Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Keeping Up With the Dead Joneses

We did a lot of things in Argentina that I haven’t mentioned in these reports. We toured the Buenos Aires Opera House, took a boat ride on the Rio de la Plata, saw a musical in Spanish and bought a beautiful leather jacket for our daughter in the Zona de Cuero (the leather district of Buenos Aires).

These were all interesting experiences, but one thing that I’ll always remember is visiting the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried. Eve Peron was the wife of Juan Peron, who was president (some would say dictator) of Argentina 3 times, the last after having been exiled for almost 20 years in a military coup.

Evita was a powerful political figure in Argentina, though she never held any office in the government. She was hugely popular among the poor and working members of Argentine society, but was viewed with suspicion and distrust by the ruling elite. She died of uterine cancer in 1951.

Now I don’t have any particular feelings for Eva Peron, but if you ever visit Argentina, you have to visit the Recoleta cemetery. It’s found in an exclusive district of Beunos Aires, and it’s full of mausoleums, one more grandiose than the next. It’s almost as though families competed for the coolest memorial. The mausoleums are not very large usually but they’re elaborate, ranging from Gothic to contemporary. They often have two floors: a chapel on the ground floor, and a spiral staircase leading down to the coffins in the basement. I have no idea how they get the coffins down there. The doors are locked, only available to family members.

There are rows and rows of them, all constructed by important members of Argentine society back in the time when such memorials were considered status symbols. Some are in disrepair, others are meticulously maintained. When we left the cemetery, there was a festival taking place nearby, with singers, jugglers and merchants. It was nice to jostle through a crowd of living people after immersing myself in the vanity of so many dead ones.


It was our last day in Argentina, so we headed back to the apartment to pack and settle up with the rental agent. Norberto’s cousin drove us to the airport around 11:00 pm, but after a week in Argentina, his driving seemed almost conservative. We said our goodbyes to Norberto’s family, boarded the plane about 2:00 am and flew to Panama. It was a nighttime flight, so most people tried to sleep.

The next morning, we arrived in Panama and, in typical Norberto fashion, we were the first in line at the gate for our return flight which was direct to Orlando. When the gate agent arrived, we were told that the flight had been overbooked. Because there were 7 in our party, the gate agent asked Norberto if we would be willing to give up our seats in exchange for compensation. A glimmer appeared in Norberto’s eyes that I have never seen before. Norberto is a judge, but he’s also a lawyer, and has the killer instincts of a lawyer. Plus, the prospect of getting something for free was irresistible. Copa airline offered us $500 travel vouchers each (transferable between family members), two hotel rooms in Panama while we waited for the next available flight, a free buffet luncheon at the hotel and a bus tour of the city.

He hastily conferred with us. His cousin Alex’s oldest son was being Bar Mitzvahed in Buenos Aires in May, and Norberto wanted to come back to Argentina for the event. If we took the airline’s deal, he could do it for nothing. My wife mentioned that she would like us to visit her family in Panama, so it looked like a pretty good deal for both families. Unfortunately, it was Sunday, and there were no more flights direct to Orlando that day. Everybody had to be back to work or school on Monday. Copa offered us seats on a plane to Miami that evening, so we took it, figuring we’d rent a van and drive back to Orlando.

The airline hustled us through customs and immigration, put us on a chartered bus and drove us to the Hotel El Panama, a 5-star hotel right in downtown Panama City. The rooms were luscious and roomy, and the buffet lunch was unbelievable. Shrimps the size of cucumbers, steaks, desserts – anything you wanted. We hopped on the bus, which took us to the Panama Canal and to a dockside shopping area overlooking the city and the Pacific Ocean.


When we returned to the hotel, we showered and then headed back to the airport. I wish we could have spent the night; it was a really nice hotel. In the terminal, Norberto found out that seat assignment had not yet been made by the airline, which infuriated him. “They had all day to give us seats together, and now they tell me that all they have left are scattered all over the plane!” He engaged in a lively, half-hour debate in Spanish with the entire desk crew, eventually scoring a compromise arrangement in which he was given a seat in Business Class, the kids and the women were seated together, and I had a seat by myself.

