2018

I will not miss this year. At. All.

It’s proved challenging. It’s tested my limits. And, it’s frayed my nerves. It’s brought successes and bitter disappointments, sometimes simultaneously. It’s brought the pain of loss and grief. And it’s been emotionally and physically exhausting.

But, this year also brought love. Kindness. Patience. Support. And laughter, so much laughter, at times through tears.

This year, 2018, is once again not defined by things, but by the people in my life. I am enormously grateful, humbled and honoured to have so, so many amazing people in my life.

Naturally, there is that one person who stands out, namely, that constant known to me as ‘Sweetie’ or “Twewtie’, and to many as The Cuban. As we move into our 14th (holy shit, time flies!) year together, I am still amazed by how much more meaningful each day is through the simple act of sharing time and space with this most incredible human. As much as I love many of you, I am not afraid nor ashamed to say there is no one on this planet I’d rather spend time with.

But so many others in our life, those both near and far, those at once virtually and physically near and dear, have provided both strength and hope, kindness and solidarity, silliness and seriousness when we most needed and least expected it. And we are grateful beyond measure. You’ve cheered our successes, shared our outrage at injustices and aimed to make this world just a little bit better, and we love you for it.

As the clock ticks towards another day and another year, we thank you for sharing your lives with us in 2018. And we wish you boundless happiness and joy, love and laughter, and endless hope and prosperity in whatever way you measure it in the coming year. May 2019 exceed your expectations and dreams. And may we cross one another’s paths as often as possible in the near future.

Happy New Year!

Vintage 8 in Torremolinos, Spain

Spain is lovely, with plentiful sunshine even on the rare ‘cloudy’ day. Clouds in Helsinki provide an alternate reality and entirely different notion of just what a cloudy day looks like I suppose. But, one thing we didn’t really think much about when we booked this holiday was food or the cuisine. One comment I heard several times before leaving was that Spain is not kind to vegetarians, and finding anything beyond chorizo, serrano and manchego would be a challenge.

Challenge accepted.

[As an aside, but related to this tale of gastronomic bliss, sometime in September this year during a sleepless night, I made the mistake of watching a documentary The Cuban found, entitled Dominion. I haven’t been able to eat meat since and my diet now borders on veganism. I’ll spare you the details of the documentary. But unless I know definitively that the pig, chicken, cow or fish I’m about to ingest enjoyed a happy life and was slaughtered in a way which wasn’t delightfully and gleefully cruel, I ain’t touching it.]

Anyway…thus far and two weeks into our sorjourn to the sun, we’ve been rather underwhelmed by the food. Aside from a lovely Italian bistro down the block from our home away from home, the food we’ve had can be best described as ‘meh’.

All that changed yesterday. And, we have Vintage 8 to thank for the dining delights, an experience we plan to repeat several times before we depart back to the land of darkness.

We found Vintage 8 after searching for solid restaurants in the area, thinking it’d be a nice place to meet up with old friends. Since its situated at the end of the route for our daily evening strolls here on holiday, we decided we’d try it yesterday rather than hit up our favourite Irish pub for a pint of Guinness before dinner. Typing out that comparison seems like such an insult both to the restaurant and the chef, because the only thing the two options have in common is that they lie rather closely to one another by happenstance. But, that’s part of Vintage 8’s charm. It sits on a block of utterly incongruent choices — Burger King and a Chinese-Thai place both provide alternative options to this gastronomic gem. But, the reviews. Just about every review of Vintage 8 sang its praises. And, a few of those reviews came from vegetarians, which intrigued me.

We arrived early by Spanish dinner-time standards (probably around 18.45). And, we were the only folks there other than the chef, who performed dual functions until later in the meal, taking care of our every need as well as cooking up some insanely delicious treats.

The menu itself is a delight, with whimsicial, playful names featuring giants like John Lennon, Ella Fitzgerald and Paul McCartney in various dish descriptions, along with flavours I’d never imagined but wanted to try. Nothing looked uninteresting.

