I was cleaning up my old blog site and dusting it down and I found the last unposted blog I wrote before we were publicly attacked and hounded out of the country. We were stressed and with the feeling that the state and the corrupt people were closing in on us. Rafa was hardly sleeping and we did not know who to trust with our fears but as usual we were surrounded by a lot of love, just as well when we discovered what was about to happen.
so here is the last blog I didn’t publish, as by then I realised how interested everybody was in me!
I have no air con in my car, but at least my car is back on the road so I should be thankful for small mercies. However most of my journeys are short so I never get to build up enough speed for effective ventilation, and I seem to arrive everywhere red faced and sweaty with my hair looking like a bad 1980s blow dry. I have also stopped kissing people since I got quite badly splashed with sweat they other day by two overweight and over cooked diplomats, and I fear I could be giving people the same delightful treat.
We have been very busy in the last few weeks. Our good friend Stephen against all the odds managed to direct and stage a great British play Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall, translated by a friend of ours and performed by some great Cuban actors. We went to the opening night and I made it to another night with a different caste. The theatre was full every night. I felt as though Cuban actors had met with the great tradition of British theatre, all under Stephen’s directing expertise as a Meisner coach. The money for the play was raised the old fashioned way with a lot of hard work and determination from Stephen and the caste with some help from the film school.
We organised a fundraiser auction of donated art in our house and friends generously donated through the 100 club (100 cucs each), and also got to buy some great art. A lot of our good friends here in Cuba helped with promotion and their personal generosity was amazing. Paulo and Nico were outside offering to park and clean cars. They made 9 and 7 cucs each and I had to admire their resourcefulness although I am not sure how well they cleaned the cars, especially as it was raining!
The play was a headlining event in British Cultural week. The British Council had helped a lot and brought over a couple of good films but the rest of the British week was a bit of a let down and seemed to be made up of a bunch of Cuban musicians and DJs getting dressed up in comedy Union Jack garb. Not one British DJ or band or any music from what I could see in the programme that under duress was sent to me by email. My requests for posters and flyers for the film school was ignored and Rafa never received an invitation to the inauguration of the film week, making the British embassy the only one that fails to invite us. How uncool! I live in hope that things may change next year but the British Diplomats always seem a bit out of touch and haughty in that very old fashioned way.
The film school has been going through some hard times and the last few weeks have been very tough for Rafa and the whole family. Not much sleep and a lot of stress. The school has lost a large portion of money that was coming from the Cuban state (long story that anybody unfamiliar with the creativity of Cuban funding would never understand) and like the whole of Cuba it has to learn to grow up, and grow up fast. Becoming more sustainable and self sufficient by looking for international money when the world is still gripped by a global crisis, is not easy and in the meantime sacrifices will have to be made.
When the axe will come down it looks as though salaries may have to be cut a long with some of the great projects the school is involved with. Production and post production services need to be sold internationally if the Cuban state will allow it. In the area of international workshops there are many plans to expand and grow. The film school has always been the island on the island, and its chemistry of international and Cuban culture means that it is worth fighting to help the project to survive and keep its philosophy, and not be allowed to fall into mediocrity or be institutionalised rather than reaching out to the tres mundos.
In the meantime the boys are nearly out of school for the summer and both did fantastically in their yearly reports and evaluations. We may be a bit poorer but our children are at least a bit smarter! I am planning our trip to UK and France. Now we are 5 in the family there are not too many places we can stay. A good friend is lending us her boat in London and we will head down to Devon to stay in my mother’s new holiday pad and then to France to stay with friends in the Dordogne and take in a bit of Paris on the way back. Looking forward to getting away with the family for the first proper holiday in a long time, we certainly need it!
Quite a lot going on here in our family life, including a little attack of chicken pox and a half term holiday of 2 weeks, meaning that our latest role of full time parents has been pushed to the limit.
We are still feeling like a family that has been washed up in a port during a hurricane, and we have stayed here until we know it is safe to go out, and we know where we are going. This being easier said than done, and oddly (or not) our safe little port is my own beloved country.
When we rocked back up to the UK unexpectedly we managed to organise a temporary shelter in the storm for our children thanks to relatives, friends and the kindness of the people of Nottingham. It was not easy, but we managed to bring some normality back into our children’s lives and have even had some fun along the way. Life has been simple and totally revolved around the family and building a new future for all of us.
