Lost in Translation II: Gringa Says What?!

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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.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad

51 responses to “Lost in Translation II: Gringa Says What?!

  1. terry d taffer

    please add my name to email list

    • You’re in! Thanks for subscribing. And for those who haven’t: subscribing is a good strategy for keeping up with Here is Havana since Im only able to update every couple of weeks…..

  2. Lourdes Manning

    Hey Conner, love this blog – love your App. I left the island as a 5 year old, 50 years ago. I’ve not been back but am 100% Cubana, 100% Americana. Living on the hyphen shall we say. You so capture the spirit of the cuban people. I am writing cause I love the “guardando tareco” idea. After 25 years of marriage to an Americano, he left me and I left him all of our accumulated tarecos! I have downsized and am loving it. No more men for me, (I love my life now )- unless he’s Cuban and then, only for some taka-taka!

    • listen up girls!!! good for taka-taka, not so good for “until death do us part”. Like I always say!

      And downsizing: something we should all think about.

      Thanks so much for reading and writing in Lourdes.

  3. Chuck

    What another great story. When i hear some other tourists try to tell me how they know all about the Cuban society i never feel to grimace. We are not Cubans and we will never be completely able to walk in there shoes. There lifestyle has been indoctrinated into them from when they were born and most of us can leave when we like something most of the Cuban people will never be able to do.

    • Thanks Chuck. No, we can’t walk in their shoes, not completely. Some I wouldn’t want to walk in (eg the 4 inch spiked lucite heels I saw at finner the other night)!

      • Chuck

        Yes it is something to see there lack of fashion sense. The shoes are just one example, it seems the fad now is all the very bright yellow clothing from head to toe. It scares me have to death not that i am a fashion expert but use some common sense.

  4. Jen G

    ¡Jajaja! My friends in Stgo are quite proud of their cheesy 80´s hair band love ballad DVDs. The only way I could tolerate watching was by teaching them the words. Why is it we always seem to know the words of songs we don’t like? “And I can’t fight this feeling anymore. I’ve forgotten what I started fighting for. It’s time to bring this ship into the shore, And throw away the oars, forever.” ack, ack, ack

    Storage Units: While they must have some valid uses, they are mainly enablers of consumerism, materialism, packrat-ism. Being originally from Maine, I’m speaking as someone who has that inborn Yankee tendency to “save it because some day it might come in handy”. I’ve slowly learned the beauty of purging junk drawers, box & bag collections, hoards of bits & bobs…

    A couple of weeks ago a friend turned me onto HIH & I’ve been methodically going through all of your posts & their comments…and I’m not a blog follower. I’ve asked our book buyer at work to order “Women’s Travel Writing” for our travel section. 😉

    • OK Jen, now you’ve got my attention, you re-habbed Mainer! When my great aunt (a paragon of Yankee thrift) died, we found a coffee can labeled “string too short to use.” And lo and behold, that can was packed with (too) little lengths of string. Yes, downsizing IS the new normal. I love it.

      So cool about ordering Best Women’s Travel Writing! Thanks. I’ve just submitted a story about living with Cuban docs in their tent camp in Haiti after the quake. Fingers crossed!

  5. I love this. 😀 The funny thing is, it’s amazing how close and alike certain cultures can be and how different things like senses of humour are. In my office, there are a bunch of South Africans and a couple of Americans. Our Welsh humour often draws a blank stare from them … and just this week the Americans were saying and doing something particularly crazy and having a laughing fit over it, whereas most of us, as Brits, stood there feeling awkward and a bit confused.

    The language barrier must take this to another level though, I imagine. 🙂 Must be quite funny at times but get quite frustrating at others.

    • You are SO right on the humor thing, Ceri. For my first few years here, I would get incredibly frustrated because people either didn’t get my jokes or I couldn’t make them in Spanish. Since I can be a pretty funny gal in English, this often got me down. Now I make jokes in Spanish and have had Cubans cry, bust a gut and guffaw at my brand of humor. What a relief! Nothing like laughter to take the edge off life.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

  6. Caney

    Regarding R&B in Cuba… what’s up with the “moña” nowadays??

