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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Museum of Fine Arts, Hemingway's house, the restoration workshop, dreaming of a return...

A few  more things I just want to make sure to mention: first, the art museum and the Biennale. As I said before, we didn’t really get to see much of the Biennale. I know if I’d really wanted to, I could have found the time, as we did have a couple of free afternoons. But we were so busy most of the time, and everything was so interesting, that I didn’t have the inclination. What I did find out, from Hoji, was that much, maybe all, of the outdoor art we saw was part of the Biennale. And there was a lot of it, along the Malecon, the Prado, and probably some things we walked by but didn’t notice.

The  Art Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes), which is actually two different museums, Cuban art and foreign art, was wonderful. We spent two hours there, and didn’t see everything. And that was just in the Cuban part. I’m not sure I could have spent much more time that day, aside from the fact that they were closing, but would love to have the chance to go back. There were an amazing number and variety of Cuban artists. None of whom I was familiar with.  I'm  embarrassed to admit it. Wilfredo Lam, whose name at least seems familiar to me, is supposedly the most renowned.   Sadly, they seemed to have less than a dozen postcard reproductions, and none of the works I was especially taken with.  But I was able to find some of them online. A current exhibit featured an artist named Abel Barroso. His pieces, in wood, were described as tactile sculptures. There was a series of pinball machines, which seemed to have working parts, each of which had  a politcal theme. And a Monopoly board, also political, with wealthy countries occupying what would have been the Boardwalk and Park Place spaces, poor ones on the ones that would have been Baltic, etc. And houses and hotels on some of them. I clandestinely took a picture of the Monopoly board.

I have barely mentioned Hemingway, and he figures largely in the Cuban psyche. There are photos of him with Fidel, and I believe with Che. We went to the bar he used to hang out at in Cojimar, now a restaurant, and had lunch there. Later that day we went to his house, on a hilltop overlooking Havana, with a beautiful view. I was surprised, though, that it wasn’t near the sea. Hoji said that he’d become so famous by then that he was hounded, and so perhaps needed a place where he could get away.

The house can only be viewed from outside. When I’d read that I was disappointed, but then wasn’t expecting much anyway, anticipating that it would be overrun with tourists. Yet I was really mesmerized by the place, partly because it was Hemingway’s, partly because it was beautiful, elegant but not ostentatious, and partly, I’m sure, because I was reading Islands in the Stream and it seemed so close to what he was describing. Besides, I always like homes where famous people have lived, and especially the everyday parts of their existence, the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, bookshelves. Not being able to walk inside the house didn’t matter; you could see everything through the many doors and windows.It was airy and bright, filled with books, of course, but also art, and game heads mounted on the walls. 

On the grounds is Hemingway's boat, Pilar, and four graves.  I am sure they are of his dogs, especially due to the names, but I joked that perhaps they were Hemingway's four wives! 

At the Hemingway home we ran into a National Geographic tour group ( I know because they were all wearing National Geographic name badges.) Loring noticed a man wearing a Folsom’s Air Service t shirt. This is a small flight service in northern Maine that flies people into remote places.  I don’t think we’ve ever run into someone with a t shirt from there before. When I asked where the couple was from, they said New York. Turns out the woman was from the same area of the Bronx where grew up.

I want to mention one more place we visited, the restoration workshop school for teens in Old Havana. It is b a trade school, that trains kids in skills like woodworking, stone work, tiling, metal, and glass. They do  actual restoration work while enrolled, and then, if I understood right, are guaranteed jobs when they graduate. Some go onto more academic work in the field, too. Free education is available to everyone in Cuba, but you have to qualify academically for upper level study. We watched them working on restoring a set of stained glass windows, wrapping small individual pieces of glass in copper, so intent on their work they hardly paid us any mind.  The student population is about 1/3 female. Although much of Havana is still in disrepair, some of the buildings and squares have been beautifully renovated, and it is wonderful to see young people being trained in these skills and using them to improve their city.

I have to look up again some of these other tours, the National Geographic  one these folks were on, and a couple of others I’d looked at. I can’t imagine they would have been better, or even as good as ours. All the places we went, with the exception of the very commercial and not very informative rum museum, were very interesting. That is the one visit, of about 15 or more places we went, that I would suggest they drop. Our guide Hoji, was great, too, and we all agreed that even though he does this weekly, he does not do it at all by rote, and really seems to enjoy what he does.

*(Note: I did go back and look up some of the other tours. There's Road Scholar, which used to be Elderhostel, and Insight Cuba. Those are in the $3000 to $4000 range. National Geographic around $5000. Ours was about $1500 and seems to me to be fairly comparable They probably stay at fancier hotels, but ours were plenty fancy for me. And I would probably prefer to stay in casas (bed and breakfasts.) Although in reading after our return, am not sure those are legal for Americans. 

 I keep daydreaming about going back, organizing a trip of my own with the organization we went with, with a small group of friends and like minded travellers. Anyone interested? I am serious enough that if I hear back from a few of you, I may truly do it. 

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