Cuba day 1

The first day in Cuba was not particularly eventful, but it was an introduction to the slow lifestyle there, and a first hint that all the things I can buy in shops in Europe, might not be that readily available in Cuba.

I don’t remember that well how it looked from the plane when we landed, but I do remember the first impression in Dominican Republic. It was evening, and the entire landscape was filled with vegetation, and the sun was bright colors of red, pink, purple, orange. The colors you get on hot days. In Cuba we landed during the day, so everything was more bright, more uniformly scorched yellow, and the landscape looked more arid. There were palm trees though. Sign you’re on vacation.

Before collecting our luggage, we had to pass customs, where a lady asked me if I recently visited any country in Africa, and why do I live in Netherlands, but I took the plane from Berlin. The answer to the second question is simple: last minute planning; we bought the tickets late, and all the direct flights from Amsterdam were sold out by that time.

Waiting for the luggage was a slow process, without clear signs where the suitcases might come from. I was patiently waiting for the luggage, Cristina was taking some photos. At one point the band where we were waiting stopped. No more luggage. It looked like people were moving to wait at another band. I concluded the luggage might come on another band. We waited some more, took more pictures. Asked some people if this is where the luggage is going to come. Yes, this should be the place. After half an our or more we got our suitcases.

I can keep on claiming my luggage never got lost since I first started traveling by plane (fingers crossed).

We get into the actual airport (Varadero in case I forgot to mention), and my first thought is to buy sun screen and a map. “Arrivals” is a vast area, looking quite empty but spacious. There is an exchange kiosk, a place to pay the visa fee, but nothing else. A bit confused that my expectations to find a shop were proved completely wrong, we decide to find the car rental place. I think we ask where it is, and we are indicated to exit the building and turn right. It is sunny outside, not unbearably hot, and we are slowly dragging our suitcases. There is a wall so we cannot see around the corner, but after 5 min of walking we see a big parking lot with many, new looking European cars parked, and on the side of the parking lot a place to buy snacks. Like many other food places, this “snack shop” consists of a bar where you can order drinks or food (a bit like the stands at festivals in Europe), and in front of the bar tables and chairs to sit. There are some people sitting there, they look at us passing by and wave.

The car rental place is a series of rooms built bungalow style, one room next to each other, each room hosting the office of a different rental company. The building is very simple. Straight concrete walls painted white or bright blue. At the end we find our agency, signaled with a sign printed on paper in the window. The office reminded me of the time when my dad was working in a communist agriculture cooperation in Romania, and was in charge of a farm and the planting, growing and harvesting of a number of cereals. The farm my dad managed had a number of house-like buildings, one for the office, one for the tractor drivers, one for the night watch to sleep in. The buildings was just the ground floor, built very simply, namely four walls, floor, ceiling, painted white, with a desk and chairs in the office. The whole setup was anything but glamorous, simply practical and not made for the comfort or enjoyment of the people working there. The car rental office was more or less the same, one small room with a desk and a chair, an old lady with poofed hair that was looking for our booking in a huge A5 registry, and one of those calendars with naked women you hang by a nail. An older guy that seemed to be between my dad’s and my grandfather’s age appeared to be in charge.

Initially they could not find our reservation in the registry, so they told us to wait outside while they call the central. It will only take half an hour.

So we move outside; there is a chair right next to the entrance, Cristina and me take turns sitting down. We eat some crackers she has, the sun starts to seem strong so I get my sunglasses. We can see taxis driving up to the front of the airport, picking up people with luggage. Outside the car rental some more people seem to be waiting for their cars and discussing with the people working there.

Half an hour later we go back in; the car is still not to be found. Despite speaking Spanish, the communication is a bit lost in translation. Between me and Cristina we figure out our car is actually in Varadero, and that we need to pay extra to bring it here. The parking was full of cars, so I was wondering why our car was somehow earmarked and got lost in Varadero. In the end we explained that we booked the car from the airport and that we’re not paying any extra fee. After a bit more discussing we were informed the car is on it’s way, and the lady with poofy hair told me the driver is really cute. I smiled not knowing how to reply and resumed my waiting outside.

The other people waiting for their cars were already packed and left. One by one, we were the only ones still waiting. The sun was getting milder and the place was keeping its general sense of tranquility and lack of a need to rush.

