The other side of Florence

As a student in Bologna I made a few trips to this capital of renaissance opulence, bobbing up for air in cool basilicas before plunging into palazzo after palazzo, packed closely with more art than I could chew in a lifetime, let alone a day, before sinking into a bowl of something starchy somewhere shady, off the deeply beaten tourist track that circles Brunelleschi’s egg-topped duomo.

Now in my 33rd July, I’m pleased to be back in Florence with a little more time. I recommend you give Florence at least 3 days – enough to let it introduce itself to you in its own time. I’m not one for these prescribed “36 hours in” tours, which tie you to your map and your intention on getting there, missing the joys of happenstance. Cities like Florence, with so much to see and eat everywhere, are designed to be eaten whole, from seed to peel.

My favourite quarter is on the other side if the river,  L’Oltrano, across the river from the Uffizi and duomo , near the miles of box hedges in the Boboli gardens. Here, on the other side, is space and peace broken only by mouthwatering artisanal markets and brilliant buskers . Also, in seeming homage to the statue of Abundance (L’Abbondanza) that surveys this quarter from the top of the Boboli estate , there’s not a street or piazza without a place to feast on beef and udon-like ‘pici’, gnocchi, bean stew, wild boar and all manner of Tuscan treats, finished off with a basket of edifying almond-packed Cantuccini biscuits steeped in soul-affirming Vin Santo.

 

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Where was I? Ah si si, the other side of Florence’s  river Arno, bridged by the ancient, tourist-heavy jewellery arcade that is the Ponte Vecchio, joint equal with Venice’s Rialto, the most touristed bridge in Europe and possibly the world. As if by magic the tourist flow dissipates once you cross over, with the duomo behind you, as the Oltrarno’s network of clear streets welcomes you into its confidence. 

Here you’ll find a couple of palazzos now turned into public museums and art collections,  time capsules created by the 18th and 19th century aristocratic ‘grand’ tourists and later “cognoscenti”. Here you’ll also find the piazzas of Santas Spirito and Croce. The former is perhaps my favourite square in Florence. Its beauty is not it’s ornate medieval-renaissance architecture, that forms merely the stage – it’s the players: Florentines, students, immigrants, all milling about, lining the long steps outside the Basilica of Santo Spirito, letting the stirring of the busking dancers and musicians fan their ‘discorsi’ in the gently simmering dusk.

 

Santo Spirito

 There’s a 15th century convent on this square that the Catholic church have obligingly allowed to become a lovely hotel, each room blessed with its own character and heavenly views over the city. There’s one with a bathroom that looks like there’s a romantic painting of the cathedral on the wall, until you realise it’s actually a window with the best view in Florence. I’ll never forget having a shower, looking out into this with the evening sun and breeze flowing through the window, mingling with the smell of gorgeously cheesy opera music wafting up from the Piazza below.

Room with a view

Hopelessly sentimental I know, but Italy does this to you, it’s very hard not to be lost in ‘sentimentalità’ here. I have a friend who is one of the rare breed of non-Italians who have managed to penetrate the impenetrable ancient world of the Florentine artisan. What I wouldn’t give to have a little garret  in Piazza Santo Spirito and have a pastry and espresso under the trees before making my way to my cave-like workshop in a dusty side-street to work diligently and thoughtfully on an altar piece or a memorial stone of pietra dura, carving different stones into animals and crests and flowers before stopping for a beautifully simple lunch somewhere delicious and affordable

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But back to reality and London frenzy we Londoners must go, thanking Italy for yet another beautiful city of art, love and of course, food. Here are some of the places I love in Florence. If you spot them, bene, if you don’t, bene, you will no doubt find your own treasures. The only thing I would recommend above all, is to stay in the converted covent in Piazza Santo Spirito, formerly known as Convent of the Sorelle Bandini (Bandini Sisters), now Hotel Palazzo Guadagni.

