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Some Americans come back from London saying, “I’m hungry.” British food can inspire that response.

Some of us, recently, came back wanting more British food.

Some of us were standing in the international arrivals queue at Philadelphia Airport, lost in the memory of two British delicacies that got away.

Those would be the raspberry marshmallows served with the hot chocolate at Fortnum’s Lodge in Somerset House, and the coconut gelato served at Bertotti’s in Hammersmith.

What did you think we were talking about? Beef Wellington? Sunday Roast with Yorkshire Pudding?

That is so Downton Abbey.

lon15In any case, this culinary pining arose in the aftermath of my wife Fran and I spending the week after Christmas in London with our granddaughter Caroline, 14.

Caroline had both the raspberry marshmallows and the coconut gelato, proving what she has never hesitated to point out, that she’s smarter than I.

Or, as she put it, “What’s wrong with you? Pull it together!”

In truth, we three did not munch our way across London. We shadowed some of Harry Potter’s journey, visited the oldest bookstore anywhere and ushered in 2017 with midnight fireworks over the Thames. Did I mention we did it all in a new pair of Ugg boots?

IMG_0538Along the way, London had some fun messing with us. We’d been there almost the full week, for instance, before it rained. In London! So many brollies, so little precipitation.

We in turn left unfinished business, beyond the raspberry marshmallows and coconut gelato.

We failed to hop down and secure a stone from the track bed of the London Underground. We failed to liberate the ravens at the Tower of London.

In Britain like everywhere else, it seems, life’s to-do list only grows longer.

DAY ONE-and-TWO

Fran, Caroline and I take a car from Caroline’s home in Baltimore to Philadelphia International Airport, which turns out to be surprisingly uncrowded and easy to navigate, certainly in contrast to New York airports.

We’re taking your basic overnight flight: leave at 7:30 p.m., arrive at Heathrow at 7:30 a.m. after seven hours of flying and five hours of time change.

We hope to sleep for a while, so we’ve acquired seats in the front of the economy section. That way you don’t have another seat six inches in front of you, which is how economy seats are designed these days, at least until the airlines figure a way to cut it to four inches.

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American insomniac taking advantage of Delta’s in-flight entertainment options.

Our seats are also directly over the wing, where the noise makes it impossible for Caroline to sleep. She amuses herself through the night with videos. Fran sleeps fleetingly. I accept the burden of sleeping for all three of us.

We land at Heathrow and get welcome news. Darian Day, the lovely woman from whom we rented a flat, says we can arrive before the normal 4 p.m. check-in time. This relieves us of either having to walk around London for seven hours with our suitcases or selling them to a stranger with Caroline keeping the money.

Instead we linger at Heathrow for a spot of breakfast at Caffe Nero, which a sleepy Caroline quite likes, and a driver takes us to Shepherd’s Bush.

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Caroline and Fran at the flat, celebrating the fact that it’s 5:48 back in Baltimore.

The flat is clean, warm, comfortable, modest in size and just what we need: two bedrooms, one bath and a large room with a TV set at one end and a kitchen at the other. Technical footnote: I will be unable to figure out how to make the TV work. It won’t matter, since there’s only one brief moment all week when we think of turning it on.

We park our suitcases and head for what we think is the nearest Underground station, Hammersmith. That supposition will later spark significant drama, but for the moment certain members of our party are content with the discovery that the entrance to the Hammersmith station features a Starbucks. We stop there, not for the last time, to pick up beverages and sandwiches.

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Caroline at our neighborhood Starbucks. You don’t see one of these on every corner. Oh, wait. You do.

We ride to downtown London to find the Duck Tour, a popular franchised tourist attraction in cities that have a river. London has a river and we are tourists. It’s like it was meant to be.

Duck Tours use amphibious landing vehicles from World War II, outfitted for slightly more comfort than was afforded to soldiers heading out to storm the beach at Normandy. We confidently assume there will also be a lower mortality rate.

Duck Tour vehicles are painted bright yellow. You can’t miss them. Unless, like us, you don’t know where they are.

The London tour starts from a small street to which the website gives only vague directions. With me as the well-meaning and clueless leader, we wander toward where we think they are without making much progress.

At the initiative of Fran and Caroline, we stop two strangers – Women! Always asking for directions! – to see if they can point us to our intended address. They both act like they’ve been waiting all day for someone to ask. They pull out their phones, call in the GPS, and give us detailed directions with extensive pointing. The second fellow talks so long we begin to suspect he wants to come with us.

Unfortunately, none of their directions turn out to be accurate. We have now missed the tour for which we have tickets.

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One work in the Leake Street Tunnel. Being graffiti, it changes all the time.

The upside is that in our random wandering we find some interesting byways, notably the Leake Street Tunnel. That’s an abandoned underpass given over entirely to graffiti writers at the initiative of the famous Banksey. While it’s only a few hundred yards long, the artwork is striking.

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Rolling on a river.

We finally do find our Duck and snag the last three seats on a later trip.

Duck Tour vehicles have also been refitted to run on city streets, so we start with a 45-minute drive through London’s greatest hits: Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Parliament and other stately stone buildings that are large, impressive and old, often with famous people buried underneath.

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Caroline chilling.

The vehicles have canopies and open sides, though plastic sheets can be rolled down. As it is around 40 degrees (Fahrenheit), the ride is a bit chilly, especially when you finish the land portion and the vehicle plunges into the Thames to cruise for another half hour. Caroline mentions the temperature, a couple of times.

When we finish, Caroline steers us to Waterloo, the Underground station from which we will head back to the flat. She’s been in London for five minutes, we’ve been going there for years. Given my skill in guiding us to the Duck Tour, clearly someone needed to take charge.

Fran asks if we know where we’re going.

“Nana, get a grip,” replies Caroline.

While we are in Waterloo Station, we decide we will pick up the Travelcards that will enable us to breeze in and out of the Underground at will during our stay.

This sounds like a relatively simple process. Queue up at the Travel Office counter, show them a passport, hand over 32 pounds, 40 pence and go walkabout.

But wait. We learn the Travel Office really prefers new glossy photos.

But wait. If all you have is a passport, they can reluctantly Xerox that.

But wait. Five minutes later the apologetic clerk says the Xerox machine is broken. We’ll have to get our own glossy photo, which of course we don’t have. Who, unless your name is Kardashian, travels with glossy photos of themselves?

But wait. There’s a photo booth in the station. Leave this office, turn left, walk down, you can’t miss it.

But wait. Apparently you can, because we walk the length of Waterloo Station, which feels like walking to Liverpool, and we don’t see it. We look at every sign, every door. We walk back to the other end, wondering if we should have turned right. No luck.

But wait. We are finally pointed to a corridor that funnels people out of the station. There’s the photo booth. Two pounds for your photo, suitable for passports and Travelcards.

But wait. The machine only takes exact change, which we have not been in-country long enough to acquire. We pool the change we have and look for a snack stand where we can buy a bottle of water and get some change. We do. We prepare for our closeup.

davidtravelcard0001But wait. This turns out to be a smart photobooth, with lots and lots of rules that its microchips are determined to enforce. Your eyes must be at a certain angle to the camera. You can’t be wearing glasses. You must have a serious expression. No joke. It will not take your picture if you do not adhere to these standards. To thwart terrorists, apparently, everyone getting a passport must look like a terrorist.

We finally get our pictures. They would not be mistaken for high school yearbook photos unless you attended high school in maximum security prison. But we return to the Travel Office, put down our 32 pounds, 40 pence, and are free at last to use the Underground at our leisure.

traintrackIt’s on the Underground platform waiting for our train back to Hammersmith that Caroline decides she wants a stone from the trackbed.

Like train tracks everywhere, the British Underground rails are embedded in coarse stones, maybe an inch and a half in diameter. They mostly started out grey and have gradually become more black.

“I want one of those,” Caroline says, gauging the four-metre drop to the trackbed. “You can just take it and hop back up.”

She also notes that each track has four rails and wonders aloud which of those rails is electrified. Fortunately, we aren’t sure. That may be a factor, or perhaps not, in her decision to hold off on collecting this souvenir.

It’s also probably a good thing we’re not going to Stonehenge. Grab a souvenir stone there and your baggage overcharges could be brutal.

After getting back to Hammersmith, we stop for dinner at a neighborhood pub called The Grove. It has wood and high ceilings, traditional for British pubs. It also has heat, which is not as deeply ingrained a tradition, but is equally welcome after our cruise.

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Practically the British national dish, it is.

Caroline orders a hamburger. Both we and her parents have been telling her for weeks that no trip to London is complete without trying the fish and chips, but when we point them out on the menu, she makes it clear she would rather be dragged by a rope behind the Duck Tour boat than try fish and chips.

Back at the flat, Caroline successfully defuses a potential crisis by finding a way to keep her Snapstreaks alive.

A Snapstreak, Fran and I learn, is when you and your streak partner on Snapchat – who may be your best friend or someone you barely know – send each other a photo every day.

Caroline has several of these going with friends back in Baltimore. The problem in London is that she doesn’t have an Internet connection on her phone.

Did we say “problem”? Ha. Caroline takes my phone, punches a few keys, punches a few keys on her phone and voila, she’s just hitched a ride on my Internet connection.

Hey, it’s all magic to me. Soon her Snapstreaks stay alive.

“If my streaks ended, I would be very stressed,” says Caroline. “And very sad. You don’t want me to be sad, do you?”

DAY THREE

We stumble out of bed and walk toward Hammersmith station, which takes us past a discarded Christmas tree. Fran wonders why someone would throw out a tree so soon after Christmas. There is speculation its owners had a terrible row, decided to get a divorce and moved out. It’s the children and the trees that suffer most in these cases.

When we get to Hammersmith, we learn the District Line, which would be our most direct Underground route to central London, is out of service for a couple of days.

Now this isn’t a big deal. It’s not like we’re going to be rerouted through the White Cliffs of Dover. It also turns out that our alternate service, the Piccadilly Line, has a newer, different kind of car.

Specifically, there are no walls or partitions between cars. You board and you’re looking down the whole length of the train in either direction. It’s like a Montessori train. Everyone on the whole train could have a group hug.

This isn’t as game-changing for Britain as Brexit. It’s still pretty cool.

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Note signature Press-Ganey hat. On Caroline, not on Big Ben.

We leave the Underground and immediately walk past Big Ben, which we were told yesterday on the Duck Tour is about to go under wraps for three years while it gets some cleanup work done. Hey, some jewelers need that long to clean your watch.

Our real immediate destination is Westminster Abbey, where every British king and queen has been crowned for the last 900 years. Given the prominence of the joint, you’d think there might be a sign pointing to the entrance. Nope.

Then again, none of us is being coronated.

When we do get there, the crowd inside is large and feels larger because people are wearing winter coats.

Beyond the sheer majesty of the vaulted ceilings and stained glass, it’s fun to check out all the little nooks and side rooms where Middle Ages monarchs retreated to do whatever you did before Snapchat and Instagram.

We also run into worshippers, since they still hold church services here. But the sheer mass of tourists, broken up into rough clusters, often makes it feel more like a religious mall than a contemplative house of worship.

janeWhat would be really fascinating, unique and impossible would be to see this place empty. Bet it would really look majestic then.

We finish in the authors and poets section, noting that Jane Austen gets less space than several guys we never heard of. On the other hand, she will soon be on the 10-pound note and they will not.

Our next stop has somewhat less history than Westminster Abbey, though it’s easier to find the entrance. Choccywoccydoodah is a designer chocolate shop from which a friend of Caroline’s brought her a gift. Now Caroline would like to return the favor.

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Choccywoccydoodah.

Apparently Choccywoccydoodah is best known for its elaborate cakes, which are priced at an appropriate level for customers who founded either Google or Facebook. The smaller stuff is inventive and the place smells delicious, but since we don’t have time to knock over a convenience store and get the money to buy anything substantial, Caroline settles on a couple of small items. Like a bag of chocolate chips.

We next hop the tube to Kings Cross Station, home of Platform 9¾, where aspiring wizards catch the Hogwarts Express to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books.

lon3You either know that or you don’t. Caroline, having read all Harry Potter books between 10 and 20 times, is way beyond knowing it. Unfortunately, her own wizarding skills cannot make several hundred people disappear from the queue that is waiting to have their pictures taken entering Platform 9¾.

She consoles herself by popping into the Harry Potter gift shop adjacent to Platform 9¾. There is also a queue here and Fran is in the middle of a long sigh when Caroline says “I got this, Nana!” and we jump it.

Caroline will later note that this Harry Potter gift shop has subtly different merch than others, like scarves in different color shades. Whatever the subtleties, owning this shop is the equivalent of having the rights to a three-foot vein of platinum running the length of Kings Cross Station. Customers cannot produce their pounds and pence fast enough.

And by the way, we say this not to disparage Harry Potter geeks. Truth is, we’re all geeks about something.

Back to Kings Cross Station for a moment: It’s huge, with a classic cathedral ceiling. One side wall is painted to look like a very long full-scale row of tall buildings.

There’s also a food court on an upper level, to which we repair and have that classic British specialty, Mexican. As Kings Cross Station is open-air at several of its ends, the dining is semi-al fresco, which might be more charming in warmer weather.

magic3We polish off the burritos, leave the last of the guacamole and take a short tube ride to Euston, from whence we head for The Magic Circle.

The aptly named Magic Circle is a hangout for people who pull rabbits out of hats and saw their assistants in half. It’s been around since 1905 and its members over the years have included Houdini. Present membership includes Prince Charles.

Its home, on Stephenson Way, feels fittingly Dickensian. The street is dark and largely deserted, with a few lights and cobblestone paving.

The small Magic Circle sign is taken down except on the certain occasions – like Christmas week – when they open for public shows. When Caroline asks about the sign, the doorman takes it off and shows it to her.

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Admit it: When you think of His Royal Highness Prince Charles, you think, “What a card.”

We spend some time wandering through the downstairs museum, a trove of magic memorabilia, while magicians circulate doing card tricks. One magician also gives a brief talk on the Circle, during which he admits that while most aspiring members have to perform a 12-minute audition to be accepted, Prince Charles was voted in at the six-minute mark.

Imagine how fast Henry VIII would have been voted in.

The show itself is a mix of magic and standup comedy, which probably describes every magic show ever. That’s not a slight.

There’s a mind-reader who takes audience volunteers, a unicyclist who swallows swords and there’s Delores Deluxe. You have to wonder how Mr. and Mrs. Deluxe ever came up with a name like Delores. She does an almost wordless and most engaging act based on a misunderstanding of stage instructions involving a glass of red liquid.

They’re all entertaining, which may explain why the Christmas shows sell out every year, and it closes with the right headliner. Oscar Munoz, from that little-known part of Britain called Texas, is worth hunting down and seeing anywhere.

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Oscar Munoz.

