It’s hard to imagine a more fascinating place to travel to vicariously right now than Havana. So, we were excited to talk to Alexandra Oppmann, a former lawyer and mother of two, who moved there in January 2012, when her husband, Patrick, became CNN’s correspondent in Cuba. Here, she shares her experience of parenting in a country in the midst of historic change…
My mother is originally from Havana, and I grew up listening to her stories. It’s incredible that we’re raising our kids just a few blocks from her old house. We moved from Seattle to Cuba when our three-year-old daughter, Alma, was a few months old. Our son, Nicolas, is one year old, and our family now includes three dogs and a turtle. (One dog and the turtle are native Cubans!)
Our house is in a quiet residential neighborhood called Miramar. We rent from the government, which is customary; you aren’t allowed to buy or rent property from individuals. We love the people and the culture here, despite the challenges of living in a Communist country. We hope to stay for a few more years, and I recently started a store selling items handmade by local artisans.
On setting up a household: We’re lucky to live in a wonderful old house with great bones, but it had been untouched for decades, like most houses here. We needed to repair the plumbing, fix the floors and paint to make it habitable.
In the U.S., the updates we did could have been wrapped up in a couple of quick projects, but here, it’s more complex. Basics like white paint aren’t always stocked in hardware stores and you have to get creative. The other day I needed a few screws, but three different hardware stores were completely out of them. I noticed some packages of hinges, which I didn’t need, that came with screws. Problem solved.
On living with less: The average monthly salary is $20 to $30 — almost everyone earns less than $50 per month — and budgets are tight despite many free or subsidized services like food, education, healthcare and utilities. There is an expression here, “resolvemos,” which translates roughly to, “we’ll figure it out.” It’s a national mantra, used in every household to describe overcoming challenges. People will say, “I resolved eggs today,” meaning they were able to find eggs. You learn to make do and you realize you need less than you think.
On diapers: In so many other countries you can go online and, voilà, the next day you’ll have a box of diapers at your doorstep. In Cuba, diapers are hard to find, poor quality and too expensive for the average Cuban at about a dollar each. So, it’s common to see disposable diapers hanging on clothes lines. Mothers reuse them by taking out the stuffing, washing the outside cover and refilling them with cotton. People who visit sometimes ask me why people don’t use cloth diapers, but modern cloth diapers aren’t sold here and would be too expensive on the black market. Also, washing machines are rare.
On island life: Havana is a tropical city and we’re lucky to have beach weather almost all year; much of life happens outdoors. You can see or smell the ocean wherever you go. The city is surrounded by a long seawall and promenade called El Malecón. This the heart and soul of Havana. During the day, people fish, do calisthenics and throw Santería offerings into the ocean. (Santería, meaning “the worship of saints,” is a traditional Afro-Cuba religion.) We love to take a walk there at night, when large crowds of people gather to enjoy the sunset and the breeze. Everything pulses with life — lots of young Cubans sharing bottles of rum, making out, playing music or just escaping from the heat.
On the Cuban temperament: This is a wonderfully friendly place. People you meet for the first time and friends alike are always greeted with a kiss, and it’s totally normal for a stranger to engage you in conversation on the street. People delight in the opportunity to chat about music or current events, and maybe one of the reasons is that the Cuban population overall is highly educated — the government has made education free and mandatory — but because of the difficult economic situation, it is not uncommon to find a doctor or engineer driving a taxi, where they have more access to valuable tourist dollars.
Funnily enough, I’ve found that it can be difficult for Cubans to admit they don’t know something. I’m always extra careful when asking for directions on the street. I’ll usually confirm at least twice, because oftentimes someone will give me wrong directions to avoid saying they don’t know! Similarly, Cubans you meet will talk readily about politics and life in Cuba, but many of them don’t immediately feel comfortable telling you how they really feel. People often hold back a little until you become better friends.
On Cuban-American politics: Cuba’s relationship with the U.S. is complex. For decades, the Cuban government has blamed many of its economic problems on U.S. policies, like the trade embargo. But, at the same time, Cubans passionately follow American sports and music, and almost every Cuban I know has family that lives in the U.S. So, our experience has been that Cubans show genuine warmth to Americans. Anytime I find myself in a long line, which is common, people will start up a conversation, often beginning with a knowing sigh and the phrase “¡no es facil!” or “it’s not easy!” In the end, American or Cuban, there is a certain solidarity in that we are all in this together.
