English Lessons in Cuba

ANYONE who speaks English and has a fondness for horses and cup custards is likely to enjoy Cuba.

To be good, cup custards must be smooth. The secrets of achieving this the Cuban cooks perfectly know; they make them every day. In fact, in the broad realm of the cooking of eggs, Cuba inherits the full grandeur of Hispanic tradition. Shirred eggs malagueña, at the old Ambos Mundos in Havana, are an experience to be remembered with no half-hearted thankfulness.

As for horses, the only kind I really know how to manage are the ones under a drafting table; still, this does not prevent my much admiring the flesh-andblood horses that neigh and switch their tails. Unsaddled, in pasture, they look noble and mythological; and nothing seems prettier to me, or more truly graceful, than that kind of riding, neither ‘professional’ nor fancy, which is as careless as breathing — such, for example, as you see everywhere in Santa Clara or Camagiiey provinces in Cuba, over the broad grasslands, and down the cane-field lanes.

Of English lessons, too, it is a pleasure to speak. It gives me opportunity to brag of an uncle who, with the unlikely talisman of a doctor’s thesis on French Agglutinations inDe-’ tucked in his vest, went to Latin America and made a fortune. First, however, this philologist wanted some practical Spanish, and his method of acquiring it in a hurry was to go to Madrid and give English lessons. Pupils, as I have often heard him say, teach you so much. The blunders they make reveal where their language differs from yours in idiom — on which differences, in Madrid, he was quick to seize, and so left Old Spain soon for the New, jabbering Spanish like a born Iberian.

This method of learning another language has always seemed beautiful to me. Its simplicity and its perversity give it a double charm. Moreover, when you teach other people your language, they are the ones to make jackasses of themselves, not you. Yours is the part of charity, dignity, and repose.

All the same, my approach to the foreign languages has always been the groveling kind. Unlike my uncle, I am not a linguist born, and so, until I got into Cuba, I have writhed and agonized, and been ridden by some teacher or other who knew a great deal more than I did about the subject in hand. It has been a career of mortification. Even in Cuba, at first, my panic upon hearing the clickety-clack of talk in the streets sent me crawling to a tutor. Could she, would she, help me to untie the knot of bashfulness at the root of my tongue, and take the wax out of my baffled ears?

Poor woman, she did her best. It was all very painful. Even now I see the grille on her stair, and ‘Please ring the bell’ written in English under the Spanish phrase, as if — phooey! — I could n’t read the latter.

Our efforts were not without fruit. Everybody in Havana speaks English, people say, but it is not quite true. I, for one, spoke Spanish, bewildering the waiters with pippy-voiced requests for la sal or el vinagre, and stepping up to the barber with a carefully rehearsed speech meaning ‘Please cut my hair.’ I must have looked a lamb come to the shearing, or perhaps in my anxiety to sound offhand I said, ‘Please cut my horses,’ the words for ‘horse’ and ‘hair’ being much alike. At any rate the barber, who was learning English in a night class, at once implored me to address him in that language. He wanted the practice. And with a bow he produced a newspaper published by his fellow students, to examine while I had my hair (or horses) cut.

The joke column, written all in English by these hard-working Cuban learners, was indeed uproarious. As my uncle says, it is the mistakes people make in using your language that reveal the structure of theirs. However, I had no time to reflect upon these clues; I was too busy giving the barber a lesson. In class, as he had managed to complain, they tended to discuss the pencil, the inkwell, and the pen, whereas what he yearned for was English to help him in the barber business. This I strove to supply. When next an American had his horses cut in that white tile cave, ‘Wet or dry?’ my student inquired at the end of the process, dusting him off with a happy flourish.

If, in this episode, I began to sense that English is a sort of currency in Cuba, to be generous with which can he a kindness, I guessed it all the more clearly when I got into the provincial cities, Matanzas for one.

Matanzas is a big out-of-hand seaport that sprawls around a bay and pushes up a hill or two. It has a sleepy cathedral in its middle, and, on the road to La Playa, a neighborhood of villas, gray, classic, and columnar, like Pompeii before the eruption. There are caves near by, for people not yet through with caves. Best of all, above it looms a breezy ridge where the Casino maintains a shrine of religious pilgrimage, the Cuban Monserrate. This is a spot worth visiting, and a great many people go there without need of advice from me, to solicit miracles of the Virgin, and to eat ice cream.