It won’t do him any justice to describe this, but he has the best delivery ever of the line “I knooowww,” spoken with a smile and a figurative wink in a situation where he has anticipated how the audience will react to a trick.

We return to the flat. Fran goes to bed. Caroline and I try what looks to be a pretty ordinary supermarket roll with cheese baked on top. It turns out to taste really good. Caroline cuts up an apple to make a sandwich out of it. I ask her what kind of cheese this tastes like.

She thinks for a long minute and says, “White.”

DAY FOUR

We’re due to hit the Tower of London today and then stroll across the Millennium Bridge. That’s more walking than Fran wants to do, so we decide we will all go out to breakfast and then Fran will return to the flat while Caroline and I go see where all those people got their heads chopped off.

Just to be clear, that was done at the Tower of London, not the Millennium Bridge, though the bridge might have provided a more efficient way to dispose of the heads.

Breakfast, per Caroline’s urging with little resistance from the rest of us, is at Bertotti’s.

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Bertotti’s is kind of like a fisherman. It throws shiny stuff into the water – smoothies, gelato, designer coffee, pastries – and we fish come splashing up to chomp on it. Did we mention the free wifi? And Spider-man on the counter?

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Okay, maybe not the traditional “Full English” breakfast.

carolinebertFran orders something marginally sensible, like a croissant and tea. Caroline has coffee and a Nutella waffle with coconut gelato.

Yes, that coconut gelato. It looks really good.

I also have a Nutella waffle, which is a waffle criss-crossed with thick strands of Nutella. To show that I understand the food sensibility of today’s younger generation, I take a picture of it.

The picture is absolutely revolting. I clearly need training. I admit photographic defeat and devour the whole thing. Caroline finishes hers, too. I feel my first pang of regret at not trying the coconut gelato.

Fran returns to the flat while Caroline and I walk a few blocks to the other nearby Underground station, Goldhawk. I mention this because our choice of underground stations has suddenly taken on far greater philosophical implications than I could have imagined.

And what are those? Glad you asked.

If you turn right out of our flat, you are heading for the Goldhawk Road station. It’s a little dodgy late at night, but it’s close, less than a 10-minute walk.

If you turn left, you head for the Hammersmith station, which might be more like 17-20 minutes.

goldhawkIf you go to Goldhawk, however, you then have to take a short train hop to Hammersmith, because that’s where you catch all the trains to central London.

I argue that going to Goldhawk often will take longer because you have that extra wait-and-ride.

Caroline insists Goldhawk is faster even with the transfer.

In the more cosmic picture, I see this as a Socratic dialogue between the voice of age and experience, which says “life is full of waiting for trains and they always take longer than you think,” and the exasperated voice of youth and optimism, which says, “What’s wrong with you? What made you this way?”

In any event, as we wait at Goldhawk, Caroline suggests that this less-crowded station would offer an even better opportunity to hop down on the tracks and collect a stone.

The discussion remains theoretical.

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Historically, you want to be outside the Tower, not inside.

We make our way to the Tower of London, which looks quite spectacular on a sunny day, with the Thames glistening alongside.

We get to the entrance with only one unscheduled stop, when I miss a curb and topple to the ground. Once I have regained my feet and don’t seem to have broken anything, Caroline is free to laugh. She does so. She says it was a barrel roll. I can’t say, and no one may ever know for sure, because it may be the only mildly embarrassing public moment of the past 10 years that someone didn’t film on their phone and post on YouTube.

We follow the tour path through various Tower rooms, whose guests were not always there by choice, and stroll across the bucolic grassy lawn where Anne Boleyn and her head went their separate ways.

We stop in the gift shop, where Caroline picks up a book on how to greet the queen – Elizabeth II, not Anne Boleyn – and decides against buying a very small royal fruitcake for 13 pounds.

The lead story of our Tower visit, by which I mean Caroline’s lead story, comes at the ravens’ cages.

Ravens have always inhabited the Tower grounds, and legend has it that if the ravens ever leave, the kingdom will fall.

As if Teresa May doesn’t already face enough uncertainty.

At the moment it’s not a concern unless the ravens learn to pick locks, because all seven of them – the required six plus one substitute – are being kept in cages.

That’s a precautionary measure against Hardey, Thor, Odin, Gwyllum, Cedric, Hugine and Munin contracting avian flu, according to the signs.

When we arrive, a Beefeater is cleaning out their cages, which raises a small side question. Since the Beefeaters are elite royal troops who also protect the queen, you wonder what this one did to get bird-cage duty.

Back to the ravens, we see that they can hop around and fly up to some branches inside the cage. Caroline declares this is an outrage.

They should fly free, she says. Alas, her further investigation reveals that even if she could jimmy the locks and let them loose, it wouldn’t do them much good, because their wings have been clipped. Hopping and short flights are their only options.

Think chickens.

Caroline says this makes her very sad. We watch the ravens for a spell, but there will be no liberation for the Tower of London Seven. Nevermore.

From the Tower we head to the Millennium Bridge. On an Internet map it looks pretty close, and since you have to tell the truth on the Internet, I suggest we just walk down along the Thames.

Unfortunately, I’m wrong on every count. It’s not close and you can’t walk there, points Caroline soon picks up on. “Get it together,” she says. “Why are you doing this to me?”

We veer inland toward the Underground, not exactly sure where the next stop might be located until we see a sign that points down and says “To Subway.” We trot down a flight of stairs.

Talk about tourists.

The “subway” turns out to be an underpass. Only. At the bottom of those stairs you walk up to the other side of the street. That’s it. It’s a sub-way.

We eventually find the Underground station, though the stop near the Millennium Bridge doesn’t exactly deposit us on the span. We end up edging down a non-existent sidewalk along a motorway before we finally reach the bridge.

The bridge itself turns out to be quite pleasant. You get a nice view of everything along the river. Halfway across we run into a bride who keeps interrupting her wedding photo shoot to pose for selfies with random amused tourists.

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On Millennial Bridge, blackbirds flaunt the fact that unlike the Tower ravens, they fly free.

Caroline, it could be noted, has maxed out around this point on having her picture taken. Unfortunately for her, the old people with whom she is traveling own phones with 23,561 potential functions and the camera is one of the four they understand, so it’s become their happy place.

Speaking of phones, Fran texts from back at the flat that she’d like to listen to something while she’s reading, but she seems to recall we can’t work the TV.

I text back that this is correct, but that perhaps she could listen to New York’s public radio station, WNYC, on her phone.

wnycShe texts back a few minutes later to say thanks a lot for sending her to WNYC while they’re in the middle of a pledge drive. That’s really what she wanted to hear from back home, that for the next hour her $100 contribution would be matched.

Amid these minidramas we return to the flat, pick up Fran and head back downtown to meet our friends Imre and Jenny Lake.

The plan is dinner and the theater, where we will see Nice Fish with Mark Rylance. Because we would pay to see Mark Rylance read the disclaimers on a bottle of heartworm medicine, we are thrilled at this prospect despite knowing nothing about the play.

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Caroline in the theater district. Okay, and the tourist district.

En route to the restaurant, it’s Fran’s turn to take a fall, at a packed intersection. Unlike my earlier tumble, this one is painful, so we’re moving even more slowly as we arrive late for dinner.

When we sit down, the Lakes have ordered wine. Imre asks Caroline if she would like a glass. A moment of context here: Caroline is already as tall as either Fran or I.

Still, Caroline assumes Imre is making a joke, so she just sort of smiles. Which Imre takes to mean yes, sure, thank you.

The glass sits untouched for most of the meal before Imre asks if she doesn’t like it. She politely says er, no, she misunderstood earlier and doesn’t really drink wine yet.

No harm, no foul.

The rest of the meal is quite good, but either the waitress or the kitchen doesn’t quite pick up Imre’s signal that we have to get to a show. So the food arrives around the time they’re probably flickering the lobby lights in the theater. Caroline manages to eat most of her steak and we double-time it out the door.

We scurry over and get seated before the lights dim, which would suggest it was a happy ending except that then we see the play.

nicefishThe storyline, in brief: Rylance plays one of two buddies fishing on a Minnesota lake while they swap memories, random comments and non sequiturs about life.

I like it. That makes one of us. The other three grownups think it’s pretty awful. Caroline says she thinks it had some funny lines. She’s probably being polite.

We take the train back to Hammersmith and transfer for the short ride to Goldhawk, because it requires less walking to reach the flat. Caroline says it’s also faster. We make a quick stop at Starbucks.

DAY FIVE

We rise and walk directly to Hammersmith.

“Why does no one ever listen to me?” Caroline asks.

She is somewhat mollified when we stop at Starbucks for breakfast. After all, it’s been 10 hours since our last visit.

kinksShe is fully mollified when we arrive at bookstore row, along Piccadilly Street. But first we emerge from the Underground on Regent Street, an upscale shopping district lavishly draped in tasteful Christmas decorations. In 1966, Regent Street was incorporated into the Kinks’ hit “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.” This is not a factoid of much interest to Caroline, but it does remind us older folks that back in the ’60s, half the streets in London made their way into one pop song or another.

We head down Piccadilly to something that seems sadly to have become an anachronism in much of America: dozens of bookstores, the kind that still pedal ink on paper.

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Caspar Lee

In the first store, Caroline scores an autographed copy of a book by Caspar Lee. For those outside his target demo, he became famous on YouTube. Caroline is a fan.

For those who enjoy weird coincidences, we leave that bookstore and are walking along Piccadilly toward the next one when a bus pulls up with a huge promotional poster of Caspar Lee on the side.

Strange days indeed. We can’t find a sign for Westminster Abbey and we’ve got Caspar Lee on every lamppost.

hatchardsOur next bookstore stop is Hatchard, the oldest bookstore in the world. It opened in 1797, which is about the year where Caroline figures our understanding of technology is stuck.

Fran will start to call up some information on her phone. Caroline will roll her eyes and take it away.

“Nana, you really need help,” she says. “Pull it together.”

Caroline and Nana are fully compatible on the subject of bookstores. They would both be happy to live in one, as long as it had an electric blanket and whipped cream on the latte.

Caroline even has a set of bookstore guidelines. “If it has a good cover, it’s probably a good book,” she says, holding up a copy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. “How about this one?”

High Fidelity is a tough call. It does have a good cover. It’s also a great book. The catch: It relies heavily on appreciating the romance of working in a record store 30 years ago. Since there aren’t a lot of record stores any more, and Caroline doesn’t buy records, and most of the music references are to acts that were popular before she was born, she might not be the demo. She puts it back.

After the bookstores we make a quick pass through Piccadilly Circus, which everyone needs to see. As it turns out, the wide plaza that is normally teeming with jugglers, mimes, musicians and other feral artists has been commandeered for a cluster of tents that house a holiday market. Dozens of vendors are selling everything from Christmas jewelry to raclette, mostly at tourist prices.

Speaking of tourist prices, we stop for a slice of pizza – priced as if it were topped with gruyere rather than mozzarella – at a tiny shop on the edge of Piccadilly. Then we head off to the day’s main event, which is part I of The Cursed Child, the musical stage sequel to the Harry Potter books.

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Even to a couple of ordinary everyday muggles, this is an amazing production. Without going into spoilers, it shows us an older and sometimes frustrated Harry dealing with unfinished business alongside issues his children are facing in the wizard biz.

The stage effects are spectacular, and equally important, Caroline says they get the tone and spirit of the story right.

london30We’re seeing part II in the evening, so we stay in the neighborhood after the first part ends. First we walk down Charing Cross Road to Cass Art, a required stop for Fran in London, and she picks up some artist stuff while Caroline grabs a scratch pad, parks herself in front of a pencil display, and creates some fresh artwork of her own (right).

We then pop into Watkins Books on Cecil Court. It’s billed as a dealer in fantasy, but it’s more like mysticism. When there’s a tarot card reader sitting n the window, you’re not in Barnes & Noble any more, Toto.

We do not buy anything. Or get a reading.

Dinner is a few doors down at Lotus, an Indian restaurant. London has about 45,000 Indian restaurants, and this one turns out not to be bad though it does seem unusual for rice not to be included with the entrees.

Caroline has the chicken tikka masala, whose sauce lends itself nicely to being sopped up with naan.

Accordingly, we order two naans. I reach for a piece and they are both gone. Someone apparently picked up the old “make the naan disappear” trick at The Magic Circle.

Part II of The Cursed Child is as entertaining as the first. From deep inside Harry Potter world, Caroline approves – though she does note that in one scene where a wand duel broke out, the actors picked up the wrong wands.

We knew that.

We don’t leave the theater without an addendum. In the last scene – very very tiny spoiler here – some shredded paper winds up on the floor of the stage.

Caroline wants to walk down to the stage, which is ringed by ushers, and take a piece of that paper as a memento. We suggest they probably frown on that.

She says it’s only going to get swept up and thrown away, which is undoubtedly true. We still say we should join everyone else and simply file out.

“Who are you?” Caroline asks. “Why are you ruining my life?”

gryffHer chagrin is somewhat mitigated, it might be noted, because during intermission she had scored a Gryffindor scarf. Gryffindor, we know because she explained, is one of the four houses at Hogwarts. Its symbol is the lion and its signature traits are courage, chivalry and determination.

Leaving Hammersmith station for the walk home, we pass a busker. We’ve passed lots of buskers in and around the Underground and Caroline has set a standard. She will give 20 or 50 pence to anyone who is not singing Christmas songs, which she thinks should be retired immediately after Christmas. Even if they are good Christmas songs, which unfortunately are not the ones most buskers seem to sing.

quarter3The Hammersmith busker is singing something non-seasonal, so Caroline reaches into her wallet and tosses a coin in his bucket.

The moment she did so, she says as we walk back to the flat, she realized she had given him an American quarter. She is mortified.

“What good is that to him?” she says. “He’ll think I’m so mean.”

DAY SIX

london35It’s now New Year’s Eve and we’re moving slowly – perhaps because 2016 was such a wonderful year we don’t want to let it go.

Right.

At Caroline’s urging, we walk toward the Goldhawk station, only to find that Bertotti’s is closed on weekends. And thus 2016 delivers one final blow, the shattering of my coconut gelato dream.

Happily, when we get to Hammersmith, Starbucks is open. Of course Starbucks is open. If there were thermonuclear war, Starbucks would be right there at 6 a.m. the next morning, selling vente latte grandes supreme that glow in the dark.

We ride to Camden Town, where Jenny Lake meets us and drives us to the Camden Market, a great huge sprawling flea market, partly indoors and partly open air, that’s settled in alongside an old canal. It’s a place where you can pretty much get anything, most of it legal, and many of the merchants look like folks who came here because there aren’t many jobs left in the circus. Lots of tattoos.

It’s not dull. We pause to watch another round of card tricks while inhaling an entire United Nations of food aromas. Korean burritos, anyone?