Eventually the car arrived, dusty and a bit scratched. When the driver came inside the office to hand over the keys, the lady teased me again that “isn’t the driver cute?”. The car was washed, we marked all the dents on a piece of paper, and they made a copy of my credit card by pressing a paper with indigo on the other side against the embossed letters. I was asking where we can buy a map of the country, and the old man working there gave us a book with fold out maps inside; every location in Cuba could be found in the index at the end. Varadero was one of the few cities to have it’s own detailed map, and the lady with permed hair explained where our hotel is and marked it on the map with a pen.

The drive to the hotel was quick and pretty straight forward. By the time we got there the sun started to go down, but the moon was already up. We had been up for a long time. Time to sleep.

Dear lover

I like that you are tall and strong, and you make me feel that you are the bigger lego piece and I am the smaller lego piece that fits perfectly with you. Your chest is the perfect resting place, and I adore the many curves of your body. I particularly like your back and the dip your muscles make in between your shoulder blades. I love your lips, their softness and the way they shape when they’re half open, waiting to kiss me. Most of all I love your hands, the touch of your hands is something I cannot stay away from.

I will miss the way your eyes wrinkle when you smile and kiss me. I will miss every line of your face when speak, when you laugh. And I will miss the touch of your skin…

And nobody gives shoulder lifts like you.

Cuba – prelude

Recently I visited Cuba. Now it’s been two weeks since I am back in Amsterdam and I still have this longing for Cuba the same way I would for my lover. It was an amazing trip and an amazing experience, that left me thinking and curious. But let’s take it step by step, with day one.

Our plane to Cuba was from Berlin. The reason for this unnatural setup, is that we planned this trip only one month ahead, which, for planning trips in Cuba, is too late. It was too late to book tickets with hotels through an agency, the flights that were the most convenient were sold out, and thank god there were still cars available to rent. So on 30th of March of 2015, I board my plane to Berlin, after having spent the entire weekend packing all my stuff and moving out of the apartment. There were boxes everywhere, and plastic bags and ikea bags, and furniture that needed to be put in storage, and it looked like it will never end. The idea was to leave the apartment empty and clean, so the policy was nothing and no one left behind. After two days of packing, and me waking up on Sunday with a jolt, I was exhausted, frantic, scrambling around, and with all my belongings stored in various places outside the current apartment. I took the apartment key off the key chain and left, the door closing behind me. I was very happy to be leaving this apartment, just to let you know.

The flight to Berlin was standard and uneventful. The only thing being that I was tired and my mind was feeling fuzzy. On top of that, I was reading this book by Miranda July, “The first bad man”. The writing is amazing. Each word and sentence give you a small thrill, to be in the possession of a well thought, well written book. You don’t even need to be interested in the theme of the book; you can just read the words. Anyway, the book has this quality of making reality and fiction blend into each other, to the point that you take your eyes off the book, look around, blink, and then ask yourself if reality as you see it right now is even a valid concept.

After a quite short flight, I land in the Schonefeld airport, which I had forgotten lies in the middle of no-where. Already half asleep, I quickly check the route to the hotel on my dying phone, scribble it on  a piece of paper when I realize there will be no phone magic to guide me though the city, and set for the train station (which obviously is also 15 min by foot from the airport). I get on the train, sit down, and continue reading the book. Around the second stop, I start realizing I am rather light, and that something is missing. And that thing is my suitcase. I think “what the hell”, get off the train, and wait in the cold for the next train back to the fabulous airport I just left. Evetually I get back to the airport, and present myself at the lost luggage office, explaining I forgot my suitcase. The woman behind the counter blinks with misunderstanding and asks me if I could not find my suitcase. No, I just forgot it. I lightly walked though customs and then out the airport, with my handbag as the only weight. A bit confused, the lady offers to check for me, when I turn around to follow her and see my suitcase; black with a bit of purple and green ribbons that my mom put so that it is easier to recognize. I have found you.

After that me and my suitcase get a cab; which is expensive and goes against my policy of saving money, but there was no way I would have made it to the hotel by public transportation. I get there at 22:17. To be more precise, 17 minutes after the official close of the reception desk. I find myself in front of a very closed door, feeling quite cold and desolate. I phone my friend, who already got to the hotel, in hope of a quick solution to get in. No answer. A couple more calls within a 5 minute timeframe, with the same result. I stand hopeless in front of the hotel door, when I decide to call the “emergency” number posted there. A grumpy guy answers and after hearing my request, starts explaining that the reception is only until 10 pm. He does not need much convincing though, and tells me to come in by the parking door. He lets me in, obviously bothered by my arrival outside of working hours. On top of that I ask him to tell me the room number where my friend is, because I obviously don’t know it. The guy seems to be incommodated again by my request and says I should be charged for this, but quickly gives me the room number. I head for the elevator with my suitcase, tired and thinking what is up with people and all their rules.

