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An American in Havana

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U-M junior Florence Rivkin (center in photo) had little idea when she headed to Cuba in January what historic adventures awaited her. In this blog, she tells her fellow U-M students about living in Havana this semester.

Instead of spending the winter crossing the snowy Diag each morning, I have been waking up to 80-degree days and palm trees here in Havana. But there is much more to Cuba than its shockingly perfect weather.

To begin with, it is a socialist country, where capitalism is “the devil” and there are no Starbucks. From the absence of incessant advertising and chain stores, to the free education and health care for citizens, everything feels different here — particularly my digital life. There is next to no Internet on the island, which means no Facebook or Netflix.

At first everything was difficult. The Cubans’ Spanish was too fast, the food was odd, the cars were old, and the streets crumbling. But once I started my classes at the University of Havana — a 20-minute walk from the house I share with a handful of other American students — I realized my Spanish classes at the RC had prepped me well and I began meeting Cuban students.

Together, we talk about everything: student debt, Lenin, Marx, Obama, Bernie, Trump, and, of course, Fidel Castro. No one is afraid of asking the tough questions, whether we are sipping rum in a salsa club or playing baseball, which I recently did during Juegos Caribes, the university’s baseball tournament.

I was the only foreigner on the team and was absolutely terrified when they made me “el pitcheo” (the pitcher). The mitts were completely falling apart, and there was only one ball. But our team nearly got into the finals, and it is already one of my best memories here … along with President Obama’s visit last month.

Though we never saw the president in person, we did see the Rolling Stones at their free concert. One of my Cuban friends kept asking me to translate the lyrics into Spanish, which was pretty funny.

The Block M has also followed me here. Whether it is a Cuban wearing a Michigan T-shirt or professors who have studied at U-M noticing my Michigan T-shirt, I am constantly reminded of campus and can’t wait to be back next fall.

But until then, this feels like home. I can now hail an old 1950s shared taxi like a pro and walk past the many pictures of Castro and Che Guevara without feeling intimidated. And though I miss my technology, it has been refreshing to take a break. After dinner, we just chat or play board games instead. And though I now enjoy the local food (rice, beans, plantains), I also love the pizza here. It is not quite as good as a slice of South U pizza after a night out, but it does the trick.

I feel truly lucky that I have been able to live in Cuba during such a transformative time.

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