Lorenzo & his humble friends

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

Category: travellin

Madrid

I have been in Madrid over five times now. I first came twice for one volunteer and one student vacation sometime between 2009 and 2013. Then Madrid became one of the places that I would study as part of my Ph.D. dissertation. My friends and local hosts here were Pedro and Andrea. Here comes a list of familiar places, familiar establishments, and places/establishments I am keeping for the future.

Familiar places: La Calle del Doctor Piga en Lavapies; Anton Martìn (mercado, cinema y todo); El Retiro (its small bookshops, lakes, and buildings); El Templo de Debod (sunset and night); Campo del Moro; Calle de la Cava Baja en La Latina; Chueca; Calle Ponzano (Chamberi).

Familiar establishments: La Venencia (sherri and dust); Barrutia y el Nueve (pescado y carne); Mercado de San Fernando (Lavapies, remember that time with dancers inside?)La Azotea de El Círculo de Bellas Artes (quite a view); Vincci The Mint (Gran Via over night); La Burbuja que ríe (Asturian food); El Mercado de San Miguel (market next to Plaza Mayor: pick some salmorejo); Reina Sofía (some extraordinary Pablo Picasso, Salador Dalì, Joan Miro, Carlos Sáenz de Tejada, Pablo Gargallo and great temporary exhibitions: this time around on The Poetics of Democracy Images and Counter-Images from the Spanish Transition with this short, asphyxiating movie, La Cabina, as the main take-away); NuBel; Arzábal Restaurant; Libreria de Montaña Desnivel.

For the future: El Prado; Thyssen; Museo Sorolla, El Matadero, CaixaForum, La Casa Encendida, El Círculo de Bellas Artes, Ocho y Medio Libreria (Plaza de Espana); Libreria el olor de la lluvia (in Lavapies); Libros para un mundo mejor (Chueca); El Lamiak; Bodega de la Ardosa (Malasaña); Librería de Mujeres.

Dialoghi e appunti tra Trento, Roma e Firenze

Una mattina di giugno alla fermata del bus anziano sale a bordo e saluta il guidatore: ‘Wella, direttore!“.

Al ristorante chiedo al cameriere se posso sedermi all’esterno. Lui mi risponde: “Puoi fare ciò che vuoi e io sarò il tuo schiavo“.

Al Giro d’Italia con Alvise, babbo, Giallu e Pietro tra Fonzaso, Croce d’Aune, Monte Avena, Pedavane e di ritorno a Fonzaso. Ci accampiamo con gli amici di Alvise che incitano in maniera indiscriminata spettatori e spettatrici che salgono in bici. Lo fanno sventolando davanti a loro mutandine di donna, sculacciandoli/le con due manine di plastica, versando loro del prosecco: “bevilo tutto!” oppure “e adesso lo finisci!” a seconda del momento.

Croce d'Aunia

Notte fonda al ritorno dal June Ball e trovo il solito fornaio all’opera in una remota bottega di via Boccaccio. Gli chiedo della schiacciata e lui me la regala: ho solo una banconota da cinquanta e lui non ha il resto. Due giorni dopo torno e trovo il suo collega. E’ quasi commosso che io sia tornato a pagare due euro. Loro si chiamano Mario e Sergio.

Francesco, Carmela e Costanza della Boutique della Pasta Fresca si ricordano ancora di me, anche se ci torno solo un paio di volte all’anno. Quando faccio per andare in bagno mi ricordano di chiudere la porta con delicatezza, altrimenti “gliela sbarbo“.

Un giorno cammino per il sottopassaggio delle Cure e mi godo l’Angelo che canta una litania napoletana accompagnato dalla fisarmonica. Sbucato alla luce mi trovo davanti Isah, che non vedevo dalla primavera del 2016. Lui era il venditore ambulante che sostava sempre davanti all’Antico Forno Guasti e con cui parlavamo di Roberto Baggio. Ci riconosciamo e parliamo di Danielo (Dani) e di Daniela (Jonas). Isah è molto contento, anche perché ora sta per partire per il mare dove farà la stagione – vendendo asciugamani. Ci siamo abbracciati.