How are the children? I really don’t know how all this has affected them, but they have each other. Sleeping has become a huge issue and sometimes we feel as though we have 3 babies. I’m getting used to waking up with one child climbing into bed with me. These phases happen wherever you are and whatever you are doing, but they had their lives turned upside down, the contents of their home disappeared fast and they have had to live through a lot of uncertainty. Generally I am so proud of them, the way they keep slotting into one culture and language after the other. We are all together and healthy and that is the most important thing.
Rafa has been a rock as usual, but I have had my moments of emotional turmoil, mainly caused by the injustice and ingratitude of our recent experiences. My little ones had been thrown into so much uncertainty, something I would NEVER have done to them. Trying to find that way forward did not always seem easy. Once we had moved to our house and got the children into school and Saskia to nursery, we started to think about ourselves.
We had arrived in the UK on a holiday but now we had to think about what to do next. The first thing was to sort out Rafa’s papers here, we were nervous as leaving Cuba in 2 weeks meant that we had not had time to check everything out. We assumed that having put up with me for 10 years and being the father of 3 British children that this would be a relatively straight-forward process and made an appointment to visit the best immigration lawyers in town. Seventy five pounds later we fell back onto the fashionable streets of Hockley, pretty devastated at the mess we had found ourselves in due to our undignified exit from Cuba.
Although I had been psychologically healing and moving on, suddenly I was right back to square one and I could only think of 2 people from the film school, the short fat ugly one with bad teeth and her pathetic spaniel faced puppet. Very childish I know but it makes me feel better. I cannot use their names anymore as these two pathetic, dishonest and weak people disgust me so much, I have had to caricature them! In fact when I think about Cuba, despite everything, I think a lot about all the love and good people we knew, but then these caricatures pop up like some crazy spoof horror film, both unattractive and sinister. The kind of people happy to throw a family out of their home in 2 weeks. Would you respect these people?
We were realising yet another consequence of the undignified way that we were forced to leave Cuba. We did not have time to prepare Rafa’s papers to come to Europe. Europe was always part of the plan, we just thought we would make our move in a more civilised way. Anyway, we were told that cold September morning that Rafa would have to leave the UK for between 3-6 months, go back to Guatemala where they do not issue visas, fly to Panama where they do, pay hundreds and hundreds of pounds and hang around alone waiting for his papers to see if he could join his family to come and live with us in a country, where we were not even entirely sure that we wanted to stay. Our 2 years in Cuba had cost us a lot of money and it was looking as though they were going to cost us even more. We still don’t know when we will ever see our remaining possessions again and we are still living out of a few suitcases.
We had never been split up ever since I had rocked back into Rafa’s life from Buenos Aires pregnant, all those years ago. The thought of Papa not being with us for Paulo’s birthday, Christmas and Nico’s Birthday and all of us alone during a long winter was too unbearable to imagine. We wandered around the house in a daze, occasionally stopping and hugging each other and trying to work out a more palatable solution. Rafa had asked the Spaniel if we could stay 2 or 3 more months in Cuba to prepare our move with more care, we had 3 kids for God sake! He had mumbled his refusal, like he always mumbled.
Now we were thinking of wild and crazy plans just to keep the family together, imagine! I bet you can’t! And all this anguish caused by an institution that prides itself on international humanity and understanding. A tad cynical I have become.
Serendipity led me to meet a lovely Mum in a playground, who had worked as a human rights lawyer, and with a large book on European immigration law and her help and reassurances, we began to develop a plan, so we could set sail again, together, for a new life. It had to be a place we all wanted to live, and also a place where we could feel safe and NEVER suffer injustice or persecution again. A place that we could make our home ……. our own home!
Suddenly out of all the madness we had a plan again and one that was always a contender, even before all this happened. We began to feel a little bit better. Bad teeth and Spaniel would not win this one, and the scary pop ups began to go away again.
Meanwhile in our hurricane port, recovering and plotting our next move, my children have had an opportunity to be British and learn about their other half. They have been the coldest they have ever been in their lives and the whitest, but they have never complained! They have embraced the music and TV, and the fact that this is their country too, they love fish and chips and baked beans, Ambrosia custard (not the school one) and Ribena. Re-confirmed that British sweets and music are the best in the world, something announced to us by a friendly taxi driver a few years ago as he shared his toffees with us on the way to the airport.
