Dinner was a baroque affair, on the beach, a warm breeze gently blowing. Held several years back on the crocodile-shaped island of Cuba, it stands out in my memory for another reason: there were hundreds of chaps, looking like escapees from a Graham Greene novel, taking languorous puffs from their cigars between every course.
“At least it keeps the mosquitoes away,” one of my table-mates said, as we watched the swooshes of smoke waft into the Havana sky.
Oh, and another thing: there was, of all things, caribou on the menu, a Canadian delicacy meant to pay heed to one of the themes underpinning this particular occasion—the 60th anniversary of uninterrupted diplomatic relations between Cuba and the land of the Maple Leaf.
The glittery sit-down was being hosted by Havana House, an organization devoted to the business and pleasure of the Canadian cigar trade—and it was an image that definitely came trickling back when Obama announced this week that the enmity between Cuba and the U.S. was ending, at long last.
“Canadians...that Cuban beach you had to yourself may now fill with Americans,” immediately tweeted one correspondent with the CBC, riffing on the nearly half a million Canadians who escape to the country every year.
“Looking forward to Soho House Havana,” jested another, a wisecrack that held the kernel of the truth that the country would be metamorphosing, indeed, once ties were normalized between Fidel Castro's republic and the Yanks.
Way to make it about ourselves? You bet.
Though there was ample back-patting when it was revealed that Canada had played a big role in brokering the sotto voce negotiations that put a diplomatic thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations after more than 50 years—hosting seven back-channel meetings in Ottawa and Toronto towards the unfinished Cold War-business—there was a sense of something being lost, too. Besides the tourism, besides the obvious capital calibrations—Canada trades about $1 billion a year worth of goods with Cuba, reported the Toronto Star—there was also a psycho-dimension. What with so much of the Canadian identity inevitably wrapped up in all the ways we're "not American”—parliamentary democracy, French as a second language, a general congeniality, our supply of two hunky Ryans (Reynolds and Gosling), spelling color with a “u', and “Ketchup Chips”—now our distinct relationship to Cuba was set to be axed, soon, from that list of proud items of separateness.
Where the Americans' contact with that Caribbean isle located 90 miles from Florida remains frozen in a time when Desi Arnez was mad-capping about with Lucille Ball, the Tropicano was a jet-set must, and, of course, those taut 13 days that made up the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962, the Canadian-Cuban tryst has been going on a long time.
Castro actually flew up to Montreal to be a pallbearer at the 2000 funeral of a beloved Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. Theirs was a lifelong friendship, one that had Pierre's airy once-wife, Margaret, while on a historic state visit to Cuba decades before, declaring that Castro was the “sexiest man alive.” (As a boy, by the way, Pierre had set out from Florida in an unsuccessful canoe trip to Cuba!)
And while some Canadians were mainly drawn to the dirt-cheap vacations that Cuba long tempted, others, still, have long been drawn by the very platonic idea of “faded glamour” that a place like Havana has to offer, with its Afro-beats, 1950s Buicks caterpillar-ing the streets, and its crumbling buildings the color of butterscotch.
As the acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer once observed, “The beauty of Cuba is the complication of Cuba, a tragic place of infectious effervescence where fading buildings that are collapsing and filled with nothing but dust are lit up with an energy, a vitality, even at times an ebullience like nowhere I have seen in a lifetime of traveling.”
Now, after a half-century of US trade blockage, and diplomatic stasis, Canadians are gonna have to get used to the idea of sharing Cuba, it would seem. The end of an affair, and the beginning of something new.