Friday, 14 September 2007

Never say last

02 Sep 2007

Last blog? Due to international lament when I said that my last blog was my last blog, I have agreed never to say 'last'. Never!! Maybe, whilst your interest lasts, this series will be the first? And whilst talking of last, this is my penultimate day.

Late afternoon. The usual early spring sunshine just starting to fade. I walk familiar routes to soak up a 'final' pool of city atmosphere. My mission is to buy a flight bag to contain dance shoes, CDs and other absolute essentials which I will preserve from baggage handlers. This leads me to Ave Santa Fe´at its meeting with Rodriguez Pena, the kingdom of bags. Of all of my visits here, this is the first time I have come on a Saturday afternoon. The shopkeepers on Santa Fe´ are looking hopeful or bored as I pass, the Portenios are flooding home in preparation for their late nights of revelry. But what is this? Set back at Av Santa Fe´ 1060 is a busy staircase. It appears to lead into a labyrinth of corridors. Two trails of people enter and leave, like lines of black ants, ritually stopping as ants do to check and greet each other, then passing on. Wearing my black jacket, I pull closed my collar to conceal my cream shirt and follow the line. A sign says casually "Galleria Bond Street". My companions on the stairs match each other perfectly. The youth is tall and thin, his frock coat touching the ground and his piercing prominent on his forehead. She wears a short tartan skirt over fishnet tights and long, buckled boots. Her hair is black as ink, and her lips red as blood.

At the top of the stairs the gallery splits onto three levels, each now visible from the entrance way. Ahead lie dozens of kiosks and shops. They stretch a full block through to Rodriguez Pena. Each one is Gothic. I am now surrounded by a thousand Goths. This is Whitby but on a massive and exotic scale. Here tartan, there black check, everywhere black with flashes of colour from green and red tinted hair. Chains clink. The coffee bars are full of Goths and at least a dozen tattoo studios process queues awaiting piercing. This is done in open kiosks where three or four customers lie on couches or crouch forward as their backs are decorated. The air hums with the sound of needles. Pipi is a Master Tattoo . His long, jet black, South American Indian ringlets spill down his back as he raises his ink gun to a girls shoulder. Los Tattoo Compadres is full, catalogues of designs being passed between the waiting customers. As I enter one customer passes his design to me just out of interest. In Dr Ivo McPyo , two semi naked women lie face down on couches as their backs are decorated. A bald head in American Classic receives a condor and piercings.

After 30 minutes of fascination, I pass across the third level and down the stairs, this time to Rodrigues Pena. Here again there are trails of people seemingly draining to the street. Bags rustle, as do the black net skirts of young girls. Metal heels and chains clack on the steps. Rodriguez Pena, normally a busy working street in the week is now transformed as far as the eye can see, past Palacio Pizzurno and the plaza. Here are hundreds of Goths in groups, resting on the grass outside the palacio or standing chatting together. Drums beat from the palace gardens and I push my way through one group of Mahicans wearing black gathered kilts, and another whose faces are white as moonshine but for heavy black mascara and the glint of piercings, their look both androgynous and sexual.

What is so thrilling about this scene? It is the youth, energy and total disregard for convention. I resist the moment and do not retrace my steps to Pipi. As I cross Av Paraguay the Goths recede and the usual weekenders return. An old woman walks by with her dog as if this is the most usual scene in the world. Taxis drift past plying for hire. And this describes Buenos Aires. A city which busily accommodates all; young, old, rich, poor, able, disabled, tango barrister and Goth.

Buenos Aires: reflection postscript

31 Aug 2007

In my last blog I promised you all, my fellow travellers, my reflections on my adventure and the way it has changed my thinking and my life. Maybe it is too soon for this, as I am still in my final few days here in Buenos Aires....too soon to understand let alone to know. But first reflections sometimes reveal as much as final results.

When departing for Buenos Aires and asked about my trip, after the usual glib re post "to dance tango" I ended up confessing that this was my first proper trip outside Europe, my first transatlantic flight, my first encounter with Latin America, and more importantly, the first time I have ever travelled alone! Add to that the fact that I spoke only four words of Spanish, hardly even danced tango as a novice, and the real picture emerged. Here in Buenos Aires as an inexperienced traveller without language and without that all-important umbilical cord of friendships and emotional support, how ever could I survive?

There were moments when survival was the name of the game. In practical terms not having Spanish, let alone Castellano, was a barrier, especially at the time Stephanie and I were attacked and robbed in the street. But as an emotionally dependant man I found the isolation a significant issue. I had taken two important decisions. One was to travel without a computer. My contact with the outside world was to be through the locutorio (Internet cafe). For about 1 peso an hour it was possible to grind the faltering Internet connections via fuzzy screens and dilapidated keyboards, surrounded by vocal youths or ardent Internet communicators. New messages only ever arrived after one left (especially with the 4 hour time difference), so communicating was like sending and reading yesterdays newspapers. The second decision was to rent an apartment rather than to stay in a tango house. I will probably never know the merits of this decision. It afforded privacy, peace, a home, an environment one controlled; but closing the apartment door sealed out the outside world and contact with people. However, it did mean that I was able to dance at 2am and play tango all night! The combination of travelling alone, without easy communication and without peer support was at time tough. Especially on those days when I chose not to dance - where I could find the day closing without human contact, but for walking in the bustling city. However, the experience enabled me to mature in self-sufficiency both in a practical and emotional way.

My life as an English barrister was one underwritten by control....working in the most regulated environment in the world where laws and rules are the tools of the trade and our functions are largely defined by them. When not controlled by judges, courts, clerks and clients, we exercise control through procedures and persuasion. The lack of Spanish, in one fell-swoop, deprived me of my principal skill set. At times I passed through Argentine society like a shadow in late afternoon sunshine. My reflection was all that really existed to those around, otherwise I had little reality or relevance. Just as Portenios observe everyone: the pretty woman, the disadvantaged cripple, each small child, so the tall foreigner is noticed, but not understood and not in reality relevant. And so I slipped seamlessly from being defined by my profession to being indefinable, save by the dollar or euro.

As blind people quickly develop heightened senses of hearing, smell and spacial awareness, this controlling, controlled, articulate, emotionally dependant, inexperienced traveller soon learned the importance of new skills and the need to develop neglected ones. An important example was in relation to non-verbal communication. Expressions, and surprisingly, touch formed an important link with the warm and responsive Portenios. My friendship with Portenios (who spoke and enjoyed practicing their British English) was important, especially Oscar and Mary, Cecilia, Cristina, Julia, Georgie. Other ex pats, Norm, Lee, Elena, Ian, and Dana provided important anchors, and visitors, particularly Carla, Anna and Judi added delight and interest.

My main regret in the early days was my challenging progress with tango. After all, this had been my declared purpose for the visit and I had imagined that I would be dancing confidently at milongas within a month of arriving. This was not to be. One friend said that for each lesson you need 5 hours of practice. When I heard this I was incredulous, but it is absolutely correct. And for me, the absence of a regular dance partner was a real disadvantage and challenge. Stephanie's visit in August rescued me from a sense of failure in this respect. She tenderly and empathetically re-introduced my to the basics of tango and terribly importantly, gave me a sense of the connection which is critical to this dance. On reflection, her originally unplanned visit would have been more timely earlier in the trip, but then as we observed, the 'drip effect' of the teaching I had would have been less effective at an earlier stage. And importantly, Stephanie was here for the World Championships, a highlight in dance terms.

Another question remains over my decision not to travel further afield in Argentina. This is the most wonderful and varied country for visitors. So many areas areas are spectacular and worthy of time. I had to decide priorities for my stay, and the long journeys pose a distraction from the main purpose of enjoying Buenos Aires as a Portenio and learning tango. I felt that, this time, tourism was not for me. In consequence I have little knowledge of the rest of the country, but a detailed familiarity with the city in which I need no map.

On early reflection my visit has given me most of what I could ever have wanted. The moments of loneliness have been character developing and more than compensated for by the moments of friendship and connection. My understanding of this fascinating capital and its people is as great as anyone could have without full command of Castellano, and possibly greater than some who do! Through the friendships I have made and experienced, my eyes ave been opened to another way of life where the priorities of work and money are put in another perspective. It is doubtful that I can ever go back to my former way of life centered round work and home. Six months have given me the knowledge I do have wings, and I have learned to fly. I will continue to travel, and shall return on a regular basis to Argentina. On my next visit I will have sufficient command of Castellano and maybe a tango house in San Telmo? Want to come?

