Saturday, 20 May 2017

Farewell to Buenos Aires - the postscript



On 6 April, the general strike in Buenos Aires delayed our departure by 'a day'. So it was 8.30 am on 8 April that Eva arrived to collect the keys to our apartment in Defensa. Nico waited by his taxi at the door. The sun shone on a glittering San Telmo. Suitcases bumped down six flights of stairs. The large wrought iron door clanged as we crossed the broken flags. And away, threading the morning traffic, the taxi windows wide open to admit the breeze bearing last early autumn scents of the barrio, then heading to the raised carriageway of Au 25 de Mayo that would zip us out to Ezeize and beyond, over a night Atlantic, to a Heathrow dawn.

Farewells are bitter-sweet. The intrinsic sadness of leaving friends and familiarity is tempered by melancholy. The sweep of the second hand pushes time and urges the moment of parting. Thoughts and feelings heighten, and we grasp for final memories. There remains but a glance back - before the present unveils a changing picture of new challenges.

London is unusually bright and warm. My brother Peter meets us at Heathrow, smiles and escorts us to his Range Rover. Within minutes the approaching city looks clean and ordered; pavements spread in uninterrupted tidiness. White Portland stone and tinted glass sparkle. Daffodils nod crinkling heads as early spring passes, and blossom bursts in parks and gardens.

After four months in Buenos Aires, this scene is familiar; but unfamiliar. Only after our train departure from Kings Cross does a new reality dawn. Subdued, whether by tiredness or mood, we sit in silence as the last fragments of London give way to English countryside. We race through stations too quickly to gain a sense of place. But soon, the announcement "Darlington, next station stop....." and feel relief that nearly thirty hours of travel is ending. Our eyes sting as we prepare to focus for the last short walk home, and as we emerge into a strange, half-recognised world.

One of the huge benefits of travel is the possibility of a change of perspective. When we return we must beware that we don't re-enter life's ellipse, regressing daily to the place that we left.

Today, mid May Darlington skies are grey. The weather vane tells of a sharp wind that blows north east. Liver spots of rain mark chilled paving.

Its time to plan our return to San Telmo.....


Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Women's Essentials Guide to Buenos Aires - 'Top Ten Tips for Tangueras'





It is with great pleasure that Stephanie Rose has given me the opportunity to host her guest blog. Ten months living in Buenos Aires, of which the last 3 have been spent co-managing a tango house, puts Stephanie in the perfect position to help other women as they plan their first tango visit to the capital.



When I came first to Buenos Aires in 2007 I didn't know what to expect. I was a seasoned traveller having lived in South Africa for twelve years; but this was my first South American trip, and my debut as a tanguera.

After numerous visits since, I thought it was timely to list my ‘Top Ten Tips for Tangueras’. My choices may not be right for every woman, but should provide a starting place for your trip.


TIP 1 - Flight
They tell us when to travel to Buenos Aires and where to stay, but little about the journey to get here - a 15 hours flight, maybe with a delay at the airport or runway. You will spend a day and night travelling in a confined space, so whatever class you travel, select a direct flight if possible, wear flight socks, drink lots of water, decline the temptation of alcohol, and get it done. Importantly, don’t make the mistake of taking a USA connecting flight, requiring a visa and making you immigrate, emigrate and collect your baggage between the two.


Put a travel pack of wet-wipes and antioxidant hydramist in your handbag for on the plane, together with your shoulder wrap, and keep a pen and your passport number to hand to complete your landing card in flight. Bring a good read (or your Kindle) for waiting times at the airport.
Consider separating some basic essentials into your cabin luggage - some underwear, a spare top and makeup so if your suitcase goes missing at Ezeize, you have some basics to keep you going.

TIP 2 - Clothes
We pack too many clothes, then wonder why stairs and check-in are stressful. If you are travelling to dance in a mild spring or autumn, why bring lots of changes?

My advice is to bring the essentials and layer clothes: comfy flats or sandals teamed with a couple of pairs of loose lightweight wash-and-wear pants to walk the dusty streets. Remember to take your flight wrap on those cooler nights or under over-zealous air conditioners. Pack a long plastic mac for the torrential downpours, and buy a cheap ‘leave-behind’ umbrella when you get here.

For tango, a couple of pretty, wash-and-drip-dry dresses or tango skirts, open toe tights, plus a pair of tango pants, a cheap throw-away fan for milongas, and your duty-free perfume. Remember, if you want more, Buenos Aires is awash with great tango clothes at keen prices. And don’t forget to pack one pair of trusty worn-in tango shoes. Keep them in your hand luggage should you be ‘Stranded at the Airport’.




TIP 3 - Shoes!
I am surprised that tangueras arrive with a bag full of shoes. Wear your comfy flats for walking uneven pavements, and simply pack a spare pair of tried and tested slip-ons as spares. The best tango shoes can be found in Buenos Aires, and although prices have risen dramatically here, due to import taxes they are still cheaper than outside Argentina. If you plan to stay a while, have them made by Katrinski. If your visit is short, pop along to Comme il Faut or DNI for a good, safe bet and nice designs. Bear in mind that Comme il Faut Buenos Aires may not stock the full range of shoes available on their European web.


TIP 4 - Hair
As you may have read in Stephen’s blogs, my greatest worry before arrival in Buenos Aires was of ending up with ‘Argentine hair’. There are many gorgeous women with great hair here, but with heat and humidity, hair looks good only for an hour before becoming a frizzy bundle. Finding Daniel Diaz through the BA Ex Pats group was a huge relief. Sassoon trained, tried twice, Daniel ticks all the boxes, and who needs more when it come to cut, colour and chat.






TIP 5 - Tango teachers
Where to start? They say that wherever you are in Buenos Aires you are never more than 10 meters away from a tango teacher. Milongueros accost at milongas, offering their ‘special lessons’, internationally renown performers entice with impossibly elaborate exhibitions. What we want, and what we need may be two different things. After several years of trial and error, I always return to Carolina Bonaventura’s tango school at Mariposa de San Telmo. It is safe and easy to find off 9 de Julio, and offers excellent methodology with dedicated women’s technique classes that are exacting and fun.






Book some privates, and join a group class to make new friends and get invites to milongas with the teachers. If you are young and staying in Palermo you may prefer to check out DNI.
If however you want to major on technique and step up to performance excellence, add in some master classes with top names such as Daniela y Luis.

