Loving

Flashback to June 2005.

Little did I know that a meet-up with a rather crazy lovely Cuban from an online forum of Moscow expats would become so meaningful and life-changing. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew prompted a private message, and an invitation to chat about and swap music. (This was the third bit of music he and I virtually bonded over, the other two discussions consisted of gushing over Alison Kraus and Union Station and all things bluegrass, and, naturally, waxing silly and paying tribute to the Grateful Dead.) We didn’t keep track of the specific date when we met for the first time (at which point neither one of us was thinking anything other than ‘new friend with whom to geek out over music’). Nor did we really make note of our first ‘date’, which wasn’t intended as a date, but ended up sparking ‘something’.

But, thanks to Google, we can trace it back. How fitting that our first date / non-date fell on 12 June, a rather significant date for far more important reasons.

The decision in the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia, the case that invalidated laws criminalising mixed-race marriages, fell on 12 June 1967. Prior to that case, mixed race couples in the US were rare. More significantly and perhaps why they were so rare, prior to Loving, mixed-race couples who defied laws (and cultural norms) and wed faced jail time and prison sentences along with being ostracised from their community and outrage from their families and friends.  The laws changed, but attitudes persisted. Mixed-race couples continued to face rather unwelcome words and glances, if not outright discrimination and recrimination, some of which persist today. Today’s reality is certainly better than the era of the 1950s and 1960s, but that uneasiness continues today, at a time when 17% of newly married couples in the US involve individuals from various ethnic backgrounds.

The New York Times paid tribute to the Lovings along with other mixed-race couples on the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision. It serves as a stark reminder that even today it isn’t easy for couples claiming various backgrounds who fall in love with someone ‘different’ from them. Different from their community. Different in terms of how they look and what they ‘know’.

The Cuban and I are lucky, I suppose. We don’t look that different from one another despite coming from completely opposing worlds. Middle America / Texas hill country versus Havana, Cuba. At times, we both marvel that we have anything in common at all let alone that we even met. But, given how similar we look given our fair complexions and lighter coloured eyes, we are still not free from those long-held notions of who should marry whom. It’s exceedingly rare amongst our circles, thankfully. But, given our respective backgrounds, we have felt the assumptions others make about us. We have experienced stereotypes and some rather odd statements regarding our relationship and marriage, and its validity in the eyes of some. I can’t help but wonder what we’d experience if we weren’t living in Europe.

We may be living out our relationship 50 years from that landmark case. In some respects, we in the US are nowhere on truly becoming tolerant and, well, loving. For everyone. Even if we have come far from jailing mixed-race couples, there is still further to go.

Love is love. And it is a beautiful thing in whatever form it takes. Maybe we should spend a little more time loving and little less time deciding who may love whom.

just-us_malecon.jpg

Just the two of us being us on holiday. The Malecón, La Habana, Cuba. January 2017

The Devil’s Brew

Ask me what I’d rather give up—coffee or breathing—and I’d have to think about it. I suppose it’s a good thing that breathing occurs unconsciously because coffee is always on my mind.

This time of year, my coffee vehicle of choice becomes cold brew, that luscious, dark nectar that provides the quickest of caffeine jolts. With the long-awaited arrival of spring / summer in Helsinki, my precious elixir of life has been sitting and steeping for two days now, all ready to slowly filter (twice) and then sip and savour and enjoy. I’ve been waiting for this process for what seems like years.

Alas, something was slightly amiss when I opened the fridge this morning and reached for the pitcher of black loveliness.

Saatana coffee

To me, cold brew is the elixir of life; to The Cuban, cold brew is ‘The Devil’s brew’. (NB: Saatana in Finnish is Satan.)

My husband, The Joker.

He understands and accepts my love affair with coffee, just as much as he accepts my obsession with office supplies, books, yarn and Roger Federer. But, cold brew evidently is where he draws the line.