I am in the process of preparing a 'Survival Guide' for those who plan to visit Buenos Aires. I will publish this on my blog for those who are interested in following my footsteps, or know someone who does.

La Rural, tango and leaving Buenos Aires

29 Aug 2007

The morning light is thin through the rain. A queue snakes from Plaza Italia out along Avendia Santa Fe towards Palermo. Men and women huddle under umbrellas giving the appearance of a long string of coloured beads. Closer, you see a combination of anticipation and resignation on the wet faces that wait whilst drops of water drip from the hoardings alongside 'La Rural'. We are standing for tickets. The mate´ seller has just wheeled his cart festooned with silver thermos flasks, each with a painted top to indicate its contents. For 2 pesos (17pence) I have bought a cup of sweet white coffee to stave off early morning hunger and cold. A small man in a thin, wet jacket, holding a fist full of pieces of paper, painstakingly hands a sheet to each person who will accept. It bears a poem about tango and love and loss in rain smudged typing that reminds of a tear stained love letter. The old man in front of me hands him a peso and pushes the sheet deep into his coat pocket. The queue starts to move, hesitatingly at first, then more quickly as I measure our progress against the second hand book kiosks that are opening on the centre island of Santa Fe. After 30 minutes a man dwarfed in an official jacket bearing the word 'Seguridad' directs me to an adjacent booth, and I now have my two tickets for the competition final in Salon Tango of the 5th World Championships. Stamping my cold wet feet I head off with other successful travellers for the subte and back to the city centre.

It is now 6.30pm. Stephanie, who has come to rescue my tango and sanity and I are the 39th and 40th in a queue which will reach 1000 or more. The atmosphere is so different tonight with thrill and excitement on the waiting faces, the grey morning figures replaced by couples and families who laugh and chat together. With a further flurry of rain, the first 150 people are admitted to wait in La Rural, a huge complex of inter-connecting halls and exhibition spaces. By 7.30 pm we secure our un-numbered seat on the massive tower of steps overlooking the stage. Here 1500 of us huddle together, our feet almost touching the bottoms of people in front. Those around us are drinking mate´and eating empanadas and cakes, laughing and pressing together like a single organic pulsating being. A slow hand clap from the good humoured sections way above us forces the show into action. The presenter announces the start of the final competition. Ripples of applause cascade out along the the stands. The first ten of forty competitors walk from the wings towards the stage. These are dance finalists that you would never have expected. There, tall amongst the first group, are Daria and Nikolaeva ( ), the Russian pair we ate pizza with after the show tango semi-finals. They look sophisticated and elegant. Behind are a couple from Colombia, both under 5' tall and dark, her skirt slit to the thigh, and in front two ordinary Portenios from the barrios of Buenos Aires who look as if they have just stopped off for a break on their journey home from work. Her plain skirt is fawn and his suit is baggy round the knees. But on stage, each of ten couples at a time dance themselves and the audience into small dreams.

The judging criteria for Salon Tango is strict. No showy steps, ganchos, lifts; no separation from the embrace; lots of contact with the floor; moves you would commonly find in the milonga, with the emphasis on walking, the hold, respecting space and re-creating the romantic contact of two dancers moving as one. Our Russian friends and the Australian couple from Sydney stand out as elegant and stylish against the preferred earthy style of the barrios. Back to the drawing board next year for them. We look with awe as a couple in their sixties slowly circle the floor. They have been dancing for over forty years together and relax, waving to friends in the audience between dance pieces. As the rounds unfurl, interlaced with tango bands, an exhibition from last years winners and a short film about tango, an unprepossessing youth in a grey work suit catches our attention as he dances with a girl in a simple black dress. His dance style is forward, his knees slightly bent. Their heads touch as they dance. Their turns slowly evoke an age of romance. I push a handkerchief manfully across my eyes to hide from Stephanie my tears of emotion as I watch transfixed by a sudden feeling of intimacy and heart-rending loss. Two hours later they will be the 5th Champions of the World, having lifted into ordinary life a simple dance of perfection, joy, movement and connection.

We are leaving La Rural for the last time. I still feel emotional as I take Stephanie's hand in the crowd. People around us are chatting and laughing, criticising and praising performances in rapid Castellano. I realise that it is not just the end of the competition, but the closing stage of my visit to Buenos Aires. Stephanie will leave within 48 hours and I will follow in 6 days. Leaving La Rural is like the end of a dream. The colours, smells, sounds, faces, friendships, touches, caresses of a city are melting like the crowds fanning out onto Avendia Santa Fe. From the warmth and noise of the throng we are stepping out alone, each with thoughts of our impending return. For me, a sense of loss, almost bereavement. Europe, for 6 months a distant thought, is now intruding into my mind. Family, home, work, colleagues, news, routine seem to be pressing to take their place in my thoughts, just as the Portenios drift away towards their homes and their lives. This will be my last blog entry to detail my time here in Buenos Aires. But for those of you who have followed my adventures I will try later to capture how my time here has changed my life. And who knows, may have changed yours?

Park Lezama

30 Jul 2007

Eight green parrots in distinct pairs fly from palm to palm, screeching as they go. Below, Charron arrives, late.

Its Sunday again. I have walked, as you would expect the full length of Defensa San Telmo, through Plaza Dorego complete with crowds, stalls, music, the smell of incense, and tango dancers. A ten metre line of drummers, men women and children, has passed bringing trading to a halt. They wear matching blue and white tee shirts (the colours of the Argentine flag) and pause at the head of the square to buy Mate´ in small polystyrene cups. Today I am not remaining in San Telmo. I quickly pass the contortion performance where a man with curly black hair wearing a cat suit twists his torso 180 degrees, grasps his legs, folds them over his back and places them under his arms. Impossible you say?...step forward and look!

I am now crossing Avendia Juan de Garray. Beyond this is not San Telmo, nor yet La Boca. The feared Constitution, allegedly the most dangerous barrio of Buenos Aires lies to my right. To my left, the entrance to dock 1 at Puerto Madero across the distant rail lines. Here in front is Parque Lezama, positioned neutrally between the barrios. It is distinctive, as it cascades over a hill and under a canopy of tall plane trees which form the winter skeleton to the flesh of the palms and fern trees. Beneath, the paths tumble steeply to Avendia Martin Garcia, and each path appears to be lined with canvas and plastic roofed tents, curling like ribbons from the mount. To my left, youths play football, one exhibiting his skills by keeping the ball from the ground for over 20 seconds before projecting it to his friends. Over in the children's play area mothers and grandparents sit in the sun and knit, drinking Mate´ together and eat empanadas, whilst dozens of highly coloured children play noisily. The tents I have described turn out to be stalls, trading mostly second hand clothes, shoes and bric-a-brac. Here they are not a quirky fashion option but a necessity, for many families would remain unclothed but for the market stalls. As I pass, a deal with size 8 shoes is struck. A small wiry man with straight black hair pulled into a pony tail has tried them on, as his wife held the baby and his sneakers. Yes they fit. 15 pesos and a recycled plastic bag. I pause at the display of tools, sickles, spanners and hammers which have survived scores of years of use and now await new hands to polish them.

Having re-ascended the hill, passing the smallest man I have seen here in Buenos Aires, distinguished only from a dwarf by his perfect symmetry, I take the first available bench to sit to eat my empanada carne. Seven men in their early 20's have already arrived at the bench opposite and pull large shells from their bags. These they attach with nylon wire to long bent willow and bamboo poles, now transformed into bows. Tension is gained by pulling the pole across the knee and fastening the wire with a platted rope. One man sits on a folding stool at a bongo drum, others on plastic stools and 3 on the bench side by side. Eventually they start to play, slow percussive rhythms, changing the tones by lifting the shells and inserting small oval stones against the wires. A mother of two has joined me at my bench and she sings whilst mirroring the rhythms with her hands. Across the way a mature man, of uncertain age and sexuality, dressed by the market, mouths words to the beat. And the three of us sit as odd witnesses to the developing scene.

