Deaf and Mute: Diary of a Returnee, Part 4 / 14ymedio, Dominique Deloy

A foreigner may have to pay five CUC to enter the Museum of Fine Arts, while a Cuban disburses 1/24th of that in local currency. (14ymedio)
A foreigner may have to pay five CUC to enter the Museum of Fine Arts, while a Cuban disburses 1/24th of that in local currency. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Dominique Deloy, Havana, 5 September 2016 — Sometimes I have the impression I’m talking to myself inside an aquarium: I can’t open my mouth without fear of drowning, no one wants to listen to me, my questions are never answered. Some, of course, consider me indiscreet, daring, even a comemierda (literally “shiteater”) as they say here, although I don’t know what this word is really meant to convey, untranslatable in French but pleasing to my ears: stupid, timid, naïve?

It is a fact that asking too many questions is frowned upon here. They often reply to me, “I don’t know, I haven’t asked,” implying that one has to be very strange to ask about such things, almost suspicious. continue reading

And it is not just when it comes to politics. Politics? Who talks about politics here? The word itself is… suspicious! How many people have said to me, “I don’t like to get into politics, it is of absolutely no interest to me.” To even talk about this here is like something obscene, unseemly. Pity the French returnee, who adores politics and likes to remake the world over and over talking with her friends! Almost a national sport! Shut your mouth, poor little fish-returned-to-her-native-waters, comemierda!

Politics? Who talks about politics here? The word itself is… suspicious!

But that’s how it is. The French returnee wants to know everything. Not only why the monthly salary of her aunt Candita, architect and head of Housing Services, isn’t enough to buy a pair of shoes. Also why Cuba still has two currencies: one called “national” and the other… what to call it, then? “Foreign” perhaps? And how to know when to pull out which one (when both the bills and coins are very similar)? Why is it that sometimes you can pay with either, making the conversion, and sometimes you can’t: when there are two different prices for the different currencies, one for real Cubans and the other for tourists, or “fake Cubans,” like me?

Yesterday I had to pay five CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, the “foreign” currency) to enter the Museum of Fine Arts – even though its magnificent roof is on the point of collapsing on the works of Courbet and Degas, and you can see the sky through it – while my companion paid one-twenty-fourth as much in national currency (CUP); with no explanation, as if the teller was deaf, looking at me in silence when I asked him why. Why, yes indeed, why? A real brainteaser.

It is fortunate that they do not charge me for my bread ration in CUCs, but I always go to the bakery with apprehension and a little shame, as if I was thief trying to steal bread out of the mouths of real Cubans. I feel the same when I travel alone in one of those fascinating machines, my hair blowing in the wind, my nose filled with the smell of gasoline and reggaeton thundering in my ears. I pay like the rest: 10 pesos in national money, but I feel “clandestine, illegal,” to quote Manu Chao’s song.

Yes, the French returnee wants to know everything. She likes unambiguous explanations, rational, direct words, clear

But it is not only the money, although this is the main topic of conversation (along with finding out where you can get yogurt or chicken today). I also want to know why the border between legality and illegality is so thin here. For example, why, in front of everyone, in a bakery with a French name, do they give me an open, half-empty package of cookies, and especially why, when I ask for an explanation, do they sneer at me instead of apologizing? It is the same for bottles of water and packages of pasta, where the eye can discern the subtle and clever slits used to remove a third of the product from its container while the price remains the same.

Yes, the French returnee wants to know everything. She likes unambiguous explanations, rational, direct words, clear.

Furthermore, in her aquarium, the returnee is deaf: there is no internet here or very little. A few incredibly expensive minutes in a wifi zone, as long as it hasn’t crashed, in which case you can never know for how long or why. It’s clear you can’t use the internet to be informed. And don’t even talk about the press… which says whatever it wants whenever it feels like it. There’s nothing left but Radio Bemba – Big Lip Radio word of mouth. So here you never know anything. The returnee is obliged, therefore, to ask without any answers, to open and close her mouth in her aquarium. With no results.

The Two Sides Of The Postcard: Diary Of A Returnee, Part 3 / 14ymedio, Dominique Deloy

The newly restored Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba. (D. Deloy)
The newly restored Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba. (D. Deloy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Dominique Deloy, Santiago de Cuba, 2 September 2016 — It had been years since I’d seen my husband’s family. So we traveled to Santiago de Cuba, where many of them live. Upon arrival, after 17 hours by bus with a broken suspension, a pleasant surprise awaited me: the city seemed more flirtatious than ten years ago.

“Thanks to [hurricane] Sandy,” say the santiagueros with the black humor that characterizes them, the city has been beautified: a new public transit station, some gaily painted houses, the cathedral restored and its angel re-clothed in golden garments. They also told me that Sandy has cleaned the beaches, in fact we were able to enjoy one of them, a wonder of trash-free white sand, as we had never seen before. continue reading

We also saw, although this has nothing to do with the terrible hurricane of 2012 – works of art decorating the streets, paintings, sculptures, lamps of pretty colors and, above all, a maritime promenade that doesn’t make you want to cry like before, where now you can really walk, and even connect to the internet! In addition, you can take a boat ride on the magnificent bay, for a low price in Cuban pesos.

Unfortunately, when it came time to visit the family, a bitter disappointment awaited me with the other side of the postcard: everyone seemed to live in the same conditions as before, and the young people thought of nothing but escaping to another country at any cost, so as not to have to live like their elders.

