Tuesday, 12 December 2017

It’s time to talk about Katrinski


Women, shoes and tango; three words that go together well. To these, those living in, staying at, or visiting Buenos Aires should add a third - ‘Katrinskis’.

I should make it clear. This blog is inspired by shoes - with no hidden deviance or incentives to hyperbole. Katrinski is just like any other bespoke shoe maker in Buenos Aires, but better. And it is her professionalism, attention to detail, line of sight, shape and form - that makes her shoes outstanding.

Stephanie and I arrive in Gallo on the 29 colectivo and walk to Katrinski’s studio via Soler. Within seconds of pushing the bell, she is there to escort us to her first floor atelier overlooking the street. Her workbench sits just inside the door. Here are her tools: leather shears, mundial tailor scissors, nickel hammers, shoe knives, lining pliers, rasps; and the skeletons of shoes - neat heels and soles awaiting leather uppers. Ranged beneath the window are finished shoes, glistening with style and sophistication. Shoe boxes containing hidden delights mount up the wall to the left.

Over to the right is the leather-trove: a cupboard containing small rolls of the finest hides, fabrics and leathers - some bright, others shimmering. They feel soft to the fingertip, with almost an elastic stretch. They smell divine.



Katrinski (Katrin Urwitz) came to Buenos Aires from Sweden just over ten years ago. Since then she has dedicated herself to making shoes for dancers - up to 8cm heels for tango, and her famous ‘Katrinski flats’ for every occasion. In a previous blog I said that no woman should be without her Katrinskis - for the open air milonga, the time after midnight when feet are exhausted in heels, or simply to walk the city streets in style. 



A first pair of Katrinskis tango shoes constitutes a rite of passage from ‘dancer’ to ‘tanguera’. Today Stephanie selects a high open heel, double cross-over strap style in embellished nude gold. The sample are so light that they seem to float in the hand. The finished shoes will be bespoke-made in three weeks.

As we leave and walk hand-in-hand to ‘La Pharmacy’ bar I boast to Stephanie, “So that’s my Christmas shopping done”, and grin with a pleasure that only us guys will understand. “Now, who’s going to buy the coffee?”



To visit Katrinski’s Facebook page click the link



Monday, 11 December 2017

International Tango Day




It is Monday 11 December, and you will immediately realise the significance - it is ‘International Tango Day’ here in Argentina and across the tango world.

  

Why 11 December? Well it is, of course, the birthday of Carlos Gardel, who had he survived an airplane crash in 1935, aged then 44, would have been 127 years old today. Julio De Caro, tango composer and band leader, was also born on this day in 1899. Luckier in life and death than Gardel, Caro remarried aged 60 and died at the age of 80.

For tango dancers, their legacy is about equal. Without Gardel the singer and movie actor, we may not know tango today. It was Gardel that breathed romance into the music and gave it immortality. In 1928, his sales of 70,000 records in Paris in the first 3 months of his visit, paved the way for his films ‘Cuesta abajo’ and ‘El dia que me quieras’ six years later. Through them and him tango reached an international audience of film-goers and music lovers, where it has remained since.

  Isabel del Valle
      Carlos Gardel’s widowed mother, to whom he was devoted  


Romance came at a cost for Gardel. His long-term ‘lover’ Isabel (pictured with him above) was kept secret to preserve his eligibility as a heart-throb. Carlos’ actual sexuality however remained slightly opaque. Later in life he and Isabel separated: she found the love she craved; he remained single to his death.

Julio de Caro was a colossus amongst band leaders, and dancers throughout the world count him as one of their favourites. Without Caro, Argentine tango music would have lost a critical peg that changed and matured the music through the 1920’s and 30’s, and made it accessible to high society.

I am the grandchild of Caro (and maybe Gardel). You, my dear reader possibly the great-grandchild. As such, we remember both this day, and this dance. Later, as the temperature drops at dusk, the streets of San Telmo - and other barios throughout the city - will fill with tangueros. There will be music and embrace. Argentine tango, cherished daily, will receive its annual and deserved celebration.