It is at this point that Charron arrives. I know not his name, but that word is written on the back of his red and white leather jacket which he unfastens with theatricality. He is slim and strong and a man with considerable power. He moves like a cat. His control is palpable. He places his bag on a pile with the others behind the players and returns to an area of tarmac in front of the players which earlier was swept for him by hand brushes. He squats. And then he starts to sing. Even the noisy return of a squadron of parrots goes unnoticed. His voice, an electric wire of sound connects with the trunks of the plane trees and stops families in their tracks. From his squat he rises slowly and strongly to face a junior member of the band. A slim youth releases his percussive bow and creeps forward for the confrontation. And they dance. Slow movements, with martial art precision hand lifts, their legs curving and circling over and below each other's torsos. A group of twenty now threatens to obscure my view so I move under the planes. The scene is frozen in time by the hypnotic pulse of the instruments and the dance, reflected in the ent-like sway of the crowd. Eventually Charron rises, his opponent is vanquished.

My return is back through Defensa, passing Cafe del Mercado, still filled with diners, and into San Telmo which, with the exception of La Vieja Rotiseria by the covered market, appears tame, having relinquished its danger to Lezama and La Boca. My pace can slow. The last of the day's sunshine flickers across pavements at the grid junctions as I make my way over Avendia Belgrano and on to the city.

Cafe Hermann Santa Fe´ 3092

28 Jul 2007

Those of you who read my blog on Mar del Plata will recall my observations about the German and Austrian influence here in Argentina. At Mar del Plata the architecture, with long tile-hung roofs and elaborate balconies. Here at Cafe Hermann, fittingly, I am meeting Elena for dinner. From the outside the cafe looks a little dull. Brightened only by the red neon sign spelling out its name, the cafe occupies a corner position between Santa Fe and √Ārmenia. Two engraved glass doors separated at angles to each other give immediate access to the dining room. Ahead a huge mirror engraved with stags is the centre piece in an ornate mahogany bar. The qualification age for a waiter here is clearly 60. They wear short white coats with black ties and gather together around the bar. One takes an early supper of plain steamed chicken served entirely on its own, with only white string holding its feet for garnish. Elena and I meet outside at 2045 hrs and we are obviously early. Two other couples take an early supper before rushing off to the theatre or home to their families. We are led to a set table reserved earlier today.

The seats are tall benches with high backs that create a private dining cocoon. Our waiter lifts the flap at the end of the bench to take our bottle of Lopez. Elena scrutinises the menu with
fascination. "Sausages Vienna", she says in her crisp Viennese accent. "No, I think we shall try the Lomo Hermann". Under the supervision of an Austrian gastronome it sounds like a good choice. "How is Lomo Hermann?", she asks our waiter returning with sparking water. "With bananas", he replies smiling. I had noticed alarming rows of bananas festooned above the bar. Now, as the restaurant fills exclusively with Portenios, the rows of bananas become jagged with gaps. "I think not", says Elena, "maybe another time" and we safely order Lomo with peppercorn sauce, vegetables, salad, potatoes and papas fritas, which our waiter in the tradition of Cafe Hermann immediately memorises. During the short wait for our food, Cafe Hermann fills. Couples, families, work associates and lovers. The latter are easily recognisable by the openness of affection that is entirely acceptable and expected here in Buenos Aires. Lovers will kiss longingly in the Subte or on Colectivos (bus). People of all ages stop in the street to cuddle or hold each other in a passionate embrace. Whilst my fingers touch Elena's to make a conversational point, we resist further temptation of familiarity, preferring to deal with the task in hand: our meal. Lomo is a rump steak, often large or huge. Ours come drenched with a peppercorn liquor, nutty and fiery. Elena's vegetables (it is after nightfall so she does not eat salad) comprise cabbage, beans and large oval slices of pumpkin. "Unlike love, Argentines are not comfortable with vegetables", she observes. My salad has been tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the patatas fritas are cooked in dripping, to a golden brown. The Lopez, first recommended by Maria (see Mar del Plata), slips comfortably down, complementing the richness of the meat. Around us, a hubble of voices, clattering of plates and chinking of glasses. In the air, the faint aroma of bananas.

We are stirred from our intense conversation by flames, which spill onto the floor as they pass by our table. Our waiter carries a large metal dish which he agitates with a spoon. The flames are a mix of gold, copper and blue, like a fresh lit primus stove. The aroma is no longer that of bananas but of exotic liqueur which has been lit with a taper. "We will have one of those", Elena clips to the waiter, "and two spoons; one cafe con laiche and one cup", she adds. When our postre arrives it is already afire. More vigorous spooning and the surface caramelises. This is not just a pancake, but an incandescent experience of sight and taste. With the two spoons, we share, cutting off slices and tasting the crispness and softness. Elena's eyes have been softened by firelight and spirit from the pancake. We call for the bill and exit into the cold night air lifting from Jardins Botanico. Elena's taxi screeches to a halt almost bumping the kerb and she dives in, to be swept away towards Palermo. For me, my favourite 39 colectivo rattles into view along Av Santa Fe´. "Ochenta", I say to the driver as I get my ticket and seat towards the rear of the bus, and I speed off towards Talchuano, Tucuman and the city.

Santa Fe´and Scalabrini Ortez

Its a beautiful day. Sunshine glistens from the tower windows and explicit lingerie hoardings high above Avenue Santa Fe, one of the main routes bringing traffic from Jorge Newbury airport and Palermo into the city. I have walked almost the full length of the avenue from Av Uruguay skirting Barrio Norte and Recoleta. I stop at Scalabrini Ortez just short of Plaza Italia. The towers and myriads of clothes and shoe shops have given way to tall elegant iron railings behind which is an expanse of green. To my right I see groups of men gathered in clusters round stone tables. Their ages range from 20 to 80 and, irrespective of age, they all show the same interest and animation in the afternoon events. My attention is drawn by a cheer from one table where a man in his 60's sweeps objects forward into his hands. They are terracotta in colour, although the group around him conceal their purpose. I divert from the avenue and pass under high trees cascading with aerial roots perhaps 50 feet below their canopy. I can now see that there are about a dozen groups and pairs. The latter play chess with wooden pieces set on inlaid boards, whilst the former engage in drafts and cards. Others sit by and watch or lie in the sunshine, air perfumed with hyacinths and woodsmoke, relaxing with Mate´ the Argentine herbal drink drawn from a communal cup of metal or wood through a steel straw, also shared. Beside them are small hand carts of the Mate´sellers, festooned with battered coloured thermos flasks. I now see that the terracotta objects are chips, broken tiles gathered from the rough paths that wind through the Jardins Botanico Carlos Thays. I stand by and observe this exclusively male preserve. What surprises me, along with the huge divergence of age, is the variety of class. One wears a suit and tie, another a spotted neckerchief and smock. A young man sports a tee shirt and wool hat, and another a torn anorak clearly rescued from a skip. The other surprise is the total absence of money, as this is an activity of sport not profit. My gaze rests on a man in his 70's, his face so lined that it resembles the rail tracks to Retiro, Buenos Aires' main station, but his nimble fingers flick, shuffle and deal the cards with skill for his friends.

Now I notice another movement and glance to my left. Through the iron railings separating the gardens from the street four cats race into view, two grey, one ginger and one black. As I re-focus, maybe a dozen more become visible. And beyond, under sweeping palms and banana trees (more about which in the later blog), dotted, snoozing in the sun, maybe a hundred cats. One man sleeps on the grass on his back and on his rising chest two cats enjoy the shared warmth. Here people and cats sit and stroll together.
Beneath a flush of cerise winter blossom and Stephanie shares her bench with five cats, dozing in the sunshine. What is interesting is the similarity between the human and feline activity, each mirroring each other, whether sleeping, sitting alone or in groups, even the kittens and children running and playing by the fountain. Nearby, a group of girls drink coke together and beside them a group of cats sip from a shared saucer.

I must leave the garden, passing at the junction of Av Armenia a parilla of distinction to which I will sojourn for dinner with Elena tonight, then back into Santa Fe´. Now the pavements throng with women, young and old, who unlike the men of the Jardin Botanico, gather in the dozens of shoe and lingerie shops, the two contrasting passions of the Argentine women of Buenos Aires.

