On Sunday, Gabriel’s last day in Bueños Aires, we all decided to go on a little outing. I doubt he knew the risk he was running. Oh yes, he’d heard about our lurid travel tales, but they all happened in other time, another place. A miscalculation in the Alps last summer resulted in a needless two-hour vertical hike up and down a busy highway. A woman in Albania locked us in her house overnight, suspecting us of theft. Our trip to Montevideo last weekend turned into a kind of dental torture carnival. The list goes on, but you get the idea. Gabriel’s serene countenance, however, indicated full confidence in his ability to lead the expedition. After all, it was just a little outing in broad daylight in his home town, where he speaks the lingo. Yes, we would be walking around in the public domain, but fully under his supervision. What could possibly go wrong?
Our destination was the ward of San Telmo, a popular district near the CBD, known for its nice parks, good restaurants and sprawling open-air market. The taxi disgorged us onto Parque Lezama, the site where Conquistador Pedro de Mendoza is supposed to have landed in the first (failed) attempt to establish Bueños Aires in 1536. Ol’ Pedro arrived in the region on a mission to kill indigenous chiefs, grab the land and set up settler colonies especially around the River Plate. Unfortunately for him, he had a bad case of syphilis, which seems to have limited his activities and they had to have another go at settling the city later on.
It was a nice sunny morning, with lots of people out letting their dogs off-leash to frolic about on the grass. There were still a few late-sleeping homeless people on the benches and couples having a mid-morning picnic of coffee in thermoses and medialunas. Across the street we saw a church with pretty blue-and-white onion domes—the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holiest Trinidad. In the nineteenth century, Argentina accepted the second largest number of immigrants after the United States. Between 1881 and 1914 about 4.2 million people arrived, mostly from Europe (incidentally, Argentina has one of the largest Jewish populations in the Americas). Among these settlers were a few Greek, Slavonic, Lebanese and Syrian Orthodox believers. They gained Emperor Alexander II’s permission to construct an orthodox church and it opened in 1904.
“There’s a nice museum here, the National Historical Museum,” Gabriel said, pointing to a grand building at one corner of the park.
This building was a fancy mansion originally built for an American businessman named Charles Ridgely Horne. Horne was allied to the strongman Juan Manuel de Rosas, so he had to skeedaddle after Rosas’ downfall in 1853. He hurriedly sold his property to the wealthy landowner and general bigwig José Gregorio Lezama, by whose name the park is still known. The building is pretty grand for a dwelling, with a big front arcade, and seems to suit its current function of museum very well.
Propped up on the porch outside the entrance were a few oversized cardboard reproductions of historical Argentine figures with heads missing so you can take novelty photos. We entered the museum, whose door was guarded by a tall youth in a clean white shirt who greeted us formally and pointed to the cash register. Gabriel did all the preliminary arrangements and secured the tickets, which went for 50 pesos each (about US$1.25). When I showed the lady my camera with a question-mark face, she nodded but held up an admonishing finger, very serious:
Linguistic digression: ‘sin’ means ‘without’. If you want unbubbly water you ask for it ‘sin gas’. It is derived from the Latin ‘sine’ as are ‘sans’ in French, ‘senza’ in Italian and ‘sem’ in Portuguese. In short, I knew what the word meant and was totally clear about the protocol: before taking a picture, I had to turn the flash off.
So I turned my flash off and we launched ourselves into the museum proper.
First up there was a vast painting by Nicanor Blanes, a Uruguayan artist (1857-1895), entitled La conducción del cadáver de Lavalle en la quebrada de Humahuaca – Driving Lavalle’s Corpse by the Quebrada de Humahuaca (1889). This refers to the death of General Juan Lavalle (1797-1841). I was going to explain this episode, but honestly the whole Argentine history thing gives me a huge headache so just take my word for it, this was a dramatic event in the big nation-building bustle of the Southern Cone circa 1890. I liked the look of the painting—lots of gauchos, horses, ponchos—screeds of local color in short. So I took a photo.
