‘What do you think of our city?’ my taxi driver asks. Since I have taken many cabs in this town, I have a polite answer prepared: ‘The weather is nice, the food is great and…’ The taxi driver finishes my sentence: ‘And the women are beautiful! Right?’ – ‘Indeed, the women are nice’.
But I don’t feel like elaborating on the qualities of this South American city. Sure, the temperature is pleasant, but the monotony of cloud covered days becomes a bore after a while. The cuisine is as limited as the climate, and the women live with their parents, or with their children. I stare out of the car window, watching the scooters weave frantically in and out of lanes. I wonder what I am doing here, away from my home country and family and friends. Can happiness be found abroad? Or should I try to find happiness from within… Yes, I should probably try that one day…
‘So the women are beautiful here, huh?’ the cab driver interrupts my thoughts about personal growth. ‘Our women are warm. Women in Europe, they are cold. Muy frio. In your country, are the women cold?’ He smiles at me in his rear-view mirror, and for a second I think I see a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.
‘Yes, indeed. We are a cold people,’ I reply. ‘You are exactly right, Sir. You know why? It’s because of the weather in our country.’
‘So it is cold in Holland?’ he asks. I have this answer prepared as well: ‘In Holland it is winter. The fields are covered with snow and ice for three long months. The wind howls over the flat fields.’ – ‘Snow and ice? Then it must be freezing…’ My cab driver has become curious, maybe he is genuinely interested in a climatological explanation for our glacial personalities.
‘Sir, winters in Holland are exceptionally gloomy. We feel as if the sun doesn’t care about us anymore. When autumn comes, people point at the sky and say to each other: see how low the sun is in the sky … and they shiver.’
‘For us that is hard to imagine,’ the cab driver remarks pensively. ‘We like the warmth. We like to dance outside!’
‘For us it is hard to imagine too. When it is summer, how impossible for us to imagine that the sun will be gone in a few months! In October is our traditional festival of sacrifice. We dance on the village greens and do a collective prayer, some kind of ancient song, in which we beg the sun to come back.’
My driver considers this for a few moments. ‘And what happens after the festival?’
‘After the festival people go on with their business. But each day we get a little colder and more depressed.’ I notice that I am backing up my words with gestures and facial expressions, in true Latin spirit. ‘Of course we try to be courageous,’ I assert. ‘We are a resilient people. But the constant darkness gets the best of some of us…’ After a short pause I continue: ‘The number of murders by strangulation dramatically increases in this time of year.’ I make the gesture of two hands holding something tightly.
The cab driver looks sceptical. I hastily add: ‘The regulations for firearms are very strict in our country,’ and I proceed: ‘When December comes, the sun doesn’t even rise above the horizon anymore. For a week we live in a dark twilight, and mid December the darkness becomes complete. To some people, the despair becomes unbearable.’ I avert my gaze, it’s hard to speak now.
‘I am sure your people find a solution’, the driver says, encouraging me to continue.
‘Indeed, Sir. Just at the time when we think all hope is lost, and the number of murders and suicides has become insanely high, the Queen addresses our nation, in a heartwarming television speech.’
‘Ah yes, you have a Queen…’ The eyes of the driver light up. He has probably lived in a republic his entire life.
‘Every year around this time, but never on the exact same date, the moment probably inspired by her Majesty’s intuition, she holds a television speech. The bouquet on the desk next to her always contains the following flowers: the carnation, the tulip and the gladiolus. The gladiolus symbolizes our determination to withstand and conquer the darkest days.’
‘And how do your people receive the Queen’s speech?’
‘Oh, Sir, that’s almost impossible to describe. The shimmer of hope in our souls, when she raises her head and looks in the camera with her wise, sad eyes… At that moment we feel she is a Queen who suffers with us. You see, darkness envelops everybody, even persons from Royal descent. The Queen may have more and brighter lamps in her palace, but the winter hail that clatters on her royal roof is the same that hits ours. And just like us, when she looks out of her window, she sees no horizon, only darkness. Without a horizon, there is no hope… But hope she gives us…’ I am silent now, empathizing with the fate of my fellow countrymen, far away in the northern hemisphere, across the wide Atlantic Ocean.
‘I can see now why you want to visit our country,’ the cab driver says, ‘Your country must be hell on earth.’ He thinks for a moment and turns around to look at me and smiles: ‘But a freezing hell, without a fire!’
‘Haha! Yes, indeed sir. That is exactly right. A hell without a fire. Our country is a timeless pool of freezing despair, without a sun to tell time and to tell when our horror will end. And that is why I came to your country. Your country gives me the hope to live again. I want to thank you most gratefully. Your country is the country of light. And the women are very nice.’
My cab driver looks in the distance with a smile and says: ‘Yes, Sir, our women are nice.’
I see that we have almost reached my destination. I check the meter and count my money. Should I give a tip? No, no tip this time. That would just be cold money.
Cartagena (Colombia), February 2013