M: Our AirBnb host greets us, “Español?”
“No,” Lizzie says.
The woman turns to me, “Español?”
“No,” I say. She groans. “Un poquito, per mi Español es muy mal,” I quickly add. A disjointed conversation ensues as our host relays instructions with rapid Spanish and hand gestures. Do not carry passports en la calle. Do not carry all our dinero en la calle. Turn the key derecho to open the door. Do we want desayuna en la mañana?
Mid-afternoon Sunday we begin our time in Havana by wandering mapless (pro tip: get a map before you leave the airport). Photographing tiles and cars and colors and architecture, stopping frequently to absorb the culture around us, our walk is languid. Cuba is like a jolted time warp – the iconic 50’s cars as taxis polluting the air, boxy German cars from the 80s, rickety bicycle taxis, cocotaxis, Spanish colonial architecture in various states of disrepair, a market with leather goods and jewelry, mannequins imported from the 80’s, late 70’s storefront design.
E: It had taken some very serious paperwork at the US Customs & Border Patrol (located in an isolated area of JFK), a $50 Visa, half a day of transit, and an hour of meandering through La Habana Vieja before we stop on the corner of some intersection and decide–resolve, really–to cross the street and sit down at a table of the touristy Europa Cafe.
Like many bars and restaurants in Cuba, Europa Cafe is owned by the state. We had a middle-school understanding of Communism, but we weren’t certain, exactly, how it worked. We assumed this meant that the government controlled available produce and pricing, but to what extent did they control menu preps, service standards and daily operations? The prospect beguiled us—restaurants are intimate businesses. The more time we spend in Havana, the more obvious a state-owned establishments stand out from recently opened paladars (privately owned restaurants).
Are there any external clues to deciphering the government’s establishments from an individual’s? The doors and windows are wide open at Europa Cafe, luring us inside the sprawling peach-and-coral dining room. The space is shabby, casually grand. Private restaurants must be smaller, with seating capacities of up to 50 max. The room we stand in could accommodate twice that; chairs with green upholstery encircled countless, dark-green-clothed tables.
We wait to be seated, unsure of what to do. Eventually, someone showed us to the first table in an open window. No place settings on this table, only two napkins, one crumbled, and the other oddly folded. Skeptical, we sit.
There is no music, but a bandstand is set up nearby, band members in yellow costume lounging around with cigars.
The large menus, in Spanish and English, boast an array of options—most of these are unavailable, a repeat problem among the state’s establishments.
“I’m having a daiquiri,” Michelle says.
The menu lists options, but no descriptions. In the 15 or so minutes we wait for someone to attend our table, our cocktail orders change a couple of times. By now we know not a lot of people speak English. We are also adjusting to the reality of not having access to google.
It takes around somewhere around 15 minutes for someone to greet our table.
Except for the Sangria, it might be safe to assume these all contain rum. Michelle orders the Cubata; I order the Havana Special. Unable to google the cocktails, or articulate our queries in Spanish, we wait to be surprised.
Michelle’s dark drink arrived in a Collins glass, served with a lime. Mine was served up, frothy and white, a long pink straw floating over the lip of the glass.
“Yep.” Michelle flattens her lips. She smirks. “That’s definitely a rum-and-Coke. I should have known that.”
We laugh. Cuba Libre is a white rum and coke while a Cubata is dark rum and coke – the things we could have googled.
“I don’t know what this is,” I say. It is sweet, with a pulpy texture. “Kinda like a piña colada.” I pass it across the table to Michelle.
“But more coconut flavored,” she says. Does this drink involve Maraschino? This drink—like the city—contains a lot of rum, and that’s all we know for sure.
M: The food at Europa Cafe arrives – shrimp, mashed root vegetable, rice. “It’s like family meal,” we conclude. Despite warnings to bring hot sauce, I had run out of time before the flight. The seasonings were subtle, but not completely lifeless. It does the trick.
A man at the table next to ours snaps his fingers at a vendor passing outside the window. In his hands are small paper cones, the contents are peanuts, soon spread on the tablecloth. Apparently ordering street food mid-meal is a thing, or at least for this man.
E: In Havana, mystery and familiarity precipitate, and even the most obvious things are unpredictable. Our philosophy on this adventure is to dive in and receive whatever Cuba has to offer. Without hesitation (or the internet!) we continue our adventure.
…part 2 coming soon