The good people that we have met and who have helped us in these few weeks, we will never forget you. You accepted us for who we were and never judged us with our crazy stories from another world, another reality. I feel sad that I have had to break a few British people’s romantic notions of Cuba and tell them what it has become, no matter what it may well have been one day.
I have also seen my country in a different light. I admire the hardworking people and a welfare state that goes way beyond anything that existed in Cuba both in terms of healthcare and education. Although us Brits all love to complain, I value even more that ability to complain and stand up for your rights. I love and admire the amazing intellectualism and analytical thought that my country is famous for, and also the multi-culturalism, which means that even in the small city of Nottingham I have met people from all over the world, doing well and surviving on this little island. Also my children have heard me swear much less due to the fact that in my experience we are the most polite drivers in the world. After 10 years away I still cannot believe it when people politely let me pull out in front of them and everyone waves thank you for the slightest courtesy.
Every weekend my children have enjoyed amazing free activities in galleries and museums and parks. Saskia has a French class at her free nursery and my boys extra Spanish classes in their school. They have also learnt a fair bit about the Islamic and Hindu world and taken part in Eid and Diwali celebrations.
But ……….. nobody has any time anymore in England. Everybody is so busy in their little lives that spontaneity has fallen by the wayside. Or is it just living as an ex-pat all these years mean that I have learnt to embrace spontaneity and serendipity and grab every opportunity that life throws my way. I am not used to having to reserve and plan things weeks in advance.
Maybe I no longer know how to live like a Brit but I do know how to be a foreigner, and I don’t mind being the foreigner. The unbearable lightness of being? Now my family belongs to an international world that knows no borders and that is where we are going. And I want my OWN house to fill with my family, beautiful things, and friends visiting me from all over the world with stories to tell.
I cannot deny that I have learnt so much about humanity on my adventures so far. I could also say I don’t want any more adventures but I know that is not true, but I do want a bit of security and stability, at least for a while.
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!
well not yet …… but just wanted to write a few things here before I get back on my blogging horse. I didn’t realise how many people have been reading this and how some of them were not very nice people. But hey they obviously found my life interesting so that says something.
We lived in a very beautiful house in Cuba, thanks to the film school. WHen I arrived it was a house full of corruption with a pretty good business being run out of it. I kicked them all out. My first mistake maybe ……. the house was then burgled a few weeks later by people who knew exactly what our movements were and how to get in.
We had parties once a month for the teachers of the school to thank them for their love and support over the years. To these parties we would invite a handful of Havana friends, diplomats, musicians, artists and personalities. I did manage to do around 5 official dinners in 2 years but our house was always full of people passing by to say hello and sit by the sea and chat with us, people from all walks of life and many countries. That is my spirit, my door is always open to friends.
Everything I bought online was using my UK credit card. IN Cuba you can’t buy too much. Family would transfer money for my children’s birthdays and we would buy things on trips for them.
We did not have one safe car most of the 2 years to drive my children around. Rafa’s car was worse than anyone’s and had faulty brakes for most of the two years. After a near fatal crash in the rain in my family car, Rafa hired me a car once for the school holidays and this has been jumped on by everyone from the fiscaleria to vicious little students. It was the only time my children all had proper seat belts.
We were transferring money to buy a car as it was clear that the school would never be able to provide us with a safe car for an 8, 7 and 3 year old.
I am a self-confessed fashionista and I like to look good, friends arriving from UK and Guatemala would always bring me clothes ordered online or bought in the packa (second hand clothes market in Guate) and I had a very good taylor. I left most of those clothes behind in Cuba when I had to run like a criminal. But I will always be glamorous when I can manage it. Style is not about money.
We left Cuba poorer than we arrived, which was quite an achievement!
Last summer when everyone was flying out for the summer we stayed in Havana through the heat of August and managed 4 nights in Cayo Santa Maria. Partly as so much money had personally been stolen from us.
I will be back with more truths soon. Children just back from the donkey sanctuary with grandparents!
But just to say that I received so much love and friendship in Cuba and was never really good at protocol, I just liked dancing a lot!
