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Mario Cohen of Brital
by Jilliana Ranicar-Breese

'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 and caring from the staff at his 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 nice middle name, Tessa.

Having done some research on Google, I learned that his ex wife became the famous worldwide 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 so she, too, is a Capricorn.

And so Mario and I went to the theatre. I recall he sat to my left in the front stalls. After a while I felt his hand on my left knee. I remember 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 and of 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.

Then an educational tour was offered to me 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 average 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.

Earlier in the late 50s I had seen a stupid teen movie with Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. The opening shot impressed me. It was the Art Deco statue of Christ in Rio de Janiero overlooking the Sugar Loaf mountain. I said to myself 'I will go there'.

I bought the mini Berlitz phrase book which had phonetic pronunciation as  I wanted to speak enough Portuguese for the trip. I rushed down to the Portuguese Tourist office for a map of Lisbon. The handsome manager said to me 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 and said I wanted 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 he had a different accent. What did  I care? I manipulated him into spending a few lunch hours with sandwiches until I had 'mastered' the basics.

Then I was off for an exciting week which would change the course of my life. I heard Bossa Nova music and remembered Corcovado. That was it. 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!!!

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 fare. So I stayed on and went to the Casa do Brazil to learn Brazilian Portuguese. Portuguese with sugar they called it and it was the most beautiful language that tugged at my heart strings and still does today.

I found Mario's card and wrote to him by hand 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, that I would be coming in September and knew at that point no one. He had to be my saviour! 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 less than Mario Cohen of the successful hosiery company Brital with his black and white photograph looking in command and 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, the zona rossa, by accident, I only saw the elusive Mario Cohen for dinner two months later on my last night 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.