Saturday, 31 December 2011

Hard Times - For These Times

Hard times. Harder times to come. Here in Britain, John Humphries, the voice of doom on BBC Radio Four has just confirmed our worst suspicions: 2012 is to be a harder year than 2011, and maybe the hardest year yet.

Of course we tangueros share a history of overcoming adversity. Born in the depression years of the 1920's in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the lyrics of tango described the most painful human hardships over two decades. These are the words that are woven into the tangos that we now dance. Our forbearers survived further economic depression and the rigours of military dictatorship from the 1950's for a further two decades. For half of it's young life, tango has been hidden, sad or repressed.

As dancers, we also know extreme hardship - of learning to dance Argentine tango. "It takes a lifetime and a half to learn to dance tango". Well, with so many of my years having been squandered in tango-less pursuit, I sense that even my reincarnation will struggle to get it right. Tango is a hard task master.

So, as tangueros, we are better equipped to face the rigours of life. A handful of pesos or pounds in our pocket, a pair of dance shoes in our bag, some music, a floor, and a smile on our face is all we need to press away the threats and fears, and to dance.

Leading up to Christmas time, as festive lights festoon the city, I attended the Newcastle Upon Tyne launch of Dere Street Barristers, my new chambers; and having an hour or so before the last train, what better time than to dance tango?

From the Castlegate Centre I drop down Pilgrim Street and Milk Market towards the Millennium bridge. The night air is clear and the city quiet, but for the calls of Kittiwakes that fly late in the city's sodium lights. The Quayside rests, awaiting the Friday night revellers dressed in tee shirts and tattoos. I do not linger, but head out east, in cooling air, along the Tyne walkways that will lead to Byker. Now, on the first bend in the river, the angular roofs of the Ouseburn Regeneration Centre point back towards Gateshead's Baltic tower. Fishing boats bob in the small marina and cables clink against steel masts. Then, the sound of tango - it filters across the rippling surface of the dock, taking me back to life in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires. Here too, is the soft glow of light from the Boathouse doors that open onto port decking. As I approach I see the dancers, slowly swirling in close embrace.

Andi and Angie have finished their Boathouse class. As I enter, dancers take to the floor again. It is D'Arienzo and their dance smiles. Together with music and soft light, there is the hint of cocoa and vanilla from Andi's brownies. It feels like home at Christmas.

The milonga is the cornerstone of Argentine tango, and has a familiarity across the world. Whether in Argentina, Uruguay, North America or Europe, similar codigos mark the milonga from any other dance event. Here too at the Boathouse, the milongueros cabeceo their partners and embrace each other, as they shall at a hundred other locations this night. But tonight, the Boathouse will create its own particular, poignant memory. Their arrival is like a simple breath, unnoticed save by those who rest between dances. Their first dance was like a seamless mix of mate into the milonga. Yet, for a moment they pause for a breath at the side of the pista.

Over the past few months, Julian y Tricia have kept step with the milonga, travelling across counties and arriving in autumn downpours or winter winds. Tonight is harder, with tango exacting a heavier toll as Julian struggles, but still smiles. "A change of cylinder will put air under my feet", he says as he snaps the connector and lifts the harness to his shoulders, before heading for the floor to dance.

This is the last time I will see Julian. It is his penultimate dance with his friends. Later, they leave as the last words of Miguel Calo's Jamas Retornaras sung by Raul Beron, drift across the pista. In seven days time we will mourn the passing of a brave tanguero, and the little Boathouse community that was so rich with his friendship, will be poorer with his loss.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

2012: Warmth and the Scent of blossom

No no, I am not in Buenos Aires; and therein may be the problem. The English winter has been kind enough to date, with almost balmy Christmas temperatures. But my Google weather chart tells me that it is 27c in Buenos Aires, and the messages from tangueros there speak of hot summer mornings, vibrant blossom and the sound of crickets by day; and steamy, exciting, thronged milongas by night. Most of all, the latest request from Rudi y Linde to meet them for cocktails on the roof terrace of El Sol, has caused my feet to itch.

But this year I am to miss my annual visit, determining to stay back and work at my recent projects:  my new chambers Dere Street Barristers; my new family mediation project, Divorce Without Pain;  and JAST Public Sector Mediation, a joint venture with my friend John Armstrong, due to be launched in April 2012. Coupled with this, Miles my 19 year old son has embarked on three expensive years study of Drama and Directing at the University of Hull, and I would dearly like to leave him debt-free.

That does not preclude me from feeling the loss; and in those unguarded moments, having my mind pulled back to the street life of San Telmo, the edginess of La Boca, the bourgeois sophistication of Recoleta, and the open ease of Palermo where broken pavements glint after summer downpours, lovers linger under the shade of large Jacaranda trees, and the sound of tango drifts across the breeze with a shimmer.

