I was supposed to go and see a Cuban band on Saturday night, but in the end did not make it, my heart wasn’t in it. Rafa flew to New York the next day for the Icaro film festival that he founded in Guatemala many years ago, and I found myself with the children in a beautiful park in Nottingham, where by chance I got to hear a great local band reminding me of how much I love our cool urban edgy multi-cultural music. As I looked over to my 3 little ones contentedly devouring their mister Whippee icecreams, I felt strangely contented too. As I swayed to the music, Paulo gave me a nervous glance. Mummy please don’t start dancing, he said.
Just as I didn’t expect to be leaving my country pregnant 10 years ago, I didn’t expect to be arriving back here unplanned with my husband and three children a couple of months back, but here I am living in middle England …… literally!
We had planned a holiday back to the UK and France for a month but ended up with 5 huge suitcases and 2 small ones like shell-shocked refugees on our friend’s boat on the Thames in London. But just as we had left Cuba surrounded by love and support we arrived to the same in the UK! Thanks to all our wonderful family and friends who were absolutely there for us, listening to our crazy tales of another world that was beginning to sound more and more like something so weird and wrong that it was fading fast.
Then we headed down to Devon, finding it difficult to enjoy our stay on the beautiful Jurassic coast with grandparents, as we were still being bombarded with lies and libel online from people who should have known better. But when Rafa finally got chance to write his document telling the truth, they all shut up and really should be totally ashamed of themselves. But as I have realised in the last few weeks, some people have no shame. But we splashed on the beaches, ate ice cream, cream teas and fish and chips, found fossils, visited donkey sanctuaries and really did our best to salvage some kind of holiday. The children were unsettled and anxious, and I still felt angry about how their lives had been turned upside down by a few deeply vain and selfish people. But as the days passed I stopped waking up with a knot in my stomach that had been put there by so much injustice.
Next we moved on to Nottingham, my old university city and where I had spent many happy family Christmases in my aunt and uncle’s beautiful house. We decided to stay, as my wonderful aunt and kindred spirit had a little house for us to live in and we had to start looking in earnest for schools to bring some normality back to my children’s lives. We bought a car, spent a lot of time in the school admissions department of the council, met some new friends, had lots of fun and lovely dinners with my aunt as we waited for our house to be fixed up for us. The children were still anxious and naughty and would not sleep ……….. but bit by bit everything fell together. But it was weird to be the one in charge, the Brit back in her own country and language.
Now we are in a lovely little house, Saskia has a free nursery place at the end of the road, we are registered with a doctor round the corner, have found a dentist for the first time in 2 years and finally at the last moment the boys got a place in a school less than 10 minutes drive away. We found some old carpet tiles in a rubbish skip, Rafa cleared out the cellar, carpeted it and we have installed the boys a Lego den downstairs. Second hand Lego from Ebay helping the healing! The children are amazingly happy in their school and have friends from Afghanistan, Somalia, Jamaica and a few from England. We enrolled in a beautiful little public library 2 minutes away, so they are forgetting about all the books they left behind too! I still have the odd pang when I see something in someone’s kitchen that I used to have or the children ask me where something is and I have to say, Mummy couldn’t fit everything in the suitcases …..
At times during my ten years away I worried that my children would never know what it was like to be British, so I say thank you to serendipity for this unexpected but strangely welcome opportunity and I intend to make the most of it. Not long to go until Guy Fawkes Bonfire Night (a truly British event) and maybe my children will get to see snow this Christmas, something I’ve been promising them for many years.
So now I feel like a middle England Mum, enjoying the wonders of British supermarkets, (Aldi we love you), pootling around in my little car listening to Radio 2 (how ucool is that!). Everyone has been very gentle and friendly to us in Nottingham and we have discovered the delights of the alternative cinema and the new Contemporary arts centre, bumped into Latinos in parks and Ikea, and the boys are already playing football in the street with their Indian neighbours. How long we will be here, or where we go next we do not know yet, but for the time being we are safe and happy in Nottingham. Nobody can keep the Rosal Wilkie family down for long and we are having a well-earned breather until the next adventure begins.
Just off to browse on line for my first winter coat in 10 years …….. hmmm.
I wish I had more time to spend with you Danay, one day we will meet again and have that cup of tea you promised me. Like all the wonderful Cubans I connected with you rapidly, and will never forget that interview in your mother’s house in Santa Fe. But we didn’t get to hang out as we wanted ….. but you are going places and so are we, so I think our paths will cross. In the meantime all my friends in the UK are going to know about you and your music!
We arrived in Cuba with so much love and TRUST. We were so glad to have got out of Guatemala, away from the violence and corruption, and so happy to be in Cuba with Rafa working somewhere as wonderful as EICTV, the school he loved so much. We were safe, we would be looked after.
Or that is what I thought, how wrong I was. We had been left a 15 year time bomb by the last director and it was ticking ….. Even after she left she had her spies in the school informing her of everything Rafa was doing and was writing public emails to criticise and damage him. Recently she wrote waving the white flag …… way too late for that! Maybe she too was a little unstable after 4 years in the school …. anything is possible.
My husband was a student at the film school in the second generation, to him in those days it was a utopia, and it was the school of 3 mundos (3 worlds). They were pioneers creating a new world of cinema as many of the students that followed were. I have met a lot of his friends, they are all still great friends and wonderful inspiring people. Now in 2013, nearly 30 years on, what has it become? Just another film school? But a film school in Cuba with a great heritage, and one lucky enough to have exceptionally good teachers ………. I met a lot of great people at that school but also an awful lot of fake people holding on to their lies, some more clever than others. They were the ones that disappeared from the scene when the going got tough.
One woman spent the whole of the first year showering us with presents, the children too, acting as though she was a good friend, I never trusted her and I was right. I felt sorry for her boyfriend who always seemed to be following one step behind her like a loyal dog. Another character, who Rafa invited for over a decade to Guatemala for the film festival, paying her flights, was nowhere to be seen. Did not even call us to say goodbye. Is this the way decent people react?
My love affair with Cuba was intense and dramatic, of course, how else could it be? I will always remember MY Cuba. The sweet kind people that came into my life and they were the ones that were there for us at the end to help and support us, when all the bureaucrats in the government, the foundation and the film school, had done their work at ruining a family life in a few days and possibly psychologically damaging my children. I still haven’t found them a school place in their new home, we arrived too late. But who gave a shit about my family in the end?