Fish, moss , sulfur, water, wool

I land in Iceland after having spent one week in Paris. The contrast could not be more striking. I leave chaos and warm spring colours behind and I jump into a pale, spacious, and mostly silent place. Not entirely silent because of the wind that whispers almost all the time.

I have two first impressions of Iceland. The first is the Icelandic accent in English: such a bizarre blend of Greek and Scottish. Not quite what you would expect. The second is the smell and the thickness of the water: sulfur. I have a hard time showering in the morning, although they say it is very good for the skin.

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It is difficult to understand the tourist turn of Reykjavik today without thinking about the effects of cash (the financial crisis of 2008) and hash (the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010). This combination led Icelandic authorities to brand Iceland for tourism, creating a very powerful industry. There were less than 30.000 people per year coming to Iceland in 2008 and there are more than 2 million now. It is a rather appalling tourism: Americans enjoying a prolonged layover on their way back home and rich people. The branding of Iceland is all about white, upper class people enjoying leisure time.

Most of the promotional images about Iceland feature beautiful women (e.g. here). This is a perverse twist in a country that ranks first for gender equality. Indeed, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the fourth President of Iceland, was the world’s first democratically directly elected female president. With a presidency of exactly sixteen years, from 1 August 1980 to 1 August 1996, she also remains the longest-serving elected female head of state of any country to date.

Reykjavik is a relatively big city, with 200.000 inhabitants, about two third of the people who live on the island. The centre (that is, the main street Laugavegur) is completely gentrified and there is a tourist shop every twenty meters. The museums are mushrooming and most of them are rather useless. The buildings are rather anonymous on the outside but often surprising on the inside. The architecture is practical, bright, robust, efficient.

I am surprised to see many cyclists. I remember reading about bike rides in Iceland. I would not want to do it. The roads are mostly flat and extremely windy. Not a good combination. I notice that all the cyclists have expensive bikes and hyper-cool clothing on.

I am lucky enough to arrive during the Keykjavik Literaty Festival. I discover two good writers: Fridgeir Einarsson and Carolina Setterwall. Jean-Baptiste is the house keeper of the place where I am staying. He sticks with me most of the time. He lived in the Middle East for several years and got sick of violence and chaos. He looked up a ranking of the most peaceful countries in the world and ended up in Iceland. He is not the only foreigner. There are many Polish working as cashiers in the supermarkets and many Americans in the tourist shops.

I go the the swimming pool with hot, thermal waters almost every morning: Sundhooll Reykjavikur. I love the Braud & Co. for warm ginger bread. Kex hostel is probably the nicest place for a beer. Kaffibrennslan is the spot to go to read with a hot coffee. Harpa is a wicked building. The Arts Museum has remarkable interiors and good exhibitions. The Photo Museum is tiny. I take away a romantic picture shot by Gunnar Runar Olafsson.

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After three days it is definitely time to drive out of the city. My journey is guided by the spirit of  Gunnar Gunnarsson’s The good shepherd, a book that Leonardo suggests before I venture outside of Reykjavik, and by Giacomo Leopardi’s Dialogo della natura e di un islandese. Christina is the perfect travel companion.

The landscape is rugged. The colours are pale. It is quite obvious that the nature here shapes local music (Björk, Ólafur Arnalds, Sigur Rós) and literature (Halldór Laxness, Jón Kalman Stefánsson). Iceland, in this sense, is a very material place. Fish, moss , sulfur, water, wool. Fair and rugged. In a way, I think the Icelandic landscape fits very well the Zeitgeist of the hipsters, yogis, and digital nomads: it looks pure, silent, natural.

When you are there is actually rather craggy, volcanic. The Icelandic flag has three colours, which are symbolic for three of the elements that make up the island: red is for the volcanic fires, white for the snow and glaciers, and blue is for the skies. In my opinion the island is, most of all, green. I discover that the Norse explorers wanted to keep the island for themselves, therefore they called it Iceland and they called the other Iceland further north Greenland. In fact, it should have been the other way round. Sneaky, deceptive Norse.

It is too late in the season for the northern lights but we see a spectacular sunset I want to remember. It is not only the view all around us, red, wide, glorious; it is also the symphony of the birds, who bid their farewell to yet another day.

