Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mexican diary 13: Present Dilemma

You can see pictures of my mosaics on my website: www.martincheekmosaics.com
The Barbados work is shown on page:
www.martincheekmosaics.com/html/barbados_floor.html

Mexican diary 13: Present Dilemma

I have a rather odd dilemma facing me. I am here for another 10 days or so – I HAVE decided to leave on the 29th in order to go and see my old bro, his new partner and baby. The mosaic is on the home stretch now and will certainly be finished by the time I leave.
My dilemma is this: presents! What should I give to all my friends when I leave them? SO many people have been so good to me whilst here and have given ‘A & B the C of D’ – remember that one? It stands for ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ – I like that. Already the hints are flying thick and fast. When I told Elizabeth, my interpreter, that I was going to Taxco last week, she said that I needed to know her neck and finger sizes in order to buy her some silver. Charlie has asked for my mobile phone when I leave which I had difficulty saying “No” too even though I plan to return and it IS actually quite an expensive item.
Their guile is rather touching in its childlike nature, which naturally reminded me off my own childhood.
FLASHBACK: We only had one couple, my mother’s uncle Edgar and his wife Auntie Hilda who were anything like what would now be termed ‘well off. Edgar had an engineering works which made hubcaps for cars and the like and reading between the lines I think that he had had a ‘good war’ benefiting from the fact that the machines could be adapted to make military items maybe even ammunition – I don’t know because none of this was ever mentioned. Uncle had that confident air of the self made man – a sort of Churchillian figure sans cigar. Auntie Hilda was a very quiet lady, shy I guess. She reminded me of the Queen Mother – even then – though she was a good deal plumper. Once when visiting their house I was impressed by a box of After Eight Mints on the coffee table. This was an unheard of luxury as far as I was concerned. I opened the lid of the box to discover that about half of them had been eaten but the dark empty envelopes remained. I spent a agonising minute trying to figure out whether Auntie would notice if I were to eat one of those delicious looking dark chocolate wafers, I had seen them advertised n he TV but had never tasted one. I would love to report that I ate the lot and had to sit down with an extended stomach prior to throwing up all over the carpet but I wasn’t that adventurous. I simply closed the box and tried to replace it in EXACTLY the same position that I had found it. Another example of Edgar & Hilda’s wealth were the many Royal Doulton figures that adorned their house. Auntie’s favourite was the balloon seller, a sentimental piece of an old lady, the poor but honest type who had a fistful of balloons. These were in the days before I had developed what I would now call ‘taste’. The word I would have used to describe these figures, especially the balloon seller, had it have been invented then, would have been NAFF. It’s funny to think that my own children have a much more finely tuned sense of what is good and bad ‘art’ than I ever had – they wouldn’t have fallen for any of that refined tat for a minute.
My guile though, was put into play one afternoon when Auntie Hilda came to see my mother. I produced my mother’s Freeman’s catalogue and opened it at the page that contained the coveted annuals, those Christmas books based on the weekly children’s comments. I showed thee to my Aunt pointing out my particular favourites and explained why these were the best. After Auntie had left my mother went red with a mixture of anger and embarrassment. “She knew what you meant you know!” she shouted. “That’s good – I should hope so too.” I thought, suitably chastised as I looked down at the floor in a pose of deep regret and guilt. Sadly my cunning plan didn’t work and I had to wait until after Christmas for the annuals to be slashed down to half price before getting my eager hands on them.
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So what to do? The thing is that there are SO many employees at Kolorines. At least twenty five people have contributed to the mosaic. These are basically poor people in our terms – Eli told me (rather pointedly I thought) that the mosaicists get paid about 900 pesos a week which is about £10 a day. Even by Mexican standards that is not a lot of money. I can’t help but remember Dolores and Alexander and that ‘night at the races’, even though I realise that it’s a ridiculous analogy – if that money hadn’t of been lost there it still wouldn’t have made any difference to Eli. Besides which, it was THEIR money and not mine, they are free to spend it as they wish. It is really none of my business – except that I was invited as a spectator – or more even – to participate – which I failed to do, which had naturally disappointed them. I remember as a child, being encouraged to write about what a waste of money the NASA space programme was, given that there are so many staving people in the world. We all responded earnestly and spewed out what our lefty teacher was expecting from us – had even PRIMED us to deliver. I can now see that the two things as completely separate issues – this is the same deal – if the money hadn’t been spent on putting a man on the moon then the LAST thing it would have been spent o would have been food for the poor. It just makes you think that’s all.
On my flight over here I chatted to the Mexican girl who sat next to me, she was a student of plastic technology – vacuum forming – that kind of thing. She was very well educated and intelligent. She told me that Mexico doesn’t have a middle class; you are either rich or poor. I didn’t really understand what she had meant at the time but I think I understand what she meant now.
Dolores and Alexander are clearly rich by Mexican standards and as we know from out bible studies, “To the rich shall be given and from the poor shall be taken away”. This quote always reminds me of chemistry, where every atom desires eight outer electrons for stability – thus if an element has seven electrons he will steal the extra one if mixed with an element who has only one outer one.
So full of good intensions, I went to Taxco - the town of silver. It was a beautiful place with many white houses and a fabulous cathedral. However the silver was simply overwhelming and knowing absolutely nothing about jewellery, I did what I often do when faced with so much choice – I bought none of it. I DID buy some millefiori beads though and I’ve asked Charlie to make a pair of earrings, a necklace and bracelet. I will give these to Eli – with the excuse that the mille will remind her of me – we have been using my mille in the mosaics.
One idea I have had is to buy about four HUGE cakes that I have seen in the Supermarkets. We can all have a celebratory slice when the mosaic is finished.
Eli tells me that I am the first person to compliment the ladies on the quality of their work. It’s apparent that they are not used to praise. If I compliment one of them in front of Luigi and ask him what he thinks about the section of mosaic in question, he will say something along the lines of “This one’s no good at – I’m thinking of giving her the sack” This is meant to be taken all in good fun – and indeed it is taken thus – but it has the effect of being a put down nonetheless. My personal feeling when working with other people is just that – to work WITH them. Not FOR them when I am the employee and not to treat others as though hey are working FOR me when the tables are turned, as in this case. My intention was always to make the mosaicists here feel part of something special, something that meant something. By demonstrating that I really cared about the mosaic, I was able to get them to care too. My mosaic work is all in the detail, often the changes that I was insisting on are small and may seem petty: the length of a hummingbird’s beak or the positioning of the highlight in its eye – but it is these very details that I feel make the difference between my work and somebody else’s. When people copy my mosaics and send them to me for my approval, (why?!) I feel that they never QUITE look the same – when I examine say, that frog, he isn’t looking back at ME, it looks dazed or worse dead. That old chestnut: ‘look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves’ can equally be converted to ‘pay attention to the details and the broader picture will emerge by itself.”

