I'm back from my holidays, with fading memories of an amazing city, and even more wonderful people.
My two lasting impressions of Cuba have to be, firstly, the huge grins, which spread across peoples' faces, when they realise you speak Spanish and, secondly, my consternation when I realised that a lot of Cubans don't speak the same Spanish we do!
I never cease to be amazed by the warmth and friendliness of Spanish speakers, when they realise that you've invested the time and effort to learn their language, and the Cuban people are some of the friendliest I have ever met. They are delighted to converse with you in Spanish, even though virtually everyone I met spoke excellent English. They are patient, and wait for you to figure out what you want to say, and how you're going to say it, without prompting, or interrupting you, and happy to repeat, or rephrase anything you don't quite catch.
That said, there is likely to be quite a lot you don't catch, if you engage in conversation with someone with a strong Cuban accent.
I spent quite a lot of time, having short interchanges with one of the dining room staff (meseros) at our Hotel.
If you go to the Riu Varadero, lookout for Yotuen. He's a fantastic guy, helpful, and not at all perturbed by the fact that he had to repeat everything two or three times, before I finally caught his drift.
A strong Cuban accent involves dropping lots of consonants, and blending letters together.
Commonly, they will lose 's', 'd','j','b','v', and words ending '-ado', will become '-ao' ( I have come across this in mainland Spain, too)
So 'nos vemos despues, al otro lado', might well become 'no vemo depue, lotro lao'
When you listen to conversations around you (it's not eavesdropping, it's education) you could be forgiven for wondering if it's another language, altogether.
On the other hand, Jenny, also in the dining room, had a wonderfully clear accent, was chatty and cheerful, and got into the habit of greeting us in Spanish, whenever she saw us.
I also spent a half hour playing table table-tennis with one of the 'animación' staff (El Rey del Riu, he announced, after beating me for the third straight game) and found out quite a bit about the hotel complex and local area.
We spoke mainly Spanish, but the Staff spend so much time talking English and French (as most of the guests are Canadian) that it's almost second nature to them. To be honest, the nearest I heard to any other guest speaking spanish was 'Hey, Buddy, can I get another surresa over here?' (cerveza=beer)
Another character worthy of mention is Julio, the tour guide, who took us on a bus and walking tour, during one of our three days in Havana. He, too, had superb diction and, because we shared the coach around the city with a group of Argentinians, he gave a commentary in both Spanish and English. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself,as I understood virtually every word he said (in Spanish, that is)
So, if you're considering a trip to a South American/Carribean country, I wholeheartedly recommend Cuba. It's sensibly priced. It's safe. It's fascinating and, as a Spanish student, you are guaranteed that little extra welcome.
If you want to get a taste of the Cuban accent, there are several complete examples of Cuban cinema on YouTube. On my return, my profesora, Ximena, thought it would be good practice for me to watch Habana Blues http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLKhph7qmJQ&feature=fvwrel . Not only is it an engaging story, but the music is so good, I've ordered the soundtrack album!
I've also just found 'Un Rey en la Habana' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMXsrTkoRvo which looks like it may be interesting, although I've not had chance to watch it yet.
Finally, I can't close without a mention of Cuban music, which is amazing, live, and everywhere you go ( I came back with a couple of locally recorded CDs) and Che Guevara, whose image you will see everywhere (Yes, I bought the t-shirt), so here are three quite different versions of a song which really grew on me while I was there, and now listen to regularly, 'Hasta Siempre, Comandante'