Saturday, 9 December 2017

San Telmo Diary - the first weekend

  

8.30 am and sun streams through the open window onto a table covered with a white lace tablecloth and bearing Francesca’s cream teapot full of fresh tea. Someone sings below, birds chirp from the roof rails, eight parakeets squark as they fly past in formation, in the distance lorries grind away from the lights on Av Independencia.



A Saturday city. Weekends in Buenos Aires slow down from the weekday race. They have an altogether different pace. Waiters at the little cafes on Calle Defensa no longer rush from table to table, but stroll in the sunshine. The air is lighter, softer, crisper, as is our weekend mood.

    


This year I have brought binoculars with which I scan rooftops from the terrace. To the north maroon-red brickwork marks a monastery. Beyond, the distant towers of Puerto Madero pepper the skyline towards Retiro. East, the view is towards the classical colonnades of the university engineering faculty building. All around are roofs and terraces, some with palms, others with plant pots. Half a kilometer away an elderly woman retrieves a towel from the roof line. Four cats laze on a remote ledge. Windows glitter as morning shutters are opened. 

  

One tiny, white, passing cloud blows past on a light breeze. As it moves, it dissipates into the morning’s warmer air. It is time for breakfast. “Let’s head for Origen?”, suggests Stephanie. “What a good idea”, I rejoin as we head for the stairs.








Thursday, 7 December 2017

San Telmo Diary - Pesos




In Europe, shopping is but a simple swipe away. Here in Argentina cash is king. Portenos (the people of Buenos Aires) prefer US dollars to pesos, and pesos to credit, so before leaving the UK we armed ourselves with dollars for rent, a fist-full of pesos and a couple of Halifax Clarity cards, giving charge-free transactions on larger purchases.

Cash machines are ubiquitous throughout the city, but each transaction carries a toll in both charges and exchange rate; so welcome to the ‘mysterious art’ of currency exchange.

It is Wednesday - our second day in the capital, and we need to think about cash. 

In October 2012, Londoners Michael Kent and Marta Krupinska set up Azimo as a currency transfer business. Until then, currency movement was the domain of the banks who charged hefty fees and gave poor rates of exchange. Azimo’s idea was to simplify and speed up money transfers in an easy-to-understand way. Overnight, with a fingerprint and two keystrokes, pounds sterling in your bank account could become one of 80 different currencies in 190 countries. For me it meant that pesos could be collected from agency offices throughout Buenos Aires in the knowledge that 10% of Azimo profits go to charities, and each member of the Azimo team gets a monthly day off to volunteer in their local community.

Leaving the apartment I descend from roof to street level for my journey to Calle Florida and the offices of Argenper. Today is the first hot day of the year with temperatures of 27 degrees and climbing.

Defensa is already busy, and making progress along the footway is a challenge, especially where the pavement is overtaken by roadworks, or simply disappears - only to reappear in ten paces. Yesterday’s city centre demonstrations have left behind a collection of crowd barriers which line the road as I approach Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada. 




Crossing the square I enter Calle Reconquista, the place where in 1806, the Spanish immigrants of Buenos Aires gathered to swear allegiance to their cause - the removal by force of their recent British overlords, returning the Rio de la Plata to Spanish control. Today, Reconquista is the main banking area filled by clerks and cashiers dodging huge bullion waggons. 




Reaching Calle Lavalle, I turn west towards Calle Florida. This is the heart of the microcentre, where years past, cows would be driven and milked at the side of the street. Now the junction is distinctive for performances of street tango under the direction of Jose Carlos Romero Vedia and his students.




