For Dad, with gratitude.
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I’m smoking a cigar, drinking terrible wine—I should, of course, be drinking a Cuba Libre but I’m out of rum, coke and limes, and while I can get rum 24/7, the limes pose a problem at the best of times let alone when the farmers market is closed—so I’m drinking terrible wine, listening to the cacophony of the street below me, and… not writing.
I’m not really supposed to be writing. I’m not supposed to be doing anything: my agenda is to have no agenda, but, see, I’m reading Ernest Hemingway—specifically, his 1958 interview in The Paris Review, and Papa is fucking with my mind, making me feel half impostor/half artist (all madwoman), and I start thinking—perhaps I should be trying to write, and you know when you start thinking that, you’re (I’m) lost—reading, drinking, living stops being a pleasure and you (I) just think about the thing you’re not doing and the more you think about it the less you can do it and…
Ender: “Moooom! Can I have some salami?”
Jane: “No! I’m rationing it!”
Ender: “But there’s nothing else to eat!”
Not true. We have rice, beans and lentils, spaghetti, some terribly frost-bitten chicken, butter (imported from Poland), freshly baked (but awful) bread, a few eggs, and also, a jar of olives.
Jane: “I can make you some toast with jam.”
He accepts, reluctantly. I make the toast on the stovetop because I’m afraid of the oven. To be fair—so is my landlord. The one time I attempt to use it, I have to call him in to get it going, and it takes him a good 15 minutes. “It works very well,” he says, “but it’s Soviet.” I hear “piece of shit” even though he doesn’t say it, and when I tell the story in the future, I’ll have him say, “It works very well, but it’s a temperamental Soviet piece of shit.”
Where was I?
Not writing. Reading Hemingway. Smoking a cigar.
It’s my fifth cigar in nine days, and I might be violating the promise I made you that I would only smoke one or two cigars a week, but really, of those five, I didn’t so much smoke the first as dissected it, and while the second was heavenly, the third I essentially lit, puffed on two or three times, and chucked, so this is really three, not five.
Cinder: “Are you trying to get lung cancer while you’re in Cuba, Mom?”
Actually, what I’m trying to do is keep the children off the verandah by threatening to give them lung cancer if they come near me… but that’s also another story. I’ll get to it later.
See? Not writing.
I blame Hemingway…
I’m smoking a cigar, drinking terrible, terrible wine (tomorrow, I must buy rum, if not limes) and looking at the spot in the clouds where I know a full moon is hiding. There’s a poem by a modern Iranian poet whose name I can’t recall that suddenly visits my head. It starts, “Without you on a full moon night”, and I throw my head back and see two geckos scurrying around on the ceiling of the verandah and I run into the house to tell the kids.
They are suitably impressed.
They are not entirely happy.
I wouldn’t say they’re thoroughly miserable, but…
Cinder: “How many more days?”
Flora: “When do we go home?”
Ender: “I miss Maggie!”
I nod, listen, hand out hugs. We’re here for me, not for them, and I’m very clear about that. I want to spend three months (I was talked down to 65 days) in Cuba. I want to live in a house on a real street in Havana. I want to take overcrowded guaguas that cost less than a cent a person, and I want to scavenge for eggs and meat and vegetables and…
Cinder: “How does this place not have Internet?”
…and they’re along for the ride, because, well, they’re mine, I’m theirs, I need to see Cuba one more time before the Americans fuck it up, and so, here we are.
Flora: “Are the Americans really going to fuck it up, Mom?”
Jane: “They already have.”
To be fair, the Canadians have helped too.
