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Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havanaby Isadora Tattlin
Call me Isadora.
Nick says, "What about Cuba?"
"What do you mean, 'What about Cuba?'"
"What about being there for a few years? L. proposed it."
L. is Nick's boss. "Are you kidding me?"
"What do you think?"
I cannot speak. I am thinking about how I have said to Nick sometimes that it would be nice to be a little closer to the United States on Nick's next assignment. It was as if some overly zealous fairy godmother had heard me. Either that, or I had not specified enough when I made my wish. You have to be careful with those wishes, for they can come true.
"How about it?"
"I . . . I just don't know. When do we have to get back to them?"
One hour later, I'm in the station wagon, going to pick my six-year-old up from school, and suddenly I'm not there anymore but under my desk during bomb drill, staring at the red rubber soles of Jonathan Muller's Buster Browns. It's California, 1962. Something about the Cubans, the Russians, and nuclear missiles pointed directly at Saint Stephen's School. People with beards are very dangerous. Also, panic buying in the supermarket. Cans of chicken noodle soup smashed, lying on the floor. Soon after that, it is determined that the fifth grade should stop learning French and start learning Spanish. A big Cuban boy appears at school. Carlos. But he is the nice kind, we are told, not the mean kind, who want to bomb us. He does not know any English but quickly learns to say, "Shadap." His mother comes, too, to teach us Spanish. She has long black leg hairs smushed under her stockings and a mole hidden in the fold of her double chin, which pops out when she looks up at the clock, so that we can hardly get past the "Yo soy, tu eres," so much are we waiting for that mole. The other teachers cannot speak about her among themselves without making violiny sounds with their voices. She had to hide her wedding ring in her shoe to get out of Cuba. I picture people leaving Cuba with little circles printed on the soles of their feet, tiny holes gouged by diamonds.
Cuba. Now I find myself breathing fast, and I have a racing feeling up and down my arms, which is what happens whenever I have to move or do anything new. I don't like doing new things. I don't like traveling and living in weird places. I would have been happy to sit in my loft in New York City for the next hundred years, except that there were no men in New York who were not married or gay. I had to go to another city to find Nick, and then he had to be a foreigner, and not a foreigner from a standard country, like France, but one from a weird little country, X----, and not even a foreigner who stayed in one place, but an energy consultant for a multinational corporation, Energy Consulting International (gas, electric, geothermal, hydro, solar, wind: everything but nuclear he'll tell you how to produce in the most efficient way), who stays a few years in one country, then moves to another. So I keep on having to do new things and keep on traveling and living in weird places, being married to Nick. He makes me do it, only this time, it's more new somehow, more racing-feeling-up-my-arms making. Cuba really is scary: it's not just me.
I see the bright blue South China Sea coming up ahead of the station wagon and realize how clean past the six-year-old's school I've gone.
A friend of ours who lived in Cuba tells me on the phone that I really won't have to spend my time in Cuba hunting for this item and that item because if it's not in the Diplomercado, they just don't have it, and that's that. The Diplomercado, our friend explains, or "Diplomarket," is a supermarket in Havana, more plentifully stocked than other markets, and with higher-quality goods, where, until the legalization of the dollar in 1993, only diplomats or other foreigners (who were the only people with access to dollars) could shop. It is now open to anyone with dollars. If you really get desperate for something, and it's not in the Diplomercado, our friend explains, you have to go find it in another country. One time, he says, he flew to Mexico to buy a toilet seat. He has heard, though, that the material situation is changing, and that there are more stores opening and you can find more stuff around.
I read that in the city of Trinidad, a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial town that has been declared a world monument by UNESCO, housewives stand in doorways asking for soap from passing tourists in the gathering dusk.
I have three months to get our supplies in before we pack and leave.
