Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana


Isadora Tattlin was accustomed to relocating often for her husband?s work. But when he accepted a post in Cuba in the early 1990s, she resolved to keep a detailed diary of her time there, recording her daily experiences as a wife, mother, and foreigner in a land of contraband. The result is a striking, rare glimpse into a tiny country of enormous splendor and squalor. Though the Tattlins are provided with a well-staffed Havana mansion, the store shelves are bare. On the streets, beggars plead for soap, not coins....
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Isadora Tattlin was accustomed to relocating often for her husband’s work. But when he accepted a post in Cuba in the early 1990s, she resolved to keep a detailed diary of her time there, recording her daily experiences as a wife, mother, and foreigner in a land of contraband. The result is a striking, rare glimpse into a tiny country of enormous splendor and squalor. Though the Tattlins are provided with a well-staffed Havana mansion, the store shelves are bare. On the streets, beggars plead for soap, not coins. A vet with few real medical supplies operates on a carved mahogany coffee table in a Louis XIV–style drawing room. The people adore festivity, but Christmas trees are banned. And when Isadora hosts a dinner party whose guest list includes Fidel Castro himself, she observes the ultimate contradiction at the very heart of Cuba. Vividly capturing Cuba’s simultaneously appalling and enchanting essence, Cuba Diaries casts an irresistible spell and lifts the enigma of an island that is trapped in time, but not in spirit.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
An American businessman's wife living in Cuba, Isadora Tattlin decided to take advantage of the unusual situation by keeping a diary of her experiences in that exotic clime. Her dealings with chronic shortages, the offbeat Cuban cultural scene, and her husband's clients (including none other than Castro himself) make for fascinating reading.
From the Publisher
“Tattlin is a keen observer of this amazing and conflicted country.”—Entertainment Weekly, “A” rated review

“Always striking, Cuba Diaries is a testament to the human capacity to endure and flourish under terrible conditions.”—The New York Times Book Review
The Los Angeles Times
Where Tattlin excels is in the plethora of telling...and her keen understanding of power and powerlessness in Cuba.
Publishers Weekly
In this collection of her diary entries, housewife Tattlin describes the four years she and her family spent living in Cuba in the 1990s while the Communist country was adjusting to a liberalized economy and a shift in tourist policy. Living amid severe economic imbalance, "tourist apartheid" imposed upon locals, shortages of every conceivable household need (Tattlin's list of supplies extends over two pages) and a social architecture frozen in the 1950s, Tattlin and family inhabit an upscale Havana townhouse accompanied by a staff of seven. Her writing is clear and lively, her observances astute and witty. The record of her daily excursions has her searching for fresh produce, enrolling her children in swimming and dance lessons, visiting the pediatrician and hosting state dinners with guests the likes of Fidel Castro. She also avidly details daily living conditions with her servants and how she makes friends with the people in her neighborhood. But over the course of the book, the people she meets are passive, showing no resistance to Tattlin's questions and curiosity. Readers might get the sense that Tattlin is meeting the same characters time after time. In addition, her brief recollections leave little room for viewing the inner workings of her family or their relationships to one another: "Nick [her husband] is depressed. He always gets depressed... when the kids and I take off." Despite these shortcomings, however, Tattlin's book is an enjoyable, warm trip. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Even with the tentative opening of travel and activity between the United States and Cuba, there is still a serious lack of information about the country. This book redresses the balance, but only partly. The pseudonymous author is the American wife of a European businessman stationed in Havana in the mid-1990s, when the country was struggling with economic problems related to the loss of financial support from the Soviet Union. In this four-year diary of her stay, she provides a vivid and unusual perspective on what it was like to live in Cuba during this difficult time. But while she aims to describe everyday life there, her day-to-day experience was quite different from that of most Cubans. Her family lived in a large home with several servants and had a large income even if there wasn't much to buy and their dinner guests included Fidel Castro himself. Nevertheless, this book is well written and enjoyable. Of interest to Latin American collections as well as libraries with travel books. Mark L. Grover, Brigham Young Univ., Provo, UT Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sensitive fish-out-of-water narrative from a visitor to the dictatorship that history nearly forgot. The author's husband Nick, energy consultant for a multinational corporation, was posted to Havana in the mid-1990s for four years. Their comparative wealth and status as foreigners secured for the couple and their two children an enormous house with a staff of seven. Tattlin kept a journal of their Cuban experiences, which ranged from sunny to harrowing. She reconfigures this journal into a substantial narrative that portrays the fundamental clash between Castro's desiccated "triumphant revolution" and the powerful lure of US-influenced multinational consumerism. Because their 40-foot container of household goods takes months to arrive, the family must contend with the diplomatic supermarket's chronic shortages. Through Nick's business dealings, they play host to a wide variety of Cubans, finding that communist party officials tend to eat and steal the most, while ordinary citizens resort to a baroque barter system merely to survive. This process is complicated by the Castro regime's fluctuating stance on economic initiatives; for example, Tattlin's finest dining occurs in paladares, semi-legal restaurants in private homes that epitomize the rift between Cubans dependent on meager state wages and those who provide services to foreigners. The author is happiest when meeting Cuba's youthful artists, or traveling in remote regions less affected by the nascent tourist industry ("sex tourism" in particular has begun to exert a corrosive influence). Throughout, she's attuned to the surreal, mock-1950s domestic atmosphere and the way that Cuba's prickly international relations seem to revolvearound not hurting the regime's feelings (obviously excepting the American embargo, subject of much internal debate). Tattlin avoids the journal format's inherent solipsism, leaving even her often chilly marital relationship unexamined, and uses the form as a generous lens upon the Cuban people, convincing the reader that after four decades under Castro they deserve an opportunity for self-determination. Deft evocations of the island's sensual promise and oppressive reality.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767914840
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/23/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 353,853
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