I opted for the tasting menu, which the chef was incredibly and kindly willing to adapt to my annoyingly vegetarian food habits at the moment. The Cuban, rather bravely, also decided on the tasting menu (his first ever!), opting to try both fish dishes rather than the lamb or chicken which typically closes out the four-course meal. Here’s the truly crazy part to both of us: the four courses we each were about to savour cost an astoundingly cheap €19.90 each, and included a beverage (red wine for me and water for The Cuban). This culinary adventure also included a starter and dessert, both of which were just as delicious on their own as they were a part of this culinary journey of Morrocan and Mediterranean fusion food. Oh, yes, we will be back, my new best friend.

So, here’s what we had. [I’m rather sad that the pictures here do very little justice to the food, and don’t include each course. Our next visit, I’ll have my proper camera so that I can capture these insanely lovely tasting and beautifully plated dishes. I’ve included some photos, however, just to give you, dear reader, a bit of salivatory satisfaction for now.):

  • Mushroom croquette: I gladly could have eaten a mound of these, but I love mushrooms and all things fried. The Cuban, who is not exactly enamoured by fungal foods of any sorts, loved them as well. And, the beginnings of a happy food face first emerged across the table from me.
  • Vintage 8 Egg: This won the ‘best tapa’ award and it’s clear why. This seems like an egg, but borrowing from The Cuban, it is ‘the best egg I’ve had. In. My. Life.’ Served with deep-fried onions and fresh bread rolls which you dip into this most divine egg. So, so much more than ‘just an egg’.
  • John Lennon’s Pacificism: Goat’s cheese with a tomato and aubergine compote and fresh greens.  A couple sat near us just before we left and were underwhelmed by the goat cheese course. I hope that they ate those words when it arrived. I love cheese of all sorts, which is perhaps my number one reason for not going full-on vegan. This dish blew me away completely; not because of the cheese, but because of everything else happening within the dish. There is this slight crunchiness to the dish that I couldn’t work out, but which delighted my taste buds further. The chef shared his secret with me; and I shall carry that secret to my grave. Suffice it to say the flavours work perfectly. Note that the picture looks like a mound of salad greens. Clever.

[At this point, our dishes diverged, whereby I had two non-menu item courses made ‘just for [me]’, and The Cuban had two fish courses. I must say, his looked incredible as well and judging by both the clean plates and his face, they rocked.

  • ‘Just a veggie burger’ mini-burger. If you know anything about my food preferences, you know I do not do onions. This burger had what I think were carmelised onions and I ate them all. I LOVED them. A little tiny mini-veggie burger entirely for me served with fresh crisps and a little green salad with hearts of palm. Yes, please. Oh, yes.
  • The Cuban had prawns wrapped in filo dough and fried with perhaps the best description of all time, aubergine and ‘black magic fuckery’ tomato  sauces. He was scraping his slate plate.
  • For my final course to this meal-I-never-wanted-to-end, I had a filo pastry base topped with Morrocan spiced vegetables and tgenerous slices of fresh cheese, which resembled an incredible combination of parmesan or manchego (perhaps an aged manchego?). Honestly, this was unreal.
  • The Cuban’s last course was salmon over potatoes, which sounds rather plan but was anything but. In TC’s words, ‘Wow. Just wow’.

As if this wasn’t enough, we still had dessert to conquer. A divine date and almond biscuit topped with a lime sorbet and covered in an avocado-mint sauce. (According to The Cuban, this dish beats my brownies, which, okay, stings but I admit defeat. Because chef is a bloody genius!)

This. Meal. Honestly. We were happily stuffed when we left, but not to the point of feeling sick. The Vintage 8 tasting menu is a steal, and provides so much seriously delicious food that we honestly can’t wait to return. And, when we return, I’m taking the proper camera. And, a healthy appetite. I intend to work my way through whatever chef puts in front of me.

Should you ever find yourself in Torremolinos, Spain, or anywhere near here, go to Vintage 8. You will not regret it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

#TBT thankfulness

Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday in November in the United States, has always been my favourite holiday. I love the gluttony of eating heaps of food which never really feature on menus at other times of year (cranberry sauce, anyone), which inevitably lead to the most interesting leftovers (turkey, mashed potato and cranberry sauce sandwiches on homemade rolls FTW).