Street life of Calle Florida

27 Jul 2007

Calle Florida runs across the heart of the city centre. It is a pedestrian shopping street crammed with life. Everyone who lives in or visits Buenos Aires walks this street at some time. Here is all manner of life. The shops do brisk business, whether the expensive ones of Galleria Pacifico, an elegant, period covered block of shops, restaurants and the Borges Cultural Centre (housing galleries and the Argentine tango and ballet schools of Julio Bocca) or the small kiosks placed precariously in the centre of the street around which the hordes of shoppers heave, urchins beg and thieves check bags. But today I am here to see the traders and street performers.

I start my journey of nearly a mile of shops from Plaza San Martin, where a warm breeze tousles the fronds of the fern trees and a translucent outline of the moon is already visible in the afternoon sky. As I cross the square the 152 bus to Olivos and La Boca thunders into view, distinct with blue and red livery and the sign 'Emp Tandilense SA' painted exotically on the side. This is the city's most intriguing coach company, festooned with bevelled mirrors and velvet sunshields. Its suspension hisses at each bump and lurch and its horn whoops at those who dare to get in its way. I enter the smart end of Calle Florida where the better hotels are located, and the afternoon sun manages to drench the first 20 metres of the street. Here the shoe polishers gather in the afternoon, catching business men and tourists as they make their way through the city. I sit on the tall stool and offer my Argentine tan leather shoes for a polish. The price seems to depend on the cut of ones suit or the quality of the leather to be cleaned. I am getting a 'silver service' it seems for 5 pesos, whilst a simple, brass lustre could cost as little as 2.5 pesos elsewhere. At over 6 pesos to the sterling pound this is still a good deal. My polisher hands me the local paper to read, which I take. He places inserts around my ankles to protect my socks and the process begins. First, the polish, liberally spread from a jar and rubbed into the leather. Then the wax, buffed into every crevice and into a fine bloom. Then the final polish with two large brushes moved like pistons over the sides of the shoes and finished with a soft cloth. The effect is dazzling to the eye, but more important, lifts the spirit. It is a private deal between two independent men both needing each other, me for the shine, him for the income. With the exchange of notes comes the smile through broken teeth and the handshake, and I am off on my way along Florida.

Still within the sunshine is the first performer. He is in his early 30's, dressed in a dark coat with his black hair down to his collar and plays classical guitar. The sound is superb and rich, enhanced by his portable amplifier, but to a subtle degree. Yet to draw a crowd, a small group of tourists loiter both to enjoy the sun and the sound. His position is guaranteed by the better hotels, outside which he plays. There too symbiosis. He is a professional and the hotel doormen realise the added value he brings to their frontage. As I progress, the bearded balloon man passes, sporting a fur hat, his mass of balloons rising on the gentle breeze. He pauses to make a sale and waves to his guitar playing friend. I am now passing from the winter sunshine into the calle. The height of the buildings on both sides screens the street from direct light at this time of the afternoon, but this seems to affect neither traders, performers or shoppers. Next I discover a young soprano dressed in a grey body warmer and sneakers. She is giving a spirited rendition of an aria which I should recognise but have temporarily mislaid. That matters not, as she paces to and fro performing actions as well as song to the delight of a small crowd. Further is more classicality. We are now outside Harrods. Once a replica of Harrods London, it now lies empty awaiting rebirth. Through the stained windows you can still discern the walnut and mahogany fittings and heavy bevelled screens. Is this Beethoven? He stands on a box covered in red crushed velvet, dressed in a red velvet jacket, bottle blue waistcoat and fawn breeches. Atop is his white full bottomed wig framing a white painted face. A few centivos brings him to life from his statuesque form, to conduct soundless music with his little white baton. A little further and we make the transition from the classical end of the calle to the bohemian. Our next performer is a bandonneon player. He wears a thick grey coat with white neckerchief, his elegant grey hair swept back. His music is as sad as his demeanour. An old performer who has fallen on hard times. A lone woman stands before him and claps, with tears in her eyes. She turns and rummages into her capacious bag, retrieving some notes which she places into his hat, and her handkerchief with which she dabs her face. Yet further is more sound of tango. Now outside Galleria Pacifico I see a group of young tango performers, wearing black suits trimmed with white edging and black hats with white bands. These are here at their appointed time most days. The boys look like students from the National School of Dance Folklorique, but the sole female dancer is a traditional street performer. She wears a daring red velvet dress cut to the highest point, revealing her fishnet covered legs to great effect. Their act is more of pastiche than performance, but worth the two minute wait and possibly a peso. Behind them is the almost limbless violinist, his trousers tucked up into his wheel chair so that they do not tangle with the wheels. He plays tuneful laments which mingle with the tango to form a suffused mist of sound. Then the puppeteer. She is slight with razored hair. Her single puppet performs rock music either at a piano or holding a microphone. For some reason she attracts a huge crowd who seem fascinated and spell-bound by the puppet's life-like antics. I think she will eat well tonight. As will the fallen angel. I say fallen as he is the only seated mannequin I have seen. He almost leans against the booth, his silver wings folded to each side and his silver hands ready to hand a small gift to those who place money in his bowl. People queue as if waiting for a blessing (which he probably gives for a peso), and for some reason children seem to love him. When not responding to alms, he sits motionless and godlike. To the side of him, by way of contrast, is the tarot card reader with green baize table and cards already spread for the next prediction. As I reach Lavalle, I encounter the painters, one painting with his feet, one with spray cans and another sketching portraits. Across is the photographer with classical pictures and tempting tango shots. At one side a trick seller demonstrating the impossible to an animated crowd of youngsters and to the other side a small child, aged perhaps 6, playing an accordion, the tune barely discernible amongst the hubub of the street. We are now but half way. The street is thronging and more delights lie ahead, like Jose Carlos' fabulous tango dancers pictured above but they must wait for another day.

Salon Canning milonga

21 Jul 2007

We meet at 11.30 pm at the ice cream shop in Ave Jorges Borges, Palermo, where I am finishing my gellato. My dance partner for the evening has just taken supper with friends and carries a box of cakes bearing pictures in rice paper of her and her birthday party host. The evening is relaxed and warm and the fashionable streets of Palermo are filled with revellers as we make our way out to the milonga at Salon Canning.

The entrance of Canning is if anything unprepossessing, leading straight from Av Scalabrini Ortiz, a busy provincial road on the edge of bario Pallermo filled with shops, kiosks, offices and apartments. Ahead is a dreamy, distant sound of tango. Twenty pesos (£3.25) at the door and we enter the salon. To our left is the bar with its domed mirror and ahead a massive montage of dancers who have performed here and made up its history. The room is light, very light, and tables surround the dance floor. We are taken to one and the waitress returns with two bottles of sparking water whilst we surreptitiously change into our dance shoes. It has just gone midnight, so the place is still relatively quiet. About 50 couples dance, in the centre a tall young man with his long hair tied back into a pony tail taking one of his students for her first outing at a milonga. She clings to him with both hesitation and fear in that moment, which can only be compared with a fledgling taking its first flight from the nest. Some couples dance in open embrace, performing showy moves and embellishments with skill; others circle in close embrace, face against face, he tipped forwards towards her, her with eyes closed wrapped in his arms. Tonight the music is mournful. Those with skill in Castillano know that the words of tango are the saddest words in the world, and only just now am I getting to know how sad. Loss, death, desertion, unfulfilled promises. When you combine the words and music with two and a half minutes of intimate surrender to a stranger, you know the real meaning of tango.

We dance, taking to the floor when there are sufficient dancers to draw the eye away from our inexperience. We need not worry, because tonight attention is being saved for the exhibition. An announcement is made, a flurry of excited applause and the small dark couple who we had observed dancing earlier, take to the floor. She stands at one side, he at the other. They walk purposefully towards each other, their eyes fixed on each other. He offers his embrace which she takes. It is as if she is sinking into his arms and into love. Her body softens to his, his flexes to hers. The music of tango plays. He takes her in a long, smooth step to the side and they move as one dancer in two parts connected by invisible thread. His lead is strong and her response gentle. He walks forward, she back. If she stopped he would walk through her. He pauses...for the briefest moment as she sways in his arms, like a cradled child. He leads her across and around him in a dazzling flash of footwork. At no point do they break the spell of intimacy, their dance so coinciding that it is impossible to imagine the moment when his thought and intention are translated into her movement. Two and a half minutes in this case is the briefest of delirious fragments of time. Rapturous applause. Next a valse. Now the flow is like a tide, she moves and sways like a frond of coral. This is ultimate romance and the discerning audience is spell bound with interest and passion.

