Many Cubans have called Conner Gorry crazy, because in 2002 she left New York and came to live in Havana, in love with Cuba and a Cuban. Her first physical contact with the country was in the fields harvesting root vegetables, when in 1993, during the Special Period, she came to work as a volunteer.
“In the midst of my Masters in International Relations I felt the need to come touch reality myself. People talked about what they were living here, but from outside. I wanted to draw my own conclusions. “
A year ago, Conner and her family opened the Habana Libros literary café, entirely with in English literature. The New Yorker, National Geographic, Wired, Rolling Stones, Times are some magazines that can be read in their café, kind of community project in 19 and 24 Streets, Vedado neighborhood.
If it wasn’t for the fact that she has hair too blond, overly blue eyes and skin too white, people would not suspect that Conner was born in the United States. Moreover, when she learned to speak “Cuban”, she moved to a Soviet-made building, and rode on many “camels” (Cuban large buses pulled by trucks) as any Havana inhabitant. The blog Here’s Havana is the epitome of her life in Cuba and a way of translating the world the reality of the country through her own island adventure.
How does Conner arrive in Havana? What is your first contact with Cuba?
In 1993 I spent a month here, and I was so impressed how in the midst of that stage Cubans were still working, dancing and growing family. People enjoyed life as far as they could. That experience was very different from my experience in New York, where it is just work, work.
I like much the fact that the Cuban family makes time for a coffee, a beer with neighbors, family. Life in Cuba is much more human, more social. In New York you live isolated. You do not know who your neighbor is.
On that trip I fell in love the country and the way Cubans solve their difficulties with creativity. The Cuban complains a lot, but despite all difficulties keeps going forward
In 2002, already with my Masters in hand, I fell for a Cuban, I moved here, and now I’m a journalist here.
How did you have the idea to open a literary cafe in Vedado, with all the books in English and updated editions, or almost, of the major American magazines?
My boss at the magazine for which I worked had a sack of good books in English, but had no room for them at home. She asked if I wanted them. A writer must not throw a book ever, and then I, who did not have room for them either, had that bag in my living room for about six months.
I realized then that there was a need for a bookstore in English in Havana. Here there are good bookshops with volumes in English, but not a place where you could also take a coffee, sit in a hammock, reading a magazine like National Geographic, and high-quality books, because the collection we have here is tiny, but good.
So I convinced my family that with the new economic changes, we had the possibility of opening a small business, which could serve also as a community and cultural project for all ages and for both Cubans and foreigners.
In Havana, the concept of “literary cafe” was already there. There are several, but sometimes the coffee is bad, or there are no books, or the environment is of reggaeton. And here we have a motto: “This is a reggaeton free zone”.
This project is also to support the Cuban youth. I have many friends and family who have left the country. Then I thought what we can do here for young people to feel part of a project. And there we are. We opened a year ago, and it has been a tremendous experience.
Habana Libros is a collaborative project. It is not mine, or my family´s, but of all. And that’s what we try to feed, that anyone with an idea can come and together we can see if we start it.
One thing: here we do not sell alcohol. My family told me: “Conner, we have to sell Cristal (beer)”. And I say no, because that changes the environment. There are thousands of places in Havana where you can buy a Planchao (rum in a tetra pack) or beer. Here we go do something else, so people come to have a healthier exchange.
Many say that there should be a literary café like this in every corner. I wish!
Tell me a little more about the decision to leave New York to live in Havana.
It was alchemy of heart and head. For my Masters in International Relations and the issue of Cuba-US relations, the country hooked me. But I fell in love too. I was younger. Those decisions in the youth are more easily made.
It was a dream for me. Today more than ever many foreigners and many Cubans abroad are returning. And my family supported me fully. My mother, unmarried with four children, said: “Live your dreams, life is unique.” Then I moved.
Here I lived with my husband in a Soviet-style building in 100 and Boyeros, and that was great, because it forced me to ride a camel, when they still existed, in a neighborhood where no foreigner lives. There I inserted in everyday life from the beginning. People told me: “My Friend, ¿where are you from?” And when I answered that 100 and Boyeros, people exclaimed in surprise: “What?”.
In the building, we were next door to an apartment in which live five different generations of women live in just two rooms. That is very common in Cuba; the family is tight, living in housing situations that are not ideal.