TIP 6 - Body care
The chemists here in Buenos Aires stock all of the basics you will need, but if you have a favorite body care regime, don’t expect the products you want to leap from the shelves in your local farmacia. You may have to bring them with you. Remember that the sun can be hot, and humidity levels high - so bring protection. The brilliant Incognito mosquito repellent, zapper and bite treatment cream are a ‘must’. Bring a travel hand gel for the milonga, and whilst in Buenos Aires, visit cheap nail bars in the peluquero. If you intend to dance a lot, don’t forget to book a series of pedicures with Graciela at Piedras 1025, San Telmo (tel 15 6700 2479).



TIP 7 - Stay safe
Buenos Aires is not the place to bring good jewellery, favorite watches and Chanel or
Birkin bags. Don’t get me wrong, the city is as safe as many in Europe, but with real poverty on the streets valuables provide a snatch temptation. I restrict myself to stud earrings and a cheap waterproof watch - they send out the right, rather than the wrong signal. If you carry a handbag, bring a small, robust, long strapped one that you can carry in front. Additionally, I pack a fold-away, temptation-free, transparent rucksack in which I keep my mac, dance shoes, fan, hand gel, tissues and mints for milongas.



TIP 8 - Budget
I think Stephen has addressed the need to prepare in advance of your trip. Bear in mind that the days of cheap living in Buenos Aires are over - dining out with wine is still a little cheaper, but other costs, including shopping and milongas are similar to those in Europe, so budget accordingly. When out and about I only carry the money I need, and leave the rest in the apartment safe. Run off a couple of photocopies of your passport before departure - you may need them to authenticate your credit card purchases. Whilst on the topic of credit cards, bring a spare - you never know when you may need it. Place photos of cards and passport on ‘the cloud’ for easy reference in case of loss or theft.




TIP 9 - Food and drink
In addition to steak and pizza, Buenos Aires now caters for a wide range of food needs, so vegetarians and gluten free travellers need have no concerns. Make the most of the seasonal fruit and vegetables that are available on each street corner and supermarket entrances. Findyour favorite bakery. If you are lucky to have access to a BBQ, buy bife de lomo from your local butcher, team it with chorizo sausages and invite your friends to cook - and bring the Malbec!


Which brings us onto drink. Whilst they say tap water is safe, many Portenos opt for bottled water, plentiful in the supermarkets. My top three inexpensive wines are: red - Uxmal Malbec (13%), white - Lopez (12%); sparkling - Federico de Alvear, Brut or Extra Brut (11.60%). For a light beer, try the ubiquitous Quilmes Cristal (4.9%). For best value, buy these from your local supermarket.



TIP 10 - Language
My biggest regret when visiting Buenos Aires is not speaking conversational Castillano adequately. Many Portenos speak some English, so getting by is possible without Spanish, but simply getting by excludes you from many friendships and experiences. Focus before your trip, get the free Duolingo app, learn your numbers to 100, the names of basic foods and drink and get as good as you can before you leave. I always ask the first names of assistants in shops that I frequent, and invariably get a winning smile for my effort.


Stephanie Rose © 2017

Friday, 31 March 2017

Tomorrow is......

 

"Tomorrow is 1 April, and we have just five days left in Buenos Aires", says Stephanie, adding "before the month changes, you would be a fool not to describe our four months here in the city of Argentine tango". "Tell them about the city of dreams".

It is really difficult to capture succinctly the experience of an extended stay in this city. A first observation is just how much I love Buenos Aires. Its a busy, congested place with broken pavements and crumbling buildings. Old buses used to transport activists and demonstrators belch out plumes of diesel fumes that hang like curtains in the calles. On occasions the humidity rises so that shirts stick to backs, and backs to chairs. Sometimes even tango fails to enthral and we leave a milonga to search for consolation pizza.



But mostly Buenos Aires captivates. We wake to sunshine, blue skies with a dissolving wisp of white cloud and breath of cooling air - the 'buenos aires' after which the city is named. People walk the streets at a modest pace, relaxed, unhurried. From passing cars we hear music, often tango, sometimes cumbia blaring with its heavy contra-beat rhythm. Groups of men sit in cafes to chat. Women share experiences over a light lunch.  If you were to smile at strangers, they will smile back. And, if lucky, you too will catch the seductive aroma of an asado, as yesterday in Plaza de Mayo where an asador served smoking beef and chorizos from his charcoal filled half barrel.

As tangueros, a huge attraction of the city is ubiquitous tango. Each night there will be approaching forty milongas where you can dance tango, and beforehand take a class. We arrive early to see beginners walking in close embrace - harder than you would imagine; and improvers executing new found skills or filming the final demo by their teachers. The music is that of tango's 'Golden Age' - from the late twenties through to 1950. It is melancholic, teasing distant memories from lost generations of Portenos. It speaks of tough lives lived in poverty and sadness, forged on an anvil of half-forgotten emotion. When we dance tango that is what we hear - and feel. That is why tango should be danced to the music of tango and nothing else.

The pace of life is the pace of choice - so different from Europe's metronome beat dictated by work, by commerce and unnecessary necessity. On the streets of Buenos Aires you rarely see anyone run, and hardly anyone hurry. Life's art is the 'stroll' - a pace assisted by the fact that if you walk quicker, you simply wait at the next intersection for the pedestrian lights to change. 



 

"What will you miss most?", asks Stephanie. "All of it", I reply. "The fact that my watch stays unnoticed on the kitchen table; that my stomach tells me when to eat; that when we hear music we love - we dance; the sound of a champagne cork popping and landing on the receipt for 56 pesos; that our days stretch limitlessly into exotic nights". 

"And most of all, I will miss the embrace", I add. "The hug that men give to men; that men give to women; that we return without self-conscious question". "It's a moment that speaks of love and respect, one which at the milonga is mirrored in tango's safe, warm and close embrace".


 

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Something Fishy in Buenos Aires

 

What is the first thing you think of when you come to Buenos Aires? Tango? Beef? Malbec? Gauchos?

None of these today however, for this morning Stephanie and I search for fish.