The next day we wake up bright and early (at 6 maybe? can’t remember for sure) and are greeted by some Northern European weather; snow on the last day of March. We quickly eat our breakfast and head for the airport. Cuba, here we come.

Portland, Oregon

About 8 years ago I got on a plane and stayed on that plane (well, with one layover in between) until I got to Portland, Oregon. I spent there three years studying at Reed College. When I first got there I had mixed feelings. Mixed would be an understatement though. It was quite a bit of a culture shock moving from Romania, from the only city where I had been living for 19 years, to a country definitely different culturally and socially, and on top of that, study at one of the more quirky colleges you can find around. I must admit I am slow to adapt and to embrace new things. A lot of time it takes me a very very long time to adapt to a new place, and once I make the transition I can’t go back to whatever I moved away from. I could say that to a certain degree I like things to not change, and just stay always familiar. Well… I might not have been too fond of Portland and Reed (and the weather; that always kills me) in the beginning, but by the end of my education odyssey, I was totally in love with Portland; and Reed. I loved the fact that although it’s a decently sized city, it still feels like a big village. I loved the lack of traffic congestion and the quietness of the streets at night, and in general I became a fan of the tree hugging, grow your own vegetables, brew your own beer etc. culture. Summers are the best in Portland. It never gets unbearably hot, but it is warm enough that all you need is shorts and a tank top.

At the end of the summer of 2010 I left Portland and moved back to Europe, and didn’t go back at all until this summer… and it was interesting to be back, to the general emotion of the place, the smells, the tastes, the feeling of warm air on my skin while cycling back home at night. I like wandering around the neighborhood at night by bike in Portland. You feel like you have the entire space to yourself. The wide streets with houses left and right are deserted, but still you don’t feel like you’re in an abandoned place because there is the occasional conversation on the porch, there are houses decorated with all sort of lights – tiki lights, colored lights, christmas lights, chinese lamps. And from the heat, all the flower smells are vibrant and alive. It makes me feel as if stepping in this parallel world, where under the safety of the night an imagined world comes to life. Visiting Portland was like seeing again an old lover. You get to experience the place with all your senses and it feels familiar and tender.

I also went to see the campus of my college, the buildings, professors. Because it seems that the last time I was in Portland was almost a lifetime ago, I kind of expected the entire place to be transfigured. I wasn’t sure if professors would recognize me. Oddly enough, except for one extra building (which although large, did not change the landscape too much), the campus looks more or less the same as four years ago. All the buildings are in the same place, the ETC is slightly cool inside (but they have new computers and new desk arrangements); the library looks the same (only slightly smaller than I remembered), the same people work there, and they have the same stamps that I used during my part time job at the Circulation desk. I could not recognize my old thesis desk though. Not that it looked that distinctive in the whole row of desks, but before, I think I had a general sense of where it would be. The fruit stand is in the same place, although the sellers seem to have changed. My memories are still all in the same places. And what was the oddest, and that I noticed as soon as I got to my AirBnB place, is that the smells are the same. Portland houses have a very distinctive smell, which at first is so pungent, that I always wondered why other people don’t smell it as well; it is the smell of wood exposed to too much humidity, and a bit of fungus I guess.

I think I am happy I don’t live there anymore. It’s like keeping this almost empty perfume, and smelling it from time to time. It brings back the feeling of that time, like opening a book you liked and reading a couple of pages again.

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Red beets with feta cheese

Since I started working I barely cooked anything. Honestly it’s very convenient, I get free lunch at work that I spread out until 5 pm or so, and in the evening many times I am not that hungry, also too lazy to cook, and cereal with soy milk is such an easy dinner. However, somehow I decided I need to cook a bit better and what I realized is missing is a list of about 20 quick recipes that I can always go to when I need to feed myself with my own two hands but I don’t want to spend too much time on it.

Reed beets with feta cheese is quite easy and quick, even for the laziest (like me).