A few weeks ago my husband told the children over a Saturday breakfast that he was no longer director of the film school. Nico, my 7 year old just shrugged his shoulders and sighed and said that at least we wouldn’t have to worry about saving the film school anymore. But things got tough when they realised they were leaving their beloved French school and all their friends and Cuba ……..
A cowardly, total lack of humanity is the only way I can describe what has just happened to me, and my family. Ironic that with film school money, a previous director had co-produced a documentary series called Ser un Ser Humano. Not much humanity came my way from the people with power at the school. The anger and indignation, and also the horror of what we have just been put through, is lessening day by day, but writing this blog, I hope will be some kind of catharsis, and help me turn the page and leave all this soap opera behind, and move on to better things.
Also ‘me and my blog’ have become one of the characters in this ridiculous story, which should be a film script or a myth. The British wife is now, like Miss Scarlett in Cluedo one of the characters of this tale, where we became victims of corruption, deception and betrayal. I remember in the last tough days, receiving a phonecall from a woman (who thinks she is a lady) from the fundacion, telling me that she was a friend and a professional. I had to laugh, there was nothing friendly or professional about this woman. She behaved like the worst kind of bureaucrat from the beginning to the end.
My husband has had to take a lot of personal punches in the face and plenty of bullshit over the last few weeks, but everybody who knows him knows that he is an honourable man, who loves and protects his family, and loves Cuba and that film school. He is also Guatemalan and has been through a war in a country where you are taught to keep your mouth shut, and not share your worries, and at times in Cuba, there seemed no other option. We always thought we were going to be safe though.
We have received accusations of being counter revolutionaries and having private meetings with the American office of interest. So ridiculous. We met the poor guy 3 times. Twice when they threw their huge annual party for all the people involved in culture in Havana and the usual Havana personalities, journalists and other diplomats, and once when he came to visit the film school. We invited a lot of ambassadors to visit the school in the 2 years we were there, and when we invited the Head of Mission we really did not think he would make it, as it was outside their 25 mile zone. To his credit he applied 3 times and finally got permission. We admired his tenacity and received him once in the film school, I wrote about it in this blog. This was our only time meeting him.
Thieves, thieves everywhere ………
When I arrived in Cuba, our house, although beautiful, was a crumbling den of corruption by the sea, the tip of the iceberg of what we were about to discover. The woman in charge was running a food, beer and coffee business from the house, selling through the rubbish collectors and whoever else. When I arrived it didn’t take me long to get to the bottom of everything. All this stuff in the house and there was nobody living there. Food for hundreds of people, including many luxury items had entered in the last 6 months, we could do nothing as everything had been signed off. The woman still works in the kitchen at the film school and I dare say she is still stealing.
We could not ignore what was happening, as it was right under our nose in our own house. As I said, we threw them all out and then our house was burgled. Nobody at the film school who could help, seemed to want to, in fact the opposite, the head of administration was openly hostile towards me when I wanted help with the police and the investigation after the robbery. Other ¨friends¨ in docencia (the faculty) told me just to forget about it and it was all conveniently swept under the carpet. It took us a year to get the guys to pick up the rubbish again, they were really pissed off at losing their business, the British wife had made a stand and she would have to pay. We certainly did when thousands of dollars worth of money and property disappeared one night from our house. Rafa was about to travel and only a few people in the school knew that he had cash in the house for a few hours. Too much of a coincidence.
I tried not to let all this dark stuff get me down, and we were happy to be away from military fascists, narcos and violence in Guatemala. I loved Cuba but I was wisening up fast. The people who I had found to work in my house either refused to work with the film school as they described it is a nido de ratas (a rat’s nest) and pushed everything back onto me, or they ended up stealing from me too! After a year I had almost cleaned it all up and had my great right hand woman in charge. Without her I could never have got through the last year, she was my rock and one of the most wonderful and honest and hardworking people you could want to have at your side. Rafa on the other hand had more than a house to deal with …..
I was already falling in love with my Cuba, a world of good and interesting, decent people. But at times I felt more comfortable on the terrasa of my friend’s apartment in Buena Vista than playing the role of director’s wife in my beautiful beach house. Many aspects of the film school for me had begun to represent all that was going wrong with Cuba, and I had to keep it to myself. There were good people in the school, and I tried to focus on them and not the fake ones. In the second year some great women arrived bringing with them an international vision and experience, there seemed some hope that the school could move forward into the real world.
I loved meeting all the people who came to visit and the wonderful teachers who brought their energy. When there were a lot of workshops happening the place could be buzzing with healthy energy from outside the madness.
The wise grey haired academics*, always treated me kindly, the good team in production and photography, Luciano and the ladies in the library, the sweet people in the dining room, the humble workers, tired of working amongst a mafia. But I had become tired of dealing with so many doble caras (two faced people) full of their own self importance. My Havana life was much more fun and genuine.
* Especially Daniel Diaz Torres who directed one of my all time favourite Cuban films: La Pelicula de Ana.
Every month we had parties in the house to thank the teachers who travel for little money to give classes at the school. I threw some great parties, we all had fun and danced a lot. I love music much more than film, and like to push people out of their comfort zone. My days of working in record companies in London meant that I had a huge appreciation of diverse music. I will always remember how much people danced in front of the sea and how my favourites became theirs. In Cuba, I got into my rumba, always loved cumbia, rediscovered Blaxploitation, and fell in love with Danay and her gang.
I always wanted to invite the students more so they could escape from the pressure cooker, but the first time I did invite a group and took some time and had fun chatting with them and made sure they had some special cocktails that we did not normally serve but in the end, someone stole 26 electric candles from me! I had just bought some new ones on Amazon half price and a German friend had brought them over for me from London. I felt like a little girl who had just had her birthday present stolen, I loved my cheap but cool candles and everyone knew it. Another stealing mystery, but we couldn’t touch the students, some of them were just too full of entitlement and hostility. It seemed I deserved to have my candles stolen ……… In the end some students even stole the words from my blog but that’s another story.