When finally they walk from the floor and the music subsides, other dancers take either tentatively or vigorously to the floor, to recapture or seek to emulate that which they have seen. We look at each other for a moment. Shall we dance? I cough self-consciously and she sensitively suggests, "its been a busy day, maybe we should be making a move before long". Yes, hard act to follow. Why should tango be quite so tough? We nod to our waitress, rise with our coats and shoes, make our way to our waiting taxi and on into the night, leaving the dancers of Canning to fulfill or deny their dreams and expectations.

Cafe Tortoni

16 Jul 2007

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

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

Snowy Buenos Aires!

09 Jul 2007

Was it 1918 when it last snowed in Buenos Aires? For those of you who do not live in England and doubt the effect of global warming, now look at what has happened here in South America today.

Early afternoon Av de Mayo. It is snowing. By snowing, I mean real flakes of snow which gather on the roof of the taxis as they wait for the lights to change. Faces are pressed against the cafe windows, people wearing scarves and hats have ventured outside to take photographs on their mobile phones. On man is trying to get the whole of 'Obelisco' in focus covered with snowflakes. And children are running and skipping amongst the flakes as if they have not seen them before....which they won't unless they have travelled down to the south of the country, North America or Europe. Even their grandparents do not remember this. The scene is amusing for those of us who live with snow in the winter. But here, the palms are getting a cover of snow like Christmas trees. And why? A large bus thunders by belching out diesel fumes which results in a settling of carbon on the thin covering of snow at the kerb side. An international flight leaves high above the city for Europe. The heat exchangers have ceased to drip drip their deposit of water onto the pavements as it is cold, but the cold and snow is probably their legacy.

It is another holiday Monday and the city is half asleep. The sort of feeling which you get when Argentina is playing Brazil at football. Few cars are about and even fewer pedestrians. Today San Telmo and Recoleta, Palermo and Puerto Madero are desolate. A few traders have ventured out, regretting their decision as the tourists have stayed in their hotels. A wind whips round the corner of Av 9th Julio into Rivadavia and cuts through the thin coats of the passers by. The street booksellers and magazine stores have covered their displays with plastic sheeting, and even the cartoneros are battening down the hatches with plastic and extra cardboard. The spaces in doorways where there is some warmth are prized by the street people, some of whom will die of hypothermia tonight.

Here in South America, the ozone layer is thin, almost non-existent in parts in the summer, and the winter temperatures have changed so that people comment with concern. What is to be done about it? Al Gore started as a figure of fun, but now a reality is overtaking the image. Hopefully, tomorrow may be different. The sun will be back and the street cafes full of Portenos relaxing with a Cafe con leche. But what of the future?

It was a relief to reach the apartment in Tucuman and escape the cold, the flakes and the wind. The block door clicked purposefully behind me as I entered the large tiled entrance hall and made my way to the lift. Upstairs in the apartment, I closed the shutters for the first time and made fresh coffee which accompanied the wonderful pastry I had bought in Corrientes. Later, with white wine, olives, Parma ham, cream cheese and pimentos I dimmed the lights and danced alone, leaving the city to its own devices for tonight. Hugo Diaz' harmonica provided the music and a feeling of contentment. As I dance I wonder about what lies around me. Maybe you can help me with your thoughts?

Flamenco revisited

Those of you that have the patience to read my blog and the time to comment seem to have enjoyed hearing about my evening with Lee, Alma, Ian, Dolly and Flamenco. Well, so did I. So much that tonight's blog will be devoted to Flamenco!

On leaving Ian, I hurriedly wrote out my telephone number so that he could contact me the next time he and Alma were going to the Flamenco Club here in Buenos Aires.

"free on Friday night?+ Flamenco+ Cantares in Rivadavia 1180 +11pm +show starts midnight + table booked + see you there+ ian"

Rivadavia is about 15 minutes walk from my apartment in Tucuman, so on Friday night I set off just before 11 pm down Corrientes and across along Av 9 de Julio. A quick right turn into Rivadavia and there, almost hidden between grey, boarded buildings was 'Cantares'. A small sign swung in the light evening breeze and the sound of music and laughter ascended from the basement below street level. Ahead of me a turned marble staircase was lined with pictures of Flamenco dancers, one in particular, a tall athletic young man with a unfathomable look in his eyes. From the grace of the staircase the entry through the basement doors to the club was a surprise. It was full of light, noise and people talking excitedly at crammed together tables. Here were all ages, but predominantly and notably young, beautiful, lithe, Argentine women with the jet black hair and olive skin of Flamenco dancers. Our table was right across the room by the stage and the mention of Alma's name produced the immediate reaction of an embrace from the proprietor. This was clearly the heart of Flamenco in Buenos Aires!

We had skipped the meal and booked for 'show only' at a cost of 30 pesos (£5) per person. For this we had a stage side table, sparkling water, tapas and the show. A bottle of Malbec added another 20 pesos. We exchanged hugs and kisses - both the men and the women kiss here on meeting. We had time to toast the evening and then the show began.

First to the stage was the club proprietor, a strong, engaging woman, who took the audience on a dramatic and expressive monologue - like a spoken Fado - about somewhere called Grenada in Spain. The Castillano speaking audience sat with rapture following her words, whilst I followed the music of her voice and the picture of a lost continent somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic sea. Then the musicians and dancers arrived. The forty year old guitarist wore a woollen jacket and glasses, and looked as if he had stumbled from a ministry office somewhere in the city. But as he started to play, music rolled and peeled from his Flamenco guitar like a dream. Rhythms wove with cross rhythms accompanied by percussive raps on the side and fret of the instrument. Soon he was joined by a young, slight woman a who sang with a deep sumptuous voice, and then by her partner, German - tall, dark, dramatic, singing whilst he rapped the sound box on which he sat. His voice was light as a spring breeze, then dark, powerful and expressive like the rush of a waterfall; but his drumming was totally explosive. It was so fast and rhythmical - from automatic gun fire - to a cricket in a tree, with the gentle roll of his fingers.

And the dancers? Yanina, a petite dancer with dark hair pulled back from her face, wore a long Flamenco dress in blue and white fitting tightly to her slim body. She danced magically, with a softness, suggestive of her femininity, but her quick step work linked rhythms with the drummer, creating strong, fast and furious patterns of dance and sound, amplified by the percussive stage.

Soon the audience erupted, as Claudio climbed to the stage. Wearing a white suit with a long jacket, tall, dark, with hair pulled into a pony tail, very slim, almost slight, this was the man whose image appeared on the stairs. He is the dance professor at the academy upstairs, to which people come from all over Latin America and even from Spain. As he danced he had a distant look in his eyes and a strength which was huge, eclipsing his frame and capturing his audience. His footwork was extraordinary, fast and precise, and utterly explosive! We were lost in his dream and his performance.

By the end of the evening, we had travelled with the singers, players and dancers to unknown places, tasted the smell of the soil of southern Spain, felt the sun on our faces, and passed through a life time of emotion! As the performers left the stage we finished our Malbec in a state of euphoria, our hands stinging. Those of us that dance tango reflected inside about the difference in passion and intensity of the dances and wondered if our tango would ever feel the same as this!

a tale of two cities

01 Jul 2007

The morning sun has lit the roofs across from my balcony and the small, grey doves, deceived by the unseasonably warm weather, carry long straws for their nests in the huge fir tree outside here in Tucamen. After breakfast I am going to walk to San Telmo, the heart of tango land. My route takes me across Corrientes and down Sarmiento, past the ancient palacia, once an opera house, now boarded up with only the crumbling sculptures high above the street to announce its former distinction. Here the city is quiet, usual for a Sunday, with the odd couple strolling arm in arm and locals walking their dogs. I cross the busy 14 lanes of Av 9 Julio, making my way via Avs Piedras, Chile and Peru down towards Defensa, the gateway to San Telmo. I say 'down', as entering San Telmo is like entering a labyrinth of tight, narrow streets with crumbling villas bearing balconies that overlook the streets. I know I have arrived when the street closes to traffic and the way forward is lined with street vendors selling clothes, food, books, slippers, flutes, bric-a-brac and exquisitely crafted jewellery.

