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Yesterday was May Day, and a national holiday here in Portugal. While I did not have either the occasion or ability to celebrate, many other people did, and all afternoon we could hear drums, music, and amplified voices drifting up from a parade making its way down the Avenida.

They were still marching when we went to the gym in the late afternoon, and on the way back, we wound our way between big groups of people holding signs and banners — presumably the labor unions. Some of them were dressed in traditional costumes and dancing, others were dressed normally. There was even a squad of men dressed in baby pink banging on humongous drums.

It was all very jolly, but as I’d just gone for a swim and a hot tub and was feeling pretty weak, we continued our way slowly up the hill to home. (Never has that short hill looked so long — this really is not a good city in which to have limited mobility!)

Traditionally though, May Day marked the beginning of summer, which began as a pagan celebration back in the day and was then appropriated under Christianity into the more secular celebration we see today. Of course neither is a big deal in the States, but I know it’s a bank holiday in Britain, and is clearly an occasion to celebrate here. Under the guise of International Worker’s Day, May 1 was also very important in Soviet Russia, and continues to be so in Cuba.

I’m not sure which of those many forms of May Day I celebrated yesterday, but I’m sure spending all day reading on the couch (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins) and feeling poorly counted as solidarity of one kind or another.

On a similar note… after yesterday’s post, a gentle reader pointed me to a blog post on solitude by the author Mary Morris. Morris says, “I wanted my solitude, but was not enjoying my loneliness… Solitude implies a choice. But loneliness is imposed. It’s a kind of stealth emotion.” That’s exactly what I was trying to say in my own much clumsier way yesterday.

I have always been a solitary person. There is no doubt about that. At home in Santa Cruz though, that is a choice: I have people to call, friends to see, family to visit. Here, my solitary state soon became synonymous with loneliness, because there was no choice. Even when I want to be around people, the possibilities are few and far between. So this week, when I returned to solitude after six weeks of companionship, the loneliness quickly overpowered my relief at being solitary once more.

I’m very relieved to be able to make this distinction. I still do relish my solitude, and would feel like I was losing an old friend if suddenly I were to stop valuing it as much. But loneliness — well, that is one acquaintance I can certainly do without.

Either way, the entire debate will be rendered moot in about three weeks, when we go to visit family in Sweden. After that, it’s pretty much nonstop travel, company, and moving until we get home in August, by which point solitude will once again seem like a sweet desert oasis shimmering on the horizon.

The grass is always greener, I suppose.

We spent the most part of the last two days outside, wandering the streets and soaking in the sunshine before the rain we’ve been promised begins to fall once more. Dangit! I knew I shouldn’t have bought those new sandals yesterday. I totally jinxed our nice weather.

As you saw, Sunday was our road trip up to Obidos, a little walled town about an hour’s drive north of Lisbon. We’d been told it was very pretty and quaint, but were totally unprepared for just how pretty and quaint it actually was. Almost every building had a rose, wisteria, or grape vine espaliered up the wall, all of which were nicely pruned, some of which were thicker than my torso and probably older than all of us combined. Their colors offset the red, blue, and yellow highlights on the buildings, and the bright blue sky of the warmest day we’ve had this year provided the perfect backdrop. I took a disproportionate number of photos for a town of its size, as every street we turned down had too marvelous a combination of blossoms, buildings, and fields in the background not to take another photo.

As usual, the main street running through town had lots of tourists and lovely little shops on it, but the side streets were Sunday quiet and largely deserted. We wandered around, stopping for lunch, looking in the ornately tiled churches, and peering over stone walls into charmingly overgrown gardens (why is it that my garden always just looks overgrown and not at all charming?) The whole thing was encircled by a medieval castle wall, which Gabe of course had to go up and run around.

Before leaving, we ducked down a set of stairs into a store that promised us hand-painted tiles, which was surrounded by yet another tauntingly charming little garden. There we finally bought our first set of Portuguese tiles to bring home with us in August. This entire time, we’ve been saying, “Oh yes, we must get some tiles before we leave,” but that time is now approaching, and as yet we have bought no tiles. So we picked out our house number in pretty blue numerals surrounded by leaves and flowers, and this time we actually purchased them instead of putting it off for later. Now we have some tiles to show for our time in Lisbon, even if we can’t decide on any others.