Back in 2007 I wrote a Travellers' Survival Guide for Buenos Aires, which I have just updated and re-posted for 2012. It is intended to provide help the first time visitor. Do let me know if it has been of assistance.

In the meantime, it is back to an English winter; and dreams.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Teatro Colón Buenos Aires

When I first came to Buenos Aires in 2007, Teatro Colón was closed for restoration. The outside of the theatre was entombed in scaffold and plastic, like a large badly wrapped parcel, water cascaded down the steps from under the wooden doors from massive internal cleaning, as if a bath had overflowed. So Teatro Colón was to remain a hidden secret, containing more hidden secrets just faintly illuminated by the guide book descriptions of its former splendour.

Amongst the top five opera houses in the world, Teatro Colón boasts some of the best acoustics for both theatre and opera. In this it is unique. The cornerstone for the current building was laid in 1889 and the theatre opened in 1908, at a time when massive immigration from Europe singled Argentina out as a distinct rival to the United States of America as one of the world's most prospering countries. The theatre was fabulously ambitious and seats nearly 2,500, making it larger than the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Its restoration over four years, cost in excess of $100- million, involving 1,500 workers, including 130 architects and engineers. The scale of both the theatre and its restoration covered a staggering 60,000 square meters. So how could I resist the invitation to take a tour of this fascinating and hitherto unknown building.

We met at Galeria Güemes, an art nouveau edifice designed by Italian architect, Francesco Gianotti in the centre of Buenos Aires at Calle Florida 165. Galeria Güemes was to be the hors d'oeuvres for the main course of Teatro Colon. The internal doors open to the stairs and lifts soar in steel, bronze and brass detail up towards the huge glass domes way above. It scintillates with opulence and design, colour, beveled glass and sculpture. On the 4th floor, accessed from the second lift, I found Edda reading Marcel Proust's 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu' after her pilates class. Our walk to Teatro Colón represented a short stroll up Calle Lavalle and across Avenida Julio 9. Ahead was the theatre, like a large square palace positioned impressively beyond the 21st lane.

Edda had visited Teatro Colón previously, perhaps several times, and so was to be the perfect guide. Not only did she know about the theatre's history, but she had a sense of its place in history and the culture of the Portenos. After buying our tour tickets and meeting the official guide, we separated from the hub of the group so that I could enjoy Edda's bespoke denouement of the theatre's secrets in Edda's mix of English, French and Castillano.

Entry to the threatre is the first theatrical experience. The entrance hall is opulent beyond opulence, with pink, white and yellow marble from Italy and Portugal, mosaics from Venice, stained glass and mirrors from Paris, sculpture from Italian and Argentine artists and enough gold leaf to make the Bank of England shudder with envy. The ceilings rise to giddy heights surmounted by wonderful frescoes, some original, some restored. The furniture is contemporary with the construction of the threatre - from Paris. My musing was broken by Edda's beckoning as she lifted her skirts to skip up the white marble staircases leading up to the gallery before the auditorium. Here on the first floor was a gallery reminiscent of the best Loire palace, in length, in height, in depth, in glass, in light, in fabrics, in painting and in sculpture. But of course the best lay beyond. Edda walked behind me as I entered, her small light hands across my eyes so that I could not see what awaited. Not until we reached the front rail of the first gallery did she withdraw her blindfold. And there, ahead, spreading out across 2,000 seats in the richest red velvet, with 7 tiers of galleries from auditorium to ceiling, was the threatre. In a horse-shoe shape, the auditorium is surrounded by boxes comprising from 7 to 30 seats. Entry to each one is through wonderful heavy brocade fabric, pulled back and secured to form part of the threatre's acoustic. At the highest level way above the auditorium are seats surrounded by standing for 500 people who, for 30 pesos, would gaze down on the spendour of the threatre and capture glimpses of the stage. Beneath the theatre, extending way out below Avenida Julio 9 are the subteranean passages and rehearsal rooms, one 20 x 20 x 30 metres, the same dimensions as the stage. Above all is the cupola, a massive dome repainted in 1966 by the 20th century Argentine artist Raúl Soldi. It replaced the earlier painting which crashed to the floor following the pre-air conditioning habit of placing ice on the cupola to cool the threatre. And in the centre of the dome was a chandelier containing 700 light bulbs and weighing over 1.5 tons. It will bear the weight of a choir of 17 singers who replicate the ethereal voices from the heavens. Once I had taken in the scope and dimension of the theatre, I was again instructed by Edda to wait by the rail as she vanished through the brocade. A minute later she reappeared, this time in the President's box way over to the side of the stage, where she stepped forward dramatically, now her blonde hair pulled back like Eva Peron, to waive and to blow kisses to her people.

