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.