— Your profession would seem to suggest that you were born into a family of scholars. Am I right?
— Yes, you are. Dad is a teacher in a college: he teaches draughtsmanship, the basics for future architects. Mum is a lawyer: she works in an institution, the Russian equivalent of which is called ZAGS (The Department of Civil Registration. – Ed.). Also, my uncle is a Doctor of Historical Sciences, and my aunt teaches English. You could say that my whole family is founded on teachers. It was from my family that I developed an interest in foreign languages.
— And whereabouts in Cuba were you living? Havana?
— No. The place where I was born is called Mir – after the person who used to own the land. It is in the outskirts of Holguín, one of the country’s big administrative and tourist centres. It is with exactly this province that Christopher Columbus began his exploration of Cuba. In Holguín and the surrounding areas there is still a palpable Spanish influence. In the architecture, the culture, in everything! My ancestors were from Spain as well: in my family, many Spanish traditions are kept alive. Which is why I know Spanish literary language so well. I truly love Spanish food, music, literature, and football.
— So how did you end up being in Moscow, then?
— I had always wanted to get to not Latin America, not the USA, but, in fact, Europe. Maybe it’s because I have read a lot of European literature, watched quite a few European films. I dreamt of seeing the changing of the seasons. In Europe, you can do that with your own eyes…
— …But Russia isn’t quite Europe. It would have made more sense to go to Spain or Germany.
— I didn’t go to Spain, Germany, or any other European country because of their immigration policies. You know that the leading Western European powers have measures in place to limit the number of immigrants. For Cubans, going to Russia is a lot simpler – you don’t need a visa to come here. And there are other reasons. At our university, there was a teacher from the Soviet Union: she was called Natalya. She lived a third of her life in Cuba but was still distinct from the Cubans, and I wanted to find out why that was. My uncles, friends of the family, our neighbours, in their youth they all travelled to Kiev, Minsk, Moscow, Leningrad, to work and study, and ever since childhood I have heard tales of a big country inhabited by very serious, but kind, people, who aren’t fazed by the freezing temperatures.
— Was it a difficult decision for you to move to another country?
— A friend who I have known for fifteen years suggested that I go to Moscow with him. He said that there are a lot of opportunities to build a career in the Russian capital. He went first, to test the ground, and he wrote to me all the time I was in Cuba, saying that I should come over, that everything is fine here. I was, of course, all that time imagining a great number of things about the place…
— And so a young, warm-blooded Cuban walks down the steps from the plane and finds himself in completely unfamiliar territory. Not to mention that it is also his first ever trip abroad…
— I had only seen snow in pictures or at the cinema, and I flew into Moscow in January…
— Not the best month to arrive in for a southerner…
— Cuba is a very hot country. I probably just grew tired of that climate: when it is that hot and humid, all you dream about is the cold. But I couldn’t have imagined anything like it. I flew here without even a jacket. You can’t buy anything suitable in Cuba – people have no need of winter clothing there. The shock began when I was still aboard the plane, when I looked out of the window and saw a totally white expanse. But my friend met me at the airport with some warm things and that’s what saved me. He drove me to a flat not far from Polezhaevskaya metro, which he was renting with a few other Cubans.
— How long did it take you to find work here and adapt socially?
— The first thing I did was to go the restaurant Mediterranee – I had some rum and cigars which I had brought with me from Cuba. I was going to sell them and make my first money. I had heard that people pay good money here for our goods. I was also my intention to meet members of the Cuban diaspora there, those who have been living in Moscow for a long time, who know a lot about the place and could give me some good advice regarding work. But the first thing they asked me was if I could play any kind of musical instrument. I said no, and then they told me that they didn’t have any work for me. Then they asked me: “Maybe you can dance? If not, why have you come here?”
— Not the warmest of welcomes from your compatriots in Moscow…
— I realised that it was unlikely that I would be able to do here straightaway what I had been doing in Cuba. I had my degree with me but no proof that I was a qualified expert. In the end, I decided to stay and do whatever came along.
