I knew a couple of months ago that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. We had a few ups and downs, but those were always caused by outside forces interfering with our lives. I knew in March that I was going to ask her to marry me, and I knew that her two previous marriages started with extremely unromantic proposals. This one has to be different. It had to be special, memorable, and I had one chance to get it right.
Seven weeks ago, we booked our Cuban vacation. This was my chance! I started planning. The following is the story of Operation National Proposal… how it started, how it worked out, and how so many times it nearly got destroyed.
Spoiler Alert: It went perfectly.
I spent nearly a week picking the resort to bring her to. In Varadero there are 55 resort hotels, so we had a lot of options. I thought about taking her to Havana for the week, but Leslie had never been on a relaxing beach vacation, and I wanted to do that for her.
Varadero is a very romantic place, and the beaches are gorgeous. It was also the obvious… and I did not want to do obvious. Once I picked Grand Memories Varadero, it was time to start planning the actual op.
I love Varadero but it is plastic. It is all about tourism, which is wonderful… but not what I was looking for. Havana is one of my favourite cities in the world, with myriad romantic options. It could have been at the Floridita, or in front of the Cathedrale, or in the lobby of the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. I thought about taking her for a walk along the Malecon, and I thought about several places in Habana Viella that are beautiful and special.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is a historic spot that I have always loved. When you walk into the hotel that first opened its doors in 1930 as a Pan American hotel, you walk straight through and out onto the patio… and the patio is truly magnificent. There are wicker couches all along the U-shaped wall, arranged in pods of one couch and two chairs around a table. Walk straight out, and you will find yourself walking the path down to the end, which overlooks the Malecon and beyond that, Havana Harbour. Peacocks wander the grounds freely, and there are tables and chairs in several areas, served by different cafe and restaurants. On a sunny day, on a clear night, there is truly nowhere I’d rather be.
Sitting in those wicker chairs and couches it is easy to feel the greats who sat there before you. Winston Churchill and Barrack Obama have both sat there and smoked their Havana cigars. As the hotel was once owned by Meyer Lansky, it is no wonder that all of the gangsters from Al Capone and Lucky Luciano to Bugsy Segal and Salvatore Trafficante have all smoked there. Before he became President, Senator John F. Kennedy spent time there. Every actor and actress and sports star has been there, including Mickey Mantle and Diego Maradona.
A beautiful woman named Leslie would be there on her first visit to the Pearl of the Antilles… and would be proposed to there.
Okay, the venue has been chosen… now that the location was set, we needed the plan. I could never do it alone, I needed a good lieutenant to help. Boots on the ground to do the leg work before we ever landed in Cuba. I picked my buddy Joan (Johnny), a good friend who I have known for years… and who I would trust with my life. In the second week of March I reached out to him and he agreed.
The ring was ordered in Canada of course, and I had it even before Leslie’s last visit. A friend of mine told me that there was no way I was going to wait until the second week of May… but yes I was, and yes I did.
On my next visit to Montreal I was sitting with Stephane in his garage workshop, and told him the rough outline of the plan. He knows that both Leslie and I love cigars and the cigar culture, and he offered to make a box… a cigar box of Spanish cedar (of which cigar boxes and humidors are made). We agreed on the dimensions, and over the course of the weekend he made it. He then burned the words Leslie (heart) Mitch… and in Hebrew the biblical quote ‘I for my beloved, and my beloved for me.’ אני לדודי ודודי לי. Obviously he did it in my hand – he does not speak Hebrew.
I went back and forth about the inscription, but decided on this one because it is the phrase that Leslie and I shared. We discussed several options, but nothing else would have been as perfect.
So the box was made, and that helped me with the idea to have a bellhop or hostess deliver the box to her at the right moment. My original plan was for the ring to be on a cigar, and that never changed. The original plan was to fill the box with tissues… but that was not perfect. Leslie LOVES marshmallows, and always has a bag of them in my pantry. That was the plan! On the day before the trip, I filled two ziplock bags with marshmallows to be the filler.
