Havana: The Land of Big Ideas

Dear friends, family, readers new and not, informants, and detractors:

I’ve been (too) quiet here lately and for this, I apologize. It’s for worthy, horizon-broadening reasons however, and for that, I’ll never seek pardon. But enough with the ‘justificaciones’ as my friend and Havana Bike Polo champ Tomás likes to say.

To the grano:

I had this idea for a bookstore/café a couple of years ago. Like many of my ideas, it was ambitious, quirky, and against the grain. Furthermore, it was quite possibly impractical and practically (but not quite) impossible. I cooked it up slowly, adding ingredients and letting it simmer while I built momentum and strength (see note 1).

When I roped my Cuban family into it, I never imagined all the valuable experience and lessons – all the magic – we would live in the three short months since opening Cuba Libro (see note 2). And those experiences and magic were imparted and shared by some extraordinary people of all ages and genders, orientations and many nationalities, too. Being Cuba, every color of the skin spectrum has walked through our doors – another thing I love about this island. We’ve even imparted/shared with a little person (i.e. a dwarf), who had a voice delicious enough to eat – I could have talked to him all Havana day long.

In short (no pun intended), the people we’ve met and talked to, read and laughed with, are inspiring and surprising us daily.

Cuba Libro: serving up Havana's best juice!

Cuba Libro: serving up Havana’s best juice!

There’s Marta, the English teacher at the grade school across and up the street. And I do mean across and up: the school is divided between two Vedado mansions a block apart and the cute, uniformed kids are shuttled between the two – single file, hand-in-hand – a few times a day by Marta and others. When Marta came in to see about the possibility of getting some bilingual dictionaries (neither the school nor the teacher has one), we hatched a donation drive. Thanks to some folks visiting from afar, we made the first, small delivery of a few dictionaries a couple of weeks ago (see note 3).

Then there’s the guy in the orange-tinted, 70’s porn star sunglasses peddling black market coffee (see note 4), his breath perennially laced with Planchao. One morning around 11, he came in, plopped into the Adirondack chair under a palm tree, began mumbling drunkenly and nodded off. We rousted him gently and ushered him on his way. The combination between comfort and coolness at Cuba Libro is why we don’t sell any booze. If we did, we’d have people passed out in the hammocks, on the couch, the bathroom floor…

The avocado seller is another memorable character in Cuba Libro’s world. One day he saw me standing in front of the gate and asked: ‘Hey Blondie! Why’s someone as pretty as you all alone?’

‘I don’t know. I guess no one can tame the beast,’ I responded, laughing.

He sidled over with a gap-toothed smile. ‘I know how to tame the beast. Love and tenderness.’

When he saw me a couple of days later he said, ‘remember Blondie! Love and tenderness!!’

It’s still avocado season, but he hasn’t been around in a while. I miss him.

There’s the rough-around-the-edges fellow who passes by at the same time every single day pulling two boxes on a chivichana. We hear him before we see him:

‘CREMITA DE LEEEEEEEECHE!!’

‘BARRA DE GUAYABAAAAAA!!’

If you know some enthusiastic, deep-throated pregoneros, you know we can hear this sweets seller for blocks and blocks and blocks and…here he is now!

Doctors and students, parents, grandparents, expats and diplomats. They’re coming in droves. But it’s the artists – from scriptwriters to sculptors, composers to poets – keeping things frisky. We’re getting all kinds: painters, photographers, actors, costume designers, puppet makers and musicians. Some famous, all talented.

me and santi

I’ve taken a personal shine to Samuel. Red-haired, with big green eyes (a striking combination in any context, more so in Cuba), he’s a violin player who showed up at our most recent art opening. He lives in the neighborhood and was just passing by he told us. The party was in full swing, just comfortably shy of packed.

‘Would it be okay for me to play a while in the garden?’ he asked.

‘OK?! It would be phenomenal!’ I told him, blue eyes meeting green.

So he unzipped his case, grabbed his bow, tuned up, and ripped in. Samuel is 16 years old.

Then there are the little kids, many of them Cuba Libro regulars. Nikki (I’m not sure how to spell her name but given the Cuban penchant for funky, medio cheo names, this is probably close) is a handful and already a troublemaker at the tender age of eight (see note 5), but cute and charming. She’ll go far in this life.

ninas

We also have a tribe of 10-year old guapos coming in. They like to break rules, brag about fantasy conquests, and steal the condoms we offer free for the taking – but not for balloon making, which is what these kids use them for (see aforementioned fantasy conquests).