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Review of Dunkirk

On leaving the cinema, I felt moved and a little seasick after 2 hours in Nolan’s stylishly be-washed version of the Dunkirk evacuation. Looking back, however, I do think he missed quite a few tricks. More sea and sky than man and action. And the dialogue? Sparse, garbled and inaudible. Tom Hardy’s aviator goggles will probably get the Oscar for looking up…Then down…Then up… Perplexed yet calm.

Branagh and Rylance get their teeth stuck in, no question, but the screenplay doesn’t give them so much as a tin of spam to chew on. Lank grey scenes lap the repetitive sinking-ship action, as each new batch of grey extras topple off the decks. One or two figures form a bond and are distinguished from the crowd with a few close ups, but we’re given little to latch on to.

The rich tapestry of Dunkirk stories that could have populated the shores of both France and Britain, are not here – The tales within and behind the queues for boats, the tales of heroism from the civilian seamen from other side, are carried solely in Mark Rylance’s father-son skiff team, splashes of colour in desperate need of background.

The scale of the recovery feat, termed ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk’, the sheer number of men and the relatively small number of tiny boats that ferried them all back, (over 300,000 men in only 700 brave boats, back and forth, in just over a week) did not come across, visually or mentally.

It would be interesting to ask the veteran rescuers if they think Nolan did the scale of their efforts justice. Perhaps they weren’t the focus he was after. But, of all the lenses he could have put over Dunkirk, it seems to me he chose a very obvious one and lost the chance to distinguish Dunkirk from other war films.

What was unique about Dunkirk and why it is now known as ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk’ was that it demonstrated human capacity for hope and fearless altruism, en masse, collectively.  Not the old story, tired and tested in every war film – man saves men.  This one could have been different – hundreds of ordinary people of various ages and both sexes, getting up and going, against all odds, for the greater good, at the last minute, together. Rylance’s civilian voice was good but it could never be broad enough to hold all that water. Nolan needed to scale up the message. It would have been a timely one.

Further reading

That said – Nolan’s Dunkirk has done a good job in whetting my appetite for Dunkirk, or at least what ended up in the editing room floor.

‘Dunkirk, the History behind the motion picture’

‘The Little Ships of Dunkirk’

‘The Little Ships’ (tale for your little ones not lucky enough to be able to sit on great-grand-parents’ knees,  told from a girl’s perspective)

Thoughts on Health and Artificial Intelligence

If it hadn’t been for a trip to the optician, I’d be, as my cockney gran and the Good Funeral Guide used to say, ‘pushing up daisies’. My sight had started to go, and it turned out that a tumour was eating into my optic nerves…

My life-saving optician pointed out:

‘Your eyes aren’t just the mirrors to your soul, they tell you how healthy the rest of your body is and, when you get ill, they do too.’

The only thing worse than going blind (I lost 70% of my vision before I had corrective surgery, and that was bad enough!) is going blind and knowing that it could have been avoided:

Eighty percent of blindness worldwide is preventable if detected and treated early (WHO).

Most people see blindness as one of life’s unavoidable poker hands, not realizing that regular screening can safeguard two of our most precious tools and that, if you’ve got a condition that affects your hormones, like diabetes (world’s top cause of blindness) you need to be extra vigilant..

The good news is that, with the help of a little Artificial Intelligence, we can now see previously undetectable/easy to miss pathologies in the eyes of say, diabetes sufferers or undiagnosed glaucoma patients. IBM Watson AI, famous for chess and Jeopardy triumphs, has begun to use its loaf to solve some of the most complex diabetes and glaucoma screening conundrums.

I was lucky enough to participate on winning team at the latest IBM & Ogilvy Hackathon. Our project involved the diagnosis of pre-diabetes. I hadn’t heard of pre-diabetes, let alone realised that one in three of us are at risk.

Doughnuts

I hadn’t realised that, if that one in three of us carry on with an unhealthy lifestyle, stress levels and being that wee bit overweight, we’re more likely to get diabetes, but that we can actually avoid it, quite easily, by making a few habit and mind-set changes..

