From London to Bogotá: Crossing Cultures

Lawyer and author Caroline Doherty de Novoa moved from London to Bogotá with her Colombian husband, Juan. In the second of our new Voyagers segment, Caroline muses on her experiences across cultures, how that has informed her writing and the similarities and differences between the UK, Northern Ireland and Colombia.

Lawyer Caroline Doherty de Novoa, who is also a published author, moved to Bogotá, Colombia from London with her husband, and used her experiences across cultures in her writing. Caroline has written extensively about outsourcing risk for Nearshore Americas’ sister publication Customer Experience Report. Here she discusses her perspective on Bogotá and the differences between UK and Colombian culture.

ProfilePicture“I grew up in the countryside in Northern Ireland in County Tyrone. Despite growing up during the ‘Troubles’, it was a very peaceful existence, thankfully. Most weekends I spent riding my bike, walking our Labrador, climbing trees or attempting to ride my sister’s horse, which often threw me off—to this day I don’t understand what I did to upset that horse.

Bogotá is not the kind of city that you fall in love with at first sight.

Despite an interest in drama and English literature, I chose to go to Manchester University to study law and politics. I am an English qualified lawyer with ten years’ experience representing clients involved in cross-border business—including in matters relating to complex IT outsourcing. I have advised on a range of matters, including representing companies facing regulatory action and assisting them in the avoidance of disputes through contract re-negotiation and mediation.

Outsourcing, like any cross-border business, implies a certain degree of risk—I believe lawyers can really help clients to minimize risk from the outset and to deal with issues in the most effective way if and when they arise.

I had travelled and lived in other places before making my way to London and now Bogotá. Before London, I had been living in Spain. I had moved there at the age of 21, so I suppose I was always attracted to the ex-pat life. I was very happy in Spain. The quality of life in Madrid is very high, or at least it was when I lived there. Even in the winter, the skies are usually blue and the sun shines most days. But work called me to London as I got a training contract with a top law firm there. I’m glad it did, as London is not only a world-class city but also a great base from which to explore the world. In the eight years I lived there, I visited nearly 60 countries either for work or on holiday.

I left London for Colombia for personal reasons. My husband, Juan, is Colombian and he had been out of the country for over ten years. It was time to go back. He needed to go home to reconnect. And it was a great opportunity for me to take my career in a different direction and to experience the adventure that is living in Colombia.

I first arrived in Colombia in 2005, on a six-week trip with my husband. I was overwhelmed to find 25 people waiting for us at the airport. It was a dark, chilly evening that is typical of Bogotá with its famous mountain night air (“el sereno”). But the welcome I received was very warm.

People from the UK who live here seem to love it—even if they have the odd whine about bureaucracy from time to time

Bogotá did not bowl me over in the beginning. It is not the kind of city that you fall in love with at first sight. It wasn’t until we’d been living here for a few months, and I was able to scratch underneath the surface, that I realized that it’s a great place to live. Bogotá has a great cultural life: wonderful galleries, an array of theatre, and fabulous restaurants. But you have to put in some effort before the city will reveal itself to you. And that’s now one of the things that I love about Bogotá—that there is a hidden life and charm to the city that only those who commit to her get to enjoy.

Obviously every country has its own cultural and unwritten rules that take some time to get used to. For example, I’ve found that Colombians will rarely tell you “No” or that they don’t like something. This can make doing business tricky as you can leave a meeting thinking “that was wonderful, they were so interested” only to find that the deal never gets done—no matter how much you follow up. You have to learn to read between the lines because, often, someone will be nodding along saying “yes” when really they are just being polite and have no intention of doing the deal at all.

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I can’t say that there are massive similarities between the UK and Colombian cultures. Anyone coming from the UK will likely get frustrated by some things in Colombia—especially the level of paperwork that is required to carry out seemingly simple tasks and the way that the goal-posts sometimes shift unexpectedly. But the two cultures have enough in common that most people I know from the UK who live here seem to love it—even if they have the odd whine about bureaucracy from time to time.

One thing that London and Bogotá share is the rain. In fact, 30% more rain falls in Bogotá than in London. For strangers to the country who think that Colombia is all tropical beaches and sunshine, this can be a bit of a shock.

I am a lawyer who writes and I’ve been lucky enough to publish two books so far. These have given me unique opportunities to reflect on culture in Colombia and abroad.

I hope Colombia can find its own peace soon.

My novel, Dancing with Statues, published in 2013, is based in Colombia and Northern Ireland. For me, it was an exploration of many things—and the difficult history and tarnished reputations that the two countries share provides the backdrop to the story. However, it is written after Northern Ireland’s successful peace process, so it is quite a hopeful work too. I hope Colombia can find its own peace soon. Although I know from the Northern Irish experience that the road to peace is a long and difficult one—but it is a journey worth taking.

I also recently edited a book of creative non-fiction with two journalist friends called Was Gabo an Irishman? Tales from Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia. It is a collection of twenty-six stories by writers from across the world about their experiences in living in Colombia, seen through the lens of García Márquez’s writing. It is a testament to the universality of his appeal that the writers in the collection hail from nine different countries, and include novelists, journalists, food writers, bloggers, political commentators, short story writers, anthropologists and humanitarian workers. It was a real honor to edit the anthology. I see it as a dialogue between the writers’ own culture and that of Colombia. For me, seeing all these different perspectives shed new light on both Colombia and García Márquez’s work.”

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