For Lazaro, Nidia and Melissa, with all the loves there be.
I think this is probably the most important of the postcards that I’m going to send you. I hope you enjoy it. I’m thrilled to be sending it to you on Sean and mine’s 16th wedding anniversary, because—well, you will see—and I’m thrilled to welcome Kris and Tamara of Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farm as its sponsors. Blue Mountain is an amazing farm near Calgary, which operates as a CSA (community supported agriculture) and which has been providing “hen crafted” eggs to my little piece of urban paradise for years. Check them out–because growing food sustainably? It’s super important. Just ask my friend Lazaro…
… and read:
I fall in love with Lazaro in about three, maybe four minutes, even though in those first three, four minutes he calls my boys girls and then, while explaining the reason for his assumption—usually boys have short hair and girls have long hair, that’s the Cuban way—assures me, “You’re beautiful even though you have short hair.” He also tells me I act like a child, not like a lady and a mother—but that’s at the end of our first day’s acquaintance, a full 15-minute cab ride later.
It doesn’t matter. I love him, I trust him, I am happy. My self relaxes and drops all her defences.
My children notice immediately.
Cinder: “Look, Mom finally made a friend here.”
Flora: “Thank god. Maybe she’ll stop giving me lectures on Communism now.”
In a rather bizarre book of pop psychology-self help-quasi history called How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Every Day Life, Australian-British lifestyle philosopher Roman Krznaric attempts to introduce his modern day Western reading public to the six types of love practiced by the ancient Greeks:
- eros, the passionate love that drives you mad and makes you wanna get naked with the other
- philia, the love between family members, venture partners, battlefield comrades, friends
- ludus, the playful affection between children, casual lovers (dance partners? serial flirters, maybe?)
- pragma, the mature love and deep understanding that evolves between people (married couples, others) over time, characterized by support, patience, tolerance, compromise and reciprocity
- agape, a selfless love “extended altruistically to all human beings… offered without obligation or expectation of return—a transcendent love based on human solidarity”; and,
- philautia—essentially, self-love… both in its good, self-affirming and in its negative, Narcissistic forms.
Got that? There might a quiz at the end…
How We Should Live is not a great book, by the way. Krznaric is an inconsistent writer, and he’s pretty conventional, really. He tries to be provocative, but he stays pretty firmly inside the box in which most of the Western middle class is trapped. Still. Every once in a while, he says something insightful.
Which, I think, is all we can hope for when we write…
An extended quote:
One of the universal questions of emotional life has always been, “What is love?” I believe that this is a misleading question, and one which has caught us in futile knots of confusion in an attempt to identify some definitive essence of “true love.” The lesson from ancient Greece is that we must instead ask ourselves, “How can I cultivate the different varieties of love in my life?” That is the ultimate question of love that we face today. But if we wish to nurture these varieties, we must first dispel the potent myth of romantic love which stands in the way.
Roman Krznaric, How Should We Live
But myths have their uses, do they not? Love at first sight. It’s a thing.
You know I don’t believe in love at first sight any more than I believe in the Easter Bunny or Zeus’s throne on Mount Olympus, and yet, with each of my enduring loves, I fell in love in that first moment, during that first gaze. Don’t contradict, my love, it is true for you too—I loved you the first time I saw you. I know you had seen me, known me, wanted to connect with me before—but I was not able to lift up my eyes from my navel just then. The first time they rose and met yours—yes. There it was. That is how we begun.
The first time I meet Lazaro’s eyes, I already know he is a good person, because he is stepping in to rescue me from an awkward, potentially volatile situation—offering to drive me home for a fair market price in defiance of an aggressive colleague who is attempting to bully and intimidate me. He sees my children are exhausted, and I’m barely standing—it has been a long day of going to all the places, doing all the things—and he has the means to help us and so he does.
