Liza may think life is a Cabaret, but for the rest of us, it’s rather a paradox. Take me for instance: I can turn a quick, clever phrase in English without trouble and indeed, have cobbled together a career of it. But ironically (sometimes I think cruelly), I’ve little facility with foreign languages. Nearly 10 years living full time here and I still struggle. Cuban Spanish? Let’s just say it’s as particular and odd as the island itself. To be honest, sometimes my cup of foreign language frustration runneth over…
For all its myriad benefits, living in a foreign culture is also a burden. I figure most expats would agree, whether they’ve thrown down roots in Beirut or Rabat, Paris or Istanbul. And while 20 or 30 years living in a foreign land may put you in tune, teach you a thing or three, and imprint that culture on your heart, you’ll never be of that culture. This isn’t culture shock – blatant and determinate – but rather a more subtle, low frequency current that pulses beneath every waking moment, reminding us that we are somehow “other.” Facing an unknown word or discordant concept? That’s when this outsider feeling hits particularly square and fast.
But live long enough in a foreign country and eventually this cultural disconnect will get flipped on its head. In my case, every once in a while I have to try and explain to Cubans certain US tendencies, words or quirks that just don’t compute. The pillow talk and technical sex terms alone could fill several pages, for example.
It’s frustrating, receiving that blank stare when I’m explaining something important or impassioned about my life ‘up there.’ Along with the frustration, a string of nostalgia gets plucked and motes of homesickness settle on my psyche. To swipe that dusty corner clean and set those notes of nostalgia free, I offer this list of terms and concepts which just don’t translate into Cuban.
“I don’t drink” – Before I moved to Cuba, I was a liquid dinner kind of gal, forsesaking food for whatever would get me off – martinis, whisky, and wine mostly. I come from a long line of accomplished drinkers, so I could handle it. And I tended to handle it in one of two ways: I was the life of the party when the good head was on, a scattershot bitch when that head turned bad – an unsustainable and pitiable state of affairs. Thankfully, an ultimatum by my ex-lover/partner/husband (see note 1) made me lay down the liquor for good. This doesn’t compute in Cuba. Here’s a typical exchange at parties:
“Conner, do you want a trago? A mojito or Cuba libre?”
“No, thanks. I don’t drink.”
“OK. How about a beer?”
“No, I don’t drink.”
“A glass of wine, then.”
“I’m married” – Fidelity and marriage step to the beat of a completely different here. Men maintaining secret families or boy toys (see Gaydar, below); women faking adoration for material gain or immigration papers; and everyone sneaking off with weekend loves – frankly, I’m not down with any of it. So I know I shouldn’t be surprised when Cuban men hit on me and the ‘I’m married’ parry doesn’t have the desired, deterring effect. ‘And?’ is the standard response, followed by the perennial popular: ‘Don’t worry. He won’t find out.’
“Gaydar” – It has taken too long, but after nearly a decade, I’ve finally started to tap into the gay community which was such an important part of my other life. Why it took so long and the LGBT differences between here and there are best saved for another post, but after thinking long and hard about it, I’m still stumped by the absence of Cuban gaydar.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, gaydar is a play on radar and means what you might guess: it’s a beeping signal or blip that goes off when you sense someone is gay. For those with the finest tuned gaydar, it doesn’t matter if the person is out or not – the alarm will sound regardless. As you may imagine, there’s a lot of ‘passing’ in macho Cuba (pretending to be heterosexual, keeping a wife and kids for example, while grooving with guys on the side), and my gaydar goes off pretty often. So I started asking my gay friends here if there was a comparable expression in Cuban for queer folks flying low, below the radar so to speak. My query received the telltale blank expressions. Only after going round and round, trying to explain the concept, did my friends offer a loose equivalent: ‘aquello tiene plumas’ (that one has feathers), like a pajarito (little bird), a slang term for a gay man.
“Blue-eyed soul” – Cubans, it goes without saying, are phenomenal musicians – no matter if it’s rock, salsa, son or chamber music in question. But the island has been blockaded by the USA for over 50 years, which means it has been cut off from certain musical paradigms I just can’t live without. Soul, R&B, and funk especially, enter only episodically into the Cuban musical vernacular. Sure, they know Aretha and Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and a handful of other luminaries. But when I mention Bill Withers, the Bar Kays, George Clinton or Curtis Mayfield, I’m getting the 1,000-mile stare again. The likes of Hall & Oates and other blue-eyed soulsters? Fugget about it (see note 2). The same holds true for straight up blues – a genre you’d think Cubans would easily adopt and adapt, given all their trouble and woe.
“Self-Storage” – Having so much stuff – valuable stuff, not the termite-eaten and rusty shit that every Cuban has stashed somewhere in their house – that you require off-site storage: this is a foreign concept for Cubans (and most other folks from the Global South, I imagine). But mark my words: within a decade or two, Havana will have its U-Store-It or Guardando Tareco or similar.
“Marketing” – In case you haven’t heard, we’re undergoing an ‘economic opening,’ a ‘relaxation,’ a ‘new way forward.’ Whatever you call it, what it amounts to is the revolution’s most aggressive experiment with capitalism to date. More than 180 activities and services previously the sole domain of the state and attendant black market are now open for private business. Havana is a hive of entrepreneurial activity – private gyms overflow with hard body wannabes, ice sellers do a brisk business, and street food (some toothsome, some inedible) is sold from Centro to Santo Suárez. There’s even a Cuban Kinko’s now.
But not all entrepreneurs are created alike, which becomes glaringly obvious with the banal marketing behind all these new businesses. Rainbow umbrellas are the universal signs for cafeterias and all the same horror DVDs, with all the same faded covers, displayed on cookie cutter racks are sold in every neighborhood. Meanwhile second-hand clothes hang limply from iron gates, advertising themselves. Indeed, sophisticated marketing here is a string of blinking Christmas lights and a garish LCD ticker advertising batidos and comida criolla.
This, however, will change. Already websites and social media are being exploited by the savviest restaurateurs and a new English-language weekly for tourists called The Havana Reporter will soon be chock-a-block full of local ads if my predictions are correct. This is just the beginning and I can’t wait for the day when my favorite eateries advertise their no Styrofoam policy or proclaim they’re a regguetón- or TV-free zone (two plagues in Cuban bars and restaurants). Better yet, I look forward to gorgeous guys joining the hot mulattas who now dominate ad campaigns and efforts. I only hope it happens before I’m too old and grey to enjoy ogling the talent!
1. Live in: another hard-to-translate concept. Not legally spouses, but more than lovers, we eventually settled on partners, a term I never liked. It sounds weird in any language and implies business dealings or sexual orientation.
2. I should point out that many Cubans have a sap-sap-sappy streak and get all dewy-eyed for love songs and ballads and other music that I generally associate with elevators and the dentist chair (to wit: last week I got into a collective taxi blasting Air Supply). So while the lighter side of soul and R&B may be known by some, the funky side ain’t.