Eastward from the Monserrate the hill drops away toward the harbor, with the city in its lap: the various-tinted plaster facets of the houses gleam in the strong sunshine, the two rivers glint, and sounds of bells rise from the belfries that protrude from among the brown tile roofs. The other way, behind the ridge, lies the Vale of Yumurí, a bowl among tawny hills, floored with the fresh green of sugar cane, and dotted with grayboled palms. Nor is the ridge top one of those usual hills in the tropics, where, in a flood of perspiration, you arrive only to find the view blotted out by the bushes. Its grass is as smooth as the Casino’s billiard tables down in the city, and on the benches well-pruned laurel trees cast their shade. It would be hard to imagine a more pleasing site for an English lesson, which was what it was used for the day of my visit.

On the way up I had had a Spanish lesson of a kind. Down the road toward me came a car containing a young islander and his sweetheart, and since their speed was such that they could n’t negotiate the next hairpin bend, they shot through a barbed-wire fence instead, and smash-bang on into the brambles. Why they did not go off one of the several handy cliffs I cannot say. No, these sweethearts of the Jazz Age lit right side up, the girl leaning back in a nerveless style, and the boy leaping out instantly to give the radiator several smart and angry slaps. What he told his car, while it cowered there among the bushes, was intended to teach it never to do such a thing again.

Having noted the idioms employed, and that nobody was killed or injured, I plodded on shrineward and heavenward, and soon was giving the English lesson of which I have already spoken.

My student was a Cuban with his coat over one arm and his straw hat on the back of his head. He was a mathematician by intention, but a rural schoolteacher at the time for the reason that all schools of higher (or even high-school) learning on the island had been closed for several years. Before he could go on with his Calculus and Theory or Real Numbers he was having to mark time, like so many of his stalled generation.

But marking time is impossible for some people. This chap, for instance, while the Havana University stood locked up to humble its political pride, would toil up to the Monserrate when his school was out, and occasionally find Americans sight-seeing there who were willing to help him with his English. Who knows — perhaps acquiring an education in this catch-as-catch-can fashion has virtue in it. Certainly my student showed a zeal I do not remember in the classrooms of my own college days.

Not to be outdone in ardor, I gave him what help I could, perched there above some of earth’s most celebrated landscapes. With soul recently seared by the Havana Spanish lessons, I was in a mood to teach. Oh, the bliss of being on top again! Nor was I anything but patient, admiring, and distinct of utterance. The recent date of my tutoring also saw to that. There was not a moment’s relaxation until the sun was ready to set, when, for a harmoniously contrary motion, we arose, and, dusting off the scats of our pants, trudged down into the sloping streets of the city.

While teaching English in Cuba I have sometimes thought with discouragement how hard it is to achieve mutual understanding when not only are terms dissimilar, but the things they represent. Even a quite simple word like ‘door’ can bring different images to people of different countries.

Certainly an American in Cuba soon notices that the house doors are of an unfamiliar bigness. When a Cuban dies, it would seem, he does n’t want his pallbearers to bark their knuckles on the way out; in fact, the door is built big enough to admit a hearse. Its two huge leaves, studded with iron stars, are seldom unclosed. Doors cut within these doors do for the comings and goings of every day. To bid one open, you thump a knocker cast in the form of a dangling hand with a ball in its fingers, and then step through. A bridal party enters, or the trash is fetched out, all at this same portal; it is front door, back door, and often garage door too; and when a Cuban tot learns the word, this is the formidable institution it henceforth brings to mind.

Through such a door my grateful student ushered his teacher, and as he turned the key he made a beautiful little speech, putting the premises unconditionally at my disposal. Here was my Matanzas home.

It seemed delightful to get a house, with a patio in it full of roses, in return for an afternoon of amateur pedagogy. I looked about with real interest. But again terms are misleading. My Matanzas home was not a ‘house’ in the Minnesota sense, really. Rather, it was a series of cool masonry caves arching loftily one into the other, all facing the gay small garden, paved with glistening tile, and with a spiral staircase corkscrewing its way through the diningroom ceiling into my host’s wizard-like study above.

These arrangements I liked at once, as I also did my host’s mother — a merry, gray, wren-like lady. The cook, too, pleased. She was a graceful colored girl with gold hoops in her ears, to whom it was a rapture to hear the young master conversing in the foreign gibberish.

We had coffee in the patio, and I was shown a letter from another American who had given this student a boost toward better English. ‘ She says she has been visiting some shut-ins,’ he pointed out, inquiring, ‘People in jail, I suppose?’

I elucidated. It was an expression a Cuban might readily mistranslate. ‘Now we shall have a Spanish lesson!’ he cried, fresh as a daisy, which set me to looking about for my hat; and then he asked in his own language what I had enjoyed most during my stay in Cuba. After the question had been repeated a couple of times I caught it, and for want of another inspiration, though not without some honesty, replied, ‘The cup custards,’ which he thought very whimsical. I had not yet got into Santa Clara or Camagüey provinces, to see the riding there, or I might have said that. But that, too, he probably would have found droll. Unlike help in English, a new gift counted as a blessing, the old gifts of good custards and effortless riding are things the Cubans take for granted.

