Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Brash Americans Bitsy and Brad Donaldson, and Iranian-Americans Sami and Zeba Yazdan, meet at the Baltimore airport, waiting for the arrival of their adopted daughters from Korea. While the Yazdans quietly wait with Sami's mother Maryam, the Donaldsons' friends and family have turned the arrival gate into a party, one that encompasses the Yazdans once they realize their common purpose. When Bitsy invites them to the first of what will become an annual Arrival Party, these celebrations of the day the girls entered their lives become the tentpole that holds up an unlikely friendship.
The book explores adoption not just of children, but of countries and cultures. The Yazdans appear to simultaneously strive to be more American than the Americans, yet value their own culture above that of their adoptive country's, or in Sami's case, of the country in which he was born. At one point, he scoffs: "Doesn't it strike you all as quintessentially American that the Donaldsons think the day their daughter came to this country was more important than the day she was born?"
His mother Maryam left her native country so many years ago that she would be an outsider there, and yet is obviously a foreigner in her adopted country, with an accent and traditions that set her apart. She is both dismayed at reminders of her foreignness and standoffish in the face of the warm, blustery American-ness of the Donaldsons – particularly when Bitsy's widowed father, Dave, begins an awkward courtship.
In turn, the Donaldsons are simultaneously critical of the Yazdans' differences and fascinated by their exoticism. Bitsy preserves baby Jin-Ho's Korean name, the haircut she arrived with, and the clothes of her homeland, and makes pointed remarks about the Yazdans' decision to rename their baby Susan, among other parenting decisions she disapproves of.
The novel dips in and out of the various characters' lives, with chapters written from the perspective of Maryam, Bitsy, Dave, and even little Jin-Ho, exploring misperceptions they have of each other under the surface affection and, sometimes, annoyance.
Tyler treats all her characters, even when they are irritating and wrong-headed, with respect and wamth, and Digging to America thankfully doesn't lapse into a morality tale of acceptance or assimilation. Her characters are convincingly real, never functioning simply as sides of an issue. Tyler, whose late husband was Iranian-born psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Modarressi, brings equally intricate detail to her portrayal of the extended Yazdan family as to the Baltimore born-and-bred characters that populate most of her books.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Breathing Lessons and The Accidental Tourist is a master at bringing to life the inner lives of her characters. Tyler has the Jane Austen-ish ability to create an intimate portrayal of the domestic that acts as a broader comment on the society of her time. Like her previous 16 novels, Digging to America is a deceptively light read, profound in its emotions and observations and enlivened by sly humour.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
First, the unknown bad: Over the weekend I'd cleaned out my bathroom cabinet and found a few bottles of hair styling products I had abandoned before they were finished. I do that a lot, when I decide something else is going to be the miracle product to achieve my goal of natural looking and natural feeling hair that defies nature. I decided I should either throw them out or use them up, so yesterday I used some leftover mousse. All day I despaired that I must have used too much, because my hair felt kind of … icky. This morning, I picked up that bottle, looked a little more closely, and discovered it's face cleanser mousse. I thought about using toothpaste to style my hair, but decided against it.
This isn't like the time I accidentally took four vitamins instead of four Tylenol. Yesterday, I was perfectly awake, contact lenses in, lights on. It's just … who makes face cleanser mousse? When I see a bottle of mousse, of course I think it's for hair and don't scrutinize the bottle. (Don't you dare ask me who buys face cleanser mousse, uses ¾ of a bottle of it, then forgets it exists.)
Now the unusual good: the strip club was a very cool experience for me, even though (or, more likely, because) no naked people were involved. It was the location for my first on-set interview, which was also my first interview for a Canadian show. But one benefit to doing phone interviews is you never have to wonder, "did they notice I styled my hair with, let's face it, fancy soap?" Anyway, that interview will be coming next week.
Now I need to stop writing frivolous blog entries and get a couple of reviews done before I can get started on writing up the interview. A brain would sure come in handy right about now, but things aren't looking good on that front.
Sunday, August 27, 2006
But overall, it was just ... boring.