We’re crossing one of the handful of residential streets that separate our casa particular—the house I’m renting in Havana for this month—from Hotel Kohly, the place where I trek to exchange money, splurge on espresso, and, under duress, connect my children with their father and their friends. (I send you messages to let you know I’m alive reluctantly. I could, I suppose, do this walk every day, every other day, and we could chat just as if I were in Calgary, but you see, I don’t want anything about my time here to be just like it is in Calgary. I want to be away, really away. I’m kind of pissed that you can find me, that I can reach out to you if I want to. Why? I don’t fully know…)
There’s a lovely little playground here—there are very few playgrounds in Havana that I’ve seen so far that I’d describe as lovely, but this one is lovely, freshly painted, imaginative, decorated with the most beautiful tile. “Parque Gaudi” says the sign, and I laugh. (I don’t know enough about art history to tell you if the park is an adequate tribute to Antoni Gaudi and Catalan modernism… but it’s beautiful.)
Today, there are four children in the park, swinging on the swings, hanging out.
“Hello! What time is it?” one of them calls out to us, and the others start giggling.
“Give me some money!” calls another. “I want a present!” another pipes up. I stop and turn around and look at them, feel a flare of anger, and then of pity, and then anger again.
“Why would you say that to me?” I ask. “How would you feel, if I called to you, ‘Do you have some cigars for me? Give me a present!”
My Spanish is rough; I’m not sure they understand. What I want to say is, “Do you have no pride?” But they are so young. And I am unfair.
This type of thing happens all the time, too often.
The woman at the bus stop is, I think, in her 60s. Maybe older, maybe younger—it is hard to say, because the old here are truly old. She has a cane and she is looking around for a place to sit, so I squish the kids closer together, move my bag, and indicate the space on the stone wall next to me. We are waiting for the bus, outside the Ministry of Work, on La Rampa, one of Havana’s busy central streets.
All the ministry workers wear blue shirts. And take a lot of smoking breaks.
She is grateful. “I bless you,” she says. She falls in love with Ender and his crazy hair. “I bless her, too, what hair!” she says. “He,” I correct. “No! All three, yours?” She has no children. But she has a great friend—from Poland, who now lives in Cuba—who has two daughters… she tells me about them. I only understand a quarter of it but I smile in all the right places and gasp when it’s called for—she used to live in Central Havana, but her house fell down (houses fall down here as a matter of course) and now she lives far, far away—two hours away by bus—but all her friends and neighbours are here, so she comes here, often…
As she talks, I am so very happy, as I have been each time an exchange like this begins.
And then… she ruins it.
“Would you have any soap?” she says, looking at my bag. I shake my head. “No?” she asks for a couple of other things. “Could you give me a dollar?” she says finally.
“I’m sorry, I only have bus fare with me,” I say. She looks at my bag. I take out a Ziploc of Cuban bananas. “Banana?”
When her bus comes, she leaves without saying goodbye.
Do you know who, what I’m angry at? I’m not a 100 per cent sure myself. It changes.
When I book our flights and our houses in Cuba, my father—emigrant from behind the Iron Curtain—has a not-so-minor freak out and spends several weeks sending me links on the food shortages, challenges, and general chaos of Cuba—and Havana in particular. My assurances that I will cope, am unlikely to be robbed and killed, and will not let his grandchildren starve fall on deaf ears, and he solves his fear and dilemma by, instead of going to San Diego for his mini-snowbird vacation, arriving in Havana with my mother three days before I do. The two of them engage in sussing out the nearby supermarkets, farmers markets, and buses for me—also, seduce my first landlord.
I am grateful. Also, amused. And a little annoyed. I am 41. The mother of three children. I lived in six countries on three different continents before I was 10. I’ve taken down an overly amorous US soldier in a south Asian bar. I speak a half dozen languages, albeit half of them very badly. I have way too many degrees. I am, fuck, a full-fledged adult, with crow’s feet and rapidly greying hair. Will I, to my parents, be forever a child?
As I spend four days letting them “shepherd” me through Havana, I see a taste of the alternative… I see the pendulum swinging… I see that it is all about to change, that I will not forever be the child… and the implications of that terrify me.
So, I let them take care of me, while they can.
“That’s where the bakery is, that blue building, do you see?” my mother points. I nod. “We’re not sure when the bread is ready, exactly. We went back three times before we finally got some. When I asked, ‘When will the bread be ready?’ the lady said, ‘When it’s baked.’”