Out of nowhere, a young woman appeared. Very pleasant, fresh-faced, kindly but firm.
“Por favor, Signora, sin flash.”
“Si, si!” I said to her, meaning to convey that I was well up with the play and knew all about the no-flash rule. She nodded and stepped back.
We sauntered into the next room. This was dripping with nice Conquistador-era iron work, paintings, helmets and what-not. I decided to get it all pixelized and, always remembering to press ‘no flash’, I started snapping away. Before each shot there was a little flicker of light, not technically a flash, but a glimmer. In the corner of my eye I saw the girl from the previous room walk in and confer gravely with her colleague assigned to this room. They were watching me closely. As I got busy in front of a 17th-century painting, they came over to me in a pair.
“Por favor, Signora, sin flash.”
“Si, si,” I said, with innocent eyes and showed the girl the camera setting. “Sin flash.”
“Ah,” she said doubtfully. They both stepped back again, but they clearly had me in their sights. I could see their feet twitch. The situation was making me feel sulky and perverse. My hackles were up. I’d pressed ‘no flash’ and therefore was technically at liberty to click at will. Let them take their beef up with the camera manufacturer! I took a picture of a sign and again the little glimmer flickered. Gabriel, possibly sensing my growing antagonism and the guards’ professional concern, made a tactful observation.
“The thing is, there is a flash when you take the photo, so that’s why…”
“Yes, I know, but it’s very small, it’s a pre-flash flash. Practically nothing! I’ve turned the switch off, see?”
We moved on into a small room. This time, three staff gathered to watch us, blocking our exit. They’d called for back up! I decided not to take any more photos. There wasn’t much of interest there anywhere, just an old piano and portraits of women in Jane-Austen wear with squashed little faces.
We sidled out of there and moved into a bigger room featuring some swords, epaulettes, and portraits of people who now have streets and plazas named after them: Rosas, Martin, Mitre… Then suddenly I saw an amazing gold contraption and had to get it. I raised the camera and clicked.
“Signora! Sin flash!” barked a little blonde woman who’d popped up at my elbow. Oh god. All right, I’ll put the damn thing away, I decided at last. She watched as I shoved it into my bag, making sure. Then her attention was caught by John, who had unwittingly stepped over a red line on the floor.
“Signore!” he jumped, realized his mistake, and moved back. But it was too late. The blonde lady and her partner, a tall guy, started stalking us. He saw a sign describing the War of the Triple Alliance and we all made a bee-line for it. This didn’t seem to be illegal in itself, but they followed us anyway. Who knew what we would do. John started to translate the sign in a clear voice that they clearly considered too loud but didn’t have a brief to condemn. Instead, they leaned forward, as if listening, watching for any illegal physical byplay.
Stuck by a tricky verb, John leaned back and put his hands on an adjacent stair rail.
“Signore!” boomed the man, excited, and made a motion with his hands for John to step away from the rail.
We moved along to the paintings on the wall, which depicted scenes from the war of the Triple Alliance—paintings done by Candido Lopez. John was busy quizzing Gabriel about the details when the blonde lady appeared again.
“Signore! La línea!”
“Oh boy, let’s get out of here!” John said and we all bustled out into the area in front of the museum, which had a bunch of Spanish cannons.
In order to cool down after this encounter, we headed to a well-known restaurant in the classic Buenos Aires style—one with white tablecloths and gentlemen waiters. John got good salmon, Gabriel got good steak and I got some delicious zapatillos rellenos con arroz. A zapatillo is a small green squash that looks a lot like a green tomato.
Post-prandial, we headed to look at the market. Gabriel patiently explained the following items of interest at our insistence.
A pulperia is where gauchos went to drink and saddle up.
Palito Ortega is an iconic Argentine singer who became Governor of Tucumán.
Llamitas are little llamas (Gabriel didn’t tell us that, we just figured it out).
The Eternaut is one of Argentina’s most famous comics.