HAVANA TIMES — Birthdays can be either highly memorable or highly forgettable. Some can even be very painful, particularly when they coincide with the death of a friend or relative. Most of the time, however, one looks back on them with joy.
A short time ago, it was my birthday and a friend and colleague invited me to lunch. We agreed to meet up in the Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, a fairly busy place where used and old book sellers have set up camp.
When I got there, we chatted about different things, getting each other up to date on our lives. Then, we walked down Obispo to the entrance to Chinatown. There’s an Italian restaurant there called “Mimosa.” It is a very cozy place which stands out for its service, tastefully decorated in reddish tones and with small candlesticks on the tables. Generally speaking, it has a very relaxed atmosphere. The food is well prepared and the servings are large (such that eating more than two dishes is difficult).
We opted for an enormous mushroom, tomato and parmesan cheese pizza and a vegetable risotto. I practically devoured the food, for I had had an early and rather small breakfast.
I felt truly satisfied. Suddenly and unexpectedly, they turned out the lights and a recording of a birthday song began to play. This surprised me: a stranger was celebrating his or her birthday and chance had taken us to the same restaurant.
There was something nagging at me, however. I was afraid that the bill would be a bit high. There was also the mandatory tip. When they brought the bill, my friend was in the bathroom and I took a peek at it.
It hadn’t been a cheap meal. For the average Cuban, at least, it was no small expense. Her gift was something I cherished, something she was happily paying for, and I was thankful to her for it. Still, I felt a mixture of sadness and shame over the money she spent – we could have gone to the Museum of Fine Arts or the Chocolate Museum, more affordable places.
I don’t know whether this is the mark of poverty, feeling sorry for my compatriots, feelings that have been reflected in a mirror of poverty at many different points in my life, stemming from the certainty that they haven’t even been able to meet their most urgent needs. Still, I felt a bit embarrassed, particularly because I value this person’s friendship. Could it be “low-income” Cubans will never be normal people, that there is no chance of finding emotional balance in our country?
Hopefully I will soon be able to reciprocate with an invitation to dinner, one in which no one will care about the costs or restaurant bill, or the slim pockets of a Cuban who, at least, still has some dignity.