A native of California, Isadora Tattlin (her pen name) is the wife of a European executive. She lives wherever his business takes them.
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Read an Excerpt

I. 1

Call me Isadora.

Nick says, "What about Cuba?"

"What do you mean, 'What about Cuba?'"

"What about being there for a few years? L. proposed it."

L. is Nick's boss. "Are you kidding me?"

"What do you think?"

I cannot speak. I am thinking about how I have said to Nick sometimes that it would be nice to be a little closer to the United States on Nick's next assignment. It was as if some overly zealous fairy godmother had heard me. Either that, or I had not specified enough when I made my wish. You have to be careful with those wishes, for they can come true.


"How about it?"

"I . . . I just don't know. When do we have to get back to them?"

"This afternoon."

One hour later, I'm in the station wagon, going to pick my six-year-old up from school, and suddenly I'm not there anymore but under my desk during bomb drill, staring at the red rubber soles of Jonathan Muller's Buster Browns. It's California, 1962. Something about the Cubans, the Russians, and nuclear missiles pointed directly at Saint Stephen's School. People with beards are very dangerous. Also, panic buying in the supermarket. Cans of chicken noodle soup smashed, lying on the floor. Soon after that, it is determined that the fifth grade should stop learning French and start learning Spanish. A big Cuban boy appears at school. Carlos. But he is the nice kind, we are told, not the mean kind, who want to bomb us. He does not know any English but quickly learns to say, "Shadap." His mother comes, too, to teach us Spanish. She has long black leg hairs smushed under her stockings and a mole hidden in the fold of her double chin, which pops out when she looks up at the clock, so that we can hardly get past the "Yo soy, tu eres," so much are we waiting for that mole. The other teachers cannot speak about her among themselves without making violiny sounds with their voices. She had to hide her wedding ring in her shoe to get out of Cuba. I picture people leaving Cuba with little circles printed on the soles of their feet, tiny holes gouged by diamonds.

Cuba. Now I find myself breathing fast, and I have a racing feeling up and down my arms, which is what happens whenever I have to move or do anything new. I don't like doing new things. I don't like traveling and living in weird places. I would have been happy to sit in my loft in New York City for the next hundred years, except that there were no men in New York who were not married or gay. I had to go to another city to find Nick, and then he had to be a foreigner, and not a foreigner from a standard country, like France, but one from a weird little country, X----, and not even a foreigner who stayed in one place, but an energy consultant for a multinational corporation, Energy Consulting International (gas, electric, geothermal, hydro, solar, wind: everything but nuclear he'll tell you how to produce in the most efficient way), who stays a few years in one country, then moves to another. So I keep on having to do new things and keep on traveling and living in weird places, being married to Nick. He makes me do it, only this time, it's more new somehow, more racing-feeling-up-my-arms making. Cuba really is scary: it's not just me.

I see the bright blue South China Sea coming up ahead of the station wagon and realize how clean past the six-year-old's school I've gone.

I. 2

A friend of ours who lived in Cuba tells me on the phone that I really won't have to spend my time in Cuba hunting for this item and that item because if it's not in the Diplomercado, they just don't have it, and that's that. The Diplomercado, our friend explains, or "Diplomarket," is a supermarket in Havana, more plentifully stocked than other markets, and with higher-quality goods, where, until the legalization of the dollar in 1993, only diplomats or other foreigners (who were the only people with access to dollars) could shop. It is now open to anyone with dollars. If you really get desperate for something, and it's not in the Diplomercado, our friend explains, you have to go find it in another country. One time, he says, he flew to Mexico to buy a toilet seat. He has heard, though, that the material situation is changing, and that there are more stores opening and you can find more stuff around.

