The Cook, the thief, his wife and her lover …….. in Cuba.

As I was thinking about writing this post, the Peter Greenaway film title that I stole for this post title kept playing around in my head all jumbled up and back to front.  I think Peter Greenaway has visited the film school and if not he should be invited.

I have a new cook, there was a thief about, I am a wife but I don’t have a lover, although in Cuba a lot of people do …………. anyway on on ….

The boys have broken up from school and a lot of our more wealthy friends have left for the summer to their properties in Europe along with most of the diplomats and bureaucrats.  Luckily we have enough Cuban friends and enough going on that I don’t feel too lonely and abandoned.  A little bit of breathing space ……… and now with our new air con in the living room, things are looking up!!

I escaped for a few nights to a global city alone, such things have hardly been heard of in our house!  I enjoyed walking the beautiful streets without having to keep my eyes on 3 little naughty heads, lunching in cafe terraces, visiting several galleries, finishing conversations with adults, topping up my fashionista desires ……… bliss …….. but that is another story for another time.

I returned to three happy but slightly resentful children, a husband ready to offload all his problems and trials and tribulations of being a single Dad and director of a film school ……… and yet another robbery in my house.  We let our defenses down for a moment, and of course I wasn’t here to keep my castle safe!

So there was the usual  ……why on earth did you let these people into our house?  Because I wanted to get things done well you were away. ……. conversation.

On the few occasions that I have left my husband alone since we met, he is always intent on improving the house and/or my car for me while I am away, which can often lead to conflict as I like to be heavily involved in the style of said improvements and also who they are done by.  He is then hurt, as he says he does everything to make me happy …… hmmm.

Anyway some workmen came to my house from the film school and were in my bedroom fixing the air con or pretending to fix other things and some cash walked.  Not helped by the fact that we live in a cash world in Cuba and do not have a safe.  Luckily we were approaching the end of the month and we did not have that much cash and they were decent enough to leave us some.

The film school was supposed to find us a safe but failed to do so.  I have now taken all matters into my own hands and decided that the only people who come into my house will be friends, family or people invited by me who have already had my tough character analysis test. I want to be independent from the film school in all matters of administration and maintenance of my home.  Apart from anything else they all like to have a good snoop and gossip is rife in any institution and all over the island.  ‘tonces no mas!

To this end, I now have a new housekeeper and cook who is proving to be a great investment.  Just as well as I had 9 adults and 9 children in my house over this weekend at various stages and I managed to just about feed those who were hungry.  Mercedes lives nearby, is a hardworking, organised women who is transforming my kitchen into a place of homemade cakes and shortbread cookies and cottage pie and it is only week one!

After a few weeks of struggling alone with some help from my young babysitter Claudia, I decided that I needed to get on with finding another nanny before the long summer holiday began, still slightly reluctant to use my children as guinea pigs, but it seems it is the only way.  Take them on a trial basis and see how it goes.

Still not convinced about the latest.  I am trying someone who lives very close by, 5 minutes walk away, but although she seems very sweet and a good person she also gives the impression that she has really suffered a hard life, and that life has worn down her spirit.

I want to say to her …….. hey lady lets laugh and smile and skip with the children, lets make up fun games and holiday adventures.  I am sort of hoping that we might be able to cheer her up a bit but she told me the other day somewhat despondently that Saskia has asked her why she had such a big belly!  I was at the time playing footsies with a giggling Saskia throwing her around the bed.  On the one hand I felt bad, but on the other I was marvelling at my 2 year olds communication skills and astute observational abilities.

Anyway Elena is a black lady, an afrocuban who studied Russian and spent 5 years in Kiev only to return to Cuba just as the Soviet system was getting the hell out and leaving them with the worst economic moment in post-revolution Cuban history, the infamous special period.  Suddenly nobody wanted to learn Russian or bother speaking it too much when she returned.  The Ruskies were gone and it seems that Elena has been sad ever since at her bad luck.  Although she did tell me that she loved living in the Ukraine.  Maybe she fell in love with a Ukranian who stole her heart forever.  I wanted to say to her, well your belly’s not that big and you’ve still got a great pair of legs but in these situations it is best just to keep quiet I find …………..

