A typical hour in Colombia

What remains from my two years in Colombia? Memories, of course, as well as relationships. Physically, almost nothing. I was never one to accumulate souvenirs or mementos, and I forced myself to leave behind what I would have most liked to have kept. The most overwhelming tangible evidence of my time there and how I spent my days are the hundreds of little scraps of paper with words jotted down on them, revoloteando around me, alighting on surfaces, lodging themselves in my hair  . . .  The other day, one of the papers mysteriously made its way to my dresser. I don’t know how; I don’t know why. I thought I’d share it with you to give you an idea of the kind of Spanish you can learn on a typical day in Colombia, or at least a part of a day. For all I remember, I learned these words in five minutes of talking. It was one of my very last days in Medellín, in early December 2011. All of these words came from conversations.


1. arremedar – to imitate, copy; to ape, mimic, mock. The more standard version of the verb is remedar. As you can see, I first thought it was arremendar. So, who was it that aped me? I certainly gave people a lot of funny fodder to work with.

2. comisionista – an agent, someone working on commission. We were looking for a new apartment at the time.

3. farrear – to party–regional slang. This is the only word whose context I included, and I remember it well. I was in a taxi with my ex and his mom in Bello, and I saw some graffiti on a decrepit wall that said No farees, compre comida. (Don’t go out partying; buy food.) (Maybe I wrote it down wrong, seeing as the commands mix  with usted.) I could easily guess what farrear meant (as I know farra), but I thought it was such an interesting and strange exhortation to the pueblo from what I imagine was some average citizen. Was that a big problem there, people squandering what little money they made on drinks and clubs and not providing for their families? Who was it that decided that enough was enough and that eloquent graffiti could move people to do the right thing? I don’t think my curiosity was ever satisfied. Wish I could show you a picture.

4. pensum – curriculum, course requirements, syllabus. Basically, everything that a course covers. It comes from Latin. I’ve never heard or seen it in English, but the dictionary says “a task assigned in school often as a punishment.” I was looking for (and finding) work as a teacher at the time– maybe someone had asked me what I’d have to cover in my classes.

5. sonda – catheter, tube. I blogged about it here before. Both my ex’s mom and sister worked in hospitals, and many family members were in poor health at the time.

6. postrado/a – bedridden, confined to bed, prostrate. Like I said, conversations about health were common. Probably good preparation for what I do now.

7. Nanay cucas – No way, José; not a chance–extremely Colombian. I was still in the taxi with my ex and his mom, and I want to say that someone on the radio said this phrase. It was a phrase that I had read before but never heard, so I was happy and asked my ex about it. I then taught him the phrase No way, José in English. I think he was surprised that we would use a very Hispanic name in a colloquial phrase, and I responded by drolly telling him that it’s because we Americans are so diverse, international, and inclusive. Nooo, he quickly countered, it was a blatant example of racism. Just think about it. Oh, whatever you want, Kevin; absolutely, Derek; of course you may, Brandon; you didn’t even need to ask, Steve; NO WAY, JOSÉ. His comic timing and mock earnestness were perfect. It’s been an extremely long time since I’ve laughed that uproariously. There was no point in trying to explain my side-splitting laughter or the tears in my eyes to his mom; I’m sure I just told her that her son was muy charro and left it at that.

8. no estar ni tibio/a – to be way off the mark, to be crazy, to have another thing coming–Colombian phrase. I was way off the mark if I thought I still had much more time to be in Colombia.

9. lamber – to suck up, kiss up, be a teacher’s pet, be a brown noser–regional slang. Lambón/a and lambiscón/a are the noun forms. In some places, though, lamber is often used as lamer, and that’s why I put the star next to it, I think. Of course, I can’t be expected to remember the significance of every star.

Here’s the other side of the paper.


The first part appears to be either a brief shopping list or the ingredients for a recipe. APF is all-purpose flour. As there are no instructions, it’s probably a shopping list. Isn’t it funny to list that you need two eggs? (I don’t think I wrote that 2) Such a foreign, quaint concept to me now. Well, that was one of the great things about living in Colombia: huevos menudiados. Everything was close by, I walked everywhere within a 20-minute radius without even thinking about it, and I did most things on a smaller, simpler scale.

I’m guessing that the second part is a list of words that my ex learned that day. His English was very good, but sometimes we all forget basic words in the middle of conversation. I know he must have written that last word–I don’t dot my i’s. Unfortunately, I can’t piece together even the foggiest recollection of what we were doing when we said those words–it’s really only the Spanish that has stuck with me. Thankfully, almost everything was in Spanish.

God, I am missing Colombia today. Sorry to wax nostalgic. I love Spanish and words, but every one of those words is tethered to memories, emotions, and people for me. Speaking Spanish here just isn’t the same. I speak in Spanish, and for a minute there I recreate a world, reconjure up loved ones who are far away, and reembody someone I used to be. I know I was born into the wrong language; maybe I’m a fool to live so far away from it. Things that have been swirling around in my head lately.