Unfortunately, shortly after we took off, Norberto was told that because of the last-minute arrangements, they didn’t have enough Business Class meals to serve him. He would have to eat coach food. You can imagine the volcanic stream of invective that spewed from him at this indignity, but the flight crew was helpless.

When we arrived in Miami, it was about 10:00 pm. Norberto had called ahead and reserved a 15-passenger van the size of the Starship Enterprise, and once we got on the highway, people started to nod off. Norberto was driving at his usual suicidal clip, so I insisted that I take over the wheel. The drive was long and boring, and everyone in the car was sleeping sitting up, their heads rocking back and forth like bobble-head dolls. After the visit to the cemetery, I felt like the driver of a hearse. Eventually, we made it safely home at about 4:00 a.m. Monday morning, about 14 hours behind our original schedule. By now we hadn’t been in a real bed for 42 hours. Aside from the long, deathmarch ending, it was an extraordinary trip, full of memorable moments. I’d like to do it again sometime, after I catch up on my sleep.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Contraband in the Presidential Palace

Whenever my wife and I travel, we buy a coffee mug to add to our collection, which brings back memories of our travels. For some reason on this trip we couldn’t seem to find just the right mug, no matter where we looked.

One afternoon, Norberto took us to Café Tortoni, a beautiful old restaurant that has become something of a tourist destination. In its heyday, it was a gathering place for artists and intellectuals, who are commemorated by bronze busts and paintings. It’s all Tiffany glass and dark wood paneling, bustling with activity, the waiters scurrying between tables.

Eventually, the waiter slid up to the table and took our drink orders. I ordered coffee, but everyone else ordered soft drinks or bottled water. He was a bit long returning, and Norberto began a slow burn. The waiter seemed stressed and distracted, and messed up the lunch orders not once, but three times. This is the kind of thing that Norberto’s family fears, because if there’s one thing Norberto expects, it’s good service. And Norberto isn’t shy about expressing his displeasure.

It wasn’t long before Norberto was chewing the waiter out in Spanish, up one side and down the other, demanding to see the manager. While this was going on, I finished my coffee and noticed that the cup was very nice, emblazoned with the charming Art Deco Café Tortoni logo, which clearly stated “Buenos Aires, Argentina.” So I casually slipped it under my hat, which was resting on the table, and walked out with it after Norberto paid the bill and stiffed the waiter.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten our next destination. We walked down the street, across the Plaza de Mayo and into the Visitor’s Center in the Casa Rosada, (literally, the “Pink House”) which is the seat of the Argentine government. It’s where the President of the country has his office, although it’s not his official residence, unlike the White House. Norberto had arranged a tour for us, and there I was, clutching a stolen coffee cup, clearly marked with the name of its owner. Worse, the entire building was surrounded by riot police setting up high steel barricades in anticipation of a political demonstration. I could feel their eyes on me as they buckled on their bulletproof body armor.


We were herded to the main entrance, guarded by two stone-faced soldiers with sharp-looking swords. We had to pass through a metal detector, so I was grateful I hadn’t stolen any cutlery.


The building, unfortunately, had seen better days. Paint was peeling and parts of the façade were crumbling. But we were soon informed that the building was undergoing a major renovation both inside and out in anticipation of the bicentennial, occurring in four years. I would have loved to take some photos, but it was forbidden.

The entire inside of the building is built with liberal use of Italian marble and French bronze chandeliers. It’s similar to many 18th century European palaces, very ornate and heavily gilded. We were followed around the entire time by Secret Service guys wearing little earpieces.

When we exited, we passed by the Ministry of the Economy, which is still pockmarked by bullet holes from the military coup that unseated Juan Peron in 1955.


