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.
tropicana_girl
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.
bacardi_elevator_doors
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.
havana_skyline
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?