Friday, 14 September 2007

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.

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