As we returned to the front of the building, the demonstration was in full force, and we walked up towards the barricades to see what it was all about. It turned out to be a fairly minor event, with some students, some drums and a few signs. But the police don’t take any chances in this country, where presidents are tossed out with alarming frequency. I must say I felt better when we got past the guards and the barricades and I had that coffee cup hidden safely in my luggage.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Cow-Foot Tea

We were constantly amazed by the quantity, quality and low cost of food in Argentina. The cuisine is more European than traditional Hispanic food. It’s not spicy at all. In fact, they don’t even use black pepper. You won’t find a pepper shaker on any restaurant table, and if you ask for it, the waiter will go into the kitchen and rummage around until he finds a grinder on a shelf somewhere.

Argentines are meat-eaters. The broad plains of the Pampas are ideal for raising cattle, and Argentine beef is revered all over the world. Argentine leather is highly prized because they don’t use barbed wire in Argentina, leaving the hides unscarred.

Because of the currency exchange rate, you can have a steak dinner for $4 - $5. The cuts of meat differ slightly from the U.S., but the standard options are “lomo” (filet mignon), “chorizo” (sirloin) and “vacio” (flank steak). The meat is usually grilled, and the traditional gaucho method is to skewer it on a long, sword-like bar and drive the pointed end into the earth beside a hot wood fire. Whole sides of beef are often set up this way, with cuts being sliced off as they are ordered. While this is dramatic and charming, it means that some of the meat may be cooked to the point of near-incineration.

Meal portions are enormous, and at one memorable dinner, Norberto’s cousin and his wife took home a package of leftover filet mignon the size of an Oxford Unabridged Dictionary which they intended to feed to their dog, Cero, who must have felt like he hit the lottery.

Since quality beef is so inexpensive and plentiful, Argentines take it for granted. You can get a filet mignon in any restaurant, no matter how small or off the beaten path. However, not all cuts of beef lend themselves to grilling, so the Argentines have a variety of other dishes that use the less desirable cuts. For one thing, cow guts are popular items found on the menu in every fine restaurant. We’re talking about kidneys, tripe, sweetbreads and blood sausage. Whenever I would ask what a particular beef dish actually was, Norberto’s cousin had this unnerving habit of pointing to himself to indicate where the item was removed from the cow.

They also do some weird things I have seen nowhere else. There’s a dish I tried called “matambre.” It’s made by taking two flat pieces of poached flank steak or brisket, sandwiching sliced hard-boiled eggs, carrots, spinach and onions between them, and then gradually squishing it flat over a period of several days in a press resembling a medieval torture device. This process squeezes out all of the juice, texture and flavor, producing a tough, dry, indigestible dish that is served cold to unwary diners.

However, the restaurant experience itself is wonderful. Waiters are seasoned professionals, always men over 40, always in crisp uniforms. They never write down an order, no matter how many in the party. Restaurants are clean, quiet and efficient. Norberto took us to a restaurant called the “Palacio de Papas Fritas,” which translates to “Palace of French Fries.” Now, you might assume this to be some kind of greasy burger joint adjacent to a carnival, but it’s a fine restaurant. They have a secret recipe for French fries that involves blanching in ice water. The result is delicate and puffy, like nothing I’ve tasted anywhere.


People in Argentina drink a lot of Coca-Cola and bottled water. There’s nothing wrong with the tap water, they just don’t drink it. However, the national drink is something called “yerba mate” (YER-bah MAH-tay), or just “mate” for short. It’s a kind of tea made from a South American plant, NOT from a tea plant. Norberto says it tastes like wet grass clippings, but everybody in Argentina drinks this stuff. Businessmen, policemen, shopkeepers – everybody drinks mate all day long. Argentines claim that there is no caffeine in mate, but I found it enervating.

Mate is an Argentine social lubricant, typically served among friends. First of all, you need a mate cup. A mate cup is traditionally made from a small brown gourd, often decorated with carvings and silver ornaments. However, they are also made of wood, ceramic, silver and my personal favorite, the hoof of a cow (here’s a picture of some we found in a flea market, nestled among the bric-a-brac). My wife absolutely refused to let me buy a cow-foot cup, so I wound up with a stupid old gourd with the word “Argentina” carved in it.


