Dec 10 2009

Two Wrongs

“I can’t figure out why you were at Fifth Avenue,” my mother said. This would explain her rather lukewarm response to my post about finding her childhood home. “Your aunt didn’t think that was the house, either. We lived two houses in from Third Avenue.”


Hmm. I’m pretty sure I read her email correctly. I remember going back to it again and again and again to check, before plotting out on the map where to go to trace her housing history. And what about that woman I met, at the
cuba_mailboxbrownish house? She’d recognized the names of my mother and her sisters and pointed to a house, down the road. Was she just being polite? Had she really known the maid who’d told her stories about a family with three daughters who lived down the street – only it wasn’t two doors away, but one full block down the street?

There I was penning flowery connecting-with-my-mother’s-roots posts about my trip like as though I was writing for some (ahem) Condé Nast travel blog, all the while standing in front of the wrong damn house. Let us just remember, for the record, what this blog is about. This is exactly what happens when the act of having children has extracted all your brain capacity. Before giving birth I used to be mentally sharp, but now my mind is sieve-like and feeble. And oh my, isn’t this a quintessential example?

Just as quickly as I realized that I might have misread the address, my mother acknowledged that she’s gotten a few details wrong in the last months so maybe it was her error. In the end, we agreed not to dig into our email archives to check the message. There’s nothing to win for being right.
It’s not like it’s a catastrophe. I was close enough, crossing back and forth over Third Avenue when I wandered the streets of her old neighborhood. I probably walked right by the house. I went to a restaurant just a few streets away, twice. If I ever go back, um, at least I’ll know where to go.

This morning over coffee, my mother and I looked at photographs. Clicking through my digital albums on iPhoto, I told her the story, day-by-day, of my trip to Havana. She fetched her vintage photo albums from the back of the cupboard in the living room. Square black and white photos with borders,
photo_albummounted on pages of heavy black paper, told a long-ago story of her early years in Cuba. A picture of her friends sitting on the railing of the balcony of her old school matched a shot I’d taken of it when I was there. Her graduating class, a chaperon seated behind each girl, posed on a set of stairs where I, too, stood for a picture in the interior of the schoolyard.

“That’s on First Avenue, by the ocean,” she said, tapping her finger on a picture of a three story building, “the house that’s no longer there.”

Except it was there. I’d seen it.

She’d been so certain that this house had been torn down; when she was in Havana eight years ago, the driver of her tour bus had (allegedly) taken her to it only to show her an empty lot. She assumed that any house on this corner would be a new one – and so did I.

I rushed to open my computer, and called up several photographs. We put the before and after shots side-by-side, comparing them, window by window, detail by detail – everything matched:
The current version is slightly altered by an addition on the back, and it has a more elaborate wall around the outside of the property than it used to. But it’s undeniably the same house.

So in the end, the house that I thought I saw, I didn’t see. The house that I thought I couldn’t see, I did see. Between the two of us, my mother and I read it wrong, wrote it wrong, or remembered it wrong. But somehow, the two wrongs make a right. I’m thrilled to have seen this house first-hand. Now I have a picture – in my mind as well as my camera – of at least one of her childhood homes.

Dec 6 2009

Remember Where

One last Cuba moment that seems worth the telling:

On the last night of the conference in Havana, there was a gala reception featuring the Tropicana Cabaret dancers on a stage constructed in the courtyard of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Everyone got all dolled up. Papaya-champagne cocktails we placed in our hands as we entered the museum. A swarm of servers in black-vested uniforms hounded us with trays of hors d’oeuvres.
The music was live and loud, the spotlights were hot and blinding, the dancers were costumed in wild colored giant plumes (and that’s about it). I’m glad I got to see a few numbers; it seemed appropriate to sample this part of Havana’s decadent history. But my colleagues and I all agreed, we’d rather go to a club where we could dance, too. And we were hungry, because the hors d’oeuvres, though annoyingly abundant, left us wanting, um, something else.

