Chapter 5: Initial Pattern

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

Within two weeks, Grace, Julian, Ellen and the others from that initial group had class schedules and were standing in front of strangers teaching them basic or intermediate American English. There were enough teachers to make smaller classes–usually ten, sometimes twelve–and assign their hours according to their needs. Many teachers were students who wanted all the early morning classes in order to make it to their own later in the day. Grace and Ellen asked for later ones (“Oh, anytime after 10 in the morning,” Grace had said breezily, when asked at what times she’d like to teach) and Ellen’s answer was similar. Julian asked for afternoon and evening classes and that’s how the three of them ended up working from about five in the afternoon til nine.

Grace had discovered the bus lines that ran up Séptima two blocks from her apartment on Carrera 5 (Quinta), on the corner with Calle 68, in the Chapinero neighborhood. She was delighted because she could catch one in front of the language institute and go straight home in about twenty or thirty minutes, door-to-door. During teacher training, she’d taken this route after the morning or afternoon sessions and realized she felt secure in doing so. Other people thought she was risking her life (i.e., some of the other Americans and the Colombians who’d studied abroad), but there was a certain amount of security in the number of other passengers which she didn’t find with taxis, especially at night. Walking up Calle 68 to her apartment, in fact, seemed a little more hazardous because, in spite of the street lighting, there were a couple of shadowy places where a small thief might be lurking,  Besides, she’d learned quite a bit in the year-and-a-half she’d been living in Bogotá, such as carrying her purse under her arm and clamped to her side, its strap over her arm. True enough, the buses were dusty and sometimes dirty and they reeked of cigarette smoke, usually the local brand, Pielroja, which had a very particular odor. To Grace, it smelled of burning leaves in the autumn in Michigan, which was only slightly acrid but mostly pleasant. The tobacco in Pielroja was blond but grown in the Department of Santander and cured differently from its American counterpart, and this made a pack of them pretty cheap, by local standards. The imported brands were, by comparison, very expensive, but as easily available as the local ones.

Another insight she had while talking to a couple of other Americans in the institute’s cafeteria one day, was how the various language institutes differed. There were four “important” institutes then–the Centro Colombo-Americano (just four blocks up Calle 19 from the Melendez Language Institute, where she was working), the Alianza Francesa (French Alliance, sponsored by the French government, with “imported” teachers), the British Council (British English, and they too “imported” their teachers and staff) and the Von Goethe Institut, with its own German staff and teachers. There were many Colombians and foreigners who gave private classes and competition among them was fierce, so when Herman (he had anglicized the spelling of his first name because it helped attract the foreigners he wanted) Meléndez opened his institute, he had more experienced teachers than he could use. But it did not take a marketing genius to know that fresh-faced Americans speaking their own language with their own accents and colloquialisms would be a bigger draw than anything offered by the Colombo, so his institute was successful almost from the first day. Not only that, he treated his teachers well, and the rumors Grace picked up indicated that the Colombo–American-sponsored and built and even funded for many years, as a propaganda machine against “rampant Communism and other leftist ideologies in the region–simply did not.

In December 1966, when her mother and brother came for Christmas, Grace had gone to the Colombo to take their entrance exam and apply for a teaching position there. She knew she passed the exam concerning her language skills, but had “flunked” the question regarding the results of “the Michigan exams.” Afterward, someone at the Colombo explained that the Michigan exam was indeed developed by the University of Michigan (inadvertently, Grace made a face of dislike) to determine a foreigner’s level of proficiency in the English language. She replied that she was already an American, from Michigan, in fact, so how did that apply to her?

Oh well, no, it didn’t, but it was on the exam because the Colombo has standards that applicants have to meet in terms of language, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

In other words, the Colombo is a bureaucratic machine, and worse, Grace would be required to teach the 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. courses at least for the first year.

Ah ya. . . Grace thought, nodding. This is Colombian Spanish for (depending on the situation) “no,” “maybe,” and “I’ll see. . .”

Privately Grace had been relieved to find out she wasn’t Colombo material. She thought the building and the people there were cold and mechanical, and that was before she found out she might have to get up at four in the morning six days a week. That was another point in Meléndez´s favor–no one had to teach on Saturdays unless he or she wanted to (or needed the extra money). All the other institutes scheduled Saturday classes and placed teachers in them without a second thought.

And then there was the visa question. Hers was a student visa, with multiple entries. She said she was going to Los Andes University, and she had, for six weeks in the summer of 1966, but no one asked if she was still there. However, in order to teach, she needed to change her visa, and Meléndez had a lawyer on staff who handled those things very efficiently. Along with about ten other teachers, Grace signed some papers written in legal Spanish, was given copies and then instructed to cross the border into (her choice) Panama or Venezuela or maybe Ecuador and go directly to the Colombian Consulate. Once there, she would present her passport, two small black-and-white photos and the papers to the Consul, who would glance through them, stamp them and hand them back. Then he’d stamp her new visa in her passport. And the little photos were be stapled to the papers he kept. Así no más. Easy as pie.

