Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana / Edition 1

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Overview

Isadora Tattlin is the American wife of a European energy consultant posted to Havana in the 1990s. Wisely, the witty Mrs. Tattlin began a diary the day her husband informed her of their new assignment. One of the first entries is her shopping list of things to take, including six gallons of shampoo. For although the Tattlins were provided with a wonderful, big house in Havana, complete with a staff of seven, there wasn't much else money could buy in a country whose shelves are nearly bare. The record of her daily life in Cuba raising her two small children, entertaining her husband's clients (among them Fidel Castro and his ministers and minions), and contending with chronic shortages of, well . . . everything (on the street, tourists are hounded not for money but for soap), is literally stunning.

Adventurous and intuitive, Tattlin squeezed every drop of juice—both tasty and repellent—from her experience. She traveled wherever she could (it's not easy—there are few road signs or appealing places to stay or eat). She befriended artists, attended concerts and plays. She gave dozens of parties, attended dozens more. Cuba Diaries—vividly explicit, empathetic, often hilarious—takes the reader deep inside this island country only ninety miles from the U.S., where the average doctor's salary is eleven dollars a month. The reader comes away appalled by the deprivation and drawn by the romance of a weirdly nostalgic Cuba frozen in the 1950s.

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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.
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.
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565123496
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 5/17/2002
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Meet the Author

Isadora Tattlin was born and raised in California and spent her early adulthood in New York City. She is married to a European executive and lives now wherever his job takes them and their two young children.

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Read an Excerpt

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.

"Cuba?"

"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.

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.

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 1/2 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 1/2 kilo athlete's foot powder 2 liters calamine lotion 4 bottles Visine 12 boxes Band-Aids 6 dozen Gillette Trac II razor blades 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.

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."

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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

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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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2013

    Fun and educational

    A realistic glimpse into life in Cuba. Funny and upbeat. I highly recommend it.

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  • Posted March 19, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    interesting read on Cuba.

    Interesting read on daily life in cuba. Very well written. Interesting diary format that keeps moving. Lots of insights into the region, history and politics.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2013

    Begging for Soap -- Inside Fidel's Cuba

    This amazing book takes us inside modern Cuba. What is it really like? How do Cubans live? What do they think about their homeland and what do they say about it? It's here as Tattlin describes stores with no merchandise, workers with no work, and restaurants with no food. She meets artists struggling to express themselves and fathers desperate to buy food for their families. She describes Cuban women begging on the street for soap -- something they can't buy even if they had money. She describes the maze of government regulations and a strange dinner party in her home where the guest of honor is Fidel Castro.

    If you hate the embargo, you will like this book. If you love Communism, you will hate this book. If you love the Cuban people and wish them and their culture a brighter future, you will find Tattlin's book fascinating as it describes a resilient people struggling to get to tomorrow.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2012

    Interesting and Engaging

    This is a fascinating look at post-revolution Cuba. I could not put it down! This book made me ache for the Cuban people and gave me a great desire to see Cuba's raw beauty, at the same time making me thankful of all of my American amenities, like soap! I gave it four stars due to some editing & formating issues.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2012

    Highly recommend

    I've never been in Cuba, but my father was Cuban and I loved listening to his stories of his youth and how beautiful Cuba was. It was very interesting to read an outsiders view of life in Cuba now. It just shows what a mess Castro has made of a beautiful country and it's people. It's very sad, but a real eye opener for anyone who has no idea of what those people go through on a daily basis.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2002

    A HOOT!

    This book is a hoot! Energy consultants are not "posted" - however, ambassadors are. This looks to be the book by a millionairess - a container full of provisions, 7 servants - married to an ambassador of some kind.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2002

    Stretching it for a good story?

    Hmmm..a good read, but I am a little suspect of some of her stories. I travelled to Cuba legally through a non-profit organization a few months ago, and spent four months in the country. Maybe things have changed a lot since she finished her book, but I found many of her descriptions of supermarkets, hotels, and restaurants to be quite harsh. Then again, supposedly things have gotten a lot better from the services stand point, so who knows!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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