Take a look at the map and you would be forgiven for thinking that Buenos Aires was a coastal city. Ships have indeed landed here since 2 February 1536 when Pedro Mendoza established a small settlement on the banks of the Rio de la Plata. In 1580 Juan de Garray built a shallow port, but not until 1884 were modern docks constructed at Puerto Madero on English engineer Sir John Hawkshaw’s plans. They quickly became too shallow for the larger steam ships, so by 1911 new docks were underway at Catalinas Norte, by 1925 making Puerto Nuevo the largest port in the southern hemisphere.

So when I came first to Buenos Aires, I expected a coastal city with sea views out into an Atlantic ocean. Instead I found a city built on the brown watery banks of a very wide, but only 5-25 metre deep, muddy river, Rio de la Plata.

So where are the fish? Nice ones are very clearly not in the Plata.

Stephanie and I leave the apartment and turn left on Defensa, heading towards Park Lezama, then south west on Av Martin Garcia to Azara 99, to find the famous fish shop of ‘El Delfin’. 

 

In 1951 Rafael Cioffi left his native Sorrento, Italy and landed in Mar del Plata Argentina. He was a fisherman who knew his fish, so it seemed natural to set up a fish stall in the market, eventually moving to Barracas, Buenos Aires. By 1965 he had established his own shop, El Delfin, supplied from Mar del Plata and numerous fishing ports along the Argentine coast.

At El Delfin there are none of the clinical counters of a fish retailer. This is a spectacular fish shop. Positioned on the corner of Azara and Gualeguay, electic doors slide open to reveal a veritable sea of fish. Ahead from a rail hang huge freshly caught fish, below them cabinets explode with fish pastas, paellas, bruschettas, and glorious salads charged with seafood. 

Stephanie inhales. “I don’t know where to start”, she whispers, returning to the shop window to take in the selection. I remain in air conditioned coolness to grab a ticket, announcing that I am the 81st customer of the day, and peer beyond the display to the clean and sharp preparation area and the place where they cook..

 

Stephanie returns and we wait our turn. Google informed me that the average stay in the shop is 15 minutes. Before arriving I could not understand why. Now, facing a feast of fish, this seems hardly sufficient timel to take in what seems to be an infinite variety of everything that you instantly want to eat.

 

Tonight we cook for Cristina at her apartment in Recoletta, so we buy salmon steaks for a rich cream pasta dish. “Oh, yes”, says Stephanie, “I’ll take two large handfuls of sea prawns as well”. I look down to the ‘brochette de langostino y mozzarella’ and ‘ensalada de rucula tomate seco’ and decide in an instant what is for lunch. 

 

We pay at the counter and hug our bags. Outside the air is warm, and we walk briskly back through Barracas towards San Telmo. “Now, if only we had visited here 4 months ago”, says Stephanie. “Yes”, I reply, “but we would have missed this particular day of delight”, I add.

To find out more about. ‘El Delfin’ - visit http://www.e-eldelfin.com.ar/index.html
For my salmon and prwan pasta recipe - see the first comment below. 
With thanks to Woon Long for the reminder to visit.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Soundscape - San Telmo

 


I am sitting on a roof in San Telmo in the sunshine; above me not a cloud, save for a paleing* of the sky towards the River Plata. Otherwise as blue as you have ever seen.

March is progressing and the season slips towards a Buenos Aires autumn. It is still warm, Europeans might say hot, but no longer the intense heat of previous months.

So I sit in the sun, close my eyes; and this is what I hear.

The opening strains of 'Cumparaseta' rise from San Lorenzo. The first few bars are louder, as if to announce a presence, then they subside, to be carried away on the breeze that ruffles the leaves of the banana plant. A Yamaha motorcyle roars along Independencia. A cartonero - the street people who recycle cardboard and plastic - wheels his rattling, squeaking laden trolley in Defensa.

Music on a transistor radio competes momentarily with Cumparaseta, before reverting to a scramble of Castillano. Somewhere at a distance, a workman uses something pneumatic, but too far for reverberations to interrupt the soundscape. Now a lift door closes - the old type with a lattice of riveted bars that open like a bandoneon, and close with a 'clack'. 

There are voices down at the corner of Independencia and Defensa - two men seem to be speaking about something important, or about where they should go for coffee. Bottles are being recycled, or simply thrown into a bin, for glass recycling is not high on the agenda here. Of course there are car horns - not as you may hear in India or the East, but occasional, out of recognition and frustration.  Beneath the whole soundscape is the hum of traffic and the occasional air conditioner unit. Lorries grind at a distance as they progress along Av Ing Huergo, and nearby a race starts with the changing lights  on Independencia. 

In San Telmo (unlike Monserrat) there is little birdsong. Perhaps our building is too high (we are on a 5th floor roof), or maybe the density of buildings and dearth of open spaces takes its toll. Below I can just hear a single street pigeon - but not the accompanying chirrup of the sparrows that perch expectantly at cafe tables.

There is however a sudden explosion followed by the sound of drumming. Elsewhere in the world this would be of concern, or at least significance. In Buenos Aires we recognise the sound as a firecracker launched by the protest marchers that each week protest about something different. The bang is loud enough to send the pigeons flying, but is ignored by the Portenos that walk to work along Defensa.

A light helicopter makes its way along to Aeroparque Jorge Newbury via Puerto Madero docks with more of a presence than a noise, its rotor blades compressing the air. Van doors slam, iron apartment doors clang, and footsteps clack on marble stairs.

There is always sound here in Buenos Aires. Both the day and the night air is never silent. After a while, it becomes part of the city's pattern - to be ignored and then unheard. Unless, that is, you are walking on a narrow footpath being passed by deafening colectivos, or hearing their air brakes released as they set off across the grid of San Telmo streets.

Up here, the quality of noise is different - distant - diffused, enabling a disconnection from the busy city. And so I sit with tea and ' drink in' the city sounds.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Plaza Dorrego - the final tanda



In a trip to Buenos Aires, you should at least once dance in Plaza Dorrego.

Here in the heart of San Telmo is the most iconic square, where on Sunday nights locals and tourists dance tango under the stars. Pedro ‘El Indio’ Benavente organises the milonga, providing sound system, lighting and a demonstration, and it runs from 7 - 11 pm in the summer months. It is part of what makes San Telmo the tango barrio.

Stephanie and I arrange to meet Miss Moneypenny and TT there after 8 pm. “We will be sitting on the little wall where you change your shoes, or dancing” adds Stephanie; and indeed we are dancing when they arrive from their different barrios. 