It now occurs to me that whatever we can do to avoid diabetes, is also helping us protect our vision. All the more incentive for us all to look away from that Krispy crème for 2 mins and take the Know Your Risk survey

 

Read more

IBM & Ogilvy Hackathon site and Twitter

IBM Watson and spotting diabetes and glaucoma

WHO blindness data

Ads without borders

For 5 days last month, #MarchForGiants reminded at least 25,000 of us about the plight of elephants.

A 2,500 strong digital herd, created by brands and people, marched across billboards around the world, from Hong Kong to London and New York via Birmingham and Manchester.

It linked outdoor ads globally. No campaign has ever done this before. It’s the start of the outdoor web, the web jumping into our periphery vision, connecting us when we are out and about, above and beyond our pocketed phones..

During their digital trek, adult elephants wore corporate sponsors’ logos, while their babies sported the name and chosen colour of people who’d donated a £5/$6. Brands and people shared ‘their’ elephants on websites or social networks.

Elephant march

You might say that the elephants were just 2,500 corporate/personal brand vehicles, that  impact weighed against need was minimal. But let’s not be cynical. It’s a win win. Brands and, increasingly, people, like free/cheap exposure, elephants like marching.

I hope this new form of connected, user-generated outdoor ad, will see the ethical slant as part and parcel of it’s success. With all the water, food and fuel ‘elephants in the room’ just about to blow their trumps, this kind of a borderless approach to communication and action is what’s called for, urgently.

More about the march.

See how and why we should make More Space for Giants .

One a side note, I was inspired to draw some elephants and sell the prints to support the their cause.

Elephants etsy

Love toucan

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Taking a closer look at this picture – I was surprised to find that there is no colour in the dazzlingly tropical toucan that isn’t also shared with it’s decidedly non-tropical, ephemeral surroundings.

The blue of the toucan’s eye socket makes the blue in the rim of the garden water pools more vivid. The orange glow of the toucan’s ‘eye shadow’ and beak somehow give the stale crusts in the tray below a tropical zest.  The unimaginably white softness of the toucan’s neck and the warm sandy yellow round its lapels light up the cheap beige repetition of the tiled patio.

Turner Prize-winning  artist Wolfgang Tillmans’ exhibition at the Tate Modern opens today. With this toucan and other shots,  Tillmans demonstrates his principle of creating an image and not just a photo.

Each ‘image’ is not simply a capturing of a fleeting moment for our attention. It combines both passive observation and choreography. The photographer, in the taking and the developing, has made a set of choices that we could not make with the naked eye. Wolfgang has cited colour as one of the elements which the photographer uses to steer our view.

And so it’s not just a portrait of a toucan, but also it’s an exercise in colour appreciation. Through it we realise that our  appreciation of colour is subject to context.

This has the unexpected subconscious side-effect of cheering up my dreary afternoon loo-trip – the ‘CAUTION CLEANING IN PROGRESS!’ flip board sign outside the Ladies is somehow less exasperating, I’m actually rather uplifted by it’s harmony of yellow and red, like the cheeky curved smile of a toucan’s bill. Subject for the next Turner Prize 😉 ?

More Tillmans and toucans

See the Toucan in real life at the Tate

Watch the artist himself discuss his approach to photography

Tentacular intelligence

The more we look at octopuses, the more we question our concepts of what consciousness really is and what the boundaries of cellular behaviour really are…

Two-thirds of an octopus’ neurons reside in its arms, allowing it to mix senses, smelling and tasting via touch. They can also divide this intelligence 8 ways, solving how to open a shellfish while another arm is ‘occupied’ doing something else, e.g.  exploring a cave for more treats/texting their other halves ;)…

These intelligent arms react after they’ve been completely severed. In one experiment, severed arms jerked away in pain when researchers pinched them.

