ctiy, I seldom went there alone. When we went together, she would take me to the Tierpark, the theater, and sometimes the movies, too. (Note the Tierpark is just like a Zoo, but it’s the one in the eastern part of town, and designed much more like a park. The one in Western Berlin is called Zoo.) I love the stories she tells me about that time. There’s this picture of me on a swing in the Tierpark. I am wearing a sky blue snow suit thick enough to protect me from the Berlin winter, but also making me look like a tiny version of the Michellin figure. My aunt is pushing me from behind, and I have this utterly satisfied smile on my face. A memory made of cotton candy.

When I was about 9 years old, I remember I wanted to dye my hair green. It has always been my favorite color, because it is not pink or blue, but something in between. Everybody back then said their favorite color was blue, boys and girls alike, and I just found that lame. First, because everybody said it, and at age 9 I didn’t want to be like everybody else. And second, because the color blue just doesn’t appeal to me. When I look at something blue, nothing happens. I just get bored. Green in turn always intrigues me, as if there was something more to understand about it, something that didn’t give itself away with the first glance. And I’m not talking forrest green, which has its own charm for sure, but more in an earthy way. I’m talking garish green, the woodruff soda variant. Which is also not exactly the green in mermaid hair, but it is precisely this “not exactly” that is so attractive to me, and which might be the reason I’m fancying mermaid hair right now.

Back then, I didn’t dye my hair green. My mom wouldn’t prohibit it, she never really did that with anything. She would rather tell me about how damaging this would be for my hair, and explain the long process of first having to go blond and then green, and about how terrible it would look once it grew out. Instead of prohibitions, she persuaded me with reasons. As a social worker in the city’s youth clubs, she gave seminars about drugs and addiction, and so from early on I knew exactly how Ecstasy pills looked like (from photographs), and about the dangers of more mundane drugs like cigarettes and alcohol. As with the green hair, she would never tell me not do do drugs, but instead explain to me how they worked and what dangers lay in consumption. She would always advise me to talk to her first before trying out something, but since I had the feeling I already knew everything about drugs thanks to her, I never did.

I was a 20-something when I smoked my first joint, at a party of a high school friend of mine and all her Greenpeace buddies. That was the Neukölln of the late 2000s already, but it would still take me another three years to finally feel something that could be called a fine frenzy. I had just moved into a flat with my best friend, not to far away from that Greenpeace party, and he had bought some dope in Görlitzer Park, which back then wasn’t that overcrowded with police. He was the one introducing me to laughing gas when we were teenagers, and would have done the same with magic mushrooms, had I wanted to. That lovely summer evening at the open window of our kitchen, I challenged him to smoke until I would finally feel something. About four joints later, our kitchen was painted in the loveliest version of mermaid hair colors I can imagine.

Looking at it now, the “not exactly” of mermaid hair is also the “not exactly” I feel comfortable in. The sense of something that is not one way or another, but always something in between. It’s nostalgia what is condensed in mermaid hair, and the longing for a time in which having a certain gender didn’t mean to subscribe to either pink or blue (and everything that goes along these lines). Mermaid hair moments are the ones in which I didn’t feel the need to explain anything to anyone, in which ambiguity was the state of being, and it was fine.