Suburban Macondo

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Before we start, a quick note: WOTW will likely be Word of Every Other Week due to my increasing laziness. Also, it will occasionally feature phrases, like this week’s entry.

Word of the week: a la orden (at your service)

Back in 1940, when Latinos in the United States were no more than “spics” or “wetbacks” to the average gringo, the government’s Office of Public Opinion Research conducted a nationwide poll to gauge views held by Americans of Latinos. Participants were given a card with 19 adjectives on it and were asked to indicate those words that seemed to describe best the people of Central and South America.

Eighty percent of respondents chose “dark-skinned” as a Latino quality, making that the most-selected descriptive word. In order, the percentages of each word follows: quick-tempered (49%); emotional (47%); religious (45%); backward (44%); lazy (41%); ignorant (34%); suspicious (32%); friendly (30%); dirty (28%); proud (26%); imaginative (23%); shrewd (16%); intelligent (15%); honest (13%); brave (12%); generous (12%); progressive (11%); and efficient (11%).

Now, other than the fact that it’s always fun to look back at ignorant Americans (>34%, I fear) from a simpler time, I point out this list because it’s missing two key adjectives that Brooke and I have found to be characteristics of Venezuelans, or rather, of Merideños: courteous and annoying. Better expressed, it’s one description made from two words: annoyingly courteous.

When you walk into a store, pass by a street vender, or even look at a menu posted in a restaurant window, you invariably hear a la orden here in Mérida. Constantly. Brooke and I noticed it at first in Caracas, but we figured that was just a way for the buhoneros, or street vendors, to suck up to a pair of pasty foreigners. Then we arrived here, and a trip to get a tablecloth made us think otherwise.

We were near Plaza Bolívar and decided to go into this huge cloth superstore right on Avenida 3. We walked in, dropped off our bags at the register and started meandering through the store, looking at the variety of fabrics, from nylon in military camouflage to silk in flashy magenta swirls. In the States, this is the kind of place where one or two very old, very New England women sit behind a central counter with a tape measure and wait to be approached. Beg to be approached, even. But Victoria and Charlotte never move. They listen to Lite 100.5, hum “Landslide” and talk about their hair appointments with the gay fella down the street.

Here in Venezuela, though, these stores are landmined with clerks. Back at that fabric store, there was another one—BOOM!—every five feet. Bouncing from one to the next, I grew disoriented listening to them all say, as if connected to a motion sensor, a la orden. Brooke, who always is the take-charge (read: not comatose) one when we go shopping, looked at me amidst the reams of cloth and fabric, appalled, and then play-punched me (I hoped) on the arm. “Why don’t you say anything?” she demanded, her eyes changing from delightful to devil-sent. “I, um, well, hmm,” I stammered, and kept walking, trying to avoid eye contact with her and the seven or so clerks whom I’d just shunned.

Courtesy is an issue here in Venezuela. That is, there is too much of it. It’s awkward. Imagine always having to respond to people saying “At your service!” at a grocery store in Glastonbury, or at a head shop in Carrboro, or at a sex shop in Chelsea. What do you say to these people? I’m just looking for some grapes—oh, and here they are! Or, Um, I don’t actually smoke—you know, cancer, brain cells and whatnot—but am trying to look cool to the stoner chick outside. Do you have anything, you know, in hemp or something? Or, worse still, Yeah, what exactly do you do with these beads? I mean, are they for, like, internal use? Exactly. There are times when you just want to pay and leave, foregoing human contact altogether.

The problem here is that if we say nothing, we look like a bunch of dumb foreigners vacationing for a week from Gringolandia. Obviously, we must not speak Spanish if we don’t respond. But it’s not like you always want someone’s service. And you certainly don’t want someone following you around throughout a store, watching your every move. It seems, therefore, that there are few options for the socially awkward or the painfully shy.

The one safe zone, as unlikely as it seems, is the Chinese-run market, be it the Kamins-like junk store (quincallería) or the bodega-like grocery store. There, no one, and I mean no one, says a la orden. Hell, they don’t say anything. They may watch you the entire way, following you up and down the aisles, waiting for you to steal something, but they’ll not once utter a la orden. So, as much as we dislike going to the chinos, as the stores are known, it’s sometimes just a hell of a lot easier. And even though our friend Virginia says that the Chinese here in Mérida are a miserable people, they don’t bother us too much. They don’t taunt us to ask for help by constantly calling out a la orden, and we don’t act like the average Venezuelan and pull back our eyelids, slanted, to indicate that we’re talking about a chino.

It’s a fair tradeoff. I guess.

But more importantly, we’ve gotten better with Venezuelans and their pseudo-etiquette. Generally we just smile now toward the on-coming offender, and that’s usually enough for them to back off a bit. A lot of times, if we really do need help, Brooke will just punch me until I say something. And man, do I love that.

In the end, no matter how much I prefer doing my shopping in silence, it ain’t happening here. Not with the whole friggin’ country—annoyingly, courteously—at my service.


  • BUT DO THEY SAY A LA ORDEN REALLY L O U D L Y? Come on man, they just want to make a sale you know. I know those devil-sent eyes of Brooke's and how about her punch in the arm! Stop wimping out and going to see the Chinos and fnd a way to deal. After all, you only have about another 9 months of it and then it's back to the good old US of A where you will be ignored to death again.

    By Blogger gtoz, at 10:29 PM  

  • Just arrived in NY with the GF who can't believe how rude the clerks are everywhere. Unlike back home [how I have suddenly realized I think of Japan] where everyone shouts, "WELCOME TO THE STORE!" when you come in and "THANK YOU FOR COMING" when you leave, we've been lucky to get a "here's your change." Speaking of the GF, I think I need to go shake her out of her jet lag coma... Anyway, enjoy all the service- I bet you might even find it's sincere. Being actually appreciated as a customer makes it hard to readjust to the disdain when you get back to the states. jason

    By Blogger Gaijin, at 12:42 PM  

  • Oh how I would love to go into my Brooklyn bodega and hear "a la orden". Whenever I run out of Frosted Flakes or eggs, I run across the street to be greeted by two mostly polite Dominicans (Primo y Benni) and their leering, slimy buddy (Ramon) who follows me around the three aisles repeating Liiiiinnndaaaa, until he gets my attention. Tu sabes linda? Yes, I know what it means, thanks for the compliment. The way he says makes me long for simple courtesy, annoying or not.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:25 AM  

  • THe word of the week is was yours?

    By Blogger gtoz, at 3:47 PM  

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