Helga, indeed! It has to be said she looked exactly like one – no mean feat!
This forthright, no-nonsense lady introduced herself to me at the official opening of my Photography Show ‘Comunicando con el paisaje’ in Havana’s university gallery, propelling herself into my view, unescorted, in a somewhat gyrating manner, like a wobbling turning top – perhaps the after-effect of polio in early life.
Well, she certainly made up for it by strength of personality – a lady in the mould of Margaret Thatcher. Quick and to-the-point, she had made the ‘right’ noises about my exhibition at the official opening, and, after using up a whole page in the gallery’s visitor’s book, without further ado, proceeded to invite me for lunch at her ambassadorial residence. It had all happened so quickly and purposefully – she had obviously gone round the exhibition first, unnoticed, that I had had a struggle on my hands to detain her for long enough to bring my wonderful friends, Juan and Mercedes, into the frame.
And today was the day. It got off to a bad start. Juan and Mercedes turned up earlier than expected – very unusual; time-keeping is an inspired guessing game here. This saved me from having my vestigial Cuban breakfast of sliced dry bread and bottled water. They told me that their friend Viria was due to turn up as well later on: Viria had kindly put at my disposal what they call an apartment in downtown Havana, and, not to put too fine a point on it, we call a hell hole, complete with gigantic cockroaches and 24-hour cacophony of radio, TV and public living at top volume from all around. But that’s another story.
Cockroaches notwithstanding, there is a certain ‘dance ritual’ about how to preserve a sense of dignity in the most dire of circumstances. By now I knew that anyone’s bag or case, however fancy, baron’s or beggar’s, was bound to hold a roll of toilet paper. Everybody knows how things work – or don’t, but nothing is said, so the pretence, and a sense of integrity is kept intact.
My lovely friend Juan, for instance, highly celebrated painter, purest ideological Communist, erstwhile parliamentary candidate and much respected former university professor of art, came with a large envelope under his arm, containing three original paintings of his for me to choose one from. This was in response to my offer of money for an interesting Che Guevara art poster he had made years earlier and given me the previous day – with the generous flourish of a pauper, affirming: ‘no te preocupa, es tuyo’. I had no idea what to offer for it, so accepted the poster with grace, and asked him only later if he would accept US $50, which is all I could possibly afford, without risking the last vestiges of my Cuban breakfast. This prompted his explanation that the poster was a present and that he would accept my offer of money in exchange for one of the three paintings he brought with him.
That little exchange out of the way, Viria turned up, purest soul of humanity, as Mercedes held, or Latin temptation incarnate, as I felt. In a Cuban context, Viria is an oddly fair-haired, watery blue-eyed, white-skinned, tallish elegant lady topped off with a fine, elegant jaw-line and fiery, rapid Latin temperament. She was one of the few people I could not even get the drift of anything she had said, never mind my degree in Spanish – it was so rapid, lacking so many consonants, and sounding so decisive - leaving no room for questions. After an hour’s period of lively exchange, several million words, Juan and Viria suddenly got up determinedly, explaining they needed to go off to some mutual friend of theirs who had a telephone that worked and was not shared, to make an international telephone call about Juan’s planned trip to the UK in a few months’ time - at the very time when we were overdue to leave for the Austrian Embassy. I was put out, but too slow off the mark to prevent this, to me, certain calamity. Juan had allowed an hour to get to the Austrian Embassy – Havana is laid out on an extremely extensive grid of generous proportions. To make his point, he and Mercedes had arrived even earlier than necessary. Now, when Juan and Viria decided to go off to make a phone call somewhere else, a dicey business in itself, we were already half an hour into the final countdown. Knowing the hap-hazards of timekeeping here, I had already explained, and Juan had acknowledged, that the Austrian Ambassador was not likely to be more beholden to Cuban customs than to her diary, and not to be kept waiting, on any account.
Amongst ordinary Cubans, time is an infinite commodity, and no fuss is made or qualms experienced about anyone being two hours late for an appointment. If this is too late, new arrangements are made for another day, to follow the same pattern until successful.
Mercedes, with her intuitive antennas, instinctively felt my discomfort and tried to distract me by wanting to see my photo slideshow on the computer – once again! I was having none of it, and declined politely.
