Friday, 14 September 2007

Cafe Tortoni

16 Jul 2007

Cafe Tortoni
Before parting, after an afternoon taking in the late sunshine, walking with tourists, talking in Castillano and shopping in San Telmo, on our way home my Argentine friend and I stopped by at Cafe Tortoni in Avenida de Mayo 825. She was keen to show me the cafe, one of the most famous landmarks here in Buenos Aires, and was amazed that I had survived for four months here without visiting this place.

The small queue outside is nothing remarkable. In the Capital Federal, people will form an orderly queue for any excuse...waiting for a bus, at the supermarket, waiting to go into a shop where the door has been closed due to the numbers inside, waiting outside a cinema or theatre. Within moments the doorman ushers us inside. A table for two. This is a marble table in the centre of a very large saloon. The walls are panelled with dark wood and mirrors. All around are pictures and photographs of the glitterati who had dined there, including of course Carlos Gardel and Jorges Borges. This is a place for artists, intellectuals, writers, thinkers, talkers, people with money, people with aspirations and people with dreams. We are amongst the latter category, aspiring to be all of the former. Around us are seated many others taking tea and eating delicious cakes topped high with cream and fruit. They look at us casually, but carefully. To enter this place you have to have a purpose. Is he a celebrity? A famous writer? Maybe a politician? He is wearing a suit. He is helping her with her coat. He must be English and very tall for Buenos Aires - over 6'2" and she is Argentine, elegant and at least 5'10". My friend leans towards me, teasingly whispering as if addressing the group of women at a nearby table "Stop looking, he's mine!" The waiter is splendid and arrives unnecessarily with a menu. I know my friend's choice. Obvious from the moment we met when she asked hopefully "Are either of your parents Swiss or Belgian"? We order two submarinos and chocolate mouse to share. Submarinos are exactly what they sound. A tall glass of hot milk on a decorative saucer. Alongside an oblong object wrapped in cellophane. I follow her lead and
unzip the envelope. Inside is a wonderful is, of course, in the shape of a submarine; it sinks slowly into the milk and diffuses. Five stirs later and a glass of hot chocolate is born. But the cake? Chocolate cake, topped with chocolate mouse, topped with chocolate, topped with cream. Two spoons. Two small glasses of sparkling water. Six minutes. Somewhere either above or beyond is the sound of a piano. Here, the sound of voices from every continent. Elegance, tea, pastries, glances, her fingers at the nape of his neck, their laughter, his newspaper, her book, and wafting between, the waiters carrying high above their heads trays with more delicacies to delight the afternoon. It is almost impossible not to get intoxicated by the atmosphere which has secured Cafe Tortoni's distinction since 1852. It is one of those unchanging places, neither changing from day to day nor year to year. Only the waiters and the portraits on the walls age. The rest drifts on a lost moment of elegance and sophistication which survived the economic crisis as it did numerous dictatorships and civic oppression. And for a moment, I am a part of it. Playing out a role as part of other's dreams, and dreaming myself.

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