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.

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