  7. Caney

    Is not a “who”… is a kind of “urban tribe” (“frikis”) in Cuba. In short, the people who like American R&B. La moña. You seriously never heard it?? Even Charanga Habanera has a song about it. Plenty of videos on youtube about it (sorry you can’t see them). Ask around and tell me what you find out…

    • Frikis I know and many music producers, rock historians, and DJs. Never heard of La Moña – will definitely ask around. And La Charanga? I only listen to them when my neighbor leaves me no choice!

      • So I checked around with local experts about La Moña (thanks for alerting us to this, Caney). Seems this is a much more recent R&B appreciation than what I’m talking about – around the mid 90s pa’ca. It’s more contemporary than the Motown-era I write about in the post, but at the same time old news for Havana youngsters today. So they tell me…

  8. I could write so many posts on lost in translation moments I’ve had all over the world. Loved this post!

  9. laurenquinn

    Great read–as per usual. Especially liked the intro: getting ready for the expat life myself, so I’ve been soaking in all the knowledge/thoughts/experiences of fellow writers.

    And I don’t drink either. Had a crazy Cuban experience with that myself a few years back! 🙂

  10. Ana

    The message “I don’t drink” (or, in my case, I don’t feel like drinking) is difficult to get across in many cultures! I get shocked stares here in the US and in the UK when I reject a drink. Water is so good for you! 😉

    Although I moved from S. America to the US, I can related to a few things you describe here, like the cultural disconnect or the “lost in translation.” Thanks for this post.

  11. yumagail

    love your column; makes me laugh, reminds me, takes me right back to cuba, where i havent been for a year (gasp), makes me miss it, and all its conundrums
    thanks conner

  12. Caney

    My mention of Charanga was not a question of preference, but as an example of “la moña” being popular.. Guess you know things about Cuba you don’t like or disagree, right? Do ask around, please, and let me know…

    • I know things about myself, the world, my family that I don’t like and disagree with. That’s life. Dinner tonight w music historian/DJ – I’ll definitely pick his brain.

  13. quepasa

    I can really relate to the lack of good R&B, or something funky. If they play something down that line it is usually the boring pop “R&B” like Beyonce or Rianna. Evenhough I like regeaton it gets boring after months with the same moves. I am amazed how Cuban women can go on with the “mira mi culo como se muveve” moves for hours.

    I kind of enjoy the rare occasions when the DJ put something more dico-like on and we yumas can show our moves with the cubanas still lost in their trad. regeaton moves. Moments of triumph. 😉

    About “gayradar”. There is a growing number of Cubans with “plumas fuera” and those are the feminine types ( too much ….) . They are really easy to spot. Then there are the bugarrons. And watch out, really many guys go with both women and men in Cuba. A buggraon is often hard to spot because he usually goes for a very masculine, Cuban macho type- image. I have been really surprised be the amount of guys that are bugarrons, many of them also have steady girlfriends.

  14. Whoa, major revelation last night: Video of Bill Withers singing his inimitable “Ain’t No Sunshine” (27 “I know, I know, I knows” w/o a breath!) gets play at Submarino Amarillo. Tip o’ the gorra to Guille Vilar – who knows his soul, funk, and R&B, yes siree.

  15. Caney

    Guess you forgot to ask… 😦

  16. Caney

    Sorry… didn’t realize you’ve answered already in a previous entry…

  17. Caney

    “So while the lighter side of soul and R&B may be known by some, the funky side ain’t.”

    That’s why I asked you about “la moña”… ’cause it depends who you know, I guess. I say that because some of my friends there were big fans of Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & the Gang, Lionel Richie… although I don’t know if this is the funky you were referring to…

    • Yes, E, W & F was on Television Cubana last night, and Kool & the Gang and Lionel (not even the Commodores) are ever popular. This is not the funky I was referring to.

