View From Loring Park

Havana Daydreaming

| July/August 2001

Seeing the world, small places as well as great ones, has been my passion for as long as I can remember. My father was a geography teacher, who brought home colorful maps of exotic places that I tacked to my bedroom wall and dreamed of visiting. Travel still fills my daydreams.

A few months ago I was struck by the full extent of my roving, restless nature. I found myself in the Virgin Islands, sitting on a perfect white sand beach looking out at an azure sea amid tropical greenery, and what was I doing?: telling friends about all the other places on six continents that I was desperate to see. The conversation gradually shifted to speculation about what would be the next big place, the 'new Prague,' the shining city where bright young Americans would gather en masse to soak up Old World charm and bohemian energy. It had been Barcelona in the ’80s. Kathmandu in the ’70s. Rome and Tangiers in the ’50s. Paris in the ’20s. Where next? We had our guesses:

Kerala, India; Tallinn, Estonia; Antigua, Guatemala; Ulan Bator, Mongolia; Tripoli, Libya.

But it soon became obvious that we were really talking about the next next big place because it’s a sure bet that the immediately upcoming mecca for hip wayfarers is Havana. Of course! La Habana—the gloriously historical colonial capital, the mob’s tropical prototype for Las Vegas, the sultry hothouse for musical cross-pollination, the viciously reviled (and naively worshipped) ground zero of a revolutionary experiment in social equity and command-control economics. Ha-vana is unquestionably one of the most interesting spots on earth.

I SPENT TWO WEEKS there in 1983 and was enchanted. The gorgeously gracious Spanish architecture, the bustling public squares, the jazz and son and rumba rhythms, the giant Coppelia ice cream garden visited nearly every evening by nearly every Habañero, the whole city ready to dance at the first notes of a horn or guitar, the Caribbean breezes that seem to carry secrets for relaxed, refreshing, romantic living.

Novelist Graham Greene, in his 1958 spy comedy Our Man in Havana (which brilliantly presaged the city’s role as a flashpoint in the Cold War), observed, 'To live in Havana was to live in a factory that turned out human beauty.' Three years earlier, Esquire magazine’s racy correspondent Helen Lawrenson proclaimed it 'the sexiest city in the world.'

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