Colombo

No, not the raincoated detective, but whilst we’re in the American TV milieu…

There’s an episode in the fourth series (or season for those across the pond) of the Sopranos where the Italians come into conflict with a group of American Indians who hold a protest on Columbus Day, the national holiday which falls in October each year and commemorates the explorer’s landing on October 12th 1492.

The show highlighted what a controversial figure he is, with the views on either side of the argument typically polarised.  For the Native Americans he was a slave trader who subjugated their people, for the Italians he was a pioneer, the first Italian to leave Genoa for America, but foreshadowing the great migration that was to come in the last years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th.

In typical Italian style, the argument became muddied when one of Soprano family “soldiers” joins the arguments against Columbus.  Why?  Because as a Neapolitan, he has a dislike of anyone from the north of Italy (Columbus included), for the north basks in its wealth while the south battles poverty.  Nevertheless many Italian Americans feel their heritage is threatened.

So who was closer to the truth?  Several states in America have made their decision, renaming the holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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Although he was Genoese, Columbus didn’t sail from the port, or even from Italy.  Remember this post?  His voyage was financed by the Spanish monarchy, so the settlements he established were Hispanic rather than Italian.  Nor were they on the American mainland, they were on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).  His four voyages saw him explore the islands of the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America rather than North America.  Of course even if he had, he would not have been the first.  Leif Ericsson had completed that journey four centuries earlier!

As to the atrocities laid at his door?  They seem to be largely true, and whether he was truly tyrannical, “acting under orders” or simply unable to control the Spanish soldiers, he was Governor when the first transatlantic slave ship sailed back to Europe, and both settlers and indigenous people were decimated by pandemics as disease spread rapidly during colonisation.  The gold fever that would drive Cortez and the Conquistadors through South America began with Columbus; arguably the first Pirate of the Caribbean who cut off the hands of natives who refused him gold.

Barcelona celebrates his achievements with the great column overlooking the port, but Genoa seems a little more embarrassed.  Yes he is commemorated with a statue atop a rostral column, but at the train station rather than in the port development.  The image of subjugation probably doesn’t help.  

He is depicted in a mural within the Palazzo Ducale (venue for that infamous G8 meeting), though here the message is that his intention was to spread Christianity.  There is probably truth in that too; the Spanish court was fiercely Catholic and would one day send an Armada to re-establish Catholicism in England.  That didn’t turn out to be their finest hour either.

I’d read that the house where he was born (also disputed though the property was owned by his father) stood near the defensive towers of one of the city’s medieval gates, but on my first visit there I was so distracted by those towers that I forgot Cristoforo Colombo.  On the second I discovered a small cloister that is all that remains of a monastery that stood here from the 11th century until demolished in the 19th.  I soon forgot Colombus once again, but why?  There are no signs, no indications, no reminders that this is an important site.  More evidence of mixed feelings?

The house itself is so small that I had walked past three times before I recognised it, completely dwarfed in the lee of those towers.  Perhaps this is why the Italians of that TV show had so much pride.  The gate is the Porta Soprana.

Casa di Cristoforo Colombo?
Casa di Cristoforo Colombo?
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Zzzzz Mr Hemingway. (Habana 58)

One of the less likely destinations for visiting tourists can be found in the Ambos Mundos hotel.  The rooftop bar and perhaps the experience of travelling to it in the original metal cage lift, are the draw for most, and with cold mojitos, smooth salsa and views over the city on offer from the shade of its canopies it’s an understandable choice.

Perhaps when they leave they’re a little too unsteady on their feet to venture down the stairs to the fifth floor and specifically room 511.  There was no trace of other interested parties when I ventured there and no queue was building outside as I left.  Nevertheless the room justifies the constant presence of permanent guardian, a white-uniformed guide who answers to your knock and for a few pesos supervises your stay in the room.

Its attraction lies in its former occupant; for this was Hemingway’s base in Cuba at one point and it is preserved in tribute to him along with various personal ephemera and of course his Remington typewriter on its height-adjustable table.  (Hemingway couldn’t sit for long periods of time as a result of an array of injuries and health problems).  The hotel proudly proclaims that this is where he began For Whom the Bell Tolls, the title being taken from a work by John Donne written while convalescing from serious illness.  Deliberate or ironic?

Whatever the answer it seems fitting place to come to rest after my alphabetical perspective on this city don’t you think?

Havana-4

XXX (Kiss, Kiss, Kiss) Habana 56

Not withstanding the views expressed by others about the latin charms of Havana’s residents, or the thread on Trip Advisor about where to find romance in the city, it’s not a place that I would consider as having a lot of romantic possibilities.

Now that might say more about me than it does Havana.  Perhaps I was blind to the opportunities, but I’d like to think that I do have a romantic bone or two in this body.

For me the heat and humidity caused the problem.  It’s hard to feel confident of your appeal when your clothes, rather than enhancing your physical appeal, cling to everything they touch and soaked by perspiration become unflatteringly shapeless.   When perfumes must battle with a mustiness that is ingrained into everything from buildings to banknotes.  When you come ready seasoned with a layer of saltiness.

