Tag Archives: Living Abroad

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!

Notes
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.

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

Cubans Do it Better: Adventures at the DMV Part I

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I’ve never been a fan of the DMV. There’s the bureaucracy of course – a paradigm of grouchy inefficiency with which I’m sure you’re familiar – but it’s more than that. It’s too many hoops to jump through and rules and the petty (but potent) power wielded by the cogs in the department of motor vehicles machine that chap my ass.

So when my US driver’s license expired, my gut seized up and more hairs grayed as I imagined the horror of the Cuban DMV (see note 1). The adventure started when I tried to get a copy of Ley #60 – Cuban rules of the road – to study up. The DMV didn’t have any and after a brief consultation, the nice lady cop suggested I check across town at the driving school.

I hoofed it over there in a McCarthy-era Dodge and walked a dozen long, hot blocks under a blazing Cuban summer sun only to have the dark, heavy-lidded compañera at the reception desk inform me that they didn’t have any. After almost nine years in Cuba, I know not to ask ‘why?’ But my disappointment must have showed, for the desultory lady livened up to say: “the new regulations are being implemented. The books are being printed up now.”

“and they’ll be ready?…”

The somnolent curtain descended again and she shrugged. After a moment she offered to transfer a digital version of the old road rules book onto a memory stick if I had one.

I didn’t.

So it was back to the drawing board, which meant I’d have to go about things ‘a lo cubano‘ or ‘por la izquierda‘ (see note 2). An Internet search brought up Ley #60 (all 67 pages of it) and friends supplied the same classes and practice quizzes given at the fancy, hard-currency driving school.

I set to studying.

Some of the Spanish tripped me up (I had never had cause to use the word contén and can anyone explain to me in plain English the difference between a remolque and semi remolque?!) but luckily, Cuba is a signatory to the 1949 UN Convention on Road Traffic, so most of the US road rules with which I’m familiar applied. I skimmed the rural transit section – surely I don’t need to know the tare weight of a tractor trailer or speed limits for horse carriages. I took the quizzes, did OK, and readied myself for the written exam (see note 3).

I arrived bright and early – a bit nervous, but excited. For no reason, it turns out: the computers were down. I’d have to come back the next day. “Or better yet in two,” said the cop with the boyish good looks and tender smile. He was easy on the eyes even as he delivered the bad news.

My time was running out you see and this unforeseen delay was deeply troubling. I was due to leave soon on assignment and I would have to cover a lot of ground, in a context where a car is compulsory – think LA or the French Riviera. I needed this gig. We needed the money. The debt I imported from my life “before” in the US continued to grow (see note 4) and my income wasn’t keeping pace. This was our money for most of 2011. I couldn’t blow it. I had to get that Cuban license.

Countdown: Four Weeks

I returned two days later to take the written. The system was still down. I asked the comely cop for a phone number (no, not his – faithful readers of Here is Havana know I’m hopelessly devoted to my husband) to call before trudging over again. I phoned the next day to see if thee system was up and running.

Game on.

The waiting room was archetypical Caribbean, sporting coral-colored walls and a phalanx of tropical plants leading to the balcony where new drivers awaited their laminated, holograph-imprinted licenses. That balcony was my goal. Poco a poco.

I waited to be called into the exam room. A nearly life-sized poster of Raúl loomed above me. He wore his poker face and olive greens, but somehow remained avuncular in a way that Fidel can be but isn’t often. The quote emblazoned in red below brother Raúl was new to me: “gossip is a divisive and counterrevolutionary act.” Here was a man after my own heart.

I was summoned into the exam room and let the AC wash over me. A dozen computer terminals occupied by wrinkled grandpas and young studs in bad Hugo Boss knock offs lined the room. This was much more high tech than I expected and more modern than I was used to. All around me I saw furrowed brows punctuated by nervous laughter. Men outnumbered women four to one.

I sat at terminal 3 and began the test. I knew most of the answers but not all. The Spanish was somewhat confusing and I second guessed myself. I got the question about tractor tare weights and failed by one wrong answer – just shy of the required 75 points to pass. Another setback. More stress, which grew when the proctor with a keen eye for cheaters (and there were several) told me I had to wait a week before I could take it again. No exceptions. No overrides of the computer system.

