Converted to la Rumba in just one night!

As I have had a good friend in town I have had lots of excuses to be a tourist and party a little bit more than usual!  Also the reason for my absence from the blogosphere.

Last Friday we had been tipped off by our musician friend Tony that there would be a good night down at the Palacio de la Rumba, and he wasn’t wrong.  After the usual fraught bedtime theatre of 3 children under 7, we managed to escape down the Malecon and after asking a couple of people we found the Palacio nestled in a small square in Central Havana.  We all paid 10 cucs entry, which although I am sure the locals weren’t paying, I really didn’t care and in my mind it was worth every centavo!

The venue was a little like an old style music hall with a stage, a dance floor and chairs and tables down the middle and some on raised platforms.  There was a bar running down one wall at the back of the room and a dickie bow tied waiter hovering.  Needless to say there weren’t many white faces in there but this didn’t seem to matter to anybody least of all us.  I did feel a little honoured to be there.  It was African Cuban music about as authentic as you could hope to find it, and although there were people dancing when we arrived there was a serious air of contemplation and appreciation.  The stage was full, around 12 people were playing, drumming and singing in a well practised, effortless way.

We got a bottle of rum and found ourselves a table.  The haunting soulful singing and distinctive rhythms soon got us in the mood, in fact all 3 of us were grinning like loons who had just stumbled upon a great party.  At one stage early on a Babalu (or Babulau) appeared behind us with his shell necklace and long beard he looked the epitome of Santeria wisdom.  A lot of the men were strikingly dressed in white with white flat caps setting off their dark complexions.

Early on there seemed to be some tacit rules about who was up on the dance floor and what was going on and I was happy just to sit there and lap it all up.  Couples would get up and dance as though they were conversing.  Both men and women had some kind of scarf which they would use to exaggerate their movements.  After a while the crowd that had collected on the right hand side would move across and all start dancing.  At one stage there was even a conga that filed all the way through the club, a million times cooler than one of those awful things done at drunken office parties and weddings.

The club was no smoking and people were not drinking excessively it was all about the music and the dancing.   At one stage a huge birthday cake appeared to celebrate the anniversary of one of the groups and I vaguely remember allowing myself to be lifted up onto the stage to join the celebrations.  I felt a bit like a gatecrasher but by the end of the night we were up there with the best of them shaking our booty to the rumba until closing time.  We bumped into some Belgian friends who had been in Havana to organise a dance event with the local people and through them I got the phone number of a dance teacher who came with strong recommendations.  She is a rather scary-looking Amazonian woman, helped by the 3 inch platforms she was wearing.  I am sure she will whip me into rumba shape in no time!

Suddenly at 1.30 we found ourselves in the square outside the club realising that it was all over and we had certainly stayed the course.  In fact I was rather glad that it finished, as otherwise I am not sure when we would have got home!  Our car was parked right outside, as is the luxury of no car Cuba, and we were contentedly whisked home through the empty streets down to suburban Flores and a last drink in front of the sea to discuss the fun we had had on our first official night out dancing!!!  Viva la rumba!

Next stop quiet and sleepy Cienfuegos, the cleanest town in Cuba!


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Birthdays, Americans in Havana and no knickers!

Yesterday was Rafa’s 51st Birthday.  We made a cake and the boys made him a very sweet card to be kept and treasured.  Saskia still doesn’t really know what is going on but she loved the singing and the animals they put on the cake.  I didn’t manage to get to the chocolate shop round the corner (which has old style posh chocs in nice little boxes), due to lots of extra curricula activities and meetings at the boys school.  Neither could I buy Rafa some clothes as I usually do, but we all sang Happy Birthday in 3 languages (French a little bit rusty!) and learnt a new Cuban Birthday song.  Lucky my husband is not a material man.