Ahead are the bohemian sounds I have come for: the tango bands. 'Fevor de Buenos Aires' are in their usual position. They are an all male band of young men, four violins, four bandoneons, bass and piano, plus singer. They energise the street, to the point that the residents on first and second floor balconies sit out to listen, watch and eat breakfast and drink coffee. Further on are other street performers: mannequins, puppeteers, tap and tango dancers, fortune tellers, guitarists, and vendors of every kind of food: empanadas, roast nuts, fruit, sandwiches, and of course Mate, the Argentinian herbal drink sold from thermos flasks by traders who mix it as you watch. Defense leads to Plaza Dorrego. Waiting to perform are the oldest professional tango dancers in the city. Here every week, today they dance to Anibal Arias and Osvaldo Montes. It is impossible to judge their age, but they were close friends of the famous tango dancer Carlos Garcia who died at Christmas 2006 aged 92. They still follow his advice "Es muy dificil tocar facil", which my four classes in Castillano allow me to guess at as "The light touch is the most difficult". Anibal has a plate of died brown hair plastered skilfully across his forehead whilst Osvaldo has allowed his bald pate to show with distinction in the morning sunshine. Guitar and bandoneon. Their music curls up Defense and causes the hairs on ones arms to stand up, perhaps in empathy with those of the players. The tango dancers take to the board, she is dancing alone before they begin. He takes the last pull on his cigarette and enjoins her into the embrace which is tango. Around are scores of people, locals and tourists, some watching, others sauntering and those who hurry by on their mission across the city.

My return journey takes me around the city towards Recoleta. What a contrast. The streets here are more like boulevards, tree lined with expensive shops selling to the very rich. Doormen hover at the hotels and a chauffeur waits by a limousine. My objective is tea at Palacio Duhau, the most select hotel in Buenos Aires.
Only the staff in the courtyard indicate that this is an hotel. At the top of the double staircase the tall, grand, plate doors are opened for me, I am admitted to the marble entrance hall and taken forward to the dining room. A waitress dressed in a black suit shows me to my table with a choice of view. I select the harpist and the ornate hand-painted panels of the salon. In the other direction is a view of the gardens which descend to the fountains. The hard choice is that of which tea. I will take the Darjeeling with scones, jam, dolce de leche, cream, and small cakes. The scones are so short they melt in the mouth. The harpist and the fountains play gently as I nestle back into the deep studded leather chair. The waitress tops up my glass of sparking water and my teapot. The bill of 34 pesos (6 pounds 50) would pay the grocery bill for a family of four for a week. I leave a 5 peso tip for my waitress and she smiles.

Once outside I head towards the market at Recoleta. I have visited by day and want to see it by night. Stalls line both sides of the wide paths of Plaza San Martin de Tours and each stall is brightly lit, forming corridors of incandescence snaking through the plaza. Gone are the bohemian vendors of San Telmo. Here painters and crafters, there photographers and leather goods vendors. The freshness of evening has brought out the women in furs who click their heels across the pavings. The traders will accept dollars and will pains-takingly hold a mirror so that their silver jewellery may be admired. A young musician performs to a large group of young people who lie on the grass slope of the park. The evening is glittery and bright with lights, voices and the rustle of shopping bags.

I feel it is time to leave. I walk past the fashionable La Biela restaurant towards the outer edge of the plaza, and on across the boulevard. There is a lone trader. In fact, a street performer. He has been unable to access the premiere pitches for which other traders compete. His battered wheel chair has been shrunken to accommodate his miniature, thin frame. He will be in his twenties, but bearing a much greater age. His deformed feet barely reach the footrests and in his twisted arms he cradles a tiny harmonica. To ward off the evening chill his wool hat is pulled down across his forehead. He is totally alone. But for the music. His wistful playing bring tears to my eyes, and his music falters as he struggles a nod of appreciation for the two peso note I drop into his empty tin.

Friends who leave

30 Jun 2007

One of the problems with being part of an ex pat community is that people leave. Thrown together through mutual interests or even just the need to survive in a large city, friendships flourish quickly creating dependencies, both social and emotional. And with Lee, that is how our friendship started. Meeting at a restaurant event organised by American ex pats in Av Armenia, Palermo, our conversation over dinner immediately revealed our common preoccupation with tango. Lee was an expert. Watching her dance later at Club Italiano Belgrano was like watching oil move over water, smooth, seamless and very sexy. Men watched with admiration, and women with envy.

Tuesday night was Lee's leaving party. Her recent stay of three months had come to an end, as had her two years break from Sydney, Australia. Ian from Perth gave over his apartment in Av Uruguay for a select evening of conversation and fun with Lee, Dolly, Alma and me. Each of us followed Lee's lead and brought a course for the meal. As a truly independent male with culinary skills, I brought a selection of wild cakes and a litre mixture of exotic ice cream from one of the ice cream parlours which are dotted liberally around the city! And, as the wine and the lights slipped down, the table was pulled back and we danced; slow Nuevo tango . This is clearly how memories are made. For a moment there was an overwhelming sense of loss at Lee's imminent departure. And then, almost without warning, suddenly the mood changed.

Alma, Ian's partner had been fairly silent at dinner. Perhaps because her native language was Spanish (coming from Mexico), and possibly due to her natural reserve. She listened carefully and smiled, exchanging occasional loving glances with Ian. But now, she returned to the room. Gone were the black trousers and flat shoes, together with the band that had tied her hair. Here was a woman dressed to kill! And that was clearly her mission. The clue was her Flamenco dress which she held aloft with her left hand. Her jet black now hair tumbled about her face before she swept it back and stepped onto the floor. With gun-shot rhythm: one two, one two three, four five six, seven eight....making incredible patterns of ten beats, her feet moved with a speed that swirled her skirts and sent her hair flying. She was alight; in the dance, and in the eyes!

On the few occasions I have seen Flamenco danced before, the dancers have circled each other, creating visual delight, but concealing the hot, sensual intimacy that Alma created as she danced for us. Here, due to closeness and her passionate gaze, we were pulled into a new world of dance. Gone the measured steps of tango; this was pure fire and danger! Talking later, Alma told of the male dancers who compete and exhibit, describing their total testeronic beauty and strength that takes the breath away and totally seduces all of the women who watch. She described the rhythms, the way in which the dance is lead by the outside aspect of the leader's inside arm, and the turns which signal to the Flamenco guitarist that the dance is to change. As transforming as the mood of the evening, was the way in which Alma changed as she danced. From silence to drama, from reticence to explosion, from reserve to penetrating passion.

Today, Lee used her last ten pesos of credit on her Argentine mobile phone to call me from the airport. For the last time, her name would light up on my phone as it would reflect the smile on my face. As her credit ran out mid sentence I felt like a ship that had passed from radio contact. She was returning home. My direction was still forwards as I left Av Sarmiento to make my way back to Corrientes, carried on the high, but slightly lonely swell of life in Buenos Aires.

Parilla Rodriguez Pena

26 Jun 2007

The Parilla (pronounced parisha) in Rodriguez Pena is one of the Argentine national treasures, jostling for first place here in Buenos Aires with tango. But it satisfies different primeval needs. Unlike tango, total satisfaction is guaranteed in the parilla. I enter with Cecilia and am met by the head waiter. We are immediately recognised and invited to ascend to the upstairs salon. The place, on both floors is crammed with tables covered with large, starched, white cloths, huge napkins and collections of glasses, together with the sharpest of equipment to tackle the parilla. At each table is a family or a group of friends from work, here a pair of young women chatting ardently, and there a quartet of old men reaching out to the plate of parilla to grab another piece of steak. The floors are tiled and the bright strip lighting reflects in the plate glass mirrors that line the walls, giving a brilliant all-round view of the restaurant. I am the only foreigner here and the menu reflects that fact. Cecilia orders our meal. We are to have the parilla, of course, preceded by a salad, accompanied by papas fritas and followed by fresh dates. And of naturally, Malbec to drink, with soda water to help digestion.