If you’re on a budget in London, this is a better bet for lunch than, say, Piccadilly. In the larger picture, if you’re on a budget in London you’re in the wrong city.

lon24Just walking to the market along the canal is an adventure, because the water is lined with low-slung red canal boats. Some, people live in. Others are rented in warmer weather for rides. The owners, as one can imagine, don’t tend to be people who favor 9-to-5 jobs in corporate offices.

When we finish browsing the market, Jenny drives us back to their house for lunch. There’s shrimp in avocado, fish and potatoes with vegetables and pannettone. It’s all quite delicious. We do not spend a lot of time analyzing Nice Fish, beyond Fran, Imre and Jenny asking in mild amazement how I could possibly have liked anything about it except being in the same building with Mark Rylance.

We return to the flat for a brief rest before heading out to spend New Year’s Eve at Somerset House.

london25London sets off fireworks over the Thames to mark the arrival of the new year, and since literally millions of Londoners come out to see them, it’s important to stake out your turf.

The banks of the Thames are the closest spot. The problem is that you have to buy a ticket and arrive early to get a spot anywhere near the river. Then you stand for five or six hours, at the mercy of both the chilly riverside night air and how vigorously the people in your immediate vicinity are celebrating. Hint: If you invested heavily in beer futures earlier this afternoon, you stand to turn a handsome profit.

So we have opted for Somerset House, a large old building that houses the first-rate Courtauld Art Gallery and a variety of other institutions. It has a broad flat roof that overlooks the Thames.

It also has a large square courtyard in the center. During the holiday season it is flooded and frozen for ice skating.

We arrive at 7:30, when the gates open, and head for The Lodge at Fortnum and Mason, one of several restaurants where people can get a little food to help offset whatever they’re drinking. The Lodge will become quite popular as the evening progresses, but we’re there early enough to score a table right away.

The menu is small, but cheerful. For our purposes, it only needs one item.

“Cheese fondue!”, says Caroline, looking at the menu on the wall. “Cheese fondue! Cheese fondue! Cheese fondue! Cheese fondue!”

london9We order cheese fondue. First, however, she has the traditional fondue appetizer of hot chocolate with raspberry marshmallows.

Yes, those raspberry marshmallows.

Now a marshmallow ordinarily is a marshmallow. Tasty, spongy, sweet, perfect for s’mores. These marshmallows, which I know because Caroline lets me cut off a small sliver, are something else. If every marshmallow were as flavorful as this, marshmallows would have a whole different stature and reputation in the culinary world.

The fondue comes with potatoes and bread for dipping. Caroline asks the waitress if she could get a cut-up apple. The waitress notes that apples aren’t on the menu, but says she’ll see if she can round one up.

She does. We don’t ask from where.

We eat everything except the fondue stickers, linger a bit and repair to the heated tents that surround the ice rink. You can watch the skaters from there and at 10:30 Caroline and I join them.

london8Caroline is at a disadvantage here because the only available skates are hockey skates, and she’s a figure skater. She gamely puts them on and gives it a try. There is a learning curve, and it doesn’t help that they have just run the Zamboni over the ice, so there are the usual puddles of water.

She decides to practice in a small side enclosure where no Zamboni has ventured. I take a few turns around the main rink, softly lit by a large Christmas tree on one side and the glow of colored lights from the buildings on the other three. Gliding through the night air, it’s quite wonderful – a better ending than 2016 earned.

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The fireworks are interesting. There’s a lot of red and less of the other colors. The air is a little cloudy already, and the smoke makes some of the later displays seem fuzzy.

As they wind down, we fall in line with hundreds of thousands of other celebrants, figuring we’ll walk the three or so blocks back to our Underground station.

Silly us. We get to the first block and the Bobbies turn us around, saying no one can walk toward the river, even if that’s where their station is.

Instead, we are all redirected to several stations further down the line.

Rationally, this makes sense. There are way too many people here to be accommodated at any one station. Of course, you could also argue there are way too many people to send marching 10 or 12 blocks to other stations. Envision a massive flock of slightly tired and somewhat inebriated sheep.

When we reach an open station and board a train, our fellow riders include a group of young 20somethings in stylish New Year’s Eve party attire and even more stylish New Year’s Eve party attitude. They sing a round of songs as the train glides between stations, and the amazing part is that it feels like good clean fun, not like annoying drunks. When they reach their stop, they are clearly headed for round 2.0. Or 3.0.

If one wanted to make it a night of it, by which we mean all night,. one could do worse than follow this group, a point we suspect is not lost on Caroline.

Her group, however, heads back to the flat. Caroline has another cheese roll and apple sandwich and performs a few card tricks.

DAY SEVEN

makingofToday we head for the Harry Potter Experience, a trip that will once again separate serious fans from anyone who has been asleep since June 26, 1997, when the first Harry Potter book was published.

Speaking of potters, we might mention here that one of Caroline’s go-to phone pastimes on our Underground rides is an app that lets the user create pottery jars by changing shapes and colors on a spinning image.

After you’ve finished this virtual jar, you put it in a virtual auction where you find out how much virtual money it would be worth.

Okay, that won’t buy you much on Regent Street. But if you only need a virtual slice of pizza, you’re set.

london46Anyhow, it’s sprinkling today, the first rain that has fallen since we arrived. Considering we’re in London, as noted before, that’s a little like visiting the Gobi Desert and not seeing your first sand until the seventh day.

Caroline laments the rain as we walk toward Hammersmith instead of Goldhawk.

“Why does this always happen to me?” she says. “Why am I persecuted like this? I’m just a poor farmer trying to make a living.”

We take the train to Victoria Station, where we will rendezvous with the double-decker bus to the Warner Bros. studio where the Harry Potter movies were filmed.

Sadly, the windows are partly tinted and there’s also the rain, so we don’t get the real double-decker experience. Also, the first Harry Potter movie is supposed to play on the bus during the 75-minute ride, but the video player malfunctions and after a few minutes all we have is a frozen image of Hagrid.

Two minutes after our arrival, all that is forgotten.

london45We are funneled into the lobby of the studios, which include Harry memorabilia and another giant Christmas tree. Apparently no one has gotten a divorce here.

We’re then ushered into an auditorium where a guide gives us a short introduction, explaining that we will go through two large studio buildings. “Some people go through in 45 minutes,” she says. “Other people want 15 hours. I’m in the 15-hour group.” Sounds like she’s in the right job.

Then a pair of double doors opens and you’re in the dining hall at Hogwarts. It’s an instant transition and a magnificently impressive one.

The dining hall here is not unlike the dining hall at many real-life British manor estates, only – if possible – larger. It’s designed so student wizards sit at the long tables that run the length of the room on either side, while the faculty faces the room from a smaller elevated table at the far end.

The tables are set for a formal meal, with roasts, turkey, breads, vegetables, drinks and condiments. It doesn’t exactly look good enough to eat once you get up close, since it’s all plastic, but collectively it makes the illusion work, and it underscores the scope and detail of the Harry Potter productions.

That’s just the first set piece, of course, and for Caroline, who has almost memorized the series, it’s like walking through a house she’s already lived in. From the cupboard under the stairs to Diagon Alley, this is where the stories were brought to three-dimensional life.

It also constantly stirs the imagination, whether you’re a Potter fan or not. Who wouldn’t like to have a staircase that leads to a different place on Fridays?

lon23The HPE also reminds us that for all their dark moments, the Harry Potter movies were full of playful touches. There’s a whole exhibition and photo gallery on every dog who had a role in any of the films, including several who either had their footage cut or didn’t turn out to have great stage presence. One bloodhound didn’t like crowds, which would have been fine if he were sniffing his way through the moors, but the script put him on a city street.

Warner Bros. did not take a giant chunk of its production facility out of operation as a gesture of public charity, of course, and the Harry Potter Experience is monetized at regular strategic locations.

lon13Partway through, there’s a place where visitors can put on a witch’s cape and hat and be filmed sitting on a broomstick in front of a green screen. This is transferred to a DVD on which the visitor seems to be flying through a Harry Potter film.

It’s a cash register of an idea. It also personalizes the Experience, and it’s unlikely any of the several thousand people with whom we toured the joint this day felt even slightly inclined to ask for their 60-pound admission fee back.

Visitors get roughly three hours of studio time between arrival and departure. We spend a little more than two hours in the first studio building, and even then we practically need a crane and a winch to get Caroline out so she can score some time in the second one.

There’s a small cafeteria between the buildings, where some people pause to have lunch if they have the mistaken notion there is time for lunch. We do not. Caroline does, however, want a butterbeer, a favored drink in the wizard world that apparently does involve butter, but does not involve beer. I am tasked with standing in queue to get one while she and Fran head for the second building.

Outside that second building, we do a photo-op with some statues and a Harry Potter car while Caroline sips away at the butterbeer. Good stuff, she says.

The second building could easily sop up another couple of hours. In fact, just one part of the second building could do that: a cavernous room with a huge scale model of Hogwarts.

Okay, that sounds like something you might admire in passing. There’s no passing this thing. Entire real-life houses are not as large and detailed as this model, with lights and passageways and cliffs.

You almost expect to see Dumbledore, Hermione, Voldemort and the rest of the gang popping out. You also have great admiration for anyone who can navigate the place.

fireThis must have been incredible fun to build — a notion that applies to a lot of the stuff in this studio, right down to the small, very realistic-looking simulated fire into which visitors can safely stick their hands.

london43The second building also includes the creature shop, where the exotic land and flying wildlife of the Harry Potter films were created. No idea, apparently, was too fantastical to be considered.

We spend enough time with all this that we barely have a moment to browse the gift shop. Fortunately, Caroline knows exactly which of the 500 or so wands that she wants.

We’re not surprised. As Caroline reminds us, “You don’t find the wand. The wand finds you.”

When it’s time to leave, Caroline wants to know if we can take a later bus.

We could, if we were willing to run along beside it. Our seats are on this one.

So we hire six big strong men to drag Caroline out onto the bus. That’s an exaggeration. It may have been only five big strong men.

On the ride back, we sit next to a woman, her daughter and her daughter’s friend, all from Ohio. They’re on a Harry Potter trip that also included The Cursed Child, and as this suggests, they are serious fans. The daughter, who is engaged, half-jokingly asks her friend if she could register her wedding present requests at the Harry Potter gift shop.

The mother notes that because it was expensive to take this trip, they have been trying to save wedding money by, for instance, walking everywhere in London instead of taking the Underground.

No point in asking them about Goldhawk vs. Hammersmith.

They say the trip was totally worth it for them – though less so for a couple from Texas they met when they went to The Cursed Child.

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One little digit can make a really big difference in the ticket biz.

The Texas folks got up to the door, showed their tickets and were told terribly sorry, these tickets aren’t for 2016. They’re for 2017.

If any members of the party at that point were thinking of uttering some phrase like “It’s all good,” hopefully someone else waved a wand and turned them into toads.

On the other hand, next time they probably will remember their mother telling them to always remember two things:  “Put on clean underwear in case you’re in an accident, and always make sure your Harry Potter tickets are for the right year.”

We roll back into Victoria Station at around 5 o’clock. Since we skipped lunch, unless you count the butterbeer, we head for a food court with an Italian/pizza/salad buffet. No one’s going to rewrite the Michelin guide to include this place, but it’s perfectly fine. We leave not hungry any more, except perhaps to spend a little more time studying the Harry Potter dogs.

DAY EIGHT

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We leave the flat right where we found it.

As we pack for our return flight, Fran concentrates on making sure Caroline has everything packed. This turns out to be a potential miscalculation, because Caroline is fine and I’m the one who almost leaves all his shirts and pants in the closet. I thought the suitcase felt a little light.

“Get it together,” says Caroline. “Do I have to do everything for you?”

Our driver turns out to be the same fellow who picked us up. Since we’re now bonded, we chat en route to Heathrow.

He’s Indian, and moved to the U.K. about 25 years ago. He still has family in India, and goes back once or twice a year. He lives out near Heathrow, where he says it costs about half as much as it costs in London. There’s also very good authentic Indian food there, he says, though he adds that you can get good Indian food almost anywhere in London.

We wave goodbye when he drops us off, leaving him in traffic that looks as dense as the crowd by the Thames on New Year’s Eve. After we walk inside and check our suitcases, we see an indoor wall garden with lush green vines, some in flower, creeping to a high ceiling. The Brits may have a sketchy reputation in the culinary arena, but they sure do know how to grow plants.

Naturally we maneuver Caroline into one last photo-op with this garden wall. Naturally she is delighted.

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Caroline, exercising the chivalry embodied in the Gryffindor scarf.

heathThe rest of the journey is easy, just as Mr. Adventure promises.

We have brunch in a rather nice little French restaurant, Oriel Grande, then climb on a big Delta bird and soar to Philadelphia, from whence we are driven to Baltimore. I doze briefly, dreaming of marshmallows and gelato.

Fran, who will be returning to England solo this summer, is surprised at how much she enjoyed the Harry Potter immersion.

Caroline already knew she loved Harry Potter. She didn’t know how much she’d like the Underground. Or London. And even if she’s wrong about the travel time from Goldhawk, which remains unresolved because she will never concede, we old folks generally found it quite the pleasure to travel with someone who has insatiable curiosity and enthusiasm about everything. Okay, except fish and chips.

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Conquering London, phone in one hand and Starbucks in the other. There are moments when all things seem possible.

Our Man (and Woman) In Havana

 [This blog was written by David Hinckley after he and his wife Fran Wood visited Cuba in May 2016.]

I’m walking down the middle of Obispo Street in Havana when a smiling Cuban man with a guitar falls in alongside and says amigo, let me sing you a song about Che Guevara.

Without waiting for an answer, he’s strumming and singing. I understand only the final two words, which are “Che Guevara.”

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Ten or twelve stories of Che at La Plaza De La Revolucion.

I have a Twitter-depth knowledge of Che. He was a doctor, military strategist, guerrilla fighter and organizer who became a key strategist and ruthless commander in Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution. After their side won, in January 1959, Che hung around for the startup, got bored and left to help run another revolution in Bolivia, where the CIA found and killed him.

He was 39. Unlike Fidel, who’s turning 90 and has lost a few steps, Che will remain forever young and beautiful.

The song I heard may have been saying all that. Or it could have been celebrating Che’s policies as minister of industries. It could have been criticizing his putting stance. Or it could have been an ode to the ivory-billed woodpecker, which is officially extinct, but has on occasion said to have been heard in remote Cuban forests.

Point is, I don’t know. The singer, I’m pretty sure, figured as much. It didn’t matter. For 45 seconds he had provided a service, and now he extended his hand, hoping I would pay for it.

bobdylan
Bob Dylan, not found in Havana except on Charlotte’s T-shirt.