When I went to Taxco with Charlie I had every intension of buying him lunch. This turns out to be lunch for his sister and the taxi driver as well. Of course I didn’t mind, but I was a bit surprised that I was EXPECTED to pay for everything – that was the unspoken deal. I am not rich, but to their eyes, the very fact that I am here in the first place makes me appear so to them. At one point when we were browsing around the market stalls, Tania came to me and indicated that she wanted to show me something of interest. This turned out to be a man selling cold cans of fizzy drinks and it was my round! There was no word of thanks for any of this – in paying I was just fulfilling my duty – playing out my role and doing what I was supposed to do. In my line of work I inevitably mix with rich people – who else can afford the luxury of a Martin Cheek mosaic?! But even so, when taken out for dinner I always offer to pay my way – even if I know that my fellow diner is a millionaire. I also know that even millionaires experience cash flow problems from time to time.
I actually quite enjoy these moral dilemmas – especially those that have no right or wrong solutions and rely on one’s gut feelings for an end result. For example I was once sitting in the Chelsea Arts Club when the people at the table next to me started slagging off a dear friend of mine. I wanted to stand up for him, defend him, state his case but then again I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping should I? So what to do?

Martin Cheek 24.07.05

I decided to take my friend Polly’s advice and treat her comments as instructions. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t hand over the beautiful mosaic lily to Dolores. Frankly I was so shocked and disappointed in her when she presented me with a veritable tome of additional charges. Every sock that had been washed, that one shirt that I had asked to be ironed when I went dancing with the girls, each lemon, every single tortilla was listed. At first I assumed that the prices were in Mexican pesos as Maria Rosales, the Kolorines secretary, had assured me that the extra charges would be minimal. However there they were - in US dollars, Dolores currency of choice as witnessed by me on our ‘night at the races’. The food bill was particularly irksome because I had struggled greatly to eat the stuff put before me and had hardly touched any of it. My first day with Dolores had seemed promising – she took me to her freezer and began emptying the contents before me as a demonstration of how much she loved to cook. “Porky!” she announced proudly as held a dollop of scone like ‘stuff’. I was equally puzzled and intrigued by the various solid packages in all shapes, sizes and colours. I made all of the appropriate sounds of encouragement throughout this presentation.
I’ve found the diet hard to adjust to. I quickly learnt to give those mushy grey brown refried beans a wide birth, but despite this obvious precaution, I’ve still managed to work my way through an entire packet of Imodium, kindly given to me by my client. She passed them to me with comment but with a knowing look in her, which I was to learn the meaning of at this later stage. The instructions on the packet simply state: “Take one or two tablets after every loose movement”. I’ve now created more loose movements than Beethovan and the fact that toilet rolls are dispensed around here as if they were sheets of gold leaf, does not make life particularly relaxing. I always have to go and ask when I needed a new roll, which is happening with increasing regularity as the Mexican tummy settles in.
I got the feeling that Dolores realised that she was pushing her luck. She squared herself up as if to let battle commence. She was very bullish throughout as she insisted on going through her list. I had had enough by then and just wanted to cough up and go, but Dolores was determined to see this one through. Of course it was partly my fault for not getting this all straight from the beginning. The fact was that I was extremely tired when I first arrived at Dolores’s house and somehow we never got around to discussing this. Dolores seemed ready for a fight and I was equally determined to walk away. The fact that she was off to Acapulco in two days hence, where to quote “the casinos are better” seemed to me to be no small coincidence. I gave her the money and politely withdrew. It was the last time I ate with either of them, preferring from then on to take the cheaper option of eating out in restaurants.
Initially I was very sorry not to be able to join them both on their Acapulco trip – I had been cajoled into running a mosaic course – but after this episode I realised that I had had a lucky escape. I was beginning to wish more and more that she could have had better luck and a big win that ‘night at the races’ – I wonder if that would have made a difference?
This was about ten days before my departure but I only saw Dolores once after that fateful day. She leant out of the bedroom window and shouted after me. We had a long distance conversation like this, me on the lawn staring up at her with the sun in my eyes, her bawling down at me like the clichéd fish wife that I’d now decided that she resembled. Dolores admitted that Acapulco had gone badly, lady luck had not smiled on them in the casinos and it had rained throughout. Suddenly the prospect of that mosaic course didn’t seem so bad after all.

You can see pictures of my mosaics on my website: www.martincheekmosaics.com
The Barbados work is shown on page:
www.martincheekmosaics.com/html/barbados_floor.html

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