Wednesday 28 September 2016

Let's Talk About...

cuteness. But not in an attractive, pleasantly pretty way. That definition we know. That definition is the cat-falling, hundred-laughs-a-minute, regular You Tube dose to which we submit during our working day (oops, sorry, for turning you in. Didn’t mean that).

No, the cuteness I want to discuss tonight is not that one pertaining to little toddlers giving you the two fingers (or the middle one, in the States). Let’s talk about the other cuteness. The one with a sinister – albeit unintended – connotation and detrimental effects.

After my first ten years living here in Blighty, I realised that I had acquired an unasked-for trait: that of looking at my own country and its population through British eyes. It was a strange sensation. One minute you were still the Cuban in London, the next, you were back in Havana, looking at your birthplace through foreign eyes. There was no warning or rehearsal. The transition was swift and unexpected.

This is where the “cuteness” factor kicked in. I began to notice how “cute” we, Cubans, looked to non-Cubans (now, from my resident-in-Britain vantage point). My reaction was a mix of amusement and irritation. The latter was born out of a frustrated attempt to explain our way of life to foreigners (regardless of where, on the political spectrum, they sat) through a non-romanticised, more reality-based lenses. The former came about after listening to some of the “comrades” and “free-marketeers”. Occasionally both amusement and irritation got mixed up, resulting in a concoction I would term amuse-ritation (sue me, Oxford dictionary, I dare you).

In between working as a free-lance interpreter, translator and tour guide for a few years in Cuba and becoming an (in)voluntary immigrant in London, I amassed enough experience to formulate a hypothesis as to why we, Cubans, are so “cute” to foreign eyes. Not to all foreign eyes, I hasten to add. There are people who "get" us from the word go. The, again, these are the people who are not interested in "cute" locals, regardless of the country they visit. Any note of sarcasm you find in this article is completely intentional.

So, why do so many visitors to Cuba find us cute?

-         Because we’re not just cute, but “so fucking cute” (you have to say this in the same voice as Thom Yorke in Radiohead’s “Creep”)
-         Because of the way we pile up in cars (especially American cars). Eight, nine, ten; they always seem to grow extra seats, these cars. Never mind that the temperature is infernally hot and some people pass out during the journey. The whole situation is so “cute”.
-         Because of the way we walk in the middle of the road at a leisure pace, shaking our money-makers (both men and women, by the way. Money-makers know no gender boundaries in “cute” Cuba). Never mind that the reason for walking in the middle of the street is because of the risk of being buried under a derelict building, pieces of which are usually found… on the same road.
-         Because of the way we use our horns liberally when we drive. Hesitate behind the wheel for a split second when the light changes to green and the driver behind you (usually a bloke) will let you know in no time that you have to move off. On the same note, American cars have a funny beep. It’s so “cute” that it makes me cry.
-         Because of the way men leer at women. Women of all ages, from middle-aged to pre-pubescent (unacceptable, in my opinion). But, then, again, who am I to say it is not OK to look at an eleven-, or at a twelve-year-old lasciviously? I’m just a Cuban and Cuban men are doing what Cuban men do: be “cute” to foreigners.
-         Because of the way ”parqueadores” insist on telling you how to park your car, even when they themselves do not know how to drive (see previous post).
-         Because of the way we sound as if we are doing you, customer, a favour most of the time, when all we are doing is our job.
-         Because of the way children laugh. Once, back in the 90s, I took a British couple around the city on a sightseeing tour. That night, sitting on El Malecón, under a starry night and with a full moon on the sky, we discussed various topics. A group of Cuban children played nearby. Did you know, the man said to me, that in London children don’t laugh? My face must have shown puzzlement because he pressed on with his comment. Nope, children don’t laugh. And you can’t see the moon either, added his wife. You can’t see a full moon like this. Imagine my surprise a few months ago and many years after that meeting, when I saw a strawberry moon… in London. As for laughing children, well, at the time of writing my son is cracking up upstairs and has done so for the most part of his eighteen years. Must be the Cuban genes!
-         Because of the way we are, one minute, complaining about the state of the country, and the next minute, we are praising El Comandante. The fact that we fail to join the dots make us “cuter” than “cute”.
-         Because of the way our machismo is the in-your-face type. All hand-waving and crotch-grabbing. What would normally get a ticking-off from feminists everywhere in the western world gets a free pass in Cuba because Cuban men are so “cute”. Even when they hit their wives/girlfriends/partners.
-         Because of the fact we insist on carrying on living in dilapidated Instagram-perfect, old buildings (not that we can do anything about it). Those faces poking out of buildings that look as if they have just been subjected to an air strike are photo-cute.
-         Because of the way the “internet zombies” (copyright, moi) gather near hotels and tourist hotspots, holding their arms aloft, hoping to get an Etecsa signal to update their Facebook status or watch the latest reggaeton video.

