In Cuba the Meaning Can Change

Yael Prinzant*

Photo: Chris Stackowicz

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 17 — October is the rainy season in Cuba – it’s been pouring on and off, and incredibly grey, since Saturday.  The day before yesterday Alfredo’s exasperated neighbor stepped out onto her balcony and shouted at the sky, “Guat! (what) Hasta cuando?” (until when?)

Later that night, I passed outside the Hotel Habana Libre.  Commenting on the water dripping from all of the recessed light fixtures, I heard one guy say to another, in accented English – “Look.  Only in Cuba.”  He and his friend laughed heartily.  So did I, and we started talking.  They are young Syrian diplomats, working for their embassy in Miramar.

Photo: Chris Stackowicz

A friend and I had dinner with the Syrian diplomats the other night.  One is studying Spanish here and told me that he had already used every Cuban curse word.  When I asked what he meant, he explained that it’s been difficult for people to understand his Arabic-accented Spanish.

He was scolded when his “malecon” (seawall) was mistaken for “maricon” (horrid slang for a gay man), pollo (chicken) for bollo (slang for pussy).  He also accidentally accused a store clerk of being “fresca” (meaning fresh or rude) when he meant to order a “refresco” (soft drink).  Perfect.

Come-ons Flirtation in the street are like the rain here – frequent and forceful, but brief.  Normally, they’re basic – “que bonita” (how pretty), “mira ella” (look at her), or, in Cuban English, “guer joo fron” (where you from?).

But yesterday in Old Havana, my friend and I heard the best one yet.

Instead of what we think should’ve been “I love you to pieces”, a man said to us, “I luv joo to pee pee.”  Seriously.  We’re still giggling about that one.

And last night, Alfredo and I cooked dinner at home… during the first blackout since I’ve been here. It only last about an hour and a half, pretty short by Cuban standards.  But cooking but tiny flashlight was a new adventure.  The food was still tasty.

Yael Prinzant

(*) This is the second of seven pieces by Yael Prizant. The author has been traveling to Cuba regularly since 2003. At home in Indiana, USA, she is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of Notre Dame. She has been translating the works of Cuban playwright Abel González Melo and hopes to translate more plays for production in English.

Part One