But, more than anything, I love the opportunity to spend a day eating, drinking (whether alcoholic or not), being merry and giving thanks to whatever we have for which we are truly grateful.

There’s something simplistically magical about a day devoted to just simply enjoying and reflecting upon the many riches we all possess but typically disregard as unimportant the other 364 days of the year. Annually, the day leaves me more than full regardless of how much I actually eat.

This  year, once again, it’s just a typical cold and grey Thursday in November, as I spend yet another expat’s Thanksgiving far from my home in the United States. This year is just another working day for me, with no real plans to eat turkey or any of the other Thanksgiving-like trimmings. Yet, I’m perhaps more grateful than ever and dare I say rather more emotional this year compared to others. This week and month have provided ample and stark reminders of just how different our fortunes are from a mere five years ago.

In short, despite the absence of a feast, my cup and plate runneth over.

Earlier this month, we had to reapply for permanent residence in Finland. Within two weeks, both of us had our reissued cards, valid for another five years. And, both of us  breathed incredibly loud sighs of relief.

In the moments between receiving our new cards and sending off the old, we both were amazed at how far we’ve come from that hellish time not that long ago. Looking at the photos which identify us as the owners of those cards, our journeys show. We can see how much happier we are. We can see how much less stressed and fearful we both are. We can see how much healthier we both are.

The journey has been hard. It has been heartbreaking and spirit destroying at various moments, and it has challenged us and our resolve at times.

But, we’re here, and we’re both grateful. Enormously, tremendously and inexpressibly grateful.

So, as many friends I miss desperately and family I love dearly sit down with others to eat, drink and be merry, here’s my #ThrowBackThursday of thankfulness. It seems only fitting to share it all with all of you since you’ve helped make it a reality. May I never forget the journey itself or how far I’ve come. May I continue to enjoy this journey through life for years to come, even in the face of obstacles and detours along the way. And, may I continue to be surrounded by insanely supportive folk who help me get from there to here regardless of the starting position or finish line.

Always grateful…

 

TBT

Summer ‘schedule’

Summer. That glorious time of year when the days are long, the birds sing loudly and the sun stays high in the Northern sky for more hours than you can imagine. I welcome summer and the glorious green and long days. But, I also dread it.

I’ve never been good at managing my time in the absence of a schedule. I need structure; I need a plan. If there is no plan, I’ll make one simply to ease the inevitable anxiety of not having a plan. When we’re on holiday and not confined by the schedules of work or others, I force my husband to come up with a ‘plan’ even if it goes to hell within days if not hours. Planning relaxes me.

As absurd as it sounds, I keep three calendars on my desk. These are separate from my weekly to-do list(s), which complement my electronic calendar and to-do lists which annoyingly pop-up on various devices reminding me to procrastinate another half hour. [Just writing that out makes me cringe at how absurd it all is. But, well, what can I say? I like my calendars and lists and procrastinating.]

It’s a relief to be free from my lecturing schedule at the University of Helsinki. With the end of my classes last week, Monday morning—day before yesterday—brought a bit of weirdness and a mild panic. Seeing so few items on my calendar and to do list this week left me somewhat disoriented and bereft. In fact, my deadlines for Tuesday this week were all met before 9 am on Monday, representing perhaps the first time in months I’ve delivered early rather than late.

This is not to say that I don’t have things to fill my time. Just the opposite in fact. As a freelance contractor, I’ll never not panic when I have no work in the pipeline. Alas, this summer is already proving vastly different from last. And, this is a very good thing. But, all of those others things I’ve put off for far too long also await.

June is booked. Even if I wanted to take on more work, I cannot. The rest of this week is oddly devoid of deadlines. Yet, my to-do lists are filled with various items simply prioritised as ‘ASAP’ or ‘eventually’. This is where I typically struggle. I need a ‘complete by’ date. For everything. The most pressing issue aside from cleaning my desk and the windows (yes, those are on my to-do list) involves sorting through multiple assignments my students sent during the last month or so, and which have sat patiently in my inbox. (I’m a weebit behind—don’t judge; my students worked entirely too hard!) But, without my own self-imposed deadline of ‘the next class meeting’ procrastination takes over. Little by little, I review their work and send feedback. I will get through my inbox and back to zero. And, I will endeavour to do better next year.