A few weeks ago a kitten appeared one night on our terrace in front of the sea, Rafa found her and brought her inside. She was so tiny I thought she was a hamster. The next day our little dog Lila adopted her and we fed her milk through a syringe until she was strong enough. Nico, looking through my New York magazines decided we should call her Chanel and it stuck. We thought we saw her mother and each time we put Chanel outside to see if her mother would take her back, but I think she had started to smell too doggy and although the mother was interested in watching her at a distance she didn’t want her back. Then one night the mother emerged from one of the old crab holes next to the sea with another little kitten. So now Chanel lives with her dogs inside the house and garage, and her family live underground in the old crab city in the garden. A little tele novella. Many Cuban women of my generation only have 1 child, citing financial reasons usually for their decision. Maybe Chanel’s mother decided that she too could only afford one!
Last Saturday I finally made it to the regular rumba party that takes place every week in the Centro Cultural El Gran Palenque. It starts at 3pm in the afternoon, we arrived around 4 with the three children. Saskia who was all ready for action with Papa’s Cuban hat fell asleep in the car on the way and therefore arrived a little grumpy. There was a good crowd of people and everyone was really friendly. I always feel at home in a rumba crowd. They offered us chairs and chatted to the children. Someone offered me a local fruit wine he was drinking out of a coconut shell! Saskia spotted a new friend and trotted off right through the performing dancers without a backward glance.
Eventually, Paulo, 8 going on 13 announced that he was bored and started to fight over my iPod so after a quick dance we hot-hoofed it home around 6.15 just as the party was getting going. Deciding that we will go back soon just the two of us.
The last few weeks have been quite an emotional rollercoaster for anybody connected with Guatemala. We have been following the trial of Rios Montt, the ex dictator, who was involved in the genocide of 200,000 mainly Mayan people and the disappearance of many thousands, including my husband’s brother.
Brave women gave evidence at the trial of the rape atrocities that took place during the armed conflict. Stories that made me cry as I sat at my desk in Cuba after 8 years of living in Guatemala, thinking of all the people I knew, who had lost family and loved ones in the bloody attack on an indigenous community that had already suffered so much injustice and still does. Narco traffickers, international big business polluting their beautiful country and corrupt politicians selling everything with impunity. Guatemala is a country that people just don’t want to hear about because it’s history is just too tragic and nothing has really changed. The rich Guatemalan’s deny everything just like the holocaust deniers and money keeps on buying their lies. We celebrated briefly as Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison only to hear that his sentence has been annulled by some idiotic legal loophole. It seems that, at least in Guatemala, money can still buy you freedom no matter how much blood you have on your hands.
I remembered one night when I was sitting in a bar in Antigua with a group of acquaintances a few years ago, a fat finca owner sitting next to me declared that most of the atrocities during the war were by the guerilla (so wrong, but his self belief was terrifying, UN figures: 94% of the deaths were caused by US backed army). He then puffed his chest up even more and announced that the indigenous people were still starving because they were too stupid to know how to eat properly.
Thank goodness I no longer have to live smiling through gritted teeth. To all my friends and family in Guatemala still living amongst the hypocrisy and injustice, I know you will be strong and brave and keep on fighting for human rights, the right to acknowledge the truth so a society can begin to heal. We are not living there anymore but we are with you 100% and know that the brave people of Guatemala will never give up in their pursuit of justice.
After another party in the house to get me back my Cuba groove, yet again the boys were on holiday (do they ever work these French teachers?). I wanted to get out of Havana with the children on some mini-adventure not too far away. We have recently gone from a no technology household to one that now has an XBOX and two ipads, so I have been dealing with the challenge of how to deal with their new found obsessions, Saskia being the worst. Mummy darling can I have your ipad please, cocking her head to one side and smiling sweetly until I say no and then she throws herself to the floor in a tragic fashion and wails I want your ipad for as long as I let her.
Mariel is a place around 30 miles away. Amongst other things, it is the most industrialised town in Cuba and nearly the most polluted. I was imagining something like a tropical version of Middlesbrough or Sunderland, the places that inspired Ridley Scott in Bladerunner.
Also Mariel is now rumored to be the location of the next biggest port in Cuba, apparently a Brazilian investment. I decided to go and investigate with the 3 children in tow.
Since I got back from New York my car has been off the road and we are still waiting for the parts. Rafa has rented me a little Kia Picanto, which the children are absolutely delighted with. You’d think it was an E type Jaguar the way they are acting and spend all their time spotting others on the road. And there are many, believe me, so this little pastime has become a little tiresome. So off we went in our little rental car. As we set off , the heavens opened and I began to think what am I doing heading off to the Cuban equivalent of Port Talbot in the pouring rain, but the children still seemed up for it so we ventured on.