I didn’t. I told him I had no money, which was mostly a lie. Having just arrived in Cuba, I had nothing smaller than a bill for 10 CUCs (pronounced “kooks”), shorthand for the Cuban Convertible Pesos that are the currency used by tourists. That’s equivalent to about 10 U.S. dollars, which is more than I’m inclined to pay for a street song, though I would probably change my mind if Bob Dylan sidled up and sang “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

In the broader picture, this serenader begged a more interesting question about Che. Where exactly do the man and his revolution stand today in Cuba? Fifty-seven years after Fidel and his brother Raul launched a socialist state, is Che Guevara a cherished founding father or an easy catchword for street hustlers?

Two things can be true.

Like George Washington in the U.S., Che remains revered for lighting a candle of freedom, inspiring hope that the Cuban people could counter the inequities of the world while controlling their own lives and destiny.

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Che and Fidel for sale (alongside, at bottom, John Lennon).

His picture also sells a lot of refrigerator magnets and T-shirts.

Or, to phrase that larger question another way: With a cautious renewal of U.S. relations and various internal steps toward the loosening of state control, is the Cuba of Fidel and Che slowly re-embracing a socio-economic system they sought to eradicate?

I’m pretty sure spending a few days in Cuba doesn’t qualify me to answer that question. But it may qualify me to say it’s going to get answered, by people who may be much smarter than me. Or may not be, at which point Cuba will have to fall back on being merely beautiful, battered, fascinating and resilient.

DAY ONE 

Most of our group flies to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport on a Jet Blue charter flight from New York’s JFK. We are advised to arrive at the airport three hours before our noon flight and directed to the Cuba boarding area at one end of Terminal 5.

In a relatively short time our papers are checked at two desks. We provide our ticket, a visa and $25 per person, our exit fee from Cuba, which, yes, is payable before we enter. They take credit cards and the bilingual Cuban officials are polite and efficient. They assign our seats and weigh our bags. The allowance is 44 pounds, a limit against which any unusually heavy carry-ons count. On the return flight from Cuba, the limit will rise to 50 pounds and the carry-on isn’t weighed. Go figure.

Our security line is short. We pass through uneventfully and leave close to on-time. The plane is slightly less than full and the flight takes about three and a half hours – comfortable hours, since Jet Blue seats actually leave room for your legs. Fly almost any other airline these days – I’m thinking United, not to get too specific — and you get decent leg room only if you amputate both legs above the knees.

Our group, about 20-21 people, is organized through the Archive of Contemporary Music, a New York-based non-profit that has the modest goal of collecting every non-classical music recording released since World War II. Its collection has grown to about three million recordings, which also form the basis for a staggering reference library.

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Bob George.

 

Everyone on the trip has some connection to Bob George, who created the Archive, somehow made it work and runs it today. He’s well versed in world music and last year when he was involved with CubaDiscos, the island’s annual music festival, he came up with the idea of a Cuba music package. The CubaDiscos connection makes this officially a cultural/educational trip, which matters because the U.S. government still can get cranky about letting you go to Cuba if you say you only want to spend money and ogle 1957 Studebakers.

So you have to prove your cultural/educational intentions, however flimsy, in your visa application. Ours were mercifully arranged by Ed Steinberg, who worked with Bob to also set up most of the tour events and meals. Ed is a

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Ed Steinberg.

long-time music and art promoter, artist representative, show organizer, video pioneer and all-around connected guy. His stateside credits include producing Madonna’s first video, but it matters more for our purposes that he was once married to a Cuban woman, has a house in Cuba and like all fixers seems to know half the island.

 

Our group includes people who know a whole lot about music, including Cuban music. There are college professors, photographers, digital archive creators, graphic designers, a theater director, an author, an actor/writer who designs haunted houses, a drummer and Jeff, who is among other things a walking encyclopedia of neon.

We also have a famous person, Sigourney Weaver, and I can’t tell you how useful that turns out to be. By the time we’re finished here, there may not be a waiter, doorman or shop clerk in all of Havana who hasn’t asked her to pose for a picture with them. Her infinite patience, I’m pretty sure, is the reason no other member of the group had to spend time fielding even a single such request.

Fran and I are hitchhikers on the musical road trip. We just have our thumbs out, looking to see Cuba, as she puts it, “before Burger King gets there.”

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First cool car picture. A little dusty, but serious fins.

I think we do all embark with a sense that after a long stretch tucked in the world’s closet, Cuba is opening up fast. Americans today are two generations removed from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which in retrospect was not a good idea, and those several weeks in October 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to set off the Last World War. Today, while there are still Cuban exile families who will neither forget nor forgive the Castro brothers, I suspect Cuba to most Americans is less about tailgunners than tailfins. It feels benign and, partly because it’s been shrouded for so long, rather enticing.

American planes now fly there and American cruise ships now dock there, though not the largest ones. Havana harbor has a shallow draft and cannot be dredged because there’s a tunnel under it. Big resort outfits are mapping plans for casino complexes. Export/import warehouses on the Havana docks have been converted into tourist markets. Since President Obama gave Cuba his blessing and unofficial absolution with a visit in March, prices for tourist staples like hotel rooms and taxi rides have in some places doubled.

If Cuba today in some ways seems like an exotic time capsule, a lot of smart folks suspect it could feel different in a relatively few years.

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Second cool car.

What won’t disappear are the Chevy Bel Airs and Ford Fairlanes, because no one is stupid enough to eliminate one of the country’s main attractions. It would be like France dumping cheese and wine. If you’re Cuban and own, say, a 1956 Dodge Royal Lancer or Mercury Monterey, it’s good for your whole country that you keep it on the road where the tourists can see it. Car purists who grumble that it almost certainly doesn’t have its original engine are correct, of course. For most of us, that’s like complaining if Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” isn’t being played on an original 78 rpm disc. It misses the larger point of the moment, not to mention the more important point of the song.

 

In any case, many of the non-automotive arts of today’s Cuba aren’t so easily encased in amber, and now feels like a good time to get a sense of Cuba and the Cuban people, who frankly have had a rough couple of centuries.

The Spanish tried to kill them, the French used them to harvest sugar cane and the U.S. helped Fulgencio Batista turn Havana into an ATM for the rich and the Mob. After the Bay of Pigs invasion failed, America declared a suffocating trade embargo that Cuba survived mostly by becoming best pals with the Soviet Union.

Then in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia bailed overnight, leaving Cuba with almost no place to buy basic necessities or to sell its only major cash export, that sugar.

About all that’s been missing from Cuba’s treatment by the rest of the world is a plague of locusts. So you have to admit as you head for Cuba that if you run across a little suspicion, there would be reasons.

cuba110The first thing we encounter when we deplane onto the tarmac, however, is hot air so humid you could drink it. Fran’s hair, straightened yesterday in an act of futility that rivals Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, barely makes it into the terminal before the curling begins.

We quickly clear Cuban customs, which seem strangely casual – though not as casual as Athens, where on our last trip we could have been towing a howitzer and they would have waved us through.

We climb into a pair of vans for the half-hour trip to our hotel and quickly realize that 1) Cuban vehicles seem to have no tradition of shock absorbers, and 2) you don’t care, because if they’re going to prioritize automotive options, you want air conditioning to come first.

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Hotel Nacional.

We were originally booked into the Hotel Nacional, maybe the most famous hotel in Havana. Folks like Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra used to bunk there. On a more romantic note, organized crime would book it for business meetings.

Hotel Nacional offers a stately granite lobby and a spectacular view of the ocean. What it couldn’t guarantee us was hot water. This matters because if you plan to rack up more than 100 steps a day on your FitBit in Cuba, you will want to take showers.

So we were relocated to the Melia Habana, a clean, well-appointed modern hotel in the western Havana section of Vedado. As hotels go, you could transplant it to almost any major city in the world, from Amsterdam to Hong Kong, and not notice the difference. That’s not a bad thing. The staff is friendly and almost all bilingual.

The TVs in our rooms get CNN plus a modest selection of local and Spanish-language channels. We have mostly reliable hot water and water pressure. There’s a large outdoor pool and an indoor gym with a dozen machines – elliptical, exercise bikes, weights, etc. – more than half of which work. As hotel gyms go, that’s about average.

Most prized of all, there’s sporadic wi-fi. OMG! In general, Cuba is to Internet service what Greece is to responsible fiscal practices, but inside the hotel, if you’re willing to make a few tries, you can often connect to the world.

You know, there was a time in some of our lives when you’d go on vacation and the only way to talk to the folks back home was to send them a postcard. Seriously, dude, I’m not making that up.

fidelglove10001che0001In modern Cuba, postcards are a part of the past you can’t relive. Michel Perez-Oliva Perez, one of our first-rate hosts, explains that you can buy a postcard in Cuba, stamp it, drop it off at a post office and. if it’s addressed to the U.S., it will probably never be delivered. Call it collateral damage from the embargo.

They have some cool postcards, too, like Che with a putter and Fidel with a baseball glove.

In the hotel, we’re on the seventh of the Melia Habana’s nine floors. Our balcony overlooks the ocean, which is interesting for two immediate reasons.

One is that where you’d normally expect a beautiful tourist-seducing beach, what you see looks more like an obstacle course of mud, sticks and rocks. Someone needs to swap out that stuff for some sand, and it’s hard not to believe that will happen.

As relations between the U.S. and Cuba get taken out of the freezer, several major U.S. companies have queued up to create casinos and resorts, meaning some planner somewhere has got to be thinking beaches and very expensive hand-delivered drinks with little umbrellas in them.

That’s what Fran means by getting here before the return of corporate America, which was living large in Cuba during the Batista years. On the positive side, by that time there will probably be postcard delivery again.

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The second thing about the Havana ocean is a little unnerving. Across that whole great sweeping vista, there are no boats. Not on the shore, not on the horizon.

Officially, the reason is that boats pollute the water and Cuba wants to keep its waters clean, which is admirable. The unofficial reason, per Ed, Bob and others, is that Cubans who have boats are way too likely to pack a Cuban sandwich and head for Key West, 90 miles north.

We unpack and confirm that we have air-conditioning. We exchange some dollars for CUCs, a simple process at the hotel and doable at banks around town. What’s not doable is ATMs, which are scarce and won’t take cards issued by U.S. banks.

The exchange rate is one dollar for one CUC, minus the approximately 13% service charge. So your hundred dollars buys 87 CUCs. Look, Ma, a place that charges higher fees than Ticketmaster.

When you acquire Cuban money, we are correctly advised, be sure to get some small bills or coins. If you want to make small purchases, like a bottle of water or a souvenir, many of the merchants will tell you they have no change, so the price you pay for the item you want is the smallest bill you have.

cuba3cuc0001On the bright side, Americans who have grown up joking about three-dollar bills will be enchanted to find that there is a three-CUC note.

Armed with cash, our group piles into the vans for our first outing, which begins with a quick stop at Casa Miglis, a Swedish-Cuban bar on Lealtad. Turns out the Swedes have been making Cuba a regular vacation stop for years.

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Casa Miglis

We sit down and start introducing ourselves over drinks, which for most of the group is mojitos, which are to Cuban tourist drinking what beer is to Oktoberfest in Germany. This makes total sense, since mojitos are built from rum and sugar, and Cuba is an island that is famous for its rum and has way more sugar cane than it knows what to do with.

From Casa Miglis we rumble over to San Cristobal Paladar, San Raphael #469. Ed calls this the most famous restaurant in Havana, noting that the Obamas dined here in March, partly on the recommendation of Jay-Z and Beyonce, who dined here in 2013.

San Cristobal looks like one of those old New York or Hollywood show biz restaurants, its walls covered floor-

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San Cristobal.

to-high-ceilings with wonderful old sepia photos and paintings of Cuban stage and movie stars. It’s an enchanting collection, and not just because it’s sprinkled with non-Cubans like Mick Jagger and Spencer Tracy. No, what’s striking is how much these performers, the old jazz bands, dance teams, stage and movie stars, evoke their counterparts in America or Europe. Same era, same pictures, same timeless walls.

The Obamas both ordered steak here, a good choice unless you’re the cow. The lobster, which turns out to be a common and relatively cheap dish in Cuba, gets rave notices. Fran and I, unfortunately, order the lamb, which almost requires a blowtorch to cut. On the positive side, the Madeira sauce is wonderful.

0b90de12-1347-4473-aa5a-c3eaddac3010The meal is followed by an elaborate presentation of Cuban cigars, in the same wooden box from which we’re told Obama selected one. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that once you get a cigar, you are invited to immediately fire it up and enjoy it at the table.

I don’t think we’re in California any more, Toto.

I suppose when cigars are a signature export from an island that needs every export it can muster, there’s not going to be much sentiment to discourage smoking anywhere, and Cuba doesn’t.

After we finish dinner, some of us go back to the hotel to fall asleep. Others, and not just the young, head out to the clubs where music plays pretty much every night until very late.

DAY TWO

No one needs much convincing to start the day with the hotel’s breakfast buffet. It’s a well-done and familiar spread of scrambled eggs, meats, potatoes, fruit, breads, pastries and juices with a large corner for what Americans might consider cocktail hour appetizers. That includes several large wheels of cheese – bleu, parmesan and so on – with crackers. Maybe the Swedes like cheese.

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The lobby of the Partagas Cigar Factory.The rest of the building is classified.

We start the day by boarding the vans for a visit to the Partagas Cigar Factory, which is more interesting than it might sound.

It was a bank before the Revolution. The new regime decided it was better suited to roll cigars. Now it rolls about 25,000 a day, and the several in-house guides explain that while cigars you buy on the street are cheaper, these are the genuine Cubans.

Like many of Havana’s buildings, this one is several stories high with steep stairs. There’s a rotunda in the middle where you see the closest management could apparently get to cooling devices: a rickety array of air conditioners that seem to be about the same vintage as the American cars. Some seem to be working, some don’t. The place is hot.

A steady stream of visitors walks past the rooms where the cigars are packed and rolled. Inside, hundreds of workers sit in long rows, each behind a wooden desk. Some sort shredded piles of tobacco leaves into wrappers. Some roll. The final group cuts off the ends. It’s all done by hand.

The workers are young and old. Every day is apparently casual Friday at Partagas, and most are in tank tops or T-shirts, sensible attire given the temperature. A few workers have earphones. Some are smoking the product, including a somewhat large man who is 60 and has been at Partagas his whole working life.

The desks are painted in different colors, sometimes coded, sometimes seemingly random, and all faded. The whole room is a striking image, a slightly more modern and humane incarnation of those old Lower East Side factory photos. Alas, there will be no photos of Partagas, because cameras are not allowed. I’m not sure what part of cigar-making the competition isn’t supposed to know, but what happens at Partagas stays at Partagas.

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As we drive away we get our first look at Old Havana, or Havana Vieja, in daylight. It’s visually stunning, with architecture in a mix of Spanish, French and Colonial styles. The streets are narrow with overhanging balconies – think New Orleans – and the colors are primarily pastels. Pastels that have spent a lot of time in the tropical sun.

balconies2016-05-23-003-001It’s colors you couldn’t replicate, and the mix is remarkable, subtly different around each corner.

