Tag Archives: pena

Havana Es Un Pañuelo

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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.

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Cuba: Independent Republic of Los Sabelotodo

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Last night in a fit of exasperation my husband chuffed: ‘yeah, ok. Whatever you say sabe lo todo.’ A Cuban labeling someone as a know-it-all is ironic, not to mention a clear cut case of the pot calling the kettle black. In this instance, applying the sabe lo todo label was especially illustrative since a) my significant other is a shameless (and sometimes tiresome, truth be told) know-it-all and b) he was telling me where to pitch what stories – in essence, telling me how to do my job. He’s annoyingly right most of the time, but this wasn’t one of them.

After nine years of marriage, this isn’t my first experience with him waxing expert on themes about which he’s largely clueless. In the US, we call this talking out your ass. The most hilarious (or heinous, depending on your POV) of his sabe-lo-todo/ass talking was after I’d had an explosive multiple orgasm. As I lay there in that delicious free floating state of petit morte, he came back for more, making a beeline for my clitoris. When I begged him to stop, explaining it was painful like when someone tickle tortures you, he actually said: ‘No! This is the best part!’ A man professing to know how a clitoris feels post-orgasm: this is how deep Cuban sabe lo todo runs.

If you know Cubans, you know people like this. Alternatively, if you’ve been to Cuba, you’ve likely met the street sweeper (or taxi driver or bartender) who knows more than a foreign neurosurgeon. These folks will tell you the best way to prepare lobster even if they’ve only tasted one in their life or expound on the safety of New York City streets though they’ve never been on a plane.

Let me be clear: not all Cubans suffer from this affliction and it definitely strikes men more often and acutely than women. Male vegetable sellers, for instance, are notorious know-it-alls, forever proclaiming their flaccid or small, close-to-rotting or not ripe produce is top quality. I recently let loose on a burly guy selling the typical selection of Havana fruit and veggies (i.e. flaccid, small, and pre- or post-prime) who tried to convince me his bruised, mushy tomatoes were perfect for tonight’s salad.

“Do you cook at home?” I asked him, my smile turning nasty.

“Do you do the shopping for your house?”

“Do you know what I’m buying these tomatoes for?”

“No, no, and no, so shut the fuck up.” That’s what I wanted to say but didn’t. Instead I walked away, costing him a sale, which in this wacky system is of no consequence whatsoever (yet).

Having a touch of the strident, know-it-all myself (when I was 8 my mother told me I was too dogmatic; it goes that far back, runs that deep), I chafe when I come up against it here, I admit. This has forced me to think about the causes of sabe lo todo and taught me to better appreciate the Socratic Method. It has also underscored the importance of being open to learning from all walks of life á la Popular Education.

So why are Cubans such know-it-alls?

First and foremost, Cubans on the whole are ingenious, smart, and educated, so they do know a hell of a lot. Over 50 years of free education (including in remote areas and all post-graduate and advanced studies) means the average Cuban knows more about the history of the Western Hemisphere, for example, than me or you. I’ve been embarrassed more than once by Cubans correcting me about a Civil War battle or US electoral processes. ¡Que pena!

Such erudition may be eroding among the younger generations however, as Cuban education (especially primary and secondary) becomes increasingly mired in resource scarcity, low teacher and student morale, and slackening standards – not unlike what’s happening in public schools up North, I gather. But Cubans 40 and over? Like the IRS, they are all-knowing and spell trouble when they’ve set their sights on you.

Another, more complex reason for the sabe-lo-todo tendency is the success the Cuban Revolution – capital C, capital R – has had sticking it to The Man Uncle Sam. No country so close, so small has ever resisted the US drag towards globalization, neo-liberalism (AKA contemporary colonialism), and all the inequities and contradictions these constructs imply. To say nothing of Cuba’s resounding defeat of US-backed invaders at the Bay of Pigs or the wedge it jammed between the super powers during the Missile Crisis.

Sometimes when I sit back and look at Cuba in the big picture, even I have trouble believing this little country has so consistently and successfully flipped the proverbial bird to the USA. Not since the Haitian slave rebellion of 1791 has a small island been such a game changer. Despite all the errors and imperfections of the Cuban system, having such chutzpah and success must affect the collective psyche some how, imprinting a tacit superiority on the hearts and minds of the people.

However, underlying this singular triumph and its attendant feelings of superiority – modest and unconscious as they might be – is, I suspect, a niggling feeling of inferiority. Let’s face it: Cuba is an island, small and isolated, which has never been given its rightful place on the world stage.

Underestimated and undervalued, Cuba’s contributions to the global dialectic in science, medicine, literacy, human rights broadly defined, and disaster prevention are minimized, criticized and questioned – often by people and media unqualified to level such judgments. This has to rankle, contributing to an inferiority complex which, in a textbook example of over compensation, manifests itself as sabe lo todo.

Lastly, many Cubans confuse opinion with fact. A slippery concept, opinion is a confluence of knowledge, experience, emotion, bias, even upbringing and culture. Facts, meanwhile, are evidence-based, provable and documented. Facts can inform opinion, but not the other way around (FoxNews notwithstanding). Presenting opinion as fact is one of the first, most obvious signs that you’re up against a sabe lo todo.