When friends gather, one cup is brought out, and a spoonful of loose dried ground mate leaves is added. It looks a lot like oregano in loose form, but it’s also available in teabag form, although no self-respecting Argentine would prepare it that way. Then, sugar is added if desired, and you pour boiling water over it to fill the cup. A metal straw with a screen over the end is placed into the cup and you drink the mate until the cup is empty. Then you pass the cup to the next person, who pours boiling water over the mate again and consumes it. This continues until the mate loses its flavor. Then it’s dumped out and the entire process is repeated. I’ve been told that at larger gatherings, there may be three cups going around: One plain, one with sugar, and one with Sweet and Low.

People drink mate at work. I saw riot police at a political demonstration preparing mate in the back of a paddy wagon using a portable propane cooker. Everybody drinks it from traditional cups, not from ceramic coffee cups. There’s a story that a local bank created a rule banning mate consumption on the job, which was hastily rescinded when productivity fell through the floor.

I brought some mate teabags back with me, wondering if anyone would be interested in trying it. We saw police dogs sniffing the baggage when we entered the country, so I assume it doesn’t contain anything illegal.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Squeegee People

The neighborhood where we stayed in Buenos Aires consists primarily of apartment buildings, most 7 – 10 stories tall. However, one block away was Avenida Santa Fe, which is a bustling shopping district, similar to Fifth Avenue in New York. The streets are fairly narrow, although Buenos Aires boasts the widest avenue in the world, Avenida Nueve de Julio. You could land a 747 on the median.

The narrow streets form a canyon effect, so street noise is a bit of a problem, but you get used to it very quickly. Once you’re off the main avenue, the streets are fairly quiet, with occasional restaurants, taverns, bakeries, and my personal favorite, the “Locutorio.” A Locutorio is a little store where you can buy candy, cigarettes and soft drinks. They also have a few phone booths where you can make an international phone call for reasonable rates, and a few computer terminals where you can check your e-mail, write a letter or do your homework for about 15 cents a minute. But the keyboards are Spanish. They need room for the upside-down question mark, the upside-down exclamation point, the N with the little wiggly line over it, and more. So they left off the “at” sign (@). This means that anybody in any Spanish-speaking country who sends you an e-mail had to press ALT-64 to insert the “at” sign in your address, so give them credit for perseverance.

Every morning, I’d wake up at my usual time while my wife and daughter slept. I’d go out to the street and walk less than a block to the nearest panaderia (bakery), which was called the “Cafeteria Sudamerica” for coffee and fresh pastries. They have a few tables in there for the customers who like to sip their coffee and browse the newspaper before heading off to work. The first time I went in there, I stumbled through the order, because I didn’t know how to say “to go” in Spanish (“para llevar”). The owner was very patient with me, and we eventually came to an understanding. I ordered 3 Cafés con Leche, and a half-dozen fresh rolls, usually “medialunas,” which are the Argentine equivalent of croissants, but more chewy and honey-glazed. From that first day forward, whenever I entered the Café Sudamerica, the owner instantly sprang forward to begin preparing my order without my having to say a word.

When my order was complete, the owner put the three coffees in a plastic bag so I could carry them back to the apartment. The coffees tipped and dripped in the bag, so it was a bit of a challenge. Nowhere in Argentina did I see anyone carrying beverages in one of those fold-out cardboard carriers. I also never saw a soft drink fountain anywhere, not even in the soccer stadium. When you order a soft drink in Argentina, you get a bottle, or the drink is poured into a cup for you from a bottle. If you use this information to make a fortune, please remember where you found out about it.

We’d sip the delicious South American coffee and munch on the pastries while my wife and daughter slowly regained consciousness. It was the nicest part of the day, in my opinion.


As I strolled around the neighborhood, I noticed that the city sidewalks are different than those they have in the U.S. They’re composed of paving blocks, not concrete. This is because the water, sewer and electrical lines run under the sidewalk, not the street. To avoid noisy jackhammer operations, paving blocks are used to ensure that the noise of repairs are kept to a minimum in those residential neighborhoods. This sounds like a very civilized solution, but of course, it’s got a major problem.