I needed the right cigar. While Leslie loves Davidoff, I did not have one with the proper ring gauge. She wears a size 7 ring, which as luck would have it fits perfectly around a Montecristo No. 4, of which I have several. That was the one! I moulded the bags of marshmallows so that there was a groove for the cigar, and slid the lid of the box shut.
Our friends Lyle and Dorothy inspected the box to make sure it was done right. Dorothy made a couple of minor adjustments to the insides, and then Lyle (who has many hidden talents!) gift wrapped the box expertly… after watching my feeble and quite amateurish attempts to do so.
The plan was simple… not. We would arrive at the Hotel to meet Johnny, and buried in the bags of stuff I had for him was hidden the box. Of course, I had to first get the wrapped box safely through Security at Pearson International Airport, and then through the Security and Customs inspections at Juan Gomez Airport… and I had to do so under the watchful eyes of the target. Leslie is, after all, an American citizen, and was anxious about getting through all of those checkpoints not only to a strange country, but one of which she has been told all her life is a military dictatorship. That was a challenge.
Hiding the box in my carry on bag was not an issue – she is not the type to go through it snooping. What Security agents do though can be unpredictable… even for someone like me who has gone through them so often… and who once ran a hostile international border crossing.
I decided to draft a letter to put in the bag with the box. It read (in both English and Spanish): Dear Customs, Security, and Immigration officials. In this gift wrapped box is an engagement ring. I plan to ask my girlfriend (who is now standing next to me) to marry me in your beautiful country. If you have questions, or need to inspect it, please take me to a room for secondary screening, so as to not spoil the surprise.
There was a scare when passing through Security in Toronto, where my bags were taken aside for inspection. It turns out that in my sling bag, in a forgotten pocket, was a forgotten butane torch, which was of course confiscated. No further issues in Canada. Good.
We would land in Varadero three hours late and got to our hotel at 1:00am, and after checking in we went right to bed. The following day, we sat with the tours agent (who already knew we were coming, and what the plan was), to arrange transportation to and from Havana. That was arranged, and so Thursday morning (P-Day) we were met at 8:00am by a 1952 Buick, driven by Asbel (who was also in on it).
Everything was going exactly as planned.
Here’s where it got horked up… a few times.
Leslie visited me in Burlington in April, and as always we had a wonderful time. On Friday evening, we were sitting on the balcony smoking a cigar… and Leslie asked me to marry her.
Yay… but FUCK.
How do you say no? You can’t. She was very nervous that I did not blurt out YES right away. After nearly a minute, my answer was: “Leslie, I want to marry you. The answer is of course YES, but… I want it to be more romantic, and I have it all planned out. Please, wait until we are in Cuba next month, and I will ask you… my way.”
So now we have two problems. The first is that we are now unofficially engaged… but the bigger problem is that she knew I was proposing in Cuba, and was going to be expecting it. I had to now include in Operation National Proposal an entire misinformation campaign to throw her off the scent. This was a challenge.
Of course, it started with the beach. Yes, I want to ask you to marry me and I want to do so on the beach! She loved this idea. I then told her, over the next few weeks, a lot of details that made it sound plausible… there were photographers and videographers, there was jumping out of an airplane (which I knew she would never do). There were to be trained dolphins even! She was getting anxious. She was worried that she was going to have to pick the right outfit, do her makeup, and there is no f-ing way she was jumping out or a perfectly good airplane.
I told her that Stephane was involved! Of course, he was… but she extrapolated from this that he was flying to Cuba for it. I never disabused her of this notion.
A few weeks before the trip, I said something stupid. For those of you who know me, this will come as no surprise. She got angry with me and thought about breaking up with me, and in the meantime she told me that the trip was already paid for, so I should plan to go by myself. I have not often been so down and upset as I was that day. The next afternoon she told me that she spoke with a friend who told her she was overreacting, so she forgave me and would still go to Cuba… and still loved me. Phew!