When we left to go out into the sunlight, the noise, the traffic and hubub of the city, Teatro Colón seemed almost like a dream, a secluded moment of fantastic opulence. Our next stop in 600 metres would be Cafe Paulin, Sarmiento 365, which my readers will recognise from last year's blog as the narrowest cafe in Buenos Aires, to sit upright on tall stools tightly pressed against the counter, to eat toastados and salad. Such are the contrasts of this wonderful city.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Virginia Tola

Can you sense it? I have fallen in love! Two nights ago I spent the evening with a beautiful, sensual woman with whom I travelled to the stars and back. Her name is Virginia, and she was born in Santa Fe, Argentina. She is a singer. In fact, a soprano. Her voice is like silk drawn across skin, until she ascends in her almost unlimited register - when one's skin is covered with goose bumps, the silk flies on the wind, and one's heart reduced to jelly.

I have to admit that she and I were not alone, although when she looked penetratingly into my eyes, I felt that we were one. A supporting singer called Placido Domingo was also present for some of the time, as were 149,999 other opera lovers who were levered into 1 kilometre of 20 lanes of Avenida Julio 9th by Obelisco in the centre of Buenos Aires. This was one of the free concerts sponsored by the Capital Federal, attended by the average population of 10 square kilometres of the city. One week ago, Edda had queued for over two hours for the allotted two tickets. Clutching them, she returned to San Telmo triumphantly and waved them beneath my nose, telling me that if I did exactly as she asked, I could share her prize. So after my week of devoted attention, rewarded we made our way on the number 9 colectivo out across the furthest points of Avenidas Independencia, Belgrano, Mayo and Corrientes, arriving at Obelisco in the heart of the city.

Our tickets were in 'sector A' where we arrived 2 hours before the performance; but were still over 80 metres back from the stage. Ahead of us was space reserved for another guest and her friends, about which I will speak later. Alongside our seats were the speakers and huge screens that would be repeated as far as Avenida Cordoba. Once at our seats we stood to gaze across heads that extended behind us further than one could see. This was a pulsating, excited landscape of faces - every age of child to the elderly - from rich Portenos to cartoneros - all expectant - all waiting to witness the opportunity of lifetime - to enrich their lives with beautiful music.

As we sat, talked, and ate nuts coated in creamy toffee from a passing vendor, or occasionally rose to stroll, the hot day drew to a close, the blossom continued to drop from the trees, parakeets flew erratically in small formations to their roosts, and a light cool breeze stirred the air. Edda pulled her cashmere top over her arms and shared her shawl, draping it tenderly across my shoulders. Night began to settle, the ark lights came on and the screens burst into life. Just at that moment, the crowd began to rise, their arms waving in the air. The deafening sound of a helicopter sending whirring paper and leafs high into the sky signalled her arrival. Ahead of us, it touched down and we realised why we were positioned back from the stage. Cristina Kirchner, the President of Argentina, stepped down, just like Eva Peron, and the show was ready to proceed.

The crowd had little time for a half-hearted slow hand-clap before the conductor of the vast Orchestra de Colon entered stage right. The cacophany of tuning ceased and the orchestra launched into a rousing prelude. The crowd, many of whom had spent the day in the city centre for El Dia de la Memoria, 35 years after the abolition of the dictatorship, went silent as the still night air and the magic of the evening commenced.

It would be hard, and is unnecessary to list the pieces performed, or to speak of the richness and diversity of Placido Domingo's voice, shaped by years of character. His charisma needs no further embellishment from me, nor would his wonderful humorous performance be enhanced by my words. But when from the wings the slim body of the beautiful Virginia Tola entered the stage, a spell was spun that would capture each and every heart. For a moment she stood. The conductor looked carefully towards her to await her nod. 150,000 faces looked out with expectation. The orchestra strained awaiting her first note. My heart stood still. Her voice soared. Our lives and appreciation of the female voice were changed for ever. From that moment, in a tangled love afair between me, Virginia and Placido, I, along with thousands of souls, was transported in time and space - away from the crowd - the Obelisco - the gathering gloom - the cares of life: in sunlight, by rich textures, the bright cerise of her dress and the pure gold of her voice.