If some stranger were to find this in the street, what ideas would they get? If I put this in a time capsule for someone to discover in 3013, what would they think they were looking at? What kinds of Spanish vocabulary relics do you have in your life? What sorts of stories do those words tell?


11 responses to “A typical hour in Colombia

  1. Súper nostálgico. A mi lo que me ponía nostálgica era cuando alguien podía decir mi nombre sin acento. También “Nada que ver”, “Qué oso”, “Uish!” Todas esas expresiones que tenemos por acá me ponían muy nostálgica.


    • Para mí no hace falta que algo me ponga nostálgica, pues si ando nostálgica todo el tiempo. Además, casi no conozco colombianos acá, así que muy rara vez escucho expresiones re colombianas. ¿Qué me podría poner nostálgica? No sé, de pronto escuchar detallitos como de pronto, afán, cerca a, mijo, quiubo, tenaz, berraco, mamar gallo, trancón, conocer a alguien que se llame Jairo :)


  2. There are moments where wave of nostalgia comes so strongly that it is almost impossible to think why I’m not with friends in Spain right now. Skype and rtve keep the memories alive, but when you aren’t in a spanish speaking environment it is so hard… I know how you feel to have so many emotions that are intrinsically linked to the use of Spanish language, from good to extreme frustration. Thanks for helping to keep the dream alive :)


    • How long were you in Spain? What did you do there? What part?

      Most of the nostalgia is good, as are most of my emotions about Spanish. (Otherwise, I wouldn’t torture myself and devote an entire blog to it!) I think the emotions are beautiful, and they can really make you feel more serious about your language studies. To lose the language would be a great loss, as it would seem to sever the connection to an entire time of life and part of the world. I pity people who are just memorizing endless lists of vocab and have no beautiful memories tied to using the language!


  3. Hmm…the most nostalgic word for me in Spanish is a simple one – veinte. When I was learning Spanish for the very first time, in fourth grade, we had an Argentinian teacher who was amazing (spoke 8 languages, vibrant, full of life). The class kept making the mistake of writing “viente” and so to teach us to remember e before i she said that when we spelled it wrong her blood pressure would spike so high that her veins would bulge out at her neck (accompanied by a demonstration of said exasperation). Even now, when I pause on the number 20, I think back to that class and to her and the joy she imbued in me for the Spanish language from such a young age.
    In any event, wonderful post, lot to think about here – it’s almost like a postsecret from a lingual past.


    • What a cool story! And your teacher does sound amazing. I had a similar one in sixth grade, although I technically started studying in second grade. He was Italian. Thanks for the kind words–yes, a postsecret. That’s what I was going for.

      PS- I once accidentally wrote viente in an old post. My ex-boyfriend (who was my ex at the time) was kind enough to correct me.


  4. Kindred spirits, you and I, on the papers-strewn-about-with-words-scribbled on. I don’t have quite so much Chilean slang written down, as I do just random words I don’t want to forget, or want to look up sometime. I have a series of small notebooks that some of these words make their way into. On hand, for example, I have:

    El envés de la hoja

    Which just makes you kind of wonder what was going on that day.

    I don’t know if I was born into the wrong language. I don’t think so. But I know that speaking Spanish is important to me in a way that I never could have expected it would be. And I really appreciate you giving me the brain fodder to think about that today!


    • Hi Eileen,

      I’ve been reading your blog for years and years and years (four, to be exact, which is like epochs in internet time) and savoring your writing, so let me first say that it’s a delight and an honor to receive your visit! Your tales and language insights (just off the top of my head, I think of guantera and the Mexican police, el baño está ocupado, the various meanings of gato) cheered many a lonely night in Bogotá :)

      Yes, kindred spirits, absolutely. Want to look up “sometime”–YES. And somehow, sometime never seems to come. I think it’s fine; I think we’re both getting by just fine. So all those word-splayed lists end up becoming records of conversations more than anything else. We take minutes of our chats. Unlike pictures, you’re unlikely to share these lists with the world, but both can be beautiful and effective ways of holding on to memories.

      Oh, don’t mind me and my histrionic statements during fits of nostalgia! I have a flair for the dramatic. I don’t think I was born into the wrong language, either. I have a lot of fun with English, probably in a way I won’t ever have with Spanish. And I think I especially dig Spanish as an outsider.

      Good luck dodging those triquiñuelas. I once briefly blogged about them here. Cheers!


  5. I was in Granada and Barcelona, have also lived/worked in Bolivia (but had almost no Spanish at that point)… the frustration leads to joy, which is all part of the fun. Language is formed by culture and so without context it is just words..


  6. Pingback: Another blog birthday | Vocabat

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