However, the other event of the day was a little trip to the United States Interest Section in Havana to welcome the new head of mission with a cultural cocktail.  I did not think that this opportunity would arise so soon and I was looking forward to putting on a nice frock and getting involved.  I really promised to be on my best behaviour ……… or at least I will try not to drop any clangers about Guatanamo and how it is not cool or true to call Cubans terrorists while the US is repeatedly breaking international law and, and, and ……… hmmm

Maybe I should start with a few facts!

The United States do not have diplomatic relations with Cuba.  Therefore they do not have the right to have an embassy in Cuba.  What can you expect when Cubans are officially on the US list of terrorists?  So they have this strange thing called the Interest Section in Havana commonly known as USINT.  It acts as a de facto embassy and a place to post provocative propaganda which the Cubans have always responded to with billboards and demonstrations.  They have some weird cover agreement with the Swiss, I suppose because of their neutrality.

I first visited Cuba in June 2005 when Paulo was a baby and Nico was in my tummy still undetected!  We were staying with friends very close to USINT and we were aware of all the propaganda coming out of the electronic billboard and the Cubans paper billboard counter attack.  We arrived in Habana to find everyone in the streets as it was the anniversary of the hijacking of a plane of athletes by CIA backed terrorists.  We learnt that the mother of the friend where we were staying was not in the house, she had been invited to the reception with Fidel as her husband was the pilot who was one of the many people killed by that shocking attack, a story for another day.  And, when I get near a faster internet connection I will post my photos on a separate blog.

Guantanamo Bay is not accessible by land but only into its superb natural harbour and naval base can the US enter.  Matters relating to Guantanamo are dealt with by the US Embassy in Jamaica just across the sea.

And then there is that old matter of the blockade …….   This was put in place in 1962 with the intention of isolating the country and fomenting regime change.  Well that didn’t work did it???  Some people call it an embargo but it is a blockade as the US penalises other countries who are willing to work with Cuba.  The blockade breaks with the basic human rights of 11 million Cuban people: the right to self determination.  The blockade has cost the Cubans over $100 billion over the years.  Not to mention the costs to broken families and health (50% of drugs companies are owned by the US and not allowed to enter Cuba).  In the UN 185 countries condemn the blockade and 2 don’t …….. the US and Israel (funny that).

So with all this buzzing in my head off I went to meet the Americans wearing my best All Saints silk dress and no knickers!  In fact no underwear whatsoever.   I blame Rafa, it was his suggestion.  So I was feeling a little irreverant without even having to open my mouth.  I suppose I could have worn a T-shirt saying stop all blockades and close Guantanamo!

The new Head of Mission (Mission Impossible) in Habana looked pale and shiny and frightened but was pleasant enough.  I managed to meet the British Ambassador who looks like Helen Mirren and seems fun (a Cuban assured me that she was the favourite diplomat in town).  She invited us round to her beautiful old house in Vedado which I have heard is an historical gem.  I met a famous artist who wants to show his work in the film school and a the heads of Reuters and AFP who were both fun and interesting.  We also met Gloria who is head of the Public Relations department at the Office of Interest and was very positive about helping us with the Film School.  We spoke about all the US individuals who have visited the school over the years including Lucas, Coppola, Redford and Spielberg.

The night finished early around 9.30, we were the only ones to dance but I discovered that I can’t dance in my new super comfy Fitflops bought on Northcote road during the London riots.  They stick to the floor.

Next it is our turn to throw the party on Friday for Rafa’s Birthday and to say welcome to the new house, our house to all the friends who helped us move to Cuba.  The house is now a family house with toys and books and shoes everywhere and no longer any protocol.  Anyway I hope it will be the first of many parties we will have in our Havana house in front of the sea.


Quinta Avenida, Embassies and Air Con

A month has flown by and my life is still not sorted but we have done so much in such a short space of time.  We need to remind ourselves, on those days when we both feel exhausted and I’m lying on the Bodega floor (coolest place in the house) clutching a bottle of fine red wine …….. to take it easy and look how far we have come already.