I read that in the city of Trinidad, a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial town that has been declared a world monument by UNESCO, housewives stand in doorways asking for soap from passing tourists in the gathering dusk.

I have three months to get our supplies in before we pack and leave.

I. 3

Our shopping list for Cuba, to be packed in the container with our clothes and furniture and sent to Cuba for free by Nick's company:

18 gallons Clorox

3 dozen boxes gallon-size Ziploc freezer bags

3 dozen boxes quart-size Ziploc freezer bags

64 gallons fabric softener

120 rolls paper towels

216 bars bath soap

4 cartons Scotch-Brite sponges

24 rolls wax paper

60 cakes hand soap

1 carton insecticidal spray

25 cans insecticidal powder

6,000 paper napkins

2,000 plastic glasses

3,600 feet plastic wrap

1,000 garbage bags

120 liters pine disinfectant

20 liters oven cleaner

120 liters all-purpose cleaner

36 liters toilet cleaner

6 liters toilet rust remover

12 liters ceramic cleanser

120 scouring pads

36 liters glass cleaner

4 gallons grease cutter

672 rolls of toilet paper

384 Kleenex boxes

6 liters Woolite

360 clothespins

3 dozen boxes sandwich bags

2,400 feet aluminum foil

120 kilos Tide powder detergent

6 gallons shampoo

4 gallons cream rinse

48 boxes Tampax

24 boxes panty liners

24 kilos rice

12 kilos lentils

24 500-gram boxes (each) of spaghetti, linguine, penne, farfalle, and rigatoni

1,200 bottles wine

3 cases each of gin, whiskey, vodka, and vermouth

48 liters olive oil

8 kilos tea

8 kilos canned tuna

12 kilos Kalamata olives

3 kilos capers

2 kilos anchovies

12 dozen boxes assorted cookies

24 liters silver polish

20 liters brass polish

600 meters roast-tying string

1 kilo oregano

1Ú2 kilo each of thyme, basil, rosemary, marjoram, allspice, cinnamon, and cloves

6 cans baking powder

6 cans baking soda

240 packets dry yeast

360 candles

60 bobeches (glass collars to catch candle drips)

6 bottles Tylenol

12 tubes toothpaste

12 boxes Alka-Seltzer

6 boxes hemorrhoidal suppositories

2 gallons Mylanta

1Ú2 kilo athlete's foot powder

2 liters calamine lotion

4 bottles Visine

12 boxes Band-Aids

6 dozen Gillette Trac II razor


6 bottles children's chewable vitamins

4 bottles amoxicillin

4 bottles antihistamine

2 tubes Genticol (for yellow eye)

4 bottles children's Tempra

5 bottles Dimetapp

12 bottles sunblock (spf 20)

24 cans insect repellent

120 packets water disinfectant

And I am sure I have forgotten many things.

Our forty-foot container is packed by a team of six Indians. The toilet paper is the last to go. The packages are light and flexible and can be packed in anywhere. Four Indians stand and watch as two carry the clear plastic packages out on their backs. The look on their faces is of embarrassment, astonishment, and glee. "Cuba" is the only word I can catch. All six start to laugh, pushing one mover, who, laughing, pushes them back. I look at the leader of their group. "He India vote Communist," the leader says, putting his arm around the one who was pushed. We all laugh.

I. 4

We stop in Madrid on our way to Cuba to visit a friend of Nick's who lived in Cuba for four years.

"But what is the basic problem?" we ask Nick's friend.

"Fidel is an old man who can't admit that he made a mistake."

"But surely it can't be as simple as that."

"Oh yes it can."

I. 5

The captain announces that we will soon be beginning our descent. The Spanish executives in the first-class cabin stand, lean, anything to be better able to look out the windows. There is an audible sigh.

Christopher Columbus, on first seeing Cuba, wrote, "Never have human eyes beheld anything so beautiful."

I have never been to Florida or the Caribbean: I never felt the need to go, but no one ever told me that the sea was violet. Violet, then a greenish violet band, then turquoise, then aquamarine, then clear, utterly clear, to rocks and white sand, then green, green grass dotted with silvery white palm trees, then jungle-covered bluffs and ravines with rivers shining through.

Can this be real? Am I looking at what I am looking at? I have seen photos of the Caribbean in magazines but always thought the colors were enhanced. I feel aesthetic floors, ceilings, and walls being snatched off me like dry mats, leaving me in a giddy new space.