But it’s sweet, polite Jonathan, a tow-headed kid who says por favor and gracias while looking you in the eye shyly, who has won my heart. In his first year of pre-school (also across the street, but contained in one building por suerte), he came in with his grandmother Aracely a couple of months ago. Havana was still in that weird monsoon vortex where we’d get hours-long, sheets-of-water downpours every day, but that afternoon was sunny. I set Jonathan up swinging in a hammock and started talking to Aracely.

Like Cubans do, she said right out and straightaway: Jonathan is six, an only child. His mother, (Aracely’s daughter-in-law), died of a heart attack in March. She was 27. I touched Aracely’s arm and said ‘how awful.’ I told her how sorry I was. I asked after her family, after her son, after Jonathan. Her eyes went soft and moist as she confided that they were doing the best they can.

They came in a week later during another break in the rain. As Jonathan dashed for the hammock, Aracely told me: we were walking to school the other day. It was 7:30 and he was all excited, pointing as we passed by: ‘look abue! That’s where I drew with the colored chalk. In that garden. Let’s go back!’

And they’ve been in several times since. Jonathan always gets a lollipop, a box of colored chalk, and plenty of driveway-cum-canvas to draw his heart out. And Aracely always gets a cafecito on the house.

This is some of what and whom have kept me from writing lately. And that’s just fine by me.

PS – This post was ready two weeks ago but no manner of internet gymnastics/expense allowed me to post it. GRRRRRR.

Notes

1. 2011-2012 was a hell of a time for me, with great and multiple personal losses – hence the need for strength-gathering.

2. It actually started in earnest about 6 months ago when we started fixing the space up.

3. Anyone interested in donating, please drop a line to cubalibrohavana@gmail.com.

4. We don’t buy it, of course. That would be illegal. Regardless, it clogs our espresso machine. How did we discover that black market coffee clogs the machine? Don’t ask; don’t tell.

5. Not unlike another female Scorpio I know. Ahem.

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30 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad

30 responses to “Havana: The Land of Big Ideas

  1. Congratulations! I will be in for a visit and coffee next Tuesday.

  2. Long-time-reader First-time-poster

    Mega-inspiring & super-awesome !!
    Thanks for the smiles and the stories; that sounds like a coffee shop I would want to work in. I’ll definitely visit next time in Havana !

    Cheers & all the best !

    • I’m always tickled pink (as my mom would say, and it’s a bit lascivious, that saying, don’t you think?) when someone is moved enough to comment on my blog (or any blog for that matter). Thanks for writing in! Spread the good cheer, my friends – the world is in deep mierda, it’s up to us to pull it from its doldrums.

  3. I’m so elated and anxious to experience Havana first-hand ya mismito.. I will definitely be stopping by Cuba Libro very shortly! Felicidades por este logro tan impresionante :)

    And yes, those female Scorpios can be quite a handful (just ask my parents jeje)… but hey, it’s hard not to love us a pesar de todo, verdá?

  4. Bob Carey

    Hi Conner I have had in the past 3 second hand bookshops in the UK and 1 here in Canada . Its hard work and long hours but a lot of fun and lots of interesting people . have been visiting Cuba a couple of times a year for the past 15 years . Will be in Havana in a few weeks nov 28 til dec 5 and will drop off a dozen or so crime fiction paperbacks . keep up the good work .Maybe see you at your shop and have a chat . Cheers Bob

    • Hard work, long hours and never a dull moment. We’re flooded with crime fiction and few cubans buy them (though we do have a few faithful readers of this genre). To give you an idea of what people have come ’round asking for in the past several days: The Art of War, Julia Sweig’s What Everyone Needs to Know about Cuba, manga/comics, anything on body buidling, texts from the Actors Studio…Cmon down for Cubas best iced coffee!

  5. Sounds absolutely wonderful, I love, love loved this post and felt like I was right there with you. Pricey flights across the pond are keeping me Mexico bound for now (quite happily) but I hope I get to visit you some day soon. A book cafe… sigh!! Heaven on Earth!! Until then, I’ll be sharing this with my friends and sending them your way… Blessings!