Our shopping list for Cuba, to be packed in the container with our clothes and furniture and sent to Cuba for free by Nick's company:
18 gallons Clorox
3 dozen boxes gallon-size Ziploc freezer bags
3 dozen boxes quart-size Ziploc freezer bags
64 gallons fabric softener
120 rolls paper towels
216 bars bath soap
4 cartons Scotch-Brite sponges
24 rolls wax paper
60 cakes hand soap
1 carton insecticidal spray
25 cans insecticidal powder
6,000 paper napkins
2,000 plastic glasses
3,600 feet plastic wrap
1,000 garbage bags
120 liters pine disinfectant
20 liters oven cleaner
120 liters all-purpose cleaner
36 liters toilet cleaner
6 liters toilet rust remover
12 liters ceramic cleanser
120 scouring pads
36 liters glass cleaner
4 gallons grease cutter
672 rolls of toilet paper
384 Kleenex boxes
6 liters Woolite
3 dozen boxes sandwich bags
2,400 feet aluminum foil
120 kilos Tide powder detergent
6 gallons shampoo
4 gallons cream rinse
48 boxes Tampax
24 boxes panty liners
24 kilos rice
12 kilos lentils
24 500-gram boxes (each) of spaghetti, linguine, penne, farfalle, and rigatoni
1,200 bottles wine
3 cases each of gin, whiskey, vodka, and vermouth
48 liters olive oil
8 kilos tea
8 kilos canned tuna
12 kilos Kalamata olives
3 kilos capers
2 kilos anchovies
12 dozen boxes assorted cookies
24 liters silver polish
20 liters brass polish
600 meters roast-tying string
1 kilo oregano
1Ú2 kilo each of thyme, basil, rosemary, marjoram, allspice, cinnamon, and cloves
6 cans baking powder
6 cans baking soda
240 packets dry yeast
60 bobeches (glass collars to catch candle drips)
6 bottles Tylenol
12 tubes toothpaste
12 boxes Alka-Seltzer
6 boxes hemorrhoidal suppositories
2 gallons Mylanta
1Ú2 kilo athlete's foot powder
2 liters calamine lotion
4 bottles Visine
12 boxes Band-Aids
6 dozen Gillette Trac II razor
6 bottles children's chewable vitamins
4 bottles amoxicillin
4 bottles antihistamine
2 tubes Genticol (for yellow eye)
4 bottles children's Tempra
5 bottles Dimetapp
12 bottles sunblock (spf 20)
24 cans insect repellent
120 packets water disinfectant
And I am sure I have forgotten many things.
Our forty-foot container is packed by a team of six Indians. The toilet paper is the last to go. The packages are light and flexible and can be packed in anywhere. Four Indians stand and watch as two carry the clear plastic packages out on their backs. The look on their faces is of embarrassment, astonishment, and glee. "Cuba" is the only word I can catch. All six start to laugh, pushing one mover, who, laughing, pushes them back. I look at the leader of their group. "He India vote Communist," the leader says, putting his arm around the one who was pushed. We all laugh.
We stop in Madrid on our way to Cuba to visit a friend of Nick's who lived in Cuba for four years.
"But what is the basic problem?" we ask Nick's friend.
"Fidel is an old man who can't admit that he made a mistake."
"But surely it can't be as simple as that."
"Oh yes it can."
The captain announces that we will soon be beginning our descent. The Spanish executives in the first-class cabin stand, lean, anything to be better able to look out the windows. There is an audible sigh.
Christopher Columbus, on first seeing Cuba, wrote, "Never have human eyes beheld anything so beautiful."
I have never been to Florida or the Caribbean: I never felt the need to go, but no one ever told me that the sea was violet. Violet, then a greenish violet band, then turquoise, then aquamarine, then clear, utterly clear, to rocks and white sand, then green, green grass dotted with silvery white palm trees, then jungle-covered bluffs and ravines with rivers shining through.
Can this be real? Am I looking at what I am looking at? I have seen photos of the Caribbean in magazines but always thought the colors were enhanced. I feel aesthetic floors, ceilings, and walls being snatched off me like dry mats, leaving me in a giddy new space.
How can anyone have a problem, living here?
Closer, we see houses and roads. We search for cars. There are none; then, closer, we see one, moving patiently. Closer, we see Olympic-sized swimming pools with (now it begins) no water in them, with high platforms for diving boards but no diving boards, just bent, rusted metal supports. We see rusted metal supports for billboards, the billboards having fallen off long ago. Closer still, the real funk begins. Now here we go: rust, lack of paint, mildew, stucco falling off, grass and trees growing out of roof drains, large rusted tanks and rusted, twisted metal structures--supports for more billboards, which have fallen off, too. Closer still, banana trees, papaya trees, mango trees, orange trees, plants with red plumes, orange flowers, yellow hanging bells, purple sprays. Climbing plants that look very much like the plants you see in dentists' offices, only twenty times as big, climbing up palm trees, dentists' office plants gone wild, a green blur past the plane now. An Aeroflot fuselage and a basic little airport.
