Spanish is the language spoken by most Cubans, and some knowledge of it will enhance your stay in Habana exponentially. Despite high levels of literacy and education, the people of Habana, rather like their counterparts in North America and Britain, are linguistically lazy. While you can expect employees in the tourist sector to understand basic English, it’s unlikely that the average habanero will know his right from his ‘write.’ The Cubans will appreciate any attempts to converse with them in their own language, and learning some common Spanish words and phrases will definitely open a few doors.
Now for the hard part - Cuban Spanish is notoriously difficult to understand and is riddled with colorful slang. Furthermore, Cubans in general - and habaneros in particular - often talk incredibly quickly and are in the habit of dropping vital letters from the ends of their words (most commonly the letter ‘s, ’ which can be confusing when you’re talking in plurals). A plea to habla más despacio (speak slower) usually puts them straight.
The Cubans have enriched their language with many of their own words and phrases. Some of these injections come from Afro-Cuban sources (cabildo for ‘brotherhood’ or batá for ‘drum’), others are a legacy of the original Taíno natives (the word cohiba for ‘cigar’ and guajiro for ‘country person’).
Cuban Spanish is a lot more informal than the Spanish you will encounter in other Latin American countries. In Habana, for instance, it’s not unusual for a female shop assistant to address a (younger) male customer as mi amor (literally ‘my love’) and male clients in restaurants to attract the attention of waitresses by calling them niña (girl) or muñeca (doll). In a similar fashion, the polite usted form of address is less widely used here than in, say, Colombia or Bolivia (Cubans generally favor the pronoun ‘tu’).
In common with the rest of Latin America, the Cubans use the pronoun ustedes for the second-person plural (as opposed to vosotros).
The Taller Experimental de Gráfica (7-862-0979; Callejón del Chorro No 6, Habana Vieja) offers classes in the art of engraving. Individualized instruction lasts one month, during which time the student creates an engraving with 15 copies; longer classes can be arranged. The cost is around CUC$250.
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The first port of call for aspiring foreign-language students is the Universidad de la Habana (832-4245, 831-3751; email@example.com; 2nd fl, Edificio Varona, Calle J No 556, Vedado), which offers Spanish courses throughout the year, beginning on the first Monday of each month. Costs start at CUC$100 for 20 hours (one week) - including textbooks - and cover all levels from beginners to advanced. You must first sit a placement test to determine your level. Aspiring candidates can sign up in person at the university or reserve beforehand via email or phone.
Other places to inquire about Spanish courses include Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (Uneac; 832-4551; cnr Calles 17 & H, Vedado) and Paradiso (832-9538; Calle 19 No 560, Vedado)
Private lessons can be arranged by asking around locally; try your casa particular.
Courses for foreigners can be arranged throughout the year by the Oficina de Relaciones Internacionales of the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA; 7-208-8075; Calle 120 No 1110, Cubanacán). Courses in percussion and dance are available almost anytime, but other subjects (such as visual arts, music, theater and aesthetics) are offered when teachers are available.
Courses usually involve four hours of classes a week, costing between CUC$10 and CUC$15 per hour. Prospective students must apply in the last week of August for the fall semester, or in the last three weeks of January for spring. The school is closed for holidays from the start of July until the third week in August. The institute also accepts graduate students for its regular winter courses, and an entire year of study here (beginning in September) as part of a regular five-year program costs approximately CUC$2500. Accommodations in student dormitories can be arranged.
The Conjunto Folklórico Nacional (El Gran Palenque, Calle 4 No 103, btwn Calzada and Calle 5, Vedado) teaches highly recommended classes in son (Cuba’s basic form of popular music), salsa, rumba, mambo and more. The classes start on the first Mondays in January and July, and cost in the vicinity of CUC$400 to CUC$500 for a 15-day course. An admission test places students in classes of four different levels. It also offers 15-day courses in percussion starting on the third Monday in January and the first Monday in July.
Travelers might be able to organize flamenco guitar lessons by inquiring at the Centro Andaluz (863-6745; Paseo de Martí No 104 btwn Genios & Refugio, Centro Habana).