To Cubans, coffee is delivered in tiny little cups that resemble those itty bitty china tea sets for children’s make-believe tea parties. Those cups, which are so cute, simply don’t provide more than a sip or a gulp. In other words, it’s a coffee fairytale. The first time someone handed me a ‘cup’ of coffee in Cuba, I thought they were joking. ‘Where’s the rest of it?’, I asked The Cuban. He quickly explained that Cubans drink tiny cups throughout the day rather than opting for my giant bowl with a handle vessel. [NB: I now know to ask for a double every single time I ask for coffee in Cuba. It’s just easier and less disappointing that way.] Shortly thereafter, The Cuban developed the ‘Vanessa drinks coffee this way…’ explanation. I’m fairly certain our friends and family all think I’m certifiable or so wired that my heart will leap out of my chest at any moment. But, I will have my proper dosage of caffeine.

cafe cubano wink

Two cups from a friend’s flat in Havana. Each cup featured a different face. As cute as they are, they’re fall too small for this girl’s coffee.

Despite the Cuban climate being insanely hot and humid especially when compared to Finland, cafe cubano is always served hot and just off the stove, typically with sugar. To my mind, cold brew is perfect for those sultry, sticky days and nights. I am so wrong, it would appear. My husband’s reaction upon introduction to cold brew went something like this:

‘Cold brew?! What is this evilness you are making? You’re ruining the coffee! Have I taught you nothing?!’… as if this girl ever needed lessons on making or drinking coffee.

So, this morning’s little message, one of a million tiny quickly scribbled notes scattered across our 12 years together, once again made me laugh silently and smile adoringly. To my darling husband, cold brew is indeed ‘The Devil’.

He may have embraced a more reasonable measuring cup by which to drink his own coffee. You know, a proper cup of coffee (still far too small for me, but progress is progress). And, I may have accepted the joke that is a Cuban thimble of coffee. But, just as I’ve had to draw the line at a respectable size for that all-important cup of coffee in the morning, The Cuban evidently drew his own line at cold brew.

Something tells me my summer caffeine jolt will now and forever be known as ‘The Devil’s Brew’.

All that I need….

In the lead up to today, my 47th birthday, my husband has asked me nearly daily what I want. My response has been the same each and every time: ‘I don’t know. There’s nothing I really need or want.’ And, it’s true. I genuinely want for nothing for perhaps the first time in my life. At least, the things I want aren’t necessarily material goods or even things which impact my daily life. (Although, I’ll never turn down a new Marimekko frock or office supplies or chocolate. But, I don’t want need them.)

My life—my little, seemingly insignificant life—is rather comfortable and free of conflict. I have a husband and best friend I adore more with each passing year, a cat that is thoroughly cat-like and lovely at once, a job I never thought I’d love more and which rarely seems like ‘work’, more books and yarn than I will ever need and a collection of kind folks scattered across the globe to catch me when I stumble or with whom I can share the good times. Certain elements of my life may not be perfect, but I don’t need them to be. I don’t know that I want them to be. I rather enjoy challenges, perhaps more than I should.

At 47, I don’t feel the need to look behind me so much as I look forward to what’s to come. Goals are more realistic and simple these days, and what I hope for isn’t for me as much as it is for those around me. For the world around me.

This past year or so seems like some sort of wicked nightmare we’ve collectively imagined in some ways. After battling my own demons, and finally feeling as though I can live with them, current events in various regions have provided far too much surrealism and sleeplessness on occasion. It’s relatively easy for all of us to lose hope given some of the ugliness that screams more loudly than the kindness I know to exist. Yet, here I am, still full of hope for all of us and still firmly committed to the belief that what binds each of us to one another is far, far stronger than that which divides us.

At 47, this is what my life has come to mean: I won’t change the entire world, but hopefully I can change someone’s world just a little bit for the better. I won’t fix all the problems in this world, but perhaps I’ll help at least one person overcome some problem that consumes their world. I can’t love everyone, but I hope that I can provide love to someone who needs it in the moment when they need it most.

