Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Three Times Lucky

The start of 2011 has been pretty unique, in that it is the third place I’ve spent the months of January-March in three years; this year I’m in and around Boston, in 2010 I was in Edinburgh, and in 2009 I was in Havana, Cuba. While very cool to think about on a day to day basis, holidays in particular tend to present themselves as occasions to compare the three very different experiences I’ve had in recent years. This past week was St. Patrick’s Day week (yes, week) and it was impossible not to spend some time thinking about the different ways I’ve celebrated since 2009.

St Patrick’s Day has recently become one of my favourite holidays. I’m not sure when this happened exactly, but all of a sudden this year I found myself counting down to what would become, as I mentioned above, St. Patrick’s Day Week (SPDW). Not to say that the holiday isn’t worthy of being classed as a favourite of course! But I suppose it could be seen as a bit odd that I love St. Patrick’s Day and am indifferent about Thanksgiving. Never one to be normal…

Except here in Boston the love of this holiday is normal. Boston starts scheduling St. Patrick’s Day events early in the month so as to be able to fit in that much more celebrating. My SPDW started on March 12th with the 3rd Annual Irish Pub Challenge (9 hours, 9 pubs and lots of free stuff: http://tenontours.com/events/boston-events/irish-pub-challenge-2011/ ).

South Boston, a hub for the New England Irish population goes all out with The Southie Parade, which is often described as something you have to do ONCE…and then spend the year recovering from before realizing once is not enough. The week of St. Patrick’s Day, here, is a green wearing, bead collecting, Guinness drinking, city-wide event.

In Edinburgh, too, the holiday is celebrated in epic fashion with Irish bars Malones, Dropkick Murphey’s Biddy Mulligan’s, Finnegan’s Wake, and (part of) the Three Sisters being spaced just evenly enough that you never have to be without a festive pint on your wanderings throughout the city.

Hats and balloons are given out, cover bands (2U anyone?) abound, and the city joyously celebrates its nieghbour to the west.

Which brings me to Cuba.

According to a Havana Journal article from 2005 (http://havanajournal.com/culture/entry/tracking_down_the_celts_in_cuba_and_the_irish_in_havana/ ), an Irish population and culture in Cuba is actually fairly prevalent. I did walk past the O’Reilly’s pub in old Havana (mentioned in the comments) a few times, although it was sadly never open when I was around. Having just read this, I wonder what, if anything, was done for St. Patrick’s Day…because I can tell you for sure that mine was anything but traditional, predictable, or normal.

Despite the fact that Cuba and the US do not have diplomatic relations, there is a US Interests Section (baically an embassy except in name) in a prime location on the Malecon. The building is intimidating. It’s huge, well maintained, and has a scrolling message board on which it relays world news headlines to the people of Cuba.
Not to be outdone, the Cuban government has installed a set of black flags at just the right height to obscure the view of this board. So there you have it, a little piece of America: perched on the edge of the impressive sea wall, often with waves crashing over into the streets, in a large building with a flock of black flags whipping around in the wind in front of it. I should also mention that you are not allowed to walk on the same side of the street as the building, but are asked to cross by one of the many guards stationed around it, visibly tensing and standing to attention as they see people approaching. Ominous and foreboding on all counts.

But my fellow students and I were not so easily deterred. We were US citizens, and we wanted in! So with the help of a professor, we arranged a time to cross the street and meet with someone inside. Inside, by the way, which was not so impressive as the outside would indicate: sterile corporate America at its best.

The meeting was telling and frustrating all at once. So a few fun facts: Because of the whole lack of diplomatic relations thing, the US Interests Section is actually a part of the Swiss Embassy. Its purpose in Cuba is to assist with Cuban visas to the US, help US citizens who might be in trouble in Cuba (and supposedly they won’t turn you over to the government even if you are there illegally. I’m not entirely sure I believe that.), and try to gather information and liaise with the Cuban government with the goal of accurate policy making in the US. There are a few problems with this, the first being that in general the Cuban government doesn’t want to liaise with us. Nothing personal, they don’t really share too much information with anyone, although the US gets significantly less, forcing the employees of the USIS to gather most of their information second hand from other embassies. This was a little concerning because it sounds like a grown up game of telephone where we’re basing policy off of information that was not given directly to us, and therefore may have had some things lost in translation.

