At Saskatoon’s latitude, February 15 is the date when the sun reaches above the horizon high enough to chase away my winter blues. Every year, it’s like someone waves a magic wand over the landscape. That’s the date when you can really feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Before that, from the beginning of November, the sun shines a cold, blue light — bright enough to need sunglasses, to be sure, but lacking in warmth and colour. Each year, I look forward to February 15 the way a kid looks forward to the day after the last day of school.
Winter can be a lovely time of year. I love the way freshly fallen snow sparkles under a full moon. I love the bright, clear night skies with so many brilliant stars. Looking out on a winter landscape is like living in a sentimental Christmas card. But I hate what the darkness of the long night does to me.
Winter is at its darkest in the two weeks following the solstice. Sunsets are minutely later during that time, but sunrises are also later, mocking any notion that the days are actually getting longer. Used to be, you could count on a thaw during that period, a little warmth to render the darkness a tad less intolerable. But we haven’t felt such a thaw in years. The cold just sets its grip and drags you deeper into the darkness. This year, in the days leading up to new year’s, meteorologists warned of the “polar vortex”, as nefariously evil sounding name for any weather system as I could imagine. We could look forward to this scourge bringing sub-minus-30 temperatures every day until at least mid-January, the meteorologists said. That was our cue to escape.
So it was that while most people were still nursing their new year’s hangovers, we were on a plane bound for the northern coast of Cuba. At that latitude, sunlight is squandered. It was just the place we needed to chase away the winter. A short break was all we needed, a little time in the hot sun to recharge our batteries and give us enough energy to make it through the rest of a prairie winter. A cappuccino never tasted so delicious as on that first sunny morning.
Cuba is famously associated with Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway first experienced the country during a layover on his way to Spain in 1928. He obviously fell in love with Cuba, as so many of us do, returning again and again. In Cuba, Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea and worked on For Whom the Bell Tolls (which he also wrote at his residences in Wyoming and Idaho).
Cubans seem to celebrate all things Hemingway, as well. Everywhere in Havana, people point out locations where the author ate or slept or drank or stepped or in some way had a connection.
The Old Man and The Sea was one of those novels that we were forced to read in school. I’m sure our teachers assigned it because it was considered a modern work of fiction, written by a famous author, full of allegory and symbolism, with a “Canadian” connection (Hemingway at one time contributed as international correspondent for the Toronto Star), therefore a “must read” work of literature. Of course, when you’re in school, and the assignment is mandatory, none of that matters, and the rebellious among us would take that as sufficient motive to resist.
Fame is a cultural phenomenon. It is also generational. In school, teachers and authors come from another culture and generation. Hemingway, as a famous name, held no resonance for students, me included, the way it did for teachers of English. But the writing was compelling. I’m still surprised to see The Old Man and the Sea described as a novel. I breezed through it like it was a short story.
Later, in university, I had a prof who was considered an authority on Ernest Hemingway and renown for his private collection of Hemingway letters. In addition to advanced graduate courses in literature, the prof taught two first-year one-semester courses: Introduction to the Novel and Introduction to the Short Story.
I suppose it goes without saying that Hemingway was on the reading list. I was enrolled in the short stories course, where we were assigned In Our Time. The prof said he assigned the same book in his course on the novel. Hemingway could be like that, each chapter standing on its own as a short story or taken all together as a novel.
I think I felt a bit of whatever it must have been that attracted Hemingway to Cuba. It is said that he “enjoyed the land, the sea, great ideas and small ones too, plus sports, literature and everyone who plied an honest trade.”
No doubt, we’ll be back to get to know Cuba more intimately in the future.