Monday, May 5, 2008

Dreams Crossing Over to Havana

While we lived in Mexico -waiting for the Resident US Visa to enter the United States, after we left the island for good- Cuba was on my mind all the time.

It was vital for me to maintain the connection alive, like I had never left --or pretending I would be returning soon. Images of Havana would come into my dreams and specially those of my favorite places constantly haunted me.

One of them was the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Havana’s charming Art Museum.

A three- story structure built around 1954, it blended surprisingly well with the baroque architecture of its neighbor - Cuba's ornate Presidential Palace- and the many XVIII and XIX century buildings of the adjacent streets. It was definitely a 'people- friendly' museum, a square and airy building, with huge glass windows and soft lines. Its central patio overflowed with exuberant plants and José Mijares's modern murals covered the walls of its superb amphitheater. Since very few people even knew of its existence, and hardly anyone visited it, one of its most attractive features was its emptiness, which made easy for its scanty visitors to enjoy the most marvelous solitude among rooms and rooms filled with Rubens's, El Greco's, Lawrence's, Gainsborough, Della Robbia and the works of Cuban artists like Amelia Peláez, Victor Manuel, Abela, Portocarrero, Cundo Bermúdez and Wilfredo Lam.

I loved it and spent many hours there, always delighted with its small but valuable collection. Every time I arrived at the museum- usually with my mother, who had introduced me to every one of its paintings and sculptures- I felt exhilarated and lighthearted, fortunate to love Art so much ---and it was always a special thrill to enter its galleries after being welcomed by the stunning white marble sculpture of a beautiful veiled woman with a aristocratic profile hidden under the thin marble veil.

The enchanting sculpture stood all alone at the end of a hall, almost forgotten in this small tropical museum where hardly anyone called on her---very far away from its arcane origins in ancient Rome, so different from the olive skinned, round-faced museum guards, who frequently yawned, indifferent to her beauty, as they kept her company, all day long.

I remember taking my friends to the museum, (of which I felt curiously proud, like it was my personal property) and explaining the distinctions among the different artists, pointing out "Lawrence's very pink cheeks which are characteristic of his style and very different from the work of other English portrait painters of the times".

After visiting the museum ‘mami’ and I would take a walk through the old streets of Havana Vieja and during the winter months it was specially pleasing to do so. I remember vividly the joy I felt one breezy and cool December afternoon; the streets overflowing with people dressed in wool suits and winter jackets. Although mild, Cuban winters were ideal for wearing elegant clothes and as soon as November came around --even if the thermometer hit 70 degrees--out came the 'winter wardrobe', and a different and more subdued spirit was very noticeable in people and things.

All the inhabitants of the city of Havana -from birth, it seems- learned how to anticipate the city's changing moods and enjoy the subtleties of its many unique moments. They learned to feel and revere its looming presence. Very much like a contented seasoned courtesan - old and wise, but still powerful and extraordinarily sensual- Havana made its presence well known to all who lived within her boundaries --and to all those who visited her, it was easy to understand how the city's seductiveness affected its people. An almost magical and always puzzling love affair entrapped every 'habanero'. A thunderous 'coup de foudre' captured its citizens in its net-- even before they were able to recognize its spell.

"Let's walk down to the 'Miami Restaurant' and have something to eat...Maybe a 'guanabana' ice cream?"- mami always suggested, as we walked down the old Prado promenade, protected from the sun by the shadow of its many trees- "But before let's stop at the "Guerlain" store. I want to buy you something!"

"La Casa Guerlain" was a magnificent old fashioned "parfumerie" -all polished woods, crystal chandeliers and ornately framed gold mirrors- and one of the first 'boutiques' the French perfume house established in the Americas. A symbol of exquisite elegance. Also a indication of the best possible taste. The place where prosperous Cuban men bought their delicious Cologne Imperiale and very particular women picked their cherished and beautifully designed bottles of L'Heure Bleue, Mitsouko and Shalimar. And it was this most alluring fragrance what mami picked for me.

"Try it ..It is so much like you"

I immediately loved the seductive Oriental scent which seemed to melt into my skin. The 'soignée' older saleswoman was happy to ring the sale.

"Shalimar means Garden of Eden. It is a symbol of love"- she explained.

The memories of these enchanting outings with my mother left a indelible impression in my mind and my heart. It is the kind of thing that sneaks into our ‘psyques’ forever and creates who we are. As I write about them- every detail comes back, powerful as a thousand hurricanes, ripping through my quiet day and interfering with any possible sense of sanity.