With our street shoes tucked inside our bags, and the bags placed securely in the pile next to where Pedro masterminds his playlist, Stephanie and I have squeezed onto the floor for a tanda of Calo. We join dancers of all ages and abilities. Our attention is drawn to a young and energetic couple as they ladle their DNI moves across the polished tiles. Then our discerning eye fixes on a mature couple in their 70’s who dance in close embrace. He gives a clear but sensitive lead, and despite her elderly thickened calfs, she collects her heels perfectly and dances like a dream. They are the prize of the floor. 

We dance a circuit of the pista just before the tanda finishes. For Stephanie, this is like tasting a shard of chocolate from a whole bar, and she wants more. So despite the next tanda being ‘milonga’ - a quicker form of dance - we return starting sedately with Canaro’s Milonga Sentimental. 

I do my best with my new found milonga skills following Patrick Arellano’s instruction, and these are just good enough for the first three tunes of the tanda. A fourth song is fast and the floor has become crowded, so at my request, Stephanie and I step from the pista to resume our places on the wall to watch.

As the final song progresses there is a moment of consternation. Dancers group to one side of the pista. From our position it is impossible to see what transpires. Shortly, we are aware of figures rushing from the southern end of the plaza. The music falters, then stops. Circling dancers stand in couples; and couples in silent groups. They look from side to side questioningly. The non-dancers that crowd and watch from the perimeter of the pista break the moment with animated questions and comments.

Gradually, the pista clears. Tangueros are returning to their places at the edge of the square. A hush descends.

The joy of tango is not simply the mastery of an intricate and difficult dance. It is about a journey within an embrace. Often we hold - or are held by strangers in an intimate embrace, that speaks of a primeval need to be loved, to belong, or at least acknowledged as we go through life.

Tango is a hard journey, through testing times before reaching the goal of fluidity and true connection. For this reason, the skills of young, quick dancers are not the ones that we covet. They are yet to qualify for milonguero status. The older, experienced dancers often hold the key to tango. They take time, in silence they listen to each other and the music, they connect, and they accommodate the moment. And so it is here in Plaza Dorrego. Life, love, anxiety, and intimacy are played out each Sunday as dancers travel to their chosen destination in their own personal tango journey.

Four figures are now kneeling on the ground in concentric focus. There is movement, but little activity. A circle of watchers gathers. Something is amiss. Don Bernabe, the grandfather of this little milonga, speaks quietly with Pedro. He in turn moves forward, but to stop. We hear the sound of a siren as it draws closer on the night air.

The figure on the ground is that of a tanguero of senior age. His polished tango shoes glint in the evening light as he lays. 

Time suffuses and the evening gathers in a surreal envelope. Dancers wait in the shadows, patiently, and expectantly. The expectation is that the figure will rise from the floor. Perhaps he will be helped to a seated position, be assisted to the wall where someone will produce a bottle of water for a much needed drink.

But that expectation is not to be. The figure does not rise, nor now can anyone assist him on this final journey. Even the crowd of tango watchers falls silent. On the far side of the plaza in Defensa, the drumming of the carnival drummers ceases. Plaza Dorrego has never witnessed such silence. People huddle together and whisper. Faces that were intent on dance now look drawn with sadness. A frailty is cast across this place. It is the frailty of life itself. It is - at the end of the final furlong - the end of a journey.

Miss Moneypenny brushes a tear from her eye, and TT places a motherly arm around her shoulder. I pull a shoe lace and reach for my street shoes. Stephanie gathers her bag and folds a wrap close around her. Without words, we walk. I pass Don Bernabe to give him a hug. “This is how life is”, says Pedro Benavente philosophically and without drama.

Back in Defensa we climb four flights of stairs to our rooftop apartment. Moneypenny and TT join us for they sense this moment should be shared, rather than ignored. With a bottle of wine to ease the weight, we sit in the half light and speak of tango, and of mortality.

His was a tango journey that ended as tango journeys should end. Whilst the aftermath is of unimaginable grief, the moment was that of a tango dancer on a tango floor within a close embrace. Together we clink our glasses and wish him 'Godspeed'.

 


Sunday, 12 March 2017

La Boca - beyond the tin foil



Our Porteno friend Cecilia Pastore, who took this photo of me at the La Boca Stadium in 2007, is not able to visit us today, so Stephanie and I decide instead on an impromptu return visit to La Boca, an edgy, southern barrio of Buenos Aires.

When people say, “You should be careful going there”, I feel a sudden sense of bravado and the desire to venture into danger. La Boca is one of the more challenging and challenged barrios, bounded to the north by Constitucion and to the south by the Riachuelo river. Here poverty levels rise and fall with the changing value of the peso. Living in La Boca is a day-by-day affair. There are no cushions, no flexibility. Life is hand-to-mouth, and tourists present a worldly, camera festooned respite from poverty.

Nevertheless, we walk; via Av Regimieto de Patricios and Magallanes towards the La Boca basin. The last section past Plaza Matheu is testing. Thin tailed dogs roam the streets; the pavements rise in steps and disappear with a drop, I test the sharp blade of my pen knife against my palm. The cars and vans that line the street are as decrepit and tired as the buildings alongside. Shirtless, threadbare men peer from crumbling balconies. Here is none of the ‘Colourful Caminito’ of La Boca - simply the detritus of lost, wasted generation.

Ahead we see the ‘La Boca’ that will be familiar to tourists. It arrives suddenly, and with a brash, commercial steel. Tenements give way to shops, arcades and ‘pavement tango’. Waiters rush between shorts-and-cheesecloth-clad tourists, making placating sounds to secure a tip. The tango dancers, who have been here since dawn, seem exhausted, but keep dancing for the few pesos that tourists will drop into their hat. Stephanie and I look at each other with dismay. We knew it was like this, but the reality is more displeasing than our anticipation. We are in the wrong place. This is not a place for us. I feel like Garrison Keiller’s ‘Sanctified Bretheren’ family in ‘Lake Wobegone’ as they enter a worldly restaurant for the first and last time.  Are we ‘the tourists’ who come to soak up an unauthentic pastiche?