A quick look in Lonely Planet confirmed my opinion that this was definitely not a tourist destination, which was what I was looking for. How boring to just go to the places on the tourist trail.
Saskia was convinced that we were going to see some nice woman called Mariel so was very confused when we got there. Where is Mariel? she kept saying. This is Mariel, I said cheerfully. The sun had come out and the place was not looking so bad, considering that its claim to fame was being the most unattractive town in Cuba. She was sleepy from the car and very grumpy and could not get her head around it. NO we’re IN Mariel I kept repeating to no avail. We went looking for a new port under construction but found nothing that looked as though it was new or being built. In the distance was a huge castellated mansion on the hill, looking down on everything. I suppose it belonged to the rich industrialist patriarch pre-revolution days. Now it is said to be a naval academy.
After Moa in Holguin Provice, Mariel is Cuba’s most heavily polluted town. The filthy cement factory looks like something from another century. But you know despite all this Mariel was not such a bad looking place. I failed to find anything resembling a bar or café for us to hang out in, so we found a road which headed up to the mysterious looking castle on the hillside. As we drove up there we saw that there had been an enormous stairway to the main doors made up of very shallow steps and looking like something you could imagine Cinderella running down and loosing her slipper. The stairs were now all falling down and the building looked as though it could too. The boys ran on ahead and I stayed at the bottom watching them with Saskia, thinking I should probably stop them but couldn’t blame them for wanting to explore. They got about 3 quarters of the way up before some militares appeared and told them to get down. This was all well and good until one of them decided to take a pee right in front of them that even I could see right at the bottom of the hill. Don’t do peepee in front of my kids I shouted indignantly up the long and steep staircase. I bet they were thinking what the hell is this crazy blonde woman doing with her huge (for Cuba) family and her red plated rental car. She must be lost or bonkers.
All the cars in Cuba have different colour plates so everyone knows exactly who you are. I normally have orange ones which signifies joint ventures, now I have a rental car which just means dumb tourist. We stopped on the street to say hello to some kids as we usually enjoy a bit of a chatter in the calle and the boys make new friends really quickly once the locals discover that they talk just like them. One of them was so lippy that we didn’t stay for long. He was cackling and asking us for chicle, chewing gum. I told him that we weren’t tourists and he shouldn’t be asking for chicle. He retorted by grabbing his crotch in a Michael Jackson type fashion. I was a little bit horrified at seeing this brash little 7 year old acting in such a vulgar fashion so we pressed on and got lost on the estate next to the factory before heading home.
Mariel boatlift was the biggest exodus the island had ever seen and took place in the summer of 1980, while Carter was still the president, so prior to the days of the genocidal, maniacal Reagan. A Cuban dissident had driven into the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, the Peruvians refused to give him and his mates back to Fidel and he, in a rare little strop, declared the gates open and thereby ushered in what was known as the Mariel Boatlift. On April 9th 1980 he declared the port of Mariel open to any of those who wanted to leave and Miami Cubans organised a flotilla of boats to pick up Cubans. Fidel also used this opportunity to get rid of a few undesirables from the prisons and loony bins. Some of them never were granted asylum but in Brian de Palma’s movie Scarface a Marielito cocaine-addict, Tony Montana famously depicted by Al Pacino, was let out of Cuban jail to run amok in Miami. I saw a few Tony Montana faces in Mariel but they didn’t look as though they wanted to run amok!
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.
Last week was a very exciting week for me. Before heading off to New York, the French Film month had begun in Cuba, and the Friday before we had gone to the opening night to see Les Intouchables, the second biggest box office success in French history. For me the film managed to stay just the right side of sentimentality due to a storming performance by Cesar winning Omar Sy. I had tears in my eyes by the end, and it was clear that the packed Chaplin cinema crowd had enjoyed it immensely. A feel good film based on a true story. A wonderful evening finished off with a few friends joining us in front of the sea in our house.
We have always enjoyed a good relationship with the French in Cuba and there is a mutual appreciation for French independent Cinema and what the Film school represents. Last year we met Isabelle Huppert, a French icon but this year I got to meet Sandrine Bonnaire, the new French star, who is much more than just a pretty face. I had managed to watch a couple of her recent films before meeting her and was already intrigued before her visit to the school. Her documentary about her autistic sister is really powerful and well worth watching. Monday came and although I was really crazy preparing to leave the children for 4 nights and go to New York I had to get myself to the school.