The varied programme comprised opera, operetta and the popular music of Buenos Aires. It was the latter which finally roused the crowd. 'Besame Mucho', formerly so cheesy, here brought the whole audience to their feet to sing and to hug, and Edda lifted her face towards mine and blew a kiss. It was over two hours later, when Placido and Virginia had sung their last tango and 'Querida Buenos Aires', that the realities of existence were to creep back from where they had been banished. The orchestra, during the second half of the concert conducted by Placido Domingo with an energy that stopped one's breath, took their last bow. The stars departed the stage and the double bass player lowered his stand. In my moment of disorientation, Edda looked searchingly into my face. "Are you alright?", she asked with care and concern. "I'll be fine", I rejoined - knowing that whilst swept by the crowd, arm in arm into Suipacha towards San Telmo, my heart would be pinned for ever to one of life's most magical musical memories.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Late Summer in Buenos Aires

Whilst at Flor de Milonga, the bohemian tango event run by my friends Lucia and Gerry, I felt it. The tall doors were open leading to balconies above the busy street of Independencia, and the fans stirred the air; yet there was a weight that came from the heat and humidity. Dancers drifted from the milonga pista towards the night air to catch the last remnants of a breeze. The energy that was Buenos Aires at night seemed to soften. Then, during the night came the rain, heavy, almost unbearably as it cut through the hot humidity, first fizzing on the broken pavements, then washing them in rivulets and streams. Now, as I sit and write, the morning light is grey and the cloud low. This does not portend well for Placido Domingo's open air concert at Obelisco tonight. Preparations started over two weeks ago, with huge stands, barriers and rows of folding chairs set out over four acres of Avendia 9 de Julio, the 20 lane road that disects the Capital Federal. I suspect that they will remain empty whilst the set will be like a grounded ship in a sea of puddles.

Over the last two weeks Buenos Aires has been sumptuous in sunshine, crystal light and positive energy. It is hard to imagine that late March means the approach of autumn. But across the city, the Jacaranda trees have started to float in pools of blossom as the flowers fell to the ground, mirroring the bright pink canopy. This should have been the sign, and probably was to the Portenos of Buenos Aires. A further sign was the need to pull the thin cotton sheet from the foot of the bed to give comfort as the cool night air breathed through the shutters here in El Sol.

So the season matures and prepares to pass. I sense my last three weeks have started to carry me to my return to Europe. Now, as I listen to the falling rain and the colectivos splashing past, England seems not so distant. Olivia has just passed my door wearing a large plastic sack that sticks to her long, slim, shapely legs, but does not distract from her winning smile as she calls to me. El Sol's roof patio is deserted, save for Delphine preparing breakfast and slipping quickly back to her room. We are like the Jacaranda flowers, still blooming but preparing for the fall back to another reality and our navigation in a world of change.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Cafe life

I am sitting alone in a cafe here in San Telmo. The day is bright and sunny. Rather than the pavement table, I have chosen one by the open window, the casement pushed high and I rest my right elbow on the window ledge so the sun catches my sleeve. Jackie, the waitress smiled a beam, just like the morning sunshine, and without a word exchanged, returned with cafe con leche, two media lunas and a tiny glass of sparking water. She also must have sensed my hunger as the media lunas were joined by two small squares of cake, little gifts that sometimes accompany an unaccompanied coffee.

Today the light is special in the way in which it flashes - with the occasional high passing cloud, and the windows of the passing colectivos. Whilst the city council has sought to address the plumes of diesel smoke emanating from their engines, they have not got on top of the sound. I hear them approach, their engines whine, the brakes squeal, the doors bang, and the gear change is many decibels too late as they scream away from the bus stop. The one opposite as I note is decorated inside with mirrors and plush blinds at the windscreen; the control panel is covered in simulated fur. The driver adds to the noise with his transistor radio that is playing tango. It is now departing with a flurry of activity, and as it shakes and screams off, there are more flashes of light from a dozen rattling windows and the eyes of crowding, standing passengers.

Here inside the cafe is relatively peaceful. The oak panels are dark as are the table tops which display large paper placemats and a chrome container of the most fragile tissues bearing the cafe logo. The cafe con leche is hot and strong, and the media lunas deceptively sweet. I dip one into my coffee and taste Buenos Aires. I sip the sparkling water, which effervesces on my tongue and gives intensity to the coffee. Around me, just as in the street outside, is all of San Telmo society - the tradesmen, the tourists, the shop workers, the street workers, the lovers, the retired, simply meeting to chat.

It tells me what I most miss about Buenos Aires when I return to England. It is the natural contact between people who live to share their thoughts, views, worries and delights. I watch the touches, the smiles, the caresses, the gestures and the kiss. Opposite, two elderly men rise from their table, their small cups of cortado empty, and they hug - an embrace that speaks of parting with respect and affection, of shared past and wishes for the future. It is both strong and tender, and utterly un-self conscious. In leading our lives, we still have a lot to learn from other cultures, connections and ages. Perhaps now is the time to put away the the cyber contact and to feel something real. So, as you close my blog today, sense the hug like a breath and feel the value of something very real.