We left the museum and walked down the street hoping to make our way to a restaurant, a paladar that I’d been to earlier in the week. We happened by the entrance to the Bacardi Building, an historic art-deco skyscraper. I remembered my mother telling me that her father’s office had been in this building, so I stopped to take a photograph. The door was open and it was light in the lobby, so I crossed the street to peek inside. A guard stood beside the curved reception desk, which was marked with an ornate capital letter B. He gave his permission for me to take pictures, and beckoned me inside.
While I was framing shots of the elegant old post box and the decorated elevator doors, he asked if I’d like to go up to the top of the tower of the building. By now my three colleagues had found me in the lobby and they, too, were admiring the marble interior. Of course we wanted to see the tower. Another guard went to fetch a key, and motioned us toward the elevator. We rode all the way to the top floor and then climbed four more flights of narrow, jangling, metal, spiral staircases until we got the uppermost balcony of the building.
There it was, the view: the nightscape of Havana. The wind was a warm blanket on my bare shoulders, and the rows of dull streetlamps blurred as they webbed out to the edge of the city, beyond my view. It was one of those moments, where you stop to consider where you are and why. I knew I was privileged to be able to visit Havana, but I was also aware of the privilege my mother’s family enjoyed when they lived there. They were expatriates, I suppose much like we are expatriates here in France, borrowing someone else’s culture to live out a dream.

Returning to the street level, I thought about Grandpa, and how he must have stood in that elevator hundreds of times. Of course the building has been renovated since he worked there six decades ago, yet it appears as though nothing significant had been changed, just a fresh coat of paint. It probably looks much the same as it did then. He must have come through that lobby every morning and every night. He walked on these floors, long ago, ages before he even knew me as the little impish grandchild who begged him always to “itch my back.”

It made me think of going to my father’s office when I was a little. It was such an other world place. I felt important when I was there, even if I was just sitting on the polished wooden chairs in his waiting room looking at the rows of leather law books lining the shelves. It smelled like cigarettes and serious business.

Later I wrote to my mother, to tell her about my impromptu visit to her father’s office building. She emailed back:

When I was little and my father worked sometimes on a weekend, I would go to the office with him. I loved having so many pencils at my disposal and a pad of paper that said Old Time Molasses Company on it. I felt so important, like a secretary! And also when I went to the dentist on another floor of the building, I would always go up to his office and say hello.

What is it about being little and going to your father’s or mother’s office that makes you feel important? Short-pants and Buddy-roo don’t know that pleasure. The only office De-facto and I go to is a virtual one, meeting our colleagues around a digital conference table, video-shots of our heads bobbing up and down on bright-colored avatars. But that’s another post.

It reminds me how many memories that we keep are associated with where they took place. When I’m in my childhood home – and I’m lucky enough to still go home to that house – I’m haunted by the stories of my past. But even if you can’t go in to the house or dorm or school or office that used to be
havana_storm yours, just being in close proximity can conjure up a cascade of feelings and facts that are otherwise forgotten. But what if you can’t go back to touch those places again? My mother’s family left Cuba in 1948, not unaware of the political unrest in the country, but still, a decade before the revolution. They never expected that they wouldn’t be able to easily return to see the touchstones of their life there. How many memories, I wonder, are locked up in all those unvisited places?

Dec 3 2009


His name was Javier. His business card had a picture of a taxi on it – a shiny new cab that looked nothing at all like the one he actually drove. I suppose I could have taken any cab, but I wanted him, the grumpy cab driver who’d slowly been drawn into my little pilgrimage. By the time he’d returned me to the hotel after visiting my mother’s old school, we were chatting away about her life in Cuba in the 1930s and 40s. He’d volunteered to drive me again, if I wanted to go back to the school, or anywhere else.

On my first day in Havana I spent hours walking around my mother’s old neighborhood. She’d given me the coordinates of two houses her family had lived in, both within blocks of each other. One of them, a house that looked out over the ocean on la primera avenida, had been torn down and replaced. I took several pictures of the view from the corner where the house would have been, imagining a younger version of my mother, standing there herself, watching the wild waves and the windy palm trees.
The other house they’d lived in was a few blocks inland and a few blocks over, just south of Avenida Quinta, the main avenue for traffic into the center of Havana. It must have been a posh address way back when – maybe it still is. Some houses are in various states of disrepair, but many of the homes are truly grand. Among them, embassies or residences belonging to consulates of the countries that have diplomatic ties with Cuba. This was something I saw all over Havana, the contrast of things abandoned and things restored, out of step but strangely at ease with each other, side by side.

She’d described this house as “the second one in from the southwest corner, with a patio and an iron gate.” I found what was technically the second house from the corner; it was mammoth, almost Soviet in construction. But it had what might have once been a patio (now filled with shrubbery) and an old iron gate.

Connected to it was a one-story, modern structure that seemed to be well trafficked, with a café and a small boutique. I walked in and found a friendly-looking black-vested waiter. I explained, in my faltering Spanish, that I was looking for the house my mother had lived in more than 60 years ago and how she’d told me it was the second house in from the big avenue. “Es aqui?”