We left Obidos behind and continued on down the coast to Cascais, a very Santa Cruz-esque town closer to Lisbon. We had dinner at a greasy spoon cafe perched over a small inlet by the harbor, and watched the sun set behind the lighthouse. When Gabe and I had walked by that same point back in the fall, the waves had been so massive that they threw up huge sprays of water when they hit the retaining wall around the harbor — and soaked Gabe when we visited the Boca de Inferno further up the coast.

Now, the sea looked like a bathtub, calm and placid, deceptive in its peacefulness. Even the Mouth of Hell looked more like the Mouth of Purgatory, with no spumes of water reaching up to grab unsuspecting tourists. Disappointing, but fascinating in the difference between the two.

The entire coast was also far more crowded than we’d ever seen it before, as foreigners and Lisboans alike were flocking to the seaside on this first really hot day of the year. So we spent just long in Cascais to outwait the crowds, then headed back to Lisbon without having to sit in the long lines of traffic we’d seen leaving town when we arrived. There are benefits to running late.

Yesterday we again spent mostly outside, to make the most of yet another gorgeous day. We made a long, meandering circuit through town, via foot, tram, and numerous way points for shopping, coffee, and finally wine. We were joined at every point along the way by many, many tourists, especially on the tram.

As we made our rickety way around the castle, an older German couple got on, and immediately proclaimed a sleazy-looking Portuguese man standing next to us to be a pickpocket. He pretended not to understand, but they made their beliefs apparent by pointing at the large sign saying to watch out for pickpockets, after which he quickly made his way off the tram at the next stop. I was relieved, as I thought violence would soon ensue, and I really didn’t want to be a witness to that particular face-off.

We also saw many children and dogs on our tour yesterday, who seemed to be blooming in almost as great a profusion as the plants and trees. At the cafe where we stopped for coffee, we sat next to a chocolate lab puppy named Kafka, who despite being leashed to his owner’s chair still managed to wreak total havoc. He pulled apart plants, stood directly in front of passersby in hopes they might be his friend, and of course he ate everything in sight, just in case it might turn out to be tasty.

At one point, a man came by with his toddler, who was making his ponderous, unsteady way toward the duck pond (which also included a black swan, whose constant efforts to either woo, chase, or herd two nervous-looking ducks gave us great amusement.) The father pointed the puppy out to the baby, whose eyes grew wide with wonder as he turned around and saw his new best friend. Kafka had of course already set his sights on this likely-looking small person, and they met in an eruption of cuteness and slobber. The father soon extricated his son from the tangle, leaving Kafka to wag his tail longingly after them.

Also in the park, we witnessed another slightly older toddler encountering her first butterfly. When her mother pointed it out to her, she ran and hid behind her leg, peering out at this strange winged beast that moved so erratically. She was clearly both fascinated and afraid, wanting to get closer but dreading to do so without the shelter of her mother’s leg. Her mom, trying to show her it was all right, walked closer to the butterfly, who of course flew away. The little girl ducked in fear, then immediately ran over to where it had been, looking around her wildly to see if it might be coming back for her. Clearly, all of these small animals have been cooped up inside for far too long.

Further along on our trip, after much walking and shopping and browsing, we stopped at the mirador for a drink before going home. There we witnessed many the odd duo, made all the more so by my extremely generous glass of vinho verde. Next to us sat two beautiful young ladies in their early twenties, who I noticed were dressed identically — baggy khaki shorts with pleats, flip flops, white tank tops, and grey sweaters. It wasn’t til I looked closer that I realized they actually were twins, or at least sisters. I thought it odd that they would continue to dress the same on their own, but hey, maybe it’s the thing to do.

At the next table over sat another duo of young women, these dressed like something straight out of The Breakfast Club. Both were wearing the big, square sunglasses that are making an unfortunate reappearance here in Europe. One girl accompanied these with high-waisted acid-washed jeans, white Keds, a tucked-in striped shirt, an awkward, blunt haircut, and a mannish brown briefcase — much like an outfit I would’ve worn when I was about ten years old. The other had the same bangs with a black bow in her hair, a short black skirt over black nylons, and a cropped black leather jacket. Both smoked cigarettes as if they were going out of style. I was fascinated by these two very well-thought out and painfully contrived looks that I thought went out of style when I was still a kid.