It seems no time at all before the waiter, a sprightly 60 something year old with a face that reflects a life in the parilla, returns with the salad. It is huge and contains a myriad of enticing vegetables, from lettuce and tomato to artichoke hearts. It is dressed at the table by the waiter, Cecilia instructing more olive oil, a little more balsamic, a screw of fresh ground pepper. And then the parilla. The plate groans with delicacies. Here we find sausages, bright red, dark black. There are kidneys, small pieces of meat from undisclosed places, and of course intestines. At other tables hands rush to the plate, especially for the small intestines which taste, well, like intestines. We are more measured. As we eat the mound of meat reduces and there is even the prospect that it will be consumed. But the waiter returns. This time he carries a huge dish covered with meat. There must be some mistake. This plate is intended for the large family across the room where at least four generations are dining together. But no, this is our parilla...the meat course! Here are steaks that are so thick and large they almost overlap the dish. With them are other pieces of beef, pork and chicken. This is a vast array, the prospect of which would kill a vegetarian. And then the papas fritas; cooked in the delicious beef dripping until soft, but crisp, and golden. Our setting is unremarkable, replicated at each and every table throughout the parilla. We are surrounded by a mass of hungry meat consumers with hearty appetites and all the time in the world to satisfy them.

Somehow we survive the episode. The dates feel fresh on the tongue and the last of the mineral water eases the moment. Our small jet black coffees taste bitter against the sweetness of the dates. Will we eat again? Most certainly we will. Oh, and the bill, you ask? About 5 pounds per head! Now, are you feeling hungry?

Mar Del Plata

This week I was invited by Maria to accompany her on a trip to Mar Del Plata where she was to attend a conference. Travel in Argentina is either by plane or coach, depending on the distance. Here, a four hour non-stop coach journey was appropriate, and reasonable at 104 pesos return (17 pounds). The coach was luxurious, with fully reclining seats, twelve down and 18 upstairs, two drivers, bathroom, international video. curtains and snacks.

The city of Mar Del Plata is a city of two halves. City and port. They straddle the Mar Argentina with Cabo Corrientes forming a whalebone jaw dividing the two. The day of writing I have left Maria's borrowed rambling house in the leafy Los Troncas Playa Grande to walk to the port. The street names mirror those of Buenos Aires, but here the roads are lined with small stone villas with pretty gardens and clipped hedges. Elsewhere the city resembles an Austrian village, long tile-hung roofs over timber balconies. As I arrive at the port the yellow and orange fishing boats are leaving laden with empty nets. Men are shouting in Italian and Spanish, with first and second generation Italians manning the boats. They flock as if preparing for a race in the early morning light. My destination is not the port itself, but to meet the 800 residents of Escollera Sur. Before you see them, you can hear them. And before you hear them, you can smell them. Sea Lions. The two Gurada of the port nodded me through the fortified gates and onto the southern harbour wall. It extends for over 300 metres into the Atlantic, curving north to meet the northern sea wall, but encompassing a huge basin in the cup of the land mass.

And there, out along the headland are the sea lions. They have travelled miles to winter here. A huge colony of males, arriving and departing as I watch, to navigate the harbour to the open sea, squid and fish and mates. I am standing about two feet from the nearest sea lion. From time to time, one rears up to force its way onto the bank to gain prized places. The strong males, with necks the size of small cars, have the advantage as the mouths of others are unable to gain any purchase on their flesh. The young defer, and the weak bear deep wounds. Another starts to roar. It flails its stained fangs and breathes out the smell of death eaters! I linger, fascinated at the strength and ferocity of the animals, before resuming my journey to the end of the southern pier where now blue sky meets the green swell and a flock of penguinos dart through the water catching small silver fish when they leap from the water.

Back at the house I meet Martha and her daughter Beatrix. Martha comes with the house and has her own apartment upstairs in what I can only describe as a two storey colonial bungalow. But it is vast with at least four bedrooms spread down long wide corridors on the ground floor, most with en suite bathrooms, two huge living rooms and two kitchens. The house has been trapped by its current owners in the 1950's. although there is a colour television and VHS player. Elsewhere, the bathrooms display bygone dignity of deep green glazed tiles and the kitchen houses the oldest washing machine I have ever seen, complete with mangle. Time has largely forgotten the house, and its retainer Martha. She fusses over the house guests, gossiping with Maria about family and other important news. Beatrix appears and smiles, her smile mirroring her mother's as she explains how to close the blinds and which electric socket to use for what. As dusk approaches the doors are double locked and the roll blinds cranked down against intruders. Meanwhile Maria and I escape to taste Churros at Manols Cafe along the sea front.

Danish dancing

How unusual that it would take a Dane to pull back my tango from oblivion at such a sensitive stage? Just when I reached the point of wondering whether learning tango was worth the pain and misery of defeat, I was rescued by Anna. Tall and striking, Anna stood head and shoulders above the rest of the class and our eyes inevitably met across the dance floor. Inadvertently, as Anna is young and attractive.... well, OK, very young....well, alright if you must, young enough to be my daughter. But what a delight! I had heard of the 'tango connection' and indeed even written about it on my blog, but never truly experienced it. And for about four seconds in the dance class with Anna, there it was! The world picture outside the studio stopped. Dancers around went into slow motion and disappeared leaving us to hold the embrace and caress the floor.

Anna was part of a Rotary International group from Denmark visiting Santa Fe. Her field is emulsifiers. After the class, Anna took me to dine at her favourite restaurant and later introduced me to Bo (Leggo), Jorgen (farmer) Grete and Merete, the other members of her team. Instantly Buenos Aires shrunk to the size of Copenhagen, as we kept meeting, first in Recoleta, and later at the next dance class. And then on to the tango show.

Now this was a 'first' for me, as I have only seen the street dancers. Whilst sipping champagne, we watched a team of six dancers, two elderly singers, an even older presenter and a fabulous tango band present their special brand of entertainment to the few tourists who had managed to struggle out late on a Monday night. The drops and lifts were as spectacular as the footwork was passable. Naturally, Anna and I agreed that our dancing eclipsed that of the tango professionals. They clearly lacked our passion, her beauty and my maturity.Clearly the band had fallen out with the majestic female singer, so they played slightly flat and averted their gaze whilst she attempted to sing. But the show was entertaining, not least for the exchange of stifled mirth with Merete whilst the ancient compare tried to inject dignity into the event.

As the last bows were taken and the ripple of applause of an audience of twelve subsided, Anna and I set off for the milonga . There, again, we ventured onto the floor and during a tango valse electrified the purple strip lighting announcing that we were at 'Club Gricel'.

I have a hazy recollection of returning home at about 6 am. After the club, on to the restaurant. There, singing in Danish and other languages too remarkable to remember, until the manager persuaded Anna to remove us, and afterwards to the roof of the Embassy Hotel in Cordoba where, with a view across the rooftops of Buenos Aires, we drank more champagne and sang until the early hours. Bo provided the music and Jorgen the songbook. When Anna left to prepare for her early morning presentation, I collapsed into Merete's arms to dance. Oh, how I love Denmark!

Kakao Maroa chocolate shop

12 Jun 2007

Ave F Lacroze lies on the outer aspect of Palermo near Av Libertador. The avenue slopes gently towards both Palermo park and the main line leading from Retiro to the provinces beyond Belgrano. Above are wonderful homes looking onto quiet, leafy streets bathed in Autumn sunshine and below are restaurants, cafes and cake shops. Amongst them is Kakao Maroa.  It is a chocolateria owned and run by Maria. She is young, attractive, slight with shoulder length fair wavy hair and the most expressive eyes in Buenos Aires. This delicatessen is one of her two babies, her other being cared for by her husband whilst she works making chocolate. When you enter you feel the sense of space and style. Tiled floors lead into a large, almost Japanese style interior with simple sofa bench seats and webbed tables. Elena, my tango partner and I are taking tea there after walking and talking tango in Palermo Park. My tea is jasmine, served in pure white china with tea strainer. We insist on chocolate with the tea, the combination being wonderful. Maria and her staff make the chocolate by hand with no preservatives, so technically it will survive for three months. In practice it lasts about three minutes.