Ingredients:

feta cheese (solid or crumbled)

red beets – not the already cooked ones

sesame oil

sesame seeds

How:

Peel the beets and slice them (not too thin). I slice them so that they cook faster. Put the sliced beets on a tray, pour some sesame oil on top (it does not matter how much; you can’t put too little and you can’t put too much), put a sheet of aluminum foil on top (I did this assuming that if I don’t do this, the beets will get too dry). Put it in the oven at about 200 degrees Celsius (Fahrenheit users, you’ll have to go through the same pains as I do when I try to cook recipes that use weird measures such as cups, ounces, Fahrenheit) for about 20-30 min. To check if the beets are done, poke them with a fork. They shouldn’t be too hard.

After you take the beets out of the oven, put them on a plate. Toast some sesame seeds (briefly – this is just because raw sesame seeds make you think that they would taste better toasted) and put them on top of the beets. Crumble the feta cheese on top. And eat!

Traveling

Recently I paid a decent amount of money for plane tickets for my next holiday. Which happens to be in two cities in the US, and besides the amount paid, everything felt very natural, as if I was planning a trip 100 km away from here, on the lovely Dutch beaches.

Now thinking about it, I remember when traveling abroad seemed like this unimaginable luxury. The first time I heard of the idea of traveling outside of Romania was when my parents traveled for the first time to Greece. At that time Greece was this country so much more advanced than Romania, impressive for tourists not only through it’s ruins, but also due to the taps with motion sensors. I did not go on this trip. I accompanied my parents when they went to this acquaintances in order to exchange Romanian lei for dollars (?). The acquaintance worked in the criminology department of this police station in Galati. For some reason we ended up in this room where he had ink for finger prints and various books on criminology. I remember I got to press my finger into the ink and then on the pages of this criminology book that I got from this man. Then I washed the ink with this special liquid. For me as a kid it all seemed a bit like from an action movie, combined with the feeling that this exchange of money was not the most legal thing happening. Knowing my parents, I am pretty sure what they were doing was fine, but the degree of being guarded that surrounded this whole operation made me feel like what they were doing was not completely allowed.

When they came back from Greece I got all sorts of presents, souvenirs, this watch that looked like a strawberry with various small animals on it, and this singing Santa Claus. Thinking about these objects, which still exist in a closet in my parents’ apartment, I realize that if I saw them now in a store I would not be impressed and would not buy them. I would label them as cheap products made in China and move on. At that time though they were amazing like never seen before.

About four or six years later I went myself on a trip to Greece, and I continued to believe I am going to this place so much better than Romania, so unreachable for a person like me. Traveling to the US or to Asia seemed like one of those things you hear people doing, but that never happens to you.

And now I booked a trip to the US as if I was planning to go to the beach in Romania. I’ve got visas and can pay for the plane ticket, and it feels that my parents’ first trip to Greece is in a different life time, or that it happened to a different person. Look at me…

On lamps in Barcelona

On a very random note, about three years ago I moved to Barcelona with 800 euros for love and out of a desire to live in this country where… well, where all the senses enjoy themselves. And I was living in this very nice, family neighborhood, right by the metro entrance (literally there, I could stumble into the metro if I was not careful), in a house that seemed like the rooms where half the size they should be. The room I was in I am not even sure if it was a room to begin with, it seemed more like a former shed next to the inside patio. It was tiny, it fit a double mattress exactly, and from the mattress to the door there was one step and no more. Somehow we managed to fit my suitcase and two drawers, and of course a lamp, because there was no light bulb in the ceiling. The room was temporarily rented from this saxophone player that was on a trip to NY for a couple of months. It still had some of his decorations, which gave this room this bohemian feel. Going back to the lamp though, as I mentioned the room was very small, and the lamp was metal. I have this bad habit that when I drink I react slower to stuff such as pain due to a hot object, so in one of those nights I touched my naked thigh directly on the lamp and it took me maybe at least double the time to feel the pain and get away from the lamp. Initially it was just red and sore, so I didn’t do anything about it, but the next day I had this swelling on my leg the size of half a tennis ball, the exact shape of where the lamp touched me. I obviously could not wear jeans and sitting down was also problematic, so for a number of days I wore only my skirt and tried to not sit on that part of the leg under any circumstance. If your stomach cannot take this description this is the time to stop reading. The healing process involved my skin turning into this thick crust, which eventually fell off, leaving behind this round white scar in the middle of my tanned leg. I remember my parents asking me were I got it, it was pretty big and obvious. Today I remembered about this scar and was looking for it, once on the right leg and after that on the second leg. In the end I can kind of see something scar resembling, but what it used to be it’s long gone. I guess this is how all things fade, until there is no trace of them. Even something that marked by body for at least a year. I just want my memories to endure longer than my scar.