Tag Archives: salsa

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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Survival Skills for Cuban Cooks – Part II

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The best preparation for living in Cuba is having known hard times. To paraphrase that paragon of faith and insight Frei Betto: “The rich can handle Cuba for a week, the middle class for two, but the poor can live there forever” (see note 1). Poor folks know what it means to have no lights or water or phone and just how costly a bounced check can become (see note 2). And most poor folk have known, if temporarily, what it means to go hungry.

Cubans know many things – salsa, art, history, sports, poetry, rum, rumors. Cubans also know hunger. In the ‘Special Period in Time of Peace’ adult Cubans lost 15 pounds on average. During these lean times, kids would be fed and sent to bed while their parents laid awake, stomachs empty, fighting off painful pangs of hunger. These were those notorious times when flour “meatballs” were what was for dinner and ‘pasta de oca’ was a staple (see note 3). Thankfully, tales of banana peel hamburgers and shredded condoms standing in for pizza cheese seem to be apocryphal. Except for the condom cheese, I can attest to the veracity of these stories – I first came here in 1993 during the worst of the Special Period and witnessed the privation first hand.

Though some things have improved some, the Periodo Especial endures in ways. My brilliant friend Fernando summed it up like this: we don’t suffer from physical hunger so much anymore. What we suffer from is psychological hunger. That is, it’s the lingering scepter of hunger that haunts us. This explains a lot, from obesity rates in Miami to the savagery that possesses Cubans at buffets and Coppelia (see note 4). Bells started ringing with Fernando’s “psychological hunger” dictum – this is precisely the condition from which I suffer. Sown during the oatmeal years and now in full bloom, I get like a nervous flyer on a haul to Honolulu without my Xanax when food stores are low. Hunger may make the best sauce as the old saying goes, but take cover when it overtakes me.

Coppelia notwithstanding, Cuba’s not the best place for the psychologically hungry. It’s not Sub-Saharan style granted, but it has its moments. Mondays for instance, when all fruit, vegetable, and meat markets are closed. Run out of fresh stuff on a Monday? Tough luck. Need an egg? Go to Plan B (see note 5). I don’t need Bob Geldof to tell me why I don’t like Mondays. Though open daily, regular stores selling pasta, butter, cheese, and other staples close at 6pm and even if you catch them open, there’s zero guarantee they’ll have what you want or need.

Then there are the seasons. Cuba imports 80% of its food supply – none of it fresh fruit or vegetables. That means if it ain’t the season, you ain’t eating it. No chips and salsa in July or mango chutney in October. Guacamole? You’ve got a three month window. And so it goes with everything from lettuce and parsley to scallions and spinach. Some produce (pears, plums, berries of any sort, broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms) is just a dream on that 90-mile-away horizon. This probably sounds like a nightmare to most, but is mostly bearable until one breezy evening when the mouth-watering image of a BLT pops into my head. Agony ensues. It’s too late for tomatoes and nowhere near lettuce time. Ironically, I’ve got the bacon but by the time I can lay my hands on the L and the T, the B will be long gone (see note 6). Needless to say, in almost eight years living here, I’ve never had a BLT.

The seasons, the supply chain, and the complete unavailability of some items (not to mention the occasional hurricane and blight) force a cook to get and stay creative here in Havana. Such creativity sometimes results in radishes in your pasta primavera or squash in your stir fry. When I first got here I was unsettled by the frequency with which cooked cucumbers appeared in casseroles, chop sueys, and other concoctions. But now I’m unfazed by hot cucumbers and other inventions like Tandoori spaghetti.

To be continued…

Notes

1. For those of you unfamiliar with Frei Betto, the man is an inspiration to which this wiki doesn’t do justice. He was imprisoned for four years helping people flee dictatorial Brazil and has written 50 (FIFTY) books. His most famous is Fidel & Religion based on umpteen hours of interviews with you-know-who. This book holds some kind of weird record for selling out faster in Cuba than any other title in the nation’s history. I could explain why but that would entail a long and not terribly interesting (for the general reading public) explanation of religious history in revolutionary Cuba. Unfortunately, few of Betto’s books are available in English.

2. Living here for so long, I am woefully out of touch. Do people in the real world even use checks anymore?

3. Literally ‘goose paste,’ this is about as close to pâté as Alpo is to ground chuck. Since the 90s and the worst of the Special Period, the government ration system has relied fairly heavily on “enriched” products to inject protein into the national diet. The most infamous of these is “picadillo de soya enriquecido” or enriched soy pellets. Pasta de oca was along these lines – a gooey, flour-based paste to which microscopic amounts of ground up goose was added. Sounds appetizing right? The point is, pasta de oca wasn’t something to savor, but something to keep 11.2 million from death’s door. Amazingly, it did.

4. Coppelia is Cuba’s world famous ice cream parlor and one of my favorite spots here in Havana. Sure, the lines are beyond what most people reading this blog would ever endure, but put in your 45 minutes and you’ll be sitting down to 5 cent scoops of delicious ice cream surrounded by (real! live!) Cubans. Sure, there’s usually only one flavor available – two in the summer – but the ice cream is wicked and the atmosphere charged. Did I mention the nice price?

What you’ll notice after the monumental mod architecture (inspired by the cathedral in Brasilia) is the ferocious appetite Cubans have for ice cream. Chicks so gorgeous they’d be modeling elsewhere order 4 “ensaladas” without a second thought and tack on a piece of cake while they wait. When the 20 (TWENTY) scoops of ice cream arrive, they set to work. These Cubanas lindas aren’t alone: people all around the place are digging into their own score of scoops and if you’ve ever sat elbow to elbow digging in with them, you know I’m not exaggerating in the slightest.

And if you’re ever find yourself stuck between a Cuban and a buffet, run the other way, fast!

5. In the up north world, an egg is something easily resolved – just head over to the neighbors and see if they’ve got one to spot. Not so here, where eggs are nicknamed “salvavidas” (lifesavers) since they’re a major source of protein. While neighbors reliably loan sugar, salt, rice and other ration book staples, it’s seriously bad form to ask for a protein float.

6. Ironic because Cuba is awash in pigs and pork products – lard, feet, ribs, ears, sausage, and more are all easy to come by – but bacon? No, my brother. I’m not sure why. Any butchers out there who can educate me on this finer point of pork?

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