I am too tired to really talk, and after reassuring him that two of my girls are boys, I sink back into the car seat—the car is a 1950s something or other—this matters a great deal to Lazaro, the something or other that the car is, but so little to me that the name—and it can only be one of two, three names, right? Ford, Chrysler, Chevrolet?—slides in one ear and out the other—doesn’t even slide into one ear, but floats over it—but I do hear, “It could have been my grandfather’s car,” Lazaro says with pride, and that “could have been”—not “was”—is so intriguing, it captures my attention, wakes me up. “My mother in law just hated it, hates it,” Lazaro is saying. “When I bought it, she just wouldn’t stop saying, I hate that car, why did you buy that car? And I kept on saying, “Mama, why do you keep on saying that? I don’t care if you hate this car, I bought it for me, and I like it.”
“She is difficult person,” he confides, “my mother-in-law.”
“Are they not always,” I laugh. But his father-in-law, his father-in-law is more a father to him than his own has been.
By the time Lazaro tells me about the farm, I have in the periphery of my imagination outlines of the people who live on it, work it—his wife, her parents. The fourteen year-old-daughter who, on the days her father cannot drive her, hitchhikes eight kilometres to get to school. “Transportation is a challenge in Cuba,” he tells me very seriously as we pass three buses bursting at the seams with people—and stopping to pick up more. “But my daughter, she is very diligent, devoted. She is never late. She always finds a way to do it.”
I see these people in my head, and so I need to see them in life. So I ask to see the farm.
“Why?” Lazaro asks. “There is nothing interesting to see there. It’s just an old house. And some land.”
“Everything here is very interesting to me,” I say. And I can’t quite explain—he has painted a picture with words that now exists in my head, and I don’t want the picture in my head to be fake. I want to see what it really looks like.
That’s when he tells me I’m a child. I shrug. He looks at me, perplexed.
“Are you sure?”
I’m sure. And so the next day, at ten minutes to 10, he is waiting outside the gate to my castle—and is relieved when I run down the stairs, children behind me.
“Are you sure?” he asks again. “I told my wife you wanted to come and see it, and she thought maybe I misunderstood you. There is nothing interesting there. It is just where we live.”
By the way—do you do this too?—one of my most frequent typos is to write “love” instead of “live.” As in, “It is just where we love.” I love that.
Before we get in the car and take off, Lazaro goes to check out the local supermarket and bodega. He is hunting for spaghetti—which has been plentiful in this neighbourhood the whole time I’ve been here—but which makes its way to his village shop very inconsistently.
“My wife needs it to make the lunches,” he explains. His wife, Nidia, is—was—a nurse. The former regional head of a rather important health program—I’m fudging some details here, love, because I’m not sure how identifiable I want to make these beautiful people, because, well, totalitarian regimes make me paranoid—as they should, because that is, after all, their intention. That government job paid her the equivalent of about $30 American dollars a month.
Lazaro is—was—a doctor. His state salary was about the same. I promise not to digress into another math lesson here, only consider this: the day that he drove me home from Old Havana for $10CUC, in that 15 minutes, he made one third of his monthly salary as a fucking life saving physician.
After the revolution, Cuba abolished private enterprise and private property on a scale unrivalled in the European Communist world. Poland, for example, always retained some private enterprise. Taxed and regulated to death, thankless, arduous it was—but there were slivers of it here and there. Cuba killed it all. Not, by the way, for ideological reasons, not really. This is really, really important to understand: Fidel Castro was not a socialist. He was—I will not deny this—a patriot. He was also a power-hungry psychopath, and state control of the means of production—the ownership of property—was not so much about giving power to the people as it was about giving power to Fidel.
In 2008, Raoul Castro loosened the restrictions and allowed small-scale ownership of property. People could buy land—and cultivate it.
Dr. Lazaro, the near-famine of the Special Period still vivid in his memory, jumped at the chance.
“The best way to ensure you will have food is to grow your food,” he tells me. There is a pause and a tension in his voice. His grandfather died during the Special Period. He was 95—a good full life. But he died hungry.
“He died hungry.”
So now, the doctor and the nurse own a farm.