But, distractions and ‘other stuff’ seem so much more pressing or necessary.

So, scheduling. I must schedule when I work on my inbox. And, then, when I can, go for a run (ideally every other day) and clean my sodding windows. Spend a bit time daily peripatetically bonding with my husband. And, sort through all of the other things I want and need to do this summer.

It’s only 12 weeks; but, those 12 weeks leave me restless and somewhat unsteady, particularly without milestones and goals and a plan. I need a plan. My summer schedule may be less structured than that during the academic year, but the structure it takes will either leave me desperate for a schedule or empowered by it. And, I’m determined to be empowered come the end of August. [Where does that fall on my to-do list?]

Calendar

One of three calendars I keep — this is my master class schedule / academic calendar calendar from several years ago. 

Crazy Cat Ladies en Cuba

It’s no secret, I love cats. Plop me down anywhere on the planet, and within minutes, I’ll find a cat to hang with. Thankfully, my husband now shares this feline fondness. And, as we discovered on our holiday, so does our family in Cuba. We are, collectively, the Crazy Cat Ladies.

My affection for cats began when I was 7 or 8 years old with the first cat we brought home. This particular cat was not meant to simply be cute and cuddly companionship; she was intended to be entirely functional. At the time, we lived in the countryside on the outskirts of St. Louis on a 500-acre farm. Field mice thrived both indoors and out. Winters were no joke when I was a child, and as winter set in, the mice migrated indoors obviously and wisely seeking warmth. One night, I was awoken to the screams of my mother: one clever little rodent sat on top of her dresser in front of her alarm clock’s LED display casting a ginormous monster mouse shadow on the opposite wall, which happened to be the first thing my mum saw when she woke up. Her reaction was a blood-curdling scream and to find a cat as soon as possible. I was thrilled, of course.

The next evening, we welcomed a lovely little calico kitten into our fold. Because Dollie Parton was my idol at the time, I named our new pet Dollie. Dollie the Cat quickly adapted to her new home and new role as mouser extraordinaire. And, thankfully, no further monster mouse shadows were cast.

Since then, at least one cat has lived in each of my homes. To me, a home without a cat is like a room without books: What’s the point?

Not all cats are equal, but I’ve been fortunate enough to be owned by own some incredible feline personalities over the years. Che Fufu stands apart. Spending six weeks away from her during our holiday was tortuous at times. Team Che Fufu, the small army of friends who agreed to care for her in our absence, took their task seriously and we thank them for easing our fears and concerns whilst away. But, a more pressing problem remained: What to do with all of that excess attention reserved for the furry feline ones amongst us when in Cuba?

Since our first trip to Cuba together we’ve sought out the ‘neighbourhood’ felines. On that first trip, we befriended Cheetah Fu, a particularly handsome, cheeky fellow living at the resort we called home for a few weeks in Varadero. Each day as we left the dining hall, we’d take him a few bits of sliced cold cuts or whatever we could find that was easy to sneak out and feed to him. We’d meet him at the same spot each day, and he in turn would meow sweetly, allow us to pet and admire him for a bit before turning tail and skulking off to do something thoroughly unimportant but to which our presence was entirely unnecessary. Cheetah Fu did not feature on this journey. But, cats were literally everywhere we went in Cuba. As were our kind of people — those who worship love cats as much as we do.

Our first feline encounter occurred within minutes (literally) of stepping off the plane. Several months before our arrival, five (FIVE!) kittens were born at my father-in-law’s house, and have since taken up residence outside the kitchen. Each day at mealtimes, they perch on the other side of the window from the stove and wait (im)patiently whilst our cousin Isa prepares their tea. When it comes to feeding the, an almighty cacophony ensues which can be heard from everywhere within the house. The remainder of the day, they lounge in the sun, chase various lizards and insects in the garden, play with one another and generally don’t bother with us mere humans. But, they thoroughly belong to the house and the (human) occupants belong to them.