Not only is octopus intelligence distributed  throughout their bodies, it’s also divided, into components that can act with autonomy:

“When an octopus is in an unfamiliar tank with food in the middle, some arms seem to crowd into the corner seeking safety while others seem to pull the animal toward the food.” (Prof. Peter Godfrey-Smith)

This consciousness  is quite different from the  layers and levels we see in our own consciousness and that of the most intelligent mammals. It makes us realise that our own brand of mammalian  individual and cohesive consciousness is not necessarily nature’s default mode for advanced species.

A further layer is added by mimetic ability. An octopus can imitate both color and texture, e.g. look and feel like a stone, to hurl itself, undetected, over a victim or fool a predatory seal. If this ability is somehow orchestrated at a cognitive level,  it suggests that the octopus has the ability to act both as one unit and to divide off into multiple personae…

“Octopuses let us ask which features of our minds can we expect to be universal whenever intelligence arises in the universe, and which are unique to us,” Godfrey-Smith said. “They really are an isolated outpost among invertebrates. … From the point of view of the philosophy of the mind, they are a big deal.” (Professor Godfrey-Smith’s pioneering research)

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As Valentine’s Day approaches  – see how octopuses show tentacular affection.

 

A note on plurals:

‘Octopus’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘eight foot’. The word’s Greek roots mean it’s pluralised as a Greek word, which means adding -es and not ‘i’ or ‘ies’.

Endless Poetry is endlessly poetic

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Last Sunday was grey and empty  until I found myself in the cinema, in the strange comfort of octogenarian Chilean directing legend Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest film, Endless Poetry.

I had bought my ticket on a whim – All I knew was that it was in Spanish, in Chile and might be a little weird and poetic, as the title suggested.  What I got was the most eye-opening, jaw-dropping two hours and 8 minutes of 2017 so far, unless Jodorowsky’s sequel comes out this year…

And I’m so pleased, in these unsavoury times, that there are 4 more delicious courses I’ve yet to eat, that Endless Poetry is the second in a 5 part film cycle, that there’s  The Dance of Reality and soon the other 4 will be ready…

Meantime, instead of giving away the menu of his surreal feast of a film, I’m going to list the thoughts that have fed me (not without a little indigestion) ever since…

…It doesn’t matter if it’s written on a wall or floorboard and no one but the poet will ever read it, everything disappears eventually; prayers are like poems, they are never seen but always needed by the prayer…

…Everything is beautiful, even and especially the mutations of normality…

…Anyone can walk in a straight line to anywhere they want to go; obstacles are illusions we can erase…

…Also, alongside linear there is cyclical, since maths is inexplicable; life is a cycle, returning to where it came from and filled with returns all along a direct way…

…Meantime Death is always there; suicide is blindness…

…Through misguided fear, we hide and make ourselves up like clowns.

… In reality, reality is up for grabs, and so we have nothing to hide and nothing to show…

…The naked soul and body are uplifting and captivating and no less so for being marked and scarred by the passage through life…

…We are all puppeteers and our puppets dance together. When we are holding our  puppet-selves, our own identity is unclear and maybe this is because…

…We are connected to each other…

…That we are each exclusively in charge of ourselves is an illusion…

…In reality we are all in the same puppet show together and share manipulation mutually, all our limbs are up for grabs to the nearest puppeteer…

…And with this power, love  is not in the keeping, it’s in the letting go, the negation of the urge to manipulate, the diffusion of our fixed idea, it’s acceptance – no interference, no orchestration; just the acknowledgement of a God in the other person, the godliness that is beyond perfection….

…The job of poetry is not to have to say it all like this, in a clumsy list, in so many words, but to say it in fewer and to trigger a response that lasts forever in the consciousness, which is universal, and endless.

The job of this film  is to demonstrate poetry, in action, and indeed it accomplishes this almost impossible task, sometimes effortlessly, perhaps endlessly.

Muchas Gracias Mr Jodorowsky!