The misinformation campaign continued. Last weekend I was in Montreal, and while we were talking I told her that Stephane was looking forward to seeing her in a bathing suit. Did I mention I say stupid things?
What followed later that evening was a long conversation in which I had to reassure an extremely anxious and overwhelmed unofficial fiancé that Stephane was NOT coming, that I canceled the photographer and videographer, and that the dolphins were disappointed but they understood. I told her that it would just be her and me, on the beach. I told her that the only thing I wanted to keep was the date… Saturday, May 14. I told her it was a very special day, and I wanted to stick to it. She agreed, and the trip was still on. Phew!
I should mention that Saturday the 14th was another Red Herring. When she asked what was special about it, I told her that it was the day that the State of Israel was born, and became an independent country. What was really special about it was mostly that it was two days after P-Day, and that I wanted her to be looking to Saturday, when from the very beginning, the day was Thursday.
On the airplane, I explained to her what to expect to happen when we landed. Again, anxiety. ‘What if they don’t let me into the country??’ My reassurances we’re not doing the job, and so I asked the flight attendant to tell her. He told her that Cuba knew she was coming, and if they wouldn’t let her in, they would not have let her onto the airplane. Okay.
At Juan Gomez I went through Aduanes first, and she was next… and they pulled her aside. I could not go back to help, she was on her own. She was never out of my line of sight, but I had no idea what was happening! It turns out that Americans coming into Cuba now need to buy health insurance at the airport. We were reunited. The next step was Security. They asked me about my phone charger, but did not open my bag. We are on the ground in Cuba, and everything is going right.
On Wednesday, I mentioned to Leslie something about champagne, a topic on which she is much better informed than I am. She got angry with me that I would try to get her good champagne in Cuba, and that she only liked certain types of champagne, and I dropped the subject. It was too late by this point to reach Johnny to have him cancel the bottle, which had already been pre-ordered. Crap.
Thursday morning, before I went for breakfast (leaving Leslie in the room to get ready), I prepared the bags… I removed some of the clothes from one of the bags, and placed the ordinance into it, hidden under a couple of t-shirts and a pair of jeans. As I was preparing to leave the room, I decided to write a note that I was planning to give her after she opened the package. It read: ‘Dear Leslie. No more red herrings! Here are some drawings of goldfish.’ With the artistic ability of a turnip, I was still able to make the shape look reasonable, and added smiles for effect. I folded the note and put it into my wallet. This, it turns out, was a last minute whimsy that might have saved the whole operation.
On the drive into Havana I asked the driver to stop at one of the places where they make pina coladas in pineapples. She got upset with me again, not only because she did not drink at 10am, but also because she was meeting my friends, and wanted to be on her best behaviour, and that she would not be drinking today! Crap crap.
We arrived at the Hotel Nacional at 10:30am to find Johnny pacing outside. The President of Kenya was visiting, and anyone who did not have hotel business inside the building was not being allowed into the building. He and I asked Leslie to wait for a moment while we spoke to a security officer, and explained what was happening. She was more than happy to play her part, and our in was that we were going to the cigar store. We were in the building!
Of course, handing off the box right under her nose was another challenge that I had planned for. We met him 30 metres from the car with two bags of stuff for him. He asked if he could leave them in Asbel’s car, and once I gave him the signal of which bag had the package, they went back to the car to put them away… and to grab the ordinance.
After a nice stop in the LCDH where Alex rolled a very fresh toro cigar for her, we walked unchallenged to the patio. The pod I had selected was taken… as was every pod save one. We grabbed it.
Remember I told you about Leslie’s anxiety over the misinformation campaign (unofficially titled Operation Red Herrings)? There are some things that just happen that are beyond any control or prediction. Because of the presidential visit, there was a camera crew in the garden… photographers and videographers… all right in front of our pod! Leslie, anxious and rightly paranoid, was not happy about this. Johnny and I had to reassure her that they were all there for the president of Kenya, and not for her! Nothing was happening! Of course, everything was happening… but the camera crews were there for news footage and not for us.
