Caves, Cocktails and Cannons (Part 2)
Saturday, January 9, 2016
Rations A Necessity
Our next stop was the Bodega la Caridad Consejo Popular. This is one of the stores most Cubans visit every month to pick up limited quantities of certain foods at reduced rates. Since the average income for Cubans in 2012 was about USD 22 per month, these rations – which were introduced in 1962 – remain a necessary part of life. The rations are not extensive and they are certainly not luxurious: they often represent the difference between eating and not eating. They include, for example, six pounds each of rice and sugar per person per month, 15 lb. of flour, a dozen eggs (in certain months), 20 oz. of beans, etc. Children under 7 are also allocated a litre of milk. Other rationed products, including meat and cooking fuels, are available elsewhere. Although Cubans are able (when they have the money) to buy products in the public market, and Cuba apparently has a thriving black market, a visit to this bodega brought home to me the reality of daily life faced by most Cuban families.
The Gentleman of Paris
San Francisco Plaza, named after the church and monastery next it (Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asís), was the next stop on the tour. The church itself was built in the 1600s, and was occupied by several different religious orders until it was taken over by the Spanish governors in 1841. It is now a concert hall.
The statue of a saint named Junipero Serra next to the Basilica gave me the creeps, but I loved a more secular statue in the square entitled “The Gentleman of Paris” (“El Caballero de Paris”), which depicts a beloved homeless eccentric of Havana. Here is what our guide told us about him, embellished by a bit of online research –
José María López Lledín was born in 1899 in Spain. When he was twelve, he came to Cuba to live with an uncle, and he worked at odd jobs for the next fifteen years. But then he “lost his mind” and became convinced that he was a gentleman from Paris. For the next few decades he wandered the streets of Havana, and became popular with people who came to know him. When he was arrested or hospitalized by the authorities, as happened fairly often, his fans would insist he be released.
“He was of medium height, less than 6 feet. He sported long unkempt dark brown hair and beard, with a few white hairs. His fingernails were long and twisted from not being cut in many years. He always dressed in black, covered with a black cloak, even in the summer heat. He always carried a portfolio with papers and a bag where he carried his belongings.
“He was a gentle man who would appear in the most unlikely places at the most unpredictable times, although he visited many places on a regular schedule. He would walk the streets and ride the buses in Habana greeting everyone and discussing his philosophy of life, religion, politics and current events with everyone that crossed his path.”
On one occasion when he was offered money for appearing on a television program, Lledín responded that “Neither my feelings nor my high position allow me to accept this money. I give it to Bigote de Gato for a party that he will give in his establishment.” Lledín reminds me of the old caballero in our novel, The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid, which is probably why I was so taken by his story.
In 1977, Lledín was permanently hospitalized due to his failing health. Tests conducted then indicated that he did not suffer from illusions, despite the fact that since the 1920s he had been maintaining that he was a gentleman from Paris – a city he had never visited in reality.
It is considered good luck – bringing prosperity to all (and virility to men) among other benefits – to place one hand on the statue’s beard, hold his left index finger with your other hand, and simultaneously step on his left foot. The brass of the statue, which was created by José Villa Soberón and erected in 2001, is worn where visitors have sought his assistance to improve their lots.
Our final stop on our Havana tour was the square nearest our casa, the Plaza Veija, and there we discussed another sculpture about which Arnie and I had been wondering since we’d first seen it on our arrival in Havana the previous Sunday.
The sculpture is entitled Viaje Fantástico, and it was created by the Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo. In English, there are a lot of potential interpretations of the artwork, from the association with a certain English nursery rhyme to the name of the piece of cutlery the woman is holding in her hand. I am pretty sure that our group managed to think of all of them. However, Fabelo is not English, he is Cuban, and therefore (I assume) Spanish-speaking. His surrealistic paintings and sculptures often involve women and birds. So all of our conjectures were probably quite wrong. It’s a great sculpture no matter what it means. (I have recently learned that there is a duplicate of this sculpture in Miami.)
Our group would disperse the following day, after a tour of Havana by Old Cuban-American Car. For our final dinner we enjoyed a superb meal together at a rooftop restaurant in Old Havana.