Some interesting facts about this place. Icelanders are very practical about religion. They do not care too much and every time some foreign powers forced them to convert they did without too much of a fuss. Until the 1960s black American soldiers were not allowed to stay on the island. It was JFK who mediated a solution. Until 1989 beer was still prohibited in Iceland: nobody knows exactly why. There is still a name committee approving names for kids. All the volcanoes have female names.

Iceland was a hot spot of confrontation during the Cold War. The famous picture of Reagan being summit meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev

The legendary chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972 took place in Reykjavik, which was neutral territory between the US and the USSR. After the 1972 World Chess Championship, Fischer went into a period of sudden obscurity and isolation. He did not play a competitive game in public for nearly 20 years. He then re-emerged to play Spassky in a “Revenge Match of the 20th century” in 1992. The match took place in Sveti Stefan and Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in spite of a United Nations embargo that included sanctions on commercial activities. The US Department of the Treasury warned Fischer before the start of the match that his participation was illegal, that it would violate President George H. W. Bush’s Executive Order 12810 imposing United Nations Security Council Resolution 757 sanctions against engaging in economic activities in Yugoslavia. In response, during the first scheduled press conference on September 1, 1992, in front of the international press, Fischer spat on the US order, saying “this is my reply”. His violation of the order led US Federal officials to initiate a warrant for his arrest upon completion of the match. He went to Japan but was to be extradated to the US. The Althing (the Icelandic Parliament) then agreed unanimously to grant Fischer full citizenship in late March for humanitarian reasons, as they felt he was being unjustly treated by the United States and Japanese governments and also in recognition of his 1972 match, which had “put Iceland on the map”. Fischer went to Iceland and lived a reclusive life until his death in 2008.

The outsider steps inside

In my mind, the colour of  Paris between November and March is grey. Then in April it suddenly changes. Spring is a phenomenal season and I love the combination of ivory and cobalt blue.

Eià

My Swiss train from Zurich is late, my dad’s German car from Trento is on time. We meet in Zuoz on Friday evening: fourteen hours away from La Diagonela. We check into our stylish B&B in Zernez, we take a lavish dinner, and we wax our skis. ‘It is going to be an easy race, cold, long, but easy‘ my father tells me ‘An excellent training for next week’s Marcialonga: a couple of climbs in the first half, but then it goes down nice and steady‘.

The next morning we meet two other guests from our B&B for breakfast. They are young guys hailing from Basel, probably my age, athletic bodies, cool fellas. One of them has already completed many races before. He says this is the hardest one he has ever done, by far. ‘I have done even the Vasaloppet in Sweden (note: so has my father and so will Niels, later this year). That one is longer but it is easier because it is flat. This one is a killer. It goes up and down, up and down, it is never over. I cannot believe this is your first one. Good luck!’.

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We leave the B&B at 8:15. It is a sunny day in Lower Engadine, with the temperature down at about minus 20°. We arrive in Zuoz at 8:45. My dad greets some other die-harders. Carlo from Tirano looks a bit like Maurizio Corona and wishes me luck. ‘In the end what matters is to get to the finish line but it won’t be easy: you are young and do not have much experience!‘. We stretch before the start. ‘OK, game plan‘ my dad goes ‘We start slow, you do not worry. We will catch up over time. It is a long race‘.

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Five-hundred people have signed up for the event. Based on my estimations, some three-hundred are professional athletes and one-hundred-and-fifty are pensioners who go skiing on a daily basis. The remaining fifty are reckless individuals who have no idea what they are getting into.

Start!

Meanwhile, at the very bottom of the group, I look confused: what the hell am I doing here?

9:30, km 0, boom, start. We are at the very bottom of the group. My dad asks ‘Are we the last of the bunch?‘. I turn. Behind us only two figures: an old man who seems to be limping on the skis and a dwarf. (An actual dwarf, a strong man who is giving it all, but still: he is about one meter high). ‘Not yet, keep going‘. The old man catches up with us and moves on. Then the dwarf catches up too and keeps our pace. Together, we are last.

Three km down and I look exhausted already

Three km down and I look exhausted already. Far on the back you can see the dwarf chasing us.