So many of you have done exactly that for me, both when I was acutely aware that I needed help and at moments when I didn’t. You have provided me with all that I need, and so much more. I am immensely grateful and I thank you, and I hope that I live up to your examples.

Me at 47

Me captured by The Cuban at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art, 6 May 2017, Espoo, Finland.

If you’d like to help make the world a better place, please consider making a donation to any of the following organisations. Above all, please be kind:

Home again

NB: In the coming days and weeks, I’ll be uploading and posting various missives and random musings from our most recent misadventures in Cuba. The two previous posts made to this little blog in late December and early January were both posted from Cuba, a first for me and exceptionally thrilling in a very odd way. The following was my first piece of writing after we arrived in Havana. I believe I wrote it on 15 December 2015. Enjoy, and thanks for reading! 

I am home.

The two-day trip from Helsinki to Havana provided more than ample time to anticipate and ponder what this fourth journey to that fabulously foreign and familiar island would bring. Excitement. Joy. Trepidation. Fear. Anxiety. Uncontainable happiness. All of these varied emotions swirled uncontrollably, and seemed to intensify as we drew nearer to José Martí International Airport. Somewhere over the Atlantic and mid-way through the nine-hour flight, I was overwhelmed with a sense of returning home.

Writing this on my second morning in Havana, I am bursting with relief and contentment. The pace and rhythm of Cuban life has changed very little in the past 11 months here. Yet, the slight shift in the atmosphere is palpable. There is ‘something’ different. The medians along roadsides seem less untidy. The streets seem less pothole-infested. I feel less like I’m looking through a sepia lens. It’s still the Havana I know and adore. But, it’s different in ways I can’t quite grasp just yet.

Our first example of this shifting reality in today’s Cuba greeted us at the airport. Immigration and passport control in the past have proved daunting. Not because of any issues related to nationality; simply, the process itself fills us with dread and can be a little intimidating. (Previously, each passport control booth was enclosed in this rather odd wooden box, with doors on both sides allowing you in and then out. Two agents would greet you (unsmilingly) as they checked your documents, took a picture of you and then welcomed you into Cuba. On our second trip here in 2009, I went through passport control first per The Cuban’s instructions, only to be immediately approached once on the other side of passport control booth door. We had evidently been flagged for a full search of all of our belongings coming in, a process which took several hours and was quite thorough, and left my husband miffed and feeling less than welcomed to his own home.) This year, it took all of two minutes for both of us to navigate passport control, and the wooden boxes have been replaced by open-air counters looking much more inviting and much less Soviet for lack of a better comparison.

By the time we reached baggage claim, we’d been off the plane for maybe 10 minutes total. In our sleep-deprived jet-lagged states, we looked at one another as if to say, ‘Did we get on the right plane? Are we actually in the right airport?’

The Cuba we know and love to poke fun at then mocked and welcomed us at once. On our first trip here together in 2008, the ceiling in baggage claim was half-exposed, about half of the lights worked throughout the hall, and it was utter chaos trying to get our luggage. My bag didn’t make the connecting flight in Madrid evidently, although it did show up the next day. But, I clearly remember that trip and arrival as chaos. The ‘bags’ fellow passengers were pulling from the carousel included huge plasma tvs and boxes big enough to fit small families.

Baggage claim today is much more polished. Aside from watching two airport officials point in opposite directions when asked upon which carousel our luggage would arrive, baggage claim now appears well-organised and maintained. That is, until luggage begins arriving. The process took ages. One bag would arrive, followed by a lengthy pause. Then another, followed by another lengthy pause. And, so on. We most likely only waited a total of 30 to 40 minutes for our bags. But, that surreal post-flight fog made it seem like infinitely longer, and most of our fellow travellers looked just as perplexed as we felt. Alas, this is Cuba and all you can really do is smile, shake your head, and wait. Nothing happens when now how you expect it to.

Once we had our luggage in hand, off we went through the green channel at customs to find a taxi home. And, home we are.

