The Lesser Basilica / Yoani Sánchez

A friend tells me that when she feels overwhelmed by daily life she goes to Old Havana. She grabs her purse and heads off to some of the restored streets that recall Barcelona, where she has two sons who emigrated a decade ago. “I gaze at the bell towers and mansions to make myself believe I am no longer here,” she says, a little melancholic. But immediately she points out with a laugh, “Haven’t you noticed that even the street vendors in that area say ‘popcorn’ instead of ‘rositas de maíz’ and hawk ‘news’ instead of ‘periódicos’?” Many Havanans like her have found, in these newly reconstructed sites, a place for strolling, taking their children, sitting in the shade of a bougainvillea. What was, a few decades ago, a neighborhood in ruins, today is a true island of comfort and beauty, although thousands of its residents still carry water in buckets or live among the timbers propping up their roofs.

The day before yesterday, I went to this other city, cute and touristy with churches everywhere and cobblestone streets. I stayed for a couple of hours in one of its most distinguished sites: the San Francisco convent’s lesser basilica. A vaulted room where musical instruments sound as if they were playing inside our own heads. The place was full and at six on the dot Bach’s concert in E Major for violin and orchestra began to play. Then, the talented musicians of the Havana Chamber Orchestra played Mozart, and, to end, the Simple Symphony of Benjamin Britten. The best part of the evening was the presence of Cuban violinist Evelio Tieles, who had just arrived, full of energy, from Tarragona, Spain where he lives and creates.

When I returned from this journey to another dimension, my Yugoslav-model building seemed uglier and grayer. The shouts of people from the balconies sounded out of tune and instead of eighteenth century towers the view was dominated by the huge cast concrete water tank. I entered the elevator trying to preserve the last notes of the bass and cello, the brilliant baton of the orchestra conductor. I thought of my escapist friend and just then the door opened onto the 13th floor and an illegal vendor shouting “Eggs! Eeeeeeeeeggs!” and I knew I was back, back in my other Havana, so hard, so real, so suffocating.

20 September 2011