At Florida 537 I slip beneath the building into a wide entrance way and descend a stationary escalator to the lower ground level. Wide malls lead past countless units. I head for the underground garden and twin ramps leading to Argenper. Today I arrive early at 9.15 am. The door opens, but the waiting area is deserted. A sign reads ‘Cambio abierto 1000 hrs’. I approach the counter and Daniel looks up in surprise. “Why you here so soon”, he says looking at the sign, “we wait for money to come”. ‘’But ok, its you - so we see if we have enough pesos!”, he exclaims with exaggerated nods.

I tender my passport open at my tourist visa, together with a note of the Azimo transaction number and my Defensa address. 

Pending arrival of the day’s cash it is too early for the electronic counting machine drilling dozens of bank notes in seconds, so Daniel searches in his drawer, pulls out and hand counts sufficient cash to meet the exchange. Cash secreted, I bid Daniel farewell, ascend the dormant escalator and head for the street. 

So, tonight we can eat. “And maybe a glass of champagne?”, says Stephanie. 



Use my Azimo invite and get £10.00 off your first transfer. https://azimo.com/en/invite/redirect/token/STEPHENT



San Telmo Diary




He looks over his glasses and directs a thumb to a screen. Fingermarks register our return visit. He smiles. Without words his eyes say ‘Welcome to Argentina’. Through the ‘nothing to declare’ channel, from the kiosk we buy a Manuel Tienda Leon coach ride from Ezeiza to Buenos Aires, and walk towards the electric doors. 

I look at Stephanie and our eyes meet. We had pictured this moment as one we would recognise: the point of transition between two worlds: leaving Europe and returning to Latin America.

There is something about the moment that is singular. Flight side is busy in a workmanlike way. It is a last refuge, where you may check your luggage, retrieve a purse of pesos or find an address. The doors slide and we pass through to the city side - a new, vibrant, pulsating Latin world of humanity. Tiers of drivers hold placards, some hastily drawn in felt-tip, others boldly announcing corporations; porters rush around with trolleys and cases; families holding flasks of mate are meeting and hugging; police stand in small clusters; voices call; a shrill whistle blows and a surge of taxis and coaches jockey for position on the grid.

Outside the terminal its hot, yet fresh. A light breeze stirs tall palms and blows fallen blooms of purple Jacaranda across the paving. We have arrived.




All vehicles arriving at Ezeiza at some stage must leave. Like other airports around the world, it is after all just a point of transition, its currency being ‘the journey’. But whilst arrival here is simple and seamless, departure is typically Argentine. 

Our coach bustles onto the exit lane. Already horns are sounding, the coach driver shouts at a taxi. Vehicles rush for the exit, each space a small war-zone. Our bulk and the telling dents to the rear off-side carry the day as queues of small cars and taxis snarl behind us. Now the breeze ruffles stretched curtains at the windows and there is a rhythmical chink from the limp workings of the speed limiter as it hangs uselessly against the bulkhead.

On the autopista and through two sets of tolls, we are now heading into the city. Alongside is our strangely familiar Buenos Aires, a city in constant flux with half-built blocks and roofs covered with water tanks and satellite discs. From the raised sections of the carriageway the city stretches interminably, dense, sprawling and compact. Millions of lives are buzzing like small electrical currents and with them, the hustle of city life. We descend from the elevated Autopista 25 de Mayo, turn east in Avenida San Juan onto Paseo Colon. Working our way through the crisis bus-lane road works, we arrive at Retiro. The coach squeezes into the narrow dog's-leg entrance to Manuel Tienda Leon coach stop where we transfer to a little grey taxi, and start our return journey to San Telmo. 


Friday, 17 November 2017

Packing for tango - Buenos Aires




This blog is a collaboration between Stephanie and me - to assemble a nearly definitive guide for those travelling to Buenos Aires to dance tango. We have approached it on the basis of longer-term stays in CABA thoughout the year, with additional advice for trips to estancias or travelling in Patagonia.

Weather is an important consideration for what you pack for your trip to Buenos Aires where temperatures vary from mid 30’s in December/January, to bitter cold wintery days in July. Between May and September it is wise to take a coat, hat, scarf and gloves, together with robust shoes. From September to the end of April simply consider something to protect the shoulders from sun, and a light jacket or a wrap for the evenings when travelling home from the milonga.