Bright and early every morning, all over Buenos Aires, business owners and building managers come out to the sidewalk carrying a hose and a long-handled squeegee. They then hose off the sidewalk in front of their establishment or residence, and squeegee the water into the gutter. This fastidious behavior, while praiseworthy, seems unnecessary, because the sidewalks simply don’t get that dirty in 24 hours. Yet somehow, some enterprising squeegee salesman has convinced an entire city of 8 million people that they NEED this gizmo. The problem is that every day, those sidewalks are doused in water, which seeps between the paving blocks, and erodes the earth supporting them from beneath. The sidewalks look beautiful when they’re first completed, but over a little bit of time, some of the paving blocks start to rock unexpectedly when you step on them, threatening to pitch you into the gutter. As more time passes, the blocks sink or break until the sidewalk resembles a military obstacle course, and every day, some moron squeegees it off.

This concept of unnecessary cleanliness appeared all over Argentina, in very unlikely places. When we were visiting the city center, we saw a guy up on a ladder washing the traffic lights. In the central train station, I saw the owner of a newsstand dusting his magazines with a feather duster. Dude, if you have to dust off your magazines, maybe dirt is not your biggest problem.washinglights

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Cherrybombs

Before we left the United States, Norberto asked if we’d be interested in seeing a soccer game in Buenos Aires, offering to arrange it ahead of time. Now, I realize that while soccer is a comparatively minor sport in the US, it’s a big deal in the rest of the world. So I thought seeing a game in a country that is always a contender in World Cup tournaments would be exciting and interesting.

Soccer in Argentina follows the European “athletic club” model. A group of people forms a club, and individual members pay dues. The club uses the dues to provide practice facilities, compete in tournaments, and pay salaries to club employees. Thus, the members “own’ the teams fielded by the club, and have a financial and emotional interest in their success or failure. The better the team fares, the more people purchase memberships. The more members, the more income. The more income, the nicer the facilities. The best clubs have their own athletic complexes with Olympic-size swimming pools, tennis courts, gymnasium and a stadium that seats 70,000 - 90,000 people. They field lots of teams in various sports, in all divisions from pee-wee league up to professional level.

However, in Argentina, the business of club operation means little, if anything. It’s the emotional component that drives the entire industry. In Argentina, soccer isn’t a business, it’s a religion. Worse, it’s a religion equivalent to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. People are fiercely loyal to their favorite team, and will defend their honor to the death, if necessary. You don’t wear your favorite team jersey in certain parts of town if you know what’s good for you.

When the day of the game approached, Norberto informed me that we were going to see a match between the Argentine team called Velez-Sarsfield, and a Peruvian team called Universitario. “I won’t take you to one of the crazy games,” he said. He was referring to the teams called Boca and River, the perennial first and second place rivals in Argentine soccer. Their fans are insane, and the teams they play have equally insane fans.

When we arrived at the stadium, we were frisked by armed police, not rent-a-cop security guards. We had nice seats at midfield, and I noticed a long inflatable tube running from the side of the stadium out to midfield. This tube was the means that players used to enter the stadium. Norberto informed me that it was to protect the players from things thrown by fans. “Sometimes the fans want to kill the players,” he remarked. “That’s why they frisk you when you enter.” I guess they don’t have “bat day” in Argentina.


The next thing I noticed was that the midfield sides and one end of the stadium were occupied. The empty end was reserved for opposing fans, who had endured a long bus ride over the Andes from Peru, and were ushered into the stadium shortly before kickoff. Their section of the stadium is segregated from the rest of the stadium by high fences covered with razor wire. It was unclear whether these fences were to keep them in, or the rest of the stadium out. As it turns out, it’s both.