Traveling down to the south coast a few days later, to Trinidad, I resolved to give more English lessons. But there was no ring of purpose in this. I was being facetious to avoid being anxious. Going down to that neglected city, cut off even from the Cuban world by its own jealous range of mountains, was like throwing myself out of an upstairs window: I hoped to land in comfort, but there was a good chance I might not. How primitive a place should I find? And how difficult, with my scanty Spanish, was it going to be to settle myself in it?

For these times of dread, fate saves some of her pleasantest surprises. Not only did I give English lessons in Trinidad, but these led on to musical parties, at which my soulful señoritas and their English teacher, with bosoms aheave, and refreshments afterwards, swapped Bach and Albeniz, Händel and Lecuona, pieces on a stately old piano whose keyboard the climate had so browned that it looked like a long slab of ginger cake, entirely without the usual landmarks of black and white.

Even the ride in proved memorable. Though I had not realized it until I began working my way from city to city down Cuba’s long backbone, the island is an oceanic extension of Texas, with palms. For the most part it is level excellent farm land. Such landscapes I much enjoy, but in time a traveler craves novelty, and thus when we turned from the rolling plains of Santa Clara into the Trinidad Mountains my half-shut eyes popped open, to peer into the valleys through which the train came hooting.

By the time we had reached Yznaga the valleys had broadened: here were both kinds of Cuban beauty, untamed mountain and fruitful plain. On a knoll in the village an antique tower, of seven tiers of arches, mysteriously beetled; another way, under the horizontal boughs of enormous trees, was a white-walled, tile-roofed, spread-out ranch headquarters, with horses tethered about it. Down the converging roads ox teams strained, and Cuban horsemen came riding in Wild West whirls of dust — sombreros curling, square-tailed pleated shirts worn outside the riding breeches, machetes dangling in leather scabbards, and boots, stitched in florid patterns, well equipped with spurs. At Yznaga I saw Cuban horsemanship in its finest setting.

Trinidad came soon after, at dusk. Against the darkening hill of La Vigía there was a sudden glimpse of church gables and pink campaniles; then, with a jolt, the train halted in what in Spanish days had been the barracks. And very soon, as if dropped into the middle of a comic-opera performance, I was dining at the Canadá on eggs ranchera, with a glass of claret and cracked ice in the old-time Caribbean fashion.

Meals at the Canadá were always theatrical. But was I an onlooker or an actor? The whole front of the establishment rolled up, like a roll-top desk, and what went on in the street was certainly amusing. There were the horsemen clattering over the cobbles, picturesque and debonair; also droop-necked pack trains, donkeys with their tattered drivers, or an oxcart drawn up to unload the crooked wood that sent such a smoke from our kitchen into the grimy patio. Beggars and venders of lottery tickets leaned in to chant their chorus of needs and numbers, while the band played in the square opposite, and the townspeople, chattering and gesticulating, strolled and strolled.

Then again it seemed the action was indoors, and that the passers-by, who always stopped for a look, were the audience.

A troop of cowboys, very bashful, would slowly fold their legs into place at table, awed by the glitter of the metropolis and the gorgeousness of the toothpaste advertising that filled the walls. The traveling men, in white suits ironed to look like oilcloth, conversed in Latin frenzy, pointing quivering fingers in witness to heaven, and strewing the tables and floor copiously with breadcrumbs, Curro, the cross-eyed Andalusian valet, tore in and out with his shirttail flying, while Quico, the regular waiter, bowed his way around some party dinner table with a platter of rice-and-chicken aglisten with pimento slices.

There was the Judge in his solemn blue spectacles, and his plump and pretty wife. There was the bootblack who sang as he snapped his cloths by the door, and Señor Rafael Bergansa, supple-waisted and fashionable, who would make a dash for the lopsided piano and comb loud, glib, joyful music from it, pulling recklessly at the lever that made cymbals clash in time with the bass. At his desk sat our proprietor, glasses well down on nose, pinching the breasts of the chickens brought in for sale to learn if they were fat, which set the modest hens to thrashing their wings. And, of course, here was the American foreigner, eating a custard, and over it helping young Luis de Zayas Font with his English.

My friend Luis was the proprietor’s nephew. Some day he will inherit the business, and with this future before him, a city absurdly picturesque about him, and a mountain hinterland well supplied with picnic dells for a second zone, he wisely wishes to prepare himself for the Americanos who may suddenly rush in. Thanks to his kindness, I was soon int roduced into salons of neglected old-time Cuban grandeur, and climbed rickety stairs into several old towers. As well as he could, too, he told me stories of the place, of misers and fantastic spendthrifts, of miraculous crosses and pirate crimes. Cortez sailed to the conquest of Mexico after recruiting in Trinidad what were to prove some of his most famous aids. The city was founded a century before Jamestown, and thus has had time to accrete a fund of anecdote.

