A love letter to a romantic tale set in Cuba that reached its happy ending

View of Capitolio from roof of Hotel Inglaterra, Havana I’m sitting at a café on campus reading up on articles for schoolwork (meaning, blog posts…) and over at my right there’s some sort of market day going on focusing on the language courses offered at the university next semester.

Salsa music is being played from huge speakers, which is a little comical to me because the only language courses offered at this uni are Japanese, Indonesian and Italian. Not to get hung up on details, but none of these cultures are associated with salsa.

Still, I am instantly transported back to my time living in Cuba and even my travels in Mexico last year. My heart skips a bit as I close my eyes and a rush of memories are being brought back to me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Cuba lately. Mostly, because the most wonderful news reached me the other day:

My good friend married her Cuban sweetheart last week.

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She, a beautiful, blonde Danish girl working for another tour agency, was one of my best friends in Cuba. He was a slick-looking Latino with a a huge smile and a heart of gold.

I remember vividly the night they met. There were four of us in our close group of friends, all female Scandinavian tour guides. On our free time, we did what any young girls would do: enjoy the world’s best rum and go out dancing.

We were at Casa de la Musica, which is one of the best clubs in Varadero and it plays almost exclusively salsa music. The place is electric pretty much any night of the week, and it was our favorite place to let loose and enjoy ourselves.

The two of them spotted each other across the room, and at the end of the night he’d passionately kissed her goodnight within a couple of hours of knowing her. The rest of us laughed and teased her as she joined us again on the dance floor.

‘Are you kidding me?! Glad that’s out of your system,’ we laughed. He was wearing a neon pink button-up shirt, and could have easily been Ricky Martin’s slightly darker-haired twin brother. We thought he looked ridiculous and didn’t understand what she saw in him. Let’s be frank: young, blonde Scandinavian girls in Cuba can have their pick… and he wouldn’t have been my pick if I’d seen him across the room.

But they had found each other. And that was that.

Colorful old cars and buildings, Havana

Over the next few months, I watched their love story unfold despite cultural differences and initial language barriers. Ricky Martin, who I had instantly judged as a total douche who didn’t know how to dress, turned out to be one of the kindest and warmest people I’ve ever met.

(I literally learned not to judge a book by its cover from this relationship. You can preach it all you want, but you need to be proven wrong and feel like an idiot before you actually get it).

Always taking in interest in her friends and investing time and effort to get to know us, no doubt because he cared about her so much. They were so in love, it was impossible to look away. You just kind of wanted it to rub off on you, somehow.

Cayo Blance outside Varadero, Cuba

Nearly two years has passed since then, and while I haven’t seen them face to face since we left Cuba, I can imagine what they’ve been going through.

Him, stuck in Cuba.

Her, trying to figure out her life and pursuing her career, but always missing her love in Varadero.

Scrambling to find time and money for her to come visit as often as possible.

Wondering, ‘can we really do this? take this risk? is it going to be you and me? because if so, the only way is to bring you to Denmark. and the only way to bring you to Denmark is to get married. are we too young to get married? what if we’ll regret it?’

In the end… ‘You’re my true love. I want it to be you and me, forever.’

After what I can only imagine was very a long struggle with the Cuban embassy and Danish immigration – getting out of Cuba is not easy – he arrived in Denmark this summer.

And last week they each got to marry the love of their life at town hall and begin their lives together in Copenhagen as man and wife.

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Not all love stories are conventional.
Not all are convenient.
Not all are easy to follow through. 

But sometimes…. just sometimes…. 

It’s all so worth it. 

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A love letter to ‘Nonna Tina’

In true Happy Camper spirit, I’ll be posting weekly love letters 🙂 They could be about anything really, anything that made me happy at some point (and most likely still does). My intention is simply to shine a big, bright spotlight on the good things in life!

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I can’t tell you how much Nonna Tina deserves a love letter… one for every day of the year, in fact.

“Who is nonna Tina and why are you obsessed with her?”
Nonna Tina is not a person. It is a small paladar in Varadero, Cuba and it is responsible for serving the best damn food you’ll eat outside of Italy; not to mention the best part of my week – every week, of my four month stint in Cuba.

paladar is a really cool thing that only exists in Cuba. Let me break it down for you:
– First, you need to know that everything in Cuba is owned and controlled by the government. This is what we call communism, kids.
– Second, you need to know that Cuba still has monthly food rations. “Here’s your monthly ration of rice and beans, here’s your ration of chicken. Now go feed the tourists.”
(Alright alright, so the tourists actually eat pretty well… most of them stay in huge, beautiful all-inclusive hotels that serve a variety of good food. I lived in no such hotel)
– Third, you need to know that while I could easily host a two-day seminar about all the awesome and exciting things about Cuba… the Cuban cuisine is never gonna be in that seminar.