I met many lovely students on an individual basis, especially in my first year, but as we entered our second year, they seemed increasingly more interested in complaining about petty issues rather than looking at the big picture, and their way of dealing with everything seemed to be with hatred and violence and lynching amongst themselves most of the time, but the Rapidito Mafia (as they had become known) were always happy to lynch anyone available from what I could see. A Shakespearean mob manipulated and misinformed and sometimes unstable. One week they would be saying one thing and the next ……
As a psychologist I began to find their behaviour erratic and often disturbing. I felt a bit sorry for them, maybe this so called utopia had turned into something more akin to Lord of the Flies or One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest then anything more poetic or wistful. The isolation of the school and the intensity of the community did not seem healthy anymore. Havana was so close but so far. It seemed cruel to isolate these young people from life and Cuba. If you ask me the school should move to Havana and maybe things could be a little bit more normal rather then some over-rated psychological experiment that has passed its sell by date.
I just wish I had had more time to dance with my friends, instead of listening to the problems Rafa was dealing with, night after night after night. It drained me. This organisation was on its last legs and we were realising that even people we had considered friends could not be trusted ….. and the time bomb was ticking louder and louder ….
The Cuban State is what it is and it seems they have been looking for scapegoats everywhere in these last few years. Two Brits just got out of prison, there are now 20 Canadians in prison, all for minor allegations. They threatened my husband with prison 3 times, mainly for irregularities which had been going on at the school for over 15 years. He took it like a man as they told him to do so! Then they took him to the school and did it in front of the whole school like a crucifixion, with no chance for the truth to come out. The people who should have been up there, those that had been sucking the cow all those years, were nowhere to be seen. Cowards!
When we were thrown out of our home and the whole family left the country in just 2 weeks. I had to give away most of my possessions from a family life of 10 years and 3 children, everything in my kitchen, most of my clothes, my books. I was scared of what could happen to us. Can you imagine going through that? I wept as I tried to decide which books to keep from the children’s collection, which memories. Hiding their Lego in boxes to be taken away.
They were unable to say goodbye to their school and half of their friends, they had to see their books, bicycles and toys being sold and given away,………or disappearing, and their mother working like crazy under enormous pressure to organize everything in record time. We could not have done it without the help of all our wonderful friends. We shipped a few precious personal things to Guatemala where we were not going, and ran with 5 suitcases to England leaving so many things in the house to be given away. The school paid nothing towards the move. Everybody warned us, don’t leave Rafa behind, you all have to get on that plane together. At the airport security they went through everything in my hand luggage touching my underwear with much interest and studying my magazines. It was pathetic, I had to bite my lip as I snatched a pair of my favourite knickers from his hands.
But in those last 2 weeks, our house was full of Cubans looking after us and keeping us safe in more ways than one, some people who had been friends since the beginning, others who appeared like knights in shining armour to help us with everything and anything. Filmmakers and their families, artists, students, actors, writers, dancers, and our wonderful team in the house making us eat, and helping by taking the children out to have fun and keeping things as normal as possible for them. Thank you everybody we couldn’t have managed without you. Maybe you were the counter revolutionaries we were supposed to be meeting with? I think you were all just decent people and wonderful kind friends!!! To be a counter revolutionary in modern Cuba is I believe verging on an oxymoron, if that makes any sense.
Also everyone in the diplomatic and international business community who reached out to us, my great friends in the international press, UNESCO, NGOs and human rights organisations and of course the wonderful Mums in the French school, an eclectic bunch. I will never forget all those people, friends for life who came to sit with us and give us hugs and love in our stunned bewilderment.
It seemed that some Cubans were grateful for the truth, but horrified about how we were being treated, they were truly ashamed, therefore they couldn’t do enough for us. Nothing seemed real, but we just had to keep our mouths shut and get out, but we thanked them for their solidarity. One thing I can truly say is that we came to Cuba with a lot of love and left with even more.
I miss my Cuba and my friends and my Latin world of good and genuine people some of whom I never got chance to say goodbye to ……. but as we would say in English ………. We were always between a rock and a hard place. Or that is how it felt like to me, and maybe to those Cubans crying in my house …… so much emotion. As Danay sings ……….. lagrimas, lagrimas, lagrimas, lagrimas…….. (tears)
Does utopia exist? I don’t know but what happened to my family is a reality. That everyone involved in this ridiculous fiasco has to live with their shame and they all know who they are.
And still some people kept telling us, stay calm, stay quiet ……. Think about the school. Phew …………. Think about the school? What about my 3 children and half of my possessions, and how they were trying to dirty my husband’s spotless reputation????
But on the upside I have never received so many messages of love and support ever in my life from all over the world, messages that touched me and got me through the toughest times.
The Cuban way to turn a blind eye is not what Raul is spouting in his doctrine of anti-corruption. But change is tough, and Cuba, or at least the film school, was not ready to change, now it has to ……… as all the truth came tumbling out …. THAT’S WHAT THEY WANTED.
Te quiero MUCHO Cuba ……you are survivors, just like Rafa and I, and my family and I wish you all the best!
I have not had as much opportunity as I would have liked to dip into the underground music scene in Havana but sometimes I find, the good people in life, just come your way …. I am realising that I have been lucky to have already met some major players and maybe 2013 will be my year of going underground.
Sometimes life as the wife of the director of the film school is all-consuming and added to that, three children under 8, who speak 3 languages. They speak Spanish and French better than me so I have to make a stand and make sure their strangely accented English is kept up to date. Needless to say I am kept very busy, and have to remind myself of a few little goals that I have of my own.
So far my experience with the new generation here in Cuba is a good one. Not everything in Cuba is easy but when you meet these people you feel that the future is bright. They are smart, educated, articulate, friendly, open and more than anything unpretentious (the thing I love the most about Cubans). And although I am nearly old enough to be their mother, they don’t make me feel like that, and if I was their mother I would be quite proud of them. Incidently, Danay and Wichy I think both live with their mothers!
I first discovered Danay Suarez last year, not long after we arrived, in a documentary on Cuban TV and was immediately smitten. Her music, her look, her voice and her attitude. I thought this girl is definitely well on her way and THIS is the kind of Cuban music I want to hear more. I had already been lucky enough to hear the incredibly talented keyboard player Roberto Fonseca at a concert at the film school and was not so surprised to hear that Roberto was one of Danay’s mentors, friends and accomplices. On top of everything Danay just has one of those voices that you would recognise anywhere and already I do. She is definitely not just another hip hop artist.