I know it had something to do with the fact that I didn't really have a horse in the race. Sure, there were people and shows I wanted to see win more than others, and House was in the running for best drama, which should have been enough to keep me captive until the end. But even though the Emmys are predictable only for their kooky unpredictability, I was 99.99% sure it wouldn't win. If voters didn't recognize the two elements that make the show worthy of a nomination - Hugh Laurie and the writing - I couldn't see them recognizing the show as a whole with a win.
I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Grey's Anatomy, so I wasn't terribly disappointed it didn't pick up the best drama or writing trophies like it was expected to, even though it was the only one of the non-House nominees I watch regularly.
So there wasn't much else for me to hold on to, and as category after category went by with disappointing results - Blythe Danner again? Tony Shalhoub again? - I had to hold on to moments like Jeremy Piven winning to keep me happy momentarily. But as Stephen Colbert screamed later, as a presenter: "I lost to Barry Manilow!" It felt like these were my mother's Emmys. And my mother doesn't watch TV.
The speeches were kept mercifully short, but the winners obviously felt the ticking clock and didn't feel they had time to be interesting or funny. It wasn't much of a surprise that Greg Daniels, creator of the US version of The Office, and Greg Garcia, creator of My Name is Earl, had a couple of the funniest speeches. Comedy writers, comedic speeches. Makes sense. But who would have guessed the winning director for comedy, Marc Buckland, would be a close runner up? He poked fun at the fact that no one cares about non-acting categories, and made his category's speech more interesting than most others for the night.
I think it's absolutely right for the Emmys to recognize TV legends like Dick Clark and Aaron Spelling, but that doesn't mean I enjoyed watching those segments. It was especially painful to watch Barry Manilow try to gyrate on a hip that needed replacing the very next day, saluting American Bandstand, a show that had long past its prime by the time I was a kid. Recognizing legends of the past is important, but it wouldn't have hurt to try some segments that might appeal to people under the age of 70, too.
I guess that's what the pretty people in pretty clothes are for, though. It's hard to judge one guy over the next, since they all look fabulous after taking five minutes to slap on a tux, but Katherine Heigl of Grey's Anatomy and Evangeline Lilly of Lost get my award for most likely to make straight women think about switching teams. There were no real hideous fashion misteps, which is a little disappointing. Where was the swan suit? Where was the tutu?
Oh well. As one winner said, we're in a golden age of television. I'm not sure you'd know it by the nominees in some of the categories, but at least most of the performers looked the part.
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Last night, I was with a group of friends who get together most summer Fridays for some volleyball. Unlike the Wednesday league, it's an actual beach, but not so much actual volleyball. At the end of the evening, sitting around in the pitch dark at 9 p.m. trying to pretend that's not a signal that summer is ending, one guy started trying to get a group together to see Bon Cop, Bad Cop. It kind of warmed my heart (it was also getting chilly there in the dark), since Canadian movies tend to suffer from the same kind of obscurity as Canadian TV, and here were about 10 people getting excited about seeing one.
I'll overlook the fact that half the group were attractive, single French-Canadian women and the guy who suggested the film might have had some strategic motivation for picking a bilingual film. Even the non-French Canadians in our midst had heard of it, and were excited about it. That kind of mass approval for a Canadian film is unprecedented in my experience.
I'd already seen it, and enjoyed it a lot more than your average cop buddy film, which isn't really my genre. It has fun with its Canadianness without getting too cheesy about it.
I frequently say some movie or book or TV show isn't my usual taste, but I have a hard time defining what my taste is. But speaking of movies I've seen recently, Little Miss Sunshine is exactly my taste. I loved that movie. It was poignant, but was also one of the funniest films I've seen in a long time, with a sick sense of humour that reminded me of some of my favourite people (hi big bro!). I was literally laughing so hard I was crying during the climactic scene, even as I was (not literally) cheering the message of it.
I guess two movies don't constitute a trend, but I feel like I'm out of my disinterest-in-movies rut. I suspect I might have overlooked the fact that it almost coincided with summer blockbuster movie season, which means it wasn't really my rut as much as the fact that summer movies tend not to be my usual taste. Whatever that is.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Kind of like volleyball. Every Wednesday I feel like I just can't face playing tonight, pray for rain, then drag myself to the "beach" (the league beach is basically a parking lot full of sand under a bridge), because I made a commitment to the team. And paid for it. Then I have a lot of fun and can't believe I hadn't wanted to come. Well, unless we start losing and the guys start getting bitchy because they think we're better than we actually are and should never lose. That's probably what makes me dread it every week in the first place.