We get some help in absorbing all of this from our superb guide, Johanna Martinez Vera. You don’t need a guide to appreciate Havana, but without one you’re going to miss a lot of nuances. As we approach a building with Chinese lettering, for instance, Johanna notes that 1) this is Chinatown and 2) there are virtually no Chinese  here now.  Perhaps in meal situations where Americans order Chinese, Cubans order Swedish?

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The door store.

 

What we do start to see is a fascinating bit of embryonic capitalism. All over Havana, we will find, people who live in upper-floor apartments have turned their street-entrance doors into tiny shops.

If you have a door, you have a store.

As you can imagine, these enterprises may only cover 10 or 12 square feet. But there’s the proprietor, sitting on a step surrounded by shirts, shoes, pots and pans, Che posters or whatever. The merch is laid out on the lower steps, hung from the walls, tacked to the inside of the open door.

Nor is it only retail, Johanna tells us, that utilizes tiny spaces. Some offices aren’t much bigger, and while they don’t tend to be located in doorways, they may have no visible signs indicating what business they transact.

Unemployment in Cuba, Johanna explains to us, is low with an asterisk.

“Everyone who wants a job has one,” she says. “But sometimes that means we have secretaries to secretaries to secretaries.” It sounds a little like the old Soviet system of maintaining full employment by having a dozen people stationed to press the button for one elevator door.

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Students at work.

 

As we turn onto Obispo Street, the main shopping district in a city that really doesn’t have one, we see a tiny storefront that turns out to be a school. About 20 young pupils in neat red and white uniforms are diligently hunched over their desks, facing the rear wall and the teacher, as visitors peer in the windows. This school, like the airport, is named for Jose Marti, one of the intellectual inspirations for the revolution.

Havana sidewalks are narrow, and it’s not uncommon for several columns of pedestrians to spill into the street. One of the several challenges this creates is that Cuban women seem to love high heels, and many of the streets are uneven cobblestone, leaving the visitor to wonder why there isn’t a constant stack of toppled Cuban women. As we look into the school, a man muscles his way through the crowd with a five-foot pole on his shoulders, balancing a large fish on each end.

In a tree-filled park on one corner of Obispo, several men sell puppies. Dogs are a common sight in Havana, almost all mixed breeds and many with no apparent home. “They belong to no one,” Johanna tells us, but they aren’t without friends. Restaurants often put out leftovers for the strays and the government licenses them, providing shots and other basic care. Now that’s socialism.

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Instant street art. One CUC.

Nor is my Che serenader the only hustler on Obispo. Art students quickly sketch souvenir caricatures, for which they would like one CUC. Colorfully dressed Cuban women invite you to take a selfie of them kissing you, also for a CUC.

“They’re working,” says Johanna.

For lunch, we visit La Bodeguita Del Medio, Empredado 207. Fran and I, having learned our lamb lesson, go with shrimp and langostinos, a good choice. This is another place Ernest Hemingway used to frequent and in theory there should be proof of it, because everyone who eats here is invited to sign the wall.

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There’s probably a  joke here about their signature song.

Unfortunately, that means the wall is festooned with thousands of signatures from people who are probably perfectly nice, but whom, unlike Hemingway, you’ve never heard of.

Our upper-floor dining room is small and as we’re finishing, five musicians come in, break out their instruments and begin singing. Their opener, in case we were feeling homesick for something familiar and American, is “Stand By Me.” Then they sing a few Cuban numbers. It’s touristy and fun because it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

 

 

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On some corners there is a musical ensemble.

There isn’t quite a musical ensemble on every corner in Havana, but like New Orleans, it’s clearly a musical city. After lunch we stop at Clandestina, which sells Cuban-made clothes and crafts, just as the employees are celebrating the owner’s birthday by hiring a mariachi band to play in front of her shop.

This is a serious band. With some switching between songs, it includes three violins, two trumpets, a couple of guitars and percussion, as well as vocalists.

 

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Or sometimes they show up on commission. Note difference in performance attire.

Birthday Senorita loves it, and so do more than a hundred passersby who gather around to listen, clap, dance and sing along. Traffic stops for the duration.

Interestingly, all these random people seem to know the lyrics to every song – including Johanna, who explains that Mexico over the years has been a primary source for Cuban television programming, so almost every Cuban grows up knowing Mexican music and songs.

We make a quick stop next at the road not taken, the Hotel Nacional. It’s a stately old building, with a sloping walkway out back that leads to a veranda with a sweeping view of the Caribbean.

A quick refreshing dip, however, is problematic, because at the end of the walkway there’s a six-lane highway between you and that water. If the Mob wanted someone who had been staying in the hotel to sleep with the fishes, it took some serious hauling.

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One, two, three, many sunflowers.

Still, the view is lovely, which is presumably why the back lawn is being set up for a wedding. The theme is sunflowers, which also line the path to the ceremonial area and fill the water fountain.

The only challenge for the wedding photographer will be to shoot around the part of the wedding lawn that has the crumbling stone wall and the piles of broken concrete.

Pretty much everything in Cuba, we will gradually learn, is in some stage of repair.

We van from there to our first serious daytime music gig, a private session set up by Ed with jazz pianist Roberto Carcasses. Carcasses has played around the world. On this particular afternoon he’s playing in his living room.

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Roberto Carcasses.

He lives in a small, slightly cramped, but comfortable house in a residential neighborhood. Someone has packed about 20 chairs into a room with his piano and a small space behind him for drums, bass and a trumpet player. Two members of our group end up sitting with the band, though neither is invited to take a solo.

Carcasses talks a little about how music works in Cuba. You study it in school and when you complete your courses you can become a licensed musician. That means you’re paid to create music, whether you play every night or not. Music is your salaried job.

Carcasses’s style is nominally jazz, a natural adoption because his father was Afrocuban jazz pioneer Bobby Carcasses. Roberto explains that he doesn’t like playing in just one style, however, which is why he formed a group called Interactive that brings in musicians from multiple genres.

He stirred some controversy in 2013 when he was temporarily “banned from all cultural institutions” by the government for advocating direct presidential elections and asking that dissidents be free to speak.

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Vintage protest poster calling for release of the Cuban 5.

Ironically, he made those comments while he was joining other Cuban celebrities at a nationally televised rally supporting the Cuban Five, Cuban intelligence agents who were arrested in Miami in 1998 and sentenced to long prison terms.

Many Cubans felt they were railroaded and used as political examples. All five have now been released.

In any case, Carcasses doesn’t talk politics here. He plays three numbers with piano, drums and bass, then three more adding his famous trumpeter friend Alejandro Delgado.

The first number is slow jazz, the second a Cuban dance song written in the 1940s by Cachao. He also plays “Gypsy Rag,” which is just that, and a Delgado song, on which Alejandro naturally takes the lead. The last song is called “Seven,” because it’s played in unusual 7/4 time.

When he finishes, Carcasses adds that this rather spare ensemble isn’t his usual sound, and that his public show tonight will plunk him into the middle of a big band.

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Third cool car(s).

As we pull away from Carcasses’s house, it’s hard not to notice that across the street, two houses down, someone has tied up a horse, which is browsing on the very modest amount of grass growing by the curb.

Later that night, as some of us lay down our weary tunes, others go to Carcasses’s show. Great, great stuff, they will later say.

DAY THREE

Much of the group arrives late at breakfast, which isn’t a big problem in a country where the whole day seems to start at its leisure. There are raves all around for last night’s show, in which Carcasses was joined by what sounds like half the musicians in Cuba, including a flutist.

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Finca  Vigia on a clearer day.

We have no scheduled activities this morning, so it is suggested those who are interested might want to visit Finca Vigia, better known as the Hemingway House.

Finca Vigia lies on the outskirts of town and it’s now a museum, donated by the last of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives, Mary Welsh. The name means “lookout post,” and it was built by the Spanish to see who might be trying to sneak up on them.

The only problem with visiting there today is the weather. There’s intermittent rain, not a surprise in the tropics, and it turns out that when it rains they don’t open the windows at Finca Vigia.

This is a problem because they also don’t open the doors. Visitors to Finca Vigia don’t go inside. The only way to see it is to walk around the outside and peer through the windows.

Our caucus decides to take the chance they will be open. We pile into the van with Johanna, who turns out to be the most important part of this mission.

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House on Embassy Row.

You get there by driving down Embassy Row in Havana, an airy boulevard with a tree-lined median that’s just a few touchups away from standing with the most elegant section of any world capitol. Many of the homes here were once private houses, we’re told, before the Revolution appropriated them for things like schools, museums and embassies.

Many of the embassies, of course, bear the names of countries with which the U.S. hasn’t always had sleepovers.

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Beisbol.

Beyond Embassy Row we pass a derelict baseball stadium, which does not suggest baseball has fallen out of favor here. On the contrary, even though this is the off-season for the Cuban baseball leagues, we see uniformed players on fields all over town. The stadium is just another case of almost everything needing repair.

 

This drive also reinforces something you can take for granted after 20 minutes in Cuba, which is all those 1950s American cars.

cuba4You don’t see just a few at select tourist spots. You see them everywhere, in every line of traffic. Some are spit-shined and gleaming. Some seem to get treated just like the family car. Few still have the original factory colors and even fewer still have original hardware under the hood, with most of the engines converted to or replaced by diesel.

Whatever goes into the tank, they turn Havana into a rolling 24-hour car show, colorful sparkling

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Fourth and fifth cool cars.

gems lighting up an otherwise routine and forgettable array of old Russian Ladas, some nondescript Chinese numbers and a sprinkling of newer products like Kias.

It also reminds Americans that at one time even ordinary working-family cars had style and class. They had signatures. A tailfin, a gearshift, the angle of the hood. Every model, down to Nash Ramblers, had its own lines.

They also had little triangular windows between the windshield and the main windows on the driver’s and shotgun side. I called them “wings.” My wife called them “scuffers.” When I rule the world, that’s one of the things that’s coming back.

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Camilo Cienfuegoes (rear).

Anyhow, before we get to Hemingway’s place we stop at the Plaza De La Revolucion, a large, paved, open space. Think, um, parking lot.

It’s surrounded by tall buildings, two of which sport way-larger-than-life images of revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegoes and, who else, Che.

Much of the Cuban government operates in buildings around the Plaza, which also include the national library, museum, and a huge, not terribly stylish memorial to Jose Marti. Yeah, the airport and school guy. He died in 1895, so he didn’t march into Havana with Fidel, but his writings make him one of the theorists, architects and godfathers of Cuban independence.

Johanna notes that when there was a movement to have the U.S. annex Cuba in the 19th century, Marti helped defeat it. She notes that when Batista sought to assume power, he first tried to paint himself as a freedom-seeking Marti disciple. “When that failed,” she says, “he organized a military coup.”

Hey, everyone needs a Plan B.

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Sixth cool car. In Havana, somehow even the clunky old car your Dad would have driven has some style.

In any case, the Plaza is the 31st largest public square in the world, holding up to a million people. That was the estimate of the crowd there for Pope John Paul II in 1998 and Pope Francis in 2015. There have also been good-sized crowds over the years for speeches by Fidel. His longest one lasted for eight hours, which would have been a really long time to be standing on unshaded pavement.

We also are told on this drive that Havana was named for Habaguanex, the presumably phonetic spelling for one of the local Taíno chiefs the Spanish encountered when they started settling here after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the island in the early 16th century. Locals today, Johanna tells us, pronounce the city as “Abana,” with a “b” for our “v” and a silent “h.”

Soon after we leave the Plaza we motor through a less affluent area. Hitchhikers hold out bills to attract rides, a good strategy in a country where public transit tends to be random and car ownership remains a luxury.

Someone asks what will become of ramshackle buildings we see along the road and Johanna says nothing needs to become of them, since people live in them now. If it has something that could pass for a roof, she explains, it’s almost certainly occupied.

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Seventh cool car. Parked in the rain outside Ernie’s. Presumably not his.

There’s nothing ramshackle about Ernest’s place, a light yellow building that is indeed atop a lookout point.

The sky remains overcast on our arrival, however, which doesn’t bode well for the window opening. Several prior groups are wandering about, seemingly resigned to seeing only the outdoor features and, of course, the gift shop.

But we have something they don’t. Johanna. It turns out she knows the guy who pulls up the window shades. Who knew that would be such an important connection?

It is. He agrees to give us a viewing, and as he moves around the house, we form a moving cluster at the windows. “Peeping Tom tourism,” Sigourney muses. Her husband Jim ernie1Simpson says he envisions Hemingway telling Mary to shoo away all those people peering in his windows.

The house looks very writerly, with a touch of tropical casual. The front room is open, with a table for cocktails. Elsewhere, it’s filled with Hemingway’s stuff, including many shelves of books.

What’s hardest to miss are all the stuffed and mounted heads. It’s said Mussolini was so impressed he wanted to buy some of them. Whether Ernie sold Benito a few surplus antelopes or not, it’s clear that before he died, Hemingway made sure to take as much of the natural world with him as he could.

The letter opener on his desk is the saw-toothed spear from a marlin. He apparently cuba3c13didn’t even want to open his mail without a reminder of something he killed.

To be fair, the house does reflect that he had other things on his mind, one of which was Renata, a teenage Italian contessa whom Hemingway spent considerable time mentoring and tutoring.

Many of those tutorials took place in the third-floor room of a tower separate from the main house. We walk the steep stairs and peer into a room with lots of books and one chair that looks like a primitive lounger.

Mary, we are told, was forbidden to disturb Ernest when

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Good days for Ernest. :Less good for all other species.

he was tutoring Renata. Don’t want to break the kid’s, uh, concentration.

The grounds of Finca Vigia are equally stamped with Hemingway’s testosterone. There’s a pet cemetery, a nice boat called Pilar, a tennis court and a sign that marks where the cockfighting ring once was located. All that remains of that sporting arena is a picture, taken around 1938, of a beaming Ernest about to enjoy the action.

[Total aside: The general consensus, among those in this crowd and elsewhere, is that Hemingway was in many ways a jerk. Many also consider him, like some other jerks, a great writer. Whether you have any opinion on his work one way or another, find a copy of a slim 1968 paperback titled Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without.  Written by Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne, it’s 50 beautifully brief essays shredding the core reading list of almost every college English department. Moby Dick is here, and Beowolf, and Jane Eyre, and The Scarlet Letter and The Wasteland, and more. It wraps up with Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms, which it grinds into literary dust. Agree or not, Fifty Works is surgical, elegant and completely worth tracking down.] 

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Big old 1930s Caddy. Also presumably not Ernie’s.

After we finish peeping into Ernest’s home and rec room, we all sample a drink made with fruit and freshly ground sugar cane. Unlike most of the drinks we encounter here, it’s non-alcoholic. It’s also delicious.

Some of us visit the gift shop. Some of us admire a big old 1930s Cadillac that looks vaguely like a limo and turns out to be an early minibus. Jim muses how the smell of oil reminds you of your first car,

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Grinding sugar cane.

because everyone’s first car always burned oil.

