Monday, 30 January 2017

Aux Charpentiers - traditional clothing of Argentina




 



Mexico the country may be in the news because of a wall; but we are heading to Mexico the street in Monserrat Buenos Aires.

At the junction with Santiago del Estero, at Mexico 1302 is a totally traditional store. We have seen it several times in passing, examined the window displays and become intrigued. Whilst other shops around it have been modernising and re-modernising,  over the past 139 years Aux Charpentiers has remained relatively unchanged, and thus unique. 

A sign on the door says that the shop is open, and we try the handle only to remember that many shopkeepers keep their street door locked; so we ring the bell. Carmen's husband Enrique, neatly dressed and grey haired opens up, and welcomes us into the cool dark store. 

To both left and right are long glass counters revealing small displays and perfectly ordered piles of clothes. Further to our right dark oak sectioned shelves reach for the ceiling, each dressed with stock in order of size. The shelves continue around to the right in an L shape, with a brocade hung changing area to the rear. The tiled floor is polished. There is a sense of peace and timelessness. And the old fashioned scent of an historic clothes store, taking us back to childhood memories of yesteryear. 
Aux Charpentiers was founded in 1888 and run for over 60 years by Carmen's father, Juan Robligio. On Juan's death his son Roberto and daughter Carmen took over to carry on the grand family tradition. 

Here is everything traditional in Argentine clothing. Wonderful pantalones - Bombachas de gaucho, camisas, zapatas and boinas. To one side are the jackets, below the counter are braces and belts. At the side of a glass-fronted tongue and groved cabinet are photos of family and wedding groups, one from France, another from the countryside here in Argentina. 

 In the shop window I spied a pair of traditional Argentine trousers, high waisted,  gathered in two sets of three pleats at the front, and a further two sets at the hip - then tapering to buttoned cuffs at the ankle. Enrique quickly measures and lifts down my size. Here are fawn/cream, charcoal, blue and olive green. As befits a traditional pantalone, there are no zips - just recessed fly buttons. The pockets are deep and buttoned to the back. The ankle cuffs carry three buttons which, unless riding, are generally left unfastened. 

I carry a 'winter weight' pair to the changing area and swish the heavy maroon curtain across its length, running smoothly on a curved brass rail. They have to fit. I try them. They do. And for the first time I realise why Stephanie loves shopping. It is with delight that I exit to seek Stephanie's approval, which she gives.

In just minutes we have slipped back decades into history and tradition. The whole experience is like tasting an unexpected vintage Malbec - the bouquet, the initial taste on the tongue, the surprise, the delight, and the swallow as I reach for my wallet modestly to pay.

Aux Charpentiers have not seen the last of us. We shall return, and return again no doubt. Carmen's store has captured our hearts and imagination. I am now a gaucho. This is why we came to Buenos Aires.





 



Sunday, 29 January 2017

Another Sunday in Monserrat, Buenos Aires

 

Another Sunday. I sit in the shade of the garden.



The rufous bellied thrush has just descended through the banana tree into the garden to look for grubs. A dragon fly darts away. Voices nearby murmur accompanied by the chinking of cutlery on late lunch plates. A chair squeaks on a polished floor. Somewhere someone sneezes. A dog barks. Distant, the sound of a radio; more distant the voices of children playing. Closer, the sound of Osvaldo Fresedo's 'Canto de Amor'  tango wafts through Casa Luna.
 

Cleo the tango dancing cat snoozes, curled around my chair. A breeze picks up the pages of Stephanie's book.

Sunday is one of those days you simply want to drink in. In bright sunshine no one makes unnecessary movements, but relaxes just as the weekend intends. There is a definite 'art' to relaxation, one which climate and circumstances sometimes deny. But here in Buenos Aires the art is perfected. Time feels as if it has slowed to a stroll, giving the chance to collect, to think, and to dream.


Saturday, 28 January 2017

Casa Luna - the first 40 days



As 2016 closed, I exchanged my practice as a barrister for the new challenge, with Stephanie, of 'manager of a tango house' in Buenos Aires. So - how has it been? What is it like to 'up and off' to another continent and take on new responsibilities?

Those who have been following my blog will know that Stephanie and I left the UK on 8 December to visit Buenos Aires for four months, our first two and a half months taking on the role of managers of Casa Luna, a well known tango house here in Monserrat. Our hosts and house owners, Vicki and Rob left for California shortly after our arrival, leaving us with their home, their tango guests, Cleo their cat, and the novel chance to manage a tango hotel.

Southern hemisphere summer in Buenos Aires is an unexpected delight. We had assumed that it would be hot and humid to the point that day-to-day tasks would be burdensome. Not so. There are occasional days when temperatures soar and energy levels drop; but mostly the climate is a joy, especially on those days when we read of snow and sleet in the UK. The weather does dictate a pace - taking each day at a time without too much expectation for activity when really hot, or wet; but the climate brings a new attitude to life, and even the hottest, most humid moment - or a sudden thunder storm - brings more opportunity than restriction. Climate becomes simply a state of mind, to be addressed as it happens, and to be cherished for the difference and variety it makes to daily life.