Anyway a few more parties to organise before the end of the film school term, the graduation party being one of them.  Juju, our beloved nanny of 7 years, who nobody has come close to replacing, is arriving from Guatemala at the end of July for a holiday and by the first week of August Rafa will be free ……… and we have to plan some Cuban adventures.

Where shall we go? Colonial Trinidad?  Maria La Gorda beach?  Cayo Coco?  Exciting, cultural Santiago, the other side of the island, is calling me, but 12 hours in a car in tropical heat with 3 kids means I fear I might have to delay that one.  But I want to dance to more Rhumba, meet a few more Cuban DJs, teach some recipes to my new cook, spend quality time with my children (woops I suppose that should have been first!), try to make my husband forget about the film school for at least a couple of weeks and entertain any pale faces Brits that make it over my Caribbean way.



School holidays, Viñales ……… and not Bin Laden!

I have just survived 2 weeks of the boy’s school holidays and on top of that, an ailing little sister Saskia.  Who dictates to all of us in her sweet but firm way!  Terrible twos just round the corner.

I feel as though I deserve a medal!  I did recruit a teacher from the French school to do some extra French classes for a couple of hours on three mornings in the first week but as Saskia was at home grumpy and contrary Mary, I did not feel as though there was any let up.  I know I have a nanny and people helping me, but the bottom line is that I am their Mum and only I can do that job.  At times I don’t feel as though I am doing it very well but hey, I do my best …….  They can read this blog when they grow up and tell me where I was going wrong.

On Tuesday and Thursday I took them to the Film school for the day with their bicycles but mealtimes were fraught and public and the constant whining for sweets and icecream every time they saw me, wore me down.  I began to think that if anything they were acting as good condom adverts for the students.  Do you remember that Swedish condom advert of a child having a huge tantrum in a supermarket?

By week 2, I decided to escape with the boys and leave Saskia with the nanny and Rafa.  Not something I could do too easily in Guatemala so I decided to remember that I could be independent.  We headed west to the beautiful valley of Viñales, which I have to say lived up to my expectations.  The name is pronounced a little bit like Bin Laden and in fact would have made a good hide out for him before he was murdered.  Or maybe the real Bin Laden still hides there, chortling under his beard at the opposite end of the island to Guantanamo.

We didn’t actually do that much but this was designed to be a reccy trip.  Check out the lay of the land and find a good place to stay and a swimming pool maybe.  It took us around 2 hours to get there.  The motorway was empty and very straight until we turned off to wind our way up towards the amazing scenery that we had been promised.  For a moment we felt as though we were back in Guatemala ……… but no …. No volcanoes and no guns!  But the patchwork hillsides had some similarities.

Said to be one of Cuba’s greatest natural attractions the Viñales valley is a UNESCO site.  The lay of the land …….. It is the finest example of a karst valley (?) where mogotes (great word!), knolls with rounded tops and steep slopes contrast harmoniously with the flat surface of the valley where they stand.  It has even been described as Cuba’s Yosemite valley.  Tobacco is cultivated along with taro and bananas and the countryside is peppered with the wooden tobacco houses where the leaves are dried (I suppose).

Looking around at all this beauty a little too much, I stopped to check I had taken a correct turn and was persuaded to give a lift to a young man who was headed to Viñales.  He was a smiley chirpy chap and the boys liked the look of him so I broke my rule of only picking up women and let him escort us all the way to Viñales town.  As we approached, he of course, had a recommendation for a Casa Particular (B&B) and we agreed to check it out.

The place was an emporium of bad taste and so kitsch that in the gold lamé  room you really needed to keep your shades on.  This was of course the room that the boys wanted.  I said that we would go for lunch and think about it, not sure if I could last a whole night in that room, even if the boys thought it was the coolest thing ever.

We bought some tourist tat in the plazuela and found somewhere to eat amongst the European tourists and backpackers.  There were trips to caves, horseriding, trekking, bicycle tours, trips to the famous mural …………..  The thought of doing all this with a 6 and 7 year old was enough but Paulo had absolutely no brakes on his bike even if I had managed to get a good deal on a bicycle hire.  The thought of him spinning off down one of those steep hills with me trying to stop him …

They cycled up and down the mainstreet for a while before I decided we should go and check out the hotel with the view, 5 minutes back up the road we had come down.  Los Jasminas did have a knock out view and a fairly decent swimming pool, which was surrounded by ever so slightly too sunburnt tourists.

