My kind of man

It’s not often that I fall for a man just by the sound of him, a man I’ve never met nor am ever likely to meet. But right up there on my list of people I’d like to have to dinner, to get to know, is one Eusebio Leal Spengler. It’s not often either that I feel a pang of envy, but envious I am of Huffington Post writer Salim Lamrani, who interviewed my man back in 2014, an interview that was translated into English from the French by Larry R. Oberg.

I tripped across Spengler on a walking tour of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Armed with a guidebook and a map and himself’s unerring sense of direction, we trod the streets and noticed how much better looking this part of the city is than where we were staying. Another world entirely. And all thanks to one man, the City Historian. Thanks to him, more than 100 old buildings have been fully restored.

Back in 1994, Castro recognised that even with the fall of the Soviet Union, the architectural heritage of Old Havana had to be preserved. He turned over ownership of all historical buildings to the Office of the Historian and gave it a budget equivalent to $1 million. The Habaguanex Tourist Company was formed. Two years later, they’d turned that one million into three. Twenty years later, the return in resources is closer to 100 million. Work though, had begun much earlier, as far back as the late 1970s.

But what is most interesting about Spengler is is vision that restoration isn’t just about restoring buildings. It has a social aspect as well.

What were the most pressing goals when the restoration works began?
What encouraged me most were the buildings that were being lost. But, life showed us that we had to struggle to keep the city as a whole rather than as one of separate elements; that a pure restoration project could not be feasible if it didn’t include the social aspect, i.e., the city with its dwellers. Then, it was necessary to have a much broader idea, more participative and popular, which took into account housing and health care. That’s why restoration has included the creation of geriatric centers or others which take care of disabled children.

Today, 45% of the profits from the tourist company go back into building the tourism infrastructure, while 65% go to redeveloping the local community for its 91 000 inhabitants. A tremendous achievement.

And it’s a joy to see. Whether it’s the amazing Cathedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana on Plaza de la Cathedral or the kids playing football on a school break amidst the museums of Plaza Vieja, or the old folks sunning themselves near the retirement home serenaded by street musicians.

And yes, I know I had a moan about what people do in the name of tourism, and it’s more evident here (as the spot for cruise ship passengers), but I suppose it’s no different than street artists anywhere else in the world. I’m not sure why I find it so upsetting in Cuba. I know. I am a dreaded tourist, too. But somehow I expected to be in the minority.

Wandering the streets, peaking through doorways, discovering interior gardens in thriving cafés, this is what Spengler must have had in mind. From the fabulously renovated Pharmacy Museum to the host of other impressive buildings in the ‘hood, this part of town is a world apart from Centro Habana and El Barrio. And the good thing is that the money spent on lodging and dining in some of the many hotels and restaurants in the neighbourhood goes back into the community. That I can live with.

All aboard

I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be trapped aboard a ship with the same people for days on end. I’ve never quite understood the attraction of cruises. And I can’t for the life of me see myself ever taking one (at least not when I’m still in possession of all my faculties).  Yet I was dead curious to see the inside of one of the hundreds of boats that sail the Danube.

I’ve been aboard the QEII – the Queen of Cruise Ships – so I know what the top end of the scale has to offer; the Transatlantic kind. What I was interested in seeing was what the river cruises had to offer. Some Aussie mates of mine were disembarking in Budapest en route to Ireland last week and invited me on board for lunch. All my curiosity has been satisfied.

Narrow corridors, lots of blue, and plenty of seating. Some of the cabins have floor-to-ceiling sliding windows and I could see myself passing time sitting by the window watching the world go by. Others have portholes which frame the outside world and make it all look a tad surreal.

The food wasn’t bad. The flowers were fresh. And the staff were extremely friendly and seemed to know everyone by name and cabin number.  Quite an amazing feat, considering. What would drive me to  distraction is the cats chorus of complaints, commentary, and criticisms. Suddenly everyone is an expert and life is not so much about experiencing a port of call but taking photos, buying souvenirs, and then dissecting it all over dinner.

I count Americans amongst my closest friends. I’ve lived there on and off for 10 years. I’m a card-carrying American myself.  Yet I’ve long since thought that Americans who go abroad on holiday are bred for export on some huge ranch in Montana. Never once in ten years did I come across in the States the likes of those I meet on holiday.

Waiting patiently for the lads to pack and disembark, I sat for a while in the lobby and eavesdropped. One particularly annoying woman in her late sixties was stating quite vehemently that she was not getting off here. She didn’t like Budapest. It was dirty. It was dull. And it wasn’t Vienna. Duh. Pressing her compatriots to choose between Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, none were brave enough to disagree. Another couple reckoned that Budapest didn’t have class. More still said that it wasn’t at all impressive. I screamed inside: Hey! Look over your shoulder and see the castle, the parlament, the bridges – what does it take to impress you!

These snap judgements (they’d been on a tour in the morning to the Castle and to Hero Square) based on very little information are so annoying. The high-pitched whine that passed for a voice would drive me to distraction. That authoritative tone that brooks no argument is like a red rag to me. Conversations overheard at lunch led me to believe that those present did not share my politics and  images of daggers at dawn or napkins at noon came to mind. Not because we differed in opinion, mind you, but because the reasons proffered were so asinine.

I learned two things: I have become extremely protective of Budapest and can’t believe that people would rate Vienna or Prague ahead of it (as one lovely American tourist I know put it –  Prague you visit; Budapest you live). And secondly, I just don’t have the mental or emotional stamina to keep my opinions to myself for a whole week. I couldn’t sit by and not comment. I bet that when Dale Carnegie wrote his tome – How to win friends and influence people – he didn’t suggest that people take  a cruise.

I can now cross that one off my list.