Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Cafe Tortoni revisited

Some say that you should not re-track your past adventures and often they are right. Last time I visited Cafe Tortoni you will recall that I was accompanied by Miriam, tall, elegant and fascinating Argentine friend. You will remember how we sat, with the focus of other women on her, and how she basked in their fascination. Today was quite different in character but similar in effect. Again my table was the subject of avid female attention. This time the glances were stolen by the eyes of pretty women who appreciate a handsome man. Yes, I was to enjoy this visit with my son, tall, strong, manly, and strikingly good looking. Unlike Miriam, he sat coolly oblivious to their borrowed contact.

Our arrival was low key as we simply slipped into the salon of Cafe Tortoni to find our own table. Today there is no buz or parade, the atmosphere is unhurried. Above us, the coloured glass ceiling reflects a warm glow driving away the rainy coldness of the afternoon. I notice that, unlike me, some of the waiters have aged since my last visit, but the room still carries its timeless quality that takes the events of life in its stride. Since 2007 there has been a change of government, Cristina Kirchner is now President, replacing Nestor, her husband. I sense the echoes of Peron and Clinton in their dynasties. Cafe Tortoni is a cafe of dynasties, political, social and cultural, many underpinned by tango which adds its particular focus to this place.

Our waiter brings cafe con laiche and torte. The chocolate cake is moist and sumptuous, the coffee strong and dark like my companion. His eyes to float round the room, taking in the portraits and plethora of photographs which capture the seminal events of this city. Cafe Tortoni is the history of Buenos Aires. In its timeless interior the events of passing years are freeze-framed for ever. Our moment together seems like one of these. That father and son can spend such time together, deep in conversation about life and opportunity is rare and so needs to be preserved. I try to capture the essence of it in my heart, to enjoy in years to come when distance or distraction will reduce its intensity. For this trip we have but two days left and I am savoring them as you do a delicious meal. And this moment, at Cafe Tortoni, is like a special delight on the plate that you leave til last.

After further coffees and more conversation he lifts his hand casually to our waiter who responds with the bill. He pays. How life changes. We rise, and with us the eyes of our neighbours. I notice the smiles on their lips and sense the energy of youth. Just as we entered we slip out the way we came, into the street, with umbrellas against the drizzle.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

El Enganche

Young, slim, with fair hair and exquisite eyes, Celia glances across the table towards me, and along with the others in the room I smile and melt. Let's go, she orders, and like a file of children following their teacher, we follow her down the cool,marble staircase of El Sol de San Telmo and into the hot, bustling street. Celia is a dancer, a tanguera, but not like the others. She performs, dancing with her life partner Fabrizio, our tango mentor, our inspiration for form in tango and warmth in life.

Today we are off to El Enganche, Celia's studio here off San Juan. This is both her work place and her escape from the guests of El Sol de San Telmo tango house, the place I have made my home for this visit. Currently, she and Fabizio occupy the bower on the roof, a roof house overlooking the terrace. But privacy, as you would expect in a tango house, is a rare commodity, so the studio is where Celi comes to work.

Having been greeted by the doorman, we ascend in the lift and decant into the wide corridor of this modern block. Celi opens the door and we enter. This is a space full of light, colour and style. The former is from the windows that stretch the full length of the room, the latter from two racks of dresses, skirts and pants for tango. Being the only male present, I fail to respond with the speed and determination demonstrated by my female friends who immediately swoop on Celi's designs. For my male readers, I will use the analogy of a queue at the match turnstile, but for my women readers I need no such device. They will be feeling through me the joy of the racks of delights; special tango clothes that turn the wearer into the sexiest and most desired tanguera. I hear intakes of breath and watch as my female friends compete for mirror time, passing compliments between themselves and exchanging dresses which they hold against each other to stand forwards and sideways to examine the effect. I arrived with a small group of travellers. I am now surrounded by beautiful women whose hearts are singing, bodies are softened and whose ecstacy is evident.

Celi's web page fails to tell you what you need to feel about her clothes, all hand-made by her within this space. Each item is designed to show, reveal, conceal and delight. The viewer thrills and the wearer simmers. Celi lifts her leg, and the fabric falls, catching my breath, revealing leg and form, yet just to that point of exquisite delight and not beyond. She is clever beyond her youth, but her youth is expressed in what she designs. She knows tangueras and how they have to feel. She is a performer and understands what props this requires. She is a mistress of degree; to the point where our hearts lift and imagination soars.

Carlos revealed to me that he had concerns about his credit card and asked me to keep a restraining eye on his partner. Sorry Carlos, I had not appreciated the task. We are about to leave, and the racks have been decimated. Excited friends clutch bags containing their prizes which will be worn at milongas tonight, re-creating the electricity of their acquisition.

Celi smiles at me. She and I rush ahead as she is late for her practice with Fabrizio in the studio at El Sol de San Telmo. I now understand more about tango, and shopping.And I look forward to the next episode which will be tonight when I dance with her stars.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Cafe Paulin, Sarmiento 635

It is 1530 hrs and we leave Escuela Argentina de Tango at Centro Cultural Borges after the milonga class with Damian Garcia and Fatima and head out along Florida. I am being told that the destination is a cafe in Sarmiento and that this visit is essential for my education in Buenos Aires. The journey is through the whole spectrum of society here. Street performers are busy in Florida and Lavalle, as are the street hustlers, recruiting for tango shows and currency exchange. A pile of street children lie sleeping in a heap against closed doors on the shady side of the street. Two bands are playing, their efforts competing with the cries of the street vendors. People press through the narrow pathways between kiosks and pavement excavations. You feel the press, body contact being part of the experience of living in the Capital Federal.

We are now in Sarmiento. The colectivos are thundering past in a street hardly wide enough to accommodate a bus and two pavements. Ahead and behind are mopeds delivering from shops and restaurants. We walk in single file to avoid stepping down to the storm drains. And here is 635. I had expected a wide restaurant with bright lights and waiters rushing from table to table carrying trays of cafe con leche and cakes. But not here at Cafe Paulin. The restaurant feels about twice the width of a railway carriage. And that is not where the similarity ends. Down the centre, the full length of the building is a narrow servery giving on to both the left and the right side of the cafe. Within the servery on a raised dias the waiters stand, dressed in olive cross buttoned tunics with floppy fawn hats. Each side of the servery there are sheer glass shelves about a foot in width. These are the tracks. Below on each side are low counters against which fixed tall revolving stools swing. Cafe Paulin is busy. The clientelle are mainly local office workers and visitors passing through. It is like an ants nest, with streams of people coming and going, and waiters calling orders to each other as there is barely room for them to pass. And now the first train passes. It seems to be going at huge speed and totally out of control. It seemed to spin, light flashed from its sides and then it docked securely into a waiter's hand. Due to the confines, orders of empanadas, salads, cafe con leche, and everything Cafe Paulin has to offer, are sent skimming along the glossed glass surfaces of the servery. The larger plates overlap the edges as they spin. Not a plate is dropped, not a drop is spilled. We order coffees and chocolate cake which speeds towards our waiter who catches and scoops the dishes and cups. And so all is revealed. Every problem has a solution. Cafe Paulin is a solution in itself. We smile at our waiter, and he smiles back. With quick fingers, Katja signs something to him, and he communicates with his hearing eyes.