It’s 6am and I’m at Canada’s Montreal international airport with my friend Francine, having just checked in our two suitcases and an upscale foldable walker that my travelling companion refers to as her Rolls-Royce.
Francine is wearing an elegant trench coat and, since credit cards aren’t yet accepted at our destination, a moneybelt into which she has slipped a large wad of banknotes. It’s the first time she’s carried so much cash, she says. But isn’t there always a first time for everything?
Francine van der Heide is 96 years old. I met her three decades ago in New York, where she had a pied-à-terre near the East River, a few blocks from the apartment of her former colleague, my late aunt Françoise. The two women had been pioneers at the United Nations. My aunt started as a bilingual secretary in 1948, Francine in 1949. In 1951, Francine married Wiebe van der Heide, who had been a member of the resistance in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation before settling in the US after the war. They had three boys. Two years after Wiebe died in 1995, and after nearly half a century of living in the US, Francine returned to her Canadian hometown, Montreal.
It was around this time that we started hanging out together, going to the opera and having long meals in restaurants. And because Francine continued to swim into her 90s, our activities also included sessions at an indoor pool, inevitably followed by a sauna and a margarita (she mixes a wicked cocktail). Today, she has given up the front crawl, but when, during an especially harsh winter, I proposed we spend a week in Havana, she didn’t hesitate: “That would be wonderful.”
Francine wants to travel across Old Havana in a bicitaxi, which is a pedal-powered cab. Safety features begin and end with a metal bar, to which we firmly cling. I have some doubts, but with Francine – who is 35 years my senior – gently mocking my apprehension, I decide to embrace the local life.
We weave between fruit stands and DVD displays and pass children squabbling over timeless toys, like a hula hoop and a ball. “It makes me happy to see young people having fun like the old days,” says Francine.
A big Chevrolet glides by. The cobalt-coloured car is vintage 1950s, and its appearance triggers fond memories. Francine reminisces about summertime in Montreal in 1948, a time when the now hip Plateau Mont-Royal was a working-class district. “Nobody had air conditioners then,” she recalls. “It’s just like that here now, people lingering in the doorways of their homes to escape the heat.”
The bicitaxi drops us in front of stands of second-hand books in Plaza de Armas, which was the political centre of the colony when the Spanish ruled from the 16th to 19th centuries. “Do you notice all the blue?” she asks of the balconies adorning the square.
Knowing her vision is limited, I’m always amazed when she makes these kinds of observations. Probably reading my thoughts, she adds, “And I cannot believe how clean the city is. There’s no paper littering the ground, no plastic bags caught on tree branches like back home.” I hadn’t noticed, but she was right.
For more than 20 years, Francine has suffered from macular degeneration, a disease that causes gradual vision loss. To compensate, she makes a point of researching all outings thoroughly. In preparation for this trip, she perused several travel guides, using a magnifying glass to read small print. With US/Cuba relations thawing, Francine knew she was witnessing a historic moment. [The two nations restored diplomatic relations – which had been severed in 1961 after the Cuban Revolution – on July 20, 2015.]
Francine has a fondness for the left, which is one reason why she feels a kinship with Lucía Sardiña. At 76, the employee of the Cuban Ministry of Culture is from the generation that fought alongside Fidel Castro in the 1950s. She is what one would call a keeper of the revolutionary faith.
In her chauffeur-driven Lada, Sardiña takes us to visit a cultural centre created by Kcho, one of the island’s most internationally recognised contemporary artists. This modern space, so different from the dusty state museums, is populated by young people toting laptops and smartphones. Most Cubans don’t have access to the internet due to the prohibitive cost and the island’s poor connectivity. Kcho’s workshop, which is open to the public, may be the only place in Havana where Wi-Fi is free – even if it’s a little slow.
The previous day, a guided architecture tour of the city had introduced us to a selection of contemporary Cuban buildings at the National Schools of Art, dating from the 1960s. In 30°C heat, under the institution’s acclaimed brick-and-tile cupolas, Francine pondered the island’s cultural legacy. Looking at the student artwork around us, she observed, “It’s stunning, in a country so poor, that all these young people are interested in creating art and are able to make a life.”
Francine herself inspires a certain amount of jubilant incredulity when people learn of her age. At the Nécropolis Cristóbal Colón, 56 hectares of ornate mausoleums, graves and statues, the ticket agent exits her booth to greet us and grants Francine free access to the site.
When our guide finds out Francine was born near the beginning of the previous century, he not only welcomes her, he kisses her. Then he offers to tell us all about the characters, love stories and tragedies behind the cemetery’s plaster and marble angels.
Though her vitality belies her years, Francine is not immune to the physical effects of ageing. In 2013, she was experiencing excruciating back pain, especially when she first awoke.
Doctors diagnosed her with lumbar spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that can put pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.
Francine suffered. She pleaded for an operation but was deemed too old. Then someone suggested she perform 20 minutes of exercises in bed each morning. Gradually, she recovered. During our stay in Havana, she would lie on the terrazzo floor of her room to do her stretching (her bed is too narrow). “To think that two years ago I didn’t want to live and today I’m walking in Cuba,” she muses.
At Nazdarovie, a retro-Soviet restaurant on the Malecón, Francine climbs three flights of stairs in one go. The staff are impressed. “We have people in their 20s who grumble about coming up this far. Can we adopt you as our mascot?”
Francine is stimulated by the challenges we encounter during our stay; compliments encourage her.
“I wouldn’t like to disappoint you,” she had told me shortly before we arrived in Cuba. Our journey is unconventional and unscripted. Apart from a few organised tours, it’s never clear where we are heading. We learn to be adaptable, which, for my friend, means having to kneel in the shower to wash her hair to avoid slipping on the tiles.
One day, we climb into a taxi with a woman behind the wheel. Thinking that the fare is too high, I try to haggle, but our driver won’t budge. Francine defends her. “It’s hard enough for us to make it in a man’s world,” she observes. “Even in New York, few women drive taxis.”
Throughout the trip, I’m impressed by Francine’s physical stamina, but it’s her openness that defines our experience. Her ability to relate to others even extends to plant life. Contemplating a pair of palm trees in the courtyard of the Museo de Arte Colonial, she extols their beauty. “They are 150 years old, and see how straight they are!”
1. Get the right support
Most airlines transport wheelchairs or other mobility aids free of charge. Depending on the disability or impairment, special mobility aid assistance can also be provided at the airport, including a wheelchair ride to the aircraft. Attendants will assist with boarding and help you settle in your seat
2. Find your speed
It’s important to take a break or rest when the need arises – particularly if it is very hot. In Havana, Francine enjoyed refuge in the cool lobby of the Hotel Parque Central. Resting against cushions in what she called “one of the best armchairs” in the city, she spent the afternoon listening to an audiobook.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask
On board a tourist bus during an architecture tour, Francine couldn’t properly hear our guide, whose voice was drowned out by ambient noise. She kindly requested that he come closer, and he happily obliged.
4. Stay in motion
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, even people who engage in moderate amounts of exercise are likely to live longer. Those who, like Francine, are active for at least 150 minutes a week have a 31% lower mortality rate.