This is Part III in a three-part series. Please click here for part I
In the morning for the next three days, I rush to breakfast at the last possible minute because I have been up late the night before. Regardless of how little sleep I have had, I want to be there for the first scheduled 9:00 International Art Deco Conference presentation of the day in the Hotel. With few exceptions, they are fascinating and given by members, authors and experts from all over the world that reflect the intense passion each lecturer has for their particular facet of Art Deco.
The most entertaining deliveries were made by the collectors and collectors seem to always be real characters. They remind me of my idiosyncratic father who bought and sold coins on weekends, stored them in the locked trunk of his car, and had a clever tale about each of his favorites. An outstanding example on the first morning is the Australian, Dr. Peter Sheridan talking about and showing the most beautiful slides of colorful collages of Bakelite type Deco Radio items from his treasured collection.
The scholars from Cuba give the the most intellectual expositions that always invariably run way beyond their allotted time. They prove the breadth and depth of Art Deco in Cuba. Perhaps the best known and most eloquent speaker the entire week, is the author of several authoritarian books on Deco, Alastair Duncan. As I listen to William Patrick Cranley, President, Historical Shanghai, enticing us with the Deco treasures he shows on the screen from that part of China, I begin to plan my trip to “Echos of Art Deco”, the next International Conference, coming up in Shanghai, November 2015.
Just in time, as my attention span fades about 1:00 PM, we board our buses once again, for lunch at a different place in another part of Havana. Today we go to the top of the Hotel Seville, are greeted as we get out of the elevators with the mojitos, plus flamenco dancers and guitars. Walking into the airy main room, with french doors opening to three sides of the dense city, there are two seating levels with a dance floor on the lower level. As lunch winds down, the dancers and musicians attired in black, white and red accented outfits, take this space over and perform, stomping their feet and whipping their fringed shawls dramatically.
The Cubans take great pride in their dancers, featuring them as much as the other arts, if not more so. And why wouldn’t they be proud, when their living legend, ballerina, Alicia Alonso, 91 is there,and said to be close friends with Fidel? The internationally known Ballet Nacional de Cuba gives a special performance for us at 5:00 PM. I sit transported in the darkened theater. While walking out of the theater, I ask myself how many highlights can there be in one day?
After lunch, we had gone on a walking tour, and looked at significant Deco buildings, including the fully restored Bacardi office tower with it’s magnificent lobby. This evening, I have chosen to eat in one of the five Paladares that have been reserved and are expecting people from our group. Paladares are private restaurants that have proliferated in Cuba since 2010 with Raul Castro’s economic reform.
Up a flight of stairs in a modern restored home, Atelier is Colonial inside. We walk through, noticing tables with couples that look like it is a date night. Reaching a small outdoor terrace, we pass fellows that appear to be businessmen, smoking the famous Cuban cigars, lounging in large contemporary overstuffed chairs, sipping from brandy snifters. A few more steps up and we are seated, on what would be a flat rooftop, surrounded by lush vegetation, and allowing all to see every star in the sky. The menu is extensive, highlighting meats I have not seen since leaving the States. I longed for seafood and was rewarded with a well prepared local fish.
My culinary Cuban highlight comes during dinner the next evening at the Paladar Vista Mar, housed in a contemporary geometric restored home, surrounded by dilapidated oceanfront houses and pools. I order the specialty, tropical lobster that is all tail, real key lime pie and the best daiquiris ever. I am surrounded by others in our group and we are all exhilaratedly talking design and architecture. After dinner, and before dessert, some of us wander from the balcony to the ground floor to take photos of the “Miami Vice” like infinity pool, with the empty blackness of the ocean as a backdrop.
The next evening, our group is all squeezed into the tiered Parisién Cabaret of the National Hotel. I am sharing a small cocktail table with gentlemen from New Jersey, Washington DC and NYC. We are all smartly turned out for dinner and an extravagant Copacabana like stage show. It is an all black & white costumed follies, created specifically in honor of our Art Deco Conference. The stage is also tiered, comes right to the edge of the tables and takes up as much space as our snug dining area. This is not tired, cliched performance one sees in Vegas, but young energetic, aerobic spectacle. Equally fabulous is the showing our audience accomplishes. Everyone is dressed elegantly in shimmering slips of gowns, formal menswear, marcelled waves of hair, and gobs of pearls. No one looks gaudy or cartoonish, these clothes are the “real deal” in hammered satins, fragile laces, gabardines and tuxedo shirts that sport studs, with glamour to spare.
Nobody is surprised when we are handed Mojitos as we enter, and I guessed it to my table mates before it was served, the famous, familiar rubber chicken main course!
I am embarrassed by the items we were told to bring to give away to the needy people. They are still sitting in my grand room. We were told that we could hand things out along the way to let people know we appreciate their service. Yet, the people we have encountered seem pretty comfortable, dressed well, educated. I feel it might be insulting to them to have me give them the miniature American candy bars, cosmetics that I no longer use, school supplies, over the counter medications, and clothing that was recommended. Time had been outlined in our schedule to visit church and other community groups we could contribute to, but that does not happen and we have little occasion for contact with the really needy people these items were meant for. Eventually, the Copperbridge Foundation tells us to bring our donations to their office in the Hotel and they organize and distribute them for us. I am relieved to have them out of my presence so they don’t remind me how misguided Americans can be.
Recently I read a lengthy Time Magazine article about Cuba, accompanied by dreary, barren, sepia tone photos. This is not the Cuba I saw, even the sad conditions of buildings and landscape, inside and outside the city were colorful and lively. I know that we are being sheltered from the poorest elements, but Cuba is not the sad place depicted by most of what I see in the American media. I am glad I am here to experience for myself first hand, so that when people tell me how horrible the revolution was and the terrible results of Socialism, I will remain open minded. I think the Revolution was a courageous move made back in desperate times when Cubans lived practically like serfs. The power and wealth were in the hands of 3% of the people, while most of the money made there went out of the country. The results of the Revolution are far from perfect, but the situation required a bold move and I think I often detected a lot of pride the Cubans have for what the revolution accomplished. The people I met were mostly young and not of the generation that made it possible for them all to get an education, have good medical care, benefit from state support of the arts and be given a portion of the food they need every month, since the revolution.
If we give them money, it will probably not go for restorations, but to the things the state decides are the most important. Possibly they are right to make the decision that the priorities for survival are food, medical care, education. Yet, shelter is a necessity also, though it may not be as evident in this country that has a temperate climate, except during the short rainy season and when the island is vulnerable to fall hurricanes. It is obvious, by having seen the restorations of some areas like Plaza Vieja that go back in history to 1559, that the regime is well aware of the value of their architectural history. With the help of being included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the area is being saved for posterity. Restored portions of the the country are so minimal though.
I shudder to think what may happen to Havana and all of Cuba, if it is opened up to development by America and other large countries. I can imagine many areas being immediately bulldozed and huge glistening skyscrapers put in their place. Havana would end up looking like the Bocagrande shoreline in Cartagena, Columbia, though the restoration of old colonial Cartagena is charming. As long as the Cuban government continues to require themselves to be the largest partner in all enterprises, perhaps they can keep the greedy interlopers from dominating as they did during Batista’s reign. It has been a slow, imperfect process, but it has only been a little over a half century since the Revolution.