I started chatting to one of the guests as the boys tore around the premises putting chewing gum in each other’s hair.  Christine was part of a big possy of Danish and Cubans who all spent their time between Cuba and Copenhagen with their beautiful mulatto children and god children like a large extended family of friends.  The sun was going down and we headed back to claim the gold room as ours!

When I produced my resident card at the Casa Particular, they were not impressed at all.  In fact they told me that without my passport I could not stay there (not even in the gold room!).  Surely being a resident meant that I was more legit, I thought.  But no, they wanted my visa number and passport number.  I felt as though they were not being very helpful with their intakes of breath and clucking and headshaking, and decided to try my luck somewhere else.

As we scorched away from the gold room we bumped into hitchhiker friend who told us that he would help us find somewhere and hopped in again.  We tried two more places who told us that they did not dare have me stay as they may get a fine and they may lose their licence to be a Casa Particular.  Just as I was thinking we would have to head back to Havana chirpy chappy sorted us out with his mate down the road.

We still had to spend around 20 minutes hanging around in the street as they whole issue of my status was discussed amongst various people and phonecalls were made to immigration.  In the meantime a little mulatto boy around the same age as Paulo appeared with a very snazzy looking piece of Cars Lego.  Where on earth did he get that from I thought?  His Afro Cuban Mum was not far behind him telling me that his father was English and sitting in the house across the road.

There are only 200 resident Brits here in Cuba so this was quite a coincidence.  Within half an hour I was cleared to stay the night, had met the whole neighbourhood and was sipping a beer on the patio, whilst the boys raced around on their bicycles with half the street.  Tony (the Brit, known as Antonio) was a retired teacher from the North West originally but more recently living in Essex.  He had met his present wife whilst he was recovering from his divorce from his first wife.  Why did he choose to live in the crazy world of Cuba?  One day in Essex his next door neighbours had a birthday party in their back garden just over from where they were sitting in their garden.  There was no attempt to invite them round and Tony remembered what he liked about Cuba.  How long will he stay, he doesn’t know ……….

The main problems for tourists in Viñales are the roosters waking everyone up at the crack of dawn, so I was expecting not to have a very long night.  I woke up at my usual hour but it was so peaceful and the boys were kept quiet watching Garfield 2 on their DVD player so I managed to doze until 9am, quite a result for me.  Aaahhhh sleep, that rare commodity.

We were served up a rather tasty breakfast of omelette, toast, ham, tropical fruits, coffee and fresh guava juice before heading off back to the pool and the knockout view and possibly to chat with our new Danish friends.

The mirador (viewpoint) of the hotel had a few people plying their wares.  I managed to keep the boys happy with a couple of post-it pads and bookmarks of Viñales before heading home after lunch.

So Viñales, we will be back to either sit looking at the view from Los Jasminas or to get active on bikes, horses or feet and maybe bump into Bin Laden hiding in one of those tobacco houses.




Telegram from Habana

I have so much to write about my new life that I have 20 blog posts in my head.  I really don’t know where to begin.

I am realising that my inability to write or get on line is more to do with the fact that I am on my own with 3 children trying to unpack and find things and find out where to buy the basics  …….. than the fact that I have slow dial up internet.

So this is a bit of an incoherent ramble, I promise I will try to organise my writing a little better in future posts.  Too much to say and not much time to get it all down.

My husband says I have blossomed in Cuba.  He says everything about me is more relaxed and happy and beautiful.  Viva Cuba! just for that mega compliment I say ….

A lot of handsome streetwise men arrived to bring our shipment of things last week so we are now fully installed.  I never thought a move in could be so much fun.  Lots of jokes and banter.  Rafa and I were exhausted but happy when we went to bed that night.  In our bed, with our sheets and our pillows, our towels, etc etc.

The new nanny failed to be the right one because she did absolutely nothing!!!!  In fact she was quite brilliant at doing nothing.  I began to feel as though I was working for her as I served her another lunch at the table and I ran around picking up toys, getting the boys to wash hands, Saskia wrapped around me!  Plan B Nanny is a little bit bling bling but is turbo charged and a lot more sparky.  I gave her a test run by inviting her to come round and clean my disgusting oven.  She spent 3 hours up to her knees and elbows in grease removing a one inch crusty layer, all of this with a big smile on her face.