Leslie wasn’t buying it, and she sat there as relaxed as a Grenadier Guard on duty in front of Buckingham Palace. She was not having it. After a few minutes, I pulled the note out of my wallet. I made sure there was no reference to ‘I just popped the question’ and handed it to her. She laughed… and relaxed a little.
After the camera crews finally left, Leslie really started to relax. She was starting to believe that we were really there to enjoy a coffee and a cigar, and that was it… but only a very little.
There were three components that were supposed to be watching me starting at noon. The first were the musicians, the second was the hostess bringing the package, and the third was the waiter bringing the champagne. When Leslie went to the washroom very shortly before noon, the musicians were nowhere to be found. Johnny said that he was going to go find them, but I told him no. When you plan an operation you plan for everything, but some things will go wrong. I told him that the ball was in play, there was no more planning. It was time.
Shortly after Leslie’s return to the table the musicians were now in sight, and they were supposed to be watching for my signal, which was my taking a cigar out of a tube and lighting it. I had a Davidoff Yamasa cigar for exactly this reason. It came out of my sling, and I realized that the musicians (the first wave) were not watching, and were engaged at a nearby table. So I explained a bit about the cigar and Davidoff to Johnny and Asbel, buying time. When I finally saw they were looking for the signal, I took it back… and Leslie told me not to light it, but to save it for later. Crap crap crap!
I punched it, so I had to smoke it! The musicians came over and started playing. I got Leslie up to dance, and she was a bit shy about this. She was also highly suspicious. It was not an issue because the hostess was nowhere to be seen. Crap crap crap crap!
They finished the first song, and I said UNA MAS! One more! Leslie said no but I kept her up, and we danced to Besa me Mucho. The song ended, and Leslie sat down… but the hostess was now on her way. Johnny asked for a particular romantic song, and they broke into that. We were sitting down as the hostess came to deliver the package, and that confused Leslie. WTF is going on here? It looks like someone sent you a package?
She opened the wrapping (slower than she needed to, thanks to the cigar that she had commandeered from me in one hand), and I just kept hoping she was opening it right-side up. The waiter with the champagne was waiting (hidden) in the wings. She opened the box… and I dropped the strategically placed cushion onto the extremely hard ground, and dropped to one knee.
‘Leslie Falor, would you do me the honour of spending the rest of our lives together as my wife?’
The tears were streaming down her cheeks. She dropped to her knees in front of me, and put her arms around me. She was crying, I was trying not to. She finally said YES, and over my shoulder the champagne cork was popped. Four glasses were poured. I handed one to my fiancé, I took one for myself, and for the first time in my life I was successful in that thing you see couples do where they wrap their arms through the other’s and drink our first sip.
I raised a glass and asked everyone else to, and I toasted the now future Mrs. Garvis!
Did everything go according to plan? No. There is a saying that in Cuba, nothing is guaranteed, but everything is possible. Some parts failed, others went better than we could have hoped for. For instance, it is impossible to get peacocks to hang around you for the exact moment… but they did. Some of the players missed their cues, but everyone recovered.
After seven weeks of planning, Operation National Proposal was a success, despite nearly failing because of Operation Red Herrings. A lot of tips were handed out to everyone in the op, but that was prearranged with Johnny, who was already holding roll of ten dollar bills intended for that purpose. The manager came over and congratulated us. We all then ordered sandwiches while Leslie and I went for a walk around the garden.
There is a euphoria that always comes with the successful execution and termination of an op. Seldom has one that I planned made me so happy.
I have modified (shortened) the original video for YouTube, but you can see it right here! Yes, I cut out the dancing. No, the sound quality seems to focus on the music, and you have to strain to hear the proposal. Yes, there is a lot of emotional Mitch & Leslie talking that is not captured, which is just fine by me. Also, at the 5m02s mark you do hear what has become a running joke between Leslie and I… the ’Saturday, huh?’ comment!
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