And that’s basically how the meeting went. They told us things that at first seemed to be encouraging, like the US trying to get information to improve relations, but upon closer look were less exciting than they first appeared, like having to get that information second hand. Also, the USIS runs Internet rooms for Cubans to access the Internet unhindered by Cuban restrictions. However, if you are seen entering one of the rooms it could negatively affect your career in Cuba. Worth it? Who can say. Finally one of the women told us that to do our part we should leave behind fashion magazines when we leave to let Cuban women see what they are missing and spread information. Personally I wouldn’t want Cuban women to be anywhere near trashy US Fashion Magazines. They don’t give a picture of intellectual America, but only commercial articles about clothes Cuban women don’t have access to and unhealthy body images that Cuban women aren’t bothered by. The Cuban women I saw and met are fabulous and have the most positive body image I have seen in my travels (wear what you want, and even if it is sequined bedazzled skin tight spandex…with stilettos, if you rock it, you look fabulous) and so that seemed an odd request on the part of the USIS woman. Also, when we asked how the USIS employees' lives were here, meaning day to day, she said “It’s very safe.” Well yes, after 2.5 months we weren’t really concerned otherwise. Disterbingly, USIS employees are not allowed to leave Havana (and yet are supposed to understand Cuba) and because they have to hire Cubans though the government, they have to be very careful what they say (even around their nannies) in case its classified. So basically after hearing all about the USIS, we weren’t entirely sure we understood much more than before. It’s not just the black flags that obscure the information coming from the building…

On our way out, we stood in front of the dark glass box to which we had submitted our passports upon entry. Out came our passports. And out came a flier. To a St. Patrick’s Day Party. At the Marine house. What? There are Marines stationed in Cuba? Apparently. The flier boasted of green beer and jello shots and looked like a frat party flier…but was taped up to a door in this pseudo Embassy. As with so much, we were intrigued and said of course we would be there. “Great,” said the woman showing us out (we still couldn’t see who was actually IN the darkened glass box), “It’s in Miarmar [muy rico] on [whatever] street. You can’t miss it. High walls and barbed wire. Very safe.” Shockingly, we were not comforted. As I observed to one of the other girls, “Is the barbed wire to keep Marines safe from the Cubans? Or the Cubans safe from the Marines?” Either way, much like the Interests Section itself: ominous.

Later that evening we arrived at the high walled, barbed wire, fortress in the fancy suburbs of Havana. How does one enter a fortress? Knock? We tried it. Knocking, apparently, works. The party on the Marine compound had started as a family cookout and was transitioning to more of a non-family party. So a little about the Marines in Cuba. There were nine of them stationed there and their basic duties include being bused to the USIS where they check passports and hand out visitor passes (and apparently party fliers) and being bused back to the compound in the evening. They are athletically trained by a former Mr. Cuba but beyond that they are not allowed to interact with Cubans. They do not go out. They do not leave the city. In the midst of this rich cultural environment, they had resorted to having a moustache growing competition for entertainment because they were bored. Despite the restrictions, they are expected to have some opinion about the country in order to report back. We did not get the impression that they particularly liked it there. “We have to be here,” one explained to me, “you know, because it’s such a threat. We also have people stationed in Russia, because you know, they talk about us.” Oh. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it the former Soviet Union that had strong ties with Cuba? And doesn’t the word FORMER imply it is no longer? And wasn’t it this breaking up of the Soviet Union that led to the devastated economy of Cuba? When we let them get a word in amidst our rapid firing of such questions, they asked what our lives were like there and were shocked to find out that we had traveled the country, both through the school and on our own, and didn’t have any security, and morever seemed unconcerned by the issues they found to be most crucial.

It was an incredible matchup of opinions. On the one hand we were hearing the standard line that Red Cuba is dangerous and threatening, and on the other was my group, singing the praises of the resilience and strength of a friendly population who make do with the hand they’re dealt. And over the years, from the time long before Batista, and through the present, they’ve been dealt a lot. Despite the free flowing green beer, it was a sobering conversation.

But that’s not to end this on a bad note. That was the beauty (and tragedy) of Cuba and my time there: the constant juxtaposition of ideas and encounters. We celebrated St. Patrick’s Day enclosed in the barbed wire compound of the Marines in a country in which I had never felt unsafe. My biggest concern in Cuba was that my Spanish was basic so if I were to get lost, my only hope would be creative gesturing. But I always knew that whichever unfortunate passerby saw me frantically gesturing first, would stop, struggle through it, and point me in the right direction. Piropos optional.

At the Southie Parade this year, apartment doors were flung open and people wandered freely. A friend of mine and I, looking for another group of our friends, made a lap of the completely wrong apartment without being stopped, before realizing we were on the wrong floor. I think maybe this is part of the reason why I love St. Patrick’s Day (week). From Cuba to Edinburgh to Boston, it ends up being a holiday that has conventions and traditions, but leaves enough room for constant new reinterpretations, often influenced by chance encounters with random people. My Marine day couldn’t have been more different than standing in the courtyard of the Three Sisters watching 2U, but both were pretty epic. And any holiday, in which the only consistent elements are epic adventures and lots of green, seems pretty worthy of ‘favourite’ status to me.

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