By now we’re far enough behind schedule that we’ve blown off our scheduled lunch date. Happily, we still have Johanna, and naturally she knows someone: the owners of Ajiaco, Calle 92 #267.

We can get a quick lunch there, she says, so we wind our way through what feels like a residential neighborhood to the restaurant.

Quick it’s not. Delicious it is. It’s probably the best meal experience of the trip.

 

ajiacoseven0001It starts with mojitos, of course, and continues with pineapple. Then it moves to Ajiaco soup, which is root vegetables with corn, shredded beef and fish and is really really good.

The next course is little rounds of minced, marinated fish – sea bass, swordfish and octopus, which someone calls “the best octopus ever.” For some of us that’s a low bar, but it all gets quickly eaten.

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Soon you won’t be allowed to own a phone unless you use it to take pictures of your food. This food deserves it.

Next come yucca and tamales, which may sound like we’ve now eaten a full lunch, but in fact means we have just finished the warmup for the main courses, which are chicken, beef, lobster or paella.

Consensus is that each is delicious. Each also looks as if the portion had been sized for Henry VIII. Johanna orders the paella and if you put them both on scales, the paella would weigh more than she does.

Anyone going to Ajiaco – which anyone going to Havana should make a point of doing – should keep that in mind. Rule of thumb: Don’t eat before and no need to eat after.

Noting that no one cleaned his or her plate, the wait staff assures us leftovers do not get thrown away. What doesn’t feed people goes to the stray dogs and cats.

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Ajiaco’s barista throws major shade on Starbucks.

The staff then adds that dessert is coming. It’s marinon (fruit) cheesecake and will be a superb addendum to the rave reviews that dogs and cats all over Havana will soon be posting on TripAdvisor.

Toss in a musical coffee-preparation performance by a local woman in a colorful costume, and Ajiaco was the kind of place where you could have happily spent all day eating lunch. Which we almost did.

By the time we waddled out the door, we had also blown off our planned visit to the national art museum, Bellas Artes. So instead we headed for the next generation of its potential featured contributors: ISA, Le Universidad de la Artes. Though not before we whipped out the phones and took the mandatory mass selfie.

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Left to right, staff and Yumas. (Small joke that will be explained shortly.)

Before the Revolution, ISA was a high-end country club at which both Fidel and Che played golf. Now it’s a school for the visual arts, subdivided into areas for painters, sculptors and other aspiring creatives.

This suggests the same thing Roberto Carcasses explained yesterday: that Cuba values the arts. If you want to be an artist, and you show the talent, that can become your profession. If you finish school and qualify for a license, that will be what you do.

There are drawbacks. The biggest artist in Cuba will never make as much money as mid-level artists in other countries. There also can be unspoken limits on artistic expression, since a government that grants a license can take away a license.

Michel (me-SHELL) explains that artists often find ways to slip controversial material through a side door, expressing it in a way that audiences understand.

cuba74The students at ISA don’t seem concerned that they will not be able to express themselves. Late in the day, classes over, they circulate through the large space talking among themselves and sorting through their work.

The central area for painters is circular, so each has an individual pie-shaped area around the perimeter.

2016-05-19-002-010Most of the work is contemporary. Some of it is Warholesque, some draws on international popular culture, some is graphically violent. Almost none of it looks like a promotion for the Revolution or happy workers.

The artists here are not beginners. The University is several rungs up the ladder, and some students have shown their work in New York and Europe.

That kind of travel isn’t the tense issue you might expect. Artistic visas, good for three years, enable Cuban artists to travel back and forth to America for three years. There seems little hesitation about this arrangement, one of the artists says, because artists with families in Cuba are not considered serious flight risks.

Riding back from the University we make a quick run through Fusterlandia, a small Havana neighborhood where almost every surface is decorated in splashy, colorful mosaic tiles.

Jose Antonio Rodriguez Fuster, a Cuban, has been working in this neighborhood, which is sometimes called Cuba’s largest private arts space, for half a century. He’s a disciple of the late Antonin Gaudi, a Spaniard who pioneered the style, and block after block presents meticulous, whimsical and, okay, sometimes slightly garish creations.

No, you don’t have to look too hard to find a mosaic Che Guevara.

It’s a light lift and shouldn’t be missed on any trip to Havana.

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Yuma connection.

From there we head to a dinnertime concert by the band Lucas at Casa De Musica, but not before Ed, on the ride over, tells us some Cubans refer to Americans as “Yumas.”

It’s not derogatory, he says. It’s an aftereffect of the fact that when American movies came back to Cuba after the Revolution, one of the first was the reasonably famous Western 3:10 to Yuma. In translation, “Yuma” became a slang term for the characters, so some Cubans started referring to Americans as Yumas.

Personally, I was rooting for it to be a tribute to Nick Adams’s Johnny Yuma character in The Rebel. Oh, well.

And speaking of movies, Ed adds, most Cubans have seen way more American movies than a 57-year cultural embargo might suggest. Since the embargo means that America doesn’t acknowledge Cuban copyrights, he says, Cuba doesn’t acknowledge American copyrights. So American movies are shown on Cuban TV and others are widely available on bootleg DVDs.

Thus Alien and Avatar and 750,428 selfie requests for Sigourney Weaver.

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Lucas.

Anyhow, Casa de Musica turns out to be one of several venues that has no use for our CubaDiscos passes. But Ed talks us in, for a show that’s less a concert than a cheerful happy hour with a band, Lucas.

Probably 400 people are packed into a room that should hold maybe 250. But there’s a bar in the back, a DJ in a booth above it, tables in the middle, a stage at the front and a seemingly infinite amount of room to absorb standees on the perimeter. To the young after-work crowd, what’s the problem?

The band, a shifting ensemble built around a guitar, bass, drums and a trumpet, with additional musicians and vocalists, follows the same stylistic path as many other Cuban bands, which is to say, they’re locked into nothing. There’s pop, rock and jazz, with nothing anchoring them to any distinctly Cuban sound.

The fact there aren’t a lot of lines among genres in Cuban music is all to the good. Lucas offers a lot of dance rhythms, and while there isn’t much room to actually dance, people stand, bounce and sing along.

We finish with a late dinner at El Idilio, 351 Calle 15. We sit outdoors, the food is good, and of course there’s a round of mojitos.

I say “we finish.” I lie. Some of the group again is just getting started, with music late into the night.

Fran and I and a couple of others go for an adventure that’s less musical but measurably more dramatic, which is a cab ride back to the hotel.

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Our Moskvitch wasn’t quite as spiffy as this one, but close.

We are picked up by a blue Moskvitch, a Soviet car from the 1980s. The engine sounds like the inside of a ball bearing factory, and with the amount of power it now generates, we half expect the driver to punch his feet through the floorboard – which wouldn’t require much force – and walk the car like they used to do on The Flintstones.

When we arrive, which is enough of a miracle that it deserves a footnote at Lourdes, Fran asks the driver what year the car was made. He says, in his best English, “1847.” We don’t disbelieve him.

We do not foresee a day when Russian tourists will flock to Havana to swoon over vintage Soviet cars.

DAY FOUR 

As the group slowly gathers in the Melia lobby after breakfast, there is talk of last night’s club excursion, which led to a pickup band with a trombone and drums. More rave reviews.

Casual chat turns to visas, and the problems Cubans face in securing them. Even if Cuba will let you go, Johanna explains, other countries often have ceilings on the number of visitors they will accept.

Internally, you have a problem if you have relatives outside Cuba and not so many relatives inside. That makes it less likely you will return. She also says that the older you are, the easier it becomes to get a visa, because you’re perceived as increasingly less valuable.

Nice to know some perceptions are universal.

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Johanna.

Johanna, who wasn’t originally scheduled to work with our group, is a government-licensed guide. She’s in her early 30s and lives outside Havana with her parents and son. She speaks fluent English, down to the idioms, and while she has great affection for Cuba and the Revolution, she acknowledges the country’s struggles.

Together she and Michel, who performs most of the same guide functions even though he’s officially licensed only as a translator, make a good team and underscore why a guide is an excellent investment.

In this case, she’s versed in the sights, the culture and the life of Cuba, while he’s eager to talk about bigger social, economic and political issues, which are woven together and collectively will determine where Cuba goes during his lifetime.

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Michel.

Michel sees looming economic expansion as all to the good for Cubans and he’d like to be part of it – though his only official specific ambition, he says, is that his young daughter will one day become the first Cuban woman to play professional tennis.

In any event, our group faces a more immediate decision. The itinerary calls for a trip to Santa Maria Beach, said to be a lovely patch of Caribbean sand outside Havana. At the same time, there is grass-roots sentiment from another faction to go downtown and further explore Obispo Street.

Eventually the beach group separates to take one van while the self-described “shallow group” takes the other van to go shopping. Hey, we knew there would be mojitos and were hoping for an occasional Edsel. Now shopping, too?

cuba4c2
Obispo Street.

Obispo, like most streets in Havana, is long and narrow. It also has the same visual elements, like marvelous old buildings in pastel colors whose peeling and fading looks like distinguished lines of age in a great old face.

The shops are a striking mix. A few could have been

transplanted from Fifth Avenue, with large window-display photos of elegant models in high-end black-and-white designer outfits. There are also functional stores, like an optometry shop that can make you a new pair of glasses, relatively cheap, before your plane leaves to take you home.

A couple of blocks further, near the pocket park where they sell dogs, is a sort of flea market where vendors at

cuba63
Attention, Havana shoppers. And we mean it..

tables sell crafts and souvenirs. Don’t look for Faberge Eggs here, but much of the group finds inexpensive souvenirs, like colorful bead bracelets.

The store that wins hearts and minds, however, is Carranza Fan Store and Curiosities, 119 Obispo. That might sound like the heat has gotten to us, which in fact is exactly what has happened. After you’ve spent an hour baking on a Havana street, finding a store that sells something to create a breeze is like finding a feather bed in a field of cactus. The fact Carranza has been here for more than a century attests to someone having had a really really good idea.

Fans range in price from about 4 CUCs for a basic model to 25 and up for elaborate and colorful designs. There is also an in-house artist who for a modest charge can add additional designs or inscribe your fan.

You have no idea how much time a relatively small group can spend contemplating

2016-05-20-001-001
Charlotte.

and discussing fans until you’ve seen it. At least the men in this group had no idea.

So it comes as good and bad news when we discover one woman in the group has gone missing, apparently separated from the pack on an earlier street.

The men, many of whom just yesterday were reminded of the macho surge that Hemingway derived from hunting,  spill out into the streets to track down the lost maiden, even if it means absenting themselves from extended discussions on the relative merits of blue vs. red fans.

Alas, none of us finds her. She is located by Johanna, who is clearly relieved insofar as it is bad form for a guide to

cuba6c8
Debbie

lose one of the guided. This may explain why, on the next leg of our excursion, she starts several directives with “Now, children….,”

As we make our way toward lunch, Roxanne becomes the first to buy one of Havana’s most popular street drinks: a coconut with the top lopped off and the cool liquid inside.

We also pass through the Plaza de Catedral, which unsurprisingly is named for its showcase church. As we walk by, a noon wedding is just beginning. The bride and her escort are queued up outside the door, “Here Comes the Bride” begins to play and they disappear inside.

Our plans, at least our short-term plans, are more mundane. We walk a few doors to La Moneda Cubana, Calle Empredado 152, then up several steep flights of stairs to the roof, where we can catch an actual breeze.

catedral
Plaza de Catedral.

Rooftop dining is a good thing here for precisely that reason – breeze – though it also must be noted that the Cubans seem to love steep staircases on principle.

The food makes the climb worth it. Several members of our group order the octopus and proclaim it particularly tasty.

After lunch we reboard the van for our only out-of-town field trip, to Matanzas. Johanna tells us several times that we won’t really know Cuba until we’ve seen other parts of the island, but she also says Havana is the place to start and it’s already clear Havana will have no trouble filling a week.

We shoppers rendezvous with the beachgoers, who speak highly of the waters. They do not have fans, of course, but they appreciate what they have missed, and several will visit Carranza themselves before the trip is out.

Along the road to Matanzas, 56 miles east of Havana, seemingly homeless cows graze along the sides of the road, or, more improbably, on hillsides so steep you wonder if these cows trained on the balance beam.

Johanna explains on the drive that Matanzas means “massacre” or “slaughter,” which isn’t terribly romantic. It is, however, the rare case where the victims weren’t the natives, but Spanish soldiers who were looking to evict them.

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NInth cool car, on 1/17th of Matanzas’s bridges.

The town itself, the capitol of Matanzas province, is a horseshoe wrapped around a bay. Because it has 17 bridges, it’s known as the City of Bridges.

In the 19th century, Matanzas was sugar central in Cuba, producing almost half the country’s crop. On a less noble note, much of that sugar was harvested by slaves, who by the mid-19th century comprised more than half of Matanzas’s population.

Today Matanzas feels more like your basic small city, with government buildings, a fire department, offices, shops and a lot of people milling around the streets, many on bicycles. Several rowing shells glide under one of the bridges.

cuba58Up a side street, at the Asociacion Provincial, a small neat sign says Ernesto Guevara once lived here.

Our primary purpose for visiting Matanzas is musical. It is the home of Los Munequitos de Matanzas, a song/dance/performance group that originally formed on Oct. 9, 1952, as Grupo Guaguancó Matancero, seven young local men brought together by their fondness for the rumba.

The B side of their first record – anyone under 30 may now ask Siri, “What’s a record?” – was a novelty number called “Los Munequitos,” which roughly translates to “The Newspaper Comic Strip Characters.”

los-munIt became such a hit, and was so frequently requested by audiences, that the group adopted it as their bemused name.

Seven generations of performers have now passed through Los Munequitos, which has had a rolling membership. But the musical mission has remained unchanged. Where a group like the Buena Vista Social Club has popularized the more commercial side of Cuban music, Los Munequitos will proudly tell you they have los-mun-2maintained the traditions.

We are at their home base in Matanzas, a dance hall with a high ceiling and a long balcony along one wall. The plaster walls are a very pale pink, the balcony exterior a pale blue faux granite. The walls are decorated with large sepia blowup photos of Munequitos past. They’re marvelously evocative, a timeless vision of pure style.

Members of the group assemble on the stage

cuba57
Los Munequitos present, future and past.

and first recount some history. There are three styles of rumba – yambu, guaguanco and Columbia – and judging by Los Munequitos, an infinite variety of drum and percussion nuances with which to explore them.

They play songs as if they are telling stories, the instruments talking to each other as the action intensifies and we accelerate to the end.

Vocalists and dancers weave in and out. For one number an older dancer trades riffs with a girl who is probably about 7. She has been sitting on the side with the indifference of her age until she is called on stage, at which point all her lights go on and she dazzles the room.