We walk quickly through the throng of American, English, German Dutch and Japanese voices that grate against the strains of ‘La Cumparsita’ and ‘Choclo’. On the other side of the Caminito, we reach the docks. Since our last visit in 2015 they have been freshly fumigated, and the remaining polystyrene and plastic bottles are corralled within a circle of floats. Old buildings, formerly covered with thin rusting tin are being clad in newly painted corrugated steel to replicate the old. To our right, the paving stones have been coloured in gaudy ‘La Boca’ colours. To Stephanie I say, ‘’Don’t stand on the yellow ones”, to which her reaction without speaking is to do precisely that. We walk the length of the port on yellow until we arrive at the iconic ‘Puento Transbordado’ - the La Boca transporter bridge, fabricated in England and assembled in Argentina between 1906-12 by the British owned Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway. 
‘We must see this, now it has been painted silver”, I say, and walk off towards the quayside. Stephanie follows reluctantly. I rest my arms against the quay wall and look out at the lattice of steel work that spans the basin. Below, the water is calm and deserted of craft. As we gaze an old woman approaches, looking concerned. “Don’t venture beyond here”, she warns in Castillano. “It is full of robbers and criminals”. We thank her, and return without further prompting to the no 152 collectivo which waits at the stop. Behind us in the shadows figures flit, as if laid in waiting for our arrival. 

The bus driver smiles reassuringly. “Donde”, he asks? We say, “San Telmo” and press our SUBE card twice to the reader. It pips but once, and the card reader reveals a debit of 4.5 pesos. “Just say that your other card was robbed”, says the driver knowingly, and allows us both to board. We take our seats at the back of the bus as the collectivo rushes from barrio La Boca towards Parque Lezama and the civilisation of safe San Telmo.


Photo of La Boca by Cecilia Pastore


Saturday, 11 March 2017

Parque Lezama - the bright side of life and the inevitable destiny

 


“Where shall we go this afternoon”, said Stephanie, adding quickly, “don’t forget its pizza tonight”. “How about Parque Lezama?” “What a good idea” I rejoin, thinking already of pizza and chilled Lopez.

And so it is to Parque Lezama that we walk, taking the scenic route via Balcarce, Cafe Pride and Cafe Rivas.

An undisclosed, but significant sum of pesos has been invested in Parque Lezama since 2015, turning a tired provincial park into a wonderful work of horticultural art. Sculptures were removed and replaced in polished condition. The children’s play area was relocated from the centre of the park to a convenient (and discrete) lower level. Huge palms were copiced, and have regenerated with succulent growth and a fresh crop of fruit to feed the resident parakeets. Altogether, magnificent.

Today is the day to visit a park. It is 24 degrees, with a light breeze. Overhead there is not a cloud to clutter a 210 degree azure sky, halfway between blue and cyan. The sun shines.

We enter by the amphitheater at Av Brazil on the north side. A lone workman scrubs graffiti from the wall. Perhaps this is his ‘community service’? We mount the steps leading into the main park. To our left the ancients sit at stone tables to play chess and draughts. Ahead white poodles are walked by their owners beneath trees crowned with candy coloured blossom.

 


We follow an anti clockwise route on the new brick paving, taking in the restored balustrades and enjoying open views. Small plaques to our left indicate the species of tree; ahead - a colonnade set with new benches. Riding slowly on their black bicycles, two policemen pass-by, nodding with appreciation as we give way to their progress. 

 

Stephanie and I select a bench that still enjoys the afternoon sun, to watch park life. To our right a tai chi figure unfurls a cerise banner, two lovers pass pausing for a long kiss, at one side a group of college students sit together with books spread out on the grass beneath the canopy of a tree. Here is the hum of humanity, gentle, almost gentile. In the distance, the bark of a lone dog, and the sound of a car horn. Then a sudden breath of a breeze lifts Stephanie’s hair and ruffles my collar. This solitary wind is different from others - it signals an altered energy on which the pea-green parakeets have taken flight.

After a while we rise to continue our walk in the park. Just around the corner we see the same two black bicycles stood together on their stands joined by a checkered tape. Two dark figures bend over a pile of clothing on a sunlit bench. One of them reaches down to lift an arm. From the end of the bench dangle two legs with feet clad in old boots. A policeman, with remarkable sensitivity, removes a watch from the wrist, and places it in a tiny pile with other possessions. A blanket covers all but a shock of grey hair. There is no sound; no movement; nor has there been since its discovery. The ‘solitary wind’ now makes sense. That stillness spoke of a moment passing.

Now, children dressed like miniature shopkeepers in long white coats return from school in small groups or with admiring parents. The park springs back into life as the volume switch turns. Contemplative, we walk, hand in hand,  regarding our lives with a fresh value.

“When I die, I want it to be like that”, I say, “On a park bench here in Parque Lezama, in the sunshine, my spirit borne by a flight of green parakeets”, I add. Stephanie smiles. “We will see what we can do”, she says quietly, with a twinkle in her eye.

 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Legal in Argentina - a tale of the Visa

 


Its Monday. On Wednesday Stephanie and I will have been in Buenos Aires for 90 days - which is the duration of our entry visa. So, to remain legal, we must renew.

Most longer-stay visitors will combine, or break their stay here in Argentina with trips to other Latin American countries, meaning that on each re-entry, they receive a further 90 days. Others who are not intent on travelling will simply take the Buquebus ferry to Uruguay - a short return trip across the Plata that can be undertaken in a day.

Having chatted to those that have taken the ferry, we are not convinced the journey is for us. Our North American friends love its novelty, but for British Islanders, the ferry holds no such delight. So, we are to seek our renewal at the ‘Direccion Nacional de Migraciones’.

We board colectivo 130 in Paseo Colon, joining late morning city travellers. At Av de Mayo, heat soars whilst traffic freezes due to construction of a new bus route causing traffic chaos. The remainder of our journey is at walking pace as we pass pedestrians only to be re-passed by them en route.

Just short of Av Cordoba, we exit into Av Leandro Arlem, pass the Buquebus offices at the head of the docks and on to the ‘Migraciones’ building. 

Stephanie and I sense we are criticised when we speak of Argentina being ‘third world’ - for it is the most ‘Westernised’ of all Latin countries. Walk in barrios Recoleta or Palermo and you will find everything that Westerners covet and prize. Sales assistants will have a university degree in law, philosophy or psychology. But when it comes to government - and especially administration - here in Argentina you must replace ‘efficiency’ with the queue. Yes, the Portenos of Buenos Aires with saintly patience are world experts on queuing.

