A bluish-gray bay, snowcapped mountains not quite visible, the fog — we’re not in the Caribbean anymore. To be honest, I have not been near that body of water in a very long time, but here, in this northern city on the cold Pacific, it’s really not that hard to feel somewhat connected to that distant body of water on which yet another city, my hometown, with its azure bay and green mountains (or so I imagine), lies. More Canadians visited Cuba last year than citizens of any other country, and things from Cuba can be found in the streets of Canadian cities — certainly in Vancouver — in ways that are just impossible in those United States south of the border. Consider La Casa del Habano on Hornby Street, part of an international trademark owned by Corporación Habanos S.A., and a shop that Time Out reviews in glowing terms: “Selling exclusively Cuban cigars, this haven for the cigar smoker offers a luxurious smoking lounge, monthly seminars on choosing cigars to suit your mood, and advice on pairing them with wines and spirits.” Viewing such objects, I’m reminded of Mercedes Merlin, the Cuban-French author who in 1840, after years of absence from her native land, finds herself in New York en route to Cuba. Someone sends her a basket of flowers, which she, a Romantic, describes as a sign of a lost paradise about to be regained: “tout au milieu se trouve une plante de la Havane, une fleur de mon pays! — En aspirant son parfum, mes sens ont été bouleversés, et j’ai senti une grosse larme qui roulait dans son calice.” Merlin sheds those tears one-hundred and twenty years before the imposition of the U.S. trade embargo. Before 1960, the United States were full of Cuban things, including the very best cigars in the humidors of the rich.
Speaking of tears, if not of cigars, I don’t know for sure whether my parents cried when they left Cuba in 1963 — in the case of my father never to return, never to see his own mother again. Perhaps my father did shed some tears, but not my mother, who’s not of the lachrymose sort. She once described to me her desolation upon seeing the devastated landscape of Oriente from the Havana-bound airplane, just a few days before we left the country. A hurricane named Flora had ravaged the province, which triggered a promise from Fidel Castro to remedy the situation as soon as possible: “Un tenedor que les haya quitado el ciclón, un tenedor que les devolverá la Revolución.” In order to replenish the silverware stock, etc., many gusanos were promptly granted the long-awaited exit visas. My parents were not travelers. In fact, they had never been outside of Cuba before they left for exile. They had planned to go to Mexico City for their honeymoon in 1957, but for some reason they went to Havana instead. Here they are, the two of them on the last slide of their wedding pictures, about to board an airplane belonging to our national airline.
When six years later they boarded yet another Cubana de Aviación flight, it was to travel from from Havana to Madrid via Gander. As my mother tells the story, the Bristol Britannia needed to refuel on its way across the ocean to Europe, and the only country that would allow a Cuban airliner to land in its territory was Canada. So that’s how the first place my parents and I ever stepped on outside our native island was Newfoundland, yet another island in the Atlantic. As my mother tells the story, that first transatlantic flight was a story of dispossession. I have only a tenuous recollection of that journey, but what little I remember is in fact my oldest memories — unless they are a visual impression of my mother’s words. At the airport in Havana, a military policeman found in my parents’ one piece of luggage — our gusano, the name given to those large duffel bags used by those leaving the country — an old aspirin bottle in which I had placed some coins. Only half-jokingly, the miliciano accused me of trying to smuggle currency out of the country. My mother says she was terrified that my imprudent gesture would result in a revocation of our exit visas. But, after a series of other humiliations, we boarded the plane, which, if I remember correctly, had a green carpet. Penniless, we flew north to a gleaming airport that had just been inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth. For dinner, as I recounted earlier, we were given tomato soup. In yet another burst of red, it appears I fell in love with a firetruck seen at the airport’s toy store. On those first hours of exile, when we were the youngest and newest refugees in the world, we the Cuban children shed many tears for those toys we couldn’t have. Many years later, living in Maine, when I needed to buy my first car, I immediately chose a firetruck-red car. That red car was not just a red car, claimed my Freudian mother.
On the Vancouver waterfront one can find inscribed the names of Canada’s cities and towns. The first time I was here I took a picture of Gander, my long lost airport, which I always picture buried in fog on the edge of the Atlantic, welcoming refugees, as it did on 11 September 2001 when airplanes flying from Europe to the United States were suddenly forced to land elsewhere. I haven’t returned to Gander yet (or Cuba, for that matter), but I have been fortunate enough to visit Canada many times. I’m now in Vancouver for an academic conference in which I acted as the moderator of a session on Cuba. There were three excellent papers on the related concepts of aging and sustainability — or, as they say in the groves of Academe, (un)sustainability. There was talk of waiting out Fidel, of the cemeteries of Cuba, or resurrection and even resuscitation. There is much talk of Cuba everywhere these days, much expectation. I rejoice at the idea that one Modernist building on the Malecón of Havana will soon be again the Embassy of the United States of America, and that the Embajada de la República de Cuba will reoccupy its old opulent building at 2360 16th N.W. in Washington, D.C. But I must be honest and say that my homeland is no longer Cuba nor my hometown the city of Santiago de Cuba, if they ever were. I’m more at home in the realm of Gander and the spirit of transience. Indeed, I see myself as having less in common with my old compatriots than with the young Asian woman who works for room service at this venerable hotel where I’m staying. Graciously, she handed me my bill with two hands, as is customary on the other side of the Pacific. Like my peripatetic Cuban Gauls, and like my own uprooted parents, she too crossed the ocean and perhaps cried — or not.