9:50, km 3, twenty minutes into the race. I hear a noise behind us. It is the sag wagon: the support motor vehicle following long races to pick up athletes who are unable to complete the event. The guy on the wagon, which is actually a sled but let us call it wagon for the sake of the story, stays right behind us for five minutes; then he gets on my side and tells me we are too slow, ‘You have to retire, I am sorry!‘. I translate for my father and ask him what our next move can be. ‘Tell him to go fuck himself‘. I translate diplomatically: we go on with the sag wagon behind us. The dwarf retires.

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10:00, km 4, half an hour into the race. The sag wagon passes us and then stops, as to halt our journey. The driver gets down: I stop to parlay with him while my father carries on. The organisers want us to get out, we are already five minutes overtime. I give him my electronic chip and tell him that we if we continue being too slow we will retire at the first feeding point situated at km 7. He lets me continue.

10:10, km 5, forty minutes into the race. We reach the first feeding point. The driver of the sag wagon and some other staffers want us to stop: we are seven minutes overtime. My father explodes ‘I had a stroke one year ago, if I have another one now vi denuncio!‘, he  slashes through and makes his on way. He reminds me of Bernard Hinault, 1984. We carry on.

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10:30, km 9, one hour into the race, our first overtaking. It is Beaud: you can see her in the picture of the start. She did not look very good then and looks even worse now. I imagine she is about to spend one long day in hell. We then take a second and a third participant. Farewell to the last positions. The bystanders cheer for us: Eià, eià! We are now getting into a good pace.

10:45, km 11, one hour and fifteen-minutes into the race. We reach the second feeding station and, surprise surprise, we are now back in the official time of the race.

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11:30, km 18, two hours into the race, first climb. We are riding with a couple from Sweden and with Franco from Bologna. ‘Dai che glie la facciamo vedere a questi svizzeri‘.

12:30, km 25, three hours into the race. We reach St. Moritz ten minutes ahead of the sag wagon. The driver catches up with us and hands me my electronic chip back. ‘Well done guys‘. We keep passing participants who are slowly but surely going adrift. I pity them.

St. Moritz

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14:30, km 42, five hours into the race. We are in Samedan: it is the beginning of a long, lonely flat. It feels like we are crossing the desert. I pity ourselves.

16:00, km 54, six hours and a half into the race. We are back in Zuoz with some 10 km to go. Last feeding point. The sun is about to set. ‘Are you the last?‘ one bystander asks me. I would think so: the sag wagon is behind us again. All those whom we have overtaken in the last few hours have been excluded from the race. Here we go again: fighting against overtime. We catch up two skiers who are very happy to see us. I assume that is because they are happy not to be the last (‘Ah, ma guarda, c’erano ancora altri due stronzi dietro…‘). It is only the next day my father tells me they were the cool fellas from breakfast.

Right before sunset. We are heading towards the end. Behind us, our friends from breakfast, also the last two men standing in the race.

16:30, km 59, seven hours into the race. We have passed S-chanf and we are finally heading back to Zuoz. The two skiers are 50 meters behind and we have caught up another guy. We are giving our best to get to the finish line before they close it down. Sunset.

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17:20, km 65, seven hours and fifty minutes into the race. The final climb in Zuoz is done. We reach the finish line 432nd and 433rd. The sag wagon stops and the guy jumps down to congratulate us. I meet Carlo from Tirano. ‘I cannot believe you were slower than I was! You are young, you should have been faster!

The next day we bid farewell to our hosts, who have treated us handsomely, and we stop in Zuoz in a big shop. We are having a look around when the owner comes to us and congratulates for the race. ‘Good job, I did not think you were going to be able to finish on time! Well, I hope you are not going to call a lawyer now‘. He is the driver of the sag wagon. We take a picture with him, our mental coach, and we head to Samedan. Grisons are a magical place. If we survive another week, next Sunday we will be at the starting line of the Marcialonga.

Looking for the Jasper

Eighth edition of our NYE ( UtrechtInnsbruckFirenzeDen Haag, Berlin, Turin, Stockholm) with the false Canadians in the 18th arr. of Paris. Notable participants: Iris, Stephanie, Noa, Arianna, Lorenzo, Jasper. Special invitees to be included in our tenth edition: Jack, Justine, Sylvan, Gianmarco.

