Have you heard of a postage stamp yard? Well Havana is a postage stamp city – a pañuelo as we say here. Don’t misunderstand: this place has always felt like a small pond to the New Yorker in me (in a good way – not in that inferiority complex-San Francisco kind of way), but lately it has become all too clear how this diminutive status affects human relations in the land of sociolismo.
It’s not simply the size of the population that makes it feel small, but also its static closeness. Therein lies the city’s incestuousness de verdad.
Until very recently, for example, moving to another neighborhood was a pipe dream for most, a torturous, time consuming affair for a select few. What this means in practice is that the people around you have been up in your grill – all up in your business – your entire life. They know your histories and dramas, betrayals and tendencies. The same can be said for your workplace, love life, organizaciones de masa and other extracurricular circles. (If your unfamiliar with Cubans, I should point out that all these circles are also moving the grist of the gossip mill but good, making things worse).
And not only do your neighbors, co-workers, and lovers know all the details and penas of your life, they’ve been amassing favors and calculating debts with you through each and every one of those penas, trading upon all those embarrassing and unfortunate details. I’m not passing judgment. On the contrary; I’m gaining a better, intimate understanding of my acculturation trajectory – because although I haven’t started doing it myself, I’ve started to accept and roll with it.
Does it scare me? Sure, a little. Especially since in the zero sum expat game, such insight into my adopted culture directly corresponds to me understanding my birth culture that much less.
My last trip back to the US was disturbingly jarring in this regard. I’ve had trouble putting it into words (the kiss of death for a writer!), but at its most simple, it has to do with what people up there value and how they behave themselves in pursuit of those values.
And you know the most curious thing? The different value system and how it manifests itself is precisely what bewitched me when I first came to Cuba in 1993.
I’ll keep this in mind the next time I’m faced with the other side of the small town coin: when I once again have to deal with my chismoso neighbor who takes pleasure in reporting me to the housing police (without cause of course); when I’m forced to work with someone who has dogged or betrayed me; and when I find myself in the same small space as someone who’s pursuing my man.
Es Cuba, mis amigos.