Travelling to the north, be ready for a hotter, wetter climate; and to the south - depending on distance, you may need an entirely different wardrobe. Here we have information for Buenos Aires:






Tango needs
In Buenos Aires you are coming to the centre of the tango universe where tango clothes and shoes abound, so why bring them with you? Part of the fun of staying in the city is browsing rails of tango clothes at milongas and shoe shopping. Our advice here is to pack one versatile outfit that is suitable for day or evening milongas, together with a pair of light tango trainers for classes, then treat yourself at Comme il Faut or the DNI shop. Remember, whilst tangueros dress to the nines in the USA, Europe and UK, a modest tango wardrobe is all that is required in Buenos Aires. 

For longer stays Stephanie packs some pretty, wash-and-drip-dry dresses or tango skirts, open toe tights, plus couple of pairs of tango pants, a cheap throw-away fan for milongas, and her duty-free perfume. She includes one pair of trusty worn-in tango shoes in her hand luggage should she be ‘Stranded at the Airport’.

I pack a lightweight jacket to wear at and from the milonga, teamed with a pair of loose but smart tango trousers and a cool white shirt. Like Stephanie, I slip my old tango shoes into my flight bag just in case. Once in Buenos Aires I head for my favourite shop, Aux Charpentiers to collect a couple of collarless cotton shirts and some casual pants.

Street needs
Whatever the season, Buenos Aires weather can change quickly from hot and fine to cool (or cold) and wet. Importantly, streets are busy and congested - not a place for heels, jewellery or showy clothes that announce you as a tourist target. 

We recommend that you pack for the street, for it is here that you will spend most of your time walking, exploring, meeting friends and drinking coffee at street corner cafes. The art is to combine comfort with a pinch of style. Street shoes should be robust enough to withstand heavy drenching downpours and broken pavements - but light enough to keep your feet cool on hot summer days. This means packing two pairs and checking the forecast. Team with a shirt or t-shirt and loose casual trousers for men, and lightweight wash-and-wear pants with a t- shirt or top for women. Accessorise with a little colour, or pack a change of top for the evening.

Dining out
Don’t dress up for dinner, for none of the Portenos do, and you will feel totally overdressed. What you wear during the day is sufficient for evenings out, although I recommend a jacket for men and a dress for women in the posher restaurants. Wearing shorts in the evening is not advised, instantly identifying you as a tourist. For cooler evenings or sitting under air conditioners, bring a versatile wrap for the shoulders.

Connectivity
The latest technology is expensive here in Argentina, so smart phones are at a premium for street thieves. If you are to pack your iphone and ipad, ensure that they remain discrete and safe.

I pack a UK extension cable with 4 x 240v and 4 x USB outlets, attached to an Argentine adapter or plug. This will give instant connectivity for charging multiple devices, toothbrushes, operating hairdryers etc., reducing the need for a fistful of adapters and searching for additional power sockets. 

Additionally I take a Zendure powerpack for remote charging,  
and a Hootoo TripMate Titan to create a safe wifi hotspot or act as a wifi repeater. If your kit uses AA or AAA batteries, pop in a lightweight charger and handful of rechargeable batteries

Those readers who have read earlier my blogs here will know that we also pack a bluetooth speaker, giving instant smartphone connectivity and great music wherever you may stay.

Once in Buenos Aires, we recommend buying a cheap mobile phone and sim card when you arrive. For just a handful of pesos, this gives you local texting and contact without the worry of a smart phone snatch. 

