Student Blogs & Vlogs | College Study Abroad Programs, IFSA-Butler

Week One (Primera Semana): Maintaining Sonrisas

My Cuban host father picked me up in a black Led Zeplin t-shirt and what appeared to be a pair of new, dark-brown Timberland’s. His wife, my new host mom, emerged from behind him, a giant, welcoming smile — “sonrisa” (I love this word because it sounds like they refer to smiles as sunrises) — in tow. I ran to them and awkwardly planted the traditional Cuban-one-kiss-greeting on their cheeks as we embraced. This is mi familia for the next four months, along with their twenty-five year old daughter, Nelli, and two adorable dogs: Sombra (Shadow) and some other name I have yet to make out (it starts with a “C” I think, but only those with an ear for the Cuban accent can confirm, which is not me — at least, not yet).

I live in the most amazing old casa. The ceilings are so high I get dizzy looking at them, the long halls are stacked with painting after painting (in which I find a new detail each time I pass), and the sound of birds chirping on the red-budded tree outside the stain glass window in our room greets my roommate and I each morning. I am immediately filled with questions about how a family living off of the equivalent of twenty dollars a month can afford such a beautiful home, but maybe it is government owned or maybe they are able to afford it because they are paid so much to host us (and in the past, tourists). And what are the homes of other Cubans like? I want to ask about my host dad’s job with the radio station — whether he can broadcast whatever he wants or only what the government tells him — and I want to ask my host mom about being a woman in Cuba and what she has done with the prestigious, free education she has benefitted from. I want to know the word for every foreign object and type of food, the instructions on how to unlock the front door (I’ve been fumbling with that), and the biographies of every human who seems to come and go daily from this big ol’ house. Most of these are questions that I expect to either find out the answer to myself in the coming days, or questions that I feel can only be asked after a close, trusting relationship has been formed. My host padre has already said that he is here to answer any and all of our questions — just not to comment on politics. We’ll see.

Our program directors have repeated a few sayings in these first few days of orientation that have stuck with me. Not only are they good to keep in mind for Cuba in particular, but also for life in general:

  • “Like many matters [in Cuba], two opposite things remain true here at the same time — there is no black and white, everything is gray.”
  • “Something you will hear a lot and should learn to accept: ‘No hay.’’ (There is none.)
  • “Las cosas no son fáciles aquí, per todo está bien.” (Things are not easy here, but all is well.)

So far, I have found these saying useful in my continual quest for a functioning teléfono and internet card (hence the delay in these postings…Mom and Dad, I am alive, since you haven’t heard from me yet), in coming to terms with the catcalls — “piropos” — that inevitably follow me everywhere, in improvising when I cannot figure out how to say what I’d like to communicate, and in having patience when things don’t go as planned (for example, I went to four classes today and the professor just didn’t show up to two of them, which is not unusual here).

It’s been a very eventful first week. In addition to trying out classes, learning to become a more patient person, and marching around with a petroleum-soaked burning rag inside of a can on a stick with 10,000+ other University of Habana students at Marchas de Las Antorchas (to celebrate the birthday of the “padre de Cuba” — Jose Martí), I also had the good fortune of taking an adventure into the depths of the healthcare system that interests me so much. I went to the emergency room last night for a sinus infection gone awry. I was very impressed by the quality of the care I received. The building was spotless and I got a 30-minute consultation, an antibiotic, an antihistamine, and enough vitamin C to last me a lifetime (it seems to be the solution to every ailment here) — all without paying a dime (well, peso). The doctor inappropriately asked for my number and was definitely a little handsy, but what Cuban man isn’t. Regardless, I am very grateful for the doctor’s friendly [albeit slightly too friendly] care. I’m aware that biting my tongue instead of lashing out with some comment about feminism every time a middle-aged man feels the need to rub my shoulders or to tell me that my eyes are more beautiful than “el mar” (the sea) is all part of this cultural immersion. It’s hard, but I’m trying to keep an open mind and to look at this machismo culture from a different perspective. My favorite way of looking at it so far? I’m surrounded by a city full of people who kindly throw out compliments to remind me to love myself just a little bit more.

Con amor de Cuba,

Georgia Grace

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