Bumping into Gilles Peterson at the Biennial was another stroke of good fortune and I got to see both Danay and Wichy at the Cultura Habana party. Check out Danay’s video of her track Yo Aprendi. and her interview on Havana Cultura.
“I never said I was a rapper,” Danay points out. “I can rap and sing, but my real desire is to be a jazz singer, to develop that style. I haven’t done it because I don’t have the musical skills, but I’ll get there some day. I’ve got it inside of me.”
The next time I got to see Danay was at an intimate concert in Casa de Las Americas in Vedado thanks to Darsi Fernandez of SGAE who invited us. She is certainly more than getting there in her musical ability. The mixture of her petite frame, pretty dress and undeniable raw talent and soul, it was hard not to compare Danay with the great late Amy Winehouse. But a little bit of me thinks that Amy must have known or heard Danay, rather than the other way round. There was a lot of Cuba in Amy Winehouse. I’m not sure if she visited Cuba, but if she had she would have fitted in just fine, and just maybe, just maybe, the Cuban way of life could have saved her life …….. who knows.
I met a young Cuban photographer Alejandro at the film school a few months back. I liked his work so much that I asked if I could buy one of his photos. Since then we have kept in touch sharing ideas and gossip. Through a contact of mine, Alejandro is now working a lot for Cuba Absolutely (a good English language online magazine) filming and putting together some great interviews for them. One sunny afternoon Alejandro called me and said he was in my neighborhood doing an interview and he could pass by to say hi.
We ended up having a late lunch and coffee and talking until he had to leave. It was only then that I discovered he was on his way to Santa Fe to interview Danay. Santa Fe is a little town on the beach just outside Havana close to my house. I asked if I could tag along. And this was how I found myself sitting on Danay’s bed looking at all her press clippings and chatting about her career. Alejandro spent a couple of hours interviewing Danay in her mother’s little apartment and I was absolutely charmed. As we all got into my car to drive back into town after the interview, my only comment was …. que linda persona. What a lovely person! Later that night I was hosting a party in the house and there was a call for me. It was Danay to apologise for not making the cup of tea she had promised me in her house. Don’t worry I said I hope we will have plenty of time to share a cup of tea in the future.
Wichy de Vedado has an equally friendly reputation. The amount of people in Havana who have told me that Wichy is their friend. I was beginning to think this guy is the most popular man in town! Check out the music and the comments in the Havana Cultura page ……
Wichy de Vedado is a really nice guy. Yes, you expect him to be dangerous or obsessive or at least to have a giant ego, but he isn’t and he doesn’t. Wichy is friendly and open-minded and, yes, he’s modest when it comes to his mixing skills and to the success he has achieved because of them. Do you see why such information should never be shared? If people knew what Wichy was like they would no longer be content to admire him from a polite distance. They would rush into the DJ booth and attempt to shake his record-spinning hand. Instead of dancing and looking aloof they’d slap him on his back and tell him how much they enjoy his music. And his reputation as one of the sub-zero-cool pillars of Havana’s underground electronic music scene would be damaged beyond repair. And his records might skip.
As I am not very cool. I am the person that jumps dances behind the decks to shake his hand, or at least give him my opinion on his good music and how much I have to share with him. And the thing is about Wichy, I think he actually does want to listen to this seasoned British raver and share a bit of my music. Or maybe he’s just too damn polite 😉
Anyway, we are having a big party in our house on Friday. It’s been a while. The graduation party of the students was the last one in June. So with this party I am hoping to bring together a few new and old friends from the film school, the visiting teachers, my friends in international press, Habana friends and a few musical talents. Rafa has promised me that he is trying to get hold of a new 17 year old Cuban singer called Annie to see if she will sing in our back garden. So lets see. I promise I will report back. In the meantime check out Danay and Wichy with your super fast internet connections …. they’re worth it.
I had an adventure last week. I escaped from my domestic life as a mother and wife of the director of the film school and became a student again. And reading over my last few posts. I think I really needed it!!
I had for some time wanted to do a scriptwriting workshop at the film school but had not found the time or the confidence. I was very nervous about it. Rafa was away in Margarita when the workshop began, so I had only my usual chutzpa to rely on. On the Sunday night before, the children all finally in bed, I looked for a little notebook and pen. Am I really going to do this? I thought. Was I being audacious to try to do this course with the boys on holiday? Will the other students accept me? Will they think what the hell is the wife of the director doing here and henceforth to complain? And maybe they would have been in their rights to do that. Abusing my role as I am. Aprovechando, as we say in español. No matter what, I thought this was meant to be, for whatever reason. And there speaks the great believer in serendipity that you know me to be! Anyway, like my own hero, my call to adventure was too strong to refuse.
The morning came and I managed to drop Saskia off at her circulo. Left the boys hanging out with Rey the custodio until their private teacher arrived and headed off down the straight road to San Antonio.
I made it to the school on time and found the head of the script department who showed me to the room. Will I still have anything interesting or intellectual to add after so many years of childcare and food foraging … what could I bring to the table?
I was lucky enough that, for my first adventure into academic life at the film school, I had Ruth Goldberg as my teacher. A New Yorker whose serenity hides a cutting and mischievous intellect and who gently encouraged all of us to slowly open up and share our thoughts and opinions. Also, I think I was supposed to meet Ruth, she was the perfect mentor for my week stepping out of my ordinary life.
We talked about the structure of the Myth, of Joseph Campbell and the Hero with a thousand faces, adventures beyond the ordinary. What is the myth we are living and what does it mean to us as people and writers?
We talked about our favourite films and why they appealed to us. How our hero can be a country or a city. What turns a myth into a tragedy? How we all have our inner journeys and outer jouneys. Where Freud and Jung came into it all. And it all made wonderful perfect sense to me.
By day two I began to think I was a myth junky. I began to see myths everywhere! Cuba is a myth, the revolution is a myth. The myth of Cuba has already put me through a few tests and I still love it.