He took me by the hand and walked out to the street. (This happened often, if I asked a local for directions, they’d drop what they were doing and offer sincere assistance; I encountered many acts of kindness in Cuba.) He explained that the parcel of land on which this cluster of buildings was constructed was once a garden. He escorted me down the street, pointing out three older, more traditional houses. One of those, he said, was probably the house I was looking for.
Well of course this made sense. It didn’t seem right that my mother’s old house would have been such a fortress, a cold cement building that now housed the offices of a government agency. As I walked down the block, it occurred to me that any one of the refurbished, newer-looking homes might have been raised on what had once been someone else’s garden, so that that my mother’s house could be further down the street than I’d expected.

Which is why I’d taken pictures of every house on that side of the street and sent them to my mother, via a Picasa link. The Internet was surprisingly accessible from my hotel, with a only a few exceptions: the emails I sent to a some select people, including her, mysteriously disappeared into the ether. My sister somehow could receive my messages without hindrance, so she acted as the go-between, forwarding the link. After studying the pictures, my mother wasn’t completely certain, but she thought one of them might be the house: an old dirtyish brown one with a balcony across the front.

Armed with that information, I called my taxi driver on the morning of my last day in Havana, and asked him if he’d be willing to do some driving and waiting while I went to explore what might have been my mothers childhood home.

By now the street where she’d lived was familiar to me, I’d passed by it dozens of times going to and from the center of Havana during the last week. Javier drove up in front of the brown house and stopped the car. “Buena suerte,” he said, out the window, as I was crossing the street. He was wishing me luck.
I started by taking more photographs, which attracted a bit of attention. When people came out of the house to see what I was up to; I asked their permission to continue. Nobody objected. One man with a friendly, round face introduced himself to me, his name was Miguel, and offered to take me inside the house. Three small children stood on the porch stoop. I knelt down and asked if it was okay to take their picture. They were unafraid, and very polite. I told them that I thought my mother may have grown up in this house, in their house, many years ago. “¿Se duerme en mi cama?” No, I don’t think she slept in your bed, I answered. We all giggled.

The house had surely been the home of one family many years ago, but now it was partitioned into many tiny apartments. I was moved by the poverty of one apartment; then another beside it was comfortably appointed. The common walls in the hallway were chipped and aged, the paint had come off unevenly, leaving a mosaic of colors. Miguel ushered me up the stairs and into an apartment that smelled of onions cooking. An older man, caramel skinned with gray hair, was hunched over on a single burner on the front balcony. He invited me to stay for lunch. I declined by pointing down to the street and waving at Javier, who was waiting for me in the car. He waved back.

Miguel told me the name of a family who had lived in the house, long ago, but it didn’t match my mother’s first or maiden names. I still couldn’t be certain that she’d lived here. But just in case, I snapped as many pictures as I could. I moved around to the side of the house, where a long driveway led to a screened-in porch with two dogs inside. I walked down the driveway to see what the back yard might have looked like, and a young woman came out and greeted me. Again, I was invited inside. Her mother sat on a couch and patted the chair beside her, motioning for me to sit. She’d known someone who lived in the house before, but the names she rattled off were nothing like my mother’s. I wasn’t getting a confirmation from anyone; I couldn’t be sure that this was the house.

When I explained that my mother was one of three daughters, and I named the three girls, the older woman got very animated. “¡Sí, sí, sí!” Yes, she remembered hearing about a family with three sisters. They lived two doors down the street, in the house that was now painted blue. I felt like a detective! At last, the clues were coming together. This house wasn’t my mother’s, but now I knew which one she had lived in.

I chatted with the women a while longer. They tried to tell me stories, I did my best to understand their clipped, Cuban accents. I took more photos. I said gracias no less than one hundred times. When I left, we embraced.
I nearly ran down the street to the blue house, which is now an office-storefront for a cellular phone company. This would have been the second house on the street. The big cement fortress had probably replaced what had once been the first house on the street, with its ample garden extending all the way to Avenida Quinta.

I had a picture of the house from an earlier visit, but it had been taken at sunset. It was hard to see. I wanted to at least get a shot of the outside with full daylight. A uniformed security guard eyed me as I raised my camera. He put his hands up to block me from taking a picture. Javier got out of the taxi and came over to help me, to explain. The guard was adamant. No photos.

But it didn’t matter, really. At least I knew which house was hers; now I had a visual bookmark for all the stories my mother has told me about her childhood.

¿Y ahora?” Javier wanted to know where to go next. I told him the address of the other house she’d live in, the one on la primera avenida. I wanted to go back one more time.

