Opening Statement



Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Christmas in Cuba 2: After Dinner!

Complete Story @ Here!



Back then

December 24 1996: Matilde and I sit, her hand in mine at the dining room table with Josef and his family. Its Christmas dinner. Christmas eve. Josef looks pale, thin, drawn. A bad year health wise, he’s had problems with his heart. The operation sounds pretty crude. There’s little medicine available. But there will be no more talk of that tonight -his family and friends are joining him for a feast!

His wife, Luisa scurries to and fro. The women help her in the kitchen. The men smoke cigarettes, pour shots of rum, catching up on the latest news. A quite traditional Cuban family. Nowadays, a very luxurious Cuban meal; fried chicken, rice y beans, sweet potatoes, a tray of sliced tomato and onion. Endless cups of thick black expresso laddened with heaping teaspoons of coarse raw sugar. 

Everyone is quite pleased. Josef y Luisa have done well renting out the rooms in their home to the foreigners for dollars this year. Indeed, reasonably priced and they treat us like family, making what for many would be a small fortune here. Together we toast their success. [1]

I look about the dining room; the tall arched ceilings, tiled wainscoting, marbled floors. Once this was a fine Spanish home, befitting an aristocrat. Before the revolution, the family also owned a prosperous plantation in the countryside; growing fruit, raising chicken, y cattle. After the communistas took over, only the house was left. 



Now 38 years later, it is worse for wear and tear. A ragtag collection of old lawn chairs, a simple cupboard, a shaky table collected below a grand old glass chandelier, sad reminders of yesteryear. But Luis is happy for the good companionship, the family ties. They couldn’t take that away! He tips his glass to us with a smile.

After dinner I pull out a pack of Marlboro's. American cigarettes! The men are quite pleased. Matilde too, for different reasons, with the foreign touch. Since she’s my girlfriend she won’t have to join the women in the kitchen, washing dishes, cleaning up, mopping the floors. She leans back happily in her chair, smoking a cigarette too, enjoying her new found freedom. Eagerly listening as we talk business. 

So and so’s 1959 Thunderbird needs new tires, even some old retreads would do. After he drives it into the ground? Nada. The hombres pour him another shot of rum. Laugh. Save up! Maybe in another year you can buy a bicycle. There’s some Chinese ones down at the dollar store. 

Hey a crosstown ride to work on the back of a flatbed only costs a peso! How much are you earning now as a teacher? Two hundred pesos a month? [2] Naw. A bicycles the way to go! Your wife can ride on the back, your daughter on the crossbar, then you can drop them off on the way to work too. You’ll save a lot that way! 



At a loss for words, I silently take a long hard drag on my smoke. Look about at the men. Mati leans forward, boldly crushing out her cigarette in the ashtray. Hmmm. She’s decided to join in the conversation too! “Maybe Davido’s going to take a cut in pay! Schools are being closed. Teachers might even lose their jobs in his country!” [3]

Ho boy! Here we go. How can I explain my situation to them? As terrible as it is for us back home? I gently kick her under the table. Me Querida, my dear, dear one..... 

“Que?!? What???” She stammers, quite perplexed. 

“Well. I think I’ll be able to hold onto my job but ahhh, I’ll keep in mind what you guys said about the car. Retreads. Or a bike. Ummmmm.....” 



Fidel Castro: Target of the US Embargo of Cuba

“Closed? Si?”, Josef's cousin raises his brow, looks at Mati, at me. “Fidel [Castro] promised they won’t close a single school in our country! No matter what happens next.” [4]

The men all awkwardly nod in agreement to one another. Knock back their drinks.

“Hmmmm. That's very good, Raphael. Its different where I live.”

“Aha! My capitalista friend!” Leaning across the table, he pours a shot of rum into my glass, with a wink of the eye. “This is one of the advantages of our communista system.” 

“Amigo! Gracias! Pero/ but I don't drink. Somebody. Please. Have it for me.” 


“Bah!” Mati slams her fist on the table, reaching for the shot, just like one of the guys. Oh if it were only so easy for a Cubana! She tries. She really does. Maybe sometimes just a little too hard I think, “Eets all bullsheet!” 

“Pssst...Darling, that’s “it’s”. In English the “I” has an “E” sound. Don’t you mean to say....er...er...” 

Alas. I wag my head in despair. How complicated it gets when two worlds collide!

“Si!” She leaps up, one hand jauntily posed on her hip, the other waving in the air. “In his country still they have mucho! And they share!” 

“Pssst! Pssst! Matilde!” I roll my eyes, but there’s no stopping her now. 



“But here? For over a year he has been trying to send boxes to our country. Food. Clothes. Medicine. School Supplies. People have nothing. But the government Cubano? Ha! They want to take it all! Or charge 100% taxes!” 


Oh oh! Politics. The hombres nervously shuffle their feet. Staring at Mati. Towards the other women in the kitchen. So many taboos, all of them broken!

One wags his finger at her, “Mati! How can you say that? Your family! They fought in the revolucion! No? Josef too! And Raphael? He is a director for the provincia! It is not true!” 

“Listen. Guys.....” I tug at Matilde's arm, hoping she’ll sit down. Say the wrong thing, to the wrong people, in Cuba this could be very serious indeed. Always, she reminds me of that, but tonight? 

“No. No. Please.” Raphael winks at me. He does not want any trouble. Looking around reassuringly at the other guys, he waves for silence. “We are all family and friends here. We can talk. Yes. It is an emergency situation in our country, with the economy, the US embargo. But things are changing. Slowly perhaps....” 



He pauses in careful deliberation. Shrugs. Perhaps lost for words, he awkwardly flashes me a hopeful little smile “Well....one can go to church now! For Christmas eve!”

Si. Si. Si. The hombres wipe the sweat from their brow. Pass around the rum bottle. Hurriedly knocking back another shot in awkward silence. I notice Josef looking at Mati, then at me. Nervously he scratches his chest. With a smile, a shake of the head, he pats his hand on the table and laughs. “Yes. It is Christmas eve. We are friends. We are family. We are Cuban. Let’s all be happy. Please.” 

“Si Josef. So. Darling. Do you want to go to church tonight? It is very beautiful on Christmas eve.” 

“It is okay.” Raphael nods, “The children are getting dressed to go. You better hurry.” 


Mati stares at me in silence. Wary now but determined, rolling it over in her head. Usually she knows what to do best. But tonight? Christmas in Cuba?  It certainly is different, for both of us. She’s not too sure what to do, “All right. But we go by the backstreet. It’s best to be careful.”

Si...........”


To be continued .....



Christmas Eve in Santiago de Cuba 1996

Some Footnotes:

[1] Recent reforms allowed private bed and breakfasts to be rented out in the family home.
At the time it cost about $25 a night. An extra $5 bought dinner for everyone at the local market, the family included.

[2] 25 Cuban pesos = $1 US

[3] In Ontario, Canada, the Harris government was implementing education cuts that were being used to pay for a tax cut for the rich.

[4] Universal education from kindergarten through university is available across the island of Cuba. Primary and elementary schools have been built in the mountain, interior and isolated regions. Public secondary boarding schools, colleges and universities are made accessible for everyone in the larger urban centres.

Next: off to a police showdown at the cathedral .....

SERIES: Part 1 @  Here! Part 2 @ Here!  Part 3 @ Here! Part 4 @ Here! Part 5 @ Here! Part 6 @ Here! Part 7 @ Here! Part 8 Here! Part 9 @ Here! Part 10 @ Here! Part 11 @ Here! Part 12 @ Here! Post Script @ Here!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Who is running this year for OECTA Provincial President to replace James Ryan?

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