When we get to the farm, Nidia is cleaning up the outdoor kitchen, with the help of her mother and a hired maid, after preparing the midday meal for several dozen farm labourers. These lunches are one of the family’s critical income streams—as critical as the tourist taxi dollars Lazaro gathers on weekends.
Another consists in renting a refrigeration unit to a nearby rose farmer.
“We are very lucky here—we have good water and we have reliable electricity,” Lazaro explains. The rose farmer doesn’t—he stores his harvested flowers here until it is time to deliver them to vendors.
I have to tell you—every time I see someone selling, buying, carrying flowers in Havana—and I see it a lot—my heart lifts, and I think—this is good. When people have the capacity to love and have something as frivolous, non-utilitarian as flowers—this is good.
(Yes, that means you should buy me flowers more often. I’ll do the same for you.)
Shortly after we arrive, the rose farmers arrive to do a pick up. Ender helps them peel the bloom protectors off. The little mesh things—I call them flower condoms, but there is probably a technically proper name for them—are slipped over the rose buds as soon as they appear on the plants, and keep the blooms tight, extending their lives. In Canada, they would be a disposable item. In Cuba, imported from Brazil—a cause of hassle each time they come across the border—they are precious, and the rose farmers, Lazaro, and Ender carefully remove each one before the roses are ready to be taken away—naked—to the resellers.
After the rose farmers leave, a neighbour and her children arrive, and Lazaro’s father-in-law gets all the children coconuts.
The coconuts are one of the farm’s weed crops, as are the banana palms, always producing, near indestructible. The avocado and mango trees are more seasonal and require more care. Lazaro also grows squash and pumpkin, beans, peppers. This year’s late and intense rains cost him a pepper crop.
“It is frustrating,” he understates. Shows me a shriveled up pepper.
The land on which he farms used to be part of a government-owned orange plantation, destroyed by a foul blight more than a decade ago. The first thing he had to do when he got the land was uproot and destroy the dead orange trees.
The land he farms surrounds the 100-year-old house where he lives with his wife, their daughter—and his wife’s parents. It used to belong to his wife’s grandparents.
So did some of the land Lazaro has been buying back from the government.
Viva la revolucion.
I love the house. Lazaro is a little worried about managing my expectations, because he sees where I’m living in Havana—and it’s a palace by Cuban standards, and, frankly, by mine. “It’s, like, three times as big as my house in Calgary,” I tell him. “I am not a princess.”
“We like our house,” he assures me. He does not want to look insecure. “It is a good house. But it is just an ordinary, old house.”
Ordinary, simple—efficient. Cement blocks forming thick walls. Glassless windows covered with thick shutters. Designed as perfectly, for the climate, as a Spanish villa. The day is hot, but the temperature inside is perfect.
Outside, two of the house’s four walls are covered with a creeping plant.
“It’s a living wall!” I exclaim.
“It’s my air-conditioning,” Lazaro says with pride.
Inside is a large comfortable living room, a well-organized kitchen, three bedrooms, a bathroom. Outside—a huge outdoor kitchen. A verandah filled with bird cages.
The farmyard. The kids go crazy over the poultry. Chickens, of course, but also ducks, geese and a young turkey. A dog to guard them all—and, three young pigs.
“They’re so cute!” Flora exclaims.
“They’re for eating,” Lazaro whispers to me. “But maybe don’t tell her.”
I laugh. Do you see why I love him? He already knows her.
The children explore, and we eat coconut, guava, and talk. Nidia makes me coffee cut with chicory—Cubans like it like that, Lazaro says, a hint of irony in his voice, which is fortunate, because most of the coffee produced in the country is intended for export, and every time the government decides it wants more coffee for export, there’s more chicory in the coffee left available for Cubans.
Nidia tells me her nursing work was a vocation. She misses it. “But….” I nod. I understand.