After they’re warmed up, Los Munequitos summons our group to come dance with them as the drums slowly accelerate the rhythm. It’s not exactly professional choreography, but it’s happy chaos, and it gives a couple of group members a chance to show off their legitimate skills. Roxanne, who was a professional dancer, stands out here, as does Johnny, a tall fellow who happens to be a drummer himself and has been luxuriating in all the drums we’ve been seeing here. You can see him in the Brian Wilson movie Love and Mercy, playing iconic session drummer Hal Blaine.

Five numbers last about 45 minutes and leave everyone sweating more than usual as we mingle and chat with Los Munequitos.

I suggest to the older man who was dancing with the young girl that I see some kinship in Los Munequitos to classic tap dancing steps like Over The Top and In the Trenches.

Michel translates my comment to him. He frowns and replies. Michel says he doesn’t think of this as tap dancing. His body language says he considers Los Munequitos more sophisticated.

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Commuting in Matanzas.

Whatever that nuance, Los Munequitos clearly still considers itself the municipal house band for Matanzas, and the performance hall feels almost like a community center where passersby wander in. One man brings his son, who looks to be about 6 and wears a Chicago Bulls cap.

We eventually head back to Havana and wrap up our pre-midnight ramble at El Bukan Calle, 110 E/127 y 129 Playa. It’s a first-class place, and how often on any menu anywhere do you see swordfish stuffed with bacon and cheese? Is that even their natural diet in the wild?

DAY FIVE

We head out toward Old Havana, which misleadingly suggests there is some sort of organized New Havana somewhere else. While there’s plenty of construction in progress, and our hotel has a newness to it, most of Havana remains wonderfully old.

It’s also misleading to think that translates to shabby chic. Old looks right here. It fits. You don’t get the sense that building construction and design is a race to some hip new architectural cutting edge. .

When you walk down the streets of Beverly Hills, you want to stop half the people you pass and say, “Stop. No more facelifts. Just stop.”

havanafrontfour0001You don’t want the day to come in Havana when you have to say that to the buildings.

Our drive now takes us through a moderately upscale area where Raul and Fidel have houses. Of course, they have houses almost everywhere in Cuba, because they wisely don’t stay in one place for too long.

Before the Revolution, Michel explains, this area was occupied by Cuba’s large middle class. After the Revolution, there was some appropriation.

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Upper middle class home in the old days.

“The people who owned these homes could still live in Cuba,” Michel explains. “But their old home might be the Chinese embassy.”

Ah, the Chinese. We pass a tree-lined area that looks like a modest-sized amusement park. Which it is, Michel says. Sort of. It was once the Coney Island of Cuba. “Then it closed and the Chinese bought it,” he says. “But only two attractions worked. It was like a ghost town for kids.”

After the Soviets pulled their vanishing act in 1991, the Cubans hoped the Chinese might pick up some of the slack, or at least the sugar. It didn’t really happen. It was 2005, Michel recalls, before a deal was cut even to import Chinese cars.

Not that he thinks there should have been any rush.

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Or you could buy three old American cars (slightly more expensive).

“You can buy a Chinese car now,” he says. “You just need to buy three more for parts.”

What most Cubans did not do when outside events like the U.S. embargo and the Soviet pullout waterboarded the Cuban economy, Michel says, is blame the Castro brothers.

“Fidel charmed the people,” he says. “My grandmother always liked him. My grandfather, who was more political, didn’t like Batista.”

Today, he says, the government is slowly loosening some of its control. A few years ago, Raul Castro privatized hundreds of thousands of jobs. Three years ago the government launched an experiment wherein some business owners who previously had to clear things like hiring with the government were granted more freedom to do it on their own.

A major step that could come in the future, Michel says, would be to allow European banks to operate in Cuba. Investment here has long been made riskier, or at least more difficult, because money must be kept in Cuban banks, which means access to that money requires the approval of the Cuban government. European banks could provide on-demand access, which would make investment more attractive.

None of our group is planning on buying a building today. We’re just browsing, and our browsing takes us to the Yoruba Society, a Santeria museum that features images of Afro-Cuban saint-gods. Alas, all that’s open when we arrive is the gift shop, so we decamp to a site that’s sacred in a different way.

cuba2c1El Floridita, maybe the most popular tourist bar in Havana, claims to be the place where the daiquiri was invented. Lest anyone miss the connection, a towering  daiquiri glass is parked by the entrance.

The other defining historical feature of El Floridita is that Hemingway frequented the place when he wasn’t writing, tutoring Renata or shooting something. That’s why one end of the bar has a life-sized bronze-tone sculpture of Hemingway sitting on a stool. Bronze Ernest is also right in front of a picture of Ernest chatting with Fidel. A photo-op with Ernest is free. The daiquiris are not.

Our group declares them worth the price, however, and that’s nothing compared to the value of this El Floridita visit for the young man at whose table Sigourney Weaver briefly sits down.

Having his drink with a friend, he seems dimly aware someone just sat at his table. He casually glances up and in that split second you can see carbon arc lights go off in his head. His eyes widen and his mouth opens with no sound coming out.

Fortunately for him, basic 2016 survival instinct kicks in and he whips out his phone to snap a picture before the moment passes. The bronze Hemingway will stand up and leave the El Floridita bar before this senor will stop showing that picture to his friends.

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The El Floridita band.

The real Hemingway, assuming he once considered El Floridita his neighborhood bar – truth is, he probably sampled most of the bars in Havana at some point – would find it less intimate today. It’s clean and pleasant, which in most cases is what you want in a bar. It’s also a small industry.

 

On the opposite side of the front door from the tall daiquiri glass, a musical quintet sings easy-listening tropical songs. Guitar, violin, maracas, drums, standup bass. It’s pleasant. To Bronze Ernest’s presumed chagrin, none of the songs reference the Spanish Civil War. After a couple of songs the band circulates, selling their CDs.

For lunch we hop over to the docks, the center of Cuba’s import/export trade back when there was any.

A large former warehouse has been converted to a large dining space, succinctly called Antiguos Almacen do Madera y Tabaco, Ave del Puerto Avenida Puerto y San Pedro.

tracksThe inside, being an old metal building, is airy but noisy. Everything you say ricochets back a second or two later. The acoustics are better outside, where we take our seats. It’s cooler and since service is casual, to put it politely, there’s time to wander around.

Alongside the building, mostly paved over though still visible, are the tracks on which railroad cars rode up to the water’s edge to load and unload. Clearly no one expects they will roll again any time soon.

The docks themselves, however, are back in action receiving those cruise ships, and they’ve been repurposed to make tourists feel right at home.

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13th cool car (no, we didn’t lose count).

Beside our restaurant, there’s a parking lot full of 1950s cars honking to take you for a spin. An hour riding around Havana in that old Mercury or DeSoto runs around 25-30 CUCs, convertibles a little more than sedans.

Right next door another large former warehouse has been converted to what’s called a craft market, nominally selling native crafts.

That’s true if native crafts to you means row after row of booths selling Che T-shirts (10-12 CUCs), Che hats (3-5 CUCs) and homemade paintings of Fidel, interspersed with photos of Derek Jeter and Charlie Chaplin.

In other words, it’s a full-service Cuba souvenir market, perfect for that last-minute gift shopping before you get back on the ship.

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Keeping the faith, and the CUCs.

If you leave Cuba without some memento of Che, you weren’t trying. (Full disclosure: Fran has the leather embossed purse. I have the T-shirt.)

Lunch at Antiguos is very good, by the way. You can’t miss with the chicken.

Later in the afternoon we leave the tourist path for a visit, arranged by Ed, to the home of Cuba’s best-known female spoken word artist, Telmary Diaz, known in the biz as Telmary.

She doesn’t live in a mansion, just a nice house where about 16 of us sit around the perimeter of the living room and nosh on sweet Cuban snacks provided by the mother of one of Telmary’s friends.

The biggest suggestion of Telmary’s success may be the fact her living room is air-conditioned. She spent some time in Canada, she tells us, because Cuba was 2016-05-21-002-001too hot. Then she came back, partly because Canada was too cold.

Too bad there isn’t some place between Cuba and Canada.

But Telmary talks less about climate control than her musical path. That began around 1999, she tells us in well-turned English, when she was a teenager and decided to become a rapper, “which was very unusual for a female at the time.”

Her father thought so, too. He told her to become a doctor or a lawyer.

She declined, sliding from journalism over into poetry and rapping. “I wanted to bring to Cuban hip-hop,” she says, “some of the ways of improvisation we have in our culture.”

She became known for fusing her lyrics with a wide variety of musical styles. Her live shows are eagerly awaited, her albums have been hits and she has won several major awards.

But she says being a successful artist in a country where the government licenses artists isn’t quite like being a successful artist in other places. The fame is there, the fortune is not.

telmary2“In Cuba,” she says, “fame is not that important because you don’t have money.”

She’s not the first successful musician not to get rich, of course, and she notes that in Cuba like elsewhere, “almost no one” makes money from album sales any more.

Still, there are peculiarities in Cuba. She says she sometimes agrees to play shows she probably won’t be able to make, because “I have to lend my name to it for it to happen at all, since the government licenses it.”

That’s part of the reason, she suggests, that she went exploring. She went to Spain and didn’t like it. Didn’t much care for Europe, in fact. When her boyfriend, a Jamaican drummer, decided to settle in Canada, she went along.

“Canada was so good and so different,” she says. “So much freedom.”

But.

“But there was no hip-hop movement there,” she says. “When I was in Canada and said I was a musician, people would say, ‘But what do you do for a living?’”

There were also other incentives to return to Cuba. Like the average temperature from November to March. Or 3-year-old. Or fights that need fighting.

“In Cuba, you can have six families living in one house,” she says. “And the men let the women do all the work. I fight against that.”

So there are tradeoffs.

“Sometimes in Cuba you can get blacklisted for leaving the country,” she says. ”Because it’s as if you’re betraying the country. I think that’s trying to change. A lot of things will change after Raul.”

For those keeping score at home, Raul became president when Fidel stepped down in 2008. In 2013 he was re-elected to another five-year term and announced he would not seek reelection in 2018, when he will be 87.

It is widely expected that after 59 years under the two Castros, Cuba in 2018 will elect a new generation of leaders. For starters, it would be almost impossible not to elect someone younger.

At Ed’s urging, Telmary finishes with a performance number. She can rap in English, she says, “but I don’t feel I can improvise as I do in Spanish. I’m not as comfortable.”

She does the number, a capella, in Spanish.

DAY SIX

At a club last night, Jim says, the band played for three straight hours with a flutist who did things he had never seen before. Totally amazing, he says.

And he sleeps when?

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Tamayo.

2016-05-22-005-021This morning we cash in on Ed’s connections to Cuban visual artists, the first of whom is Tamayo.

His studio is on the second floor of his home, and when you reach the top of the stairs, you pass a baby carriage/stroller that has been refitted as an army tank, in full camo.

It gets even more interesting from there.

Most of Tamayo’s paintings and prints are rooted in popular culture, American and Cuban. There’s Coca-Cola, Marilyn Monroe and Al Capone. A large poster has a startled Superman looking over his shoulder to see Che emblazoned on his cape.

But a huge chunk of Tamayo’s work revolves around baseball players, collectively reflecting his affection for the sport, its history and many of its most important practitioners.

[Fair warning: If ramblings about baseball makes your head crash forward into your oatmeal, skip the next 18 paragraphs.] 

We’re not talking Babe Ruth here. We’re talking players in the Cuban leagues and the Negro leagues, the ones who played the game just as well for little money and less fame, except in places like Cuba, Mexico and the “colored” sections of major U.S. cities.

Tamayo spotlights Oscar Charleston, Willie Wells, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearns, Raymond Brown and Mule Suttles, many of whom picked up a few dollars in the U.S. off-season by playing for Cuban teams like the Leopardos de Santa Clara in the 1920s.

cuba28All you need to see is Satchel Paige in a Superman uniform to know Tamayo understands the game..

His all-time favorite player, he says, is Martin DiHigo, who pitched and played second base in the Negro, Cuban and Mexican leagues. One year in Mexico he went 18-2 with a 0.90 ERA, and while statistics from all those leagues are hopelessly spotty, we know he won more than 250 games as a pitcher and hit hundreds of home runs. He’s in the Hall of Fame in all three countries.

dihigo1
Martin DiHigo.

DiHigo also has an interesting off-the-field story. He left Cuba in 1952 to protest the excesses of Batista, then returned with the Revolution in 1959. Castro named him minister of sport. While he was born a few years too early to play in the U.S. major leagues, Tamayo calls him the most famous Cuban baseball player.

Perhaps Tamayo’s baseball piece de resistance is a painting of a large diamond with Cuban players scattered all over the field.

DiHigo is here, of course, and dozens of others from Tony Oliva to Omar Linares. Luis Tiant is on the mound.

What I’m looking for, I find in the lower right hand corner, in a small motorized cart used to bring in pitchers from the bullpen. Specifically, Tamayo uses the familiar Cuban three-wheeler called the Coco Taxi. .

One of its occupants is Camilo Pascual, who pitched for the Washington Senators in the 1950s when the Senators kept signing Cubans to avoid signing black Americans.

Pascual was a solid pitcher, a five-time All-Star who went back to play in the Cuban league every winter until Castro banned that kind of shuttling in 1960.

But the guy I care about is the guy in the cart next to Pascual, Edmundo “Sandy” Amoros.

sandyI tell Tamayo, who speaks some English, that I’m glad he included Amoros. A smile engulfs his face. He fully extends his right arm. “Amoros,” he says. “The catch!”

Yes. The catch.

On Oct. 4, 1955, in the seventh inning of the seventh game of the World Series, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Walter Alston decided his best shot at preserving a precarious 2-0 lead was sending Sandy Amoros to left field as a defensive replacement for Junior Gilliam.

Sure enough, the Yankees put runners on first and second and Yogi Berra sliced a drive toward the left field corner. Gilliam, a fine player, would have had almost no chance to catch it, because even if he ran it down, he was right-handed and would have had to reach across his body. No way. The ball lands in the corner, two runs score, Yogi pulls into second with a double. The game is tied and here we go again. The Dodgers had played the Yankees in the World Series in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953, and every year they lost.

sandycatchNot this time. No mas. Amoros was a lefty. He threw out his right arm and caught the ball a step and a half from the fence.

Then he planted his right foot, pivoted and threw a strike to shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who relayed it to first baseman Gil Hodges for a double play. That effectively stopped the Yankees from scoring, and two innings later Brooklyn had the only World Series it would ever win.

The catch.

[Baseball interlude over. We now resume our regular blogging.]

The next artist, Kadir Lopez Nieves, works in a different medium: vintage signs, like the kind you would have seen at a gas station or at a corporate headquarters or along the Havana roadsides in 1956.