Travelling further afield
If you are heading for an estancia, or trekking, you must consider weight. A suitcase, ideal for Buenos Aires, becomes a liability on longer journeys. You should only pack what you know you can carry (and what you are prepared to lose), and this means compromise.
 For this we recommend a good size rucksack with separate compartments and the emphasis on layers for clothing. Ensure that you set off with strong footwear and a cool light-but-strong jacket. Remember, if you are to travel by coach, space is limited and you will get minimal help with luggage. More important, the loss of a total wardrobe will wreck your trip, so split your clothes between your pack and day sack.

Whilst in transit - or should you be staying in hostels, security may be an issue. Our advice is to be attentive and to pack accordingly. I bring a Lucky-Line keyback, Packsafe security travel net, digital padlock, remote snatch alarm, body wallet, Travel Blue wallet, false wallet, and small LED torch, providing a near-perfect lightweight kit for most eventualities. Of several day sacks, I carry a day-glow sack for outdoor milongas, enabling me to quickly identify my street shoes in the grey bag pile. 

For HIM
Day selection of shirts, tee shirts, underwear, socks, trousers, shorts & street shoes
Jacket for milonga
Lightweight tango trousers
Wash and wear white shirts for milonga
Shoe horn, sweat towel, fan, wipes & hand gel, plus spray cologne for milongas 
Old trusted tango shoes
Hat and sunglasses for hot days
Hat, gloves and scarf for cold day
Folding mac and umbrella
Under-arm sling bag
Small rucksack
Day bag
Cheap waterproof watch
Toiletries

For HER
Day selection of street pants, underwear, light tops, street shoes and warm wrap
Two wash-and-drip-dry dresses
Two pairs of tango pants
Two tango skirts and teamed tops
Toeless tights
Old trusted tango shoes
Fan, wipes & hand gel, perfume for milongas
Hat and sunglasses for hot days
Hat, gloves and scarf for cold days
Folding mac and umbrella
Tiny front carrying shoulder-strap bag
Transparent rucksack for milongas
Waterproof watch
Favourite cosmetics and toiletries



For BOTH 
Small first aid kit, including antiseptic cream, eye bath, paracetamol and indigestion tablets
Sewing kit and travel scissors
Incognito mosquito repellant spray and sticks
Extension cable and adapters
Battery pack for remote charging, battery charger and rechargeables
Travel binoculars and camera  (optional)
Keyback, security travel net, digital padlock, remote snatch alarm, body wallet, security purse, false wallet, key fob and small torch

For the FLIGHT BAG include:
Emergency clothes (should your suitcase be delayed)
Pesos and emergency currency
Flight socks, neck support, eye covers, ear plugs
Wetwipes
Warm wrap
Facial mist spray
Nasal anti-cold spray
Toothbrush and paste
Zip bag with facecloth
Travel sweets
Earphones, bluetooth speaker and MP3 player or iPhone
Kindle and backup battery pack
Water flask
Passports (plus card with passport numbers and issue date)
Note with hotel/hostel/apartment address
Biro for completing landing card
Tango shoes for ‘Stranded at the Airport’

(Note: extract from Flight bag to underseat travel bag - those items needed in-filght)

Monday, 6 November 2017

Return to San Telmo



Readers will recall that in December 2016, Stephanie and returned to Buenos Aires, staying for four months. This year sees yet another trip to escape a British winter - this time not to manage the tango hotel Casa Luna - but to live in our favourite bario, San Telmo.

We shall of course be dancing Argentine tango, eating pizza and steak, drinking Malbec, attending milongas, and describing day-to-day living in this fascinating city. Be ready to follow the blog, and to top up with visits to our Facebook group page 'San Telmo with a Twist'. We would of course be delighted if you choose to join that group.

For those who may be tempted to visit Buenos Aires, click right to follow this blog. That way you will receive a brief email notification for each new blog entry. And let me know if there is a particular topic on which you would welcome a blog - after all, you are the reader!










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. For new visitors, I shall update this blog from time to time to ensure it is topical. This entry is updated as of December 2017.


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 cheap 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, eye spray 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 bespoke 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 and bring your photo driving license - 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. Find your 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 Chinese 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 © December 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'.