Saturday, 5 March 2011


In glorious summer sunshine, days have a habit of slipping quietly into weeks; and so it is since I last wrote on my blog. But today, there is something very special to tell you. So, sit up and listen to my latest tale.

Eva and I met on the corner of Humberto Primo and Chacabuco. She is to visit her friends Hippolato y Katerina and I have been invited. Before we met, her instruction to me was to bring a towel, wear little, and be prepared to strip. My mind flashed, as it would, over roof-top swimming pools or sun-drenched beaches, but such are rather rare here in Buenos Aires. So tonight was to be a surprise and I did as instructed.

The carnival bands were already meeting up, with city buses decanting dancers and singers into Chacabuco for the short walk through to San Juan. They were gaudy and noisy, with loud shouts, trumpets, and drums. Carnival seems to last continuously from February through to March, with parades and pagents, and drumming through to the early hours of the morning. Yes, you need to be young at heart to survive carnival.

But as the dancers gather, we slip by, to stop at an almost invisible doorway set back in Chacabuco. Eva presses the bell and after what seems an age, Hippolato arrives to give us entry down the long, wide, green corridor that leads to small apartments occupied by the poorer families of San Telmo. Hippolato is not tall, but his strong Mexican Indian features draw the eye, as does the way he moves. He is like a cat, pinching the ground as he walks, his long jet black hair tied into a tail which flows as he walks, just as his loose Indian trousers catch the slight breeze.We quickly arrive at double doors that lead to a small enclosed court yard. And there is the secret of the evening: the temazcal.

Here, I suspect that I need to hold your hand. A temazcal is a Mexican sauna. Hippolato has already woven slim bamboo canes into a structure that resembles something between a tepee and an igloo. It is low, with a circular frame, sufficient to seat four, and a domed roof that rises from the tiled floor. In the corner of the court yard are animal skin to seal the temazcal, and a brazier of hot rocks. These are volcanic stones from Popocapteptl and are glowing white hot.

We greet. Katerina, Hippolato's young wife holds their baby who beams on the arrival of strangers. Water and fresh fruit are offered and we sit on chairs and stools to watch the last points of construction of the temazcal. Now Hippolato seals it, with heavy rocks to hold the skins and large sheets of plastic thrown over to contain the humidity. Gently, we are invited to leave our clothes to be cleansed with incense vapours which rise from a hot rock placed in a large goblet. Each of us in turn is covered in gentle swirls of aromas, and then invited into the temazcal. We sit on towels and the hot rocks follow us, piled by the doorway straight onto the tiled floor. In one corner is a large bowl of basil; in another, a flask of hot anise water which will be spashed from a large bunch of basil leaves over the hot rocks causing scalding aromatic steam to rise and fill the structure.

As the temazcal commences, Hippolato incants mother earth and thanks her for her blessings.
“Agua mi sangre, Tierra mi cuerpo, Aire mi aliento, Y Fuego mi espíritu.” “Water my blood, Earth my body, Air my breath, And Fire my Spirit.”
The moment is charged with energy. Silence falls as the temperature soars. Now the only sound is of Katerina's baby suckling. His first temazcal was at the age to 9 weeks, so he is a veteran, whilst Eva and hold our knees, feeling the humidity rise, tasting the basil and fennel at the back of our throats in a wonderfully hot and pleasurable process. With more water, further clouds of scalding aromatic steam rise into the tepee and the temperature and humidity rise. The incantation was accompanied by songs and blessings; the process being repeated three times over about an hour, with a short moment of fresh cool air whilst the hot stones were refreshed. When the heat gets too strong, we take handfuls of basil leaves and hold them to our noses, or press them against our bodies. It is totally fabulous as an experience and also as a sensation. Afterwards we take a cool shower and, still naked, feast in the court yard on cheese, olives, home made sun-dried tomatoes, bread and water.

Later,Eva and I return, rising up Chacabuco towards the sound of the carnival. We have left our green oasis and walk towards the bustle of San Telmo. Our skin feels soft and our faces fresh, our step is light. Parting, we return to our private worlds, but feel changed. This experience has been both physical and spiritual - yet another step along the wonderful, wild and free journey of life in Argentina and South America.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Sunday afternoon in Plaza Dorrego

Of course you know Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo. Everyone does. It is at the foot of Defensa. If you visit Buenos Aires it is one of the essential visits, whether as a tourist, a traveller or a tango dancer. You will recall from my earlier blogs the street atmosphere of Defensa, the street through San Telmo that is pedestrianised on Sundays to make way for the traders, performers, touts and tourists. The whole length of Defensa is transformed into a microcosm of city life, an ants nest of activity which to the observer seems like disorder. But each person has their place - the street performers who perspire in the hot Sunday sunshine, the police officer who leans lazily in the shadows to smoke a cigarette, the baker parking his cycle laidan with churrios, the tourists who pull notes from a thousand wallets to buy their gifts for loved ones at home.