And it was. Grace reserved an early morning flight from Bogotá to Cúcuta, in the Department of Norte de Santander, with a return at five or six in the afternoon. Eileen told her to wear something light, as Cúcuta is hot, or at least that’s what she’d heard from the wife of another “doodlebugger” (the men who did the explorations and were sent from one jungle to another in the process).  The Avianca flight was full, beverages and cookies and Choco-ramos were served, and Grace was reminded again that the reality of Colombia had nothing to do with the fantasies she heard or read about in US magazines or movies. At the time, Colombia was not even a blip on TV networks’ news programs. It was invisible.

Cúcuta is the frontier with San Cristóbal de Táchira, Venezuela, and the amount of legal trade flowing between the countries even then was in the millions of dollars. The value of the contraband, of course, was much, much higher. Within an hour of landing, Grace was across the border and standing in a pretty town square in front of the Colombian Consulate. She walked in and asked to see the Consul, but the attractive receptionist replied kindly that no, Señor Ospina had gone out to lunch. Was this for a visa?

Yes. I’ve brought the papers.

Ah sí, sí. . . Fine, just come back in about an hour or so and the Consul will see you. Did you bring the money to pay for the visa?

Grace nodded and smiled. She said in Spanish that she’d be back later, and then left.

Outside, it was indeed warm, but there was a breeze. She walked around, took pictures with her little Instamatic and had a Coca-Cola in a nearby drugstore. She didn’t see other foreigners, but maybe they were having lunch somewhere in another part of San Cristóbal. She wanted to stay close to the Consulate so she could get her visa and go back to Bogotá without any detours.

Señor Ospina, the Consul, was in his office when she returned and stood up to greet her when she walked in. He complimented her on her Spanish, made idle chitchat for a few minutes as they sat across the desk from each other, and then shuffled the papers she’d given him. Everything seemed to be in order. . . she was going to teach English, yes?. . . (he glanced up and she nodded, smiling). . . at the Meléndez Institute. . .? (He looked up again.) And that is on. . .?

It’s on the corner of Carrera Séptima with Calle 19, she answered, politely. Right on Séptima. There’s an Olivetti typewriter store there, on the first floor. (She grins broadly.) I bought my Olivetti portable typewriter there.

Señor Ospina shows interest. An artist. An intellectual. You are a writer?

Well, not now. She becomes shy, hesitant. He is charmed. I want to be a writer someday.

Qué maravilla. . . he answers, nodding. Without hesitation, he stamps all the papers, carefully stamps her new visa on a page of her passport, adds the others known as “estampillas de timbre” to another page in her passport and accepts the money the Colombian government charges for these services.

Welcome to Colombia, American princess.

And Grace was back in Bogotá in time for dinner, which she shared with Eileen and Eddie. Surprisingly, the Andean city did not seem quite as cold that evening, an aftereffect of spending several hours in hot country. Eileen said that she liked to take Eddie and the maid, Rosario, down to Mesitas del Colegio for the day just so they could warm up! And also to get a fat lot of fresh oranges so cheap they were almost free!

By November 1967, Grace’s life seemed nicely organized–she went to the hairdresser once a week with Eileen; she had a cleaning lady named María Helena, who came once a week and was thoroughly trustworthy as well as sweet and hardworking; she was teaching four hours a day, five days a week and earning approximately US$125 per month for it, which was very good money in those days, more so since she didn’t have a college degree; and she had a very busy social life. She was going out with a fellow teacher, a young man from Cali  who had a clipped British accent, pale skin, sandy blond hair and green eyes; she went to parties with Ellen and her boyfriend or with Eileen and Sean; she’d stopped seeing an executive from First National City Bank who was very cute but married, and then he got transferred to New York. She went to movies at least once a week, sometimes twice.  She was what she wanted to be–a single and independent woman, earning her own money, who had her own life.

And one night, as she came out of the institute with Ellen and some other teachers, Julian pulled up at the curb in his father’s Mercedes-Benz. He leaned over, rolled down the window and asked Grace where she was going.

Home. (Dumb question from that incredibly gorgeous man! She began to feel shy.)

I’ll drive you.

And the “you” meant just Grace.

Ellen picked up on that immediately, and herded the others away. See you tomorrow, she called back over her shoulder, grinning.

Grace got into the Mercedes and Julian accelerated into the nearly empty street, heading north.

It was the fall of 1967, in Bogotá, Colombia, and they’d just stepped into the fast lane.

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