Cuba blogging

I am not sure who reads my blog.  I never check the statistics, not even sure if I know how.  I don’t do all the right things to promote it to the blogging community.  I don’t read many other blogs and put my address, even less so now I am in Cuba.  In fact I am always quite amazed when I meet someone who reads my blog who I don’t know, especially if they tell me that they enjoy it!

I am also quite surprised about some friends and family who are quite evidently not interested enough to read my news either. Busy lives soaked with too much information maybe ……… But I know that most people in the rest of the world can access their emails and read them on the move …… at the bus stop or in bed or waiting in a queue.  I however have to be sitting at my desk when the children are at school, slowly dialing up for a connection that sometimes does not come!  Most of you can’t remember what that is like, so you have to at least admire my tenacity to persevere and get this blog written, when sometimes I get bounced out and lose everything and have to start all over again.

I know I do have some faithful readers since the beginning, like Selena and Bass who often make interesting comments.  I know people read me in Ghana, Dominican Republic, Italy, Mexico, Costa Rica, Scotland, Spain, Hong Kong and a few other places.  A Guatemalan living in the US translated one of my posts, the great US journalist Robert Parry published one.  So the quality of my readership not the quantity is my mission.  I want people to discover me through serendipity and an invisible network of good people.

So all you blog friends out there old and new, please tell the good people about my blog. People who are interested in someone with a different life and perspective who tries to blog with a positive tone and not just moaning and griping like many ex pat bloggers living abroad.

Somebody asked me the other day why I bother to write a blog.  It is not because I arrogantly think I am a great writer, it was others who encouraged me in this.  From my uncle Al who always admired my postcard writing, to Marina who pushed me into it and got me sorted with a man in India to do my website.  Also, it disciplines me to sit down and record my thoughts and experiences.  I realise that my life for the average girl from Co Durham in the north of England is not typical.  I want my children to have a record to read, to go along with all the photos to explain who they are and how they got there.  Not many British Guatemalan families living in Cuba …. or haven’t met any so far!

With a lack of Internet time and capacity, I want to keep in touch with friends and family and maybe just a little bit of the rest of the world.  Also, I admit I do want to educate people in the first world to step outside their own smug security and realise that there are other worlds out there and not everything in your life should be parochial.  We are all humans, whether we are in Africa, China, Lyon or Milton Keynes.  Some of us are rich and some of us are poor, some of us don’t realise we are rich and just want more.  Also I do want to bust a few myths about the countries where I live.   And although, where I sit in all this madness with my family and Rafa, his job and his history, it means that I have to show a modicum of diplomacy.  But I always try to be as honest as I can.

I had lunch with a wise and energetic British film teacher and his wife visiting the film school this week.  His wife is from Yorkshire (a county in Northern England).  He said to my husband, these northern women don’t mince their words.  They shoot from the hip!  Well maybe we do, but at least you know exactly where you are with us.

Anyway I cannot write about what is really on my mind in these last few days or the next few days for political reasons with a small p and a capital P so I have decided to take you through my unreal world of entertainment since I have arrived here in Cuba.  When I can, I will fill in the gaps of my real world …

My next 3 posts will be about Cuban TV and entertainment, Cuban films and independent films from other parts of the world available to me through the wonderful library at the film school.


Potatoes and the whole consumption game in Cuba …..

Potatoes disappeared  from sight here in Havana a couple of weeks before Christmas.  I managed to get hold of some a la izquierda, ie on the black market.  This entailed going to the big agro (veg market) on 19 and 42, parking my car round the corner and being approached by two or three guys whispering out of the corner of their mouths ……….. papa, quieres papa mi amol. Why so clandestino?  I felt as though I was buying crack cocaine in the street.

Well it turns out, or so I am told, that all the potatoes at this time have to be planted, re-seeded, whatever the term may be.  And anybody not doing so was operating illegally.  So I suppose was I, in the act of purchasing them, but I am still a complete innocent in these matters, and there seems to be a lot of grey territory from potatoes to internet services and anything else in between.

Potatoes are back now and we are enjoying them but you could say that the problem with buying potatoes here in Cuba, is the problem about all matters of consumption, you just never know what you are going to get and how you will find it.  This is partly the reason why I have so many people working in my house the whole act of pursuing things is a continuous game and word goes out on the grapevine when something arrives in a certain shop.  At the moment the elusive apples are dancing with us again.

