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What It Feels Like to Breathe Free Air

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Photo: Museum of Modern Art in Prague / Yoani Sanchez

What is different? The smells and the temperature, I think at first. Then come the noises, so unique in each place, the grayness of the winter sky or the dark shade of the water in a river that runs through much of Europe. What, really, is new? I keep asking myself while trying a taste here, or shaking some hands, for the first time, there. The music perhaps, the sound of the tram braking at the stop, the snow piled up along the sidewalks, the spring flowers struggling to bloom even though the worst, perhaps, awaits them from the frost. Where is the strangeness? In the church bells that seem to compete at the marking of every hour, or in certain houses of such antiquity that seeing them makes the constructions in Old Havana look young.

But neither the profusion of modern autos, nor the wifi signal that lets me connect to the Internet almost anywhere, are the real novelty for me. Nor are the kiosks full of newspapers, or the shops with bulging shelves, or the dog who, on the Metro subway platform is treated like the lord and master of the situation. The strange thing is not the friendliness of the clerks, the near absence of lines, the gargoyles with their claws and sharp teeth protruding from the walls, or the steaming wine that is drunk more to warm the body than to please the palate. None of these sensations, first-time or almost forgotten, over a decade without traveling, are what marks the difference between the Island I now see in the distance, and the countries visited on this occasion.

The principal contrast lies in what is and is not permitted. Since I got off the first plane I was expecting someone to scold me, someone to come out and warn me, "You can't do that." I look for the glance of the guard who will come to tell me, "Taking photos is not allowed," the grim-faced cop who shouts at me, "Citizen! Identification," the official who cuts off my passage while saying, "You can't enter here." But I'm not about run into any of those characters so common in Cuba. So for me, the big differences are not the delicious seeded bread, the long-lost beef that now returns to my plate, or the sounds of another language in my ears. No. The big difference is that I don't feel I'm permanently marked with the red badge of the outlaw, the whistle that surprises me in something clandestine, the constant sensation that whatever I do or think could be prohibited.