My aunt Candita, 59, an architect and Head of Service at the Housing Institute, continues to earn the same salary as before: it doesn’t exceed 18 CUC (roughly $18 US) a month. My niece Glaydis got a big promotion: now she is the manager of a very famous candy store in the city, where she works seven days a week for 13 CUC a month. And she’s lucky because she can bring home cakes! Although she must pay for them of course. My cousin Juan, who also completed his higher education, is the head of a large furniture company. He is 53 and has worked there for forever: he is the most fortunate of all these professionals, earning 20 CUC a month.

I was pensive and on my return to Havana I went to the supermarket near my house to note down some prices, because sometimes my friends in France don’t believe me. How can a person live on a salary ten times lower than those in some countries in Africa? Perhaps the prices of basic products are significantly lower? No way! They are as high or higher than in France. You don’t have to be a great mathematician to realize that Glaydis, over the space of a month, cannot purchase any more than a pound of cheese, two quarts of juice and bottle of detergent.

Sometimes I feel that everyone is being punished here. But what did they do?

Foreigner For One Day, Foreigner Forever: Diary of a Returnee, Part 2 / 14ymedio, Dominique Deloy

A foreigner can pay up to 12 times more than a Cuban to enter cultural events such as the La Rampa Art Fair. (14ymedio)
A foreigner can pay up to 12 times more than a Cuban to enter cultural events such as the La Rampa Art Fair. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Dominique Deloy, Havana, 22 August 2016 — How do Cubans to know I’m not from here? I wear the same clothes as Cubans (shorts, shirt and sandals) and my skin is not that white in this scorching summer. Also, I flatter myself I speak pretty good “Cuban”… So why do I still feel like a perpetual stigma like I’m being “délit de faciès” (racially profiled) as we would say in France to refer to those who control the streets and target immigrants with no other motive than their physical appearance. Why am I forced to hear continued calls in the street of “Hello my friend?” in English. Followed in Spanish by “Do you want a taxi, a good private restaurant, where are you from? What language do you speak? Do you want to go to the beach?”

Why can’t I just seem normal, like the rest of the citizens, and not an almost extraterrestrial being? Why is the label of tourist stuck to my forehead, as if I was suffering from an obsession that consists of touring the island over and over? Ten years from now will they still be offering me wooden statues of Che berets? Why doesn’t anyone think I live here, and even work here, in exchange for a Cuban salary? continue reading

But that is not all. A few days ago, at the La Rampa Art Fair, I had to pay 2 CUC to get in (just to have the right to buy things inside!). My partner, nowever, was only charged 4 Cuban pesos, that is twelve times less than me.

What bothers me most is that everything is implicit, natural, wordless, without explanations, just from looking at my face. And so it is at any cultural event, except the movies, thank God: 2 Cuban pesos for everyone, the only time I become a normal person.

I think that over a long time, despite globalization, an invisible barrier has been raised between Cuba and normal people, between normal Cubans, and the “strange” foreigners. I hardly know if my status as a foreigner is more a positive or a negative from the perspective of Cubans, who generally seem to be well disposed toward me. There is an invisible but unalterable barrier, and I can’t figure out if it’s because Cubans appreciate foreigners. Happily, I left behind the era when my future husband had no right to sleep with me in a hotel or a private B&B, much less swim with me in the crystalline waters that bathe this island, when – at that time, yes – I really was a tourist.

Why Did I Get Myself Into This Mess? Diary Of A Foreign Returnee Part 1 / 14ymedio, Dominique Deloy

About 10 million people eat the same thing at the same time in Cuba, the few products available in the market. (EFE)
About 10 million people eat the same thing at the same time in Cuba, the few products available in the market. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Dominique Deloy, Havana, 18 August 2016 – My situation is like that of the majority of mixed couples where one of the two had the good fortune to be born in a democratic country – indeed, a country with a free press and a multi-party political system, where a person can express an opinion without fear of being denounced by their neighbors or reprimanded by the police. It is useful to remember this in these difficult times, with a certain tendency, on the other side of the Atlantic, to forget or deny the achievements and advantages of democracy even though, of course, it is far from perfect and is always an ideal to that is being striven for.

In these cases, sometimes, the Cuban man or woman, who remains deeply attached to their island, convinced their partner to initiate the “repatriation,” full of hopes for change after the famous handshake with the former enemy and potential invader. continue reading

Then comes the tricky part of the papers to formalize the return. “Give me your PRE (Foreign Residence Permit) and I will give you back your permanent residence,” says the official to the Cuban citizen. As for the one with foreign nationality, they can “arrange” their stay in Cuba but only after a great deal of paperwork and a good-sized handful of bills.

As the saying goes, “Who has a husband has a country.” So, here we are, although not without a certain trepidation. How can we adapt, find professional work, rebuild ties with friends lost after two decades of living in France? Also, you have to resume old habits: standing in line for hours under the burning sun (“Who’s last?” we ask, on joining the line, to mark our place in it), eating the same thing and at the same time as 10 million other people (right now in the markets there are: cabbages, beans and avocados) and, for me, being addressed on every corner in English (“mafrende” as a Cuban version of “my friend”) because of my skin, too pale, and my clothes, undoubtedly too Parisian.

In addition, you have to climb eight flights of stairs to get home most days because the elevator isn’t working and, worst of all, swallow your words, think less and keep your mouth shut. How to take pleasure in this island when it has already passed, too long ago, that state of rapture caused by fine sand beaches, salsa and old American cars? When did Cuba stop being a postcard? Suddenly, when my friends ask me why I made such an absurd choice, I can only tell them, “Love, of course, love!” But I feel, without admitting it, that a certain consternation is growing in me and I ask myself: Why did I have to get myself into such a mess?