What about my relationships? The myth of love at first sight. Did I cheat the course of tragedy? And what of my journeys? What will become of my journey away from my homeland? Will I ever return? Or have I gone too far? (Back to the Unbearable Lightness of Being again). What does the rest of my life have in store for me? I know I always wanted to step out of the ordinary world and that I found it hard to refuse adventures but will there come a time that I need to find my road back so I can resurrect myself as a new person in my old world? huh
Then how does all this relate to me as a writer? How can I create my stories and my characters? How can I bring things to life as a writer? What kind of writer do I want to be? I know I love telling stories and maybe sometimes making people laugh or think or perhaps feel a little bit uncomfortable. Yes I like to take people on a journey out of the ordinary.
On Saturday night Wichy, my favourite Cuban DJ played at the film school, it was a perfect end to a wonderful week, as I remembered the journeys DJs have taken me on and wished writing was as easy as dancing.
And as I sit here now looking out at the sea all clear and calm after the storm the children back at school and the house empty I am trying to organize all the stories I have running through my head.
Thank you EICTV, all the script students of the second year for accepting me so graciously, and most of all to Ruth for inspiring me and helping me to remember all the things I knew and all the things I want to know.
I have been back just over a week from the UK and feeling as though I am just getting back into my routine, but also at the same time realising that there is no routine. That is the best thing about my life here. People are still spontaneous and open to suggestions. People are busy but not booked up! Every week is different even when you think you know what is in store …….
It was fun to spend that time with Saskia and family and friends. But as usual when I hit the shores of their motherland, Saskia caught a terrible head cold. In fact one particular night when we were staying in a very smart bedroom I was catching vomit in my hand so as not to Kalpol stain the beautiful white bedspread. The joys of motherhood!!
It was the latest time I have visited London in years, and I did hit Autumn rather that the beautiful Indian summers that I have usually the pleasure. I managed to kit us out with a few layers in second hand shops and Uniqlo …….. I filled my suitcase with childrens shoes, England football kits, atlas, various cooking items and a whole load of food and toiletries. Bisto now comes in squeezy tubes I was pleased to see! I picked up a couple of cool frocks in Spitalfields market and a pair of ankle boots to get me though. My second suitcase was way over the limit but the nice Spanish lady at Virgin took pity on me and waved it through …. yippy. Twilight checkin is the best!
In England nobody seemed to have much time, everybody rushing, lots of people. Can I still live somewhere so full of people I thought to myself ……….
I was glad to get back to sunshine and all my men and we partied late on a school night, so happy to all be back together again despite the long flight and jetlag. Next year wherever we go it will be all together! I promised the boys. I think this was the longest I had left my family and it is easier said than done!
Cuba life is just as fun and I arrived home for the annual party at the Spanish embassy where I caught up with a few people. The night after we had a dinner in the house with some friends and got dragged out to another party where Wichy de Vedado (one of the better DJs in Havana) was playing on a rooftop. Trying to have a quiet week afterwards I was invited by a photographer friend to hear a band called Deja Vu, who had been recording in a house in Jamainitas on the beach close to our house and were having a party and a little concert to wrap up. Luckily the concert was at sunset so I managed to get home by 9. I enjoyed the music and the atmosphere around the band and their families and had to stop myself jumping in the sea with the other guests fully dressed ………. could be a bit of a soggy drive home I thought.
Now bracing myself for 2 weeks holiday with the boys and Rafa away in Magarita at a film festival. What adventures can we have? This weekend we have the new head of the British Council coming over for lunch and we promised the children that we would do lots of fun things ……… the musicians of Bremen is in the theatre in Vedado, as well as a French season of children’s films.
I don’t know what it is about my life right now but I feel like a 1950’s wife. Is it Cuba or is it being the wife of the director of the film school or a bit of both?
It is true that life in Cuba in many ways has stood still since 1959. The most obvious icon is of course, the 1950’s car. There is something Madmen-esque about this world, even down to the Lucky Strikes, a world where men are men, like Don Draper. Ice cream parlours, art deco hotel bars, trilby hats, cigars, sling back shoes, hourglass figures, no traffic, slow traffic………. And the music.
When my friend asked for some more modern music at a party the other day the DJ responded with the line. In Cuba we are about memoria. I disagree; I think Cubans should be shouting from their crumbling rooftops that CUBA IS THE FUTURE and the future’s so bright you gotta wear shades. Otherwise Cuba will sell its soul to the capitalist devil along with Che memorabilia and black market cigars. And Cuba I really do hope you find your modern soul and get yourselves a future, I do, I do, I do …..
Another favourite expression I heard before I arrived was that your heels get higher and your dresses tighter in Cuba. I am not sure what that says about the island but I definitely have acquired a couple of pairs of heels since arriving to get me to the many receptions to which I am invited. And yes I have dusted down some of my more feminine outfits, which did not see the light of day on the dusty or damp streets of backpacker, American tourist town Antigua. More opportunities to get glamorous here definitely.
Are Cuban men more chauvinist, more machista than your average Puerto Rican, Mexican or Venezuelan man? I’m not sure. For me machismo is rife all over the Latin world, you don’t need to come to Cuba particularly to sample this cultural phenomenon.
However there was a Cuban documentary on the TV the other day just titled Los Machos. It appeared to be a celebration of all things male. Lots of images of good looking guys hanging out in the streets chatting, back slapping, playing dominoes, talking baseball……. laughing. Just generally making that whole thing of being a man in Cuba look pretty damn cool! There were even some very cute images of Cuban Dads with small beautiful children staring up into their eyes with love and admiration for their father’s tender manliness!
Obviously it wasn’t a serious or realistic documentary as I didn’t see any images of fat men with their T-shirts rolled up to reveal their sweaty large bellies or angry men clouting their young children for crying for a toy, like I saw in the plastic toy shop on quinta the other day. The shop was full and nobody said a word except me. I was so shocked and angry I had to tell him…well done, you’re a really strong man ……. Muy muy macho, muy fuerte! As I was watching the tears of confusion and shame fall down the cheeks of his toddler son.
But, truth be told, in general, Cuban men are an attractive bunch and their charm and seduction generally a little more subtle and laid back then many other races I have come across in my years of living abroad and travelling. But I am getting old, and now a mother of 3, so maybe I am no longer a typical target for any lustful lewdness anyway!
Although apparently according to some of the students at the film school I am La rubia con lo mejor swing ……… which is a very Cuban way of looking at things. It is not just about what you’ve got but how you move it! And unlike my husband I like to think that I am the one with the best swing who just happens to be blonde rather than the one with the best swing out of a small subsection of blondes. Yes, yes I know I am clutching at straws but we all need to clutch at straws sometimes to lift the ego.