"Cute" people galore
All this and a lot more are the reasons why we, Cubans, are “cute”. Or as Thom Yorke would probably say, so “fucking cute”.

© 2016

Photo by the blog author

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 1st October at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 24 September 2016

Thoughts in Progress

Ricardo’s stall (not his real name and not his stall either) is nestled at the end of a short row of stands. Tourist-friendly merchandise covers most of the display tables leaving him a tiny space for his chair. After trying to flog me a few necklaces and bracelets, he realises that I am the “other” type of Cuban and strikes up a conversation with me instead.

We are standing almost in the shadow of the Morro Castle, a picture-perfect image of colonial Havana. Built by the Spaniards in the 16th century to protect the city, the fortress is now a must-see tourist attraction for those wanting to get acquainted with Cuban history. Especially the part about how the capital fell to the invading British army in 1762. Between the castle and Ricardo’s stall there is a moat, 15-to-20-foot-deep, which has never ceased to scare me. The scenery is as picturesque as they come but the seller’s mind is troubled by more serious matters.

This is not my stall. The artist who makes all these crafts is somewhere else now. But we are thinking of closing this shop down.” The reason is simple: at 300 Cuban pesos for the space, 280 for the licence to operate and 250 for insurance, Ricardo and his friend need to make at least 20 CUC (more about this later) per day to keep afloat. In reality they are making only 5 or 6 CUC, if lucky. Although strategically placed near the entrance to the castle and therefore a tourist magnet in their own right, the rest of the stall-holders tell me a similar story.

This situation is not atypical. Since the younger Castro brother, Raúl, “freed” the economy a couple of years ago, laid off thousands of state workers and began the slow dismantling of the governmental monopoly, there has been a steady increase of private businesses on the island. Why the quotation marks for “freed”? Because all Raúl did was legitimise what had been going on for decades.

For any Cuban it is not a secret that it has always been the black market that has run the economy in our country for years on end. All the Cuban government can do is play catch-up. In the 80s, whilst we were still under the patronage of the former USSR, Cubans began to trade dollars with foreigners (mainly overseas students), which was considered illegal (strangely, possession of dollars was not illegal, but trading in them was. Never mind, I know a guy who did eight years in jail for having 20 cents of a dollar in his pocket. Eight years, 20 cents.). The government, then, legalised dollars in the early 90s. Already in ’92 and ’93 there were people in Havana renting a spare room out to foreigners or turning a kitchen into a private restaurant. That was against the law, but as long as you gave the local bobbie his share and kept the president of the CDR (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution) happy, no one bat an eyelid. The legalisation of private restaurants and casas particulares years later followed the same trend. The black market sets the pace, the government has to, then, swallow its pride and follow suit.

End of the working day, but, for how long?
The difference now is that the message from Raúl and his gang is confusing. Shifting workers off the state payroll, hoping that they will use their own initiative, might sound revolutionary to some (especially those I call the “plastic socialist” brigade), but the reality is more complicated. Take Juan (again, not his real name): he is part of a new breed of entrepreneurs, in his case, the famous parqueadores (literally, parking attendants) who render Havana an auburn hue with their red bibs. These are the people – mainly men – who look after your car for a fee. They do not park it (the parking bit is misleading), but guide you in the process of parking it (please, do not laugh), keep an eye on it whil you nip down to the shops, or in my case, stay a few nights at a hotel. Juan is an OAP who has done pretty much every job there is out there to do: welder, teacher, fisherman, builder, interior decorator (a profession that deserves its own post on this blog, so hard to explain it is in a Cuban context). What led him to become a parking attendant, I ask him? “My pension is not enough. I get about 240 Cuban pesos a month and that goes in the first week when I get the food on my ration card. Before becoming a parqueador, I made ends meet by walking someone’s dog, or cleaning cars. Being a parking attendant means that I can at least take home a couple of CUCs every day. Juan is seventy-nine, going on eighty. When I ask him what kind of car he would like to drive if given the chance, he answers, a perspicacious half-smile lifting up one of the corners of his heavily wrinkled mouth:  I can’t drive”.