We have met more interesting wonderful people than I thought possible in one month.  Rafa had a visit from his oldest friend from film school days, Mariano from Angola.  Mariano was here for an African film event in Havana so was pretty busy but they managed to spend some time together and catch up on 20 years of news, and talk about the old days.  Through Mariano we met the extremely cool Tony, also Angolan and married to the Italian head of the UN here in Cuba.  They are neighbours, and we look forward to seeing more of them starting with a party this Thursday to say goodbye to the Africans.  Already trying to get some early nights in to prepare for that one as from what I see Angolans like to party!

I too have met some great mothers in a short space of time : Dutch, German, Guatemalan, Cuban and French.  Even one British dad from Yorkshire!

We managed to get the lovely Maida to come from the Film school on Friday night to babysit and got out for our first night.  We didn’t hit the underground dance scene in Habana as I plan to do, if my life as mother of 3 ever allows it, but went to two embassy events.  One France, one Mexico.  It was work for Rafa but fun too!

The film school was involved in an international meeting on Film archives and as the French presence was strong the ambassador had a reception.  (No Ferrero Rochets in sight just a few mojitos).  The French Residence is in a beautiful crumbling palace in Miramar so it was a very pleasant way to start the evening on their splendid garden patio.  I met an interesting chatty Brit, Sue ex-BBC now with her own film archive company.

Next stop up the road to the Mexicans for a bit of mariachi and lots of delicious Mexican boquitas.  Strangely enough nobody was dancing in the garden where they band were pumping it out with all the Mexican charm necessary to fill the floor.  So quietly tapping my foot and swinging my hips, we spent most of the evening chatting to a couple of Cubans, one of them Rafa’s ex teacher from his student days at the Film school, a successful producer.  They live close to us so I am sure we will see them again.  For the second time since arriving in Cuba I was told that I don’t seem English, that my personality is more Latina!  Hmm, I still think I am very bloody English, people just don’t know what us English girls can be like!

I spend a lot of time cruising up and down Quinta Avenida, the beautiful boulevard that runs from this smart suburb to the centre of Habana.  Our house, the supermarkets, the panaderia, the boys school, Saskia’s new nursery in beautiful Miramar are all just off it.  There is never much traffic and it is as straight and treelined as any Avenida should be.  I felt quite at home listening to Leftfield on my ipod stopping to pick up passengers on my way back from Miramar this morning.  (Yes hitchhiking is legal and safe in Cuba and I love giving people lifts and having a quick chat.  As a rule I only pick up women but if I saw a wise old man I would stop too I think!  Anyway I shall write a whole blog about the hitchhiking thing when I get chance.  La Botella, they call it for some reason).

All the traffic lights have count downs here in Habana.  I love it, you know exactly how much time you have to wait and if it is worth putting your foot down or just slowly cruising to a stop.  Also it is helping the boys a lot with their counting backwards skills!

After one month I think I have finally mastered living with air con, still not quite sure what all the buttons do on the controls but I can now manage to put them on and turn them up and down which is about as much as I´ll ever need to know.  In a few weeks the temperature will drop and I hope we can just enjoy the sea breezes.


The Toaster

We have moved out of our house and our things have left in a big truck headed for Cuba but not without some interesting issues along the way.  One of which, I would like to share here as maybe it could be symbolic of my future life in Cuba!

Anyone who is British or has visited a British home or spent any time living in the UK knows the importance of the toaster and the kettle as the most humble but most valued of kitchen appliances.  We are brought up on TOAST ……… Marmite toast, beans on toast, egg on toast, honey toast, toasted sandwiches, toast can be for breakfast, supper or just whenever you feel like filling up.  Toast can be beautiful wholewheat toast with smoked salmon, toasted bagels with cream cheese, toast soldiers to dip into your boiled egg, or just plain white sliced toast soaked in melted butter ………. and they all can be equally delicious depending on your mood.