Although I’m often ruffled by this posturing which can feel belittling as it negates my experience and knowledge, Cubans have taught me that no one is all-knowing. Certainly not me. Slowly, this wondrous Havana journey is making me less of a know-it-all and more of a question-it-all.

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Lost in Cuban Translation

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When was the last time you felt like a 5-year-old? If you live in a foreign language like me, it was probably yesterday.

Maybe it’s because as an adult, my English grammar and pronunciation very rarely need correcting. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and pride myself on how I wield words. Or maybe it’s because the person doing the correcting – consciously or not – establishes an immediate power construct in which I’m the perennial underdog. Reasons aside, having my speech corrected makes me feel like a child (or special needs adult).

So too, does not knowing the word for something – a handicap reserved for foreign language speakers and kids. Struggling for how to say bruise or gutter, ravish or rhetorical is a quick, sure smack down to the ego let me tell you. It doesn’t help that my husband too often gives me a dumfounded look when I ask him how to say things like hydrant or drain. Adding insult to injury: when he does remember a word or is listening closely enough to correct my pronunciation, it is nearly always in the presence of studiously hip (and oddly competitive) Cuban intellectuals. Thanks buddy.

Written Spanish is another issue altogether. Like many, I occasionally write a Cuban word as it sounds, resulting in glaring mistakes (and dogged corrections by readers). Nothing as bad as pescao or toke, but still.

I admit I’m prickly when it comes to this language business. I suppose my command of English – hammered into me by a family of grammar Nazis and Scrabble fanatics – colors my approach to Spanish and feeds the neurosis. Why else would I want five choices for how to say ‘disgruntled’ en español? Some days I’d settle for just being able to find the word for ‘upset.’ Sad, but true.

Yet, even while I’m beating myself up for calling a crutch a woman of mixed race (‘muleta’ is quite different from ‘mulatta’ after all), Cubans often comment about how well I speak, saying my accent is 100% cubano. The aforementioned hipster intellectual class excepted, of course.

Such unsolicited props for my verbal skills provide a temporary ego jack, it’s true. But some words continue to elude me. In fact, I’ve realized after nine years of living here that some Cuban words have no English equivalent whatsoever. Am I wrong? Let me know.

gaceñiga – I discovered this treat back in my first days here in Havana when an older gentleman with salt and pepper hair would peddle past our microbrigada several times a week yelling ‘gaceñiga! gaceñiga!’ Since no one sold much besides bleach and brooms out that way, I was intrigued. After a cajoling, linguistic tango, my husband equated this long baked confection with a pound cake. It’s unclear whether his comparison stems from his verbally-challenged tendencies or his unfamiliarity with baked goods, but to call a gaceñiga a pound cake is like calling a groupie a music critic. Definitely not a pound cake, it’s not a stöllen either. However, a fresh gaceñiga does resolve breakfast nicely. (This is not to be confused with Sponge Rusk, or as the Cubans say esponrrú, another favorite over this way).

descampó – This is one of those Spanish words that makes English jealous. How efficient and to the point! Just one word to say ‘it has stopped raining.’ You’d think the nose-to-the-grindstone Anglos would have come up with this one word wonder instead of the expressive, expansive Spaniards.

guara – Elusive little bugger this one. In a previous post and under pressure, I translated this as ‘moxie’ or ‘pluck.’ But since then I’ve heard a couple of different meanings for guara and now I’m not so sure. Anyone? Anyone?

mantecado – Given that ice cream is one of my minor addictions, this one has chapped my ass since the early days. Mantecado is an ice cream flavor (and only ice cream as far as I’ve been able to determine) that has been described to me as ‘the absence of flavor. Like cream-flavored ice cream.’ While the ‘manteca’ stem of the word would suggest butter or fat of some kind, if it were truly cream-flavored it wouldn’t taste so blech. I’ll try anything once – especially a new to me ice cream flavor – and once was enough for mantecado (NB: a pox on the waiter who told me vanilla was the flavor of the day when what he really meant was mantecado).

pena – I’ve saved the best for last. Most people translate pena as embarrassment. But that’s a gross simplification for a very complex concept (among the most complex in the entire Cuban character if you ask me). Pena is something so ingrained in generations of Cubans it’s like a dominant gene. If you know Cubans, you know what I’m talking about.

To start, pena is intrinsic – it’s not caused by outside forces. Whereas falling in a hotel lobby or having your period in a white pair of pants is embarrassing, neither is a cause for pena – not for a Cuban anyway. It’s also a slippery concept, pena, and is more like a state of mind because it’s so individual. At its most base, it’s related to how one’s actions will be perceived and received by others.

‘I don’t want to ask to borrow a cup of rice. Me da pena.’

‘I want to go to her house, pero me da pena.’

‘Will you flag down a car? Me da pena.’

Pena is so powerful it can lead people to inaction, which is a paradox given Cubans’ seemingly innate desire and ability to resolve problems. Some people suffer so acutely, they’re labeled penoso/a. If you’ve been here and had something go mysteriously pear shaped or unaccountably awry, look to pena.

Me? I’m completamente sin pena.

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