They don’t serve beer at soccer matches in Argentina, or as Norberto pointed out, “People would be killed.” In fact, the service areas pretty much limit themselves to Coca-Cola and bags of chips. This is because people aren’t there for food. Soccer fans don’t care about nachos.

As the Peruvian fans entered, I noticed some of them laboring under huge burdens, large packages that required as many as four men to carry. These were cloth banners that when unfurled, stretched 50 or 60 feet long and 5 feet high, bearing what I assumed were inspirational team messages, or possibly vile insults.

On the Velez end, similar banners had been deployed, and those fans began to sing some kind of team fight song that everyone in the stadium knew. There are at least a dozen of these songs, known to every fan, and they’re different for every team. Some are accompanied by mysterious gestures. The Peruvians, for their part, sang some other song in retaliation. I realized that the ends of the stadium were reserved for the most rabid fans. They don’t even have seats there, it’s just concrete steps on which people stand.

Once the players entered and the entry tube was deflated, the game began to a huge roar from the stands. Within the first 5 minutes, the Peruvian team scored a goal, and the Peruvian fans went into a frenzy, beating on huge drums and jumping up and down. Some rushed the fences and climbed halfway up to the razor wire, as if threatening to come over the top. No sooner had I turned my attention back to the field when a cherrybomb went off at the Peruvian end of the field, scaring the crap out of me. Didn’t they frisk those people?

Minutes later, the Velez team scored, and the crowd went crazy, roaring and singing, waving signs and banners, screaming “AMARILLO!!!” at the referees when one of the Peruvian players argued the legality of the goal. The game got serious then, and the Peruvians scored twice more before halftime, leading the match 3 - 1. Cherrybombs were going off at regular intervals now, setting my nerves on edge.

In the second half, the Velez team scored three times, winning the match 4 - 3 in an exciting comeback victory. The tube was inflated, the teams left the field, and a swarm of police in riot gear began ushering out the disgruntled Peruvian fans. The Velez fans were not permitted to leave the stadium until the Peruvians exited, boarded their bus, and departed. This was to prevent murders in the parking lot. Norberto said that at the Boca and River games, the home team fans often wait for 1 - 2 hours after a match before they are allowed to leave.

When we finally left the stadium, I considered buying a jersey, but to tell the truth, I was afraid to wear it, even in the United States. We jumped in a cab, and the driver had the post-game show on the radio. “Did you like the game?” he asked, in broken English. “Good game, yes?” We agreed with him enthusiastically. “This,” he said, pointing at the radio, “is my life.”

Sunday, March 19, 2006

It's Not a Rule, It's More Like a Guideline

Argentines are considered by other Hispanics to be somewhat arrogant. They have a lot to be proud of, with a long history and a rich culture. However, they do demonstrate a disdain for common rules. I witnessed an example of this in the Buenos Aires Zoo, where a man calmly fed pieces of his sandwich to a toucan in a cage, right next to a sign posted on the cage that clearly stated, “Do Not Feed The Animals.” My friend Norberto shrugged and said, “Welcome to Argentina.”

Nowhere is this casual arrogance more obvious than on the roadways. The daily commute is a competitive sport in Argentina, and there is no thrill ride available in any amusement park that can equal the sphincter-clenching terror of a cab ride to the mall.

Lane markings are largely ignored, treated as mere decorations. Stop signs are beneath contempt. In fact, it seems that the vast majority of intersections in Buenos Aires are uncontrolled, possessing neither stop signs nor traffic lights. Busses, trucks, cabs and private vehicles charge into them with apparent disregard for cross-traffic. Parking lanes are used as driving lanes whenever there is a stretch of 5 or more empty parking spaces.

Remarkably, there seem to be few accidents, so it can’t be pure anarchy. I can only attribute this to an informal, unwritten rule structure to which Argentine drivers adhere. For example, if two vehicles are attempting to occupy the same lane, the one who honks his horn first wins. If neither honks, they simply occupy the same lane, mere inches from one another at 50 or 60 miles an hour.

Buenos Aires is a beautiful city, full of breathtaking European architecture. But throughout the city, wires are strung willy-nilly from building to building, as though everybody is stealing cable TV from each other.