Truth. When else?
The bread looks beautiful. Isn’t… right. The crust is too… crusty. The soft white middle… well… it’s just not right.
I’m a spoiled Canadian feeding spoiled Canadian children. I slice the bread into slices—toss out the ones that are so “holey” they are just crust—and freeze them. They work great as French toast—as soon as I get eggs.
“There are no eggs,” my mother reports. “I asked around, and they said, ‘For tourists? In hotels only.’ We have hard boiled eggs at the breakfast buffet at our hotel. I’ve brought you a couple today—I’ll bring a few more tomorrow and the day after.”
Each day until she leaves, my mother smuggles half a dozen eggs out of the hotel buffet to my fridge.
“This might be the weirdest thing I’ve ever done,” she says at one point. I can think of some weirder ones, but this one’s pretty odd. And such an act of love, and I see it as such.
Finally: “Eggs! Eggs!” my mother comes in with a tray of 30 eggs. “$3CUC!” she reports. Of course, I want to know where she got them. “A guy was walking down the street with them. I asked him, how much…”
By day nine, making French toast for three kids wears down my egg supply; I’m down to five. “We need to start actively looking for eggs,” I instruct the children.
Cinder: “What do you want us to do, exactly?”
Flora: “When we see someone with eggs, accost them?”
Jane: “Just point them out to me and I’ll either try to buy their eggs or figure out where the hell they bought them!”
I do see eggs in a hole-in-the-wall window two streets over. “Hola,” I grin. The dour woman waves me away. Not for foreigners.
Smoking cigars and drinking rum were most definitely on my agenda for Havana. Not too many other touristy things were; that’s not what I’m looking for.
You: “What are you looking for?”
Jane: “Haven’t I told you?”
Those children at the playground, that woman at the bus stop… I don’t want to leave you with the impression that they are the rule in Havana. They are not—it’s just that when that happens, it leaves such a mark, such bad taste. Most people are very kind, very lovely: they patiently answer my stupid questions in my rough Spanish, shepherd me and my brood on and off the over-crowded buses, I haven’t opened a door in nine days—someone is always holding it open for me and mine. The men tell me I’m beautiful, the women tell me my children are beautiful—and we all agree the prices here are crazy, how can a tiny container of yogurt cost so much? The vegetable cart seller tells me he needs to teach me math because I keep on giving him too much money—or too little of the wrong money. (“It’s these two fucking currencies,” I say. “Why do you call them both pesos?” I have no idea what he tells me in response, but he and the other customers think it’s hilarious—I smile and nod, in all the right places, faking it…)
So… “Give me some money!” an exception, yes. But a poisonous one. I think … that… I don’t want to call it culture, what is it? Habit? Way of being-begging-entitlement (created as much by well-meaning tourists as by the inadequacies of Fidelismo)? that mode of interaction makes most “average” Cubans less friendly, less willing to connect than they would otherwise be. I get a taste of it here and there—a clear “I’d really like to talk to you—but I don’t want you think I’m one of them, one of the hustlers, one of the beggars.”
Before my parents leave for Canada, my mother delivers the last batch of hotel eggs. My father delivers advice.
He has spent four days trying to stop himself from telling me what to do. On his last day, he breaks down.
It’s ok. It’s an act of love. I take it as such.
My father: “If I can offer you some advice before I leave… dress down a little when you go out. Try to stand out less. You know. Blend in with the locals.”
It’s an act of love. I take it as such. But it’s impossible advice.
Jane: “Dad… I’m about two feet taller than the average Cuban woman. I’m moving about with two red-haired, blue-eyed see-through children and a near-six-foot-tall curly haired blonde thirteen year old. How do you suggest I blend in?”
My father: “Well… try.”
I won’t; I don’t.
I’m in Havana, Cuba. With three children. Smoking a cigar. Not writing. Blaming Hemingway.
I think I just wrote something…
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