Now, a paladar is a privately owned restaurant in Cuba. It’s usually family-owned, family-run and very small. Visit a typical paladar and you will often eat in the family’s living room or on the patio and there will only be 2-5 tables. There are much bigger paladares as well, but more often than not they’re small and intimate. In most cases they have family members living abroad who send money and arrange for special produce to be sent to them. That’s why you often get really good food made from the real-deal ingredients there.

(Are they legal? Given the fact that Cuba is a communist country? Ergh… Who knows. Who cares. A girl’s gotta eat)

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-Allow me to paint a picture for you-

Imagine that you arrived at your new home in Cuba three weeks ago. Everything is different, everything is exciting, everything is bursting with color and music and the hypnotizing smell of cigars. You spent the first week sight-seeing with eyes big as ping pong balls trying not to miss anything, and let’s be honest: drank a lot of rum. In the second week, as a slight hangover taunts you, you start to notice how the food doesn’t really taste like… well, anything. And it hits you that you’ve eaten the same thing for lunch and dinner every single day. Moros y cristianos (white rice with black beans) with pork/chicken and if you’re lucky; some sliced up cabbage that passes for a side salad. By week three you realize that the food they serve at your accommodation tastes really freakin’ blech and is almost exclusively the color brown, and so you skipped lunch. You figure you’ll just run to the store and get some fruit or something in the meantime while you wait for dinner which is served from 7 PM. As you walk from supermarket to supermarket and all the minimarkets in between, the realization hits you – they don’t sell food in the stores here. A typical market in Varadero looks like this: 2 aisles of canned tomatoes and canned beans (remember, you have no kitchen so this is useless), 2 aisles of tupperware, 1 aisle of baby food, and 4 aisles of candy and cookies. Oh, and chewing gum and beef jerky behind the counter, of course. At this point you start to panic a little bit. There’s only so much rum you can drink on an empty stomach.

Just when you think to yourself, “Is this for real…? Are they all in on some kind of elaborate prank, sending this foodie to a place like this?”, something magical happens. Your local Cuban friend/co-worker sees your terror, pulls you aside, tells you he’s got a surprise for you, and sends you to a mysterious address in Varadero. And right there in someone’s backyard you discover a little place called ‘heaven on earth’. Otherwise known as the paladar ‘Nonna Tina’.

‘Nonna Tina’ is owned and run by an Italian guy who I think looks exactly like Fred from Scooby-Doo. I can’t for the life of me remember his name, so I’ll just call him Fred. Story has it he went to Cuba on vacation 20 years ago when he was a young Italian stallion and fell in love with a beautiful Cuban girl. Since it’s not so easy to get out of Cuba, Fred made the ultimate romantic sacrifice: he gave up gelato and moved to Cuba. It didn’t last long, though, until his taste buds nearly fizzled and died, so he saved up all the money he could and opened his own Italian paladar. And thank God he did, because I don’t know how I would have survived if it wasn’t for Fred.

Fred is the real deal: he only has three tables in his backyard and he pours his heart into every single dish he serves. His family back in Italy keeps him stocked with luxurious items such as parmesan cheese, extra virgin olive oil (holy cow! olive oil! not just vinegar!!! unheard of in the rest of Cuba), Italian sausage – and he makes everything from scratch. His homemade, fresh lasagna nearly put me over the edge. His rosemary foccaccia baked in his pizza oven that he built himself is still to this day the best foccaccia I’ve ever had. The dude can cook, ok?

The dude is also totally not interested in being my friend.

Fred is well aware of how much I love him. I tried to tell him all the time, but it’s hard to declare my love and gratitude when the guy won’t make eye contact. My co-workers and I came to eat his food 1-3 times a week for 20 weeks straight and he still never acknowledged that he recognized us. Doing small talk with Fred is like talking to a statue. I think he smiled at me once but that was only after I gave him, like, the tenth 50% tip in a row. He is so blasse about his regular customers that even my mom and stepdad commented on it when I took them there on our last night in Varadero. But you know what? At the end of the day, you don’t need to be a people person when you can cook like that.

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Wondering where you can find this amazing bucket list-worthy paladar? Too bad. My co-workers and I made an oath. There are only 2 rules in the ‘Nonna Tina’ fan club.

  1. You do not reveal Nonna Tina’s location.
  2. You do not reveal Nonna Tina’s location.

You have to be worthy if you want to visit this place. You can’t just be any ol’ tourist who goes to Cuba for 2 weeks and expect me to hand over the key to food heaven. First you have to suffer through a good amount of time eating lousy Cuban buffet food. Applications to know the whereabouts of Fred and his foccaccia can be sent by email to nonnatina-4ever@christinelovesfred.com.

