Figuring out stuff in a new country happens in layers. If you’re paying attention, you start to notice something that seems to belong to a theme. Then you start asking questions, then you ask other people the same questions. Pretty soon you get a somewhat complete picture of what’s happening. And then, at the end, you realize that you still didn’t get it all. That’s the sum of what happened here in Colombia last month. But I know you’ll want to keep reading for all the details.
I saw a note on our school calendar that Friendship Day was the 14th of September. After I got over the shock of something actually listed on the school calendar, I said to myself, “Self, knowing Colombian school girls like you do, this is likely to be a big thing.” I put the day on my calendar and made a mental note to be alert to anything more. My experience tells me that if I’m alert to something, it usually shows up again, which becomes another layer of info.
A few days later I saw some Valentine’s decorations at the Dollar City store. (Don’t ask why that store isn’t called Ciudad del Peso. Somehow that just didn’t make the cut.) I figured Dollar City maybe was getting the USA’s leftover products from Valentine’s Day. And perhaps it was just delayed in getting here. Then someone mentioned “Colombian Valentine’s Day” in September and it all started to come together.
So now it’s time to ask some questions. What happens on Colombian Valentine’s Day? And if it’s a day of celebrating friends too, how does that work? What do friends do for each other? How far does friendship extend? Is my taxi driver my friend? Really what I’m asking is “What do I have to do to not mess this up??”
I have recently started some more advanced, personalized Spanish lessons so I asked my teacher all of these questions and boy am I glad I did. When he told me the whole process, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. This is me when he told me it was a combination of Secret Santa and Valentine’s Day.
My former colleagues at the AFS office in Portland, Oregon will nod knowingly at this point. They will recall my
obsession with enthusiasm for organizing the annual office-wide Secret Santa project. By the end of my AFS reign it was up to 2 weeks with a massive reveal party at the end. They are lucky I’m not still working there because I would do it for a month if I could, plus a trial run in July. But I digress.
So Spanish Teacher Alejo tells me that at the school first there’s the drawing of the name of your secret friend. Then there’s something called “endulzan” which is really the same word for “make sweet”. In this case it’s used like “the girls endulzan” or “have an endulzada” which means they have a sweetener. Or, in other words, they exchange sweets. Finally, there’s the “descubrimiento” or “discovery”, when the kids exchange a final gift and reveal the name of their secret friend. Multiple times he mentioned the black bag as the method for delivering the items to your friend. I have visions of great selection of black friendship bags at the store and I could not wait to check them out.
But alas, I was not born yesterday. I do not rely on one source for this info. This sounds too important and easy to get it wrong. So after hearing about it from my teacher Alejo, I asked Bryan, our taxi driver, for more info. He gave me the exact same explanation, even down to using the same words and mentioning the black bag. The same information from TWO sources in Colombia??? This never happens!
Armed with this information, I sat down with the kids and told them everything I knew. It turns out they were one step ahead of me! My neighbor Jamie has kids at the same school (more on that later). Her daughter Coco’s class had already drawn the name of a secret friend. Indeed, the “secret” part was so serious that all the girls in her class ATE the piece of paper that the name was on.
Each class did it differently so we had three classes to figure out between Jamie and I (she has two kids but Cameron and Zoe are in the same class so that makes it easy). We learned that Haley’s class was only exchanging sweets with the secret friend. Coco’s class was exchanging sweets a few times and then having the “discovery” party with gift giving at the end. Zoe and Cameron’s class was skipping the sweets exchange and going right to the gift party. This is all so complicated!!! And of course no one had any dates for when any of this was happening.
We had the advantage of Haley’s class going first so we all saw how it went down. Unfortunately for Haley she had been sick and the day she returned to school, unbeknownst to her, was the sweets exchange. She saw black garbage bags being handed out and was told to bring sweets for her secret friend the next day. I told her that I hadn’t seen any pretty black bags at any of the stores, but she told me it was a garbage bag. You know, like the kind you put out at the curb. Really, Colombia? You disappoint me.
At this point Haley’s friend was no longer secret because she was the only one who didn’t get a sweet bag the day that Haley returned, clueless, to class. But thanks to our favorite grocery delivery service and a black trash bag we use for our trash, Haley was prepared for the next day.
We really didn’t know when any of this was happening for the other kids, so Jamie sent Coco to school every day with her sweets wrapped in a black garbage bag. She’s a former PTA president, just like me. We don’t mess around with secret friend responsibilities. It’s best to be prepared.
Finally, we heard that the final gift exchange would be on a Wednesday so that day the niños all went to school fully ready with their stuffed animal (the recommended final gift) wrapped in the black bag.
Except no one told us that for the final gift, it’s supposed to be wrapped in pretty wrapping! So there go the gringos, arriving with their black trash bag gift. This is a prime example of how ingrained these traditions are. People don’t even realize what they know, so they don’t even know to tell you. Read: I blame my Spanish teacher. But no one seemed to mind too much and the stuffed animals were received with great enthusiasm by all the secret friends.
During one of my investigative conversations with Taxi Driver Bryan, I learned that some families do this secret friend concept too. I happened to mention that to Zoe and within 3 minutes she had names in a hat and we were drawing a name for the newly-invented Secret Neighbor program. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree with that girl. What followed was 3 weeks (guess who came up with the timeframe?!) of secret exchanges of gifts and sweets between the Sherman and Cate apartments.
And so, all’s well that ends well. The kids survived – and thrived – during the season of Dia de Amor y Amistad, the mothers were educated on when – and when not – to use black garbage bags and I enjoyed my beloved Secret Santa program after a long 12-year absence. Es bueno. Love rocks.