“I feel a distinct pressure on me to choose the right restaurants,” I say as I address this newcomer to Bogotá. He smiles, “I’m not going to say that there’s none.” A.A Gill isn’t away as a collection of his chronicles suggests, he is here, in the flesh and on a visit to Bogotá and I have been given the responsibility of designing his tour to our capital city. The pressure was on to deliver as soon as I had worked out the identity of this “A.A Cheel“, as pronounced by the travel agent here in Bogotá.
To be a journalist from London is to know all too well who A.A Gill is. Restaurant critic, television critic, writer and world traveller, the man is educated, well-read and engaging. He is also in complete command of a savage, merciless and candidly truthful quill. My thoughts swirl about me ranging from an excitement due to being able to show my adopted hometown to someone of Gill’s profile, to that of unbridled apprehension as to what he might end up writing.
“If New York is a wise guy, Paris a coquette, Rome a gigolo and Berlin a wicked uncle, then London is an old lady who mutters and has the second sight. She is slightly deaf, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” he wrote once in the New York Times.
What of Bogotá? Will he see beyond the gritty urbanscapes of the Calle 26, the obvious charm of the colonial Candelaria and the pabulum of consumerism and homogeneity of the Zona T?
My plan was to keep the agenda for Gill’s three-day visit as loose as possible. There was no itinerary, just to aim in the right direction and see how we would proceed given his interests. As we alighted the van at our first stop at Paloquemao I voiced my concerns that perhaps he had already seen too much on his travels. So far so good, Gill loves markets, the bustle, the life and the Sopa de Pata or Pig’s trotter soup. Lulo juice, Tomate de Arbol not so much.
We took in the market, the Botero Museum, The Museo del Oro, the Graffiti on the Calle 26, the British Cemetery, the Candelaria, the Santa Clara Church, Monserrate, the Macarena, the Plaza de Bolivar, the Plaza de los Esmeralderos, the Centro de Memoria and more. Of course, one has to do the obvious. But, it became clear that he was more interested in observing life in Bogotá. He mentions a certain melancholy to Bogotá and this becomes a theme for his stay. Doubtless it will be explored in his text.
And of course, you understand why when you read such elegant and accurate descriptions as this:
“To be born male and Italian is to have won first prize in the Lottery of Life. This is one of nature’s incontrovertible truths. In the wholly anecdotal science of social Darwinism, Italian men are at the top of the tree. They’ve got it all pretty much sorted if national evolution is a matter of being opportunistic in a labyrinth of choices.”
What will Gill have to say of the restaurants we visited such as Donostia, Abasto and Salvo Patria? What metaphor will he bestow upon Bogotá with the dapperly dressed old men offering slivers of green wealth in worn folded slips of paper in front of the Universidad del Rosario, or of those playing chess on the Septima alongside the deafeningly loud road works? Certainly he’ll mention a couple of the most visual moments we encountered. The first occurring in Paloquemao when we saw a fruit vendor signalling directions to a blind man, and then the second in front of the graffiti commemorating the genocide of the Union Patriotica, when a Bogotano stopped to introduce himself:
“I am an actor,” he said. “This man,” gesturing to Gill, “is an actor too. I can tell by the way he stands. As an actor, I can spot another actor.”
A.A Gill was here.
His article for the Sunday Times magazine will be out in May 2015. Watch this space.