Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Return To Innocence

Navy blue skirt. Crisp white shirt. A red triangular neck scarf. A star-shaped pin with a gold hammer & sickle symbol. All these comprised my uniform on the day in September 1976. when I became Tito’s pioneer with the rest of my Grade 1 class in Belgrade's Pioneer City
We wore that uniform every time we had a special assembly or whenever a foreign politician decided to pay my school or city a visit, be it philandering Valerie Giscard d’Estaing or notorious Nicolae Ceausescu. For the infamous visit of Muammar al-Qaddafi I was already a university student and could bail-out of those mandatory moments of waving a miniature flag, red carnation in hand.  

A wide blue rectangular Moskvitch was parallel-parked on the Smiljanićeva street, my dad periodically sliding underneath it on a home made dolly (my sister and I called it for some meaningless reason "lek-lor", remember Mina? It was one of our favourite outdoor toys!). I remember our father’s pharmacist hands often being black on weekends, smelling of motor-oil from changing it himself or replacing a part he managed to source. There was also mom’s red Fiat 126P, the size of a Costco shopping cart, and displaying the licence plate BG 159-19. For a good period of time - we had a near fluorescent lemon-yellow Citroen GS with black stripes racing along the bottom of each side of it. And in the last few years we could afford a car it was the sand coloured Lada Samara, BG 360-340. We loved this car so much we named it "the desert fox". But not after Rommel!
Not after Rommel because no one wanted a part of a German soldier at play-time. Everyone wanted only to be a partisan. Or even better a secret group of friends fighting Gestapo on the streets of Belgrade as seen in the favourite TV series of my childhood “Otpisani”. Because in school, on TV and at the cinema, it was all about the WW2 and how - despite all odds - with Tito’s leadership we beat the Nazi's and became the ‘modern’ Yugoslavia.

And then they were parents like mine who refused to belong to the communist party. They did well as pharmacist and a lawyer, but never really as well as their peers who opted for the membership. Career advancements, free corporate apartments and posts overseas were reserved only for those who attended meetings and proclaimed themselves as communists. Instead, my parents would shut the windows, draw the curtains, explain to us kids the utmost importance of secrecy and keeping topics from home at home, then proceed to gather and entertain their free-minded friends, generously criticizing the government, exchanging passionate commentaries and telling jokes that could earn each adult significant time at the Goli otok - the barren island - an inhumane and often terminal stop for political prisoners. 

In essence, this is the fabric of my childhood. And as incredible as it might sound to you and the by-now fully North-Americanized me: we had the best time of our lives living in Yugoslavia!
Comrades flash to warn each other of hidden speed radars

Perhaps that is why this past winter I fell in love with Cuba. I had been to Cuba many times before - the favourite (read: inexpensive) winter getaway location for a single mom and her son snatched on a last minute website often just in time to tell my boss and his teacher. This winter, we made it our mission to let go of the all-inclusive circus (more on that soon) and explore Havana for a couple of days. Our mission: Havana before Obama.

The result? The nostalgic and overwhelming feeling I had entered the time capsule. 
Here is why:
Revolution is still a current and hot topic
 The Cuban flag is a point of national pride on many balconies
The red star still a common political and fashion statement
School uniforms ensure all kids are equal
Morro castle proudly reminds of hard fought independence 
And cannons and cannonballs are at every corner. Yey!
The coffee is real and far from the venti skinny vanilla latte craze
Domestic cola and beer reign, blissfully unaware of Pepsis & Buds 
Guys still sweet-talk girls over backgammon
Neighbours unite in common problems

Men and women are equal. Old age is treated with utmost respect
Even though the city is quite uniquely avant-garde
Dryers are obsolete on La Isla
Big work is only being done now because of Obama's impending visit
But as long as all Cubans remember the unfaltering courage  
They are at liberty to smile & salsa, enjoying a rare freedom

There is something seductively naïve in the collective demeanour of Cubans. They are kind, they are proud and their streets are safe for everyone even in the wee hours of the night. They know the world has moved on. And the Internet exists. The globe is suddenly much smaller. But they also recognize that the deep western unhappiness, cancerous corporate greed and modern-day enslavement is nothing to strive for. They really haven't missed much. 
When the taxi windows and doors closed and we departed for Havana, our driver Miguel (not his real name) told us - just like my parents did back in the days of former Yugoslavia - how things really are. Then he got careful to end all such conversations as we passed the toll booth. Cubans are anxious to see what will happen with the physical end of the Castros. Anxious yet calm. And hopeful.           
By day they work, considering themselves successful if they get anywhere near the Canadian and European tourists, taking any job even though they might have a medical, engineering or teaching degree already completed. Unlike their real professions, this allows them to earn in convertible pesos, needed for everything other than the government determined rations of food. 
By night they dance. The new generations of world-class musicians stemming from the original Buena Vista Social Club wizards does not allow for sitting not even a minute out. It is in their every step, smile and swing.
Mi familia explorando Habana
And they are  h a p p y.

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