I realise that I am quite spoilt as the film school supplies a lot of my necessities and I have such delicacies from the farm such as baby sweet tomatoes and asparagus, herbs, tenderstem brocolli, cauliflower, tasty greens, cucumbers, a selcetion of lettuces and arrugula (rocket), and garlic and onions of varying size and sweetness.

Cheese is not big in this part of the world and the locals tend to eat a very mild version of Gouda or an Italian style mozarella cheese to melt.  I have so far managed to order 3 types of cheeses from the French importer …….. Goats cheese and Compte and real Parmesan.  I wrap them up in damp cheese cloth and put them in the fridge and they will keep for up to 3 months.  Young when they arrive and old and strong when they are finished.  The parmesan I grate and freeze in little ziplock bags.  If you have the money you can pretty much buy any fancy French things from him including partly baked croissant, tarte Tatin and a huge selection of yoghurts, tasty Toulouse sausages, charcuterie, pate, pastries etc etc.  The French guy is married to a stunning Afro Cuban actress who delivered my cheese personally to my door a few months ago, all dressed in white with some trance inducing green contact lenses.  It was dead man’s cheese but that is another story ………….!

There is a Belgian who imports a variety of wares but I haven’t got my act together with him yet as you have to order 3 months in advance ……..  He sells breadmakers and  a huge selection of cleaning products, wine, juices, packaged goods, amongst other things.

My milk, yoghurt and butter come from a local farm.  Cream is still relatively elusive, which is a bit odd.  Maybe Cuba is just not a creamy culture!  Cream cheese grab it when you can, but when you get it, it is good, almost dolcelatte standard.

Bread is not very wholewheat (light brown and limp, ok toasted) but I can get hold of some pretty good  wholemeal seeded baguettes when I am lacking in the grain department. A bit pricey at $2 but worth it.

Fish and seafood can be bought in a nearby fishing town and all comes fresh but frozen at source in kilo bags of fish filets, prawns, lobster and crab.  Apparently if I organise them to call me when they have a fresh catch I can get there before they freeze.  I suppose everything gets frozen fast as it is so bloody hot here most of the time.  Also we have bought great fish from the fishermen who dive with their harpoons in front of the house.

All pork items get delivered to me from a local farm. Ham, bacon, gammon, cold cuts and sausages all pretty good quality and fresh.  Sometimes we have to call them a few times.  Maybe they run out of pigs to slaughter from time to time!  Local beef bought in 70 supermarket can be very good as great filet steaks or in casseroles such as the famous ropa vieja cuban stew.  Serrano ham imported from Spain along with olives and olive oil are nearly always available.

Outside the French school at collection time there are always a handful of sellers with iceberg lettuce, baby carrots, freshly picked spinach, beetroot, huge hunks of smoked ham, peanuts, fresh flowers, pirate films, green peppers amongst other random items.

Clothes are as random as apples but I have managed to buy some great sandals and a few summer dresses from Italy which appear in the boutiques of Habana Vieja, Nautico and Casa Particulares (like shopping in someone’s living room with 3 women serving you coffee and giving their opinions on anything that they manage to pull out the closet for you).

Toiletry items are in short supply and sometimes quite expensive but I have recently found good reasonably priced shampoos from Spain and Argentina and a great bubble bath from Italy.  Head and Shoulders is $9 a bottle!

So what is on my list of things to get from outside:

Vanish (I am a laundry fiend and have 3 children!), nappies (daipers), ziplock bags, good jam and chocolate, music and magazines, HP Sauce, Worcestershire sauce and all the usual condiments from UK, wheat tortillas to make tacos and quesadillas, rosa jamaica, chili sauce and miel de agave from Mexico, Ibuprofen syrup for children, sponges for washing up, red oil for all my Guatemalan furniture, good quality stationery items, glue, pencils etc., presents for children including Lego ………….. and there is always something else missing!

Nobody is starving in Cuba, a lot of people get sent clothes and material things from outside.  The Cubans always manage to look good and quite fashionable despite their isolation and constant desire to consume things, that they do not have readily available.