On fashion: Cuban fashion is a spectacular hodgepodge of government-supplied clothes, black-market items brought in from other Latin American countries and hand-me-downs. Many people get their style sense from American movies and music videos shown on state TV. So, it’s not uncommon to see an everyday outfit that’s reminiscent of a Lady Gaga or Beyoncé stage costume. Also, Cubans often wear clothes that are a couple of sizes too small, in part because it’s difficult to buy new clothes, but also it’s just the style. Even traffic police wear uniforms that are two sizes too small!
On medical care: The healthcare system here is amazing for such a poor country. There’s a network of walk-in clinics where you can be seen for anything from a minor cut to a heart attack at no cost. Because of the wide availability of medical care, Cubans are so comfortable with doctors and medicine that people will freely talk about intimate medical information with anyone.
But, while people outside the country might see the Cuban healthcare system as ideal, it doesn’t always feel that way if you are used to American healthcare, with so much more technology, consent and choice. In my experience, the hospitals sometimes lack basic equipment or materials. If you need to give a urine sample, for example, you’re told to boil a jar at home. The first time a friend heard this, she asked me, “Should I use a pickle jar or an olive jar?!?” Once, when my son Nicolas had an asthma attack, I brought him to the hospital and they didn’t have a mask available to deliver his inhalation medicine. Instead, they improvised by putting a simple glass tube in his mouth.
On the rarity of children: For decades, Cuba has had an extremely low birth rate compared to most other countries. This is a complicated issue involving many social and economic factors, but the result is that children are idolized. Strangers touch our kids’ hands, offer to carry them or say, “Que Dios lo bendiga” meaning, “God bless them” when passing by. Our Cuban friends have sometimes told us we need to ward off evil spirits by pinning traditional amulets called azabaches, made of pieces of jet and gold, to our kids’ clothes.
On feeding babies: Women are encouraged to breastfeed in Cuba. But compared to the U.S., breastfeeding feels like more of a necessity, rather than a choice. There’s practically no formula available, particularly at an affordable price. I feel for the moms who have a hard time breastfeeding. Also, its common for doctors here to tell moms to give an infant watered down root vegetable purées in addition to breast milk to make sure they gain weight, which surprised me.
When babies are ready for solids, Cubans feed them malanga, a starchy tuber that looks and tastes like a cross between a potato and a yucca. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, but most Cubans love it. When Alma began eating food, we tried to feed her malanga, but she refused. It was the height of the summer and there where few other vegetables available for her to try besides pumpkin. Luckily, she loved that, but she had so much pumpkin that summer she literally turned orange from all the bete-carotene and we took her to the pediatrician before we figured out what it was!
On food: Cubans tend to skip breakfast and have a cafecito, which is like a small shot of very sugary espresso. Later in the morning, they’ll have a snack — a fried croquette or bread and cheese. (In our house, we still do an American-style breakfast.)
The rest of the day, Cuban cuisine is all about rice, black beans and pork or fish, as well as local crops like yucca or plantains. The government provides subsidized food to the population via ration cards, which Cubans use to shop at local bodegas.
Seasonal eating is a trend in many countries, but here it’s a practical approach, because vegetables and fruits are not usually imported. So, we get the best mangoes during mango season, but once it is over, unless we freeze them, there are no more. In general, vegetables are not a major part of people’s diets, and I don’t often see parents urging kids to eat their veggies.
On improvising in the kitchen: We often have to be resourceful and adjust our cooking plans around what we can get. At the moment, it’s been a few months since I’ve seen chicken breasts available at the market, for example. Last year on Thanksgiving, my father-in-law and I spent hours driving around trying to find potatoes, which are a black market item. People will normally walk up to you at the vegetable market and whisper, “I have potatoes.” But, that day there were none. We were like potato junkies trying to get our fix of mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving!
On going out: During the past few years, because of shortages, spices weren’t widely available. In many Cuban homes, food was seasoned simply, with just salt, onion, garlic or oranges. But, recently, more elaborate cooking has come back in paladares, which are family-owned restaurants serving traditional dishes. We love taking the kids out to eat fresh tuna and octopus, along with superb pork dishes.