A short while after our arrival Maria joins us at our sofa. She is intrigued by an extremely tall, good looking and apparently fascinating couple who conversed about tango and life in a combination of Spanish, German and English. Speaking good English honed at Oxford, England and spilling a few words in German learned in Vienna, Maria invites us to taste a special chocolate. This, I should hasten to add, is offered as a gift in a moment of excited conversation that tells her she had two chocolate aficionados at her table. Two identical chocolates are produced on a china plate. They are red in colour and appeared fine in design and texture. My hand is pulled sharply back as I seek to reach one of them. No; instruction as to taking the chocolate have to be given and followed implicitly.

First sit comfortably. Take the chocolate between the forefinger and thumb. Place it on the tongue. Close the eyes. And wait. Elena, being Austrian, counts silently to ten in Spanish. I, being a man, reach out and hold her free hand. The seconds ceased to count, but blur into a timeless journey through flavour and experience. The outside world disappears from view and from mind, to be replaced by a gentle flow of dreams through which small fireworks of flavour explode as the chocolate melts and suffuses.

After ten seconds you breathe, but not before. The inhalation picks a sharpness that hovers somewhere between the tongue, the brain and infinity. Only later, in a near post orgasmic moment of relief does Elena venture the words in German "what was that....what happened?". In the Amazon, native people capture large red ants. Their lives are lost for their venom which is the special ingredient filed in tiny amounts into the chocolate. Life now will not be the same. Chocolate is re-defined into 'pre' and 'post Kakao Moaroa'.

Leaving the dream - seeing Maria's expectant, expressive face - is another milestone in the experience of Buenos Aires and a point from which there is no return. Certainly not to normal chocolate!

June in Buenos Aires

03 Jun 2007

First, today - Sunday
Suddenly it is June in Buenos Aires. Taking account of the longitude, it should be towards winter here, but today is a brilliantly sunshine-lit, warm Sunday and all the Portenios are about strolling. I have walked from Palermo Soho through the various Barios of the city, watching the people going about everyday life. At one point I paused under a giant palm, at another caught the fragrance of a late flowering lapacho festooned with the pinkest of flowers. As I did so, an ancient Ford Falcon ground past. These are the oldest surviving American cars, huge, fantastic in their decrepit opulence, just like many of the buildings they pass. They always travel slowly. I can't determine whether this is because the drivers, their families and friends all crammed in enjoy being watched, or whether because at greater speeds the cars would disintegrate. Twine holds both the boot and the exhaust. And lush but faded green velvet covers the dash board. This family are beaming and the drivers face creases through his crooked teeth into a thousand smiles. Even the dog, which tries to escape from the open window has entered into the spirit of the Sunday jaunt. Of course their history is less attractive. These were the vehicles used by the secret police to bring in los desaparecedos of Buenos Aires.

Last night arriving home.
(This is an extract from a little message I sent to Karen Tweed, but I am sure that she will excuse me repeating a part of it here). Incidentally, Karen's new disc May Monday is a 'must')

My neighbourhood tramp is there every night. He has taken up residence in a doorway across from my apartment. He is one of many people who sleep on the streets of this city. The Portenios have a close relationship with the cartoneros as, in the crisis in 2002, everyone came close to joining them. So they will be given odd coins for a cup of Mate, the Argentine sweet tea-type drink. He is surrounded by his possessions: a few bags, a blanket, a heavy coat to keep out the chill, his transistor radio playing tango, and his little round mirror! I have wondered why he should carry such a thing? It is clearly not for shaving. Perhaps it is to look through into the past; or to the future? Does it allow him to escape the draughty doorway, the city fumes, the noise of passing buses and taxis, to a world of freedom from late night hunger and cold, somewhere light and loving? All I know is that the wistful sounds of tango accordion drift up towards my balcony as I join him on his nightly journey.

weekend in the city

07 May 2007

It is as if someone has decided that the city has had enough; it can´t take any more of the frenetic weekday activity which I hear from my balcony at the back of Tucuman: the voices, the car horns, the shrieking buses, the street vendors, the demonstrations....But at the weekend a gentle, relaxed atmosphere prevails over the city. Especially today, Sunday, in delightful autumn sunshine. The elderly Porteneos stroll arm in arm, smartly dressed, perhaps carrying a decorative bag of fresh cakes or biscuits from the bakers, or maybe walking one of a hundred thousand supremely cared city dogs at the end of their leads.

After a lively night in Palermo which ended when my taxi dropped me off at Tucuman at 7.30 am (not at all unusual here in Buenos Aires), I rose at midday to walk to Recoleta to meet Judi at the street fair.

Judi is from New York and has returned to see Julio Bocca dance in Corrientes. It is his final year. He retires as one of the best living ballet dancers in the world. He is worshiped by the Argentine ballet lovers as a national treasure. And clearly worshiped by countless women who follow him across continents to see him dance. Judi is rather exceptional in this regard, as she knows Julio through her voluntary work behind the scenes with his ballet company in New York. She speaks about him with familiarity as well as awe for his dance skills. In her short weekend visit she will see three of his performances, sharing her discerning experience in our conversation as we walk through the craft market in Recoleta and take tea at La Biela. Here the locals and visitors sit outside what must be the city's most fashionable restaurant to eat, drink a glass of wine or champagne, see and be seen. Our saunter is blessed by one of the most superb street tango performances which hopefully I will upload to YouTube, and a brilliant Latin jazz combo playing to an appreciative audience.

Later, back in Corrientes before the evenings performance, we meet with Julio Bocca's biographer, Angeline Montoya. She is a young and committed writer, producing the definitive biography on the dancer, which he himself described as 'fascinating'. Quite an accolade from a man like Bocca! Interestingly, she is also a dancer,competing later this month in the Buenos Aires tango festival. Judi returns to New York tomorrow taking back the memorabilia which she has gleaned from the city to add to her Bocca collection. As we part, the theatre goers are flooding excitedly towards a host of theatres, spilling from the cafes on street corners and jumping from taxis. Regrettably, no tickets left for Bocca's I wend my way back past Obelisco towards Callao through the crowds, sounds, music, smells of this remarkable city. It is now becoming dusk and I pass with the late fragrance lifting from bright orange autumn cacti in the Plaza garden.

El Arranque

02 May 2007

Turning from Callao into Bartolome Mitre you quickly reach the double glass doors of El Arranque. Once in the 1930s marble lined entrance hall, the young woman on reception greets you and 14 pesos later (just over 2 pounds sterling) for two, you are able to enter El Arranque milonga. Ahead are rows of tables, occupied by women to one side and men to the other. The strict code of separation allows an ease of view and securing the next dance. Lucia and I, however, are taken to the tables at the head of the room where a few couples sit together. Generally husbands will part from wives and sit separately. But Lucia is my taxi dancer, known here in the club, and is to dance with me for two hours before the club gets busy. Our waiter comes promptly, probably because he knows Lucia well. She worked originally as a waitress in the milonga, danced with patrons when she could, out of a sheer love of tango became expert and now guides countless men and women to their own personal success on the tango dance floor. But Lucia in fact knows everyone in the tango world, including the exotic special street dancers who I watched on Monday night in La Florida at the junction of Lavalle. These dancers appear from the heart of San Telmo and make their living by dancing with incredible precision and passion. The walls of the room are lined with tall mirrors and the huge floor is polished for dancing. Music follows the usual pattern of three slow tangos, three fast tangos, milonga and waltz. It being just turned 4 pm there is a high proportion of mature people here. Men and women between 50 and 90 circle the floor, wrapped in each others embrace. Their dance is simple and unhurried. There are none of the lifts and flashy moves that one associates with salon or street tango. Here, gentle, timeless, unsophisticated moves, sometimes capturing a special atmosphere of love and romance. The older men are quite the better dancers. With nothing to prove and a life-time of milonga, they know exactly what they are doing and focus totally on their partners, both young and old. My dancing with Lucia is raw and somewhat predictable. Lucia kindly and gently gives me advice and helps to soften my moves. For a few seconds of each dance I will deliver the embrace and contact that is an essential part of tango. When absent, I notice it has been lost as if communication has stopped. This is hard stuff, but will be worthwhile if I can persist! What is astonishing is the difference in character of all of the dancers. Looking out across the floor every dancers moves differ, and importantly everyone creates their own special atmosphere in this unusual world of milonga, cut off as it is from the noise and activity of the street outside and this city that never sleeps.