Some take aways. Jasper made a last minute appearance on December 28 and then badly injured his leg surfing down the Sacre Coeur a couple of hours into 2019. Crutches are cheap, though. We tried to eat more vegan food than usual but it was not easy: we will keep trying. Museums are good. Some of us snore really loud. We still enjoy spending time together: cooking, playing board games like nerds, eating, walking, and chatting our worries away.

Mother with three children

My last night in Nairobi I walked out of the hotel to get a quick meal. I was told not to go out in the dark but my hotel was in the better-off part of town (Westland) and there was no risk. As I left the mall where I had dinner, I saw a group of people sitting in the middle of a cross-road. Upon closer inspection I realised it was a woman with three children. I could not understand why they were standing there but I found it to odd and dangerous. I tried to take some pictures from far out. After a couple of minutes, I decided to approach the group and ask for permission to take a few photos. Walking there, I understood that the street was the only place where the woman would have been safe from rape during the night. The cars were roaring centimeters away from them and the children were exposed to the constant on-and-off of the lights. I spoke to them for a minute or so and I took this photo. It is the only serious picture I felt like having during my week in Nairobi.

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Trust to me

Between October 14 and October 20 this year I went to Nairobi for a conference as part of the Better Migration Management Programme sponsored by the European Union and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit. Here I will write only about my experience in the city, copying down the scattered notes I took on my journal.

***

I land at Jomo Kenyatta Airport on Monday 15 at 2 in the night. Large, empty roads, kind taxi driver. Arrival at the hotel: massive security devices, big gate, armed guards. It is a consequence of the terrorist attack at the Mall in 2012, I am told. The hotel is in the same neighbourhood where those events took place: Westland. It is the richest neighbourhood of Nairobi. My room is luxurious. The whole building is luxurious. A stark contrast with the city. Still, I love the dress of the staff: lean and colourful.

First impressions of the day: loud, sandy, buzzing. The streets are full of traffic. There are no sidewalks for pedestrians. Only mud and grass to walk in. People come and go, everywhere. This strikes me as a poor place but in a different way from Cuba. In La Havana, for instance, I had the impression that people idle all the time. Here in Nairobi people run around. They seem busy. What do they have to do? Where do they run?

There are high hotels everywhere, half are finished half are being built. Most of them are property of the Chinese, who bring in their money but also their own workers. Locals do not fancy that.

I walk out of the hotel with wallet and my camera but Victor suggests me to do otherwise. It turns out it is forbidden to take pictures in the open spaces. Another consequence of the terrorist attacks of 2012. I am not sure sure it makes any sense; but people tell me they feel safer. Other actions that are forbidden: walking with a plastic bag and smoking outside. Only the Chinese can do whatever they want: they bring in so much money that the police does not dare stopping them. I ask about the odd plastic policy. It is the government’s strategy to reduce pollution. Seems radical; it is certainly easier for the government to proceed this way than organising large recycling structures.

Bizarre: everybody seems to wear a Manchester United t-shirt. I ask why: nobody is able to explain. While it remains a mystery to me I can promise you half of the youth in this country has a Manchester United t-shirt.

I visit the National Museum and the Nairobi Snake Park. Fact: Nairobi was built only in 1899 when the British authorities decided to connect Mombasa, then the biggest city of the country, to Kampala in Uganda by rail. Thousands of Indians died in the construction of the railway. (Today it is the Chinese, back then the main foreign work force was them). Nairobi, an uninhabited swamp, was selected as the site of a store depot, shunting ground and camping ground. A hundred years later it is one of Africa’s biggest cities.

I feel guilty about it, but on the second day I take a safari in the early morning. We go to Nairobi National Park, only 7 kilometres south of the centre of the city. Though I did not take the picture myself, I swear this is how it looks like.

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I take my first walking tour of Nairobi on Thursday, courtesy of Joshua from Machako Country. He is a crack. The first tour he gave, one year ago, ended up in a disaster. He was unable to speak to his three clients, blonde Swiss girls, because they were too beautiful and he was too embarrassed. He then got arrested by armed guards because he did not see one of them taking pictures in front of a government building. He was released after a few hours and was reprimanded by one of the girls, who noticed he had peed on himself during the arrest. Things are better now: I promise him I won’t take any picture without his permission.