  18. hey! no dissin’ la charanga! 🙂

    Having lived for 3 years in Italy, 2 years in Brasil and a dozen summers in Cuba, I FULLY related to this post! Even though I’m fortunate that languages come pretty easily to me, there are so many cultural “untranslatables” and I know exactly what you mean by that blank stare… so frustrating!
    I gave up trying to use the “I’m married” line (even though it’s not true). It seems to pique their interest even more!
    And in terms of the sappy streak, every time they put on Marco Antonio Solis or his ilk it makes me want to puke! I amuse myself, though, by making up my own lyrics in my head.

    Thanks for helping me through my time away from la Habana!

    • jajaja. I was waiting for the Charanga fans to come after me! Great strategy that better/new/more inspired lyric trick. I think I’ll try it!

      I’m so glad I was able to transport Havana to your corner of the world. Thanks for reading and writing in.

  19. Jen G

    Bueno, here’s a two-fer, kind of a “Lost in Translation R&B”. One day in Stgo, while waiting on the stoop for my friend to return home, I was invited in by the neighbors to hang out & share in their daughter’s b-day celebration (and, oh could la yuma spare a few pesos to fill a soda bottle with some local brew…). The ubiquitous DVD of assorted videos was playing and what should come on but a spoof video made by Adam Samberg of SNL and his comedy group, the Lonely Island. Don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing any of these but they usually feature famous celebs such as Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, etc. and they are brilliant! So the one that was playing that day is titled “I Just Had Sex”, starring Akon, world-famous R&B artist who, in addition to having his own hits, has made over 300 guest appearances on other artists’ songs. (wikipedia ‘fact’). Now, theoretically, if you didn’t understand English and just heard the song without seeing the video, you’d think it was yet another pop-dance-R&B hit by Akon. BUT in the video, Adam & friend are clearly goofballs who are singing in amazement that they’ve actually just had sex. Akon plays his part totally straight, grooving & providing backup vocals. It appeared that the neighbors were watching the video in earnest. My Spanish was (and still has yet to be) sophisticated enough to explain “spoof”. All I could muster was “esto es una broma” but I don’t know how much of that sunk in. If they truly didn’t realize it’s a joke, I can just imagine what they think about yumas doing it. I know you probably can’t watch this (although you just might find it playing in someone’s house there)…here’s a link for anyone interested http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQlIhraqL7o

    • two guys, talking about having had sex together? of course they didn’t get it! Thanks for telling the tale….

      Im not sure how to say “spoof” (mockumentary is another one I have trouble w and since I adore Spinal Tap, it has proven a problem!); I would probably say estan jodiendo or estan dando cuero….Cubans, want to chime in??

      • dany

        I think you are right Conner, I’d tell them “es jodedera” or “estan dando cuero” o “es broma”.
        As a cuban I can relate to the astonishment I feel when any canadian friend tells me s/he’s vegetarian (no carne!!! lol) or doesn’t like chocolate (heresy!) or hates mayo (lol).
        The “I’m married” and the “and…?” answer is something that will never change. Even here in Canada on the rare occasions that we do go out dancing, other cubans will come on to me, not realizing that my muy blanquito esposo is also cuban and standing right there!
        Gaydar-that one’s hard. My gay friends in havana had kind of a litmus test. Does he like musicals? Does he have a poodle? Is his haircut too perfect? are his hands too nice? lol . Of course, all bromeando as I have gay friends who definitely do not have plumas.
        Self-storage: My husband was toying with the idea, I told him that the solution is botar tarecos y no guardar mas mierda!

      • I like your style Dany! Yes!! I forgot about the vegetarian thing. A true story, just a few months old (my iapp users know this one already ;)): in one of the new fancy restaurants that are popping up here like fungus in cow shit, I was delighted to see on the menu “vegetarian spring rolls.” Innovation ho! So I ordered them, claro que si. When they came, beautifully golden brown, I cut in and out poured a surfeit of lovely veggies and,,,,ham. When I asked the waitress what was in the spring rolls, she named all these veggies and ham. Im not a vegetarian, thankfully, because IVe seen hard core veggie heads get violent after being told something was vegetarian when it wasn’t. I asked why they’re called ‘vegetarian spring rolls’ if they have ham and she said, ‘because they have lots of vegetables.’ I pointed out to her and the chef that this wasn’t going to fly w the vegetarian crowd!