Argentines, according to Norberto, pay their taxes in an amount corresponding to their belief in the stability of their government. In other words, they seldom pay anything close to the amount they actually owe, which in turn makes the government less stable, which means they pay even less the following year.

On the other hand, the Argentine people are remarkably civilized, lining up in orderly fashion at bus stops, even though bus stops are unmarked in any way. These mysterious locations must be passed on from father to son, mother to daughter.

Restaurant dining is considered serious business, the food is expertly prepared and the waiters are highly professional. However, Argentine diners simply ignore “No Fumare” signs, lighting up cigarettes wherever they damn well please.

Graffiti is just as much of a problem in Argentina as it is in any large city, but it’s almost all political. Because political parties are organized, Argentine graffiti is painted by professional sign-painters. They do a very nice job, considering the fact that they’re defacing private property. The graffiti is like a metaphor for the Argentines themselves: Elegant, professional, but in your face whether you like it or not.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Purgatory Key and the Missing Empanada

Our apartment in Buenos Aires was located in a nice district, and looked very presentable from the outside, with a covered entryway. We buzzed the apartment and the rental agent showed up a minute later, opened the entryway door, and brought us into the lobby, which was all brass and marble. He showed us around a corner to the elevators.

There were two elevators, each slightly larger than a standard telephone booth. They were equipped with inner and outer manually-operated metal grid doors, which you had to close when you left, or the elevator wouldn’t move for the next tenant who tried to call it to their floor. However, if the elevator was on another floor, you could open the outer door, which was convenient for suicide attempts.

Our apartment was on the 7th floor. It consisted of a small living/dining area with a small balcony, a small kitchen, a tiny laundry room with a tiny washing machine, a hallway with two small bedrooms and two bathrooms. One bathroom was small, the other was ridiculously small. In other words, the apartment was small. But we were only three people, so I wasn’t complaining. In fact, I grew fond of its Spartan efficiency. The second bathroom seemed like a useless waste of space, valuable only if one member of the family was stricken with some kind of intestinal disorder, which I hoped was unlikely.

The rental agent showed us the apartment, how to work the various fixtures and appliances, and gave us two sets of keys. The first thing I noticed was that the keys were radically different from any I had ever seen.


The first key was shaped like keys we use at home, but instead of serrated notches, it had little dimples impressed into the metal. This was the key to the downstairs door. You needed it to get into the building, and you also needed it to get OUT of the building. In other words, if you didn’t have a key, you couldn’t leave. I have no idea what they did in case of a fire.

The apartment key was like a double skeleton key. The door to the apartment had a horizontal oval opening into which you inserted the key. This opening was larger than the key itself, so the key rattled around in there until you found just the right spot, then you could turn it to withdraw the deadbolt. In theory.

When the rental agent left, we unpacked and waited for Norberto and his boys to arrive from his apartment. He rang our apartment bell and I picked up the phone to make sure it was him. Then my daughter and I went downstairs to let him in. They don’t seem to believe in electrically-operated door latches in Argentina. He wanted to see our apartment, so we rode the coffin-like elevators back up, and I discovered to my dismay that I could not open the door with the door key. Norberto gave it a try, and he couldn’t open it either.
The rental agent was long gone, and the sheet of paper with his phone number was inside the apartment. We spent 20 frustrating minutes trying to open that door.

We couldn’t find the building manager, but we did stop a tenant on his way out, and he graciously came up to the apartment with us, and with a simple twist of the wrist, opened the door. We tried to call the rental agent, but he was unavailable, so we decided to go out to dinner. We left the apartment and closed the door. Just for an experiment, I tried to open it again. Of course, it didn’t work. I began to panic, unable to understand this ridiculous puzzle.