Immediately, I felt a connection with Sandrine as a person and a woman even amongst all the inevitable protocol of a formal visit. She was so unaffected, so warm. You could see her desire to answer the questions from the students, as honestly and openly as she could. She seemed genuinely interested in the school and Cuba, kept sneaking cigarettes between every formality and had a charming nervous humility that surprised me for such a seasoned star.
I spoke English with her as she said her English was better than her Spanish, but I felt bad about losing my French because I wanted to speak French to Sandrine. Suddenly it didn’t seem to matter that she was this hugely successful star and I am just another mother living on the edge of this world of cinema, observing it from outside. If I ever get that script written I will send it to Sandrine, I dreamed to myself as I drove home, rushing to see the children and pack for New York. She wants to make a film for children next, so I’ll be waiting with my little francophones!
We invited her to come back to the school to teach a masterclass. I really hope she comes back as I would be first on the list to join that class. I can still understand French quite well, its just when I try to speak that Spanish starts to mix up with the French still in my hard drive. Hopefully our trip to Paris in the summer will revive it. Doing French grammar homework with the boys is drumming some of it back into my head too!
Well last week, the whole of Havana was wetting their pants about Beyonce and Jay-Z gracing Cuba with their presence and causing a bit of a rumpus down Havana Cafe Thursday night, including a lot of grown ups who really should have known better, diving over chairs and tables to get their photo taken with her. I admire them both for their ability to make shed loads of money out of very mediocre music, you gotta hand it to them on that count, and also the fact that they seem to remain basically well-mannered all things considered. But anyway I had more important things to worry about than star hugging …
Paulo had been complaining that he doesn’t have enough time with his Mum by himself, so I decided to take him out alone, for an early dinner to one of the new places in town El Cocinero. From Cuba Absolutely …..
El Cocinero opened in February 2013 and has instantly become a smash hit. Located underneath the imposing brick chimney of the same name (which used to be a vegetable oil factory), this bar/restaurant is reached via 3 flights of circular stairs, which go up vertiginously lighthouse style. It is worth the effort to reach the sunken roof, which has ample space for drinks and food. This place has a renovated industrial space look, good music, nice décor and has attracted a mixed crowd of affluent young Cubans, expatriates as well as families for dinner which is also (for now) served on the roof terrace.
So off I went with my first born on date night. We didn’t have much problem finding the place thanks to the large chimney reminiscent of the Truman Brewery on my own dear Brick Lane ….. and this place reminded me of being in London’s East End. Cool and urban. Paulo was impressed immediately as we climbed the stairs. The main restaurant isn’t open yet but will be on the second floor, with I imagine not a bad view. Upstairs on the terrace there was also a mirador (viewing terrace) where you could see right across the Puente Hierro to the Malecon and the other way across the rooftops of Vedado. Paulo had a Coca-Cola, the real thing of course and me, not a bad glass of Chilean Merlot. We ordered Fish and sweet potato chips to share, and desserts of course.
Paulo’s main interest was reporting to me how much underwear and bare flesh he had managed to see. Unashamedly, without a touch of lechery. And as the Cuban summer has well and truly arrived he got quite lucky with the ladies. One pair of knickers flashed by the young lady opposite, a butt cheek cleavage with more knickers (quite a common sight), and whilst coming down the spiral stairs a good surreptitious view of a pair of Cuban tits. In between these reports, when I was thinking, crikey he’s only 8, we discussed school and sport and friends and what he wants to do this summer in London and Paris.
As we left, he took the car keys from me and opened the car door, while insisting that he wanted to ride in the front of the car which is illegal in Cuba. We put the seat belt on and took the risk as we headed home down quinta avenida with the sun going down.
Next big event in the social diary, Saskia’s MUCH awaited Birthday party. Yes the real Diva in Havana was finally getting her own party action. The day began windy and cloudy but ended up sunny and beautiful. Lots of friends came from the circulo and the French school and the film school, and she actually was the perfect little hostess. No tiaras or tears! We got out the piscina, a few toys, some tasty nibbles from the film school (a new chicken one that went down a storm amusingly titled Pollo chicken pickin!) ………… and everyone had a good time. Even me, who was slightly relieved that that is my last piñata of the school year……..phew!
The possy from the circulo kept their distance but seemed to have a good time and I hovered between the two groups of people. It kicked off around 3, we had a magician and the last guests left around 9 while we tried and failed to get the children to bed for another hour or so.