All this experience helped me get closer to everyday reality. I have no car, I have no house, live in the struggle. That helps me better understand a Cuban mother who has to go from work to the green market and then to the house to do the cleaning, washing, cooking…
At any time you doubt your decision to move in here permanently?
That’s like everything. You doubt those moments when life gets hard, when you live away from family, or things are happening in New York and cannot help, or call, or when there are problems with marriage.
At those times I said, “What am I doing?” But I only doubted normally, as elsewhere in the world. To those that, surprised, questioned me why I live in Cuba, I say: “No matter where you live. Anywhere, there are good, bad and regular things. “Everything depends on you, how you assume things, and your own philosophy.
I come from a poor family. I’m still paying off my debt of that famous Masters. And they are thousands of dollars. My husband says I must be very smart for spending so much on education. When things get tough, I think of the reasons why I’m here. I have a great love for Cuba and Cubans. I feed my soul with good things here.
Now are very important changes that are happening, though they do not offer the same opportunities for all. I have family and friends who are not going ahead with the changes, for different reasons. I have lazy friends, and others who do not have money to invest or to go out to eat at a paladar (private restaurant).
But it is important to remain optimistic and support each other. I come from the brutal capitalism in New York, and we have to build something different here.
How do you face writing about Cuba in Here’s Havana? Where do your texts go to?
My texts are linked to the question of how I face the difficulties here. Write about it is like a catharsis for me. Assimilate and understand the Cuban idiosyncrasy cost me work on issues like love. This, for example, was complicated, because Cuba is a pretty macho country. How, for example, men could be so romantic and at the same time look bad at a woman that does “men’s work”? I ride a bike, and many people have said that’s not for females.
My blog is about my life and the Cuban idiosyncrasy. It is to help other people understand the “cubaneo” and how Cubans are. It even deals with cooking. I love cooking. In the United States, when I would invite people to eat, I went to the supermarket and put in the cart what I needed. Here we have not all products. We have season fruits and vegetables, while there the season doesn’t matter; there is always everything, but not all good all the time. Then I had to adjust to this when making recipes here.
In addition to the blog, you also carry a mobile application…
For years I write for one of the largest publishers in the world of guidebooks, Lonely Planet. When the possibility of making an application for iPhone and Android came, I decided to do it, because I have many years of experience traveling and writing.
This application works without Wifi and it’s great because you carry it in your pocket and has maps, photos, descriptions of places. And at the same time it’s funny, because I myself do not have an Iphone.
How do you perceive the Cuba now compared to 2002, when you moved to Havana?
I think today, in all the complexity that we have, we are learning, launching a new phase. I feel that the country is more international than ever. There are people from everywhere in Cuba and it was not always so.
This fuels creativity and perspectives of people who are opening their minds. We need more spaces in Havana where the average Cuban can engage in any conversation with a foreigner not to make money out of him but to share and have a human exchange.
In one of your texts you say that Havana is like a mystery. What is this mystery? How have you assumed it?
Well, this would lead a conversation to which the recorder memory would not be enough. The first is the language: the Cuban speaks a kind of Spanish that a Spanish-speaking could not understand. And then, the Cuban idiosyncrasy, codes that Cubans have with each other. That is hard to learn.
For instance: the question of “the mistresses”. I have friends who have learned over time that their dad had a double life and even other family. All this is a mystery to an American.
But more than that, Cuba is a mystery to me because its society is evolving. Special Period cooperation of ALBA, the Guidelines, etc … always Cubans are going forward. That to me is a mystery.
How can Cubans take things in life and its changes with such ease? How do they maintain their joy? Most do it. I talk using generalizations, but I think most keep their sense of humor. It is characteristic of the Cuban to orientate very fast. Also the dual currency. There are friends of mine that cannot explain this. For us it’s something natural.
How majority of Cubans do not read at stops of the buses, for example, while in other countries it is customary to do if you wait for the train? I have my theory about it: is that you must be aware, that if a friend goes by in a car he can give you a ride. You cannot be lost in a book.
And there are things like that, constantly. Why is there no fish? Why are Cubans living on an island, and eat no fish? Why do people drink milk powder if the world no one else does? And they are also things that are explained in this context. And just about any topic: bed, cooking, transportation, school, and the Cubans themselves, who have very specific things. That creates a mystery to me.
Some foreign female friends who come to Cuba tell me, “I’m in love with a Cuban, give me advice.” And I say: “Cubans are awesome; flowers come out of their mouths, poetry”.