A 1956 two-tone Chevrolet, a hospital-green brush-painted mid-1940s Oldsmobile, a canary yellow 1957 Ford, the year of the first tail fins, and a Studebaker, a Studebaker, with its bullet nose, moving majestically. Nick and I contemplate it as if it were a Titian. And we've only been on the road for three minutes. And there's a gas crisis.
It's Moscow, but instead of grim-looking white people walking down the road, you have happier-looking white and black and brown people walking down the road, waiting for buses in groups in front of giant slogans painted on walls or plastered on billboards. hasta la victoria siempre (Always toward victory) one slogan reads, and another, viva fidel y la revoluci-n socialista (Long live Fidel and the socialist revolution).
You think, for the first two seconds that you see the slogans, that the people who made the slogans, the people who put the slogans up, and the people standing in front of the slogans are somehow kidding, but then you realize, just as quickly, that they are not kidding.
There are advertising billboards, too, on trusses that are still intact, for
Habana Club rum, Pepsodent, and Cubatur, a travel agency. Some thoughts about Pepsodent's being an American brand, and about there being a U.S. embargo against Cuba, rise desultorily in our conversation, but we are too jet-lagged to speculate seriously.
Seeing advertising billboards among the slogans brings on another private wave of thinking-they-must-be-kidding, but again, the thinking-they-must-be-kidding vanishes in one second more.
It's China, too, with the bicycles, whole families packed on some. No one is fat, and you are sure of it because they don't have a lot on in the way of clothes. Shorts, halter tops, tank tops, sneakers--Cuban national dress.
It's enormous, our house. Six help lined up just inside the front door as we arrive: a butler, a gardener, a cook, a downstairs maid, an upstairs maid, and a laundress. That's not including the chauffeur, who is bringing the bags up behind us, and Muna, our baby-sitter from Bangladesh, who to our intense relief has agreed to come with us. She will be lonely here, we know, and we have told her that, but she loves Thea, who is six, and Jimmie, who is four, and we have thought that it would be better for the children if she came along. We have told her that if she can't stand it, she can leave, and we'll understand.
I asked Nick several weeks ago if six in help wasn't a little too much. We weren't diplomats, and in the last country, we had only three, including Muna, but Nick said his predecessor had six, it was mean to let anybody go, the house was huge, the kitchen was medieval, and we could afford to live a little because the help cost so little, only $150 per month per person. Of the $150 per month per person, $85 would go directly to the employee, and $65 would go to Cubalse, the state-run conglomerate in charge of almost all construction in the country and almost all services, which provides domestic and other help to foreigners and watches over the help it provides. Eighty-five dollars a month was a fortune, Nick explained to me several weeks ago as we were packing, because in Cuba, the average salary was $10 per month.
"Watches over them?"
"Watches over them to make sure they watch over us."
Muna is paid much more because she travels with us, goes to the States and Europe with us, and her salary is a compromise between what she would make in Europe and what she would make in the States. I have told her that the best thing to do when the other people in the house ask her how much money she is making is to lie and say $300.
We look through the house. The children career, yelling, through the echoing halls, searching for their rooms.
The help come at us, as we are touring, keys in hand. Five years of Spanish in school, but I cannot understand a single word. They open closets, safes, close them, put keys in our hands. They seem to want to get the keys out of their own hands as fast as possible. There is a lot of ceremony around a walk-in air-conditioned closet off the kitchen. It is called the despensa and it is closed with a key, too.
We walk onto the veranda. Dwarf palms rustle like sheets in the evening breeze. We sit down in metal rocking chairs. The butler, tray in hand, asks us what we would like to drink. We ask for the most Cuban drink. It is a mojito, made of dark rum, light rum, lime juice, sugar, and crushed mint.
It was very hot when we arrived, but now it is cooler and a soft breeze hits us, though the words soft breeze flop dully as soon as I think them, just as before, on the plane, the word violet didn't come anywhere near describing a whole new sensual experience. A pleasant panic as I rummage, jet-lagged, for what it's like: it's like getting hit by a well-powdered marshmallow.
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