We start from the ancient site of the American Embassy, which was bombed in 1998 by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Qaeda. Joshua tells me the terrorists came from Somalia and goes on explaining, like many others will do in the following days, that the main problem of Kenya are the porous frontiers that make it easy for bad guys to come in.

We walk to Wakulima Market, where he defends me from several snatchers. All the food there comes from Tanzania: such a rich country resource-wise. In Uhru Park Joshua tells me several stories about his and his father’s polygamy and the various problems that come with it. He is not good at sex, though, because he is not a Masai. The Masai are known to excel in bed, didn’t I know it? In Jivanshee Park I notice a large assembly. Who are they? Students, they come here every day to talk about politics, in circles. Hundreds of them. This is something we do not do in Europe any more.

Joshua brings me to eat chapati and uguali at the university, where we float amid thousands of students who eat a simple meal in temporary wooden barracks. I want to remember the rustic bowls where the meals are cooked. When we are walking out of the campus I am approached by some ten-year old kids who are begging. One of them cannot stop laughing and asks me to take her with me to America. She is high on glue.

I bid farewell to Joshua in a coffee. He does not want me to go into one of the Java shops that are mushrooming around the city. They are owned by the Somali entrepreneurs. The Somali are smart but they are evil. I will remember Joshua. He is what we call a genuinely good guy. I like how he kept saying “trust to me” when telling his stories.

 
I take my second walking tour on Saturday, the day of my departure. Though invented only one year ago, this activity has huge popularity and you can read more about it here, watch the special on the Swiss television, or the trailer they produced. My three guides, Donga, Kissmart and Cheddar, have a thick skin. I remember their “buah buah buah” to greet their buddies on the street.

After leaving them, I take a long walk by myself. Near the mosque I see a child running happily into a shop. Someone is calling her from behind the corner. I turn and I see her mum – or so I suppose – crawling on the floor. She has her shoes under the hands and drags her legs behind the body, unable to stand. She is chasing her daughter. A part of me wants to take a picture but I refrain from doing so.

There is a special atmosphere around the mosque. It reminds me of the mosque of Sarajevo. I like it.

I leave on Saturday night. The guard at the airport jokes with me saying I should give him 10$ to pass the gate. I am not sure he is joking after all. In any case, I have no cash left with me. He does not mind and lets me go. I am leaving this place. Nairobi is full of opportunities. There is extreme poverty, sure, but also a rising middle class. Most of the people I met I really liked. I am surprised by the students, who are eager to study, travel. They know what they want. This has been such a different journey when compared to Cuba. The contrast between the two places I had the privilege to visit this year could not be starker.

Un uomo di grande virtù ebbe certamente dei buoni amici

Neuchâtel, Bern, Brigg, Milan, Firenze, Piombino, Piombino Marittima, Riomarina, Cavo: 16 ore.

Nelsina, Einlaufbier, Flieger grüss mir die Sonne, Sanzionami questo, Secret Hitler, Porto Azzurro, le miniere di Capolivieri, Lacona, Salivoli, bella sgnacchera.

Like a Karius pass

Okay, time to confess: between May and June I went to Cuba with Thomas. It was the first time we spent time together since our Tuscan farewell in 2015. Apart from the rain that escorted us for the first seventeen days, these are the words that I will remember from this experience: Casa particular, tabacco con miel, Malecón, Capitolio, El Nacional, arroz con frijoles, ron collins, mojito, daiquiri, cubanito, Floridita, finca la vigìa, coco, bucanero, montecristo, robusto, cochiba, Rom de Santiago. Comisión, yuma, jinetero, hustlers, scam, campesinos, todo está fresa, 26 julio, 1958, José Marti, Camilo Cienfuegos, René Portocarrero, realismo sucio, bloqueo, yoruba.

In bold characters the things I liked about my three-week vacations in Cuba. All the rest, we highly disliked. I do not feel like explaining why right now right here.

If only I could read the signs: I should have known better.