Patrick and I met 17 years ago at a well-known paladar called La Guarida, when we were both here for the summer in our 20s. Back then, there were very few private restaurants, and by law they could only seat 12 people. You were basically eating in someone’s living room. Today there are many family-run places that look and feel more like restaurants. We have our favorites that we always go back to. La Guarida now seats over 50 people and has a cool rooftop bar and cigar lounge that feels like Miami.
On the love of sugar: Cubans seem to regard sugar as its own food group! Sugarcane is grown here — Cuba was at one time the world’s largest sugar exporter — and people love sweet things. In fact, on Cuban TV, health experts often talk about sugar as a good source of nutrition and energy. It isn’t rare to see children as young as one eating sugary foods or drinking soda.
On safety: This is a police state on an island. If you commit a crime, you are more than likely going to get caught! Also, there are few to no guns. As a result, it’s incredibly safe here. Everyone in our neighborhood knows our kids by names and we stop to chat on the street. Cuba still has an overall sense of tranquility, because it’s so disconnected from a lot of the world, which is hard to find anywhere else. It’s an amazing place for children to grow up. All kids, including ours, play outside with little supervision.
On cars: The variety of vintage cars in Cuba is mesmerizing. The first year we lived here, before getting our own car, I got around using almendrones, which are old cars from the 1950s that have been reconfigured with new engines and drive specific routes as taxis. Everyone and everything that can fit squeezes in, and for about 50 cents you ride along with other passengers, until you get close to your destination then you ask the driver to stop, usually yelling over loud reggaeton music (Spanish reggae). It’s a fun and cheap way to get around.
On playtime: Recently, I’ve noticed that rollerblading is catching on among kids here. Cuban trends are often way behind the rest of the world, so it’s not surprising that an American fad from the 90s is just arriving! A significant difference between kid culture in the U.S. and here is that Cuba has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the world. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for the average Cuban to get online. That means that unlike kids in the U.S., many Cuban children have no idea what the Internet is and probably have never seen an iPad or iPhone. They find totally different ways to amuse themselves. Often, I see a group of kids sharing a makeshift car toy pulled by a string, a papier-mâché doll or a ball. Playtime is simple, but certainly no less fun.
On baby gear: There’s no culture around baby stuff in Cuba, especially compared to the U.S. Moms usually use strollers or cribs handed down from relatives and fixed up over and over. The least expensive umbrella-type stroller at a Cuban government store costs about $80, which hugely expensive for the average Cuban. But Cubans are so resourceful and I’ve noticed moms carrying babies in locally handmade backpacks similar to the Ergo or Baby Bjorn.
Above: The Tropicana dancers at Carnival, one of Cuba’s biggest holidays, held each summer along the Malecón.
On holidays: Until recently, Christmas wasn’t an official holiday in Cuba and it was frowned upon by the government to celebrate it. There are usually few public decorations around the holidays, which I miss. But, Cuba is hardly a nation without celebrations. It’s exactly the opposite.
New Years involves feasts and rum. Everyone cleans their house on New Years day and throws the cleaning water onto the street to rid their homes of bad vibes.
On Mother’s Day, strangers on the street will congratulate you the whole day, as if you won an Oscar. It’s funny and really sweet. Friends, including Patrick’s coworkers, will text me congratulations and send gifts. Telephone lines are so congested from all the Mother’s Day congratulations it is difficult to place a call on that day!
On identifying as Cuban: Our daughter speaks fluent Spanish with a Cuban accent, and our son isn’t far behind. He already makes Cuban hand gestures, like, when he says, “Mama donde estabas?” — every time I leave the room — he puts his hands out to his sides palms up like he is doing the Macarena. I cherish this, because it shows that Cuba is part of their heritage; they’ll always be Cuban to some extent. Friends who have lived here and left look back on their time in Cuba with such joy, having forgotten any hardship, and I’m sure we will be the same. There is something truly magical and vibrant about Cuba.
Thank you so much, Alexandra!
P.S. The full Motherhood Around the World series, featuring 18 other moms living abroad…