The tiles in my downstairs loo at first glance look quite ordinary and bland but you can spend a long time finding faces and animals in the patterns.  It really is trippy and very clever.  I certainly have not been near any psychedelic drugs lately, maybe a little bit too much red wine, as I have been partying quite a lot with Rafa.  I showed the children one afternoon and they thought it was amazing and even Rafa had to admit he could see a lot of things!  It is quite addictive once you start to see things you can´t stop and every day I see something new.  I want to find out more about these trippy tiles.

The boys start school on Monday (in French) yippee!  Saskia has been enrolled in a local nursery which I went to visit last week.  They were a bit low on colours and toys but my main concern was that the directora, a woman, had a beard!  I kid you not, no 5 o’clock shadow or a bit of stubble it really was what could only be described as an established beard.  I know I should be open minded and not prejudiced etc etc. but a bit scary for me, never mind my 17 month old girl.  I was just relieved that neither of the boys, who accompanied me on the visit, made some really inappropriate comment.

Also this week 6 men arrived from the film school to help me sort out everything that needs to be updated in the house …..mosquito screens, checking all electricity points, painting the guest room, tuning the TV, sanding the doors so they shut properly.  Mania is the Film School representative in Habana, she is a sassy 48 year old who looks 10 years younger and is helping me out with anything and everything.  She arrived to help me order the men around.  I was very impressed!  Cuban men are famous machistas but watching this woman you would think the opposite.  I feel she may turn into a future friend.  She also told me that she loves to dance!

Rafa is absolutely loving his role as director of the Film school.  I have never seen him so stimulated and full of ideas and confidence.  It is as though he was made for the job and vice versa.

We watch the sun go down chatting and chatting about all his ideas and all the characters that work with him.  He has a lot to do, but in Cuba you feel as though miracles are possible.

In Limbo in Habana

Havana, Habana, Guatemala, amateur, Guatemala, marriage, role, Thai Chi, Juventud, Cuba, Chrysler Voyager, traffic, cook, nanny, international school, French International school Havana, rugby in Cuba, French, France, baguettes in Havana, mac external modem

My life has begun here in Havana but I still feel a little bit in limbo, mainly because the school term hasn’t begun for Rafa or the children …….. but after a few amateur mistakes, things are falling into place faster than I ever imagined.

Most importantly, we are all happy and relaxed as we never were in Guatemala and I haven´t even made any friends yet!  But I feel so optimistic and happy for Rafa and I and our family life for the next 4 years.  The energy here has let us all unravel.  Rafa seems to be relishing his new role, and is getting up earlier than any of us every morning to swim in the sea and do Thai Chi.  The children have hardly had their clothes on, especially Saskia, whose fat little bottom I am getting used to seeing waddling around the garden or sitting in her paddling pool.  Her hair has also gone wildly curly and she looks prettier than ever!  The boys spend more time swimming, chasing crabs, sailing off in their pretend boat to the island of Juventud ……. than fighting, as they had been during the last few weeks of uncertainty and stressful travelling.

Havana, Habana, Guatemala, amateur, Guatemala, marriage, role, Thai Chi, Juventud, Cuba, Chrysler Voyager, traffic, cook, nanny, international school, French International school Havana, rugby in Cuba, French, France, baguettes in Havana, mac external modem

Cuba loves children and everywhere we go my three are running around making friends.  I feel so relaxed that I don’t have to worry about kidnapping or guns or narcos or just plain old uptight rich people judging us.  Everyone has been so friendly ………..

I will always love Guatemala but living in that ridiculously unequal, repressed and violent society was not good for me.  I feel things too much, even the things you don´t see.  I wrote about Antigua life in this blog and will always love my friends but I can’t wait for them all to visit me here to see me in this new world.

When I think about the uptight rich Guatemalans and arrogant Americans who had never visited Cuba, but were so quick to tell me that it was a disaster.  I will tell them, take a good look at yourselves before you criticise others.  Cuba ain’t perfect but there is something intangibly special here.