[If the volleyball talk is giving you the impression I'm something a jock … wait, let me stop laughing first. It's the only sport I love to play and the only one I'm decent at (that's definitely not false modesty, and possibly false ego) but the kind of play you see at the Olympics? Or even the cool kids on the beach? That's not me.]
So anyway, though right now I think "how can I possibly write more about season two," I know I'll become my usual Housenerdy self once I start writing about the DVD. And if I don’t, there's always the inspiring thought that the PR people could beat me up if I don't get it done. Heck, their preschoolers and pet chinchillas could beat me up. That's how much of a jock I'm not.
Monday, August 21, 2006
The House Season Two DVD is coming out tomorrow, and I had been intending on reviewing it whether or not I got a review copy from NBC Universal. But then I didn't get one, and I haven't felt motivated to get a start on what I could write without having the DVD in my hands. I was feeling a little burned out on House reviewing by the end of last season (not the show, just the reviewing), and I don't seem to be completely ... unburned. So even though I'll likely pick it up tomorrow, I don't think I'll have the time or motivation to watch and write anything quickly, and it's going to seem a little beside the point the longer it takes me to get it done. Besides, now I have a stack of other review materials I'm excited about that I need to prioritize because I did get review copies, which makes companies expect timely reviews, and I don't want to get my kneecaps broken by angry PR people.
But anyway. It's out tomorrow. Great show. Buy it.
- Anamorphic widescreen [I guess they've learned since last year]
- Available Subtitles: English, Spanish
- Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1)
- "An Evening With House" panel discussion at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with the cast and executive producers
- Commentary by executive producers David Shore and Katie Jacobs on the episodes "Autopsy" and "No Reason"
- Alternate takes from the episodes "Daddy's Boy" and "Sleeping Dogs Lie" with Lisa Edelstein (Cuddy) and Jennifer Morrison (Cameron) performing, like, Valley Girl style [not exactly on the top of my extras wish list, but mildly amusing - they were on Amazon as a preview for a while]
- "It Could Be Lupus..." - A montage of clips highlighting the shows oft-repeated diagnosis [ha! glad they didn't pick vasculitis]
- Blooper Reel
Link to prove I'm not a bad fan, I'm not:
Sunday, August 20, 2006
I finished reading Saturday by Ian McEwan, and it's a great book. I don't mean that in the "I had a great time" at the end of an OK date way, but in the "this will be taught in universities and also read for pleasure" kind of way. It's not about 9/11, but it's the first book I've read that captures its impact on people who weren't directly affected, focusing on one day in the life of one neurosurgeon in England, about 18 months after he was forced to look at the world in a different way. It's not just intelligent and profound, it's an enjoyable read, too. But I couldn't say it has a lot of humour, and I next started on The Memory Keeper's Daughter, an even more humourless book.
That one is about a doctor in 1960s Kentucky who delivers his own twins during a winter storm. When he realizes the girl has Down's syndrome, he gives her to his nurse to be delivered to an institution. He tells his wife the baby died. The nurse, however, ends up raising the girl herself.
It was good, another character study and page-turner, and beautifully written for the most part, but the pages were turned more by curiousity of when the central secret of the book would be revealed than really being captivated by the characters.
After its sombreness, I went for a lighter read next. So the one I'm reading right now is called The Big Happy by Scott Mebus. It's about a former TV producer who decides to quit his unfulfilling job to pursue "the big happy" - so he writes a novella and works as a low-rent DJ to pay the bills until his writing career takes off.
I'm not far into it, and it's an entertaining but not exceptional book so far, but I might be a little in love with its fictional narrator, just for this one exchange. The narrator, David, is meeting his best friend's fiance, a guy he instantly dislikes and nicknames Rat Boy but tries to have a conversation with for his friend's sake.
[Rat Boy:] "I have to tell you, you're all nothing like I thought you'd be."
[David:] "What's she told you? She lies! Anyway, I never would have gone near that girl if I'd known she was Amish."
Josh seemed confused at the joke.