But I digress, why do I feel like a 1950’s wife and mother? Is it an accumulation of many years of devoting myself to my husband and my children partly because I wanted to and partly because I didn’t have much choice if I wanted this family to stay together, and I did. Most days I see the upside of the story. I am lucky to have been able to be with them so much, I have always been provided for, I have had many wonderful experiences and adventures with my family, I have enjoyed the added bonus of a husband with an interesting job. No boring corporate partners dinners for me, just film festivals and parties and interesting film-makers both old and new. So I should be grateful for this life and happy to be with my children guiding them though their bi-lingual, bi-cultural upbringing. And I am very proud of them when their bickering and whining has not ground me down. The global mother of 3.
But on the other hand I have been feeling suffocated. Suffocated with the never-ending domestic trials and tribulations of living in Cuba and it feels like I have fallen into the last century. I have 8 people that come and work in my house (I know it is ridiculous, believe me!) and I still feel as though I never have time for anything, or any time to myself. If it is not my children that want my time it is my employees who need me to solve their problems. I have still, after nearly a year, failed to turn that dynamic around ……. I want them to resolve all my problems and leave me free for the fun stuff and the stuff that is purely mine.
Oh in the mists of time I did have a career, I was going places, I was meeting interesting psychologists and sociologists. My ideas about the creative career were bouncing around and taking me into new greenfield areas of research.
I have been wistfully thinking about my last summer in London when the sun shone, I cycled everywhere, did want I wanted, had an intellectual life, a career, people wanted to talk to me or help me, or collaborate with me because of my ideas and my research not because I was the wife of somebody.
Anyway …….. I took photos of the most amazing sunset last night, we have lots of friends flying in for the film school graduation and parties, we will get to have a holiday soon for all the family, I live in a beautiful house on a beach and I have a husband I love and loves me and takes care of me ……. and I have the best swing … sometimes.
But rising slowly up from the ashes is that feminist that I had forgotten about, the one that got out there and grabbed every opportunity going for herself, grabbed the moment and her own money ……. and she will be back, and she already has lots of ideas up her sleeve, just got to go downstairs and sort out the drama of the temperamental 1950’s plumbing and the drains in the kitchen which have flooded, but I’ll be back with more gutsy feminist adventures soon ……. I promise 😉
Summer has hit Havana big time. It is steaming and I have now totally submitted myself to the world of air con, seeking shade and ventilation whenever I can. The air is heavy and I feel a weight pressing down on me. I am listless and without energy and trying to wear as little as possible without letting too much of my 43 year old body hang out! (My Thai friend and dress designer has been whipping me up some nice little summer frocks).
I have to mop the sweaty foreheads of my children. I go out at night with a fan. I get sweat stains on my bras (I know!), I open the glass doors to the sea in the morning and no cool breeze welcomes me. The sea is like a tepid clear soup and I can see little stripy fish and small rays darting through the shallows.
I have also been without a nanny this last month. Although I liked Sonia I was beginning to doubt her effectiveness at dealing with the job. The things she promised never materialised, she clearly did not enjoy cooking and I needed someone more steady, tenacious, patient and in some ways more appropriate! One little example ….. She had taken it upon herself to take the boys to the supermarket round the corner and buy her feminine hygiene supplies in their company, at the same time explaining about the whole menstruation story, which I was not quite sure was her place or their time. Pretty horrifying stuff for 6 and 7 year old boys. They have not mentioned it to me so I am hoping that they were not paying too much attention, maybe too busy having a fight or trying to buy sweets or icecream.
Anyway this was the first time I really had to sack someone who has worked so closely with me, but once it was done, she marched straight out the door without a backward glance and I felt an incredible sense of relief. I had muttered stuff about what a great person she was but she was not the one for me and how it wasn’t working out …….. like a teenager trying to let down softly their school sweetheart.
The first couple of weeks I felt content, alone with my brood, washing up an awful lot, but peaceful, serene even (no really!). Now the novelty is wearing off and I want my freedom back. No time to write, no time to investigate the new world of DJs in Habana, no time to nurture my wonderful new friendships, no time for much and on top of being a slavish hands-on Mum I have to find the time to deal with the administration aspects of the film school which requires a lot of patience and tenacity. I have plenty of the latter but not much of the former. I have been interviewing many nice women determined that this one will be the right one. Phew!
My garden is taking shape too, which is exciting. The back of the house which faces onto the sea, I can plant nothing pretty as the salt and the wind burns it all so I am turning the entrance on the road side into my colourful sun trap of flowers and hanging baskets. Such things make me happy and Cuban garden centres are deliciously cheap and cheerful.
I am spending too much time cleaning up the poo and pee of the dog and the daughter. The puppy just seems to want to sneak into the house to seek out my Guatemalan wool rugs as her toilet. Saskia is getting the hang of the potty but is at times a little too enthusiastic as she rushes around proudly showing to anyone interested (mainly me) how it brims with steaming turd and a coulis of hot pee. Accidents happen!
Moving swiftly on to another topic ……. a supposedly hot shot American Hollywood director flew into town in his private jet acting like some kind of diva who needed to be received by everyone including my husband. He spent 3 days at the film school and was not an easy guest, asking many pert and naive questions. Doug Liman made Swingers, Mr and Mrs Smith and the Bourne films. Also the TV series The OC for those who like the latest Dawson Creek type offering about rich angst-ridden Californian teenagers.
He seemed to think that the film school would be delighted to accommodate him and they did in a most gracious manner, even though they had no idea what he was doing there. As requested, they showed his first film Swingers to the students and 10 turned up, of which a handful left half way through and the others snuck out before the credits had finished (ie no questions to ask the director) leaving Rafa clearing his throat and suggesting a beer in the bar. I wonder if he realised that the film school has received some truly great independent film directors in the last few months as always and are not easily impressed by the Hollywood machine although Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola amongst others have all visited. Doug’s parting shot to Rafa was: Be prepared we are coming back. We were not quite sure how to take that mysterious comment……. some kind of Hollywood film bay of pigs attack!?