One of the options suggested on the Trip Advisor thread was to enjoy drinks at sunset on the patio of the Hotel Nacional, something that I did on a couple of occasions after a day of exploration in the city.  On one evening a striking brunette in scarlet dress with matching lips sat at my table to write her journal for the day and we soon struck up a conversation.  If Cupid did arrive with his bow and arrow he would have been disappointed.  Conscious of my dishevelled and dusty appearance, and self-conscious of any possible aroma, I quickly excused myself to my room and the shower, never to see her again.

So I don’t see Rome or Paris feeling threatened by Havana, but there were others who may disagree!

Havana

Women (Habana 55)

Perhaps it was because I wasn’t in a relationship when I went to Havana, but it seemed that many of the people I told about the trip reacted with a knowing smile and exclaimed “Ah, all the Latin beauties”.  Several of these people were women too, although I suspect that Maria, who is Portuguese, was a little biased.

Havana-25
A little obvious?

Personally, I wasn’t looking for romance in Cuba.  A country where the degree of poverty prompts many to turn to prostitution and others to marry foreign visitors purely as a means of escape isn’t a good starting place for a lasting relationship.  Those who go seeking something more casual should be aware that Cuba is also home to a particularly aggressive strain of AIDS.

Havana-28
René

So when I was joined by René for a chat under the trees of Avenida de los Presidentes the expectations of Latin beauty were far from my mind.  Our conversation covered a number of subjects; food, politics, health, music before he turned to me with that same knowing smile to ask “And what do you think of Cuban women?  Aren’t they just the most beautiful women you’ve seen?”

I gave the expected response, although of course it was a white lie.  Perhaps I just don’t get the attraction of the “Latin” look.  I’m not particularly drawn the La Guitara shape, and beyond that I wasn’t really sure who was and wasn’t Hispanic.  Were those with African features local or visitors?  I certainly wasn’t fooled by the caricature washer woman.

Yes there was beauty to be found in many of the young women there, but that was probably more as a result of their years than any inherent Habanero features.

So I was all set to remain unimpressed, but shortly after René left an elegant woman sat down opposite.  From the white coat across her knees and the manner of her dress I’m assuming she was a medic from the nearby hospital and therefore probably Cuban.

Not my type (which ironically is the true Latin look of an Italian), but still captivating.Havana-29

USA (Habana 53)

You can’t really consider Cuba as a country without considering the role of Uncle Sam; their intervention in the war for independence from Spain was a turning point, the consideration of Cuba become part of the Union, the influx of American investment (much of it from organised crime), their support for the Batista dictatorship until it was overthrown by Castro, the missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs, Guantanamo…

All in all the US hasn’t been a quiet and unobtrusive neighbour, though the recent rapprochement confirms that their value as a trading partner outweighs this.

Diplomatic relations were broken off in the early sixties, so for some time there was no direct representation for American interests in the country, or for Cuban interests in the U.S. although Switzerland and Czechoslovakia respectively took on some of the workload.

In 1977 Jimmy Carter’s administration took steps to improving relations with the result that US diplomats took over  from the Swiss in running what was known as the United States Interests Section in Havana.  (It was finally recognised as an embassy in August 2015)

Of course with the two nations still at odds politically and ideologically the building inevitably became a flashpoint.  With a complete lack of diplomacy the Americans began displaying propaganda messages on the building, even installing an electronic billboard in 2006 specifically for the purpose.

Havana’s response?  They’d already built the José Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform, a public space for political rallies, in front of the US Special Interests Building, so they used it to build a wall of flags, initially each with a white star on a black background to represent Cuban victims of terrorism.  The flags’ role was to obscure sight-lines to the billboard.

In 2009 the billboard was removed, and the flags now fluttering are the Cuban national flag.  How ironic that it should now be a wall of stars and stripes.

Transport (Habana 52)

I may have mentioned elsewhere that I covered Havana on foot each day, but there are plenty of other ways of getting around the city.

Across the Gulf of Mexico, young Americans heading for a night out may well opt for a limo to take them partying, here it seemed there were less ostentatious options.HavanaThe most obvious option for tourist of course is to take a taxi, and from the immaculately preserved fleet of 50’s American classics to the fibreglass sphere of a coco-taxi there are options to suit every wallet.

Something a little more ecologically sound?  How about the rickshaw option?

Havana-8  On the plus side you get to take in more of the atmosphere of the streets around you, the sounds, the smells, but that’s also the downside when those smells are emanating from the guy out front who’s working up a sweat powering you, himself and his machine around in very humid conditions.  Of course he may get the chance to freshen up a little if it rains.

Havana-9Of course I wouldn’t write off cycling altogether.   With a lighter passenger it could work…Havana-7 so long as those lighter passengers don’t provide too much of a distraction with all of their flapping along the way.  I hope the goat hanging from the box behind him had already been slaughtered.Havana-4

Havana-5Something more lightweight still?  How about the portable option of a pair of skates?  They do need a certain amount of bravado to carry off successfully, much like the outfit and haircut, and given what I’ve said previously about the state of many of the pavements, I suppose hazard evasion skills have to be learned pretty early.

Still haven’t found the option for you?

Well then I have only one more option.

You’ll need to be small. And lightweight too.  If you can meet these criteria than this is the most personal mode of transport going and it has the added benefit of allowing you to snooze along the way.  Not sure how much choice you get over the destination though!Havana-3