Our flat is on the fourth floor in a busy street in central Havana. It has a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom – quite luxurious for most of Havana, well, luxurious for two people; often at least one family, probably more, would live in a place like this. It has a large balcony, where I spend much of my time, watching the constant action around. My neighbour’s balconies are just a few yards either side of me, and below. We have two
rocking chairs and a metal table with four chairs in the living room, a large bed; the kitchen is small but perfectly usable. We have a TV attached to the wall. Cuba has five stations now; it used to have two when I first visited. Yuri cooks every day.
The people below us were fitting a new bathroom. Intermittently, perhaps three days out of five, there was a constant banging, all day, until six or seven o’clock. It drove me mad. Yuri didn’t even notice it. The banging has changed. Tiles are being reshaped with an automatic grinder. The banging appears to have finished for the time being, cement has been mixed, I can just see it in the moribund bath on the balcony below, and tiles are being fixed. I assume the banging from before was making space for the tiles. There is occasional banging as the tiles are put in place. Everywhere you go in Havana, someone will be banging. Noise is compulsory.
When I first arrived I was completely sensitive to the noise. I insisted we change apartment (although, noise apart, I do like the place we have now). Later, I wouldn’t notice it during the day, but would get irritated if it continued after seven o’clock. Bear in mind that this noise is in conjunction with constant shouting, horns blaring, conversations of neighbours and assorted other noise. Now, after almost two weeks here, I hardly notice any noise. I think the banging would bother me, but it has stopped; the rest: the grinder, the soft banging as the tiles are put in place, the mixing – everything – is ceasing to bother me.
It would be impossible to live in Cuba without acclimatising to the noise. There is something quite relaxing about that. I would not like to be Cuban; I would be at home with the organised chaos that seems to be a part of life here, but I would like to be less bothered by neighbours building a new bathroom, the everyday chaos of life. I would like to be more Cuban, while retaining whatever it is that makes me, me.
I have acclimatised before. I lived here. But I was thirteen years younger. I have certainly changed since then. I still smoke, but hardly ever drink. Before, I could barely go a day without rum. At my worst I would be drinking, perhaps, two bottles a day. I lost myself, had no idea what I was doing. I described the experience fairly accurately in my book, Caliente. I only just recognise the man who had those experiences – what was I doing? – I don’t really know. I came here with a plan. I was naive, some people tried to take advantage, others tried to help, I hardly knew which was which.
At the moment I can’t afford to stay here, although I would like to. My ambition when I get home is to promote my book (something I’ve been unable to do so far), continue with my writing and somehow find a way to live here. It would have to be partly on my terms – I would only intend to be part Cuban. I would need a library of English books, a large library. I would need access to new books. I have discovered some Cuban and South and Central American writers I like; I’d like to discover more, but there are very few books in English here, and my Spanish is nowhere near good enough for reading. So, I would need a flat (something similar to what I have now would be fine, perhaps a little bigger) and the means to pay for it. And Yuri. That is really all I need.
The people below have started banging again, although it is fairly rare now. I have accepted it. To live in Cuba one must accept the noise, or to be more accurate: to live in Havana. We visited Tony at his Bahia house; it was perfectly quiet. In many ways it would be the perfect place for me. I didn’t like the house when I first moved there with Yamilia in 2001, or later when I lived there through necessity. I stayed there in 2009 with Yuri and I didn’t like it. The main reason for this was that the house is not within walking distance of anywhere: a few shops, a bar is ten minutes walk away, Havana a twenty minute taxi journey – back then it was not enough. But when we visited last week I suddenly realised that now, perhaps, it is ideal. It just what I need.
Before this trip I wondered if I would ever be able to visit Cuba without alcohol, specifically rum. But now I rarely drink. For three years I stopped smoking too, and I could not imagine being in Cuba without cigarettes. During the non-smoking, non-drinking years I didn’t do anything; I never went anywhere. Perhaps I was prolonging my life, but what for, for what reason? When I began smoking again I came back to Cuba. Not drinking is now easy. I smoke far too much but I am working on that (I’ve been working on it for forty years). So now that I know that I can be here and enjoy myself without rum, Tony’s house becomes rather different. I’d often wondered what I would do with all my books, assuming that I could get them here. Well, Tony’s house is ideal; it has at least two rooms which could be used for books. And it has silence, something I didn’t want before, but now I do seek it like a pain relieving balm – I can become acclimatised to the noise in Havana, but never will I become comfortable with it. So, if I can get my books here, order the occasional new one, write, sell a few books – Tony’s house it is.
We went to Yuri’s Padrino’s house. She is undergoing some form of santeria. Some men were banging next door; I was the only person to notice it. Later, much later, when it was time to leave, some men were banging the ceiling at Jose Marti Airport…