So here goes my little update on life …….

We arrived to find out that both our cars were off the road.  But now we have two cars outside our house.  Mine is a big Chrysler Voyager with 3 rows of seats.  Yikes!  But there is no traffic in Cuba.  Imagine 1950s England.  After Guatemala and a month in UK this is driving paradise.

I had to deal with the cook, who introduced herself to me in February (our first visit) saying that she was in charge of the house.  That is going to change, I thought to myself all those months ago.  I didn’t like her from the beginning.  Just her very presence in a room irritated me even before she opened her mouth and she would follow me around like a nurse in a mental institute.

The house had been empty for 8 years apart from the odd event or dinner and she had been ruling the roost.  I couldn’t even go into my kitchen and get a glass of water without her breathing down my neck ……. literally.   After 5 days Rafa came home to find me holed up in my bedroom like a depressed teenager on a school exchange.  So she had to go!  Her food was rubbish anyway and she hadn’t helped me find any of the things I had asked her.  She wanted to be in control.  Also there was a suspiciously large amount of food coming into the house that we certainly weren’t eating.

I think we have also found a nanny.  I am not sure anyone can replace our beloved Juju but I have a really good feeling about this woman who is a friend of one of the ex-employees from the house and is a kind and gentle woman from the country.  She is a teacher and a mother in her fifties looking for something less stressful and close to home (she lives in the first block of flats next to our house about 200 yards away).

Next the school issue.  We were expecting to send the boys to the International School but after a quick visit to discuss payments we were blown away by the fees.  The Film School had offered to pay for one of the boys but still we could not ask them to pay what they were demanding ……. a price expensive for anywhere in the world never mind Cuba.  It was a bit of blow but sometimes things happen for a reason.  We discovered the French international school was just 5 minutes from our house, a quick phone call and we found ourselves in the headmasters office filling out forms and laughing about how the French school was bringing rugby to Cuba.  I have a feeling my little Nico will be good at rugby just like his grandfather and uncles …….. vamos a ver.  I liked the headmaster, he had a little sparkle in his eyes like a good Santa.

So the boys will have another language, their third.  They even offer French classes to parents which I will be taking ……… its 20 years since my days in France and I love the language.  On top of that we have a very good French bakery round the corner with baguettes, croissant and pain au chocolat.

The food issue has not been such a big deal as I imagined and I have only been here just over a week.  We are lucky as all our basics come from the Film School.  I won’t have to shop for vegetables, rice, beans, meat, chicken, cheese, milk, yoghurt, flowers, water, beer, wine, cola, juice boxes, coffee, chocolates, serviettes ………. and a whole lot more.  What we have already found is supplies of fish and prawns, Serrano ham and Olive Oil, Malta, tomatoes, bananas, onions, cream cheese and a bread that you could just about call wholemeal.  All at cheaper prices than we paid in Guatemala.

What I foresee as the consumer issues are getting hold of good cheap clothes for the children and Rafa and good sunscreen and toiletries.  But Rafa will be travelling and friends will be visiting ……. we shall survive outside the consumerist world I think.

Now to the technical issues.  Rafa was so proud that he had sorted out my almost impossible to get hold of mac external modem and got me connected to internet in the house in a matter of days, only then to have a storm burn our modem 4 days later!  He has just interrupted me to tell me that a Cuban Mexican friend from the school has already found us another modem in Mexico and is arriving in a matter of days to come to my internet rescue.  She is also bringing Rafa a new MacBook which the school will pay for.  We’ll be having a few mojitos with her watching the sunset when she arrives …….. my internet saviour!

We have also been told that all our things have got the green light from customs and we should have them by Monday.  Oh my bed, my pillows, my kitchen stuff, Saskia’s toys, the boys Lego and bicycles we shall soon all be reunited!

So in a couple of weeks the children will be back at school, Saskia will start in her Cuban nursery, I will have a nanny, I will be online, we will all have the food we need, I will have time to write again ………. and maybe, just maybe, Rafa and I can get out for a night and go dancing.

We are coming up to a period of shooting stars apparently.  As we sat outside last night looking at the stars I was wondering out loud to Rafa that maybe I felt happy here as I come from a little island off a big continent and here I am again on my island.



