Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Arrived in Buenos Aires

I have arrived in Buenos Aires. There is a last moment on the flight side at Ministro Pistarini. Just ahead is a wall of electronic doors that opens on approach, and stepping through I walk into the full reality of Buenos Aires. After the mist of San Paulo, here is clear, bright sunshine with a slight lifting breeze to cool the hot midday. The arrival hall is full of people, signs, voices, activity. I have arrived from a cold late winter in England to a sparkling summer of tanned Argentines with short sleeved shirts and little dresses. I purchase my 40 pesos ticket for Manuel Tienda Leon, the useful coach service that whisks arrivals from the airport to the city, and onwards by private taxi to the hotels. We slip through the suburbs, after four previous journeys recognisable like old friends. The same old city, the same youthful vitality.

We are pulling up in Chacabuco. 1181 is towards the outer edge of San Telmo. It is a tall, old building that carries the San Telmo character of times past. This was a fashionable barrio, deserted by the middle classes as they moved out to the leafy suburbs of Recoletta and Palermo, when it was left to its freeze-framed fate. No doubt one day it will resume its fashionable status for classy artisans, but now it mainly houses real people who struggle alongside those who service the tango industry of Buenos Aires. And 1181 is part of that: a tango house run by Fabio y Flavia, tango teachers and hoteliers.

The door is opened diffidently by a resident who has heard the bell, and as Fab is away, she does not know whether to admit me. Building security in Buenos Aires is taken seriously due to high levels of crime, and outer doors, like the tall, wrought iron and glass doors of Paris, are kept double locked. We ascend a cream and grey marble staircase to the first floor landing. In houses such as these, the staff lived on the dusty, noisy ground floor level, and so it is here with the reception rooms facing the street from the first floor balcony. El Sol de San Telmo has a warm feeling, tired around the edges with peeling paint and old threadbare furnishings, but enriched with life and the energy of its tango hosts.

When I meet Fab  I see that he is young, attractive and totally at ease in English. He shows me the tango studio, the kitchen and to my room. As so often in these turn-of-the-century houses, the 3 metre high doors to the rooms lead from an open balcony. My room is of stripped pitch pine, with tan stained floors and ancient pale walls. It would be a crime to re-paint this authentic canvass, but the walls bear the passage of time from high fashion to old suit. The bed is large, there is an art deco wardrobe, small desk and two chairs. Broderie Anglaise curtains hang from brass topped rods 2 metres down the door. High on one wall is an oval window to another room which in its time would have given precious borrowed light to another room. I am going to be happy here.

After unpacking my few clothes and possessions I descend to the street to explore the barrio. The first rush is from the level of activity. Its not just the twelve lanes of traffic on the main Avendia 1st Julio which dissects the city south to north, but the streams of colectivos, the city buses that hiss and whoop their horns as they make their way to La Boca. Both by day and night there are some colectivos that stand out from the rest. They are brightly painted, with curtains at the windows and blue lights under the wheel arches.

My first 'appointment' is with Jose Carlos Romero Vedia and his street dancers who nightly take up their pitch at Lavalle junction with Florida. By the time I arrive they are well into their performance as Carlos tours his crowd of 40 onlookers asking them their country of origin. When Carlos who recognises me, asks, I say Mar del Plata (seaside resort to Buenos Aires) to the mirth of the dancers who insist that I am a dancer from England. And then they dance Canyengue. For this Carlos takes his favourite student, a tall dark haired, stunningly beautiful dancer, into a low embrace, his right arm around her back, her right arm across the top of his shoulders. His left hand remains deep in his pocket and hers on his chest as their knees bend to the first chord. This is an old form of tango which pre-dates the milonga and salon tango styles that we associate with the golden age of tango in the 1930's and 40's. The dance comprises syncopated steps with a distinctive low posture. After the first part of the dance, the hold changes to a raised left hand held above the dancers. Tonight a discerning crowd, which has been insisting on milonga hitherto, roar with appreciation. As the Canyengue gives way to El Chocolo, I give way to the dark streets to return along the side of Catedral, into Peru and back deep into San Telmo.

The lights glance along the narrow, warm streets. Shops are closing and shutters are being pulled down and locked. Small groups and families sit late on their little balconies or on the steps to their homes. There is a soft smell of  cooking and a distant sound of tango. A colectivo thunders past, sending bags of rubbish flying. A lone dog barks. And this is San Telmo preparing for night.