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Wiki links worth looking up:

Endless Poetry

The Dance of reality

World’s best comic, written by the Alejandro Jodorowsky

 The Holy Mountain, funded by John Lennon

Psychomagic psychotherapy, pioneered by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky about where he thinks things are heading

Interview with the FT and general overview of Alejandro Jodorowsky

King Lear: Glenda V Anthony

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And so out they come and stand in the spotlights to two rounds of standing ovations. I stand up to put my coat on and leave, no one will miss my feeble claps amid the din of whoop whoops.

What have I missed? Why does Glenda and her stellar crew leave me numb? There was nothing in this production that was any better, to me, than any of the productions I’ve ever seen. There was much that was was unnecessary at best; at worst, a smutty distraction from the glory of the text.

But this audience and no doubt the packed house watching tonight, lapped up every drop of mostly dreary, conveyor-belt delivery, washed down with large glasses of “shocking” nudity, loud “atmospheric” music and stark lighting that, from a purely practical perspective, made long tracks of the best scenes, however loudly throttled out,  almost  inaudible, let alone moving.

The best thing about it was the digital display overhanging the stage, telling us what act and scene we were on. I found myself looking at it more and more with that sinking feeling you get when the next bus isn’t for another 25 minutes, finding myself hoping there’d been a tech hitch and the final scene was already “due”.

In contrast, the Barbican’s Anthony Sher-led production was the triumph that critics should hail as one of the best  since John Hurt and Timothy West,and,  I’d say, better. But for Anthony and co, there was no standing ovation.

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Why? Because it was a great tragedy. We should all be highly suspicious of any tragic play that leaves you with enough energy to get up afterwards, let alone smile, clap and chat to your neighbor about how good it all was, not least Glenda.

Sher and his troop, through 5 acts and almost 3 hours , truly suspended my disbelief. Not for a half line did I look up to see if the scene’s ticking was digitally indicated overhead. Not for a second did I think I am here watching a load of celeb actors reciting Shakespeare like it needed their help, another language peppered with the odd ‘top ten  catchphrases of all time”.

No, unlike Deborah Warner’s Old Vic production, Gregory Doran’s Barbican show was life, on stage, and we were on it too, with the actors, just as Shakespeare intended. Every line had its own intrinsic timeless resonance, which was then expanded, sometimes creating new and unusual contexts, sometimes merely amplifying well-known interpretations, always keeping us hooked.

The bad characters were not all bad, the good characters were not all good, there was nuance. All parts had their nuances and got subtle treatment, whereas it seemed at the Old Vic that all the characters dangled off Glenda’s Lear like annoyingly obnoxious puppets she had grown bored of or lost the skill to move. To Warner’s credit, perhaps that was the point?

The props and scenery at the Barbican worked to evoke a sense of the play’s contexts, amplifying subtly, never clumsily varnished on for ‘effect’, always using and trusting the weight of voice and text. I won’t say how or carry on with any comparisons. Anyone who sees it should come at it fresh. You’ll leave utterly drained yet uplifted.

The Barbican’s production was the best I’ve ever seen, the Old Vic’s one of the worst. But that’s just me and most may disagree, I’d just say, ignore the media hype around Glenda and take advantage of the fact Sher’s reigns on at the Barbican until 23rd December 

Taking my mind off to La Gomera

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After a week spent in the Canaries, at La Finca eco-retreat on the verdent island of La Gomera, I find I’m relaxed, happy and well nourished. The only images I have been exposed to have been 100% natural, organic, no added flavours or colourings.

My eyes have been feeding on a natural diet of flora, fauna, sea, sky and the odd statue, here and there.  I have drawn some pictures – a Whale, a tree, two Buddhas, some leaves, a frog playing a violin, some pond fish, a dolphin.

I have not been force-fed 200 marketing messages every hour, not mentally farting away my afternoons, as glossy mags,news, tweets, posts, ferment in my bloated brain.

