HAVANA TIMES, Dec 19 — It’s impossible to know exactly when you break the umbilical cord with Cuba. When you’re saying goodbye from the door through which so many others have left, leaving many teary-eyed people on the other side, one finds that the laceration started many years earlier. When this surfaced in my mind, like out of a golden mist, it didn’t seem so brutally simple.
An employee, who was reviewing the certifications of the paintings that I carried under my arm, looked at my ticket to Paris with envy. He admitted that he had ever traveled. I tried to smile and I walked away.
I mixed in with a group of French people, and among their blond heads I walked wondering if I would know how to find my seat, how to adjust my seat belt or tilt the chair to sleep. I wondered if I’d be able to find the bathroom, or whether I’d have to hold on for the whole nine hours.
But a miracle happened. One of the passengers, a Ugandan, had traveled to Cuba several times and was fluent in Spanish. He told me where to go and even helped me find my seat.
Through the window, I saw blue lights flashing by along the runway in the depth of the night. The plane begins to accelerate… How can I describe the instant when it finally comes, the takeoff, the vertigo, the lift off? It was a feeling similar to what I used to feel in rides at the fair, when one is turned and is elevated forcefully in space.
The height made my ears pop. The two seats next to me remained empty. Within a few minutes, apart from the darkness outside, the only alternative seemed to be the little television screen a few feet from my face. With my usual technological ineptitude, it took me a good while to find the off switch to get its light out of my eyes so I could go to sleep.
Awake, I tried to sleep, wide awake. Outside was the semi-darkness, and after that just a sea of ??clouds that seemed eternal. The hours dragged by until suddenly something became active, something in the atmosphere changed. I heard unintelligible murmurs around me. I sensed that we were arriving even before they made the announcement in French, English and in poor Spanish.
I lifted the plastic window cover: And yes, yes, down there! Those stretches of red roofs, just like I had seen in Exupery’s infinite tenderness. “It’s Europe,” I told myself, and I bathed my eyes in its ocher-colored forests, in the autumn light, so dim. And me, who had wrote in my novel — not suspecting that it would be published in Paris — one night when I saw a French movie, “What do the French know about color (their pain )…”
What about the other side
Why should I refer to my acts of Third World innocence in the huge Charles de Gaulle airport? Suffice it to say I didn’t know how to turn on the bathroom faucet; I got dizzy watching the parade of luggage while my bags came out on another conveyor belt. Outside, my friends Daniel and Mireille waited in anguish, fearful that some strict filament of Cuban horizontal gravity had prevented me from boarding the plane.
What a joy it was when we saw each other! After the hugs, we drove through Paris, which my eyes devoured – more bewildered than eager. In Levallois, I was disappointed with the first restaurant; the taste of the food was too strong, almost bitter.
Outside I was surprised by the incredible cleanliness of the streets, the flawless alignment of the trees, the rows of bicycles for rent, and the incredible silence. At night we walked along the edge of the Louvre, where strange blue sparks rose in the darkness and spun down to the ground.
“They’re South African,” my friends explained, “Those are toys that they make themselves, though they hardly get anything for them.”
I watched how the blue birds danced in the air in front of passersby, who didn’t stop – much less buy any of them.
The next day I went down into the metro station to learn how to put a ticket into the machine, pull it out in a hurry to push the metal barrier. My friend was hurrying me because the monster was roaring; it was going to escape. I didn’t know how to tell him that I wanted to stop, to wait for the next one.
There was a cellist standing on the platform with his bow passing over the strings. The notes rose into the air, into my chest and throat. I had to fight back the tears. This was the same music that I had mentioned in the novel that brought me to France. It was the music of Canon and Pachelbel.
The rhythm of the First World
But we weren’t in Cuba, in France time has an exact price, and you have to run. I was in a Paris station where I saw fire fighters on strike while my friend helped me find my train.
I went into the first-class coach. I was surprised by the cushioned seats with sober designs, the friendliness of the waitress; the landscape that shot by at 90 miles an hour, dissolving into reddish and even deeper-colored ocher, sepia and yellowish roofs… I was amazed by the employee who checked my ticket with a little flashlight, and the overwhelming silence broken only by the resonance in the tunnels.
At the Perrache station, two young women were waiting for me attentively to take me to the home of Olga and Januario, creators of the “Belles Latinas” Latin American literature festival. From their nice apartment, I looked out at a gently flowing river, one that seemed to come from another era.
At night, at the opening of the festival at the Opera Theater in Lyon, there was applause, greetings, requests for autographs… Then there was the car trip to the city of Saint Etienne, where I would stay a week thanks to an invitation from the town council. city arts council.
The following days there were schools, the beaming faces of the kids who wanted to learn more about Cuba (that paradise of intense sun and pristine beaches they had seen in tourism ads). They had read excerpts from my novel and asked for my autograph
By then, time was shooting by like the landscape, always tenuous through the window of a train, a streetcar, a bus (all of them half-empty, punctual, clean…) There was the city of Roanne, and my room at the Hotel Terminus, which I examined with the fascination of a child. It amused me to see that lights in the hallways and stairs would turn on when anyone would merely walk by.