So with technology. USA currency and credit embargos imposed on Argentina at the turn of the century following their international debt default made the purchase of modern computer equipment by many Argentines, expensive, if not impossible. Enter shops or offices and you will still see old computer monitors, and a dearth of digital equipment such as card readers. Until 2016 and the election of civil engineer, President Macri, Argentina had largely a ‘cash economy’, with heavy disincentives for the use of credit or debit cards.

And so it is at the ‘Direccion Nacional de Migraciones’. Systems analysis knows no place here. After answering the questions of the ‘man on the door’ who directs us and tens of thousands to our destination, and navigating the milling crowds, we arrive at Edificio 6, Zona K. The desk is immediately recognisable by a long queue snaking to one side, whilst the desk itself is bereft of visitors, its occupant flipping a passport nonchalantly between his fingers then gazing into the near distance. Underneath, an old desk-top processor struggles in the heat, with a mess of wires that bundle into the waiting hall. 

Our reception officer looks stressed as he manipulates his neck from side to side and rubs his eyes. Returning to his desk he grabs a few sheets of paper, folds them firmly and inserts them into the workings of a large fan to cushion the rattles and vibration. The effect is momentary, for soon the papers are whipped on a current of air, and the rattles resume. He looks at us kindly, perhaps anticipating that our next encounter will be with his surly colleague at an adjacent desk, who then commands our presence with a peremptory hand movement. His is the ultimate economy of speech, words being replaced with grunts, sighs interspersed with disconcerting silence. Should our applications have been knowingly flawed his demeanor would have broken our nerve and sent us rushing from his desk. Instead, after some consideration, he utters two reassuring words “noventa pesos”, by which we understand that we are to proceed to the cash desk distant at the far end of the room. 

He is still waiting when we return, the unmoving queue now trailing out of the doors into the courtyard. He leans back in his chair and examines the receipts with suspicion, then waves us back to his stressed colleague take our photographs and ten finger marks. Stephanie recalls that I looked terrified when pressing too hard on the finger-reader causing the operator to pull it from its mounting, bash it twice on the desk “Basil Fawlty’ style to demonstrate his displeasure before resuming the operation. Then we are sent to sit like naughty children and wait, our passports disappearing into hidden offices for checks, and more photocopying with medieval machines. Stephanie and I look at each other, then into space, around us the hum of frustrated humanity. Had we slipped unknowingly into hell, or is this just another aspect of Argentine administration misrule?

Twenty minutes pass. A handful of visitors arrive with their personal agents who, with plastic folders of papers, negotiate the process successfully by nods and the flapping of arms. We sip our now-tepid bottles of water and Stephanie searches her bag for a mint to steady her breathing.

Suddenly and without warning, the surly colleague waves our passports towards us from behind the glass screen of his counter. We approach wondering how tight the handcuffs will be fastened. And then, the almost-smile: not quite a smile as you would know it, but something less than a grimace - and our visa stamped passports are returned to our care. “Let’s get out of here before they change their minds”, says Stephanie with her usual humour. “Yes, ordeal over...and we are now legal for another three months”, I rejoin as we depart into the sunshine and make our way back into the city. 




How it's done:

1. Travel to Migraciones building Av Antartida https://g.co/kgs/lHtvgb. 
2. Take with you:
     *Your passport
     *Printed confirmation of home flight
     *Proof of accommodation in CABA
     *Other paperwork if relevant
     *Bottle of water
     *Book to read during the wait
3. Enter the yellow building, Edificio 3 (‘Entrada’).
4. At the door, if asked, say “Edificio 6, Zona K”.
5. Enter, turn immediately right, walk up the ramp, and exit through the door on the right wall to the courtyard/garden.
6. Take the path straight ahead through the garden to Edificio 6.
7. Enter Edificio 6 and go to ‘Zona K’.
8. To the left of ‘Zona K’ (marked D) join the queue to obtain a ‘time of admission’ sheet bearing your log-in number.
9. Sit and wait for your number to be called by one of two officers at ‘Zona K’. 
10. Hand over:
     *Your admission sheet
     *Your passport
The renewal process now starts, involving a series of lengthy checks.
11. ‘Zona K’ prints out a payment slip. Take this immediately to the CAJA at the far end of the room and pay 900 pesos per traveller.
12. Return to ‘Zona K’ and pass receipt papers back to the waiting officer.
13. The officer will direct you to stand to your left at desk D to await photograph and 10 fingerprints (starting with right thumb).
14. Once completed, take a seat and wait...and wait.
15. Officer at ‘Zona K’ will wave to you when he receives your passports from the back office with renewed visa.
16. Check the visa date. If correct, now you may leave.
On our visit (arriving at 11 am) total time - 2 hours

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Oriental Buenos Aires



So, you were expecting a piece about Barrio Chino, Belgrano. But no, we are still very much in San Telmo, just seven blocks in Defensa from Buenos Aires' best kept secret - 'Mash'.

Why come to Buenos Aires to eat curry, you ask? There is no single answer to that. Maybe gorged from the parilla, or piqued by pizza? Perhaps it is simply time to sample something different, with hot spice, chili and fun? Or is it that we seek the quirky, highly individual style of Gus and Martyn who own and run the restaurant called 'Mash'?

We leave our apartment at Defensa to cross Independencia towards Plaza Dorrego. Tonight we shall not linger in the newly restored square with its 2017 vintage-style LED lamps, paving and plastic covered cafe chairs. We hurry by, leaving the restaurant touts and their clipboards in our wake; for our destination is across San Juan, under the fly-over, by Cochabamba towards Juan de Garay. Within minutes we arrive at Defensa 1338, tucked inauspiciously to the left side of the street, announced by two boards bearing the dishes of the day.

Stephanie rings the bell and we glance ahead to see Gus come to the door smiling. How he recognizes us after two years absence is a miracle, but he does, and ushers us in with a hug. Tonight is 'Carnival Tuesday'; the city streets are bare of Portenos and tourists, and the restaurant is unusually quiet. When two regular late dinners leave, we have the place, and the joyful companionship of Gus and Martyn, to ourselves.

Eating at 'Mash' has two attractions. The first, and most obvious, is curry. Yes, there are other curry houses in Buenos Aires that hit the top ten - but their china is too fine, their napkins too large, their glasses too opulent, and their curry too pretentious. At 'Mash' curry is just curry, priced as curry should be, and served without flummery. The other attraction is more fascinating - its to do with Gus and Martyn. 