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My Nanny State

Here in Guatemala all my friends have nannies, niñeras, muchachas or whatever terminology you care to use.  It is par for the course, and a well known advantage of the third world lifestyle – a hangover from a colonial past, or a reality of the present apartheid labour system.  It is also a common pastime for mothers to get together and sit around complaining about their nannies´ incompetence.  Not me ……  no never.  In this one matter I am quite splendidly smug.

My nanny is the BEST.

In my native country, to have a nanny is a status symbol of the super rich or royalty.  It is also something which harks back to another time.  An England of AA Milne and Winne the Pooh and Edwardian nurseries.  Not one of my friends in the UK has one, or had one when they were children.  I didn’t grow up in a house with a nanny, neither did my parents.  And really, I did not expect to live over 6 years with a nanny coming into my house 5 and a half days a week.  But serendipity played me a huge hand when I was introduced to Judith Han, who will always remain one of the most wonderful and amazing people to have come into my life.  I don´t have a nanny, I have Juju.  She has been my support system, my social services, my home grown remedy advisor, comedian and all round superstar.  How will we all manage without her?

Smiling and laughing as usual .......


Juju, as she was christened by Paulo, has a Chinese grandfather and comes from a different part of Guatemala out towards the Pacific coast.  She has a strong, happy face that always is a mili-second away from a giggle and we have laughed so much with her that I am seriously worried if I can live without her laughter, never mind anything else.  Just listening to her good natured funny ramblings to my baby girl and my boys over the years is enough to put a smile on your face.  But on top of that huge attribute, she is a person who can grow anything, fix anything, cook anything superbly, clean the house, mend clothes, ……… the list is endless, and all this while playing and chatting with my children.

Right now as I am writing, the rain is pouring down and all I can hear is the sound of Nico laughing with her.  Yesterday she spent the afternoon playing football in the garden with Paulo whilst carrying a smiling Saskia.  A mother of 6, she takes multi-tasking to a whole new dimension.  She helps them with their Spanish homework, plays chess and Monopoly with them and hardly ever has raised her voice to them in 6 years.  I wish I could say the same for myself.

I always thought how weird to have a stranger in your house.  Not used to servants, it took me a while to get used to the concept, but if there was ever a person that I could hang out with peacefully it is Juju.  On Saturday mornings she sneaks into my house so not to wake us up.  Faultlessly thoughtful and incredibly kind, she regularly arrives with a little present from the packa for my children: some clothes, some books, toys, silly bands (the latest craze).  She always knows the name of a plumber or a painter or a mechanic.  She has plastered walls, macheted huge parts of the garden during the rainy season and is always available for more.  She drops Christmas tamales at our house every year around midnight.  She has come on trips with us to San Salvador and Atitlan.  If you have Juju with you, a family holiday almost feels like a holiday!  All my friends love Juju and she likes a lot of them too.  Especially my great friend Felix who makes her laugh even more than usual.

5 of her 6 children on my famous sofa








Some Guatemalans would warn me about being too close and relaxed with my nanny.  The apartheid rules are hard to shake.  But bollocks I thought.  I will eat lunch with my Juju trust her with my life and share my worries and my secrets. I went to her daughter´s wedding, her oldest son´s graduation ceremony, she received me home with baby Nico in my arms with Sopa de Gallina and so much love, and 4 years later Saskia too.  Her husband helped us move house, has rescued me from flat tyres several mornings, and often plays football with our boys.  All her children adore mine like siblings.  And my children love hanging out in her house and garden with all the animals and friends and family.  They even met the famous tacuazin in the jaula.  Juju caught it while walking the two blocks home one night.  She shared the hunting technique with me if anyone´s interested.  You see there is just no end to her talents.

Juju in days gone by with my boys and her youngest








Husbands are husbands, and mine is a pretty good one most of the time, but over the last few years if you exclude time spent sleeping next to each other, I have easily spent more time with Juju than Rafa.

Juju has been there for me when no-one else has.  She has seen my tears, two panzas, my pain, my laughter.  My children are blessed to have known her and be loved by her.  She has been my rock.  To think that I will no longer have her strong light in my family is the thing that is breaking my heart these last few days.  Juju we love you and we will miss you.  What more can I say ……………..