        On the poodle/musical/nails thing: one astonishing trait I found here is the popularity of Barbara Streisand among many Cuban hetero men….or are they?!

        Thanks for stopping by.

      • Jen G

        jaja, oh, sorry… i didn’t explain the video clearly… the guys are friends who both had sex, separately, with girls, and they are bragging about it with each other & to the world. ELEVEN!

  20. I really enjoyed this post! Even though I’ve only lived out of the United States for a year y pico, I’m definitely starting to see that no matter how well you speak the language and the culture, there are always things that are going to make you “other”. It’s funny how the littlest things can make you stand out the most; even something as simple as the way you hold your utensils while you eat! Here in Puerto Rico, “I’m in a relationship” and “I don’t drink” elicits the same “y qué?” response as well.

    • Thanks Ashlee D! The utensil thing puts me in mind of another expat here who was driven bonkers when her boyfriend ate dinner w a spoon (common here for a variety of reasons, esp in the countryside). She has since left.

      How you walk is another that can peg you easily as other. Thankfully, I got the hip sway down!

      • really? You got the hip swing down? I’m jealous! I actually took time out of one of my private dance classes last summer to work on my walk! (still a LONG way to go!)

      • Yeah, but those eagle-eyed Cubans still peg me as Yuma. Yesterday I felt like a zoo animal the way people were staring and honking at me, particularly.

  21. Conner

    I know this somewhat off subject but I hope at sometime you can comment on the bombshell dropped yesterday about buying and selling property.

    I hate to use the NY Times as a source but maybe now some will realize the restoration of capitalism is not far off…and only those who are the rich, foreigners and in the corrupt bureaucracy will be able to use the new law.

    From article:

    “Nobody who has been working, honestly, in a job in Cuba in the past 50 years could possibly afford to buy a second home,” said Gerardo, a property broker in Havana who asked that is full name not be used because his job is still illegal. “That money has to come from relatives overseas.”
    He added that nascent capitalism in Cuba will probably include a black market just as hard to figure out and uproot as the underground economy that has grown up around decades of socialism.

    November 3, 2011
    Cubans Can Buy and Sell Property, Government Says
    MEXICO CITY — Cuba announced a new property law Thursday that promises to allow citizens and permanent residents to buy and sell real estate — the most significant market-oriented change yet approved by the government of Raúl Castro, and one that will probably reshape Cuba’s cities and conceptions of class.
    The new rules go into effect Nov. 10, according to Cuba’s state-run newspaper, and while some of the fine print is still being written, the law published on Thursday amounts to a major break from decades of socialist housing. For the first time since the early days of the revolution, buyers and sellers will be allowed to set home prices and move when they want. Transactions of various kinds, including sales, trades and gifts to relatives by Cubans who are emigrating, will no longer be subject to government approval, the new law says.
    “To say that it’s huge is an understatement,” said Pedro Freyre, an expert in Cuban-American legal relations who teaches at Columbia Law School. “This is the foundation, this is how you build capitalism, by allowing the free trade of property.”

    • Hi Cort. Im jammed today so will keep this short. All details of regs are going to be published on Nov 10. Apparently there are going to be some safegaurds against specualtion and accumulation of property (eg buyers have to live in the property as their primary residence for 5 years). However, if you know Cubans, you know that for every law there are at least half a dozen ways to break it. Creativity flourishes here! As someone on my Havana Good Time FB page points out: this is a strategy by the state to bring all that black market property selling into the open. Time will tell how it works out, but you can be sure I’ll be paying close attention. Cheers.

    • Max

      Greene, look up cordyceps. That’s the NYT, right there.


    History of blues in Cuba by my friend and rock historian Humberto Manduley (in Spanish):

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