"Annie never mentioned an Amish girl. Was she out on rumspringa? If so, I wouldn't worry. She was trying to taste secular life to decide whether to return to the faith. It's a common practice that I think is really important to why they've survived so long."
I didn't know which was worse, the fact that he completely missed the joke, or the fact that when I got home to my apartment I would end up Googling rumspringa and spending half the night reading up on it.
I'd write more about what I've been reading lately, but I have to go Google rumspringa now ...
Saturday, August 19, 2006
A friend of mine was telling someone about my adventures in interviewing, saying I interview "famous people." I had to object a little, pointing out that I interview TV writers, and are they really famous if no one recognizes them?
A couple of seasons ago, Barry Manilow was on American Idol and was shocked when the makeup person thought he was the black guy at the piano. Julia Roberts has mentioned her own Notting Hill moment, when someone didn't recognize her. There's no doubt Julia Roberts and Barry Manilow are famous, but fame loses its meaning when confronted by someone who doesn't know you.
A few years ago, when my mom was visiting, we ran into William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman at a store in Chinatown, and I pointed them out to her in hushed tones. She isn't much of a pop culture fan, and didn't recognize any of their credits I could spout, though she recognized I was obviously a fan.
Later, she kept trying to tell people about her celebrity encounter, and she had to keep asking me who exactly we'd seen. So I told her if she really wanted to tell people about the encounter and couldn't remember the names, she could tell them she'd seen the guy from Fargo and his actress wife (which made me feel disloyal, but this was pre-Desperate Housewives, and I had even less faith that my mom's friends would have heard of Sports Night than Fargo). But mostly I said that if you don't know who they are, and your friends don't know who they are, then it's not so much a brush with fame, is it?
But one of my favourite stories from Mexico is exactly that kind of brush with the unknown famous. A friend of mine was a director who worked for a PBS-like station. He invited me to the birthday party of a friend of his, who had recently directed a kids feature film, a kind of Bad News Bears of soccer. I knew most of the other guests were involved in the industry, but didn't think anything of it.
The guests included a family of three, a good-looking couple and their adorable toddler son. The guy - let's call him, oh, Plutarco - was an actor who had worked with my friend, but they seemed more like rivals than friends themselves. Plutarco spent the evening talking to us, telling me embarrassing stories about Alfredo, arguing with him in what seemed like a pissing contest, and I would have sworn he was trying to flirt with me if it weren't for the fact that his wife was sitting impassively across the room, and that while Alfredo and I were never a couple, Plutarco didn't know that.
I didn't really understand the dynamics. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, sometimes I thought Latin men were from Pluto. Especially this Plutarco guy.
A couple of weeks later, I was walking down the street with my roommates when I saw a billboard for Quien, a People-like magazine. It had a picture of the current issue, which had a teaser in the corner of the cover for a story on Mexico's 10 Sexiest Couples ... accompanied by a picture of Plutarco and his wife.
When we got home, I called Alfredo, who laughed and told me they're both popular soap actors. He asked if I hadn't noticed that Plutarco was frustrated when I hadn't fawned over him, the way most women do.
"I thought he was just trying to annoy you," I said. "That too," Alfredo answered.
So that was my big Mexican celebrity story: I was sort of, possibly, flirted with by a telenovela star I'd never heard of before or since. Who was, apparently, frustrated that fame doesn't translate. He probably wouldn't have been comforted by the fact that it wasn't just a language or culture issue - I wouldn't have been impressed anyway. Fame doesn't make someone less of a schmuck.
Sunday, August 13, 2006
I watched the series when it aired, though not to the bitter end—I thankfully missed the long-lost daughter storyline, for one. I wasn't sure it would hold up for me now, so it was nice to find that it did. Though the brief taste of it was probably just enough to appreciate it without choking on its determined quirkiness.
There were a lot of gender politics going on in that show, and it didn't always land on the expected answers when it even gave answers. Do women want men to protect them from insults by throwing a punch? Ally says yes. Do men prove their manhood by throwing that punch? John Cage says yes. Do sexual harassment laws even the playing field, or position women as victims? Georgia says they're required protection, Richard Fish says they create victimization.