Having finally slept and as we begin begin to feel a little less airport-weary and more in-tune with the world around us, we’ll begin to really see what’s what in Cuba today. At the moment, though, there is a sense that something is afoot. Last night, we learned that President Obama hopes to travel to Cuba in his last year in office.* That is huge news, and perhaps a stronger indication than all previous announcements that times and relationships between my two homes are indeed changing.

It’s about bloody time.

*NB: The news in Cuba we heard was a bit different. We were told that he announced a definitive visit, although no date was given other than sometime in 2016. The news alone created quite a buzz for several days, perhaps for obvious reasons.

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Spatial Memory

Note: This is one of multiple pieces I’ve written during our trip to Cuba this year. This is not the first in the series, but it’s one which seems most appropriate and perhaps the most meaningful for me. Thanks to recent changes, which I’ll update y’all on later, the internet has finally (sort of) come to Cuba! Happy New Year from both of us, and I hope you enjoy this particular musing. 

Many places in Cuba conjure up specific memories and moments from our trips here. Mostly, each of these spaces remind me of meeting various people for the first or most recent time, or stolen moments in which these amazing individuals accepted me into their fold in one way or another. I’m hard-pressed to pick a favourite space, since each person and place signifies a significant relationship both to The Cuban and now to me. But, one place in particular makes me weep with longing once we return to Finland.

This particular flat belongs to Miriam, The Cuban’s best friend and sister from another mister. The two of them are so stinking lovely together it’s a sight to behold. They’ve watched their now adult offspring grow up, but well remember the tiny children they once were. In this building. Once neighbours and now best friends, they are family despite distance and years.

Miriam’s flat is an oasis of peace and solitude, as well as a meeting point and at times akin to party central when the full crew descend. On our first trip here, I met Miriam for the first time in a bus station, and then again at the beach one weekend. I immediately loved her. We then later came to visit her over a few evenings with several other of Pablo’s friends before returning to Finland. Laughter, love, warmth and kindness, and music. I may still struggle to keep up with the rapid-fire flow of Cubañol conversation and kidding, but more than anything, it’s clear that Miriam and all who surround her carry more laughter, love, warmth and kindness than most people experience in a lifetime. Perhaps this is why her space in Vedado persists in my memory when we are far, far away.

The room in which I now sit is simple. Polished granite floors in a speckled off-white, dark grey and black pattern. Despite a crack running across the middle of the floor, they shine like no floors we’ve seen in Cuba. Plants line three of the room’s four walls, several of which are my absolute favourite species and would never thrive in Finland. A huge hammock spans the width of the room just to one side of the clothesline and it takes all of my limited willpower to not immediately stretch out and stay there all day long. The room is rather cavernous with it’s four-metre-high ceilings, yet it is anything but cold. This is a room meant for conversing and sharing. Living and loving.

With the windows open throughout the flat, a breeze carries our conversations out, as well as allows others’ bantering to drift in and intermingle with ours.

I love this space. Much as I love most of our friends’ and family’s spaces here, as well as to the people inhabiting them. Each expresses perfectly the individual personalities of those we love. And, to a certain degree, we carry these spatial memories with us when we return to our own. As much as we bring with us on these trips, we inevitably leave with tiny pieces of these homes. Perhaps, it’s simply that we take little pieces of each of these people with us.

Regardless, this. This space. It persists in my memory, and I don’t mind at all.

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I am grateful.

Indeed.

Indeed.

I am grateful. This thought, more than anything at the moment, occupies my mind.

As many things as there are in this world that drive me batty and leave me constantly questioning our humanity, how we as a species got here and how we may ever hope to advance, I haven’t lost sight of the fact that my life is pretty damn good.

Is it perfect? Hell no. But, it is perfect for me.

I’m insanely fortunate to have married the one person on this planet with whom I don’t mind spending 24 / 7 / 365. Good thing, too, because we do spend an inordinate amount of time together given that we both work from home. As odd as it may sound, I’m looking forward to our holiday so we can spend more quality time together without distractions such as email and the 24-hour news cycle.

