Probably the best thing about speaking Spanish in Colombia is that you don’t have to really learn the names of any Colombian men. Instead, you can just refer to any man you meet on the street as maestro. In English, maestro is reserved for an artist who has their work displayed in many different museums around the globe, or for someone who has been paid to conduct a symphony. Here in Colombia, you can call someone a maestro just because you like the quality of chips he’s selling out of a shopping cart near the mini stop.
An everyday phrase in Colombia is, “Hay un inconievente” (There’s an inconvenience). In English, this phrase would be used if maybe the meal you ordered at a restaurant is going to take 5 or 10 minutes longer than expected to arrive to your table. The waiter would tell you, “Sorry sir, there’s an inconvenience. The pork sandwich you ordered is going to take an extra 10 minutes before it’ll be ready.”
Good luck if you’re in a hospital in Colombia and the doctor tells you, “Hay un inconievente.” This no doubt means that what they thought was just a little routine acid reflux really means that your kidneys have exploded and you have 3 minutes to live.
Also in Colombia, the customer is made to feel almost like royalty. This example is illustrated when you enter a small corner grocery store, and the sales clerk says to you, “A sus ordenes, su merced” (At your service, your mercy).
You thank the clerk for such a warm welcome and try to explain to her that you really aren’t anyone important. You actually just came in to buy $1,500 pesos ($.75USD) worth of that good Bocatto ice-cream and aren’t worthy of being called “Your mercy.” To this, the clerk will promptly respond, “Para servirle” (another cute way to say ‘at your service’).
Even the older gentleman with the fleet of dogs by the bus station is always asking “Me colabora?” (Would you like to collaborate with me?), as if we should get together and work on a project—just me and him. When I inform him that I already have enough business partners in place and that he should use the capital he was going to invest in my company in order to buy more food for his dogs, he then looks at me like I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
At home, I always hear my girlfriend, Kary, say strange expressions over the phone like, “Mommy, make sure to put all you books in your backpack for school tomorrow,” or “Mommy, make sure not to spend all your money on candy. Save it for your lunch.”
#1) “I didn’t realize your 53-year-old mother was still in school and #2) Isn’t it a little strange to lecture your own 53-year-old mother on how she should be spending her money?”
“When I say Mommy, I’m referring to my daughter, not my actual mother.”
“Oh, okay, that’s clear.”
Another strange occasion involving my girlfriend’s daughter arose when she showed me a text message she sent to her: “Mommy, don’t let the other girls ride you in school” (Mommy, no dejes que te la montan en la escuela).
“Okay, I understand the mommy part now, but I’m a little confused about your daughter being ridden around like livestock at school. I thought she was going to a private school.”
“No, te la montan,” infers that my daughter shouldn’t let the other girls pick on her.
A common occurrence when you’re talking to Colombians in English is that they’ll start off by telling you a story. For example, “I was at the quick stop, and a large man wearing a gold chain, a leather jacket and with many tattoos asked if I could help him jump start his car”….long pause….You then see, by the look of terror and shame on your Colombian friend’s face that the needle has slipped off of his record. He politely makes eye contact with you and says, “The dove has left me” (Se me fue la paloma). This means that he forgot whatever it was he was going to say, or he isn’t sure of the correct way to express his idea.
Another widespread turn of phrase to be heard in Colombia happens when you’re having trouble hearing the other person you’re talking to on the phone. To make sure that the line hasn’t been disconnected you ask, “Are you still there Jhon?”
Jhon then replies, “Sizas.”
“Suiza? (Switzerland?). Are you talking about bank accounts?”
“No,” he says, “sizas means ‘yes’ in Colombian Spanish.”
Another expression that fascinates many foreigners is to hear a Colombian say, “Me saca la piedra” (It takes the rock out of me).
This is usually heard when a Colombian goes to the corner store to pay his water bill (via the online bill-paying teller at most grocery stores). As the clerk starts entering the billing information, the machine spits out a ticket that says “error.” The clerk reads the ticket and calmly informs the customer that his billing information still isn’t in the system. Even though the bill arrived to his house four days ago by mail, he’ll have to return to the grocery store the next day to see if his billing information is in the system. He then becomes angry and yells, “Me saca la piedra!”
It also works the other way for Colombians who are learning English. Most are very surprised to learn that in English we don’t have a gender-specific way to say, “I have to go pee.” In Colombia, this isn’t an issue. Colombians here have gender-specific ways to express the fact that they need to go to the bathroom. If you’re a woman you say, “Tengo que hacerme chichi.” If you’re a man, you say, “Tengo que hacerme pipi.” Needless to say, it’s never possible or correct for a woman to say “Tengo que hacerme pipi,” or for a man to say, “Tengo que hacerme chichi.”
The final vocabulary words perfectly describe my buying habits when I’m at the corner tiendita (mom-and-pop grocery store). Instead of paying $1,600 pesos ($.80USD) for the Tutti Frutti quality juices, I like to save a $1,000 pesos ($.50USD) and buy the lowest quality juice in the store—Tangelo. It’s the Colombian version of Sunny Delight, except with twice the preservatives and half the fruit juice.
When I bring Tangelo “juice” back to my house and put it in the refrigerator, my girlfriend, Kary, always scolds me for being an incredible cheapskate. She says to me, “No seas chichipato (Don’t be cheap). Pay the extra $1,000 pesos and buy something that isn’t going to dye your stomach a different color.”
“But, honey, you won’t believe the price I got on this juice.”
“Tú eres muy tacaño (You’re very cheap). I don’t want this imitation fruit juice in my house.”
My favorite time to relish Colombian Spanish is while listening to Colombian grandmothers talk to their grandchildren. They’re all so affectionate towards their grandchildren and have invented a slew of loving expressions that really crack me up. To get a further explanation on how these grandmothers actually talk, my Colombian girlfriend, Kary, called her grandmother in Cartagena via Skype, so that I could hear first-hand how her grandmother uses this special vocabulary with her favorite granddaughter.
“Hi preciosa (precious). How’s mi dulce cielo (sweet heaven), mi nena (babe), mi niña (little girl)?” Kary’s grandmother asks.
“Good, grandmother, how are you?”
“Missing you, mi turrón de azúcar (my nougat candy). How are you feeling mamita (little mama), mi vida (my life), mi corazón (my heart), mi muñeca (my doll), mi chiquita (my little girl)? You aren’t too skinny, are you? I hope you’re eating well.”
“Yes, grandmother, I’m eating eggs for breakfast every morning and lots of fruits and vegetables.”
“Oh, of course, you are. You’re so beautiful. I love you so much. But please, luz de mis ojos (light of my eyes), anda siempre por la sombrilla (always walk by the beach umbrella, i.e. stay out of dangerous situations). I’m making you a beautiful dress for your next visit to Cartagena.
“Thank you, grandmother.”
“Okay, mi preciosura (something more precious than precious). I love you so much and please don’t talk with strangers, mi morenita (my little brown girl). Ciao.” (Sometimes, a Colombian grandmother has the tendency to forget that her granddaughter is no longer 8 years old).
Even though this author had one of the top 10 grandmothers in North America in terms of love, support and advice, this author stills feels somewhat neglected by the fact that his grandmother never referred to him as “my sweet heaven” or “the light of my eyes.”
In any case, while in Colombia, this author still has a pretty good chance that, someday, a Colombian taxi driver may actually refer to him as maestro.