Fish was the most obvious representative of what should seem like wrong-headed opinions, but he often raised valid points about the differences between men and women, and the way laws seen as victories by feminists could actually be perceived as anti-feminist. Ally herself wasn't the voice of traditional feminism, and thank god. Most women aren't, and women don't speak with one voice anyway. Plus there were the skirts. Feminists don't have legs, or something like that.
I have no faith in my knowledge of the overall television landscape, but my perception at the time was that there were few shows that showed women exposing their flaws, exposing their loneliness, exposing their legs, searching for something strong women aren't supposed to search for. Most TV women seemed to me to have perfect, snappy lives with jobs and families or witty romantic tension with the guy you knew she'd end up with in the end. Oddball Ally wasn't going to end up with Bland Billy, and that didn't seem the relationship to root for anyway. It was the idea of the love she shared with him, and her search for a love like that again, that propelled the show.
I could write the opposite point of view very easily. I could dismiss the notion that a woman is incomplete without a man. I could decry that a man—David E. Kelley—would have the nerve to create a character whose central purpose is to find a man. I could toss in the quote that a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. But that ignores the fact that most women, most people, want a partner to share their life with. Ally wasn't just a wreck who needed a man. She was a wreck who had a career she loved, a life outside work, supportive friends, but there was one thing she wanted that was missing in her life. It's all in the theme song: "I believe I am ready for what love has to bring/Got myself together, now I'm ready to sing." Sure, roll your eyes, but you know you're going to be humming that to yourself later.
Watching a couple of the more gender-politicky episodes reminded my of a recent conversation I had with a friend about the controversy over the Rescue Me rape scene. (Neither of us has ever seen the show, which didn't stop us from having an opinion, of course.) She pointed out that it must be frustrating for a writer trying to create a scene that says something about two characters to find that scene being taken as an overall statement about an issue. In Ally McBeal's case, she wasn't the voice of all women; she was the voice of a (fictional) woman.
I said I think it's possible for a show to show actions and express ideas that are troubling, even reprehensible, and not be advocating those actions and ideas. Not only is it more interesting to have perceptions challenged instead of constantly reinforced, but there's not much substance to an unexamined opinion (unless it's me and my friend talking about a show we've never seen).
Ally McBeal wasn't quite a feminist role model, but I don't need or want television and movies and books to provide role models for me. Maybe that's what parents want for their children, but I think adults should be capable of slightly more complex thinking. Like that Ally is the kind of emotional mess I wouldn't aspire to, but can relate to a little, tiny bit. She was an interesting, funny, quirky character in a show that had a lot to say about what made men and women different, and celebrated those differences. Whether I always agreed, or always related, was irrelevant, and at least it made me think about what I thought.
Plus, it was kind of liberating to have a role model—I mean, a screwed-up TV character—who admitted she wanted something more than a fabulous career, fabulous friends, fabulous (or scandalous) wardrobe. It was refreshing to see a show acknowledge that even though women are empowered to have it all, that doesn't make it any easier to get it all.
Saturday, August 12, 2006
Their Wisconsin accents were vaguely reminiscent of Fargo, but when they tried to imitate my accent, it just heightened the Fargo echoes even more. How strange that we each thought the other sounded like Marge Gunderson, and denied that we ourselves did. (Sorry, I'm aware the pronouns and syntax of that sentence are a little suspect.)
I've always thought my western Canadian accent was indistinguishable from a midwest American accent. When I travel or when I lived abroad, I'm usually pegged as American, even by Americans. I've often disappointed people and had to explain that the oot and aboot accent is really more of an eastern Canadian thing. But when I interviewed the Bones creator, I asked him "whereabouts" in Canada he was from. (I would've sworn I never use that word, since "where" works just as well, but then I would've sworn I don't say "about" in any peculiar way, either.) He had a good laugh because he had no idea where I was from and thought I was trying to be funny and imitate the Canadian accent. So, so much for that illusion.
That's the thing about accents - it's all about context. I don't have one ... until I'm surrounded by silly Americans.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
I'm not completely ungirly. I like pretty clothes and jewelry and stuff. I just don't like shopping for pretty clothes and jewelry and stuff. I walked into Sephora, the cosmetics and fragrance emporium, but was too overwhelmed to even think of buying anything. So I suspect I'll disappoint my shopaholic friends when I show off my prized find so far: a Life magazine from 1971, featuring a special section on the 25th anniversary of television, from a shop in Pike's Place Market.