As a nation we are not so obsessed with having huge fridges, enormous gas fired barbecues and ridiculously extravagant domestic appliances that after a few days get forgotten about.  But we always have a toaster and a kettle in every kitchen.

Now that I remember there was even a hit in the eighties by that popster Paul Young when he was still singing with Streetband called Toast ……… everybody was humming it.  (I have shared the lyrics at the bottom of this post for your amusement).   So you see our affection for toast reaches quite tragic levels that others really should not mock.  Toast crosses all regional and class boundaries and in school common rooms is almost like currency, or in mine it was!

Anyway, not to put too finer point on it, the toaster is as important to a Brit as the comal is for the tortillas of Guatemala.  I don´t think anybody would make a fuss about a Guatemalan wanting to import their comal into Cuba but I suppose it doesn’t have a tiny electrical element which apparently is not allowed.  However I think I can bring my hairdryer so not quite sure about the logic.  Rules are rules I suppose.

Anyway my poor husband has learnt the importance of toast to his wife over the last few years and now we even have toast with our desayuno chapin (typical Guatemalan breakfast) that my husband always makes for us on Saturday mornings.  I now do not miss HP sauce but have chili sauce on my breakfast, something a few years ago I would have found impossible to contemplate.  So I don’t see myself as someone rigid and inflexible but TOAST is TOAST!

When we visited our future house in Cuba there was no grill and no toaster and we were reduced to microwaving Bimbo style bread until it become like a rock.  The two women in the kitchen urged me to bring a toaster and anything else similar.  So on my list of essentials was my toaster and my little oven/grill.  Anyway a few days ago we were told absolutely not to even contemplate bringing anything like that.  I have to admit I took the news badly, there are many things I am willing to give up ………. potatoes, lemons, avocados, mangos, grapes and whatever else, as usually it is liberating to discover other alternatives and expand your gastronomic horizons.  However TOAST is TOAST!

toaster, UK, England, British, Paul Young, Streetband, marmite, smoked salmon, Cuba, customs, capitalism, humble
The Offending item - my humble toaster.

Needless to say my concern about not having my, soon to be abandoned, toaster (pictured here) seems to have incited what I can only describe as thinly disguised prejudice.  Me and my humble toaster have become a symbol of extravagant capitalism rather than a simple cultural reference point.  We have been told that the Cubans have lived for 50 years without toasters and we should use our contacts in the diplomatic world to acquire our toaster in Cuba as though it is diamonds or a Rolls Royce that I am hankering after.

So once again I feel difficult and my poor husband has been fighting nobly for my right to have TOAST but now I have been made to feel like the Princess of the Toaster ……. it could be the next Harry Potter sequel.  I bet JK Rowling likes toast no matter how many millions she has made.

Toast by Streetband.

Morning all. I’d like to tell you about when I was a young boy. I must have been three or four months old at the time. I didn’t really know what I wanted, and if I did, I wouldn’t have been able to tell anybody, ‘cos all I could do was gurgle. So I sat there in me highchair, thinking one day, looking at me tray and thinking what I’d give for a meal on there. So I started looking round to see what I could have. I was rubbing me eggy soldier in me head, trying to think, and then I looked in the corner and there’s a little breadbin with its mouth open, just staring at me, like. And then I looked in and I saw bread.

I thought, oh yeah, I’ll have toast,
A little piece of toast.

Well, then I started getting older,
I hated this, I hated that,
Expensive state was ludicrous
And cafes couldn’t cater for the finer things in life:
The upper crust was not for me,
I could tell that.
So I’d go back home,
Switch the kitchen light on,
Put the grill on,
Slip a slice under

And have toast,
A little piece of toast.

‘Cos there’s so much to choose from.
There’s brown bread, white bread,
All sorts of wholemeal bread;
It comes in funny packages
With writing on the side,
But it doesn’t matter which one you have
‘Cos when you cut the crusts off,
Have it with marmalade
Or butter, cheese, tomatoes, beans,
Or chocolate if you’re strange,
It doesn’t really matter.