You can come to 'Mash' to sit quietly in a corner of their restaurant and eat curry. There will be no interruption to your longing looks into your lover's eyes. But, that is not why we are here. We want the rich chemistry, the conversation, the roll of thought and discussion....the perfect adjuncts to curry.

Martyn is the reason for 'Mash', styled as a 'British Curry House'. Born in Dorset, Martyn now lives as a Porteno and has become a living piece of San Telmo folklore. Like all good restaurateurs, he is to be found by the bar with a glass of red wine, a wicked smile and a wonderful flow of conversation. Martyn defines 'Mash' in the same way that Yves Saint Laurent defined French fashion. But being English, he does so with refreshing vernacular British style. Understanding this, and preparing for your curry experience with Martyn is the secret to a successful night. If you arrive damp, dull and devoid of dreams or diablo you may not be allowed in, and if you are, your experience will not be the same as if you arrive hungry for adventure.

Gus by contrast is the Rene from 'Alo Alo' - without the mustache. By day Gus commands huge respect as one of Buenos Aires' most prominent and well known scientists, working as a university professor. It seems strange to see him behind the bar at night, but as he says, "this keeps me in touch with the real world'. His warm intelligence radiates, and arcs with an electric zing to Martyn's acerbic humour..

Stephanie and I choose to sit at the bar, despite 'Carnival Tuesday' tables being free. Why?....because we do not wish to miss a moment of rich conversation that can only happen at the bar stool in 'Mash'. Our orders are placed - Chicken Kashmir and Thai Green Curry, and our placemats are set. We order a bottle of cool, crisp Sauvignon blanc to take the edge off the humid, limpid night.



Those restaurants where you feel 'the embrace' are rare. When found, they are to be prized. 'Mash' is one of these illusive experiences. Soon, Stephanie and I are enthralled by both conversation and wit. It is like taking dinner with two fascinating friends. Of course, conversation is a two-way street, so do not expect simply to be entertained. But if you have something to say, or anything to ask, here at 'Mash' seems precisely the place to do both.

An hour or two later, our plates are cleared from the bar top and we 'down' the remainder of the Sauvignon, with Martyn to our left and Gus to our right. We are but four characters from 'a soap', by now supremely scripted, and very satisfied. At that moment I have a fantasy that conversation should go on until dawn light breaks across the roofs of San Telmo. But that is just my selfish romanticism. Instead, we rise, settle our modest bill, and set off into the San Telmo night.

'Mash', Martyn and Gus have provided another memorable mark in our 2017 Argentine journey. If not before, this is the moment that we feel we have arrived back in our beloved barrio. A colectivo thunders past, gripping the cobbles. Stephanie and I glance at each other with satisfaction and simply stroll back towards the plaza and home.

Thanks to Adasol Oiram for the photo. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Daniel Diaz - hair maestro

 


Why would a bald barrister be so enthused about hair styling?

Just look at the date. Tomorrow is Valentine's Day in case you had forgotten. I certainly didn't when I booked for Stephanie to have her hair styled by Buenos Aires' most exciting, original and enterprising hair stylist.

I feel a sense of guilt with my description of Daniel Diaz. 'Hair stylist' does not cut it....so to speak. I really want words such as 'creative artist', 'original hair philosopher', 'technical wizard' - but I am hopeful he will forgive my lack of understanding of hair; after all he has seen that I am not well blest in the hair follicle department. 

Of course I do know about women and their hair. I understand that hair precedes shoes, which precede almost everything else. I had overheard Stephanie speaking with her hairdresser in England and the look of abject anxiety on both their faces at the prospect of four months separation in Buenos Aires. And because it is so important, the stylist has as much status as the husband or partner - just ever-so-slightly behind 'the children'. There was even talk of Stephanie's stylist being flown to Argentina, just as Zsa Zsa Gabor did at the height of her fame. 

That was never necessary, as you will discover. Daniel Diaz has become the new idol for every anxious hair-aware woman, and indeed many men who seek something more than a haircut.

Monday afternoon, on the eve of Valentine's Day. It has been raining - you know, the sort that we get here in Buenos Aires, when the gutters gush, the trees pour, umbrellas break under the force and weight of water, and shoes squeak into deep puddles in the pavement. We contemplate the sky and wonder whether we will make it. Then everything changes. The sun hints with a couple of shafts down the calle, and we are off on our expedition to see Daniel Diaz. 

We near Corrientes, 'the street that never sleeps', but as it is approaching 1400 hours we need not worry about sleeping, just hair. The road is thronged with Portenos, travellers, tourists, shopkeepers, waiters and just about everybody else. Parana runs north to south on the Buenos Aires street grid, and this is where we take a right turn. 

The lift takes us quickly to the sixth floor and Daniel Diaz's studio. He meets us at the door which opens onto a truly fabulous room. This is his home as well as his workplace, and the studio bears his distinctive style. On the one hand the perfect salon - perhaps more than perfect for its range of equipment, hand-chosen for quality and precision. And then there is the gallery - with sofa, coffee table, TV, and Elsa the kitten, who will reach her first birthday tomorrow, Valentine's Day. Here is the welcoming of a friendly place.

Daniel cuts a remarkable figure, far from the effete hairdressers of yesteryear. Tall for an Argentine man, with thick black hair and a sculpted beard of the modern style. More interesting are his eyes that penetrate with their look, but in the way of someone about to ask a question. And then his smile, one that wins with both his clients and friends. 

In this blog you will understand that this is my second visit to meet Daniel - the first being to book the appointment, but I will condense that to this, simply to tell you of Daniel's investigation of 'the hair' - its nature, its colour, its previous management, the client's expectations and aspirations. The detail is reminiscent of the questions that precede any important event and that fill one with confidence about what is to follow. It is apparent that his knowledge of hair, and everything associated with it, is immense. 'Sassoon' trained in Toronto, Canada, Daniel can name not just every hair colour type, but indeed each bone that lies beneath.

Stephanie swoons as he unclips her tresses and pulls them gently through his fingers into long strands. He speaks about it as if it were a priceless pet, and asks how it is cared for, on what is it fed, how it is exercised. Stephanie sighs again with both pleasure and reassurance, and commits herself and her hair to Mr Diaz. It is clear that she has arrived exactly where she wanted and needs to be, and her long search for hair care in Buenos Aires is over. 