At the resort in Varadero, various cats stalked the dining hall awaiting guests those like us who took pity and brought bits of dinner to them. Spotting the Crazy Cat Ladies was far too simple — find the fools carrying paper napkins bulging with greasy contents and follow them. A cat was sure to be on their heals, albeit a wild, skittish cat. Villa Tortuga also served as home to a friendly little guy, at once vocal and affectionate. This guy, who also sported a fetching pink, tiger-striped and sequin-trimmed collar, desperately needed help one evening. Rather than climbing a tree and getting stuck, he found himself atop a trellis and couldn’t navigate back down. The Cuban and I spent a solid 30 minutes gently coaxing and encouraging him down through a network of vines and branches. Once safely on ground, his purrs and kitty nips of affection warmed our hearts immensely. Obviously relieved and starving, we fed him, and reassured him as best we could. Of course, when he was done with us, he was done. No amount of calling or cold cuts could entice his return for another bit of a bonding. Typical bloody cat.

Then, we met Mama Cat (yes, that is her name), a lovely black and white creature who recently encamped at Tia Minita’s house in Artemisa. She is insanely lovely, and more dog-like than cat. The only picture we have of her is from afar despite are many, many attempts. Each time we tried to get a picture of her, she would run over for a bit of kitty bonding and even with a macro lens, no pictures were possible. We first found her as we wandered in the garden at Minita’s, discovering her nestled in a little kitty nest she created amongst the shrubs. Hearing us, she leapt up and immediately began weaving in between our legs and rubbing up against them with the happiest, loudest of kitty purrs. Like I said, rather uncat-like is Mama Cat. [We learned this week that she gave birth to two kittens, both white, whilst another black kitten (who we also met when we were there) joined their little family, curling up with Mama Cat and her babies.]

We met various other random kitties along our journey (as well as a few non-feline creatures). What we loved most was our concern and affection for the furry beasts who inhabit each of these homes extended beyond the two of us. Our family in Cuba also notices and takes great pains at caring for the felines in their midst. Feeding scraps to the cats at various restaurants and cafes. Leaving leftovers out for the neighbourhood cats, friendly or not.  We were not alone or odd in these behaviours. That comforted us somehow, and simultaneously normalised our own craziness about cats.

We’ve often fantasised about our ideal ‘retirement’ plan of opening up a B&B somewhere along the coast in Cuba and filling the garden and house with as many cats (and plants) as possible. Originally, I wondered if we could find those cats. Now, I’m fairly confident the cats will find us. As will the Crazy Cat Ladies.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Neither here nor there

As an anthropologist, I’m intellectually familiar with and fully comprehend the concept of reverse culture shock. As a person experiencing it, I just want to crawl into bed with the covers over my head and hide from the world for a while until it subsides or we return to Cuba.

My first real experience feeling bewildered by coming home hit me full on when returning from my first trip to Moscow in 1998. After a mere 9 weeks, landing at JFK was one of the most surreal experiences of my life up to that point. E V E R Y T H I N G felt unfamiliar and odd. Whilst my body was firmly planted in New York and eventually back amongst my things and in my flat in Connecticut, my mind persistently resisted leaving behind my surroundings and new-found friends in Moscow. Any time a question was asked, my response came in Russian (unsurprising perhaps since I hadn’t heard English for the last 3 weeks of that particular trip). Everything which at one time had been automatic in my US-based life became awkward and … difficult.

The unfamiliarity and disconnect subsided, replaced not necessarily by normalcy but passive acceptance that I was cognitively straddling two worlds. When I moved to Moscow the following year for what I assumed was a brief 6-month to 1-year teaching gig, I experienced culture shock upon my return to Russia, largely because I was on my own rather than sheltered and taken care of by a host family; the shock was somehow less pronounced. I continued to straddle my Moscow-based and other life in the US, but the divergence and cognitive dissonance between those worlds seemed less traumatic and … well… shocking.