We pulled up to the corner and parked. Instead of staying in the car, as was his custom, Javier got out and followed me across the street. We stood on the sidewalk, looking out at the water. I took out my camera. He asked if I wanted him to take a picture of me.
No, gracias,“ I said.

I’d just wanted to take one more photograph, one last shot of that short stretch of beachfront, looking out at the ocean, so I could show Short-pants and Buddy-roo a view that their grandmother might have had while growing up on the beautiful, haunting, island of Cuba.

Nov 23 2009

Old School

He was aloof, my taxi driver. I’d negotiated with him before we left, ¿cuánto va a costar?? to go to an address that wasn’t exactly specific – someplace near the corner of two numbered streets, somewhere in the district called Marianao, the address that my mother had given me after writing to an old friend who would remember it, of her school when she was growing up in Cuba. He seemed bothered by my task: that I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, that I’d be needing him to wait.

I’d had so many nice cabbies – highly spirited drivers who gabbed away during the drive from our hotel to the city center, pointing out landmarks or making jokes about passing through a time machine to be in their country. But this guy was dour, humorless. Instead of making small talk, I stared out the window, scanning the rows of faded pastel houses and dusty buildings. I hoped we would be able to find the school, and wondered if it still was a school, if it even existed anymore.
We took another route. Not the high road, the habitual drive along the big avenue by the ocean and into the old quarter of the city that we so often followed, but the low road, plunging into the grid of streets of a part of the city most taxi drivers assumed we did not want to see. At the designated crossroads, I asked the driver to wait. He agreed by a grunt, and I got out to hunt for the hallowed building that might be a school. I aimed my camera at a small square stone on the corner of the crumbling sidewalk, registering the intersection where I stood, to use as a marker later when I would review the photographs.

A man on the street watched me, with curiosity, as I snapped pictures of the sidewalk. He wore a careful smile and a pressed plaid shirt. He didn’t look like he was on the make, so I took the risk, in my simple Spanish, to ask him if he knew where to find the Colegio Buenavista.

He surveyed the corner to get his bearings. He pointed his long brown finger up the street. He told me he knew where it was because his brother had gone to that school, long ago. I decided to tell him that it was also the escuela de mi madre. I made a waving hand motion to the side of my head – it might be the universal signal for “a long time ago” – a visual to reinforce that I was speaking of many decades in the past. I asked him to describe the school to my taxi driver, and hoped the transmission from one local to another would be more efficient. He agreed and followed me to the car, a beat-up squared vehicle that reeked of gasoline. I heard him describe the building, and its placement further up the street. My driver shrugged his shoulders, agreeing to take me there but with a complete absence of enthusiasm.
A few blocks later, the driver stopped the car and pointed. I stepped out of the cab before a grand edifice, colonial and ornate with a stately gate. The building looked like what an old school should look like, with a symmetrical stairway like dignified crossed arms in the front of the building, a grand gaping balcony on the second floor smiling down. The paint was fatigued and chipped, but at one time would have been a brilliant turquoise blue. It looked like a sad, old, aristocratic lady, dressed in her worn, out-of-fashion finery just to walk around the block, elegant in a faded, nostalgic way.

I climbed the staircase. At the landing on the second floor, and old couple sat in unmatched chairs. I meekly greeted them, not wanting to impose, but oh so curious to even peek inside. I explained my pilgrimage, and they responded in rapid-fire Spanish in what was clearly affirmative. “Despacio, slowly,” I begged. Yes, it was the school, though now it was divided into apartments. But it had been the Colegio Buenavista, along with the building just beside it, which remains a school to this day.
They opened a door, motioning for me to go in. I entered a wide school-like hallway with a vaulted ceiling, painted nearly the same blue as the building’s exterior. The colors of the tiled-floor were slightly dulled by time, but otherwise in perfect condition. Looking down a stairwell that was once filled with young students scrambling up the stairs, I saw someone’s laundry hanging in a ventilation passage. The faint smell of garlic taunted from the back of the building.

I pictured my mother standing in this hallway, holding her books, laughing with her classmates. I imagined the rushing about of young uniformed schoolgirls, and her among them. I thought about Short-pants and Buddy-roo, and how they disappear each day into the private mystery of their at-school lives, coming into their own, just as my mother made her way here, in this very place, years ago.