In order to understand why a seventy-nine-year-old man prefers to sit or stand outside a hotel in a blazing heat of 35-37 degrees and 90% humidity, you need to understand first the money system in Cuba. The official currency is still the Cuban peso, which has to compete with the “convertible peso”, which is the currency used to buy in tourist shops. A Cuban convertible peso is worth 25 Cuban pesos. Which means that Juan’s pension is about 10 convertible pesos (one sterling pound is worth 1.26 CUCs at the current rate. Yes, even in Cuba Brexit affected me). Because the rice, black beans, oil and other products he buys on his ration card are not enough to last him the whole month, he has to go to the convertible-peso shops where everything is more expensive. A bottle of oil will set him back 2.90 CUC (if he can find it). As a parqueador, Juan pays the government 200 Cuban pesos per month for the permit to operate. Whatever he makes after paying off, is his. The fees he and his mates set vary according to the person whose car they are guarding. In my case, I cough up 5 CUC per day because I drive a tourist car (down from 6 CUC per day. Oh, yes, I bartered).

Cyclical government bulletins update the Cuban population on the private businesses that are allowed to operate. What these regular updates do not tell people is the hurdles they must overcome in order to make their business commercially viable. Take hairdressing, for instance. With frequent shortages of shampoo and conditioner in shops, many Cubans started using “mules” to provide them with the goods they needed. The “mules” were mainly, although not specifically, people who lived in the US, especially in Florida. The government got wind of this and closed the loophole. What they did not do was to think of an alternative way to make it fair for hairdressing salons to acquire the products they needed. The consequence? A black market within the black market. Whereas before, shampoos, conditioners, combs, hair gels and other cosmetic goods were being traded (albeit at exorbitant prices), now they are being hoarded, waiting for the highest bidder (at even more exorbitant prices). The result? Many hairdressing salons and barber shops are closing down.

I put these questions to Elena (not her real name). Elena is staying at the same four-star hotel in Varadero (a beach resort, in the province of Matanzas, a couple of hours east of Havana) I am. Elena is a buyer/seller for a hotel chain. Her husband is a high-ranked tour guide and they have a primary-school-age daughter. Although only three or four years younger than me, Elena is from my same generation and, like me,  graduated as a teacher. "I could not carry on teaching. I did it for a couple of years and when the first opportunity to work in tourism arose, I did not look back. I do not regret it. There is no respect for teachers in this country anymore." All I can do is nod in agreement. When I was little, the teaching profession had a big reputation. By the time I finished my degree (three or four years before Elena), education in Cuba was in crisis. The exodus of teachers leaving for more dollar-generating jobs such as hotel porters or public relations reached its peak in the mid-to-late 90s and has never recovered.

That much is hinted when I switch the telly on that night. Havana has had to import 1,200 teachers from the provinces for the new academic year. Many of this personnel had already retired from the profession ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago. The measure smacks of a temporary and not well-thought out one. Rather than making a teacher's salary more valuable, these new recruits will be given more "ideological training" to deal with Cuba's current situation. Basically, they will be taught socialist drivel. Elena tells me that at her daughter's school the headteacher is a former teaching assistant who was not able to train as a teacher, nor (as it turns out) as a headteacher. Some of her daughter's teachers leave without giving notice, as soon as they land a job at one of the big hotels springing up in the Cuban capital.

The consequences of all these changes in practical terms are scary. First off, there is a young population who did not live under Fidel fully. Like him or hate him (and I have been highly critical of him for many years), Fidel had the smooth-talking, avuncular-looking charisma to convince people of what he was saying, even if what was coming out of his mouth contradicted what was happening in the country. Raúl is not the same. All he has is the support of the military (he was in charge of it for many decades). It is the military nowadays that administers major commercial enterprises, from tourism to construction. Once Fidel is gone (and Raúl will surely follow him shortly after. He is no spring chicken), there will be a vacuum left behind which will be hard to fill. Second reason to be alarmed is that many of our youngsters are not aware of the US blockade and its damaging impact on our economy. Not as in "not knowing what the blockade is". Of course they are aware of it from a propaganda-rich perspective. However, when it comes to analysing its effects on our exports/imports, their lack of understanding is astounding. I am not one to blame all of Cuba's ills on the embargo, but it is true that the American Congress decision to isolate Cuba economically all those decades ago has cost us hundreds of millions, if not billions of much-needed cash. But then, when I make this argument to a couple of twenty-somethings on separate occasions, they answer in almost the same way  even though they are not related. Who is to say that if the embargo comes down and trade relations are re-established with other countries, the revenue from this exchange will not be wasted? That's the third factor: mistrust. There is a lack of trust in the Cuban government because corruption and lack of transparency and accountability have been allowed to go unchecked for far too long. No one knows anything about anything.All you get is shoulder-shrugging and answers along the way of "You were born here, bro. Don't play the British card on me now. You know the saying: no one can topple this, but no one can fix it either". Conclusion: no one cares.