When I arrive, the sun has already started to sink behind the roofs of San Telmo, and the narrow streets are gathering a night-fall gloom. Lights now twinkle, and the hustle of the day settles into the wind-down of the evening. Traders are packing up, and pushing away folded stalls on handcarts. The wheels rumble on the cobbles. I sit in a street side café with Anemone sipping strong beer and talking about her 1400k journey alone through Argentina. The waiter returns and bows with the bill. Anemone seems to have this effect on men; one of deferential appreciation.

We are not here simply to drink beer, but to dance. Music is drifting from the plaza, competing with the other San Telmo sounds, like a busy orchestra tuning. We walk to the square, our arms linked so that Anemone can protect her valued heels. The open air milonga is under-way. A large crowd of spectators is gathered around handfuls of dancers who take small, delicate steps on the recently laid and non-to-easy flooring. Pedro "El Indio" Benavente organises this milonga, providing the sound system and the floor, together with his commentaries and glorious music. He is tall for an Argentine, handsome with dark hair pulled into a pony tail.

We join the floor and nod to Don Bernabe who is the senior milonguero. His acknowledgement is the seal of approval that says "Yes, you are welcome if you dance in a straight line and observe the codigios". For Anemone and I this is our first dance together. She is beautiful and draws the eyes of the crowd. I take her into my embrace in which unusually for her, she is able to dance tall. We settle and wait. I initiate a change of weight and then our first step. Two bodies are to be one on Plaza Dorrego and I am to be a happy man. The dance has a feeling of ease, our stride evenly matched, our weight equally balanced and our intention seamlessly directed in unity. I sense that the crowded floor opens ever-so-slightly for us as we progress and I note the envious looks on the faces of the tangueras watching her feet as they wait to dance. We create a romantic dream, parting reality and fantasy to embody the possibilities of tango.

We dance until Chacarera interrupts the tango. Now local dancers claim the floor for two songs of folk music and dance. Here is energy, a dance of flirtation and conquest. Compared with tango it is explosive and totally intentional. Involving turns, display and courting, it culminates in the possibility of a kiss. The boys who secure a partner for Chacarera rush to become men, the girls who start the dance complete it as women. It is impossible to be ambivalent about chacarera; it is the exciting life-blood of the Argentine mating game.

It is now getting late to eat, so we slope with friends down Bolivar to Horacios' cafe. Horacio is simply the 'Moso'- waiter, but he embodies all of the character of San Telmo, slim, artesan with curly hair and the voice of performance. A visit is not necessarily for the food, but for the essential and unique atmosphere of this family owned café. Mother waits in the day, and her son cooks by night. Horacio, adopted by the restaurant as a boy, is still here as a man. He greets each customer as brother, sister, father or mother and describes the simple food in such terms that choice is almost impossible. Then, without warning he will smile and come to the rescue, "I would try the bife, Mister, it is, how do we say....delicious!", and the decision is made.

We leave as the streets are almost empty. Anemone and her friends seek an illusive taxi back to Palermo, and I part with an embrace to stroll, clutching my dance shoes, back to Chacabuco and Fabrizio's. As I turn the corner into Humberto Primo it is like leaving a glitzy show, a performance of life, where colour and music blend with movement and aspiration. Now is the moment to reflect on the true hues of Buenos Aires and the possibilities of tango in San Telmo.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Confiteria Ideal

If you have not heard of Confiteria Ideal you have not heard of tango.

Today it has rained. The huge clap of thunder this morning signalled a gorgeous downpour that cleaned the air and washed the streets. Only afterwards did the pair of blackbirds start to sing, and steam rose from the evaporating pavements. After a light lunch of avocado, bread and soft cheese - with home made chimichurri vinaigrette, I strolled out through San Telmo, crossing Av de Mayo at the centre of the city and turning right into Suipacha. There at 380 is Confiteria Ideal. The entrance is imposing in a lost century way. The cafe dates back to 1912 and is in the Parisian fashion of 'glittering splendour'. Manuel Rosendo Fernandez was its founder and his beautiful French wife was its inspiration. The tea room is on the ground floor, with marble, mirrors, wrought iron and dark wood panels. Between the tables, set with white starched cloths, is a sense of space - as if at any moment this place could evaporate in time like the earlier rain. It is faded elegance at its best.