“Study up and come back next Friday at 11am when I start my shift.” Was that a wink or a nudge I saw when she said that? I certainly hoped so and planned to show up next week with a package of high quality, hard currency coffee for the affable cop proctor.

Countdown: Three Weeks

I read every word on each page of the 67-page long law. I highlighted tricky concepts and took copious notes. I checked terms with my husband I didn’t understand. One sign – described, but not pictured anywhere – was a complete mystery to everyone we consulted. It had something to do with railroad crossings, we got that much, but otherwise was a complete puzzlement. The written exam always had a ‘what does this sign mean?’ question, but what were the odds I’d get this one?

I returned the Friday following nervous, but more confident (the coffee weighing down my handbag helped). I hailed Raúl and his sage words for all the revolutionary chismosos and strode into the exam room. The nice proctor was nowhere in sight. I felt stood up and doubted the policewoman with dyed jet black hair and fire engine lipstick would be as kind.

‘Focus, Conner, focus,’ I admonished myself.

Elvira’s Cuban cousin left the room and the kid on my right with a marijuana leaf belt buckle as big as my palm began feeding answers to his socio on my left. Really? Cheating on the DMV permit test? That’s unethical and dangerous; I don’t want to share the road with the idiot that needs to cheat on the written. Should I tell Elvira, I wondered?

‘Focus, Conner, focus.’

Then came question 11. It was a red and white railroad sign with an inverted V below a red X. The mystery sign from the night before. I called Elvira over.

“Hi there. I’m a little confused. I’ve never seen this sign here. Does it even exist in Cuba?”

She laughed and leaned over my shoulder to check out the sign on the screen. “Well, some are international and correspond to the treaty to which Cuba is a signatory, but you don’t necessarily see them around.”

“Oh,” I nodded.

She leaned in again to consult my screen. “Don’t worry. You answered correctly.”

Buoyed, I set to the remaining nine questions. When I’d finished, I started from the beginning, re-reading each question carefully, parsing the Spanish. I went through all 20 again and reviewed my work. I was just about to click ‘Finish and get results,’ when a film crew entered and started shooting. Elvira told the classroom to continue as if they weren’t there. It was the prime time program On the Road where the finer points of Cuban road rules are discussed for a half hour each week (see note 5). Seems yours truly was going to feature.

My hand was sweating. I hovered over ‘Finish and get results.’ I clicked. 95 out of 100, with just one incorrect response: question #11 with the mystery railroad sign. Gracias, Elvira.

Stay tuned for Part II of Cubans Do it Better: The Road Test
.

Notes

1. Officially called the Oficina de Licencia de Conducción, conveniently attached to the local police precinct.

2. Note to self: when a problem needs resolving, best to start “Cuban-style,” consulting with informal channels known literally as doing things “via the left.”

3. This process also included supplying $30 in official stamps, an eye exam (performed at my local polyclinic), a medical exam, and a couple of photos.

4. Note to all would-be expats: this is a really bad move. IRS, student loans, family floats – whatever the debt, try to clean it off your plate before moving abroad.

5. If all this attention to Cuban traffic law – new regulations, prime time TV shows, and the like – seems odd, it isn’t when you consider that the #5 cause of death in Cubans as a whole is accidents (it’s the #1 cause of death in Cubans aged 5-19); the overwhelming majority of these are traffic accidents.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, health system, Living Abroad

Slowtown

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Occasionally people ask me how I do it – how I can afford to travel without having a “real job” (and I’m unsure if freelance writing, no matter how lucrative, will ever be considered “real”). Even more to the immediate point, people wonder how I can afford to live in Cuba given our hand-to-mouth subsistence existence. In my mind, there is no puzzle. The answer is obvious, simple even. Keep your overhead low. If you control expenses and practice thrift, there’s likely to be more left over to play with.

This strategy isn’t for everyone. It helps to not be attracted by things, I suppose, to not be predisposed to accumulating gadgets, jewelry, or art let’s say (see note 1). Not being a clothes horse helps, as does not drinking; the hooch can add up – just ask my husband or my good friend 007. In my case, it helps immeasurably that Cuba is a low overhead kind of place. Paradoxically however, so much obligatory, by-default low overhead has created an insatiable desire in Cubans to (over)consume. And it matters little what: life-sized plaster Dalmatians, karaoke systems, plastic flowers, gold chains, shoes, sugar.