When talking to both Ricardo, Elena and Juan I cannot stop thinking of that famous Monty Python sketch, the 100-yard-race for people with no sense of direction. Apposite it is, as well, since the Rio de Janeiro Olympic fest is on. The sad truth is, however, that Raúl starting gun’s shot has failed to produce much merriment. The runners have all scattered in different directions but no one is laughing.

© 2016

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 28th September at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

All cities have a unique trait. An element that sets them apart from the rest. This is not a tourist-friendly attraction to be found in a glossy brochure at a travel agency on the high road of an upmarket gentrified neighbourhood. No, this is a quirk that only becomes obvious once one has spent time living in that city. For instance, for me, after living almost 20 years in London, the salient feature of the British capital is its brain-wrecking, confusing urban grid: myriad winding one-way roads and sudden cul-de-sacs. Whilst many visitors look forward to taking a selfie at Buckingham Palace, I like nothing more than getting lost in London’s unrivalled metropolitan labyrinth, whether walking or cycling.

Havana’s unique trait is, on the other hand, its white sheets. Or rather, used to be.

As a child growing up in the Cuban capital, I became accustomed to the sight of white sheets hanging from balconies, especially on Saturdays when most people did their washing. Their ubiquity even merited a mention in what turned out to be Havana’s unofficial anthem in the early 90s, “Sábanas Blancas” (literally, “White Sheets”, by the singer songwriter Gerardo Alfonso). Thus, it was this childhood-era sight I sought out with a mix of nostalgia and eagerness recently when I went back for a two-week visit. Yet, something had happened in the intervening years since I last had been here. The bedding item had almost disappeared from clotheslines. Replacing it on balconies were either Barcelona or Real Madrid shirts amongst other foreign “invaders”. Forget Camp Nou or the Bernabeu, Spain’s La Liga was being played on the rooftops of Havana, with the likes of Messi and Ronaldo jostling for space amongst torn jeans, off-colour shirts and pocked vests.

I had already been exposed to these newly-formed soccer alliances at the aeroport on arrival. A stifling and humid August spouted its all-enveloping raging fire on my face as we came out of customs reminding me that it had been nineteen years since I had last been exposed to this kind of heat. There, it seemed to say, this is for you, just in case you had forgotten.

I had not. In the same way I had not forgotten the hustle-bustle of Terminal 3 at the José Martí aeroport. The welcome hugs and goodbye kisses: from parents to offspring, from sibling to sibling, from lover to lover. In the middle of this display of human affection the logos of Fly Emirates and Qatar Airways stood out conspicuously.

Driving just after midnight to our hotel in old Havana gave me the chance to experience once more the city’s nocturnal fauna: the late-night revellers for whom any day of the week (it was Thursday-cum-Friday) was party-day, the gay corner on 23rd Avenue and L Street as densely populated as it ever was, the seawall, Malecón, decked with drunkards, wannabe singers howling themselves hoarse, prostitutes and couples waiting for their in-laws to go to bed so that they could get some action. The Havana carnival was supposed to kick off the next evening, which meant that some of the main thoroughfares were closed. The detours I took through poorly-lit, back roads prompted me to keep one eye on the pothole-filled streets and another one up on the never-ending clotheslines, festooned from balcony to balcony with myriad garments. But alas, very few white sheets.

The sunrise caught me looking out of our hotel window at a Havana slowly waking up from its deep sleep. Some of the sounds were the same: horn-tooting, kiss-blowing, name-calling. Some of the sights were also familiar: the water-carrier pulling his heavy burden up a hilly road and spilling the precious liquid in the process, the American car-cum-taxi squeezing more passengers in than a normal vehicle, the peanut vendor weaving his way through the still traffic at a red light, paper cones firmly held in his hand. Up in the distance, like a small symbol of surrender (to whom? To what? To the might of Barça or Real, perhaps?) I spotted a yellowed item of bedding which had probably seen better days. As childhood mementoes go, this was one I savoured in the moment. A keepsake to remind me of Havana’s unique trait: the sight of a white sheet hanging from a balcony.