Continuing on my survey of our fellow customers, I saw two earnest looking tourists lighting up their pipes on a bench nearby. Now, I don’t believe I have ever seen a woman smoking a pipe before. At first I thought she was getting it started for her husband, who was rummaging in his backpack. But he turned out to be rummaging for his own pipe, which he proceeded to light up and accompany his wife. What a random thing to see!

Before any even stranger people could come by — or before we could drink any more — we made our way home for a short while before going back out again to try the sushi place that recently opened just up the street from us. It was nearly 7:30 when we went in, which is almost an acceptable time to eat dinner, but nonetheless the staff was amazed to see us. The waitress, who was eating a hand roll before starting her shift, almost choked when I walked around the corner of the cavernous downstairs dining room. I’m guessing they don’t get many customers for dinner.

Thus we were slightly dubious of the copious all you can eat sushi buffet, but it seemed fresh enough, so we dug in. It proved to be quite good, and so far hasn’t poisoned any of us — although I did have to point out that it would be hugely ironic if we’d made it through Morocco without food poisoning, only to be felled not half a block from our house in Lisbon.

So ended our luxurious day of sunshine, shopping, drinking, and eating. What a rough life we lead. From the start, I have always felt blessed to be having this experience, but all the more so now that the long, warm days of summer are back and our city is returning to its vibrant, open-air lifestyle.

I felt all the more lucky this morning, when I read a brief news piece about a Cuban blogger whose compiled works were confiscated by customs on the eve of their presentation in Chile. Although I stopped my academic study of Cuba after grad school, it remains near and dear to my heart, and I always pay close attention when I see it in the news.

This woman writes her truth, despite living in a country where the truth is actively discouraged, and I admire her deeply for doing so. It is one thing to keep a blog when you write about only sunshine, food, and travel, but it is another thing entirely to write a blog that speaks truth to power in the face of great adversity. As a writer and as a human being, I am humbled by her efforts and courage, and am reminded to enjoy the life I lead to the fullest.

Last night, we met up with some friends to see a Cuban band at a local bar. Partly it was to commemorate the huge changes going on in a country very near and dear to my heart, but mostly just to have a break from what has been an insanely difficult and busy month for both of us.

The band was awesome, and the salsa-dancing crowd formidably good. Needless to say I didn’t let my oh so uncoordinated feet anywhere near that dance floor, but contented myself instead by swaying to the beat on a stool close to the side of the stage. And, within minutes of starting their set, at least two members of the band had taken a decided interest in said swaying.

Now, being noticed by a Cuban man is an entirely different experience than being checked out by an American dude. Five years have passed since I went to Cuba, and I had forgotten just how brazen their stares can be. But oh, are they brazen. I mean, there I was, sitting with my husband’s hand on my leg, wedding ring prominently displayed, and still they continued to turn and stare.

At first this disconcerted me, until I remembered that the Cubans in general seemed to have a much healthier attitude towards sexuality than we do. Yes, they stare, and yes, they are forward, but they never intend any disrespect. They are just being honest in their appreciation, nothing more. It’s more like appreciating a work of art than anything, and really, why wouldn’t you express your sentiments over a lovely piece of ass, I mean sculpture?

More than anything, I think any comparison with our own society only reflects poorly on our attitudes towards sex. In Cuba, I quickly became accustomed to hearing regular expressions of masculine approval. Once I realized that these men were just voicing their approval of women’s beauty in general, I felt way more comfortable with the whole concept. Other women might not agree, but I for one have always been extremely direct, and appreciate directness in return. I always tease my husband that when we met, he pursued me with all the subtlety of a herd of rhinoceros. And hey, it worked, right?

But here, when men check you out it’s almost surreptitious, like their appreciation for your beauty is something to be ashamed of. Soon, you start to feel like maybe your beauty is something to be ashamed of, too, and the whole dynamic goes from being a simple matter of appreciation to something slightly darker.