20 minutes later, still no sign of Juan – only 10 minutes to go to the appointment in distant embassy land. My patience snapped, and I forcefully suggested that we left the flat to catch Juan in the street, hopefully hot-footing it to us. No such luck. We advanced to the nearest boulevard that Juan might be coming from, but no sign of him. Aware that I had missed an appointment with the university’s art faculty as well as a meeting with students from the Institute of Photography a few days earlier, when nobody showed up at all to take me there, Mercedes released me from the tension by flagging down an approaching dollar taxi, so relieving me of the evil deed. Juan had really wanted to go to the embassy meeting. With pained expressions on all sides, I slumped into the back of the car and told the driver to race to the Austrian Embassy Residence in the distant, elegant chessboard quarter, with embassy villas as figures on it.
Needless to say, I got there, though rather late, feeling very bad about leaving Juan behind, probably to the vagaries of the national telephone network. The taxi swept up the ostentatious horse-shoe drive. The tall door of the residence, bristling with ornate wrought iron grilles, was wide open, with a pale Maya-faced housekeeper standing by the door, peering out timidly. It turned out she was actually waiting for me. Ushered inside, with the huge door immediately clanking shut behind me, I was shown to a visitors’ book where everybody before me had just left excessively large, illegible signature squiggles, mostly taking up a whole page, obviously a local preference. I added my ordinary, normal signature in miniscule lettering. I had nothing to hide behind an immodestly large, but illegible flourish of an autograph.
Sat down by a large table, I was offered a courtesy drink while passing through a short de-rigueur waiting period as a nice little quid-pro-quo for my lack of timekeeping. Then her ladyship arrived, catapulting herself towards me energetically, elegantly flanked by a distinguished looking lady and a smooth gentleman, both clearly career diplomats. As was to be expected, they must have arrived earlier, invited to the same rendezvous, to make up a functional foursome. They were, indeed, Austrian diplomats, the lady looking rather dried-out, with distinguished Jewish features, while the younger gentleman resembled a concert cellist, all dapper with hair under control. I had decided to wear my suit trousers and white shirt, but no tie or jacket, which would have been murder in the sweltering heat and humidity of Havana.
We were now guided to a dining table in the open-air, inner patio of the villa, looking out onto the central fountain that was spitting and spurting water fitfully, all of a few centimetres up into the air. Wicked as, for some reason, I felt, I dropped the name Jacques Tati, and all in good humour back came ‘Mon Oncle’ from the young career diplomat, while hearty Helga from Graz, the ambassador, immediately destroyed the shorthand understatement of the situation by explaining, in her four-square manner, that the fountain would, indeed, be switched off as soon as we would have left. Should I feel honoured or embarrassed?
Various high-flying ranks had been mumbled to me on introduction of the Austrian luminaries, which I had instinctively failed to hear. In spite of my obvious status as a renegade, I was treated as though I was the most distinguished person there. Perhaps it was just the inherent freedom of the expatriate, a sheep lost from the flock, that commanded respect, perhaps it was the mantle of the artist! My apparent importance was underlined by hearty Helga addressing herself chiefly to me, even winking the odd, somewhat unappetising eye in my direction to emphasise some surprisingly earthy statement of politics of hers for good measure. She was very self-assured, even if she did need to take the lion’s share of the conversation. As the ambassador, she evidently had to be ‘tonangebend’, to set the tone and agenda of our get-together. The elderly lady diplomat was complimenting me on my wonderful Schriftdeutsch, and I was amused to notice, in my wicked way, how the others tried not to slip into slovenly dialect, even if they could not suppress the nasal, ever-complaining sound of their Austrian intonation. I was going to keep my splendid isolation by my supranational diction, come hell or high water. Talk about inverted snobbery! Nonetheless, Helga was a good sport and not easily intimidated. The odd comment passed which made me realise, to my great relief, that none of the assembled company were of the Neo-nazi variety, even though Helga had been despatched to Cuba only five weeks earlier once the new Austrian government had finally seen the light of day – or, rather, the night of its politics! Although she looked hardly a day over forty, which she attributed to some wonderfully potent secret of Cuban medicine, it became clear that Helga, a Socialist, had held a good sheaf of ambassadorial appointments in her time, even one in Kinshasa where the embassy apparently did not even have a telephone.
