Dinner with the President

Ron Karpinski  2006


On a recent Wednesday evening in August, a group of local men met for their monthly "Wine and Dine," a congenial gathering for dinner and quiet conversation.  Responsibility for hosting the event rotates on a regular basis, and attendance varies, depending on who is available.  Each occasion provides an opportunity to renew bonds, sample fine cuisine, and down a few glasses of robust red.

      Five men attended on this night: Mike, Robert, Hans-Joachim, Stephan, and myself.  The others are all Swiss, old pals, and have been meeting like this for many years.  They allow my occasional presence because Robert invites me, my German is good, and I tell funny stories.

      This month's social took place at the "Restaurant da Angela," a small but elegant family-run Italian eatery nestled in a working-class suburb of Zurich.  The building has stood in the same location, the decor virtually unchanged, for over forty years.  Mama Calvi-Rivera, matriarch of the family, has personally supervised the kitchen for all this time, establishing a large and loyal customer base.

 Mama Calvi-Rivera, over eighty years old, had grown tired and could no longer maintain the grueling pace of overseeing such a large operation five days a week; and no one else in the family had the skills to replace her.  Sadly, the restaurant would close its doors forever on the following Monday.

     That is one reason why Mike selected Restaurant da Angela for this month's Wine and Dine; to be able to say, years from now, that we ate there in the last week of its storied existence, to gaze once again upon the ornate furnishings, and to banter over one last meal with old Dario, the head waiter.

     The second reason Mike chose Restaurant da Angela was personal.  He wanted to savor his favorite appetizer, a tasty dish called "capeletti."  Capeletti is served in a medium-sized bowl, nothing exotic, just a large mound of thin pasta balls about one inch in diameter; but each pasta ball is filled with a tender, ground, garlic-flavored meat of unknown origin that literally melts in your mouth.

Soon came my turn to order.  I had wanted only a calf steak with butter rice and lemon sauce; but Dario would not leave the table until I, too, had ordered an appetizer.  Hans-Joachim, a man of many tongues, listened to Dario's rapid and insistent Italian and nodded his agreement.  Knowing not a word of Italian myself, I acquiesced to his better judgment, . . . and hoped for the best.

When the appetizers arrived, I thought surely there had been a mistake, that they had brought the main course instead, a spaghetti bowl piled high with angel hair pasta and seasoned with small chips of roasted garlic.  Apparently, no dish escapes Mama's kitchen without a liberal sprinkling of garlic.

     Although it tasted absolutely delicious, the volume concerned me.  How could a person possibly eat a calf steak after all this heavy pasta?  As always, the Italians had the answer.  A full hour passed between the arrival of the appetizers and the serving of the main course -- plenty of time for the stomach to settle.

We attacked our food, sipped wine, and swapped stories.  Before long, an attractive middle-aged woman, slim and dark-haired, entered the restaurant with a younger man.  The establishment had perhaps twenty tables, but only five or six were taken.  The woman glanced about the dining room and chose the table adjacent to ours.

Dario approached the newcomers quickly and spoke with some deference, so I assumed they were regular patrons of long standing.  I returned my attention to the conversation at our table.

      A few minutes later, Robert leaned forward and whispered, "Don't look now, Ron, but the President of Switzerland just walked in."

      I did not look, instead holding his gaze, but my face must have registered mild astonishment.  Before I could say anything, Robert continued.  "That's the way we do it here in Switzerland.  We allow our President to enjoy his private life.  We do not pester him in public or ask for his autograph or any other nonsense like that.  When he is alone with his family in the evening, we respect his privacy. This is possible in a small country with only seven million inhabitants.  As you can see, he is completely alone -- no body guards, no aides, no entourage of any kind."

      Indeed, an unassuming man of medium height and build had entered the restaurant alone.  He had receding gray hair and wore a plain blue suit with contrasting dark blue shirt open at the collar.  He walked directly to the table next to ours and joined the woman and young man.  Mike said, "I thought I recognized her.  That's his wife, and the young man might be their son."

      Other patrons barely raised their heads. No one, other than Dario, approached the President's table.  The family was left completely alone and relaxed for nearly three hours in quiet conversation.  I wondered how the same scene might play in an American restaurant if George Bush walked in.

*          *          *          *          *

 Moritz Leuenberger (born 1946) is, indeed, the President of Switzerland; or, more precisely, he is the President of the Swiss Confederation.  (He also served as president in 2001.)  He is not the head of state; but he does preside at meetings of the Federal Council.  The council governs, and, if there is a tie in any vote, the president's ballot decides the issue.

 The president's role is largely ceremonial.  He delivers nationally televised speeches to the nation on special occasions, such as New Year's Day, the Swiss National Holiday (August 1), and in response to world events of great importance.  The president is elected to a one-year term.  The current term began on January 1, 2006, and Leuenberger will step down on December 31, 2006.

*          *          *          *          *

 For the remainder of the evening, I tried not to peek in the president's direction; but he did glance at me once.  Perhaps my voice carried too far, and he noted that I spoke high German rather than the preferred Swiss dialect -- and with a foreign accent -- and he might have been contemplating booting me out of the country.  I hunkered down and tried to blend in among my Swiss buddies.

      Later, after we had paid the bill and assembled in the parking lot to say goodbye, the president and his family exited and walked past us on the way to their car.  No words were exchanged, but all parties smiled and nodded.  It seemed an acknowledgment of sorts, a tacit thank you, perhaps, for allowing the first family an undisturbed meal together.

      Then they drove away, Moritz Leuenberger behind the wheel of a late model Audi station wagon -- an every man's car.


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