Norberto suggested we eat first, then screw around with the door later. We went to a little restaurant nearby, and everybody ordered empanadas, a local type of fast food. They’re available filled with ground beef, cheese, vegetables, chicken, and for some reason, corn. Everyone ordered ground beef, but I ordered cheese. The waiter returned a few minutes later, serving everyone except for me. I barely noticed as I sat there seething in rage at this problem with the key. I was thousands of miles from home, unable to operate one of the most common machines available to mankind. I was stuck in an emotional limbo between hope and despair.

Norberto, seeing my inner turmoil, attempted to calm me down. However, I was contemplating a night of homelessness in a foreign city, and was inconsolable. Suddenly I noticed that the kids had finished eating, and I still had not yet been served. “WHERE’S MY EMPANADA?” I demanded, my head swiveling for the waiter. No apartment, no food, it just kind of overwhelmed me. “BRING ME MY GODDAMN EMPANADA!”

The waiter appeared magically, with my empanada on a plate. The kids were now watching me warily. The empanada was hissing and steaming, nearly the temperature of molten copper. It was inedible, the cheese boiling and oozing, resembling red-hot lava encased in flaky dough. So I sat, miserable and angry, waiting for entropy to drain the heat from my meal, and the rage from my soul.

Eventually, the empanada cooled, we returned to the apartment, screwed around with the key for a little while and soon discovered the magical secret that 8 million people in Buenos Aires already knew. And no, I’m not going to tell you how to open the door. Go to Buenos Aires and figure it out for yourself. Have an empanada.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Two Norbertos

Our trip to Argentina was suggested by our friend Norberto, who is a native of that country. He visits Argentina frequently, and was excited by the prospect of showing us around. Norberto used to be in the travel business, so he takes extreme pride in finding airline and lodging deals. We let him poke around on the Internet for a few days, and he proposed the following scenario:

He and I would drive to Miami with the kids and the luggage late on a Thursday night, arriving in the wee hours of the morning. On Friday morning we would fly from Miami to Panama, change planes, and fly from Panama to Buenos Aires, arriving in the early evening on Friday. The wives would fly down from Orlando on Saturday afternoon, arriving very early on Sunday morning.

Norberto had arranged for two furnished apartments in Buenos Aires. Because the Argentine peso is valued at 3 to 1 versus the dollar, the accommodations were incredibly cheap. A week in a furnished apartment in Buenos Aires costs about the same as a nice hotel for one night in New York.

So at 11:30 pm on Thursday, we piled into a rented van and hit the Florida Turnpike. Within half an hour I realized the flaw in the plan. We would never make it to Buenos Aires, because we would all be crushed or burned to death in a horrible traffic accident. Norberto is a judge, and like many judges, considers himself basically immune from prosecution for all but capital crimes. He drove 95 miles an hour the entire way. The 4-hour drive to Miami was over in 2 and a half hours. I left claw marks in the foam padding of the dashboard, and ground half a gram of calcium off the crowns of my teeth during the ride.

We were first in line at the airline counter when it opened for business at 4:00 am, where Norberto argued in Spanish with the desk agent for half an hour to get the seats he wanted. I must admit, it worked. I sat in an exit aisle and had plenty of leg room.

The 2 and a half hour flight to Panama was uneventful, other than the argument Norberto had in Spanish with the gate agent in Panama to ensure that we got the seats he wanted. Once again, Norberto came through, and I enjoyed the same exit aisle seat for the 7-hour flight to Buenos Aires.

When we arrived, we were met by his cousin, who is also named Norberto. Norberto number two helped us load our luggage into the car, then drove us on a picturesque route through the evening streets of Buenos Aires, at approximately 95 miles an hour.

We wove in terrifying patterns through the traffic, occasionally occupying a lane with another vehicle. We were never farther than 6 inches from another car, bus or truck. Norberto flicked his headlights and tooted his horn at random intervals, made casual conversation in broken English, careened recklessly through intersections, pointed out historic landmarks, and steered with his knees while lighting a cigarette. When we arrived at our apartment, I was a whimpering wreck. For 10 hours I had been hurtling through the atmosphere at half the speed of sound, but I was never so terrified as I was when riding in a car with either Norberto behind the wheel.