Oh no, it all goes with toast,
Just toast.

I’m gonna think about it some…

That’s toast, mmm yeah,
Just toast,
That’s toast,
Just toast.

Well I go down the supermarket
With me basket in me hand,
I’m walking from one counter to another
Trying to find the bread stall,
But I can’t find it anywhere
And then I bump into a mother
With a baby in a basket
And she says

“Oh look, you’ve started him off again,
I come down here for a little bit of peace and quiet
To get some bread to go home to make toast,
Just toast,
I like toast”
Yeah, but I don’t half like toast.

OK, scrape that toast, boys.

That’s toast,
Yeah, just toast.


I can’t think about it any more. I’ve got to go and have some, it’s no good. Here listen, I’m getting a bit browned off standing here. Me too. Shall we go and have some toast? Good idea. Why not? OK. I’ve got the grill on. Got any brown bread? Yeah! Have you got wholemeal bread? Wheatmeal bread? All sorts of toast. Let’s go………

(They proceed to make toast, accompanied by various kitchen noises.)



Saskia La Cubanita

If ever there was a girl born to go and live in Cuba it is my little Saskia.

All my children enjoy music and dancing like their parents but she has taken this love to an extreme.  She lives for music, even when nobody is paying her any attention.

I knew I was in trouble months ago when she used to gyrate to the liquidiser in the morning when I was making her breakfast.  A random passing motorbike could get her going, that´s how desperate she was to find a beat.  When she went to her first Piñata she was fascinated when everybody sang Happy Birthday.  She only likes watching TV when there is musical accompaniment.  Do you remember that Abba Sang Thank you for the Music?  (go on course you do!)  There is a line in it about describing how one of the Swedish popsters could dance before they could walk and sing before they could talk.  Well that´s my daughter, she really could dance before she could walk.  And now that she can walk she wants to walk right off and find out where the party is ……….

Apart from the fact that she is only 14 months old and can dance Reggaeton with the best of them, she has other things about her that remind me of Cuba.  She is always hot hot hot, in fact a little bit sweaty sometimes.  She wants to hang out in the calle as much as possible and often is found banging on the front gate of the house or standing next to the car waiting to be whisked off to hang out in the streets.  When I take her walking around Antigua in the mornings she shouts across streets to complete strangers waving at them like old friends.  She has a certain confidence and languidness that reminds of the Caribbean, saying hey boy I got all the time I want to hang out in the streets looking good and shaking my hips.


Hanging out in the Calle



So we will dance in Cuba Saskia and I.  We will find our groove or in my case get back my groove.  Although I find any excuse to get up and dance here in Antigua it is not something that has been in my life as much as in my London, Paris, Barcelona days.  In fact the last time I got up and danced here, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a bunch of middle aged po-faced tourists staring at me as though I had just been let out of some hardcore rehab centre, which sometimes isn’t far from the truth.  I need dance rehab!!  Every year my husband runs the film festival here in Guatemala and always has great bands and DJs and I am sure I am beginning to get a reputation as his crazy wife who makes everyone dance.  I can take a while to get those Guatemalans on the dance floor but I am sure I won´t have this problem in Habana!

I wanna be in the calle

But back to Saskia my Cubanita.  She also loves to talk like many Cuban although right now it is some wonderful language of her own peppered with a lot of Mamas.  And she does enjoy food like a Cuban with the enthusiasm of someone who is not sure when they will next be able to get hold of a mango or an avocado or anything right now!

They say children open a lot of doors in Cuba.  I think my Saskia will be banging on doors looking for the party.  I am just glad that we are not in Cuba 10 years later because the way she dances I might have been leaving Habana an abuelita!  (note 1)

But one thing is sure.  Saskia will be the Cubanita of the family a walking, talking, dancing doll giving it back as good as she gets.  And maybe, just maybe her Mama too!

note 1 abuelita is a grandma.