InsideOut tours an Art-Deco hideaway in Havana, Cuba

There is a famous quote by Ernest Hemingway’s in the “The Old Man and the Sea” that reads: “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”

Hemingway spent many years in Cuba and gleaned great inspiration from the city of Havana. On a recent trip to tour the home of Jorge and Odette Vera, I joined the couple as they put the finishing touches on an airy three-bedroom bungalow in the district of Vedado, a quaint residential and business district bordering the famous Malecón seawall.

Jorge recently spent a year restoring the home to its original glamour. Hurricane Irma had hit only two short weeks before and I would be given the advantage of exploring Havana and its resurging design world through the eyes of a local.

Jorge, a mechanical engineer, is originally from the city. He came to Cayman in 2004, only a short time before Hurricane Ivan ravaged the island. He and Odette, an accountant, married in 2006. In 2015, the couple bought the 1950s-era apartment which they would keep as a vacation getaway for their family, including sons Lucas, 9, and Adriano, 7. They called it “Casa de Vera.”

Upon arrival on a Friday night, the house was dark but I was still treated to a lush meal of fresh and cured meats, “yucca y chicharron” and fresh fruits with cheeses. Guavas as huge as my hand were sliced and served for dessert. The table in the grand dining room was set meticulously. Jorge’s mother, Lupe, greeted me with a hug. I asked her, in my own broken Spanish, how to say “hug” in her language.

She laughed, consulted Jorge’s brother Miguel and hugged me again as they all spoke in unison.


Timeless design

On Saturday, it was time to take on the districts of Havana with a punch list of items for Casa de Vera. Odette and Jorge had house guests arriving the following afternoon, so the clock was ticking on our time to fully finish the home’s décor.

In the morning light, I could finally take in the striking structural features of Casa de Vera. Forcing myself to leave the warmth of my room’s Egyptian cotton sheets, I surveyed the guest room’s towering 15-foot ceilings, dramatic printed tile floors, the intricate window design cut in stained glass, the grand arches and carved wooden doorways.

Many of the walls were unadorned at Casa de Vera and small delicate antiques needed repositioning. The space was stunning. Our trip out into the city would hopefully yield ‘el toque final’ for this beloved family home.

The star of the house was indubitably the home’s Art-Deco terrazzo floors in the sun room and living room, closely followed by its original stained-glass windows. What could we possibly find in this city – so recently ravaged by a major hurricane – that could honor the incredibly storied architecture?

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have.”

I considered the quote as we walked the home’s sun room. It is a playful space; the floor is a graphic expanse of geometric shapes in rich brown, yellow, black and white cut in terrazzo tile. It has only a chess table, a settee, a small coffee table and two low-slung mid-century modern accent chairs. It is just off the street at the very front of the bungalow. Through the glass panelled windows, the sounds of Havana echo through the house.

Next, we walked the formal living room. The long and narrow space is fitted out with bright blue low sofas set against bold black and white floors. Where the sun room exuded playful charm, the living room is an elegant space, designed for entertaining and family play. We also visited the bedrooms, dining room, kitchen and “rum nook”, a lounge just outside the kitchen where guests can enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail before being served.

Odette is armed with a small moleskin notebook for our day’s adventure. The book is her bible; it is full of names, addresses and notes from more than a decade of learning Cuba’s nooks and crannies with Jorge. I feel as if I am in good hands. Our first stop is a community market close to us; it is called simply “5th and 42nd street.”

Shopping in Havana

The first items on our punch list for Casa de Vera are plants, flowers and greenery. We pile into our chauffeured transport for the day. Lazaro is our driver and he drives us in a 1940s-era sedan that makes me think of mobsters, Al Capone.

I am invigorated to learn that Odette has a firm hand on navigating the city. Vedado is central and Casa de Vera is nestled upon other homes, boutique businesses, small eateries and quaint lounges.

We arrive at “5th and 42nd” quickly. The market is tucked into a street corner in Vedado, going over one city block. Vendors sell everything from rum shots to toys, flowers and snacks. We spot a flower shop and a small greenhouse called “Jardin El Cocotero.” Here, we grab several floor plants and one hanging plant, which we plan to turn into a centrepiece on the foyer table back at Casa de Vera. Odette negotiates and we leave our smiling vendors with easily US$200 worth of plants procured at a fraction of the amount.

Our next stop is one of Jorge and Odette’s favorite spots for “antiquing” in Havana. “Belki’s” is located close by, still in the district of Vedado. The store keeper, who owns and runs the eponymous shop in her own home, has converted the two-story dwelling into a sprawling antique showcase.

There is no strategy to the arrangement of wares at Belki’s. Rather it seems like the larger items have been dragged as close to the house as humanly possible to remain near the exits and entrances whereas more delicate items take center stage inside.  Sculptures, table top adornments and clocks are arranged according to size in the dark and sheltered inside rooms, where visitors are less likely to knock them over. Belki’s cigar smoke, curling from a crystal ashtray near the entrance, makes for a dense atmosphere.

We spend over an hour perusing the interior and exterior. Odette and I spend time conferring over pieces large and small. We leave with a well-edited but exciting haul: An antique rose gold bar cart, a set of vintage champagne flutes, two cut crystal decanters and a hand-cut crystal accent bowl.

Art in Havana

Our final stop for the day takes us into Old Havana. We leave Vedado and venture to an enormous arts and crafts market on Avenida del Puerto. Despite the brown foliage on the ground after recent storms, the area is still buzzing with life.

Inside “el Mercado”, there is art everywhere the eyes can see. Large wooden rails hold long rows of artwork, lined up three-pieces high from the floor.

From jarring realism and still lifes to stark abstract pieces and photography, the space featured thousands of pieces for the perusing. It would be impossible to break down the space into categories. After a long stroll that took us well into closing time, Odette settled on minimal twin canvases featuring couples in a passionate embrace.

As we set off for our house in Vedado with our paintings in hand, I stared at the paintings in the car next to me. Again, I was reminded of the first word I learned while in Cuba: “Abrazo!”

A sun room with eccentric art and accessories makes for the perfect receiving area for guests.

Home away from home

Think of what you can do with what there is.

Jorge and Odette have turned Casa de Vera into a family destination. They took the space and made it uniquely their own, using architecture, books and found art as inspiration. They called on their family to breathe life into their home and filled it with treasures from Cuba for visitors to enjoy.

Casa de Vera is pure urban zen with spicy Cuban flavor. The house itself feels like a hug, to quote Lupe, like “Un abrazo.”

Recently, Odette’s family travelled from Canada, the U.S. and Europe to spend the holidays with the family in Havana. Hosting two families at one time may sound daunting, but Odette and Jorge laugh at the memory: “We are just so happy to be able to have all of our loved ones in this space. We are so grateful.”