Canada is an interesting country. The people are careful in our friendliness and things are often left to understanding and not words. Kind gestures extend as part of conscious guilt and an aversion to making waves: please, thank you, sorry, sorry, sorry. A kind smile and awkward chit chat about hockey.
We stand inside our pristine brick fortesses, in quiet neighbourhoods that are walking distance from good schools and we fill our flesh to prove to ourselves that our houses are not too big for us, that we really do need all the space. Things are bigger, but social circles are not. In our quiet surroundings, in our inhibited social reserve, we are sterile, septic and retracted, like the weather we endure for so many months of the year.
Driving through Cuba, the Canadians eyed 7 x 10 metered shacks, held up by a neighbour’s nails, holes welcome in the sea breeze as families lean against the front stoop. Freshly washed laundry waves in the breeze, flags symbolizing an uprising and then a plateau. Locals watch us as they expand into a chair, concentrating on the faint tickle of breeze on sticky hot skin, or lean against the door frame, casually eyeing this common trespass of foreigners. The Canadians watch the endless scene, house after house, an endless train of clotheslines, with a twist of fascinated guilt. Flesh memories of the softness of their beds, the gourmet food heavy in their stomachs fill their hearts with the dull burdensome ache of privilege, but their minds assure them of their powerlessness to change any of it.
“In Cuba, when someone has nice clothes, we know that they are brought here from AFUERA!” Jokes G, a Cuban and fast-friend I met on the beach. “The clothes and goods here in Cuba are, to put it politely, not very nice. But in your country, in Canada, everything is made to last, everything looks beautiful.” To the Cubans, afuera, or outside (of Cuba), is synonymous with quality.
Hearing this, I self-consciously and uncomfortably finger the made-in-China shorts I got at H&M, which were a snap purchase, and will probably barely make it through the summer. Behind the friendly jokes and the toothy Cuban smile, I feel accused of splurging on silk robes while walking around in a land where everyone wears rags. Of course, with some of the best healthcare and education in the Caribbean, the downside of the revolution may be mostly a lack of material goods, Materialism, who, despite her spiritual worthlessness is, in North America, the god we pray to.
However, there is something stickier than materialism that seems to inject a certain joy and spirit of community into the hearts of Cuban socialists. Music, laughter, kind words and off-handed claps on the shoulder, as interpersonal connections blossom, characterize the Caribbean style of communication. Deep bonds are formed between strangers and hugs are tossed around with a reckless abandon that can at first can be threatening to the frigid, but kind, Canadian. And as I observe my fellow foreigners in the midst of this, and then our lives after we’ve returned home, I realized how impoverished our country has become. We lap up the warm smiles and friendly waves with the delirious fever of an abandoned castaway presented with cool spring water. At home, while we may be able to splurge our credit allocations on cheap plastic shit, we seem to be missing a key piece in the Great Happiness Puzzle; a sense of community and connection to each other.
Perhaps the large houses and the lifeless goods we’ve spent generations accumulating and built up around ourselves is only hindering our ability to survive. We pump music into our ears, shade our vision with Chanel lenses and calm our blood with the newest slow-release antidepressant. We keep ourselves contained in our invisible personal pods of comfort and thus we never fully live or learn the limits to our expansion.
We don’t have warm crystal-clear seawater, hot weather that melts our flesh into the atoms that surround it and merengue beats pumping the blood in our veins, but we do possess that same genetic code that deems possible the expansion of our selves.
From young adulthood we’ve been trying to find the answer to our desperate cry to fit in. Maybe, just maybe, buying the right clothes, listening to the right music or doing the right drugs will help me meld into those around me, will give me a sense of belonging and purpose. However, perhaps what the media tries to sell us is in fact a lie, no matter how maxed out our credit cards, the answer is simple: a smile, kind words, laughter and a friendly clap on the shoulder of a stranger as we begin to break through the icy pods that keep us separate from one another.