The Cuban women, on the other hand, work it more than any I’ve ever met. No matter what they look like, they have no qualms about sporting the hottest little spandex outfits, the highest heels, the tightest jeans. (I could never figure out why the Cuban men would even look twice at me, since I was always wearing travel-wrinkled clothes, a sheen of sweat on my skin, and a completely bewildered expression on my face. I think it must have been the novelty of my blue eyes.)

Comparing the attitudes of our two societies, I can’t help but feel like the Cubans have it a little more figured out when it comes to sexuality. It’s kind of like underage drinking — if you’re open and honest about it, people will eventually figure the whole alcohol thing out for themselves. But if you make it something hush-hush and forbidden, people are sure to have an unhealthy attitude about drinking from the get-go.

So last night, I took a page from the Cubanas’ play book, and acknowledged these mens’ attention while at the same time politely deflecting it. They got to look, I got a little ego boost, and my husband’s pride remained unchallenged — and all with good music, good beer, and great company to boot. How very Cubano!

I don’t even know where to start on this one… a fascinating convocation of forces, including Communists, government cover-ups, and (surprise!) Michael Moore. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Just after college, I developed a fascination with Cuba, that long-time thorn in our collective side. I was lucky enough to go there in 2003, and two years later I chose to write my Master’s thesis on a rather obscure event in Cuban-American relations. As a result, I try to keep my eye on Cuban affairs, for old times sake.

Before I found the genius piece that I just had to write about yesterday, I had another topic in mind for my next post. I recently discovered that my favorite old man dictator, Fidel Castro, was due to reemerge from his long public absence on Tuesday. He had stomach surgery last summer, around the same time that another of my favorite old men had a similar procedure. Everybody’s doing it, you know.

But when I searched to find articles on his speech just now, which is all of two days after the fact, I was interested to see how various media outlets covered (or didn’t) his speech. The first results I came up with were all Latin American newspapers, and that was only twelve of them. For the first public appearance in almost a year, that’s a surprising lack of coverage, especially when compared to the 550-odd articles speculating on whether or not the Bolivian president will see Fidel when he visits Cuba.

Fair enough. So I searched the New York Times for “Fidel,” and came up with a whole “Times Topics” section on F.C. Good show! However, upon closer examination, most of the articles on Fidel from this year are one or maybe two paragraphs long. The piece on Fidel’s TV address was a grand total of four paragraphs.

True, the page does include some multimedia and interactive features for those of us who don’t like to read boring words for too long, but still. Given that this tiny country brought us to the brink of nuclear war just 45 years ago, it’s kind of amazing to see how completely we’ve moved on. (By contrast, a random selection of articles for both Steve Jobs and Katie Couric shows multiple paragraphs both above and below the fold.)

The Times page did succeed in pointing me to the official page of the Cuban Communist party, Granma. A more different perspective I could not have hoped for! They were predictably enthusiastic about his recent reappearance, saying that it “filled the inhabitants of this archipelago with satisfaction and joy.” Classic.

My favorite article of all, however, comes from an Australian paper, The Age. Since his operation, Fidel has been wearing a variety of brightly colored two-piece track suits. But on a recent visit, Hugo Chavez urged him to resume wearing his military uniform, which had been Fidel’s standard garb for the past oh, half-century or so. Now that is what I call cutting-edge news reporting! Along with the sidebar comparing George Clooney to Carey Grant, of course.

(Chavez also lauded Fidel for talking for nearly four hours, which he called “almost a speech.” Fidel must indeed be ill, to have only opined for four hours! How disappointing.)

All of this brings me back to my original point: Cuba is so twentieth century. We are far too absorbed with our current assortment of villains, not to mention American Idol and Paris Hilton’s jail sentence, to pay much attention to a tiny Communist island that still refuses to conform.

This in fact is precisely why I started studying Cuba in the first place – because not many people seemed to be doing so. It is both the curse and the blessing of the historian to remember things where others forget. So even though I wasn’t alive at the time, I remember that this island nation very nearly brought us to our knees.

And yes, that is still the very same island that now merits four paragraphs in the Times and an article on its leader’s fashion sense.


“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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