On La Gomera I was free of this uninvited eye food, free to walk lighly without the constant call to eat or save or recycle or compost what I’d seen. I wonder if app developers have already come up with a mind-watchers programme, like weight watchers, complete with its own fit-bit that tracks how many visual calories you’ve consumed, giving tips for cutting down and making what’s seen and read less fattening and flatulence inducing…

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Back in London, this app, in analogue, would simply be a pair of human blinkers that would filter  ads on the escalator and other periphery visual onslaughts we unknowingly consume while on the go.

These human blinkers would probably have a company behind them: ‘BlinkedIn’. People could sign on to connect with like-minded BlinkedIners or BlinkInIdiots and share lots of images of what blank things you haven’t blinked@ that day 😉  #BlinkBlank

No doubt you’re already aware of the mushrooming ecosystem of ‘switch it off’ apps and new ‘old skool’ devices designed to cut down on sensory overload. But this is not just a tech problem. It cannot be switched off through an app or a device.

Its branches reach offline. It’s billboards, it’s newspapers, it’s endless supplements within supplements in the Sunday and Saturday news. It’s magazines, its more box sets and more telly and more sport everywhere, in the corners and centres and sides of our eyes, all the time.

In one 45-minute journey, the average London commuter is exposed to more than 130 adverts, featuring more than 80 different products. Only half of that information makes any impact, while unprompted we can remember none of the blur of adverts. In an entire day, we’re likely to see 3,500 marketing messages (Source: Guardian)

I’m not saying that we don’t need and like and even love some and/ all of these things, even some ads. I’m just repeating the ancient Greek maxim that still seems to stand the test of time ‘meden agan’ (μηδὲν ἄγαν) – ‘Anything in excess is too much’. We must be more aware. We must pay more attention to things, one at a time. Our brains, under the strain of sensory overload, start to shut down to conserve battery power, in self-defence, as any sensible computer would. This shutting down amounts to a growing inertia, disconnection from ourselves and what really makes us tick, both physically and mentally.

After just a week of so called ‘disconnection’ i.e. no wifi, no city, no TV, No news, pure visual detox, I felt completely rebooted and ready to start smaller, healthy doses of meaningful visual connection.  Now I’ve been back ‘in the world’ a week, I’m visually farting already, but my gut is stronger and digestion is, I think, more efficient. My visual blood-sugar is more stable, better able to cope with any force feeding/self-indulgent binging I might do to sweeten up tonight’s commute.

I’d thoroughly recommend a week on La Gomera, one of the quieter, most verdant of the Canaries. And while I’m on the subject of Islands and birds I’d recommend devoting some precious attention to ‘The Island‘ by Aldous Huxley, if you need a healthy complement to watching the flora, fauna sea and sky….

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Some final links, if you fancy risking more information overload…

Where to stay  – La Finca Argayall’s ‘ alternative, experimental and experiential community

Article –  how much we involuntarily see..

Article –  how our visual bellies are getting bigger and bigger

Article – 5 apps that switch you off

Hurricane hardened Havana

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Hurricane Mathew’s recent Cuban rampage made me think back to February 2009, when I visited in the wake of hurricane’s Ike and Gustav.

I had just finished a TEFL course and Googled, ‘volunteering’. ‘Three weeks teaching English in Havana’ came up. I pictured creaky pianos on dusty verandas and old Cadillacs wheezing on shampoo. I was curious to see if the clichés were true, see what was really left.

The location was central Havana, I didn’t need to drive, and I could use my new TEFL skills – no former experience required…

The arrivals conveyor belt was empty and still. Our luggage hadn’t been stolen. It had been hidden. In corners, behind doors, in bins. I found my plastic-wrapped suitcase, conveniently just outside the women’s toilets. It was shaken up, but intact.

The airport staff, bored out of their lively Cuban brains after 5 years of seemingly futile university education, had given we tourist-voyeurs our first taste of Cuban wit.

I am met by my tour guide and find we are taking an exclusive ‘taxi’ that looks like someone’s car, driven by her friend. Not an old Cadillac but the new shiny fruit of last season’s tourist dividend. We arrive at an expensive hotel and make our way to the cool basement whose menu could have been from anywhere in America – hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, ice-cream sodas, club sandwiches, etc. She orders profusely and eats ravenously.

