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On a visit to Havana a few years back, we stayed with Arcelis, a retiree who ran one of the casas particulares in the city. Soft-spoken and solicitous, she was like the Cuban grandmother I never had. She gave us full use of the upper floor of her stately old home. Rooms upon rooms, full of the bric-a-brac of another era: ceramic bathing beauties perched on giant clam shells amid curls of sea foam, and stylized, slightly cartoonish figurines forever posed in the act of shyly kissing or of bashful courtship. Her old office–meticulously dusted–featured an award presented to her by the then-Minister of the Interior, Che Guevara, all but lost amid the Red Cross tea services, and other artefacts of a collector’s life.

The evening after we arrived, I sat out on her shaded terrace and listened to the layered sounds of the Havana night. Dogs barking, plates and cutlery clattering. Animated conversations. Children laughing.

It was as if everyone lived out their days and nights with their doors and windows fully open. Though I could see nothing of the activities taking places, the night was thick with the sounds of lives being lived in a way that simply doesn’t happen in northern countries. We live with our windows sealed, our doors shut tight.

I let myself sink into the anonymous, thriving humanity of those sounds.

And then, a sudden lull. The sound of one television, blaring a broadcast. Then another, tuned to the same broadcast. Then a third. And on it went, until all the conversation, the arguing and the laughter, had been supplanted by the sound of the televisions.

Havana listened, and so did I: after 49 years in power, Fidel was stepping down.

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