So the sun went down on another party and the little Diva was happy!
Easter arrived in Cuba. After 8 years of dealing with Semana Santa in Antigua I am rather relieved that Easter like Christmas is not such a big deal, although I am sure my children don’t agree. Luckily my German friend Katharina always organises a wonderfully tasteful German Easter with an egg hunt in her garden for the children and Easter bread very similar to hot cross buns.
Anyway, Good Friday had been announced as a holiday here in Cuba but typically no mention of why or for what reason the whole of the country was being given a day off. The French school, which doesn’t acknowledge religious festivals did a sneaky Monday holiday. I totally forgot and turned up at the circulo with Saskia on Friday, realising pretty fast when there was no sign of anybody. After all the chilly weather Good Friday was a typical hot steamy day.
The night before some militares from our neighbouring beach club had stupidly set fire to some rubbish at the end of our road, for no particular reason other than to piss off everybody in the neighbourhood, as far as I could tell. It was too far for us to reach with the hosepipe so we tried to chuck buckets of water but by the time we managed to put out the plastic the flames has spread inside the trunk of our beautiful seaside spruce which marks the end of our road. I had grown very fond of the tree not just because it was tall and beautiful but it was also symbolic. The boys are not allowed to cycle or venture past it alone. It marks the limit of the dogs territory and the gang of gangster male dogs don’t often venture past it. If cars drive past it towards our house we know they are lost or looking for trouble!
Anyway most of Good Friday was spent with a bunch of around 20 guys, sent by the local council hanging around at the end of my road watching one guy hack the tree to bits with a chainsaw on the end of a large crane. Every time I walked past to get into the car and pick the boys or take them to fencing, with Saskia in tow with her little mantra poor tree Mummy , pobrecito, I had to take the usual chatback you get from workers who are not working. Enquiries of my nationality, my marital status (rather obvious I thought) amongst the other usual repartee. They wanted me to bring them all refrescos (soft drinks). I retorted that there was only one guy working and he was not making a very nice job of hacking my tree to death, so I wasn’t feeling very well disposed to waiting on them all like a 1950’s wife. Finally around 4pm they had finished their work leaving an ugly hacked stump and branches and debris all over the road. I managed to just about drive through it later. We had already planned a bonfire for Saturday night but now we had even more reason.
Friday night we all went to the film school. A friend was having a Birthday party and we thought it would be fun to hang out and chat with staff and students. It had been a pretty intense couple of weeks for everybody and thesis time is arriving so nerves are getting frayed. We took the nanny so we could actually stay up late, not always a good idea with 3 children.
We made it back to Havana for lunch the next day and poor Rafa had to rush off to another film meeting and festival in Havana. I sat and watched Les Miserables with the boys and Saskia. What a boring musical, not one good track if you ask me. I don’t know how it had such a long run in London’s West End. Paulo with typical endurance was the only one to stay awake or interested. He watched it to the bitter end, bless him!
We were all ready to sit staring at the bonfire by 7pm and Rafa and the boys helped build it. We had new fast-burning spruce branches to throw on and I got well into it like a seasoned pyromaniac, at one point hurting my wrist as I over enthusiastically snapped branches but never-the-less carrying on like the crazy fire starter I realise I am. (secretly I can’t wait for our next one, I don’t care about the children!) Anyway I didn’t think too much about my injury but ended up in the hospital by Tuesday afternoon having an X ray but luckily no fractures. We went out to a party on Tuesday night and after a couple of glasses of wine, I thought oh its nothing and began to use it again. Later that night I could hardly sleep and was almost in tears, wailing …. this is worse than childbirth! The next day I used all the Cuban remedies for inflammation. A compress of grated malanga (a root vegetable very common here) and some strange leaf, the name I can’t remember. Today I am a new woman although my hand still looks suspiciously as though it has had a botox treatment.
This weekend is Saskia’s Birthday and the little Diva has been talking about it for months so we are all getting ready for the big event. She has many adult admirers so it is growing into quite a big party for all of us!
New York preparations going really well. We have 4 nights and it is going to be non-stop. I am really looking forward to it. I haven’t been to New York for around 15 years, and have generally got on with New Yorkers. I like their straight talking attitude, and New York is almost as cosmopolitan as my dearest London. We have lots of meeting with interesting people and film schools and yes I am going to power shop like a Cubanita!