It’s the very beginning of the tourist season and, like many, she’s still haunted by low-season austerity.  I pay for us both, on her recommendation. I would have offered first, had I not been confused by her smart manicured appearance, had I realised where I was – in Cuba, with a Cuban. For any time spent, I felt I was expected to tip, as I would a waiter, for a tasty plate of conversation. It’s not that they didn’t enjoy the exchange, but that’s what it is, an exchange –  Cubans need food and loo-roll and crave treats like a glass of beer once a month, something that the state never supplies, and their wage of £30 a month cannot buy.

The next morning. My first day. My hotel was a high rise 90s eyesore, complete with dusty fake ferns. My room was on the top floor, had cold running water, a fridge that worked well as a tepid storage cupboard and a bird’s eye view across city and sea.

I drank in the hurricane-blistered rooftops, windowless apartment blocks and the seawall called ‘The Malecon’. It draws a grey line between Havana and the rest of the world, curving slightly against every passing wave. At its midpoint, the ‘Hotel Nacional de Cuba’ stands out with the loud confidence of New York in the late 20s, once mafia HQ. Florida might even be visible now from the top suite…

Image result for Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Meyer lansky

So, down to my dusty  fern-decked  hotel lobby. I was late. The group was already sitting comfortably. I was the only non-Canadian, the youngest by at least 40 years and the only one, it seemed, not to have retired from head-teaching at a renowned education institution. No doubt my fellow volunteers had all been a punctual 5 to 20 minutes early. Had I missed something on the website? I was obviously not its target group. Anyhow, the Canadian-Cuban company I’d paid had welcomed my sterling with open arms and here I was, with everyone smiling at me with that ‘can do’ magnanimity particular to philanthropic Canadians on volunteering ‘vacation’ in Cuba.

In my mornings I taught at the university. As the sole Brit on the trip, it had been deemed apt for me to take the Anglo Saxon history class, on my own. There was only one book, one physical book, for the class of 60. I knew no more about Anglo Saxon history than that King’s names often ended in ‘red’ and had vague memories of Alfred, whom I confused with King Arthur and the Knights of the round table.  Needless to say the Cubans, as in all other physical and mental respects, gained the upper ground, quizzing me intensely on Anglo Saxon involvement in Byzantine trade routes. My responses were garbled and evasive. Requests for repetition were frequent, “It’s difficult to understand your German accent” they chorused in pitch-perfect Canadian. My Queen’s English was new to them, brought up on a constant maple-barked volunteer stream, with no access to the BBC. Anyhow, without me, books or broadband, it seemed they were managing to quite well.

After a particularly gruelling lecture, I found myself sitting on the steps outside the Law Faculty.  A student walked pointedly up to me and asked me if I was a student. I was shocked. I had been spoken to in Spanish. I had never been mistaken for anything other than a pasty Aryan, in Cuba, or anywhere else.  I said no, carefully. I said I was a teacher, unconvincingly.  I wondered if I had enough Spanish in the tank to carry me through this conversation sprint. I did.

Image result for university of Havana, steps

Soon after, we were in a cafe he claimed had been a favourite of the young Castro. We weren’t paralysed by choice: chicken with rice and or beans. These were delicacies craved by the children I taught in the afternoons. All had chimed “Rice and chicken” in joyous unison to my question “what’s your favourite food?” two mischief-makers daring to add “beans” to the decadence.

It occurred to me, looking around the cafe, opposite this Cuban aqua-physiotherapy student, that I was blending in and not because I was developing a mahoganous Caribbean tan.  My lunch companion was the only Cuban who wasn’t working behind the bar. Customers, as in most ‘Cuban’ bars I visited, were tourists – For Cubans a glass of beer once a month was a treat to be shared, once a month, maybe, between two.