Fast forward 17 a few years and insert two different worlds and that oddly and unsettling familiar feeling of reverse culture shock has returned. Whilst two different countries feature as home (Finland rather than the US) and home away from home (Cuba vs Moscow), the experience and feelings differ very little.

We returned from our epic journey to the land of rum, cigars, 1950s cars and chanchullo 3 weeks ago today and I’m still experiencing the worst sort of disconnect from life and missing Cuba and, more importantly, Cubans desperately. Finland, which is a relatively comfortable and easy place to live and has become home to us, feels wrong. It is too quiet. There are too many products and options and things from which to choose. And, it’s too clean and organised. Weird, right? (First World Problems, anyone?)

We knew before we left for the airport that our return to ‘civilisation’ and the ‘real world’ would be a slap in the face. How could it not be when we had such an amazing 6 weeks in Fidel’s Cuba? But from the moment we landed in Amsterdam and the experience of navigating Schiphol, once a favourite place for me, to returning to our flat and our life here, I cannot shake that sense that something is misplaced and off about my situation. Or more precisely where I am situated. My surroundings, including my beloved workspace, are somehow not quite right. I wake up each morning utterly confused, having dreamt about various goings on in Helsinki, but all situated and populated by those familiar faces from Cuba we left behind. In some cases, the actual stage is Cuba, but the events and people are all from our life in Finland. It’s maddening really.

This past weekend, the sense of longing for Cuba was so strong that after writing about chicharritas in the morning, I went on a quest to find green plantains and black beans so that we could at least eat Cuban food again, even if it wasn’t prepared by our favourite home cooks.

Perhaps it’s that the weather simply sucks this time of year in Helsinki, particularly this year. Perhaps we’re just missing our friends and family ‘over there’. That’s natural. Perhaps we simply haven’t ever really connected to Finland in the way that we should to properly ‘return’ to it. I know my toes will never prefer being stuffed into boots for 6 months to freely wiggling in the seaside air and burying themselves in the white sand beaches of Cayo Blanco.

For now and until this maddening mental state passes, I shall endeavour to be patient and ride out the reverse culture shock. I have great friends here, I love my students and teaching, I’m surrounded by brilliant colleagues and Finland possesses so many conveniences and a vast array of fresh produce that we truly missed when we were in Cuba. And, we have the internet once again. More importantly, my Cuban is here.

Eventually, my head will catch up with the rest of my body and realise that we are here in Finland. But, my heart remains in Cuba. For now…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Third time’s charm