My friend suggested I help him with some restoration work at the Uruguayan Embassy in an old house in Ermolaevsky Lane. After that, we received a few more orders for repairs in the flats and houses of expats, and then from some very well-to-do Muscovites. One day were doing some repairs at a certain Cuban’s place, and it turned out that his Russian wife wanted to learn Spanish. I didn’t speak Russian, but she knew English, as did I. So, we got started. It was my first experience of teaching Spanish using English.
— And this experience turned out to be a fortuitous one?
— It was then that I realised that I could do my favourite job in Russia. Results came very quickly. At first I thought that this pupil was so good that she could pick up anything quickly. But it turned out that she liked my methodology, and she recommended me to her friends. The word went out on the grapevine, as they say here, and my professional career took off. Then I was advised to register on some websites for tutors. For those in our profession it is very important to be there on such sites with your CV. Of course, the first thing I did was to write to the Cervantes Institute in Moscow (Spanish Cultural Centre under the aegis of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. – Ed.). I got in touch with the well-known language centres Big Wig and Anchor Training, and with other schools. After some interviews and probationary lessons, I started collaborating with several of them right away.
— And where do things stand now?
— At the school Upgrain, where we are now, I teach the teachers. Here they learn Spanish, English, German, French, and Italian. The teachers want to improve their knowledge of Spanish with a native speaker, such as myself. It’s not the only place I work. I hold a lot of private lessons and classes on Skype. Teaching in a language school is, as a rule, the first step: then there is a whole chain of acquaintances recommending the teacher to their friends.
— Are people enthusiastic about Spanish in Moscow? How well does your work pay?
— If a native-speaking tutor takes only three lessons a day, then his is approximately the average monthly Moscow salary of a specialist in a large company – around 100,000 roubles (about 1,500 euros. – Ed.), and that is a result. By going to a pupil, I get 1,200 roubles for a forty-five-minute lesson, for lessons in a group at a school, it’s from 750 roubles per academic hour. Usually one lesson with mature students is two academic hours. There also plenty of students of English too, because when I am teaching, I don’t use Russian – I don’t give them the chance to sit back in the lesson, and this makes the classes much more effective. Working on Skype, I give pupils a 25% discount.
Spanish is the second most popular language after English. Russians like Latin American culture, plus they travel a lot around Spanish-speaking countries and they want to be able to talk with the locals in their language. They don’t learn business Spanish so much.
— I wanted to ask you about the everyday aspect of living in Moscow. Where do you go in Moscow?
— I like the fact that there are lots of parks in the city. Gorky Park is one of my favourites. I like to discover new ones in the centre of Moscow. The first chance I get, I like to walk around Red Square and the places nearby. The city has many old buildings, and I like to study the architecture as I wander around. When I was still in Cuba I used to read a lot of Russian books in translation. “Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov was one of my favourites. They showed a series in my home-country based on this book which had been filmed not that long before in Russia. It was interesting to go through the places Bulgakov mentions, to see them for myself. I stroll through the streets described in other works by the great Russian writers – Lev Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov.
I often play football with my Russian friends. Now, I live with my family – my wife, a dog and a cat – in our own flat in Moscow, in the Sokol district. It is not that near the metro, but the walk to it also gives me great pleasure: it is a very green area, and I like both the Khrushchev-era low-rise flats, and the huge Stalinist buildings.
— Are you not thinking of buying a car?
— Not at the moment. I would have to change a lot of things in my life, then. I would buy a car, but not for getting around Moscow, but to travel beyond the city. I want to see the ancient Russian stately homes, in addition to which, I would like to drive to the lakes outside Moscow. You have to have a break from buildings as well, you know!
— What do you think about Russian cooking? Do you not miss Cuban food?
— I generally buy farm produce: it seems to me to be healthier food. I like porridge, but blini are my favourite. I love Russian cabbage soup and borscht, although borscht I associate more with Ukrainian cuisine. In Cuba, must-have dishes are rice with black beans and avocado salad. By the way, it is impossible to get hold of proper avocados in Moscow – those things they sell here are not avocados! That is the food I miss, but there is so much new food here, so much that is so tasty, that I don’t end up missing it all that much.
I feel as though I have always lived in Russia. I feel at home here. At first, it seemed to me that people looked at me like I was an alien, but that was more to do with the way I was seeing things. But now, I am a complete Muscovite, a complete citizen.