There was the small town of Charlieu, with its medieval houses and few streets, as well as the joy of the students who already knew me through our e-mails.
Again, at the Opera House in Lyon, two actors read excerpts from my novel with intensity. I recognized my agonies and delusions within these French citizens, who were moved in that auditorium and made me cry in secret.
The lights came back on and the applause burst out. While some people came to congratulate me, I couldn’t stop thinking about the presentation that was made in Havana, in the Torre de Letras. I thought about how warm the Cuban public is, how different; there’s no spaces between you and them.
Then I was in another hotel, another trip, now to Poitiers, where there was another presentation shared at the university. At night I went around the city and was left breathless by its churches and handicraft shops. I found the menacing faces of the gargoyles on the cathedral chilling. I walked the twisted, old and mysterious streets, breathing in the moisture of both the river and my fatigue.
Later I caught the wrong train, but it too was heading to the Montparnasse station in Paris. My friend Daniel was waiting there but on another platform. A friendly employee who spoke Spanish was able to help me locate him using his cellphone.
I was back in Paris again, that time it was more tangible, cruder. There were radio interviews, the spectacle of the Eiffel Tower with its twinkling, like a giant-jewel-carousel in the middle of the night, like a joke on the hungry pigeons. There were the beggars who wrote “I’m hunger” on a card before sitting down to beg before the tide of pedestrians who walked on by, impassive.
I was there thanks to the festival, which paid for my travel expenses and lodging, while I got food thanks to the generosity of my friends. So when I walked by the beggars, I squeezed my empty hand shut inside my coat and I too walked on by.
I found myself again running, this time with the book’s translator. We were heading to the bookstore, where I was asked so many questions and was touched by the warmth of friends and strangers, the requests for autographs…
Then, in the cold that I could never get used to (it chilled my fingers), I went to meet a journalist from Le Monde who wrote an article on the Omni Group and my novel. The reflection of the gray sky on the window highlighted her frank smile. A crow on a pole that I went to record with my camera; I spoke to it and it responded with its funny caw.
On the next to the last day I was at the Louvre. A Gioconda besieged by cameras and too distant, the sadness mixed with exhaustion. The cold became increasingly intense as I walked along the Seine with the secretary of my publishing house.
I watched the parade of vendors of magazines and old books, sellers of souvenirs of the Eiffel Tower and those with no more to give. I smiled at a beggar who was dressed to fight off the dampness of the river; she was hugging her dog.
The identity of the sky
Even before saying goodbye to Mireille and Daniel at the gray airport, before boarding the plane with an almost infantile excitement, I had tried to call to my mind a dirty and broken Cuba so that I wouldn’t be surprised.
This time I sat next to people, but they didn’t speak Spanish or English. We would only share an occasional look and try to cooperate when moving around and making due in such a small space for nine long hours of flight. The inability to move, the insomnia and the monotonous vision of clouds almost gave me claustrophobia.
I turned on a cartoon on the mini-television screen but I was still bored. Again, I thought about Cuba: without electric trains, metros, trams or impeccable half-empty buses.
There would be no more breakfasts with fruit and chocolate bars, no soup with chestnuts, walnuts, raisins, hazelnuts or dates. I tried to remember my outlying neighborhood of Alamar, with its ugly buildings, its almost filthy streets, its hungry dogs.
Time seemed to stop. I took a few photos of the tide of clouds, changing my position over and over again. I got irritated, my knees hurt. I didn’t sleep for even a second, and in what seemed another eternity, but in reverse, suddenly the clouds changed. I saw the promised reddishness in the sky. I said to myself, “It’s Cuba, it’s the sky of Cuba; we’re going to land with the setting sun!”
How can I describe the feeling of those intense colors, the golden arches through which the plane enters? Those feelings were coming from me, from my chest, from my gut, along with tears that were struggling to get out.
I touched the person beside me and I pointed to the window so he could also see this wonder that I had never experienced. We were entering the Cuban sky in the full beauty of a sunset. Desperately I squeezed the button on my camera but on the screen read: “Battery dead.”
In French, English and confused Spanish they were announcing that we were about to land in Havana. I gave up trying to capture the moment with my camera and looked down at the ground. Something leapt, something irrepressible in me. I saw tiny trees, palms, power lines, “It’s a model, it’s a lie – it can’t be real!” I thought.
I followed a few white dots that were moving and I understood that it was a flock of birds. I looked with infinite tenderness at the spaces of land, streets, a bicycle on which someone was riding, there, so far away. I could see a car in a toy world…
Now I didn’t mind the tears coming out. When everyone got up, in the confusion of picking up their carry-on luggage, it bothered me that I didn’t know French. I couldn’t say to my seatmates in my childlike excitement: “I’m Cuban, this is my country…”
With full consciousness, I let the horizontal gravity pull me into the line in which I had to stand as the lethargic immigration clerk looked at my passport. It didn’t matter that when reviewing my paper that authorized my re-entry she reluctantly mumbled: “Welcome.”
Nor did it matter that I had to go through the long and humiliating luggage-check line “for Cubans only.” Outside were my son and husband, who waved at me frantically when the door opened and came running to hug me.
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