For those not in ‘the know’, my husband and I spent six glorious weeks on holiday in Cuba, visiting family, finally enjoying a long-overdue bit of rest and relaxation (first time in five years!) and catching up with friends. This was our third journey to the island together. But, it was by far the most amazing experience of the three and perhaps of any other trip I’ve taken. The following represents a few reflections I wrote about a week or so before we left.

~~~~~~~~~~

This trip.

Summing it up in a single word is impossible; describing it all seems just as unlikely.

From its length to its particulars, the journey has not altered too significantly from previous visits. As it draws to a close, I’m longing to extend it. Not so much to escape our real lives in Finland longer, but because I am enjoying this trip so, so thoroughly.

A few days ago, we visited Cojímar, the fishing village which served to inspire The Old Man and the Sea, and then visited Hemingway’s villa Finca Vigía in what was once the countryside surrounding Havana. Having recently reread that incredibly epic fishing tale and The Sun Also Rises a few weeks previously, I felt as if I was walking amongst ghosts, both of the fisherman Santiago and Hemingway himself.

Cojímar is quiet, tranquil and carved by the sea, situated not far to the east of Havana. On the day of our visit, the seas were angry in the wake of a cold front the night before. Ocean spray coated us as we walked along the streets nearest the water, with water crashing into the rocky, coral-laden coastline. A tour bus made its way carefully and slowly through incredibly narrow and pothole-filled streets whisking other tourists away with it, while the locals ambled through the village in groups of varying ages. We strolled through the village with no real destination in mind, waving to and chatting with inhabitants, buying various products from the local produce vendors, having a laugh with just about everyone we met and enjoying the calmness and normality of it all. I can see why Hemingway was inspired — Cojímar and most of Cuba inspire me.

The next day, we visited Hemingway’s Cuban estate, Finca Vigía, which has been kept in the same state in which he left it more than 50 years ago. We (my husband, our three cousins with whom we spent the day and I) flagged down an almendrón, one of the old 1940 and 1950-era American cars which have carted Cubans to and fro for decades now and which everyone associates with contemporary Cuba. Our driver, Ernesto, ended up being another element of surprise and delight, one of many from this trip.

As we made our way to Hemingway’s home, one of the overwhelming realities hit us head-on. Much of the area surrounding his estate sprang up long after he left the island for the last time. Now nestled within a poorer barrio, houses are clustered close together and most appear barely finished, or rarely tended or repaired. Extreme poverty prevails in this part of Havana, and crumbling structures represent the norm. Most of the houses we passed, which were clearly inhabited, would probably blow away in even the weakest of storms. Amongst this, Hemingway’s house and the surrounding estate appear as if an oasis or mirage and seem horribly incongruous with just about everything around it. The contrast was stark and somewhat artificial and arbitrary.

The Finca Vigía grounds must have provided solace and serenity — the place is incredible and unbelievably beautiful. Much like Cojímar, it is peaceful and tranquil. Compared to the chaos and noise of Havana and the area in the estate’s immediate vicinity, it seems somewhat unreal. Anyone would be able to write there. With a stunning view of Old Havana in the distance, particularly spectacular from his writing altar nestled in a panoramic tower skimming the treetops, I imagine he must have been completely and happily at ease. Honestly, I’d love nothing better than spending a week or two there myself, let alone a few years or a lifetime. Indeed, many of the photos of him at Finca Vigía show a completely content man.

As we were leaving, a hummingbird fluttered about and landed in its nest just above the steps leading up to his front door. What a perfect parting image to have in mind as we left. At least that’s what I thought at the time.

However, we ended up driving out of the estate the wrong way and again passed a few of the poorest houses along our route and surrounding his estate. The difference between Finca Vigía and the area around it is starker after spending a bit of time there — think of the most opulent luxury and then compare that to something akin to the worst sort of lesser-developed slums. It felt like traveling from a palace to a favela in an instant. Anyway, as we left the gates of his estate and passed along these poorer homes, one woman, who now as then seemed ageless, was walking out onto her front stoop looking as beaten and downtrodden as anyone I’ve ever seen. My husband and I made eye contact with her and waved as we drove by. The transformation of her face took our breath away as she waved back at us. I’ve never seen a face as electrified and brightened so quickly and easily with a smile that dazzled as brilliantly as the clearest of diamonds. I don’t know that I ever will again. But, it touched me beyond words. It still does.

Later, as we left Ernesto, our trusty driver for the day, who also immensely enjoyed Hemingway’s house, we were again touched by the generosity and kindness of individuals who struggle daily to just get by. Despite knowing that we are the ‘wealthy’ foreigners, he demanded that we phone him to drive us to the airport when we leave Cuba to return to Finland. It wasn’t so much that he wanted the 30 or so CUCs (roughly US$30) he’d make from the fare, a sum of money that most Cubans struggle to make each month. In fact, he said he’d refuse payment of any kind from us. He just wanted to drive us for our last ride before returning to the frozen North.

It’s experiences like these that provide a different flavour to our journey this time. It’s not so much that we haven’t met lovely people before. We do every time we visit Cuba. It’s just that this trip has been somewhat less filtered. Whilst we have done touristy things, we have done them more like Cubans would and experienced them with those who live within that embargoed land every day. We’ve spent less time isolated from the every day Cuba, I guess. And, it is a far, far richer place than I’d ever imagined possible for a place that is desperately poor.

I’m fortunate to have an incredibly kind and witty family with whom we can share these experiences. Not at all surprising I’m sure to anyone who has met and knows my husband. But, kindness and wittiness surround us in the most unlikely places, from the folks we pass and talk to randomly on the streets to the mad almendrón drivers who’ve carted us around.

We can only hope that we return that kindness as effortlessly as it has been given.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.