Mario Cohen of Brital

'Which colour mobile would you like me to buy for you?' The voice behind me asked.

I turned around to see a middle aged pleasant looking well dressed man smiling at me. Thinking it was a joke I replied with chutzpah that I would like the shocking pink one! With that it was taken down and gift wrapped.

This was the 60s and the age of Kinetic Art and the craze for paper mobiles hanging from the ceiling were in. Kinetic Art was art from any medium that contained movement perceivable by the viewer or depended on motion for its effect. It's pioneers were Victor Vasarely and Alexander Calder in 1954.

We were in a gift shop at Schiphol, the airport of Amsterdam. I was returning from a posh wedding in Wassenaar. Both our flights were delayed and so KLM had given us luncheon vouchers. I was flying to London but my Jewish Italian companion, Mario Cohen, owner of The Brital Hosiery company in Buenos Aires, was going home to Montevideo where he was a resident. I didn't take much notice when he offered his red and black well designed business card showing a pair of ladies legs. I was never going to be going to Argentina, was I? It was rude not to accept his card, so I took it for a 'rainy day' not knowing that two years later I would need it!

Mario Cohen was an exhausted businessman with all the worries of his life on his shoulders. I suppose he must have been in his fifties. I was about 23 and this was mini skirt time.  In fact it would have 1967 or 1968. I recall we conversed in Italian as well as English. One thing I observed was he was very lonely. He told me he had moved out of the marital home and had more smiles, care and attention from the staff at his residential hotel than from his ex-wife. He told me that in a few weeks he would be coming to London, staying at The Dorchester and could he take me out to dinner and the theatre. Well, why not I thought? So thus I gave him my phone number. Of course in those early days I didn't have a calling card and had not yet become 'Jilliana'. I was just plain Jill, a name I loathed. Even worse was my birth name of Gillian. I had forgotten my attractive middle name, Tessa.

Having done some research on Google, I learned that his ex-wife became the famous international socialite billionaire philanthropist Lily Safra after their divorce. They produced three children who today have inherited the factory which produces wholesale expensive hosiery. Lily being 9 years younger than Mario married him in 1951 and divorced him in 1960. I guess if he is still alive, he would be 91. Lily, however, is still alive at 82 and had an unauthorised book written about her controversial life in 2010.  I noted with interest that we share the same birthday 30th December.

And so Mario and I went to the theatre. I recall he sat to my left in the front stalls but cannot remember what the performance was. After a while I felt his hand on my left knee. I recall gently removing it. Silence reigned and his 'pass' was never discussed. We had a lavish meal at the Savoy as it was close to the theatre and that was that so I thought. Our paths never to cross again. Of course I had little in common with an industrialist cum businessman but I had a nice pink mobile in my bedroom whirling in the air to remember him by. I was carefree in those days working for Global Tours, the third largest inbound and outbound tour operator in the U.K. in the Freddy Laker days of aviation before Easyjet.

An educational trip was offered for a week in Lisbon, Cascais  and Estoril. I decided to go with a work colleague called Carole, an ex show dancer. By now I spoke A level French and lower intermediate Italian which I had studied at Perugia University in 1966, the year of the famous Florence floods plus Italian-esque Spanish after two months hitching through France and Spain - one of my best adventures yet.

In 1959 I was film star crazy and had seen a stupid teen movie with Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. The opening shot impressed me. The camera circled around the Art Deco 1931 soapstone statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janiero, overlooking the Sugar Loaf mountain and Corcovado. I said to myself 'I will go there'.  I was to keep that promise.

I bought the mini Berlitz phrase book which had phonetic pronunciation as  I wanted to speak enough Portuguese for the trip. In my lunch hour I rushed down to the Portuguese Tourist office for tourist information and a map of Lisbon. The charming handsome manager said, and I quote,

'If there is anything I can help you with, don't hesitate to ask.'

I produced my phrase book like a magician demanding him to teach me the basic pronunciation in readiness for my trip. Rather amazed at my boldness, he tried to get out of it declaring he was from Madeira and had a different accent. What did  I care? I manipulated him into spending a few lunch hours with sandwiches teaching me until I had 'mastered' the basics.

Then I was off for an exciting week which would change the course of my life. In Lisbon i heard exciting Bossa Nova music and remembered the statue of Christ towering over the bay. That was it. The decision was made. I was going to emigrate to Rio! Travel not as a tourist but emigrate!  I had that in my head without researching the country! Young girls of 24 in 1968 did not go off into the wilderness without 'connections'. I had none!!! And I did!!

In the old days, one bought a ticket with mileage going to the furthest point. Buenos Aires was that point. But the fare in 1968 was £450 and I didn't have that kind of money. However, I knew that if I stayed a minimum of 2 years with Global, I would only have to pay 10% of the airfare. So I stayed on and went to the Casa do Brazil to learn Brazilian Portuguese. Portuguese with sugar Brazilians called their version of the language and it was. It was the most beautiful language that tugged at my heart strings and still does today.

I found Mario's card and wrote by on a blue aerogramme. Did he remember me I wrote? How could he forget me he wrote back! I asked him to find me a room with an Italian family in BA as I could not afford a hotel room on my meagre salary as a travel agent, that I would be coming in September and knew at that point no one. He had to be my saviour! My Jewish Christ. He wrote back he would see me when he returned from Uruguay and would send Nilda, his PA, to meet me at the airport. I flew with Aerolineas Argentinas from London to Sao Paolo, Ascuncion and finally BA. Now here comes the synchronicity bit. The flight magazine had a full page article of the industrialist of the month. None other than Mario Cohen of the successful hosiery company Brital with a black and white photograph. He looked dynamic.

True to his word, he organised and paid for two nights in a hotel, in his absence, with Nilda to be my companion but after that - nada! I was alone in the big city. Armed with only the Frommer guide, 'South America on $5 a day', which got me into the red light district by accident. I only saw the elusive Mario Cohen for dinner two months later on my last night in BA before moving on to Sao Paolo and finally the city of my teen dreams, Rio.

Written in the Roman Boutique Hotel, Paphos, Cyprus on 9/1/17.
(9 minutes)