I do not linger at the ground level, but follow the turned marble staircase and music. Above is a large, airy salon, the floor again marble, surrounded by tables set with red cloths. The first impression for the Argentine tango dancer is that one has either come home or gone to heaven. There is a quality to the atmosphere which says, "You will leave this place but it will always be within you". My hosts are Rudi and Linde who have arrived early to dance and secured the best table with the support of the best waiter at the head of the room, where I join them. We embrace and sit together sipping chilled sparkling water. It is 3,00 pm and small handful of elegant dancers grace the floor for Diego Alvaro y Zoraida Fontclara’s afternoon milonga. I prepare to test my new dance shoes.

For the cynical tangueros amongst you who may read this blog, I have to correct one thing. Despite the presence of tourists (now the life-blood of tango here in Buenos Aires), Confiteria Ideal is still unsurpassed as a venue for dancing. The floor is large, the room cooled by fans rather than chilled by air conditioning, and the music soft and lyrical. Here are exquisite dancers of all ages who take joy in dance. If your experience of Ideal is not of the best, visit on a Friday afternoon before mid April each year, and accept my cabeceo. Together we will weave the dream afresh to restore your faith in dancing in this place.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Club Gricel Thursday night

I left you, my dear reader, as I left the terrace here at El Sol de San Telmo to prepare for a night of dancing at Club Gricel. This was to be only my second visit to Gricel, the first being back in 2007 when Anna and her Danish companions invited me to join them for an evening of indulgent tango. You will recall, on that occasion, my steps at Gricel were somewhat faltering, but were later improved by champagne whilst dancing until sunrise on the roof of Anna's downtown hotel.

I decided that I would walk off the effects of my glorious pizza from Moderna at the corner of Chacabuco y Humberto Primo by taking the straight route from Chacabuco to La Rioja. For those who do not like walking, first, do not come to Buenos Aires, and second, do not attempt this journey. But for me it was an adventure to skirt the barios of Monserrat, San Cristobal and the dangerous Constiucion. Proceeding west on San Juan, one leaves the comfort of familiar streets to pass along the principal Avendia that separates the coping from the poor. To the north is a recognisable Buenos Aires, to the south is the area that Portenos tend to shun and tourists never see.

As I pass along the Avendia, local families are sitting on the steps to their homes, drinking in the night air despite the passing traffic. Outside the caged shop fronts, I smell a whiff of cannabis and to my right see the local youths have taken over the garage forecourt as a makeshift football pitch. Gradually, the full parillas give way to cafes, and the crisp linen table cloths gives way to shiny plastic. The walk is a brisk 35 minutes when La Rioja appears as if from nowhere and presents a left turn to the shabby doors of Club Gricel. It is now 25 pesos to enter the milonga (currently about £4.50). I wait inside the door to be shown to a table. The organiser does this personally after a handshake and brief words of welcome. I am placed at at table with other men, all mature and clearly regular dancers here. Club Gricel does not operate a segregation of men and women, so to my left and right the regular dancers are seated, in order of precedence, the older more venerated, and the exceptional dancers claiming floor-side tables. I settle, having changed my shoes in the entrance way, order still water (8 pesos) from a passing waitress, and examine the dancers. Here the trick is to wait. Do not act in haste. Watch and learn the codigios of the milonga, identify dancers who may be available to your cabeceo, and only then secure a dance.

Behind me is a dancer of considerable experience who returns to her seat. I wait. As the first dance of the tanda starts she has not accepted an invitation. As the next song starts I turn and catch her glance. She nods, I rise, I invite and she accompanies me towards the dance floor where she accepts my embrace. This is the design point for the whole tanda, where dances are made or lost. She settles into my arms and the music does the rest. Dancing with her is an easy delight, unhurried and savoring moments both of movement and of stillness. The floor is crowded so there is no room for bold moves; nor would these be appropriate at Gricel, one of the more traditional milongas. At the conclusion of each song we wait for the next, and the dancers to take up their embraces and start to move. These moments are intended for small talk, which I avoid. I have come to dance and not to question my partners. Again, we settle into the embrace, this time with the familiarity of having completed a first dance, and slip into a stream of dancers who describe little pools of life and connection.

Later, I catch Suzie's eye. She has been dancing with the local milongueros, so I start with trepidation. Our first couple of dances are somewhat stiff, but then, with a breath, we relax into each other's arms and pulse with the energy of dance. It is now evident that we are well matched, she is taller than the average tanguera, and slim, her long legs taking what I lead in her stride. Later, she returns to her milongueros and I have some lovely dances with both local women and tango visitors. Suzie and I come together for a final dance in which we melt into the floor, and after to a passing taxi to be whisked back down San Juan to Chacabuco and El Sol, where I depart, leaving Suzie to complete her journey to Park Lezame.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Chacabuco 1181 and roof life

I am here on the terrace of Fabrizio's in Chacabuco, San Telmo. It is really the roof rather than a terrace, with terracotta tiles which soak up the late morning sun and radiate soft light. Liberally and strategically placed across the roof are large tubs containing plants and trees, some reaching up to 15 feet in height, positioned to make bowers of green and gold. The sparrow now hops from tree to bower and descends to the terrace long enough to inspect the small trail of ants that carry fragments of leaves shredded from an nearby plant. He spots Astor, Fabrizio's cat and flutters to the safety of a cypress.