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I suddenly feel bad that I’ve been saying so many negative things about Cuban cuisine!
To make up for it, here’s an impromptu list of things I absolutely loved to eat and drink in Cuba:

– Cuban coffee
– Cuban beer (Cristal and Bucanero)
– Salt (don’t ask me how I taste the difference, but they really do have amazingly tasty sea salt in the restaurants in Cuba)
– Local guava fruit
– Chicken (they sure know how to cook a juicy chicken, even if eating only chicken gets a little bit boring after a while)
– Anything with rum
– Lobster (they’re amazing when it comes to lobster! And it’s cheap!)

Xx Christine

Many homes

Not only do I get to say “I’m moving all the way across the whooooole world come July” without it being an exaggeration; I’ve also mentioned that I’m lucky enough to have lived in several different countries already. I thought it might be a good time to bring you up to speed on the places I’ve called home so far in my life. We’ll do it the old-fashioned way, and by that I mean in chronological order. Ready, set, go!

1)
Once upon a time in the year 2006, right before Facebook happened and just as Nelly Furtado stopped being a folk singer and started shaking her booty to hip hop beats and being ‘Promiscuous’, I moved away from home for the first time to be a foreign exchange student in the US. I ended up in a small town called Tiffin in the northwest corner of Ohio.

I can’t imagine a more perfect place to put a foreign exchange student because being a teenager in Tiffin was exactly like being a teenager on American TV shows. The jocks. The geeks. The drama kids. The cheerleaders. The town fair. The football games. The prom. God, it was amazing… It was a dream come true for me seeing as I grew up a little bit obsessed with American culture, and I was blessed with the most including, warmest, loveliest host family a girl could ever ask for.

Ohio flat road

Being away for a year at the tender age of 16 was a life-changing experience. It feels like a lifetime ago, and I’m certainly a very different person today than I was back then. But more importantly, I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my high school exchange year. Tiffin, I love you and miss you! Who knew a Norwegian could ever feel at home in a place as overwhelmingly flat as Ohio?  I wouldn’t have guessed it. But I have nothing but love for that place, and I’m forever grateful for how it welcomed and embraced me.

2)
In the fall of 2009, having graduating high school and after an unhappy stint as a student in northern England that only lasted a month, I decided I wanted to let my Peter-Pan-Syndrome flag fly and I got a job as a tour guide. My mission? Giving myself a much needed break from being so ambitious in terms of education when it was so obvious that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. The only thing I knew for sure was that, a) I didn’t want to live in Norway, and b) I’d always been good at oral presentations. Throw in some beaches, a young and fun work environment, and a healthy dose of wanderlust, and that’s how I ended up as a tour guide.

Winter 2010 I was stationed in Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. Tenerife is home to Spain’s highest peak (the inactive volcano Teide), the stunningly beautiful green landscapes of the Masca Valley, family favorite animal park Loro Parque, and a crapload of drunk British tourists. Then there’s the Scandinavians, who in my opinion are slightly more charming than the drunk and sunburnt British, but no amount of charm can hide the fact that they’re just as pink and tipsy. I had a lot of fun.

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I came to Tenerife mid-season and there was an endless amount of things to learn without much training, but I wore my “rookie badge” proudly and was eager to take on new challenges. It was here I did a bus excursion for the first time ever; a half-day guided tour to Teide and the Las Cañadas national park. I acted pretty calm and collected on the outside, but inside I was going, “Oh my God, I have found my CALLING. I was born to do this job. Can I please do this every week, all the time, please please please please?” It was a turning point for me. I’ve been known to hang on to the microphone of tour buses as if my life depended on it, just because it makes me so damn happy to get to sit there and tell stories to people and get them excited.

Tenerife was great. So great, in fact, that I couldn’t even get myself to leave when I was supposed to. That might have had something to do with a volcanic ash cloud from Iceland that paralyzed all of Europe’s air traffic back in April 2011, but we’ll save that story for another time…

3)
I hate to make my other homes jealous, but there is one place that really did steal my heart and I’ve never been able to recover from it… Crete.

IMG_0007 (4)My love affair with the largest island in Greece (and birthplace of Zeus) began in the spring of 2010. I’d been there once before on a two-week family vacation when I was a kid, but I didn’t even come close then to discovering all this place had to offer. This time around I worked as a ‘children’s host’ at one of our company’s family resorts on the northwest coast. While I loved working with kids and enjoyed the occasional water pistol fights and face painting sessions, I was dying to get back behind the mic of excursion buses. So I managed to talk my boss into giving me a shot at Knossos, the “heaviest” excursion we offered on Crete with lots of history, mythology, and archeological facts. You know. The kind of excursion only high school teachers get genuinely excited about – and me. I loved Every. Single. Second of those day trips to Knossos and Heraklion, and did the excursion every Monday for the whole summer.

