Reports from Cuba: Multitudes and frustrations at the new Coppelia

Luz Escobar and Yoani Sanchez write in 14yMedio from Havana via Translating Cuba:

Multitudes and Frustrations at the New Coppelia

Customers protect themselves from Havana’s summer sun while waiting outside Coppelia.

At what has been called the Cathedral of Ice Cream, the faithful wait outside for hours on the day that the Coppelia ice creamery is scheduled to reopen after a weeks-long remodeling. The first day of operation is marked by scenes of people shoving each other as police try to control the line of customers waiting to try the long anticipated chocolate ice cream.

On Monday, after official news outlets announced the date of its reopening, dozens of people with the patience of pilgrims start lining up outside. Designed by architect Mario Girona, the iconic Havana building looms as large in the public imagination as the Giraldilla statue, Morro Castle and the Malecon. As they wait patiently, hundreds of customers try to glimpse the menu board inside to see if it lists all fifteen flavors promised in official media reports.

Such a high level of anticipation should come as no surprise. Coppelia is one of the few places in the capital where ice cream can still be bought with Cuban pesos rather than hard currency, something hard to fathom for the astonished, open-mouthed tourists who walk past the enthusiastic throng, asking if they are part of a demonstration. When told the crowd is just waiting to buy ice cream, they can be heard saying, “I can’t believe it.”

In spite of a sign announcing a 10 o’clock opening, Coppelia begins its first day of operation an hour later, much to the discomfort of customers, who have to rely on umbrellas and sports caps to escape the relentless summer sun. This means that, before cooling off with ice cream, customers are first treated to a “free tropical sauna,” as one woman waiting in line notes ironically.

Every generation is represented. There are those who remember Coppelia in its heyday, after its debut in 1963, when it offered dozens of flavors; those who watched it languish during the Special Period of the 1990s, when it operated almost as a workers’ canteen; and those born after the advent of the dollar economy, who grew up eating Nestlé ice cream at shopping malls or coveting it through display windows.

Everyone arrives armed with cell phones to report the reopening to a family member who has emigrated to Buenos Aires, Miami or Berlin, someone who met her partner in the historic ice cream parlor, where a man’s wife began to feel her first delivery pains, or where someone had a final conversation with a friend who passed away not long after. Each of them has some memory sewn into the metal trellis chairs on the ground floor or to the thick shade trees.

Between the shoving to get inside and the screaming at others who have jumped the the line, there is the sound of “clicks” from dozens, or even hundreds, of cell phone cameras. “This is for Instagram and this for Facebook,” explains a teenager who poses in front of the sign of a ballerina’s plump legs above the iconic location’s name. He also takes a snapshot in front of a slogan, “La Habana real y maravillosa” (The real and wonderful Havana), that now appears on an exterior wall.

As the hours pass, enthusiasm dims and outrage grows. Around noon, after getting past the doorman trying to control the entrance, an avalanche of people runs through the esplanade to the staircase on the second floor, where the area known as the Tower is located. Their first surprise is the wallboard menu in this most exclusive area of Coppelia, which lists only eight flavors, half of what was promised.

When the crowd gets to the bottom of the stairway, they regroup. Some take the opportunity to fix their hair, some to straighten shirts which were rumpled in the scuffle outside and some to make sure they have not lost their wallets in the tumult. Children cannot stop smiling, their eyes open wide, as if they were on an adventure, monsters included, with a promised reward.

Eventually, little by little, everyone sits down. Then comes a second surprise: you may only order two specialties per person, a restriction that began with the crisis of a quarter of a century ago and which apparently is still in force despite a new, strikingly blue paint on the walls and employees in redesigned uniforms.

As has become customary, tables at Coppelia must be fully occupied. It does not matter if the people with whom you are seated are complete strangers. Some customers enjoy the surprise of being able to have a conversation with someone they are seeing for the first time. Others resent the lack of privacy and the unwanted, frightening encounters they imagine having.

Now seated after waiting four hours in line, Ulises — a 60-year-old restaurant worker — is still running his hand over a rib which was jabbed during the scrum to get inside. “Older people being pushed around, women with small children shoved to the ground, people in wheelchairs and with canes not given priority. And everyone fighting with the employees. I’ve never seen anyting like it,” he tells his companions.

“You didn’t experience Coppelia when it was Coppelia,” he says with a certain taste of nostalgia. Before paying, he very slowly counts his coins because, as he notes, no one gives him anything; he lives on his salary. This is a rarity, as difficult to find as a sliver of almond in the ice cream, which is now served on plastic plates when you order three scoops.

Next to him is a Cuban couple who now live in Florida and cannot stop laughing. “We needed a dose of Cuban reality but here we’ve gotten a full shower,” they joke. When the ice cream arrives, the woman takes a small taste but leaves the rest while the man takes several photos, which he will later post on Twitter. Meanwhile, Ulises takes a plastic container out of his bag and begins filling it with a melted chocolate and strawberry combination.

“The chocolate failed the test,” a young woman seated at another table is heard to say. “But the only thing on this plate I can eat is the chocolate. The strawberry is totally synthetic. There’s no fruit in it,” she adds with her nose near the plate. A dusting of cookie crumbs begins to fuse with the melted ice cream scoops.

One of the most frequently heard complaints involves the well known combination known as the “salad,” a mixture of five scoops with a few small cookies on the side, which can only be ordered with a mix of ice cream flavors. When a group of adolescents at one table asks an employee why this is, her only response is that it results from “a desire to provide a variety of flavors.”

But the ice cream fails to deliver. “Not creamy, tasteless and melted,” is how a mother with two children describes it, wrapping up her assessment with an “I won’t be coming back.”

After returning to his table smiling, another guest is eager share the details of his trip to the restroom. “They fixed all the toilets and there was even water for the sinks,” he explained. Though he wanted to provide more details of his experience, few listen to him.

At three o’clock a lady who has been in line with her granddaughter to go up to the Tower finally cries out in despair, “I have been here since 1:30 and everything they are saying on television is a lie. It’s an insult.” The woman has brought her daughter here for her birthday after the girl became intrigued by a report on the midday news about the successful reopening earlier in the day.

Images of the fights were not shown on national television, nor was the presence of police, who were there to maintain order, or the attendant trying to maintain discipline in the line. Instead, news reports only described calm and happiness. One customer adopted the idyllic tone, tellling a reporter, “It’s all beautiful, so beautiful.”

Far from camera range, one woman is compelled to seek shelter under a tree after waiting three hours in line. “This is abusive,” she repeats. Meanwhile, her two grandchildren, now on vacation from school, take advantage of not having to contend with the sun’s glare on their cell phone screens to share some wifi apps.

In the distance they can see an air-conditioned upper-floor salon offering ice cream for sale in hard currency. At The Four Jewels,* as the space inside Coppelia is known, smiling, sweat-free customers are enjoying a much more costly and creamy ice cream.

*Translator’s note: The space, named for four legendary dancers of the National Ballet of Cuba, was inaugurated in June 2013 by the ballet’s then-director, Alicia Alonso, in a ribbon cutting ceremony.


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