How can anyone have a problem, living here?

Closer, we see houses and roads. We search for cars. There are none; then, closer, we see one, moving patiently. Closer, we see Olympic-sized swimming pools with (now it begins) no water in them, with high platforms for diving boards but no diving boards, just bent, rusted metal supports. We see rusted metal supports for billboards, the billboards having fallen off long ago. Closer still, the real funk begins. Now here we go: rust, lack of paint, mildew, stucco falling off, grass and trees growing out of roof drains, large rusted tanks and rusted, twisted metal structures--supports for more billboards, which have fallen off, too. Closer still, banana trees, papaya trees, mango trees, orange trees, plants with red plumes, orange flowers, yellow hanging bells, purple sprays. Climbing plants that look very much like the plants you see in dentists' offices, only twenty times as big, climbing up palm trees, dentists' office plants gone wild, a green blur past the plane now. An Aeroflot fuselage and a basic little airport.

A 1956 two-tone Chevrolet, a hospital-green brush-painted mid-1940s Oldsmobile, a canary yellow 1957 Ford, the year of the first tail fins, and a Studebaker, a Studebaker, with its bullet nose, moving majestically. Nick and I contemplate it as if it were a Titian. And we've only been on the road for three minutes. And there's a gas crisis.

It's Moscow, but instead of grim-looking white people walking down the road, you have happier-looking white and black and brown people walking down the road, waiting for buses in groups in front of giant slogans painted on walls or plastered on billboards. hasta la victoria siempre (Always toward victory) one slogan reads, and another, viva fidel y la revoluci-n socialista (Long live Fidel and the socialist revolution).

You think, for the first two seconds that you see the slogans, that the people who made the slogans, the people who put the slogans up, and the people standing in front of the slogans are somehow kidding, but then you realize, just as quickly, that they are not kidding.

There are advertising billboards, too, on trusses that are still intact, for

Habana Club rum, Pepsodent, and Cubatur, a travel agency. Some thoughts about Pepsodent's being an American brand, and about there being a U.S. embargo against Cuba, rise desultorily in our conversation, but we are too jet-lagged to speculate seriously.

Seeing advertising billboards among the slogans brings on another private wave of thinking-they-must-be-kidding, but again, the thinking-they-must-be-kidding vanishes in one second more.

It's China, too, with the bicycles, whole families packed on some. No one is fat, and you are sure of it because they don't have a lot on in the way of clothes. Shorts, halter tops, tank tops, sneakers--Cuban national dress.

It's enormous, our house. Six help lined up just inside the front door as we arrive: a butler, a gardener, a cook, a downstairs maid, an upstairs maid, and a laundress. That's not including the chauffeur, who is bringing the bags up behind us, and Muna, our baby-sitter from Bangladesh, who to our intense relief has agreed to come with us. She will be lonely here, we know, and we have told her that, but she loves Thea, who is six, and Jimmie, who is four, and we have thought that it would be better for the children if she came along. We have told her that if she can't stand it, she can leave, and we'll understand.

I asked Nick several weeks ago if six in help wasn't a little too much. We weren't diplomats, and in the last country, we had only three, including Muna, but Nick said his predecessor had six, it was mean to let anybody go, the house was huge, the kitchen was medieval, and we could afford to live a little because the help cost so little, only $150 per month per person. Of the $150 per month per person, $85 would go directly to the employee, and $65 would go to Cubalse, the state-run conglomerate in charge of almost all construction in the country and almost all services, which provides domestic and other help to foreigners and watches over the help it provides. Eighty-five dollars a month was a fortune, Nick explained to me several weeks ago as we were packing, because in Cuba, the average salary was $10 per month.

"Watches over them?"

"Watches over them to make sure they watch over us."

Muna is paid much more because she travels with us, goes to the States and Europe with us, and her salary is a compromise between what she would make in Europe and what she would make in the States. I have told her that the best thing to do when the other people in the house ask her how much money she is making is to lie and say $300.

We look through the house. The children career, yelling, through the echoing halls, searching for their rooms.

The help come at us, as we are touring, keys in hand. Five years of Spanish in school, but I cannot understand a single word. They open closets, safes, close them, put keys in our hands. They seem to want to get the keys out of their own hands as fast as possible. There is a lot of ceremony around a walk-in air-conditioned closet off the kitchen. It is called the despensa and it is closed with a key, too.

We walk onto the veranda. Dwarf palms rustle like sheets in the evening breeze. We sit down in metal rocking chairs. The butler, tray in hand, asks us what we would like to drink. We ask for the most Cuban drink. It is a mojito, made of dark rum, light rum, lime juice, sugar, and crushed mint.