If I was forced to try and sum up the reason why I love Crete so much (which is kind of what I’m am forcing myself to do now), it would look something like this:
+ The diversity of what the island has to offer in its nature. Crystal clear blue water and sandy beaches. Majestic mountain ranges and ravines. Soft hilltop landscapes with olive tree orchards as far as the eye can see. Crete is so visually beautiful; its combination of mountains and beaches is my idea of perfection.
+ The cuisine and the love and pride they put into their cooking traditions
+ The enchanting little mountain villages
+ The fact that the island is so big which means that there’s an endless amount of places to explore and you never feel like you’re stuck on an island
+ The irresistible charm of the Old Towns in the larger cities

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Those 6 months also stand out because I met some truly wonderful people that summer. Some of my most treasured friendships in life were born there in Chania, and that definitely contributes to my immense love for the place. Let’s just say that Crete and I get along really well and I’d be more than happy to spend the rest of my life as a world ambassador for the place. I’d promote the bejeezes out of that island, and ask for nothing in return except for maybe a free glass of freshly squeezed Kriti orange juice once in a while.  Or a monthly supply of raki. Either will do.

4)
As soon as the people back at headquarters realized that they’d found an employee who was freakishly fond of historical excursions, they figured it was a good idea to send me to Egypt.

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I moved to Hurghada in October 2010 and embarked on what was to become 4 of the most exciting months of my life. I spent most of my days holding welcome meetings and guiding excursions for our Scandinavian guests. For those of you who didn’t know, Egypt is huge. For instance, it takes 6 hours to drive to Cairo from Hurghada, and an extra hour (at the very least) to pick up all the different guests at the hotels. That means the bus driver would usually pick me up at around 1 AM and then I sat in a bus all night until we arrived in Cairo sometime in the morning. And then my  workday would actually start. I usually got home after these Cairo excursions around 11 PM (yes, that’s right – a 22 hour workday, basically) and would immediately shower and go meet up with my friends at our favorite bar. Where we usually stayed until the sun came up. I still, to this day, have absolutely no freakin’ idea how we pulled it off. It must surely mean tour guides are super-humans. Right?

It was intense, at times exhausting, hectic, and absolutely amazing. The community with my colleagues in Hurghada – both Scandinavians and Egyptians – was so special, and I have to say: I think out of all the places I went as a tour guide, I had the most fun in Egypt. I’ve also never felt happier with my job (with any job), and it was all because of the excursions I got to do. The more demanding, the more fun. People don’t go to Egypt and and pay lots of money for a 2-day trip to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings to have a tour guide that says, “Yeah, I don’t really know whose grave that one is. Umm… I’ll look it up and get back to you.” They expect you to know. And you better know some entertaining story about that random pharao, too.

The wonderful added bonus is that you never ever tire of watching people’s eyes light up as you reveal to them something like the Cheops pyramid for the first time, or surprising them with a sunset boat trip on the river Nile. This is something they’ve dreamt of all their lives. And to know that I got to be a part of that memory for so many people… it makes my heart sing!

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I was supposed to stay in Egypt for a few months longer than I did, but guess what – the revolution of 2011 happened and we were all evacuated out of there. I’ll tell you more about that some other time, if you want 😉

5)
Surprise! I moved back to Crete after they forced me to get the hell out of Egypt.
I just couldn’t bear the thought of being somewhere else from march-october, so I returned to my most favorite home away from home only this time I lived in Rethymnon instead of Chania.

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6) 
And finally, in the winter 2011/2012 I lived in Cuba. For someone who gets as excited about history as me, Cuba was pretty much the only thing that could ever measure up to Egypt. When I found out I got the job in Cuba I basically went “back to school” and swallowed every book I could find, especially biographies. I was completely enthralled by the history of Cuba and the “how’s” and “why’s” of the Cuban revolution, and I was fiercely dedicated to becoming as much of an expert as I could be, given the short time I had to prepare.

(Okay, I’ll admit it. It was a bit of an obsession, and I do acknowledge that if someone hadn’t put me on a plane and whisked me away from my note-taking, I could have easily buried myself in those biographies forever until I inevitably became an old cat lady).

To this day, I swear, you can wake me up in the middle of the night and demand to know what year Fidel Castro graduated law school, or the names and occupations of all of Che Guevara’s kids. I’ll be able to answer you half asleep.

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Living and working in Cuba was…. an insanely fast and fun roller coaster. There were such high highs and such frustrating lows, and the whole place is just so different from anything familiar. It’s not comparable to any place else, and so it’s very difficult to explain to people. I miss it a lot, I really do, and I am 100% planning on going back in a few years to visit again. But I will never, ever, ever voluntarily go to Cuba for work again. Ever.

Instead, let’s look at how pretty it is!

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So that’s my little home-away-from-home roundup!

Next up is Australia, and I cannot wait to see what kind of a home I’ll be creating over there.

Xx Christine