We meet four hours later. She walks towards me on Uruguay before Ave de Mayo. She smiles, and as she walks she shakes out her beautiful hair - revived, restored, re-invigorated - just like the expression on her face. 'So that is Valentine's Day sorted', I say to myself as I stroke my hair-free head and receive her kiss.

Daniel Diaz can be found at Facebook /danieldiazhair, email ljddiaz@gmail.com or phone 15.5751.9612




Friday, 3 February 2017

Mariposita


We are crossing Avenida 9 de Julio, heading for Carlos Calvo 950 - the home of Mariposita de San Telmo. It is now a regular journey for us, easily undertaken by instinct, especially for Stephanie who attends the fabulous ‘Ladies Technique’ classes there.

Mariposita is a tango hotel and tango dance school. Sitting modestly next door to a towering green glass block, there is no outward sign of either hotel, or tango, simply an unmarked grey door with an adjacent caged bell, which we press. A voice answers. We hear footsteps on the long corridor and the sound of the latch. The door is opened by graceful Lettie, mother to the proprietor, Carolina Bonaventura. Behind her is Simon, a terrier of unknown breed, clearly the master of the house.

Towards the end of the corridor we turn right, entering a grand dance salon. No simple studio here - this is a large, elegant space with high ceiling, running the depth of the building. The floor is polished wood. It is mirrored along it’s full length. 

Centre stage is Patrick Arellano, supported by Giannina Roncagliolo who teach here under Carolina’s direction. Tonight there is a class of twelve dancers, distinctive in the ‘Mariposita style’ - a gentle V embrace designed to give perfect freedom to the follower. Whilst the student’s dance levels differ, Patrick appears to tune seamlessly to their experience, offering empowering advice to each. This is the most respectful and focused method of teaching.

Leti returns to the counter to one side at the head of the salon. Behind her is a small kitchen containing a glass-fronted refrigerator full of cold drinks. Beyond double doors are steps to a large terrace garden running down the rest of half a block to a huge subterranean dance studio. The hotel room balconies overlook the terrace. 

 An easy Calo marks the end of the earlier class as students circle the floor practicing what they have learned. Patrick teaches technique, then translates this into a simple, accessible pattern to ‘nail’ the technique into the subconscious mind. Those looking for ‘flight-of-fancy’ steps will be disappointed: discerning students seeking a true tanguero style will be totally delighted.

Our session is for improvers, although again the range of the students’ experience varies in the class. This poses no problems - for the change of partners is optional - Stephanie and I ensuring that we understand the technique before we switch. Patrick and Giannina demonstrate with an amazing clarity, speaking in both Spanish and English, then direct their attention to individual couples as they assimilate Patrick’s teaching. Here, Patrick assists with modest and energizing corrections, gently given with humour and warmth. His teaching is like an embrace - telling us that we are safe with him, and valued. His is a great gift.

Two hours (we chose a double class) pass in a trice. We finish with a short practica in which Stephanie and I dance with our favorite fellow students. We pause to correct our giro; to replace a step; to feel a different embrace. We dance until the music stops, sensing that Patrick and Giannina may be exhausted by their own generosity. We part with a hug. Carolina Bonaventura has arrived back from a tour, so we share a special moment with her, then Lettie leads us through the passage to the street.

For tangueros of any standard, Mariposita proves to be a delight. Carolina provides a safe haven in which her community of students thrive. Stephanie speaks of her technique classes as ‘an inspiration’. For once - at group classes here in Buenos Aires - I sense that I too may achieve something special.


Monday, 30 January 2017

Aux Charpentiers - traditional clothing of Argentina




 



Mexico the country may be in the news because of a wall; but we are heading to Mexico the street in Monserrat Buenos Aires.

At the junction with Santiago del Estero, at Mexico 1302 is a totally traditional store. We have seen it several times in passing, examined the window displays and become intrigued. Whilst other shops around it have been modernising and re-modernising,  over the past 139 years Aux Charpentiers has remained relatively unchanged, and thus unique. 

A sign on the door says that the shop is open, and we try the handle only to remember that many shopkeepers keep their street door locked; so we ring the bell. Carmen's husband Enrique, neatly dressed and grey haired opens up, and welcomes us into the cool dark store. 

To both left and right are long glass counters revealing small displays and perfectly ordered piles of clothes. Further to our right dark oak sectioned shelves reach for the ceiling, each dressed with stock in order of size. The shelves continue around to the right in an L shape, with a brocade hung changing area to the rear. The tiled floor is polished. There is a sense of peace and timelessness. And the old fashioned scent of an historic clothes store, taking us back to childhood memories of yesteryear. 
Aux Charpentiers was founded in 1888 and run for over 60 years by Carmen's father, Juan Robligio. On Juan's death his son Roberto and daughter Carmen took over to carry on the grand family tradition. 

Here is everything traditional in Argentine clothing. Wonderful pantalones - Bombachas de gaucho, camisas, zapatas and boinas. To one side are the jackets, below the counter are braces and belts. At the side of a glass-fronted tongue and groved cabinet are photos of family and wedding groups, one from France, another from the countryside here in Argentina. 

 In the shop window I spied a pair of traditional Argentine trousers, high waisted,  gathered in two sets of three pleats at the front, and a further two sets at the hip - then tapering to buttoned cuffs at the ankle. Enrique quickly measures and lifts down my size. Here are fawn/cream, charcoal, blue and olive green. As befits a traditional pantalone, there are no zips - just recessed fly buttons. The pockets are deep and buttoned to the back. The ankle cuffs carry three buttons which, unless riding, are generally left unfastened. 

I carry a 'winter weight' pair to the changing area and swish the heavy maroon curtain across its length, running smoothly on a curved brass rail. They have to fit. I try them. They do. And for the first time I realise why Stephanie loves shopping. It is with delight that I exit to seek Stephanie's approval, which she gives.

In just minutes we have slipped back decades into history and tradition. The whole experience is like tasting an unexpected vintage Malbec - the bouquet, the initial taste on the tongue, the surprise, the delight, and the swallow as I reach for my wallet modestly to pay.

Aux Charpentiers have not seen the last of us. We shall return, and return again no doubt. Carmen's store has captured our hearts and imagination. I am now a gaucho. This is why we came to Buenos Aires.