To get by and get the stuff they want or need, Cubans are en la lucha. Technically this means to be ‘in the struggle’ or ‘fighting,’ but the short phrase contains a universe of problems and difficulties, entire galaxies of uncertainty, frustration, and doubt. But being en la lucha also implies a certain pro-active approach, an intrinsic motivation to ease those troubles and doubt. And not only yours, but those of your family, friends, and neighbors as well. It means you have to inventar, another concept which, coupled with la lucha, encapsulates modern Havana (see note 2). I suppose it’s what outsiders call resourceful. The bottom line is that having so few resources forces you to rely on what’s available.

Here in Havana, relying on what’s available means depending on local suppliers, talent, and ingenuity. The precise elements that have helped create Cuba’s biotech sector, software development capabilities, and organic agriculture model. We are, in short, a slow people, living in a slow town. It’s everywhere: keep your eyes peeled, your nose poised, and your ears open on your next visit and you’ll slip easily into this local world.

From yogurt to honey, bookshelves to shoes, industrious Habaneros provide. Eat locally? We do (and must). Support local businesses? Each and every day. Know your supplier? We invite her in for coffee and a chat. I love this about Havana. I love that it disproves all the neo-liberal vitriol about Cuba not having private industry and small businesses. The place is crawling with entrepreneurs and private concerns. You just have to know what to look for and where to listen for them.

A high pitched, not entirely unmelodious whistle announces the knife sharpener, reminding me of my childhood. Rolling up on his bike and parking in the chiffonade shade of a palm, he sharpens our knives, cleavers, and scissors. By peddling the whet stone around until it gains enough speed to throw off sparks, he deftly angles the blades this way and that until they’re so sharp you have to take care dicing onions and aji cachucha for the bean pot. While he sharpens, we chat. About baseball, the weather, and how’s business?

The same can be said for yogurt. Made fresh in small batches, we ring the doorbell of our yogurt connection whenever we need to re-up. Within moments he lowers a basket on a rope from his third floor balcony. We put 20 pesos (see note 3) and an empty 1-1/2 liter soda bottle in the basket and give the rope a little tug. Up goes the basket to the third floor. When it’s lowered once again, it holds 1-1/2 liters of the thick, rich, organic yogurt that has my chicken Marsala and cucumber raita fast gaining fame in these parts (see note 4).

Once my imported granola runs out, honey-laced yogurt is my go-to breakfast. Happily, our honey is also produced on a small scale by local beekeepers. Sold in recycled Havana Club bottles for 25 pesos, the amber liquid comes rimmed with a dark band of honeycomb flakes and other natural detritus like the odd bee’s wing. The best honey moves sluggishly when the bottle’s inverted, slowed by its viscosity. Marketing fuels sales; one guy sings of his honey’s Ciénaga origins, another’s bees are sustained solely on chamomile blossoms, supposedly giving the golden elixir subtle floral undertones, though I’ve yet to detect them. Organic, from-the-source food procurement happens daily here: I regularly fry fish caught by my neighbor and eat mangoes from my boss’s backyard tree. Five blocks from my house there’s a friendly old fella who sells homemade wine and vinegar while nearby a wrinkled veteran peddles roasted peanuts from a metal box with a brazier burning live coals on the bottom.

And it’s not only food. Without leaving my living room, I get offers (sang up from the street) to reupholster my sofa and restore my mattress. Need a coffee table or TV stand? No problem. Just dig out that business card the neighborhood carpenter slipped under the door the other day. A favorite sundress can be repaired or replicated by the seamstress two doors down and a pair of sexy, strappy sandals procured from the family of renowned cobblers who pass through every now and then.

And so it goes. Our coveted Bic lighters are refilled at the market in that ingenious Cuban way, our aprons are made by friends of friends, even car parts are fashioned by machinists pounding them out in their garage-cum-workshop down the street. I love living here and living slow.