Lazaro talks about things I don’t understand—irrigation, quality of the soil. Things he is learning about as systematically as he once learned medicine—from books, from more experienced neighbours. He is dreaming of an irrigation system that delivers controlled quantities of water to individual plants. Also a greenhouse. He met a German woman a few months ago who was interested in investing in the farm, providing him with the funds to get a greenhouse. (After I leave, he writes me, elated, he has met with her again: the plan is a go, he will get his greenhouse, and he is closer to his irrigation system—he is happy, and I am so happy for him. If I am ever not destitute, I will buy him a tractor, I tell him. He laughs. The one man in the neighbourhood who owns a tractor makes a good living lending its power from farm to farm. “It might be a complicated gift,” he says. “That tractor breaks all the time. At least it is not my problem to fix it!”)
The kids get bored. It’s time to head back… Before we go, do I want to drive around the area, Lazaro asks.
Of course, of course.
And, we go… and…
Fuck, I wish I hadn’t.
It’s not true, of course. I’m glad I have. It’s important to know. To see.
Right. You don’t know what I saw.
I can’t show you. I didn’t take pictures.
I’m afraid to draw them for you with my words.
I don’t know where to start. Because you need to know about the palestinos and L’Oriente first.
L’Oriente means the East—and L’Oriente used to be the name of the Easternmost province of Cuba. In 1976, it was split into five administrative provinces. But this is not important. This is: L’Oriente was importing slaves into the late 1800s—slavery wasn’t abolished in Cuba until 1886. When Cuba finally gained independence from Spain in 1899, L’Oriente was a mess and continued to be a mess into the 20th century. And the 21st. It should be rich, producing agricultural land—it used to be coveted for its sugar and coffee crops. It is now one of Cuba’s poorest regions. After the revolution, tens of thousands of impoverished people from L’Oriente flocked into Havana. They did so again during the Special Period. And again, now.
They are mostly Afro-Cubans. Habaneros call them palestinos. It is not a term of endearment.
“This is where, how they live,” Lazaro says. The houses are cobbled together from whatever. Boards, palm trunks, leaves. Tarps. Sheet metal.
Not that far away—brand new apartment buildings. Erected for the army.
In the middle of it all—a very beautiful, freshly painted house.
“He’s done ok,” Lazaro says as we drive by. “He works for the government. He’s had the chance to steal a lot.”
His voice is interesting. A twinge of contempt. Also, jealousy. Also, understanding.
Another house barely fit for human habitation.
“It is difficult,” Lazaro says. “And I look at it, and I think, how can you live like this, are you animals? And then I think—what must they be leaving behind, running from, if they are willing to live like this?”
I can’t talk for the rest of the ride home; I kind of lay curled up in the front seat of the car, my head pounding. We pass, on the way, a couple of beautiful houses surrounded by lush trees—and very tall fences.
They belong to the Castros.
It’s cute how Fidel wore that green army uniform all the time, and not Armani suits.
But in the end, I think he had more in common with Battista than with Che Guavara.
“Are you okay?” Lazaro asks me. I shake my head.
“Tell me a beautiful story,” I ask. “I need something beautiful.”
So he tells me how, twenty three years ago, he fell in love with his wife. She came in with an injured leg, to the hospital in which he was doing his residency. “And she wore this incredible tight dress,” he says, “I was with another patient, and my head just snapped, like this!” I laugh. “And I left my patient and followed her. I took the clipboard with her chart and information on it, and I looked at it, and I looked at her, and I said, ‘I’m going to be keeping an eye on you.’ And she said, ‘And who are you?’ And I said, ‘Your future husband.’”
“Love at first sight?” I ask.
“And love twenty three years later,” he says. “She is such a good person, my wife. Her face—she has such a sweet face. And her heart—she reminds me of her grandmother. A good, good person. You know, in Cuba these days, people don’t stay together very long. They get together for a few years, maybe have a child, maybe not—split up. Me, I’m going to stay with my wife.”
I smile at him and reach out to put my hand on his. The capacity to love. That is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
“Is that a good story?” Lazaro asks.
“That is the best story,” I say.
Eros. Philia. Ludus. Pragma. Agape. And—yes–philautia.
Do you see why I fell in love with him?
Thank you thank you thank you to Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farm for sponsoring this post. Please take some time to check out their website, and think about how you get your food–from whom–and why…
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