‘The Unwaved Flag’: Havana, John Lennon, Ice

“Hola, la”

{I decided to write up this short anecdote from my last trip to Havana in May 2010 now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I re-found a note book I have taken to Cuba, in which were a couple of pages of notes on a little scene that I had found pretty funny, but not really worth pursuing; just a few short sentences and descriptions; “skin like creased, brown leather”, “woman with crimson chest” etc that I later dismissed as a bit silly in the face of having to complete my MA thesis. Secondly, the trip was exactly one year ago. I went to Havana, firstly to visit my wife’s family, but also to interview a couple of musicians, so it seems like a fitting time for reflection.

But most importantly, I have been enthused as to the potential of such seemingly insignificant vignettes by theories I have recently read from Tim Edensor (2002) and Michael Billig (1995). Both are concerned with the concept and constructions of national identity, yet eschew the more ‘spectacular’ representations and ‘historic’ (histrionic?) moments identified as expressing a national consciousness (a pleasing antidote to the recent royal wedding hysteria) for the everyday; the sites of ‘banal nationalism’ (the title of Billig’s book). Though I don’t agree with certain of Edensor’s assertions – such as the idea that “’traditional’ cultural forms and practices of the nation are… increasingly replaced in their affective power by meanings, images, and activities drawn from popular culture” (20002:12), or that ‘the state’ has little or no control over the production and usage of these popular forms – this idea of the national identity being forged not in ‘evental’ bluster, but in the workings of the everyday is a perceptive one; and a particularly apposite and interesting way of looking at a nation (and national identity) such as Cuba which is steeped in momentous hyperbole and singular moments of creation. The metaphor Billig gives to this unceremonious national identity construction is that of the “unwaved flag of the nation”, as opposed to a flag displayed prominently in overt celebrations (or proclamations) of national identity.

I don’t claim to have uncovered the secret of Cuban identity in this brief little story, but reading Billig and Edensor has reminded me of the salience of recounting these banal moments as they can help illuminate, albeit minutely, a sense of a ‘lived identity’.

Also, I have a nagging feeling I have written this story out in full somewhere else, but I can’t find it!}

*          *          *

All we’d had to do was get a couple of bags of ice and some bread buns for the family party that night. A ten minute job, I was told. Me, my father-in-law Jose and my wife’s cousin, Rafael. However, by the time we had been to four disparate locations – none of which looked like it was likely to have either ice or bread – we found ourselves walking through a desolate expanse of concrete towards a large, non-descript factory in the shadow of two monolithic tower blocks.

I say ‘we found ourselves’, what I mean is ‘I found myself’, for presumably Rafael and Jose knew exactly where they were going and had anticipated this prolonged mission. Despite having visited Havana several times, and even with both Jose and Rafael speaking competent English, (and me knowing slightly more Spanish than previous visits), I still found myself in something of a haze of misunderstandings and confusions most of the time. {I point this out, as does Edensor when recounting an anecdote of his first visit to India, not to promote the image of the intrepid adventurer in an incomprehensible ‘land of the other’, but to highlight how integral a knowledge of the everyday can be to an identity. It is not ‘otherness’ that gives a disconcerting confusion when in a foreign country as much as having to readjust to a different (and often tacit) set of everyday conventions}

Outside the imposing sheet metal gates of the factory – emanating a truly unwelcome wave of heat themselves on top of the still-potent late-afternoon sun – sat the ubiquitous old man ‘keeping guard’. Everywhere I go in Havana, there always seems to be an old man ‘guarding’; at the statue of Jose Martí, at every money-change[1] kiosk, ration card shops, even at fruit-and-veg stalls. These legion old men always have the same set of accoutrements: a faded pale blue guayabera shirt, a small transistor radio, a packet of cigarettes, and a deckchair in varying states of disrepair. They always seem to be pernickety and vocal in asserting some grievance, yet they look as though they would be entirely ineffective were their guardianship ever severely tested. Following a brief exchange between Jose and this old man, presumably concerning the potential presence of ice (or bread) within this factory, he reluctantly rose from his deckchair, the seat of which looked as though it was constructed from plastic washing line threaded back and forth, waddled into the small wooden cabin he was perched in front of, and re-emerged moments later carrying the transistor radio and a large bone and water bowl. He made a theatrical show of turning off the radio, tossing it onto the deckchair, before reaching into the pocket of his shirt, pulling out a filter-less cigarette and unlocking the padlock on the gate.

Bending down out of sight behind the gate, he produced a bright yellow bucket, and proceeded to fill the water bowl which he placed in the now visible factory courtyard behind the gate. He hurled the bone down on the ground, cast us one last ‘this really is an extreme inconvenience to me’ look and waddled out of sight, leaving the gate open.

A worryingly skinny dog languidly wandered into the rhomboid of baking light remaining in the courtyard from the sinking sun. He took a few lazy laps at the water, picked up the bone, and flopped down in the shade.