He explained his frustration at being a student of aqua physio with no real access to still water, the pool they practiced in was dry.  I thought of my hotel pool, cracked and economical with chlorine, but full nonetheless. Seemed Havana had two faces, one for me and one for him. After lunch he bid me goodbye politely and returned to his empty pool on a full stomach, hunger abated for another day. I felt regret, perhaps naively, that I had no spare things or money to give him and wondered what he needed.

I later looked back and thought how nice it was that we had managed to have a meal without bartering. My later experiences taught me that everything I was wearing or carrying, down to my bra’s underwire, was on the market, to the highest bidder, and the currency is banter. The sweetest talkers are the best dressed – they can be your best friend in 5 minutes, in any one of the world’s top 5 languages.

One afternoon we had a tour of the university from the head of the law faculty, who carefully stuck to architectural did you knows about the faculty’s buildings and mentioned he had been a translator for Jimmy carter, but was careful not to elucidate. He finished his tour with a plea for toothpaste and loo-roll, he said, since the hurricane, his wife and he struggled for the bare essentials. We were all apologetic that we hadn’t thought to bring any out with us. Some of the Canadians, indeed, studied veterans of former trips, had brought these with them in extra suitcases and distributed them as and when they could.

The next week we visited a hospital where we were told that Venezuelans came to learn to be doctors in exchange for oil. It was like a garden centre, with large glass roofed plants, sourced from all over South America. Cuban scientists are leading the way, our guide informs us, with pioneering research into local sourcing and cheap production of herbal cures and preventions, circumventing costly imports of patented drugs and vaccines.  It sounded utopian, evocative of Huxley’s “The Island” –  One morning, I stumbled into a square with a troop of octogenarian chicas practicing Tai Chi. In my best, newly acquired Canadian-Cubano confidence, I asked, ‘Where are the men?’, ‘Not dead, just lazy” one called out cheerfully, mid flying-crane.

The last morning, my last afternoon in the school. The electricity was off, again. The children’s planned performance ‘to music’, their parting thanks for our teaching, was now a little tricky. Without hiatus, however, their collective Cuban brain shortcut resourcefully to a percussive solution.

Pencils and chair legs doubled as drum sticks. Table, wall and floor morphed into drums. Stamp, click, stamp, click, cluck the tongue, snap the finger. Repeat. All while curling spines and swinging tiny hips. Those who weren’t busy being the band paired up: chiquitos with chiquitas, and moved their toes in sync, like professional, post-pubescent pros. In the audience their parents swayed their approval, in perfect time, smiling with the relaxed futile pride unique to Cubans.

These ‘street’ children were as academic as they were physically adept. Their English already very good, aged 7, they were writing in cursive script that puts Oxbridge graduates to shame. Indeed, between their Cuban teachers and Canadian volunteers, someone was getting something right. As for me, they certainly didn’t need my help when it came to perfecting their Canadian accents or indeed, lifestyle tips. Fuelled by innate rhythm and, arguably, austerity, these children and their, seem happier and healthier than I’d thought possible.

I got the sense that Havana was a party that keeps dancing, challenging the band to play on and on and inviting whoever is listening, to join in, even though the taps have run dry and the night is over. Doubtless things have changed over the past decade. Cubans seem to act quickly with steps as ingenious and spontaneous as the music that fills Havana’s many cracks. Obama came in during the second of my three weeks and already the lightening mood and arrival of some newish looking furniture, suggested change had already begun to seep through. I wonder how resilient this change will be, in the wake of horrendous Mathew.

I have hope, however. Cubans are masters of survival, used to emptying everything and float lightly, like Hemmingway’s Old Man, only to fill up again, and see how much won’t sink them. I hope this resilience sees them through Matthew as it saw them through Ike, Gutav and their predecessors.

One day I would like to go back and mark changes, mourn Cadillacs. See if glassless window holes have been filled and shuttered and Cubans are unhappier or unhealthier, or if they still smile and sway their hips while queuing all afternoon for a single scoop of state-supplied ice-cream.