    • Thanks Sarah. People were griping that my previous post was too…depressing/aggressive/testy. And really, life is deliciously different here lately and I wanted to reflect that. Your comment lets me know I’m on the right track. Keep spreading the good cheer!

    • Take a number my fine Scorpion friend! Seriously though, if the USA would only let its citizens travel here freely, we might work something out. PS – Im coming your way soon…let’s hang!

  6. pamelasimon

    Wow, maybe I can work there while I am in town. I am free Canadian labour who will work for cappuccino and tips on local music. See you on Tuesday.

  7. Great idea. Next time I’m in town I’ll visit. I’ve resisted buying an electronic book . . . I don’t usually travel with books because of the weight. Same with music, I found that my little Ipod can hold over 20 pounds of CDs. I still use DVDs but I think they are going the way of CDs and laptops. I’m a former journalist/ editor and newspapers have been fading for some time . . .good thing we still use language to communicate but. . .”If you smile at me I will understand cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the like way.”

  8. Jacobo

    What is with the strange Cuban names? Nikki could be Nickalodean or Nickyee. My favorit is Yaraleidis. I heard it started with Russians but who knows. In France they have an offcial registry and you must select a name from that list. You should do an article on it.

    • Totally! I have a friend here who is composing a list of all the Y Cuban names – she’s closing in on 600!! I dont get all that excited about the Y names – they’re too hard to remember/spell and as a journalist and someone who is exchanging with Cubans all day long, it makes my job a lot harder.

      For what it’s worth, I think my favorites are Usnavy (popular in Guantanamo) and our next door, pizza-making neighbor: Lenin. Nothing like a little cold war kid naming!

  9. sylvia

    Wow! It’s sounds absolutely fantastic and can totally understand why it’s so popular!
    I’ve had my own dream of doing something similar in Santa Clara and yet got nowhere near it – for so so so many reasons. So full of admiration and inspiration that you hung in there – can’t wait to come and buy a coffee when I’m there in December! I’ll be coming from the UK and so if you need anything (not too heavy!) let me know…
    Sylvia

    • Hi Sylvia

      Santa Clara! We had some folks in recently from that fair city and they told us that there’s a similar project (in Spanish) already happening in Sta Clara! It’s a little different since the literature is in Spanish and it’s not a cuenta propista start up per se (as I understand it, the café literario in Sta Clara is run in copperation w the state by an award winning Cuban author).

      Folks tell us constantly: we need a place like Cuba Libro on every corner. Which gives me an idea: maybe we should form a network of literary cafes across the island and help promote each other so folks traveling from province to province have a place to pop into, have a drink and a read and meet some good people…..Ill add it to my very long to do list!

      What would be a great help to us is if you could like our page on FB (if you haven’t already); follow us on Twitter (ditto) and post your impressions of Cuba Libro on cuba-specific fora upon your return +/o a review on Trip Advisor. We need to get the word out!

      Thanks for writing in

      • sylvia

        The network idea is brilliant! If I can help in any way, v happy to do so. It’s 10 months now since I’ve been in Santa Clara and I think I know the cafe you mentioned – when I went there it was a bit sad and dead, but maybe I just hit it on a bad day.
        Will definitely promote yours on FB and Twitter – once I get my head around them. Afraid I come from the old-fashioned media world (books, tv, film) and haven’t yet got my head around social media so don’t do FB or Twitter. But I’m arriving, if slowly!

      • Hey Sylvia

        Do you remember what the place in Sta Clara is called? Id love to brainstorm/visit with those folks some day (if I ever dig myself out from my workload!)

        Please do that social networking thing for Cuba Libro if you get a chance – we’re just the opposite of sad and dead!
        Cheers

  10. dany

    Mucho exito Conner!! I will let my family and friends know

  11. sylvia

    I’m back there in a few weeks so will find out and let you know…

  12. Thanks for the cold coffee and the shady tree to drink it under Conner……It goes down great in the muggy 38C weather. Will be back this winter on a project, and in will bring some books for you as discussed earlier.

    • Thanks Ben!

      But “cold coffee” sounds awful – almost as bad as “sloppy seconds”

      Let me clarify: Ben is referring to our ICED COFFEE, which we’ve come to call “our Almost Famous Iced Coffee” because people are loving it and talking about it. Wait til we get our frapuccinos going (think: leche condensada!)

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