© 2016

Photo by the blog author

Next Post; “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 24th September at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 17 September 2016

Thoughts in Progress

Distance does not just create space between one and a certain object but also offers a new perspective on situations that get muddled up when looked at too close. We think of holidays as “time off”, but for some of us, mainly immigrants, going home from “home”, means sometimes an unconscious search for answers hitherto elusive, i.e., “time on”.
The view from Havana is different

I recently went back to Cuba for a fortnight. I had not been for three years and therefore I had missed out on all the “changes”. Whilst I have a lot to write about my visit, this post will not necessarily deal with the transformations my country has gone through (or subjected to, rather). I am still digesting many of the permutations to which I bore witness. This outing today is about the immigrant’s eternal conundrum: belongingness.

There comes a time when “going home” becomes “leaving home for home and returning home after”, a tautology in and of itself, but an important one. This acquires more urgency when both “homes” have undergone radical changes. Explanations are sought and theories thought up. The latter are concocted on the hoof as the former are blurted out. You ask people and they quiz you in return. Both parties look for ready-made answers but none are forthcoming, only half-baked, spontaneous responses.

I thought I had left Brexit and Cameron’s crew behind at Gatwick, only to find that I had been appointed the (unofficial) “dabster” by relatives and friends to throw some light on recent events on these isles. That, I did not mind. What surprised me was what came out of my mouth. My feelings for my adopted land had strengthened to a level I did not know until then.

The poet (poetess? Can I still say that?) Agnes Krampe writes in her poem “Perhaps the Hardest Part of Emigration” that “The rhythm of the language was not pulsing/Deep in my body. Shapeless, without pattern/the words limped on the page, where I once could/Compose in dancing meter graceful rhyme.” The language she refers to is that of the new country. I can relate to that lack of rhythm, not from a linguistic perspective, but from a cultural one. I already spoke English fluently when I arrived in London but I did not “speak” the culture. Britain defied my expectations. Whereas I, too, could once “compose in dancing meter graceful rhyme” in Cuba, over here I felt somewhat stunted at the beginning.

Not anymore. When talking about Brexit, Theresa May’s rise or the squabbles in the Labour Party a few weeks ago in my hometown, there was often a note of optimism in my voice. I know that this might come as a surprise to some of you, my fellow bloggers and readers, given that my previous post was pretty depressing. Nevertheless, distance affords one the privilege of looking at one’s adopted home through a fresh pair of prescription glasses. Mind you, to confuse my optimism with idealism would be fatal. My optimism was reality-based. Still, there I was, explaining that the recent wave of anti-immigrant, racist attacks were carried out by a minority. That London, the city I have called "home" for almost twenty years, voted to stay in the European Union. That we have a Muslim mayor. That Labour's in-fighting should be seen in the context of two factions locking horns (not at the best of times, fair to say). That... That... That... 

I have a theory about this attitude. It is almost as if some of us, immigrants, become protective of our adopted land. We know its flaws and virtues, but woe betide anyone who dares to slander it, for they shall be subjected to a tongue-lashing delivered in heavily Cuban-accented English (or similar). I have often laid into Nigel Farage and his band of bigots and fascists. Yet, when questioned about his lethal influence on British politics, my answer was usually along the lines of: “That’s different opinions for you. Without them, democracy would probably die a little bit every day. It is a risk, but it is a risk I am willing to take any time.” Surprised? I was indeed.

The life of an immigrant upon arrival in their new land can seem sometimes like a flimsy piece of paper blown away by the wind. We are led, if you like: by work, domestic life, every day demands. Whether it is lucubration or diurnal graft, moments of Wildean idleness and contemplation are few and far between. Eventually, though, the first associations appear: we make up our own story as we go along, our experience becomes a background against which we analyse our presence in our adopted land, we even come up with our own soundtrack. One that might not match the type of music we usually like.

Some other times we find a wall in our path (of Trumpian proportions) which we have to surmount: break through or jump over it. Either way, there is a transformation in you and in the wall. But only you, as the thinking being can make sense of this encounter (collision?) and its aftermath.

I am Cuban, will always be, never want to stop being Cuban. I am also British. Not just as a mere passport-holder, but as a person for whom “the rhythm of the language” is pulsing now (for language, think “culture”). Someone who can also “Compose in dancing meter graceful rhyme.” Distance does that to you. That is why whenever I touch down in London, I say nowadays: “I’m back home from home”.

© 2016

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 21st September at 6pm (GMT)


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