I can’t deny that consuming here is a frustrating and time consuming occupation and the only thing that you can rely on is that you can’t rely on anything.

My advice is shop carefully when you are abroad, and learn to stock up like a Cuban when you see something that comes and goes ……….. just grab it and grab lots especially if it will freeze or store!


England ……..looking backwards

It is always tricky dipping back into England every year but this year it was particularly hard.  We were homeless, in limbo and I think we all felt disconnected and confused.  I always go for a month but by 3 weeks I am on my knees.

The intensity of trying to catch up with a year of family trials and tribulations can be emotionally exhausting.  Dashing round and trying to spend some time with my oldest friends is great too, but usually demands a bit of drinking and bad parenting (i.e  too much TV and bad food to keep them quiet while I chat, no baths or teeth cleaning and every routine goes out the window).  All this usually leads to lots of bad behaviour and two cheeky boys fighting and refusing to sleep.

Last year I went without the boys and just with Saskia who was 5 months old.  I only went for 2 weeks but after the first week I was missing the rest of the family so much it felt strange but was certainly an easier and more relaxing visit.  I even managed a great little trip to my beloved France to visit Saskia´s godmother, which really did feel like a holiday.  Great food, wine and chat and swimming in a pool surrounded by ancient oak forest.

This year for the first 3 weeks we were staying in a cottage in a beautiful Cotswold village close to my mother and sister full of smart well-preserved retired people.  I had ordered a USB internet connection, which did not work and always have my mobile phone reconnected (which had no network coverage). I had happened upon a village that had communication problems that rival Cuba.  I had so many things to do and so many people to call and catch up with on the phone but could not do much more than try to get through the days without one of my children spilling food on English carpets or waking up the neighbours during jetlagged nights.

We climbed up to Broadway tower with Paulo´s godmother and watched the boys chasing sheep trying to catch them and stroke them in their red El Che T-shirts.

They became experts on CBeebies, rude English words and fruit pastels, maltesers, Fruit Shoots, Hula Hoops and all the rest……..  I was so sad when they didn´t like cherries!

Before Rafa arrived ……… just trying to work out all the appliances, recycling and the TV and get them all in the hire car every day to shop at Budgens was enough.  And having the elderly couple, who owned the place pop in all the time to remind me of the various recycling collections.  Phew………..

By the time I managed to get them all up and fed in the morning Saskia was ready for her morning sleep and I had to put the TV on to keep the boys quiet and feed the pay phone, then it was lunch for the three of them and maybe a stagger to the park to see if I could find a corner of the playground where my phone might work whilst keeping my eye on three children ……….. not easy believe me.

I was supposed to be sorting out all the admin of my English life:  banks, credit cards etc, shopping for the whole family for a year (no shopping in Cuba and 3 growing children and things as ridiculous as bath plugs and car parts, deoderants and low sugar Ketchup, tampons, toothpaste, digital radio).

We spent a wonderful half an hour in John Lewis with a fantastic Indian mama who kitted us out with footwear for the children for a few months.   I dragged my non-consumerist man into New Look to get a wardrobe for Cuba in a 20 minute Sunday Summer Sale power shopping session before hitting the amazing Salisbury Cathedral.  That was after a 20 minute Stonehenge stop off.

My boys had their first taste of surfing on a Devon beach and ate fish and chips and sausage rolls.  We buried them in the sand of the dunes and experienced every weather in one day.  Typical English seaside stuff.

When Amy Winehouse died it hit my hard.  A strange thing when the death of a famous person feels close and personal.  It was quite a shock and I hadn’t even been living in the UK for her rise to fame but I loved her voice, her style and her vulnerable irreverence and never read all the tabloid rubbish about her life.  Maybe there is a bit of Amy in me, or maybe it was just the moment.

Then the riots …………..  a sociological disaster that will be discussed in newspaper columns for years.  At this point we were all staying with a friend in London close to the action and the police sirens were going off all night.  It felt quite strange to be with my Guatemalan husband in London during the worst social unrest in 26 years,  But such is life ………

So my beautiful England I do love you, but I am not quite sure I understand my old world so well anymore.  But thanks to all my family and friends for making this trip so wonderful despite the challenges of being on holiday in your own country, you always make me feel so welcome and loved.