More parties parties parties. My first proper dinner in the house, another monthly party for all the visiting teachers and students from workshops. Our friends the Norwegian Ambassador and his Mexican husband threw a couple of parties this month in their beautiful house round the corner from us. Norwegian day of the constitution also happened to co-incide with the international day against homophobia and less appropriately the Cuban day for campesinos (loosely translated as farmers, yokels or peasants depending on the context). There was a big lunch for all the workers on the film school farm which Rafa attended. Guzman the boss made a point of saying that these campesinos were definitely not gay! Or at least if they were they would never admit it ….
Stephen Bayley, successful British film director and the ex-director of the National Film school in the UK was back in town giving his extremely popular and successful workshops on the Meisner technique for actors and directors. The Cubans love him! They get enthusiastic and happy and at times even tearful and emotional when he is around. We threw a party for him after one of the performances in the Bertolt Brecht theatre in Vedado on a breezeless balcony.
Last night it was the British Embassy party in the amazingly beautiful residence in Vedado. I big turn out of diplomats but I spent most of the night hanging out with Stephen and the Cubans actors, musicians and DJs who are becoming my friends. Rafa had been climbing in the Sierra Maestra with some documentary students from the film school and was waiting for me tucked up in bed after an exhausting few days. And then the air con in our bedroom broke ……….. phew. Feeling hot hot hot!!
Still Cuba intrigues, surprises and seduces me ………. what the future holds nobody knows. People speculate and talk a lot about what the changes will bring. which is one of the things I will always love about Cubans. You can disagree but once you talk and talk you usually both end up with a smile on your face. People don’t get aggressive or shirty. Just shrug your shoulders and have another cold Mojito, life’s too short to get angry or upset. I’m learning …………….
Cultural life in Havana is very good and there is always enough things going on to please anybody. Beyond that there is always spontaneity and good music and parties to be joined. Cubans are an educated bunch and they put culture way up on the list and they all love to chat!
I actually enjoy watching Cuban TV and we have felt no desire to try to get cable or satelite. Firstly there are no adverts. Can you imagine what a pleasure that is!! In Guatemala I was forced to watch more adverts on cable TV than actual programming. It was something that I resented a lot. Here I have to deal with a few Cuban public service announcements, which I usually find either entertaining or interesting and they never interrupt a good film. To name a few ……the one about how to get rid of bugs in your house and fumigation. The one about how you shouldn’t use public transport when you are drunk and leery and others involving manners and how to respect your fellow Cubans. Endless tributes to Jose Marti and the heroes of the revolution, and actually relatively little on Fidel. Emotional pleas to free the Cuban 5, imprisoned in the US without a proper trial and many more, short exerts about beautiful parts of Cuba you should visit etc etc …….
The programming is pretty good. I enjoy the many discussion shows on art and literature and social topics. Interviews with interesting Cuban and visiting Latin personalities. The famous Mesa Redonda (the round table) tends to be more national social, geopolitical or economic discussion so I can’t say I sit watching that too much but Rafa tunes in from time to time.
Last night I watched a discussion about being a single parent on another chat show (this one is triangular) hosted by somebody who works at the film school. Interesting and good for my Spanish! I watch Cuban news, which is not bad for such an apparently isolated country, they cover more international topics than in Guatemala. I have seen many good films, independent, foreign language (although can be tricky reading Spanish subtitles whilst listening to Bollywood Indian or German science documentaries) and also a handful of better Hollywood films. Such US things as CSI, Private Practice, Seinfeld and White Collar have appeared too.
International sports events that Cubans take part in are pretty well covered. When we arrived we had international athletics, the Panamerican games from Guadalajara, and lots of baseball which Rafa likes to dip into although I still haven’t got a clue what they are up to. It seems to me like the epitome of male narcisism. The way the pose and wiggle before every move like preening peacocks twitching and pulling at the tight pants in a jerky dancy fashion.
Also it goes without saying that you can watch an awful lot of good music from all over the world as well as Cuban. On Sunday I watched Adele playing live at the Royal Albert Hall. A week before I watched an amazing performance by the Cuban Symphony orchestra outside in a beautiful square possibly in Havana. All the musicians were pretty good looking which can’t help but add to the experience! And the children’s TV on the, what appears to be legitimately pirate channel of MV is a great mixture of BBC, Discovery kids and a bit of Mexican TV but blissfully advert free. So my children don’t spend half their time saying Mummy I want that and that and that for my next Birthday/Christmas!
I have been able to take the children to see 4 wonderfully professionally produced plays, last week was a French musical organised for the week of francophonie in Vedado. I took the boys to a pyjama story time party at their school. We took them to see two Dutch films during the week of Dutch cinema. All this is without even checking the ads in the paper. Not a week goes by without some country having a week of their independent cinema. I made it to a couple in British Cinema week, next week is Iran. I have been invited to Norwegian, Belgian , Canadian, Brazilian, Danish … and oh so many other film weeks that I can’t remember. I have never had to check the listing page of any newspapers in Rafa’s position we tend to get invited to most things.
As always, I do want to check out more music nights though, it is just finding the time and the energy!
Oh yes, and the Pope arrived last week for a flying visit to Havana and Santiago. Can’t say I would have been rushing down and fighting the crowds for that particular event. But I am happy for all the Cuban catholics who were terribly excited! And that he persuaded Fidel that Good Friday should be a holiday in Cuba!
My next two posts will be my attempts at reviewing all the wonderful independent cinema that I am able to watch and access. So get ready for my reviews on some great films from Cuba, South America, Spain and UK.
Due to the rain at the Film School’s 25th Birthday party in December, Los Van Van did not get to play. The students put on some great tunes and we still danced until breakfast, however Los Van Van honoured their promise to play at the Film School and finally came back last Friday. Two nights before, the heavens had opened with another terrific downpour and Rafa was convinced that they were never going to get to play, but although the sky was grey over the sea when we woke up that morning, the island climate was kind to us.
So who are Los Van Van? (loosely their name could be translated as The Go-gos). When I heard their name here in Cuba I thought they were saying the Bambams, which sounded to me like a caveman TV series for children and not one of the coolest bands on the island. When I was telling Cubans and long term expats that Los Van Van were playing at the party I noticed a certain soulful reverence from most people as though I was talking about the Beatles or the Stones, and it seems that Los Van Van have been round for almost as long as those pop legends. Formed in 1969 by their bass player Juan Formell and arguably Cuba’s most successful post-revolution band. Their founder, is one of the most important figures in contemporary Cuban music. Many other stars have passed through Los Van Van school of music before heading off for solo careers.