It was very hot when we arrived, but now it is cooler and a soft breeze hits us, though the words soft breeze flop dully as soon as I think them, just as before, on the plane, the word violet didn't come anywhere near describing a whole new sensual experience. A pleasant panic as I rummage, jet-lagged, for what it's like: it's like getting hit by a well-powdered marshmallow.

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Table of Contents

Introduction vii
The First School Year 1
The Second School Year 61
The Third School Year 137
The Fourth School Year 201
Epilogue 297
Map of Cuba 299
Glossary 301
Principal Characters 305
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2006

    Learn, laugh, and cry about Castro's Cuba.

    This was a fast paced, highly entertaining read, and I learned so much about Cuba - a place that most Americans don't have an opportunity to learn about firsthand. I had a few laughs and wanted to cry a few times, and passed it on to friends.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2005

    Cut her some slack!

    This was a good read for someone interested in life in Cuba during the 'special period' when things were extremely rough for Cuban nationals. Things are different here now (I live in Havana) but still extremely difficult for people without access to dollars. Some other reviewers may think the author is a rich snob, simply because her experience there as the wife of a European ambassador (yes, she was part of a diplomatic household, not a business one) seems a bit luxurious compared to what the average American is used to. Don't judge her based on the lifestyle she leads -- it comes with the job. Her household staff is likely paid for by the embassy, and she had a closer relationship to them than most diplomats do. They weren't just 'the help' to her. She took an active interest in them and their lives, and investigated Cuba much more so than most foreign residents in Cuba, who usually just try to exploit the system to their own advantage (traveling to the US to buy cheap goods and then re-selling them in Cuba where they're not available, at a huge mark up). All in all, it was a good read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2005

    A Rich, Semi-Racist Babbles Thru A Monied Fog About Cuba

    Honestly, this book is a joke. However, not at all a funny one. It reads like the diary of a wealthy, pampered, wholly self-central soul who flees back to America to replenish her materialistic comforts at every opportunity & deigns to pass gifts around to the poor, less vital peoples of her sheltered world for which she expects endless gratitude. This author repeatedly entertains & is entertained by friends & associates who shamelessly proffer racist commentary (about Cubans, blacks, and others of non-white origin) with an 'It-wasn't-me-who-said-it-so-I'm-not-a-racist' mentality that will turn the stomach of the equality-minded. She is fascinated to have a world-famous Revolutionary murderer dine repeatedly in her home. She writes about a dinner with Fidel Castro with such lack of substance that you forget about it pages later. In fact, it's best to forget this entire vapid, self-indulgent, get-attention-quick-scheme-because-I've-lived-in-the-forbidden-land book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2004

    Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana

    I thought this book was a very interesting glimpse into the life of the average Cuban. The author was honest and real about the conditions faced by Cubans on a daily basis. I did not find her to be a millionare. From personal experience, I have lived in a third world country and I am working class, but my family was still able to employ a full time maid. Things are so cheap there, you can hire help for embarrassing low wages. My only criticism of this book is that towards the end I found it a bit repetitive and longed to have the author wrap it up. Outside of that I would highly recommend it for someone who would like to learn about the living conditions of everyday Cubans, and a real view of Cuba from a non-tourist angle.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2003

    Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana

    I found this book to be very realistic, and a real eye-opener. As Americans, we often take our privilege for granted. This novel reminds us of the benefits we receive on a daily basis by being born in this country. I would like to travel to Cuba, however I am very leery of what to expect. It was nice to get an honest American perspective. As for the other reviewers, I don't think this woman comes off as a millionaire, only middle class. However, when you are middle class in a third world country that greatly enhances your social position. I used to live in a third world country, so I can relate. I think this book is especially valuable because the narrator is brave enough to venture out into real Cuban society instead of remaining in the comfort of the tourist world. I think this is why her portrayal of Cuba may appear dismal at times. I applaude her honest and real look at the lives of the Cuban people, the effects of the American embargo, and Fidel's regime. My only criticism of the book is at times I felt it was a bit repetitive and towards the end I wanted her to either wrap it up or have some kind of epiphany to get things moving. Although, meeting Fidel definitely helped. Overall, I would highly recommend this book, especially for those who would like a realistic view of Cuban. Tattlin goes beyond the average tourist perspective and provides us with a brief portrayal of the people of Cuba. Of course to get a full view, you would have to speak with a Cuban, but I think she did a wonderful job of providing an honest picture from an American perspective. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in exploring Cuba.

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