My friends may not be impressed, but I think it's priceless for its pronouncements about how TV is destroying society as we know it, and for the feature on how a network executive planned that year's schedule. There's a lot that seems quaintly dated (game shows held that scornful place now reserved for reality television), some that's intriguing for the prescience (All in the Family had recently become a sensation, and the network exec predicts it will open up other series to approach weightier issues), and some that sounds laughably like the doom and gloom way we talk about television and its diminishing audience today - even some that sounds like how we talk about the Internet today (like the photo to the left). I might do a real post on it when I've read it all, but I just had to share the pretty pictures first.
The special TV section was the draw, but it's cool to flip through the rest of the magazine and see casual references to President Nixon, and Vietnam, and a tribute to Margaret Bourke-White, the former Life (among others) photographer who'd just died.
If that's all I buy in Seattle, I'll be happy. But I might have to go back and get some Sephora lip gloss to prove my girly credentials.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
That's the silver lining, right? I'm ordinarily very blase about age. I see no reason to be coy about revealing how old I am, and birthdays don't bother me. Usually. I freaked out a little at 27 for some reason, but 30, when friends were distraught as the age odometer flipped to a round number, had no effect on me. It helped that I was in preparations to move to a country where I knew no one and didn't speak the language a week later, which was something of a distraction. Plus, as my brother would say, it's only the accident of our base 10 number system that gives any special importance to another decade. (Yes, my brother might be even nerdier than me.)
This year I was on my way to being freaked out. I'm now closer to 40 than 30. But only a little closer. Actually as close as you can get to 30 while still being closer to 40. Really, it's almost like I'm 29.
Fortunately, I was distracted again by an accident of timing which has put me on holidays in Seattle, visiting a crazily fun (and, let's face it, just plain crazy) friend of mine from across the continent who happens to be here on business. So I'm sleeping in and exploring the city while she works, then we get to hang out evenings and this coming weekend, too. Tonight was yachting night – the hotel where she and her hordes of coworkers stay when they travel schmoozed them, and by proxy me, with a trip on a giant sailboat. I could get used to that life. (And if I were home, I'd pop in a Sports Night DVD because a quote is nagging at me and I can't quite remember it ... Dan's talking about yachting as the sport of the common man, and Casey says something like "yeah, all you need is a million dollar boat and a dream." I miss Dan and Casey. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip better be good.)
I had a little flashback to my 16th birthday, which I spent in France on a school trip, staying with a family who belonged to a sailing club. It was my first time on a sailboat so they taught me how to pull the rope on command and duck when the pole thingie (I believe that's the technical term) came whipping across the boat to the other side. Then the father threw me off, into the middle of the lake, as I shrieked and giggled. After they pulled me back in, he said "It's a good thing you can swim." (At least, I think that's what he said – I never did get very good at French.) It occurred to me then that perhaps he should have thought to ask before shoving me in the water. I believe the sailing club's motto was "Life jackets are for sissies" but that may just be my poor French again.
That was exactly 20 years ago, which is frightening and wrong and starting to freak me out about the age thing again. Oh ... wait ... no, 29, so it was only 13 years ago. I feel much better now.
Friday, August 04, 2006
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we are facing the end of the world.
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Thursday, August 03, 2006
I'd only been in Mexico for six months at that point, and pretty much the only Spanish I knew when I'd arrived was "where are the bathrooms" and "how much does this cost." I figured I was doing pretty well, given my lack of facility for languages, and starting to understand a fair bit, so I was dismayed to discover how different – that is, incomprehensible – the Cuban accent is. It wounded my pride a bit that I had to rely on my traveling companion, the guy I was dating at the time, to be my interpreter most of the time, but I felt better knowing that even he, a native Spanish speaker, had trouble.