It’s funny though. As the ‘developed’ world moves snail-like towards this model, Cuba is fast moving away from it. Inevitable? Probably. Lamentable? Definitely.

Notes

1. Art is a different ballgame, actually. I would buy pieces that really move me – and living in Cuba, believe me, I’ve been moved, repeatedly – if I could afford it.

2. I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating: what I know intimately is Havana, a reality which in many ways can’t be extrapolated to the rest of Cuba. Just like New York isn’t the United States and Port-au-Prince isn’t Haiti (especially these days), Havana can’t be considered representative of Cuba. Nevertheless, after hanging out with doctors from Holguín who own a cow or two to provide milk for their family and naweys from Guantánamo who earn their living initiating foreigners into Santería, I suspect that la lucha and inventing are fundamental in those far flung places too.

3. About 85 cents USD.

4. This is one of the six or so dishes on my private restaurant menu. Known as a paladar in Cuba, my husband and I fantasize about opening a low-key, high-standard private restaurant serving a selection of my top tried and true dishes. In addition to this Indian delight, other candidates include tea-smoked chicken, snapper Veracruz and veggie lasagne, plus desserts like dulce de leche cheesecake and blondies a la mode. We could even spin off the ex-pat cookbook! Interested in investing? Contact me.

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Things I Miss about the U.S.A.

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I like living abroad for so many reasons – being obligated to become bilingual, the different values, and the required self-reliance among them. But Havana is wholly unique, entirely distinct from other Third World capitals like Guatemala City or Bamako. Here, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, there are simply things you cannot buy. Toilet paper today, butter and flour tomorrow, but other items are unattainable any day like print cartridges, razor blades, high speed Internet. The big, bad Bloqueo strikes again.

But living in Cuba isn’t just living abroad, it’s living in exile – for us Americans anyway. We have no access to our bank accounts for example and getting back on US soil is an expensive, hoop-jumping production with lots of paperwork (thanks to Congress, not the Castros). And that’s without any swine flu or other wrench in the works. To give you an idea, my upcoming flight to NY (home once, but not for many years now and feeling less so each infrequent visit I make) will be a 13 hour affair with a couple of plane changes. This, mind you, for what is a 3-1/2 hour flight as the crow flies. And the price for the privilege?1 We’re talking in the $750 range for a distance that’s like flying New York to New Orleans. To put it in traveler’s perspective, with that same $750 it will take me to travel from one island “home” to another, I could go from New York to Tokyo. Welcome to my world…

I’ve adapted as foreigners must if they’re to survive here. I remember when I first arrived, a Cuban American guy who has lived on Long Island for decades told me, ‘only New Yorkers can live in Cuba – they already know how hard life can be.’ Of course, not all five of us living here are from New York, but I do think we share cravings and miss some of the stuff that makes the USA great in its way.

In no particular order, here is a list of Things I Miss; stay tuned for another list of Things I Don’t in a future post.

 Bathtubs
 Jon Stewart
 Mushrooms, artichokes, and tofu
 Anonymity
 English (especially my extensive repertoire of curse words and the phrase ‘I don’t know’2)
 Wireless
 Being able to pick up the phone and call my best friend, or any friend
 NBA & USTA
 Ginger ale
 Magazines
 Netflix
 Rock ‘n roll (hoochie koo, thankfully, is not a problem)
 Mail delivery
 Gay bars, parades, and queer PDAs
 Cafés
 Seasons
 Indian, Thai, sushi, and good Chinese
 Central Park
 Hiking
 Customer service
 People who can multitask
 Toilet seats
 Garlic cloves of a reasonable size3

Notes

1. In another weird twist of antiquated Cold War policy on the part of the United States, traveling to Cuba is a privilege, not a right for that country’s citizens.

2. While Latin Americans throughout the hemisphere are famous for not uttering ‘yo no sé’, Cubans are over-the-top anti I-don’t-know. I have several theories why this may be so, but the bottom line? It’s a country of know-it-alls. Compulsory education will do that…

3. In Cuba, garlic cloves are the size of a child’s fingernail and cause for anxiety, if not outright insanity. The Hero/ine of any household is the person that peels garlic. In my case, that would be me (although the man of the house is a fabulous and enthusiastic cook).

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