So we were in for a treat. I managed to rustle up a few Habana friends to make the journey out to the Film School last Friday night, and we were not to be disappointed. Teachers and students from all over the world, workers and their families from San Antonio de los Baños, all came together to dance and party with Los Van Van, a really wonderful cross-section of people and a great show.
The first thing that impressed me was the amount of people on stage. As though some big impromptu family party had set off a musical event, from your old grandpa veteran to the new and young, hip-thrusting tight trouser wearing youngsters.
Using what is known as a charanga line-up (flute, string and rhythm) as its base, Los Van Van added trombones and were said to be the first Cuban group to use synthesizers and drum machines way back when such things were unheard of. Initially, their sound was a fusion of son montuno, rumba, and North American rock and pop if you can work that one out, and try and imagine what it sounds like. Later they incorporated funk, disco, and hip hop. So with all that going on, you have a little bit of something for everybody and you could see that in the crowd, from grandmas to stunned toddlers in arms being rocked around by their parents.
Los Van Van are also known for their clever use of double entendres and word plays in their lyrics. Some of the stories in their songs span several albums! Obviously most of this clever stuff went sailing right over my head but at one point Rafa said they were improvising and singing about him and the film school. When he tuned into it, he was too late to hear exactly what! Damn I thought. I wanted to know just how cheeky they were!
In the end I liked Los Van Van. Their performance and style was one of unpretencious good fun and good music with no rules. Just join in and dance how you like ……and I did! I even was dragged around in a conga at one point by one of the kitchen ladies!
Check out your local listings as maybe Los Van Van are coming to a theatre near you. They spend a large portion of the year travelling the world and performing, so I consider myself very honoured to have caught them at the very Cuban and more intimate setting of the basketball court next to the swimming pool behind the student residence!
Ooh and the ham and cheese sandwich that Rafa and I had at the bottom of the basketball court around 1am was the best one of my life. I was woken up the next morning by my really annoying mother’s internal clock at the usual time of 7 am (never mind that the children were in Habana with the nanny) with a mild hangover, starving and dreaming about that sandwich. Lots of bottles of rum were being passed around the dance floor that night! When in ron ………….. and all that. That’s my new witty double entendre that obviously nobody gets but me, but it makes me chuckle to myself as I neck someone’s proffered bottle like a true Cubana.
Anyway click here to check out some photos of the night by photographer Nicolas Ordoñez. If I was not on dial up I would have endeavoured to upload them but this way you can check them all out. See who can spot me in the crowd!
The dust is settling on yet another Latin American Film Festival. I am becoming a veteran of these events, which is rather strange for a person who has never made a film in her life, Latin or otherwise. I am a self-confessed interloper in this world but I do love it! I used to escape home life of two baby boys, once a year to the Icaro Festival in Guatemala. My first visit to Guadalajara festival a few years ago is about the nearest thing Rafa and I have had to a honeymoon!
And quite frankly these days I don’t even get to watch many films during festivals or otherwise. Although I am introducing my boys to some classic James Bond to give them a little bit of British culture along with the Beatles and the Stones! I am well up on the latest Narnia, Harry Potter or other such delights of children’s cinema. Yesterday I had a discussion with Paulo and Nico on the reasons why Kung Fu Panda 2 was actually better than the first one! So you see the depths of film criticism that I am plundering.
So I have never made a film, but I do have 3 beautiful British Guatemalan Co-Productions to my name Paulo, Nico and Saskia.
This was my first Havana Film Festival, and I know it won’t be the last. The festival takes place in The National Hotel and several cinemas and locations around Havana. This year it also coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Film school (EICTV). And as usual, the annual meeting of the Fundacion del Nuevo Cine Latin Americano, of which Rafa is a long standing committee member. And of course there was the most beautiful full moon too.
So very busy we were. The films I wanted to see but did not get to see include: all the Cuban films, all the films made by friends, all the Guatemalan films I haven’t seen and a few Brazilian and Norwegian ones too!
At least now I know I have access to the film school film library and can console myself with the fact that over the next few years I can work my way through some of the marvels of Latin Cinema at my own, mother of 3, pace. I am just so glad I got to see a lot of films and read a lot of novels in my not always misspent, and quite extended youth.
With 3 children, it is the usual juggling act of childcare whilst I escape to the many receptions and parties to which I am always invited, to see the huge gang of film makers that make up this wonderful community that revolves around the energy of EICTV and the Fundacion.
But what is New Latin American Cine exactly? I am told that the term grew out of the dark days when most of Latin America was under right wing dictatorships. When writers, artists and filmmakers trod a delicate line with the authorities. Also the filmmakers wanted to break away from the avalanche of Hollywood cinema hitting the region and defend the right to express themselves through their own images and stories during a time of great artistic repression. And from what I can see the movement has not stopped growing since those days.
When I met my husband (whilst interviewing filmmakers in Guatemala) and we began our family (the two events pretty much coincided) I did not realise that I too was entering into another family. A family of amazingly talented and passionate, independent filmmakers, good friends, warm and wonderful people, who never once made me feel like the interloper I so obviously am. Who knows maybe one day I will make a film ……… all about them!
The Party at the Film School was almost rained off, not something that happens too much in Cuba. The Van Vans, could not play and Rafa could hardly wrap up the ceremony as the heavens opened, but it did not stop most of us having a crazy night of dancing, reminiscing and drinking. Workers and their families mixed with diplomats, students and former students, musicians, film stars, directors, film festival Jury and of course little old me. Also a handful of my favourite Guatemalans to help me feel at home in my new life!
I had bought a new red dress for the event so I was rather too easily identifiable and I managed to stay up until 5am. I have to admit that it has taken me a few days to recover. I managed to keep going for the party in our house in Havana, which took place the following night but just could not make it to the closing party of the festival. Sorry to those friends I did not get to say goodbye to, but it was a school night!! I would like to take you up on your invitations some day to visit Brazil, Berlin, Costa Rica ………etc, etc. But I’ll see you all in Guadalajara in a couple of months, I hope. Guest Country Reino Unido ………. Oh yes that is my little country! I have not forgotten you.