After last night in this very place on the terrace, where Fabrizio entertained a handful of his departing Australian dance students with many handfuls of empanadas and more bottles of wine, an event which he generously asked me to join, I am sensing a leisurely day in which I fancy doing nothing but sitting, watching and writing. It seems that have much opportunity. Fabrizio is providing entertainment on the next stage of the roof, inspecting and maintaining his creation. It is a solar water system, that appears to involve many meters of pipework, threaded with plastic water bottles to create polytunnels to heat the water as it returns to the roof-top tank. How ingenious, and costing a fraction of the commercial price, which would of course be un-affordable here. Whilst he works, I sit and sip my fresh coffee, glancing up to experience the return of Delphine, young, beautiful, fresh and French, wearing a simple black dress that shows her youthful figure. She edits films in Paris and has taken four months away to dance tango, learn Castillano, perform yoga, party and sleep. On meeting, curiously I feel at home in her company. We sit together and chat, in French and in English. And then she departs for her Spanish class, I exhale and catch Fabrizio's watching eye. My coffee is now cold, but I still find it strangely warming.

At the end of the terrace is a simple summer house, constructed in plywood with a plastic sheet roof. This is Fabrizio's summer home, from which he will return to the house as the autumn draws in and the guests leave. Vanessa is a midwife, but presents as a 19 year old college girl with a winning smile. Not speaking English, our short conversations are entirely visual with smiles and gestures. She dances Zouk, and Fabrizio is the reigning Zouk king. Perhaps before I leave, tempted with sufficient bottles of Malbec, we may be able to persuade them to dance an exhibition for us? Here on the roof, anything seems to be possible.

Those of you who followed my previous blogs will remember Iguassu. Yes, you principally know it as the world famous waterfalls that dramatically separate Argentina from Brasil, but I know it as the terrace waterfall, six feet in height, built in layered slate. As I sit, water cascades its full length into the circular lily pond beneath. In the proportions of the terrace, it is a dramatic feature, and one in which now my sparrow delights as it bathes and drinks the cool, clear water flowing from a ledge. Like the true Iguassu it now separates the sparrow from the cat. Squinting at it through reflected sunlight, it has the character of a ecological mountain down which disparate streams flow, to join, separate, and fall before disappearing into the lily pool.

I now pull myself together and back to the present. Which stream of life shall I follow today? Will it involve tango? Will it take me to dance, to join and separate at the end of a tanda, fall and eventually disappear into the pool of life? Like so much here in Buenos Aires, the answer arrives as the question is asked. My Galaxy tab tings and I have one message: "Meet at Club Gricel tonight, La Rioja 1180, dancing til dawn, Suzie"

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Back to Buenos Aires

It is Tuesday and I am underway traveling from London to Buenos Aires via Madrid. This is the start of my latest adventure to learn the secrets of dancing Argentine tango, and to tell you about it, so my new blog. Welcome on board.

With the usual delays we are now mid Atlantic having left Spain, and are now flying one hour late. Although my Galaxy tab tells me its 1631 hours GMT, we have recently been fed lunch and the blinds of our Airbus Industrie A321 7 seat wide 350 capacity plane have been drawn. Is this because it is 1331 hours Buenos Aires time and we are simply expected to siesta? Perhaps it is because the cabin crew want to confine us to our seats to give them respite from our demands. There is a further option to do with turbulence here half way across the world. Whilst the middle aged French couple to my left are sleeping, I am typing and ignoring this possibility and the in-flight film which seems to add to the soporific effect of the late (or early) afternoon.

Well, you didn't visit my blog to hear about in-flight trials, but about the life of a traveler in Argentina. And it may appear that you have arrived prematurely, just as I spoke too soon about turbulence which now lifts, drops and rocks our plane, and seems to toss it from side to side like a fairground ride.

But I have to tell you about this part of the journey as it is so vast and forms the first important bridge between your world and mine. You are probably working away whilst I am traveling. If in England you may be suffering cold winter nights and I am on my way to hot summer days. As the miles tick away, it feels as if I am moving to a parallel universe where demands and responsibilities are to be replaced by opportunities and dancing. And yes, hopefully I am on my way to new tango experiences which it will be my pleasure to tell you about shortly on arrival.