Always with the debunking devil sitting on my back, I tried to find out if she had had any choice in her appointments, really wanting to confirm to myself that she must have been sidelined into odd or difficult countries. However, though without a husband, it turned out she had always been given exactly the positions she had wanted. Cuba was, apparently, the favourite flavour of the month. She explained that, rather like in England at this time, there is a romantic notion of things Cuban in Austria, never mind any ‘wayward’ communism to contend with, and that she was much envied for getting the job, even though she clearly had to ship even the most basic things, such as Austrian white wine, hopefully past the antifreeze vintage, to Havana. We were given a taste of it (no glycol, I swear!), followed by a strong Cuban rum as a debilitating shot in the arm, or rather, in the head! Perhaps it was the glycol, after all!
Helga, la embajadora Austríaca, had a realistic and refreshingly knowledgeable view of Cuban music, spontaneity, and none of the well-known arrogance towards general ‘underdevelopment’ (perhaps it was due to Cuba’s famous film ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’!), acknowledging the extremely high quality, freshness and standing of all the arts enjoyed in Cuba – something I had witnessed only the night before when Juan kindly took me to Havana’s equivalent of London’s Festival Hall, all spanking new in its restoration. Both he and I had been moved to tears by the spectacle of a group of unruly clowns swarming onto the stage unexpectedly at the finale of the concert and frolicking around in the auditorium, a gesture beholden to Brechtian alienation techniques, even doing somersaults amongst the orchestra towards the end of a catastrophically dissonant modern piece by Polish composer Kilar. The idea was ingenious, with clowns writhing on the hallowed floor of the concert hall, as if mimicking and making fun at the same time of the final fatal assault of the music. The audience had leapt up into prolonged ovation.
Next to me at the patio dining table of the ambassadorial residence was the citrus-faced old lady who slowly gained more of a stake in the conversation. She seemed to be an old hand at things Cuban, and was particularly enamoured of the genteel charms of Santiago de Cuba in the very east of the island, Cuba’s promising sounding, lilting ‘oriente’ I was keen to see. When I found out that she had decided to live in Paris, rather than return to Vienna, and come to Cuba for extended periods every year, after retiring, to dedicate herself to collecting Cuban music of the ‘casa de la trova’ style (fixed folk combo of 4 musicians) that had become quite the rage around Europe in recent years, I at last became involved, and not just a wily spectator of the little dinner in my honour. The dinner, it has to be said, was surprisingly little, but this may well have been a fortuitous adaptation to the humid climate which makes hearty eating too disabling during the day. Nevertheless, the timid-looking maid with the Maya face changed our plates several times at short intervals, seemingly to increase the number of courses, for rather minute portions of something else – a few tips of asparagus, little fishy titbits, little rusks of bread. My slender self was clearly still not going to get a proper meal in Cuba ever, not for love or money, not even at the Embassy.
I felt a little bad that the other gentleman, dressed to the nines and obviously academically highly trained, seemed to recede into polite insignificance. It was clear that both other dinner guests were treating the lady ambassador with rather more open respect than I was comfortable with, when I clearly got away with the odd impish remark, even if pronounced in strenuously immaculate high German. How wonderful it was to hide behind the facade of being an artist and be forgiven a slightly more jovial approach to life, bureaucracy and dignity of position. Hearty Helga, I felt, quite liked my insidiously irreverent approach, and made a big point of praising my exhibition and exhorting the others to go and see it as well. I put it down to my flimsy white hair that promised more esprit below the covering than there actually was.
We had got into a good relaxed conversation, but I was aware that I wanted to make up for not having brought Juan along with me, even though he had been the architect of his own misfortune. However, he would have been out of place, not as an artist, but in terms of his distinctive Cuban identity and Brechtian proletarian ideology. Also, the meeting would then have had to be conducted in three languages, which would have killed some of the delicious insouciance of it. Helga, the good sport and can-do woman that she seemed to be, offered her full support for Juan’s efforts at becoming known outside Cuba, on my mere say-so alone, it seemed. As ever practical, she asked me to convey to him that he should make arrangements to present himself to her in a fortnight’s time, with a view to her making arrangements for some artistic exchanges between Cuba and Austria that would introduce his paintings to an open-minded artistic community in Vienna.