Nieves takes these old signs and sort of restores them while trying to enhance them. Specifically, he’s fond of adding neon to reinforce the sign’s original message.

cuba10Jeff, our neon guy, likes that neon is involved. He’s ambivalent about whether it would be better to restore them to what they were, without any added neon component.

Nieves, whose work spills out of his house into an enclosed backyard covered with old signs in various stages of repair and disrepair, says his ultimate goal would be to “restore the neon glamour of the city. . . . recreating the past as it would look in the future.”

He’s got folks who like that vision, and not just in Cuba. His work was shown in Southampton in July.

cuba9One of his biggest challenges, he says, is finding the signs. Since the corporate signs in the 1950s tended to come from American companies, he says, revolutionary soldiers saw them as way-too-tempting symbols of capitalist oppression.

“Most of them were destroyed,” he says. “The rebels used them for target practice.”

All his work isn’t signs. There’s also, for instance, Havana Monopoly, a photo montage of Cuban images set up as a Monopoly board, with neon in the middle. One work from this five-piece edition recently went on sale for $2,800

cuba6c13We drive from Nieves’s studio to another downtown area, parking near a long pedestrian alley where a group of dancers is performing rumba and other numbers under a tent. The tent is critical because as we walk further down the alley we’re reminded just how hot this place can get.

That lesson is reinforced again when we head for lunch at the Sandwicheria le Bien Paga, Aguacate No. 259. Ed tells us it’s the best sandwich in Havana, though it’s hard for the rest of us to be that definitive, not having sampled any of the other contenders.

It’s a decent sandwich, it turns out. It’s not worth chartering a plane to go to Cuba for lunch, but if you’re there already, you could do worse.

park
Sunday in the park with sandwiches. You can’t make this stuff up.

Our bigger victory is finding a shaded park where we can unwrap and eat the sandwiches. It’s a couple of blocks away and there’s a slight sea breeze along with a statue of Juan De La Luz y Caballero, 1800-1867.

Caballero was described by Jose Marti, who should know, as “the father of Cuban intellectual life.” Caballero argued that there was a singularity and autonomy to Cuban thought, that it wasn’t just some salsa of random thoughts from all the countries that had shuffled in and out.

Sitting in the park gives us a moment to reflect on a couple of things, including the fact that after just a few days we have some idea where we are in Havana. We recognize buildings and streets.

ciegoSince it’s hot even in the shade, it’s also a moment to reflect on two of the most important words in Havana: Ciego Montero, the most popular bottled water. It is not wise for a tourist to take any extended walking tour around Havana without it, which may explain why it is widely available for about 1 CUC a bottle.

And as long as we’re talking about walking through Havana, be advised that the concrete sidewalks need a lot of repair. Over time chunks have broken off, creating periodic piles of debris and corresponding ruts where the chunks used to be.

2016-05-22-004-014The heartening news is that there seems to be a steady stream of repair work going on. Less heartening: It’s low-tech. It usually seems to be four or five men with a wheelbarrow full of water and a bag of cement. They wheel it over from wherever they can park, mix it up and reshape the sidewalk.

Depending on how strongly you embrace the concepts of smooth and level, this can either be random and chancy or charming and folksy.

We next stop for ice cream at Coppellia, which Ed says is the best ice cream joint in Havana, though once again we have to take his word for it. It’s easier this time, because the ice cream is very good. How many ice cream parlors anywhere have a mojito flavor?

Late in the afternoon, back at La Melia, Ed tells us to assemble in the ninth floor bar area where we go for breakfast every day.

Fifteen or 16 of us dutifully show up to sit in a small lounge area and hear a half dozen flamenco guitar pieces by Reymier Marino. It enhances music when it feels like it’s being played in your living room, but this would have sounded superb anywhere.

Rey accepts our invitation to join us for dinner at El Cocinero, Calle 26, where it proves fortuitous that John speaks Spanish, which most of us don’t, and thus can show more than abstract appreciation for his playing.

We’re on a roof again, which is as pleasant as the old Drifters’ song suggests, and for the first time we see rabbit stew on the menu. Recommended: the red snapper.

DAY SEVEN  

Word has circulated by now how close we came to losing the drummer.

Johnny, like all of us, occasionally wandered onto the balcony outside his hotel room. It’s a nice relaxing view. Only this one time he closed the sliding glass door and it locked.

2016-05-24-005-007
Balcony, flower box, ocean.

Our group is on the seventh to ninth floors, so these balconies aren’t the kind of thing you can jump off unless you packed a bungee cord. They aren’t especially scary, because on the outside of the railing there is a wide, sturdy flower box. Still, the balcony isn’t where you want to spend your Cuban vacation.

Johnny didn’t have his cell phone with him. He did, however, have a peso in his pocket. So he went to work with the peso and found it would eventually release the lock. This option isn’t information you want cat burglars to have, but then, if cat burglars are prowling seventh, eighth or ninth floor balconies, we have bigger problems.

 

e58d8475-2773-4a79-93cf-d49f200081ee
15th cool car. Not factory colors.

We don’t have a lot of scheduled activities today, so Fran and I take a cab toward Old Havana by way of the Plaza De Armas.

The plaza is where Havana was first settled, which explains a statue of Christopher Columbus. Governors used to live here, because its location gave them a clear view of anyone who might be approaching on the nearby seas.

These days, a view of the ocean from anywhere in Havana includes the Malecon, a concrete wall that runs for miles along the seashore and serves as the city’s go-to hangout spot.

 

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Along the Malecon.

In mid-day, when it’s blazing hot, not all that many people want to bake in the sun. There may be a few fishermen, not much more. But when the day cools down, and especially when the sun goes down, large groups of people migrate to the Malecon just to sit and talk. There are families and extended families. Large groups of young friends. Old folks.

What really gets your attention about the Malecon is that people are still sitting there and chatting at 2 a.m.

Now maybe this says some people don’t have to get up for work, or that a lot of Cuban jobs start toward mid-morning. Maybe it says that a significant part of the Havana population is looking for free social gatherings. One thing it definitely says is that Havana doesn’t worry too much about crime. It exists, like it exists everywhere, but no one seems concerned about wandering downtown to the Malecon at any time of day or night.

cuba7c6The Plaza de Armas has a small square shady park, surrounded by a three-foot wrought iron fence. There’s a statue in the middle of Carlos de Cespedes, who led the 1868 war of independence that didn’t work out quite as well as Fidel’s revolution.

But we’re not here to see Carlos. We’re here for the flea market, because on most days the park is surrounded by vendors with tables or display racks selling used and sometimes odd stuff.

Beat-up record albums from 30 and 40 years ago are nostalgic, if not particularly tempting. Who really wants to come home from Cuba and say hey, I scored a “Best of

2016-05-23-007-003the Bee Gees” LP? If you did, you dropped about 10 CUCs.

Several vendors have T-shirts from the recent Rolling Stones concert in Havana. “It was amazing,” says one vendor who was there and now would like you to share his memory by paying 30 CUCs for the shirt.

In the finest flea market tradition, prices are negotiable. If you want a paperback of Danielle Steel’s “The Sins of the Mother,” for instance, you could offer 2 CUCs instead of the 3 CUCs at which it is marked.

Many vendors have books, most of them naturally about Cuba, Fidel and, yup, Che. I buy movie lobby cards from A 2016-05-23-007-005Private Affair, with Sal Mineo singing, and Ten Wanted Men with Randolph Scott. Perhaps I have been subconsciously influenced by the fact that Bob George is compiling a book of words and phrases from early movies, especially B movies.

Fran is less tempted here than she was in the fan store, so we move on to join Debbie and Jeff for lunch at Dona Eutimia, Callejon Del Chorro 60C, a small restaurant just off Plaza de Catedral. It turns out to be reasonably priced and quite good, with a clear winner in the appetizer of shrimp in garlic oil. Cuban food isn’t generally as spicy as we had expected, but the garlic here means business.

The group later gathers for our last supper at Mediterraneo Havana, 13th St. between F y G. True to its name, it has a bit of a Greek look and true to apparent Cuban custom, it serves plenty of food.

Everyone gets a mojito to start, naturally, and the items that seem particularly impressive include the ceviche, bruschetta and red snapper.

Most of the group continues on to reunite with our old friend Rey, who is playing at a modern-looking bar/club with a whole ensemble. No solo flamenco here, though he’s throwing some of those licks into a mix that includes a flutist, two more guitars, a violinist and some vocals.

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Rey and his band at the club.

It’s the kind of sound we’ve heard a lot this week, trampling down the walls that often separate musical genres. The jazzy flute gets funky. The whole group breaks into a kind of boogie. The more music you hear in Cuba, from the street bands to well-traveled arts school graduates, the more words you feel you would need to define “Cuban music.”

DAY EIGHT

We’re headed home today, but not until early afternoon, so Fran and I grab a cab for a quick visit to the twin art museums, Museo Bellas Artes, that we missed earlier.

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16th cool car, on the disabled list. Hey, they don’t maintain themselves.

We ask our cabbie, who displays an American flag, how the changes in Cuba are affecting him.

“It’s not changing yet,” he says. “But a lot of people say it will. As long as the government is the same, it won’t change too much.

“I know some people have problems with the government. I don’t. Cuba has good and bad things, just like the United States.

“I hope we don’t get McDonald’s and Burger King here. Where they are in other countries, they put chemicals in the meat. Here, we don’t have chemicals, so we don’t put them in our meat.”

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Bellas Artes. Yes, it’s open.

Bellas Artes is two separate museums, which turn out to be several blocks apart. One is for European and international art, the other for Cuban art.

Both buildings are spacious and require considerable walking. Neither is crowded with either art or people.

The Cuban museum offers more surprises. One section is contemporary, i.e. post-Revolution, with bold colors and sharp edges. Then there are more traditional older works, showing influences of the French, the Spanish and even John Singer Sargent.

2016-05-24-003-009Portraits by Leopoldo Romanach are particularly striking, and Cuban art aficionados won’t want to miss the work of Guillermo Collazo, Rene Portocarerro and Wilfredo Lam, among others.

The European wing, where we seem to be pretty much the only patrons, looks like a picked-over selection. A lot of choice pieces presumably left the country after the Revolution, and perhaps some of what remained wasn’t the sort of thing the new government was eager to showcase.

The docent on the top floor follows us from room to room, ostensibly to be sure we aren’t snapping pictures. Her real motive, we come to suspect, is that she’d just like someone to talk to. She tells us about her grandfather, a pioneer in Cuban aviation.

Earlier in the trip we had asked several Cubans whether it was worth visiting the Havana Botanical Gardens, which cover 600 acres and are a ways out of town.

While no one wanted to trash the Gardens, the consensus was no, you’d be better off spending your time elsewhere. The Gardens are fine, we were told, but they’re more like an arboretum these days – implying they didn’t have the staff or resources to maintain more work-intensive displays like flowers.

Bellas Artes feels like it suffers from the same sort of benign neglect. What’s there is fine. It’s just low on the priority list of where Cuba needs to put its upgrade resources.

Back at the hotel, we leave a tip for the service staff, check out and wistfully enjoy a final round of tailfins and colorful convertibles as we head for the airport.

We arrive three hours before our flight. Check-in takes approximately 10 minutes. That gives us plenty of time to take care of the last crucial task, which is to buy Cuban rum.

rumHavana Club is cheaper, but Santiago, we’re told, is the rum that will impress your friends. The most popular buy is the mid-range rum, which is aged 12 years and costs 50 CUCs a bottle at the duty-free shop.

You can also buy wine, cigars and honey, which become more enticing when you have three hours and no place else to shop.

The waiting room at Jose Marti Airport more closely resembles a bus terminal back in the States. If you doubt that, you only need to walk into the one place that sells food. The sandwich choices, posted over the counter, are cheese or cheese.

Still, it’s pleasant having time for a wrapup chat with a remarkably compatible group of people, which is definitely whom you should travel to Cuba with.

AND IN CONCLUSION . . . . 

2016-05-22-005-086On one of our van rides, Michel mentioned that he was born in 1982, nine years before the Soviet pullout, so he remembered spending his early years in constant fear of Americans.

“We were taught that the U.S. was our enemy,” he said. “Everyone feared there could be an invasion or a bombing any day.”

These days in Cuba, there’s more concern about an invasion by mosquitos than by Americans.

True, most of the Cubans you’re apt to meet as a tourist have good reasons to be nice. Tourism is a growth industry in Cuba and Americans have been discovered to be bigger tippers than Europeans. Even the Swedes.

Still, everyday Cubans who have nothing to sell will smile when an obvious tourist passes by. We’re pretty recognizable. If they’re not in a hurry, they’ll ask about New York, or say they have a cousin in Florida. Even if you’re not famous, they’ll ask how you like Cuba..

The answer is that you do like it, accepting that some of it is like Havana sidewalks, a work in progress. Now yeah, we’re all works in progress, but there are a few things that require some adjustment for visitors.

292695ec-60cf-401c-803c-08455eddbcecInternet connections are sporadic even in wired areas. When you use a restroom in a public place like a museum, an attendant will give you a small amount of toilet paper, for which you should offer a tip. When you have used the paper, you are asked to put it in a wastebasket instead of flushing it, because the sewerage is, well, fragile.

Early in our trip, someone asked Michel about Cuba’s free health care.

“We don’t have the best health care system in the world,” he said. “But we have the most humane because we try to prevent illnesses. We can’t afford to treat everybody, so we must prevent them from becoming sick.”

Anybody against that? Didn’t think so. The issue, of course, is how to do it, and a lot of Cubans like Michel think Cuba may be closer than the U.S.

Ed Steinberg says Cubans also aren’t as victimized as the superficial observer might think. They’re collectively smart in matters of survival, he says, and visitors don’t see all their cards.

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Last cool car, cruising the Malecon.

So yeah, a week in Cuba isn’t going to make a tourist an expert about anything except how it all looks before Burger King arrives and how a certain thread of style seems to weave its way through the island’s marked diversity.

As takeaways go, you could do a whole lot worse.

The Cuban capitol building in downtown Havana, Johanna told us on our introductory walk, was  designed to look exactly like the U.S. capitol in Washington. “Only just a little bit bigger,” she added with a smile. “Of course.”

 

2016-05-18-002-006The Capitol building at the moment is also undergoing renovations and restoration. Of course.

When it’s done, it will be just as impressive as it aspires to be. Whoever is running Cuba at that point will be able to step out and greet a visiting head of state, or address a crowd, or just take a deep satisfying breath of warm tropical air, against a backdrop of imposing grandeur.

 

2d2a6593-165d-48e1-acbf-ffb43ebe16ddAnd as he or she stops to inhale that majesty, savoring the sweeping panorama of stately buildings to the left and right, it will be hard to miss the row of  sturdy apartments right across the street.

It will be hard in part because at least one of its occupants seems to regularly hang colorful Cuban clothing out to dry on the balcony. That’s just the way folks do it, seemingly in almost every part of town.

Maybe that’s what my guy on Obispo was singing about.

 

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