They suggested I visit the building next door. After lots of nodding and smiling and many muchas gracias, I made my way to the driver and motioned where I was going. There, a concierge of sorts listened to my explanation without compassion. The man I’d seen earlier – in the plaid shirt, the one who’d directed me here – appeared on the sidewalk behind me. No doubt his curiosity had kicked in, so he’d turned up to see what was unfolding. With his intervention, the woman cautiously opened the door for me. It was late afternoon and school had let out, but a few children remained and the women there – teachers, cleaners, administrators, helpers – gathered around me. Once they heard I had come from France, another woman appeared, a French teacher, and we were able to converse with full comprehension. Yes, classroomsthis had been the Colegio Buenavista. Now it operates under a different name and is a state-run school. Another woman appeared and offered to escort me around the school, a one-story building laid out like a motel, with a wide open courtyard between the long rows of doors and the covered walkway. Aqui, she pointed down an alley on the side, these were the main classrooms.

I lingered as long as I could, in broken Spanish and in better French conversing with them about the school and its students. Mindful of my waiting driver and also wanting my local visits to be discreet – for my own safety as well as theirs – I thanked them all and left, even though I wanted to stay. You can come back tomorrow, they told me, when school is in session. Yes, maybe I will, I’d said. I wanted to, really.

In the taxi I turned and watched out the rear window as the two buildings shrunk from view. I didn’t expect it to be emotional, making this little side trip to visit my mother’s old school. I saw it as a quick errand, just going to visit an old building so I could surprise her with a few photos of her past. Not until I was standing in these buildings did I feel the sense of a history – not just a general history of a place from another era, but a specific touch point in the history of someone so near to me. I didn’t expect to be so moved. I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed. I didn’t expect my eyes to fill up with such wet, heavy tears.

“Hotel?” the taxi driver asked. His dark eyes in the rear view mirror softened when he saw that I was crying. By now my mouth was surely a grimace, the one that accompanies tears we try to withhold. He turned to look at me directly. He smiled, and then, in his broken English, “Where you want to go?”

Home is what I wanted to say. Home, now and fast to my mother and to her arms and her stories. Home to her to hear everything I possibly can hear while she’s still here to tell it. Home to appreciate who she was and who she became. That’s what I wanted to say. Instead I said, “, to my hotel.”

Nov 12 2009

Cuba Libre

Buddy-roo turned to me and reached up with her hands. I bent over to accept what I thought was an offered hug. “No mama,” she said, “You have my back-pack.” I’d carried it all the way to school because she’d ridden her little bike, I didn’t even realize I still had it on my shoulder. I handed over her pink Barbie bag; she grabbed it from me without looking up and ran toward the big doors of the school courtyard. For someone who never wants to go to school, once she gets there she’s too excited to even say goodbye. I called out to her. “I’ll see you in two weeks!” She turned and blew me a kiss, and ducked through the doors, disappearing into the mob of screaming children.

Last night I lay in bed next to Short-pants, having one of our bed-time talks.
I reminded her that I was leaving today to go away for a long trip, to Cuba. “But I’ll miss you,” she said. She always says that, with the sweetest-sad song in her voice, when she sees me preparing my suitcase for a trip. And then, after thinking about it, she asked, “Why are you going there?”

I explained that I’m going to work with some colleagues to help run a meeting, but that the really coolest thing about going to Cuba is that I’m going to visit the city where my mother grew up. Though she was born in New Orleans, mi madre spent her formative years in Havana. Of course this was another era – before Che and Fidel – which I suspect I will only be able to imagine when I find myself in standing on the dusty streets of her old hometown.

“Will you go see her house, where she grew up? Will you see her school?”
I thought about the detailed and yet vague email my mother sent me, describing the location of her house in Miramar, with its numbered streets and the placement of her childhood house on the such-and-such corner. She remembers exactly where the house was, though she says it’s no longer there. She remembers how she used to watch the Las Comparsas, the Mardi Gras parade, from the balcony of the American Club, which is also no longer there. Her memory is better than mine will ever be. Or maybe it’s just easier to remember things that you know are gone for good.

As for the school, I hadn’t thought about going to find the one she attended, but now I just might try, if there’s time, so I can take a picture and bring it back to show my daughters, to show them something about their grandmother’s early life that they can relate to. Would I see my mother when I’m there? Short-pants wanted to know. Oh, but if this were true! My mother has made only one trip to Havana since she left at age of 18. She would love to meet me there.

But no, I’m going solo on this trip. No De-facto, no kids. Just me, traveling on my own, a bit like the old days. “Have a big adventure,” De-facto said to me, after he carried my suitcase down the stairs this morning. Who knows? Maybe I will.