The Cubans were extremely, sometimes overly, friendly, and everyone who approached us tried to peg our nationality as a couple. Tall, fair-skinned Carlos didn't fit the Mexican stereotype. I'm tall, glow-in-the-dark skinned and ... well, normally blonde, but on a pre-holiday whim I'd dyed my hair for the first time, but it was still an un-Latina red. When they asked where we were from, they refused to believe Carlos's answer of "Mexico," first turning to me in disbelief until I answered "soy canadiense" in my tragic and obviously non-Mexican accent, then turning to Carlos again in disbelief because, though his accent was right, he didn't "look Mexican." I found it funny, but by the end of the three days, he was annoyed at having to justify his Mexican-ness. He also ended up suffering from sunstroke after three days of mocking my liberal use of sunscreen and unnatural attachment to my hat, so I was not as sympathetic to his annoyances as I could have been.
People would follow us to continue the conversation, and one couple tried persistently to dissuade us from visiting the museum we were going to, because they didn't want to go. We finally had to be blunt and tell them we were going to just continue on our own, then. We found out later that Cubans weren't allowed in, only tourists, and felt guilty.
We lined up at an ice cream place that had been featured in the movie Strawberry & Chocolate, which had separate lineups for separate currencies, effectively dividing tourists (short lineup, more expensive ice cream) from locals (long lineup, cheap ice cream).
We never did figure out the currency situation. There were three — American dollars, Cuban pesos, and convertible pesos — one of which tourists weren't supposed to use, so we stuck with American dollars. That meant things were far more expensive, but also that we could go to the many places that only took American dollars, and could find places willing to change our money, and didn't have to ponder the mysteries of currency in the short time we had there.
Despite the ubiquitousness of American money, it was a little like entering the Twilight Zone to be in a country virtually untouched by American influence. I know it's not exactly by choice, but after seeing McDonalds and Blockbusters in Peru the year before, it was comforting to see that a part of the world exists where the golden arches don't. You'd see Coke sometimes, but rarely, and it was Hecho en Mexico (Made in...). There were American cars, but they were from the 1950s, and only added to the otherworld, othertime charm of the country.
The ornate colonial buildings were both majestic and heartbreaking, in various states of disrepair, some acting as slum housing, and no money to repair them. Old Havana has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, but it's a crumbling heritage. One beautiful and well-maintained building was the possibly slighly history-altering Museum of the Revolution, which told of the heroics of Fidel and Che and their cohorts, and described the social utopia that is Cuba today.
There was some free enterprise, both legal and illegal. We stayed in a legal, private guest house – an apartment created out of the top floor of a couple's home – and they explained that there were strict rules, heavy competition, and extremely high taxes.
We didn't make great use of the kitchen because we couldn't find anywhere to buy food. The locals got free rations from government stores, though our hosts told us the black market thrives because the government-supplied staples aren't enough to live on. We also couldn't find a bank machine. They exist, but people kept directing us to exchange houses that give advances on credit cards (unless they happen to be a Citibank Visa, even if it was issued in Canada).
Because of the high tax on free enterprise, some people operate illegal restaurants set up in their family apartment, with no signs on the outside to indicate the activity within. A young guy, maybe late teens, came up to us on the street saying basically "psst, wanna eat?" and led us to a paladar (as private restaurants, legal or illegal, are called) that had the most amazing, least expensive lobster stuffed with seafood dish. There were only a few items on the menu, including a couple of lobster dishes – which I discovered later is something only state-run restaurants are legally allowed to serve. The boy who'd enticed us in sat with us for part of the meal, chatting, first trying to figure out where we were from, of course, then trying (successfully) to sell us a box of cigars. It could have been annoying, except that I could tune out and let the boys talk, since I didn't really understand anyway, and the greatest fun was the surreptitiousness of it all … until you remembered why it was surreptitious, and wondered at the consequences if they were discovered (turns out, mostly fines, though jail time is possible).
We sipped mojitos at Le Bodeguita del Medio, a bar where Ernest Hemingway, among other famous faces, used to hang out. In fact, pretty much everywhere we went was supposedly some place Hemingway used to hang out, which didn't charm me nearly as much as it was supposed to, since I'm not a great Hemingway fan, but it was a pilgrimage the tourist has to take. Especially the tourist who for some inexplicable reason has a complete collection of Hemingway's works despite not being a fan. The music and performers in a small street festival were more charming by far, and didn't smack so much of putting on a show for the tourists and their American money.
That was all about 5 years ago, and it was only three days, so I'd love to go back and see more of the country. But with an 80 year old president in failing health and his 75 year old successor, it's easy to wonder what kind of country it will be by the time that happens.