I finally did it! I got on that plane to New York, after so many years of plotting. Our great friend Diana organises the Havana Film Festival in New York HFFNY and for years she has invited us, Rafa has been twice, we nearly made it last year, but this year we were taking no chances. Diana booked our hotel for us, we booked the flight via Toronto, we got Rafa’s transit visa, we arranged meetings with film schools, New York woman in Film and our new best friend in New York, Daniel Minahan was throwing a party for us to introduce us to some New York independent film makers.
We crept off in the early hours of the morning leaving the children in safe hands, good friends sleeping the night and a team of driver, nanny, housekeeper for the day. Air Canada proved to be a good choice, polite staff, good film choice and no delays. We were in our hotel by teatime and marvelling over our ability to get connected with our iPad and iPod. Only people who have lived in Cuba understand this hunger and amazement.
The Maritime hotel was a cool retro 70s kind of place with very helpful staff and a nice lobby full of books with an open fireplace to give it a cosy touch. A mountain of packages from Amazon were waiting in the hotel room for me to unpack. I could see the river from our room and the high line (disused railway line now a walkway and park), right in front of it.
We got ready and headed downstairs to meet up with the festival organisers and other festival folk to be taken to a cocktail at the Cuban Office of Interest (ie the Cuban Embassy in New York). We met up with old friends Eirene from Scotland who is making films in Cuba, Monica a Guatemalan actress living in New York, Luciano from Cuba who was presenting his book, Luis director of the film school in Costa Rica, and other party partners in crime. In fact we were quite a solid group by the end of our 4 nights.
After the reception we all headed to an Irish bar to catch up and talk about Cuba. So many people interested in coming to study in the film school and wanting to know how, or if they could. If you are qualified to come to a workshop we told them, apply and we get you the permission to come. The moveable wall, curtain, shower curtain between the US and Cuba is not so impenetrable when it comes to film. Since the film school began Americans have been coming to learn, to teach, to study, to share and to rise above the politics that have created so much fear and paranoia on both sides.
Everywhere I went in New York I met Latinos, obviously at the festival but also in taxis, in shops, in restaurants, on every street corner. If you are Latin American and want to learn English, New York is probably not a good idea, you can get by on Spanish pretty easily. I almost forgot where I was sometimes slipping between the two languages.
The next day Rafa headed off to Columbia Film school and me to try and get some of the things I had promised the children. The sun was shining and I peeled off my layers one by one and then ended up buying a ridiculous pair of woman shoes, and feeling like Carrie Bradshaw, I popped them on and walked the grid, stumbling (almost) across City Bakery for my lunch and finding all the things the children has asked for. They got their jelly beans and gummy bears and all the other little treats. I found a great bookshop for children called Wonderbooks, and spent way too long window shopping. Marvelling too at the service. I walked into shops and people greeted me enthusiastically and asked me how I was. I felt so special, even if I knew they don’t really care about me like they seem to. After a year or so of living in Cuba, where on entering a shop it is almost guaranteed that you will be ignored, not even a glance in your general direction. Once I entered a shop to find a woman really going for it squeezing a zit with no shame. I pointed out that maybe it wasn’t the time or the place for such personal hygiene, she assured me that she was actually trying to pull a hair out of her chin. Oh so that’s ok? I said!
I digress. Overcome with consumerism and high on fake bonhomie, I staggered back to the hotel to get ready to head out early, as Rafa was presenting EICTV and some student films to New Yorkers and anyone else at the festival. We showed 4 short films, Rafa talked about the school and fielded questions from the audience, all this followed by a homenaje to Fernando Birri, the first director of the EICTV.
We left the theatre and headed for a piano recital in a smart apartment organised by the festival, where we were elegantly fed and watered and met up with Ruth, a teacher and friend who comes to the film school twice a year from New York to give a script workshop with her husband Bill who composes music for film. We decided a relatively early night was in order and headed back to the hotel where we still managed to stay up too late checking emails, just because we could.
Rafa headed to The School of Visual Arts the next day feeling more and more confident about his English. Before then we had a meeting with a wonderful lady, Alexis who is president of NYWIFT (New York Women in Film and TV) and threw around a few ideas for future collaborations followed by a lovely lunch together and talked about life and children and where we should live next, something that is beginning to weigh on my mind.
Those 4 days in New York I felt so happy to be back in the fast lane. It felt like such a can do place, everything felt possible and everybody was so positive. I thought about how in the old days New Yorkers were nipping down to Cuba for their weekends of sin …….drugs, Casinos, women and now it feels like, in some ways it is the other way round. I feel as though I need to escape from Cuba to indulge in the guilty pleasures of capitalism. Even things as superficial as buying a pair of cool shoes and lunching in City Bakery whilst flicking through my emails. But living there, would it all be too much? There are a lot of things I have begun to take for granted here in Cuba …. no violence and people who are truly genuine because they don’t know how to be anything else. In New York and London the meter is always ticking away and the cost of living is at a premium. Can I go back to that? Some of me wants to, and some of me doesn’t, but what is best for my family? All these things spun around in my head, would my teenagers be happy or better off in New York or Havana and what will Havana be like in a few years? I know they have to be in an international, cosmopolitan world but where and how do we get there?
That evening Daniel had invited some really lovely people to meet us in his pied-a-terre with a great view across Manhattan. A few of our friends made it along and we headed off to one party and one bar after the other. Finishing up in a great blues bar with Sweet Georgia Brown singing the blues as they should be sung!
The closing night we saw a Paraguayan film. A first for a lot of people, and an interesting insight into the psyche of Latin America’s most mysterious country! No-one talks about Paraguay. All I know is that they have an absurdly long national anthem. We ended up that night in one of New York’s cool nightspots The Box for a few burlesque performances that kept everyone titilated. We bumped into Cucu Diamantes and the guys from Yerba Buena who had a documentary in the festival, and they shared their table and some Vodka Crans with us, whilst we talked about what we can do together in Cuba and at the film school.
We made our flight the next day and like Cinderella who had gone to her New York Ball, I hurried back to my children and dear Cuba with my suitcase packed full of fast city goodies. If I could go to NYC or London every couple of months it would make all the slightly more challenging things about living in Cuba easier to handle. In my case those things are mainly lack of internet, getting hold of things from toothpaste to children’s bicycles, and I’m sorry to say as I was soon to find out, more relentless stealing in my house.
I came home to the typical Cuban problems. My car was off the road as we don’t have any parts, a custodio stole my favourite cashmere sweater that I had clung on to through every crazy night in New York, and we had to fire him. He’s a plonker as nobody will pay the price for a cashmere sweater here in Cuba, even if they needed one! Half of Havana seems to be trying to tear down our fence to get to the beach the other side of ours. 3 times in one day we had to engage in verbal shenanigans and threats of the police to stop them trekking through our back garden after they had cut a huge whole in the fence.
So now I need to get my Cuba groove back …………….. which I will, no doubt very soon. You can’t stay down for long on the La Bella Isla, especially with so many friends and good people around us.