Richard Emblin, the editor of the City Paper here in Bogotá, saw my pictures of the Keys of the City on my blog in November.

Richard asked if I would expand on the idea of the keys to Bogotá.  So I did, and here is the article that ensued.  The piece ran in the City Paper’s January edition.

Key, Calle 34. Bogotá

The tradition of offering the keys of a city to much loved visitors or residents dates back to medieval times in Europe. Once upon a time, cities were surrounded by high walls and protected by thick gates and entry required un montón of negotiation, paperwork and money. Someone who was granted the keys to the city received the privilege of entering a city at will, no visa required. Having the keys to the city made coming and going a lot easier.

Over time, the tradition of offering the symbolic keys to a city developed as a way for cities to recognize the achievements of citizens or the prestige of visitors. Essentially with the keys to the city, someone was made to feel as if at home. New York City actually has a web page explaining that city’s use of the protocol:

Bogotá too has a program offering symbolic keys to notable visitors. Vicente Fox, then President of Mexico, was given the keys to the city in 2001. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, got the keys to Bogotá in 2008. Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority was given the keys to Bogotá in 2011. Hilary Duff got hers in 2009. Chavela Vargas was recognized in 2004

From the very few, to the great many. For Americans and Europeans, it is easy to feel welcomed in Colombia. A visa is immediately acquired on arrival. All is great for those who plan to spend a week, 10 days, a couple of months in the country. For those of us who decide or need to stay longer, things get a little more complicated. The keys become somewhat illusive.

Key, Bogotá

Try finding an apartment. Do you have a full-time job? Do you have an established bank account? Do you know at least two residents of the city who own property, and who would be willing to co-sign a lease with you, accepting responsibility for your debt should you decide to leave the country before your lease is up? Are these two friends of yours willing to submit their bank statements on your behalf to help you secure a place to live? Well, you may find a property owner willing to make adjustments to the norm seeing as you are in new in Colombia. How about, you pay 6 months rent in advance and still have a Colombian property owner co-sign the lease with you?

You might wander the streets of Bogotá thinking, My God there are thousands and thousands and thousands of apartments in this city, why can’t I have just one? You might begin to think that the easiest way to gain access to an apartment here is to become famous and be granted the keys to the city. As you walk the streets of Bogota in your search for an apartment, you will be mesmerized, or mocked, depending on your state of mind, by the number of locksmiths here. I remember driving around and around in Sarasota, Florida, just a few years ago trying to find a locksmith to have some keys made. Though I finally did get my keys, it was not an easy task. Meanwhile, in Bogotá it sometimes seems that every city block has a locksmiths’ shop with some kind of large key, in neon or not, beckoning casually, magically, out front. Sometimes there are two or even three locksmiths on the same block.

Key, Espejos, Bogotá

Do Bogotanos lose an incredible number of keys? Do people here feel so thrilled to have a home that they go out and have new keys made weekly just to pinch themselves, to remind themselves of their incredible luck in having a place to live? Do city residents of Bogota have keys made for every single one of their friends and family members? Are people here so insecure that they feel the need to call a locksmith every couple of weeks to come and have their locks in their homes changed? Ah, new keys. I can breathe easy again!

Key, Ferreteria, Bogotá

Life is full of mysteries. Friends of mine here, Colombians, have a stunning new apartment in a brand new building. The apartment comes with a heavy and impressive six foot steel door replete with a special large, almost medieval, key. One recent evening, my friends locked themselves out of their home. They called a nearby locksmith who despite working for more than 6 hours could not open the the apartment door. My friend’s dog, locked inside the apartment, contributed much to the excitement by barking repeatedly for hours. The owners spent the night at a nearby hotel before being able to get back into their home the following day.