Thanks to Luis too, of course, I was launched as an English teacher, with a class of five. On my first morning in town I met the group’s paid instructor, a roly-poly Cuban who was an inventor on the side. He had invented a typewriter ribbon that was going to be a godsend to the world, and for a specimen of what it could do he rattled off his name and address: ‘Medardo Marrero, On the Post Office, Trinidad.’ I was much impressed. This was followed by an invitation to return and meet the class, and so give the young ladies especially— ha, ha, ha! — a chance to hear the speech of a real English-speaking man.

To have my facetious resolve so promptly possible of fulfillment was a joke too good to spoil. Ergo, at ten o’clock the session began.

Imagine the paralysis among the students, brought to this encounter without a word of warning! The young ladies were mute, the young gentlemen could fetch out nothing but blurts, while Señor Marrero stormed up and down because they refused to illustrate the proficiency he claimed to have taught them.

But animal spirits and curiosity soon revived. When the conversation, established on the familiar rocks of the pencil, the inkwell, and the pen, turned to airplane travel, Cuban music, or Minnesota winters, everybody found something to ask or tell; the conversation, half Spanish, half English, became almost too deafeningly animated. Meanwhile the Marrero family, one head over another like targets at a fair, gazed in through a partly open inner door; and on the street-door sill a trio of little darky girls paused to sit and listen.

Now I had not come to Cuba to teach English, really. That first morning when I took over Señor Marrero’s duties I felt most accommodating. But teaching people who are greedy to learn, and who regard your unexpected descent from nowhere with almost the astonishment and interest that Columbus roused in his day, has its fascination. Like playing poker or eating salted peanuts, it leads a man on. I found my evenings being given over to preparations for the morrow, to trying to devise exercises that were not merely useful but marked by some contemporaneity and zip. And in the mornings I found myself brushing the regular teacher aside in a manner that must sometimes have approached the brusque. Poor man! From noisy participation he passed to blowing smoke rings and rocking in a rockingchair, and then, practically an outcast, to spending his mornings next door ’on the post office.’

From these lively sessions my palh led on into musicales and mountain drives, and I felt very happy. ‘Now we shall get ready!’ the chauffeur would exclaim jovially, after we had been ushered into the back seat; burrowing under the front, he would fetch out an old-time hand pump to harden up the tires. The Trinidad streets are paved with cobbles; as we rode off over them each of us looked like twins. But the country roads were smoother, toward Sancti Spíritus, that hoary villa, or the Río Caña with its cascades and bamboos. Frequent repairs made it necessary to take a mechanic with us; he was a merry fellow in a plumcolored suit, and though his straw hat looked neat enough from the front, the back of it had been eaten away by a goat one day when he was at a funeral. Chico Luis, at the story, fell forward in a helpless fit of laughter.

And so away to the more sophisticated main-line world again, to Camagiiey and its saddlery shops, Holguín and eggs madrileña, and to Santiago de Cuba with its narrow streets and broad solemn doors. Cuba was too big an island for me to want for mine, but the memory of it haunts me as sharply as if it had been a little one: I hear again the loud flute octaves in lamp-lit plazas while the strollers gesticulate and gabble their Spanish; I smell again the good smell of brown saddle leather, and taste the good taste of a Cuban custard.

For Spain’s arts still govern in her Antillean last-lost colonies. The old music, new-blended with the African, still pierces the heart with its strange monotonies; the old architecture, sprouting in new forms, brings to the cities an ornate and courtly charm. Climbing the hill streets of Trinidad or Matanzas, the Passion Week pageantry, with its lurching forests of lighted candles, rekindles the dark splendor of Spain’s Catholicism in the islands. And new again in Cuba, but familiar and terrific, the sins and enthusiasms of Spanish politics break out in jets of aspiring patriotism and high-handed tyranny.

As for my English lessons, they did not change the island much; less, in fact, than it has been anglicized by American ‘big business.’ Nor did I learn much Spanish while I was at them. However, they made an alien place homelike for the stranger; I think affectionately of the big Cuban doors, because not a few of them proved friendly. Of the schools that gave me the creeps then, with their blind windows and padlock-gagged entrances, I think affectionately too, though they have been reopened since under the eye of the military. Mum in those days, they gave me my chance to talk. When I left Cuba I left not only good pupils but good friends behind. The lessons, in fact, continue by correspondence.