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Embracing the New Havana

Havana skyline

By Conner Gory

Conner Gorry, a native New Yorker, moved to Cuba in the 1990s and has been writing about her time there ever since. Here, she shares insights into the changes occurring in Havana as regulations and restrictions loosen up. For more of Gorry’s stories, visit her website.

I’m going through a sort of second honeymoon phase with my adopted city, whereby my enchantment is being rejuvenated. It’s clear to me that I need to embrace Cuba’s changing socioeconomic landscape in a positive, proactive way. Those of us who don’t are doomed to angst, bitterness, depression, anxiety, addiction and denial.

The long and short of it? I’m trying to love the new Havana even as foreigners move here in droves, rush hour traffic worsens, and the unfortunate combination of wealth and bad taste conspire to give the city a flavor that’s starting to feel Cuban-American rather than Cuban. So I don’t get swept away by the black cloud called Progress, I dedicate this post to the great things about our economic renewal.

Ice cream, you scream, we all…

To say Cubans are fond of sweets is like saying Warren Buffet is well off. You need only look at the rapid proliferation of bakeries as testament. Or the line at Coppelia. As an ice cream fanatic myself, I’ve braved that colossal line—regularly lasting an hour or more in the summer—many a time. Following on this delicious tradition is the recent emergence of several outstanding privately owned and operated heladerias.

I’d heard about the new ice cream at the El Palenque complex in the upper-class suburbs (yes, they exist). Once I stepped into the cool, air-conditioned parlor with ice cream cone chairs and 25 different flavors—hazelnut! tiramisu! pistachio!—I knew I’d found my temple. It’s a state-run Italian venture as far as I can tell, and a hell of an addition to Havana’s food scene. The same can be said for La Casa de Helado, a spiffy new ice cream place on the corner of Calle 84 and 3ra Ave. in Miramar. The ice cream is creamy, dense, in all sort of assorted flavors—this is what folks tell me Coppelia was like back in the day.

One request: someone should open these types of parlors for the hoi polloi, closer to the barrios of Marianao, Centro Habana and Lawton. Even the less affluent Cubans find a way to finance their sweet teeth, so might as well make it more convenient.

Late night noshing

It used to be that if hunger struck at midnight, you were out of luck. Just a few years ago, dinner after 11 p.m. would mean a microwaved package of overcooked El Rápido spaghetti with watery tomato sauce or some dry-on-the-outside, pasty-on-the-inside croquettes at Ditu. News flash: those days are long gone. In today’s wee hours, you can choose from Swedish, Russian, KFC-type fried chicken (our crispy coating, however, is made with plantains), sushi, pizza (delivered to your door in under 30 minutes or it’s free), Mexican, tapas, and my personal favorite: old fashioned comida criolla. I get that extended hours, KFC wannabes and delivery pizza may not be your idea of innovation, and I mostly concur. However, the Cuban in me says “sushi?! Now that’s progress.” Plus, there are rumblings of some real foodie inroads being made, including vegetarian cajitas (little boxed meals for a buck or two) and protein-and-veggie smoothie shacks. Now if only the concept of Sunday brunch with Bloody Marys would catch on…

At your service

It’s amazing how many new, small private businesses are providing one service or another. Your Samsung Galaxy not receiving messages? Need your upper lip waxed? I can recommend half a dozen places to fix you up. Car need a wash? Maybe your dog does. Or perhaps you’re too uncertain or monolingual to make that casa reservation in Santiago de Cuba. No problem: in the “new” Havana someone will do it for you —for a fee of course. Today, you can get your iPhone unlocked, your navel pierced, Botox injections (this is actually a state enterprise; I don’t know if private individuals are also doing it, though I wouldn’t doubt it) and many more services we never dreamed of a decade ago. Having such services available bestows a sorely needed veneer of normalcy and efficiency on our corner of the world.

Touchy-feely intangibles

So far, the relaxing of restrictions and regulations has unleashed a torrent of pent-up creativity. More importantly, it gives people the space to dream, to put their ideas into practice and test their mettle. This liberty, for lack of a better word, has taught a lot of people the meaning of hard work, fast. Which is a good thing. It’s empowering and, for the first time, Cubans are getting a sense of individual agency (as opposed to agency as a nation). It’s refreshing.

Service information:

Stores:

Clínica de Celulares: Corner of Zanja and Infanta calles

Langwith Animal Salon: Calle Obispo No. 410, on the corner of Aguacate and Compostela

Food:

Heladería el Palenque: Ice cream store at El Palenque shopping center in Siboney. Calle 17 between Calle 174 and 194

La Casa del Helado: Ice cream store in Miramar. Calle 84 and 3ra Avenida, in Miramar

Nazdarovie: Russian food in Centro Habana; Malecón No 20,

Casa Miglis: Swedish food in Centro Habana; Lealtad No 120, +53 7 8641486

La Pachanga: Fast-food-esque chicken restaurant in Vedado; Calle 28 between Calle 21 & Avenida 23

Restaurante Santy: Sushi restaurant in Jaimanitas; Calle 240A at the intersection of 3raC and the river

Los Compadres: Mexican food by the beach. Calle 66A No 3119

Ring Pizza: Rapid-service pizza delivery; corner of Avenida 26 and Calle 19, +53 7 8303233, email ringpizza@nauta.cu

El Chanchullero: Spanish tapas in Havana Vieja; Teniente Rey No 457A

Restaurante San Cristóbal: Comida criolla, popular with visitors including the Obamas and Beyonce; Calle San Rafael No 469

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