Time passed. Impossible to know how much. Hours, mere minutes? Longer than it could reasonably have been expected of the ancient guardian to ascertain whether whoever he had gone to consult with had ice or not. I was beginning to wilt. Again. I rested hands on hips, put all my weight onto one leg and jutted out my stomach in a pose that, though the most comfortable in this oppressive heat, was less than flattering. Having gone through the photos from our last trip to Cuba, I seemed to have adopted this as my default stance; I look like a flustered pregnant woman. Jose has usurped the old man’s vacant deckchair, Rafael paces alone the crumbling factory wall, running his hand over the rough surface. He lights a cigarette, turns and walks back towards us, kicking a small lump of concrete that has dislodged itself. I turn to look at the two giant towerblocks, now casting long shadows our way (though not quite reaching us) across the fractured concrete. There is something grandiose and monumental about these twin buildings. But their degradation in alarming; they appear to be slowly dissolving under the Cuban sun. Water pours from a pipe two-thirds of the way up one of the buildings, and a wide green line of moss or mould has established itself along this vertical river. I turn again to look for our ice-bearing guard (it was immediately obvious when the old man had left that he would not be coming back with ice; we were now just waiting for him to get back inevitably empty-handed). I had  gradually become quite agitated, and caught myself muttering under my breath, hands on hips. Rafael looked at me, and with the expression of someone who has experienced exactly this sensation an uncountable amount of times, said “Cuba… it’s the perfect place to waste time!”

More time passes. As I begin to forget why exactly we were are here, and what it will take to leave, the old man returns. He begins to voice his lack of success from across the courtyard, so by the time he reaches us, all that is left is a shrug of the shoulders. He falls back into deckchair, shorts hitching up to mid-thigh, and begins to tenderly massage the impressive topography of varicose veins on his calves, wincing slightly. We walk back across the cracked concrete to the car.

*          *          *

John Lennon Park: As Advertised by Ben Elton and Burt Kwouk (Apparently)

Later, Rafael and I are in ‘Parque Lennon’. Jose has gone to a ‘place’ that is guaranteed to have both bread and ice, though it is best if we don’t go with him (for some reason). The park is fairly unremarkable; there are perhaps more people milling around than in other municipal areas. And there is a bronze statue of John Lennon sitting nonchalantly on a park bench. The incongruity of erecting a life-size statue of someone whose music was outright banned for several decades seems to have been glossed over, helped by the solitary fact repeated by everyone in relation to this statue: “his trademark circular-lens glasses keep getting stolen, so they have to have a guard who looks after them”. Now, given that everything in Cuba seems to have a guard, this doesn’t really strike me as odd anymore.

As I approach the statue, a party of tourists (worse: British tourists) pull up to the side of the park in a convoy of polished 1950s Cadillacs, Plymouths and Chevrolets. As their pale legs, red faces and newly acquired straw hats make a beeline for the statue, their drivers congregate around the bonnet of the lead car, all light up cigarettes, and watch this new batch of ‘yumas’ react exactly like the last lot. I wonder to myself if any of these drivers are, like me, thinking “why have they come half way around the world to look at a statue of someone from Liverpool?” But I’m here too. I don’t like seeing tourists in Havana. No. I don’t like being reminded that I am a tourist. My family connections allow me to imagine myself if not as Cuban – that could never be – but at least as something in between ‘Cuban’ and ‘estranjero’. But the familiar accents and patent shared discomfort in the heat drag me back; this is more my everyday.

There is a volley of photographs from the herd of tourists; an unnecessary plethora of snaps. Some of the more curious Cuban children skirting the perimeter of the park, knowing to keep in the shade, begin to amble towards the centre of the square and the newly assembled crowd. One girl on rollerskates glides past a fat English woman in pedal-pushers who has begun to take more ‘arty’ snaps of the rest of the park. “Oh come here again” the fat woman calls, in English. The rollerskater knows, maybe instinctively, what is being asked, and she turns and glides back towards the woman, giggling and striking the perfect pose. The woman smiles, and takes the picture. The rollerskate girl sails away.

I ask Rafael why there is a statue of John Lennon in a park in Havana.

“Because there is an annual festival in Havana to celebrate the music of the Beatles. It has been going for ten years” he replies.

“But weren’t the Beatles banned?” I ask.

A wry smile. “Welcome to Cuba”.

Just as the volley of photographs has begun to dry up, and the tourists are checking pamphlets to see what the next destination on their nickel tour is, the fabled John-Lennon-glasses-guard makes himself known. An old, bothered looking man with skin like creased brown leather pulls himself up from a small wooden stool underneath a tree and hobbles towards the statue, pushing his way unceremoniously through the throng. He reaches into the inside pocket of a faded waistcoat and pulls out the bronze glasses. He shows them quickly and efficiently to the crowd, and, equally unceremoniously, shoves them onto the statues face. He takes a step back, and makes an exaggerated (and to my mind patronisingly overemphasised) mime of taking a photograph, then thrusts a gnarled finger towards the newly bespectacled statue.

“Oh look, he’s got glasses now” a woman with crimson chest exclaims delightedly. Another round of photos. (“This was him without glasses” [next photo] “then this was him with glasses”.) The guard stood patiently to one side. When he had determined enough time ‘with glasses’ had passed, he once more bustled through the crowd, snatched back the glasses and hobbled back to the shade of his chair. The tourists, now sweating profusely (I was actually past the point of sweating now: saturated) took this as a definitive sign that their time with John Lennon was over, and they sauntered back to the convoy of Cadillacs, Plymouths and Chevrolets. On cue, Jose returned carrying some five large bags of ice and two carrier bags full of bread; obviously this clandestine new location had come up with the goods! We piled back into the car, and went back to join the party.

[1] These kiosks are more than just a bureau de change for foreign currency. They are also where Cubans go to convert between the national Peso and dollar-equivalent ‘cuco’ monies.

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