It was now that I found out, slightly to my chagrin, that a group of Austrian architects had descended on Havana earlier in the year and held a symposium on the forgotten arts schools at the outskirts of Havana. Apparently, they had made a good study of all the buildings I went to see and turned it into an exhibition in Vienna that was due to go on to other cities in Europe. At a stroke, I realised that there was, of course, a lasting link between these daring, voluptuous kinds of buildings by Gottardi, Porro and Garatti I had sought out – and the excesses of Klimt’s Vienna, even Hundertwasser’s contemporary mannerisms.
When, in the extensive grounds of the forgotten art schools, I saw the central sculpture in the open space between one group of the buildings scattered over a wide area, which looked like a lovely shell lying on its back, I instinctively liked it, prowling around it, circling it and viewing its rounded edges from all sides: it looked like a sleek dinghy and reminded me of shrines of yoni worship encountered in the deepest countryside in India. Just to make sure I was not seeing things which were not there, I asked Juan. Without so much as a flicker of an eye-lid, he dryly said to me, in throw-away Spanish, that it was a sculpture of a huge vagina, of course. Of course! Dim-witted me, I thought! I looked at it again and was not sure if the horizontal lobes stretching towards its opposite boat-shaped curves were gentle tentacles of pleasure or hard biting teeth of pain; looked at from the outside, the sculpture was certainly sumptuous. Perhaps it was not so surprising, after all, that it took Fidel Castro 30 odd years before re-committing himself to restoring this exquisitely decadent, inspired and amazingly extensive complex of art schools, a veritable ‘city of breasts’, garlands of dome-shaped buildings slowly sleeping into oblivion under the encroaching tropical vegetation. Artistic expression and freedom, if not outright licence, in Cuba seemed to outstrip by far that of any Anglo-Saxon country I know, oddly contrasting with an acutely felt sense of political paternalism.
It came as little surprise to me then to learn that Ernst Fuchs, protagonist of the modern Viennese school of painters, was going to get a major exhibition here in Cuba later in the year.
Just as we had become involved in a good, honest conversation, with me having slipped into true participation instead of mere cowardly observation alone, coffee drew a close over our get-together. Helga had to go and meet another ambassador, which was a bit of a pain, she explained. So she closed the meeting in her workmanlike, unruffled, uncomplicated manner, despatching the two career diplomats back into the shadows from which they had come, and invited me to share her big black limousine into town. She kindly instructed her chauffeur to go out of her way to drop me off at the Galería ‘L’ (so named after the street it is in), the ‘home’ of my exhibition at Havana’s university, opposite the world-famous, open-air Coppelia ice-cream parlour, supposedly serving the best ice-cream outside Italy. By Cuban standards, the diplomatic limousine seemed absurdly ample and comfortable, gliding along imperceptibly and soaking up the rudely rutted road surfaces politely, making it a toss-up as to whether Havana needed better roads or better cars. Helga and I were sitting in the back: Helga was leaning into the centre, and I too, rested my elbow on the wide centre arm rest in the back, and, tête-a-tête, we conspired to exchange a few words a notch more private than at the dinner. When I looked up again, my destination was in front of me. The dreaded ‘H’ word for current Austrian politics was in the air but averted with a wink. There was no need to mention it. But ‘H’ for Helga seemed more than alright.
Perhaps I was going to take my chance with an ice-cream at Coppelia’s, after all, even if the queue for it did stretch right round the square - if for no other reason than to give me time to reflect on Austria’s curious role in the so-called Third World, even in Cuba, the last bastion of ideological communism.
PS: On making a routine courtesy visit to my exhibition in a show of support and gratitude to the Cuban authorities, I surprised the two Austrian career diplomats from the ambassadorial dinner, this time clad in more relaxed leisure-wear, closely ingesting my exhibition, unaware of my presence. I was very pleased. When they did spot me, they congratulated me on the spiritual sensuality of my photography, wielding my exhibition pamphlets in their hands. The distinguished retired lady diplomat, now revealed to me as a certain Lady Lamesch, led me to the picture of her choice ‘Re-defining the absolute’. She pressed her visiting card on me, inviting me to call on her in Paris and sample the Cuban music collected by her.
I don’t mind if I do!
PPS: Several months later, I had a heart-warming letter, complete with ‘relaxed’ spellings, from ‘Hearty Helga’, sent from her holiday in Austria, thanking me for a large picture sent to the Embassy as a token of gratitude for the hospitality shown to me, renegade, unreconstructed former citizen though I remained.
Content © R Reisenberger, 2000