I know love, both from my families and from friends literally all over this crazy, big world, even if I don’t see many of the people I love as often as I’d like.

And, I have a job I absolutely love, amongst colleagues who are incredibly talented and in the midst of students who challenge me to do better and work harder, a challenge I gladly accept. It isn’t a particularly high prestige job, it doesn’t involve travel to exotic locations any longer and it doesn’t break the bank, but I am grateful every day to have found this job at this time in my life. There are no ‘bad’ days at the office; but, even the less than perfect days leave me smiling.

More than these things, I know peace and comfort and security, which are merely reflections of where and to whom I was born rather than any sort of accomplishment on my part. These are not small, insignificant things although they are intangible. I see them as extreme privileges many only dream of attaining, and I am grateful.

I also know that I drive many around me nuts, bitching about what’s wrong in and with this world, never mind my persistent moaning about the endless Finnish winter. I may not be able to do much about the weather or climate much to my chagrin, but, as naïve as it may be, I’d like everyone to enjoy the fortunes I’ve been afforded and enjoyed merely as consequence of my nationality if not heritage.

I’d like the poor to know the joy of guilty pleasures without sacrificing food or heat or a place to rest. I’d like those who live in conflict zones to find themselves unable to sleep from the safe silence that envelops them as they lay down at night. I’d like the persecuted to be surrounded in a sea of acceptance and love. And, I’d like those left hopeless to find themselves blinded by possibility and opportunity.

I am grateful. And, I want a better world for all. I don’t see these statements as inherently contradictory. I see them as complimentary and representing possibilities to give something back for all that I have been granted.

Bringing a different perspective into focus

Lately, perhaps because of the darkness that descends upon Helsinki at this time of year or merely a reflection of the state of the world we inhabit and a year filled with equal measures of disappointments and delightful surprises, processing events and putting them into context has proved somewhat difficult. Perpetual whiplash and roller coasters could not be more fitting metaphors for my life — I have loved this past year and found it infuriatingly disappointing for entirely different reasons. Finding and holding on to bits of loveliness and hope remain elusive at best and altogether impossible at moments, yet there is an element of bipolarity given the innumerable moments of unbelievable joy I’ve experienced as well. It’s maddening.

My husband came up with an idea for a photography project, which I not only love but it piqued my interest not simply because of the characters he chose (more on that later). But, his idea got me thinking about ways to highlight the goodness that may remain hidden on the darkest of days. And, how I might find an alternative perspective allowing me to process the craziness and chaos that permeates life, or to at least ignore that craziness and enjoy the chaos just a little a bit.

Yaima the Llama

Yaima the Llama

I give you The Adventures of Yaima the Llama.

I honestly have no idea where this little project will go, or what sort of revelations if any it may provide. To be perfectly frank, the project itself remains a bit nebulous and free form to me still. (I suppose there’s nothing particularly wrong with organic planning, eh?) But, I do hope it allows me a bit of a different, alternative perspective on the world around me.

So, what is this project? Well, Yaima (pronounced ‘Yai-EE-mah’) is now my constant companion (along with a camera), tucked safely in one or another bag. Whenever I see something which intrigues me, delights me or perplexes me, she comes out, a picture is taken, and I’m reminded to stop and reflect.

I suppose I’m thinking of this project as an extension or addition to the idea behind Proekt 365.  I’m hoping that Yaima allows me to shift ever-so-slightly how I observe and interact with the world around me, places which inspire me and the individuals who ground me in one way or another. Ultimately, I’m hoping that I may focus more on what’s right rather than what’s wrong. But, also, I’m really hoping that Yaima serves as a reminder to slow down and take time out to truly enjoy those joyous occasions and be IN them more completely.

This is an incredibly perplexing world, particularly given recent and on-going events. Regardless of those tragedies which play out on the world’s stage, there are an infinite number of seemingly insignificant yet unimaginably lovely moments. So, here’s to focusing on those more. Onward…