Neither Stephanie nor I had any doubts about our capacities to run a tango house. Of course, the unknown element was 'the guests'. With three letting rooms - additional to our own suite - we wondered what experiences awaited. We need not have been concerned. Vicki and Rob's policy - to invite English speaking, tango dancing guests from the USA or Europe - meant that all of our guests have shared our passion for life and for dance. The ethos of the house is one of independent, supported living, in which the house managers meet and greet guests, advise about tango venues, city sites, restaurants and places of interest. Most guests choose to eat out, dining being relatively inexpensive, so there is little pressure on the well equipped kitchen. Our first 40 days have been fascinating, with great guests who have added interest and friendship. To date, all have been experienced visitors to Buenos Aires.

The tango house itself was designed and built as a 'Petit Hotel' for its first owner Dr Rodolfo Bonanni, and retains many of its original 1930's Art Deco features. As with most properties here in the capital, the house is but two large rooms in width, yet extends back deep into the block, with an enclosed side passage leading to the garden at the rear. The rooms comprise the Peron Room - a ground floor double, the Porteno Room - formerly the maid's quarters,  a single room with adjacent shower room, the Garden apartment, and the Gardel suite - currently occupied by Stephanie and I. Additionally, there is the through reception room/dining room, the dance studio and the kitchen leading to the back stairs and laundry. From the Gardel suite there is a large first floor terrace, overlooking the garden featuring a vigorous banana tree and other semi-tropical plants.

  


Caring for Cleo, the tango dancing cat; and tending the garden have been two principal tasks. The other main responsibility is house security, taken very seriously throughout Buenos Aires. Over our first 40 days, we have been successful in these roles. In relation to the house guests, we sense that we have added value to their stay; and in the process, made good, lasting friendships.
 

Reflecting on our extended stay, not simply as tourists, but as house managers, the experience has been totally energising. It has given our time here a special quality - one of 'belonging' rather than just passing through. At milongas, when asked about my trip, I take pleasure in boasting that I am here to work as manager of a tango house, if only in my own mind, giving me a significance that otherwise I would not have experienced.

We have now entered our final month as managers of Casa Luna. Already, the weather has started to change from hot days and steamy nights, to warm days and cool evenings. As the summer season unfurls we already taste a tinge of regret at the prospect of leaving Casa Luna. But another adventure awaits as we return to San Telmo and the familiar streets of another bario.

 

Friday, 13 January 2017

One day - three eras

In the wake of Joe Biden's words about his 'Second Lady', I should acknowledge Stephanie's support for me - not simply with our trip, but also with this blog. She reminds me when I reach a point where my writing stretches meaning, and she comes to the rescue with 'the right word'. So this blog is for her, and for her friends; for it is about pamper and about clothes.

Today was always going to be a special day; for no particular reason other than that was the way it happened. 

After a breakfast of fresh fruit in delicious combinations, we set about our first event of the day: a 'floating feet' pedicure. Whilst in Buenos Aires, regular visits for a pedicure are both affordable and wise.  

Graciela works from Piedras 1025. Piedras is one of those San Telmo roads that planners and time forgot to mark. It happens from - and on the way to - somewhere else; unmemorable and easy to miss. Between a shop and a boarded front, just along from a great rubber tree, is Graciela's doorway, marked only by a number. We push the white bell and wait for her footsteps on the long corridor to the street.

Her studio is small - comprising a couple of interconnecting rooms at the back of the house. A white leather sofa stands by a small counter in the first room; the second being her treatment room. Here is a feeling of Buenos Aires simplicity, frozen in the 1970's, beige tiles to the floor, pale green panels screwed to the walls, a radio cassette player tuned to a local station suspended from the ceiling in one corner. 

Graciela is the queen of pedicures. Hers are not superficial beauty treatments: lasting 30 minutes they comprise total mastery of the feet and are like no other pedicure. Stephanie reaches from her toes to the treatment platform, swinging her legs towards Graciela's roller seat. Within moments, her toe nails are softened and ready to trim, each surface of the foot examined, all rough skin removed and sanded, with attention to the finest detail. As the treatment progresses one feels that a burden is released, a softness achieved, and a stillness attained. Then there is the final massage with cream, and in Stephanie's case, the painting of the toe nails. 

At the end I look to see if she is still awake. Her feet, always pretty, are now more slender, light and beautiful. And so to my turn.

We leave Graciela with a hug and appointments for three weeks hence. Now is time for serious shopping.

Those that follow our 'Twinwoodians' page on Facebook will know about Stephanie's passion for vintage. Together with 'Golden Age' tango, Stephanie's love for the 1930/40's takes us today to Alma Zen Arte at Belcarce 1056. 

Nora is one of those timeless San Telmo women that simply belong in the bario. Her shop is a small cave of vintage, with a slight Parisienne feel. Nora looks quickly at Stephanie and recognises a kindred spirit. "Come this way my dear and let's see what we can find", she says as she leads Stephanie to a rack of 1940's dresses. They are crammed together, in a sort of colour-code, but otherwise random stack. She lifts a pale blue linen dress with patch pockets from the rack. Above and beyond is every dress, skirt, blouse and coat imaginable. They rise in row after row - right up to the vintage wedding dresses against the ceiling. Across the small store are kimonos, and beyond a cabinet stuffed with handbags - this one in dark brown suede with pearl clasps; another in soft black leather with scrolled art deco handles. I sit on a stool and watch Stephanie explore two decades of fashion.

After a visit to Origen, Humberto Primo 599 - cafe con leche served 'French style' in a cup the size of a soup bowl - our still floating feet take us to Maria Jazmin Ropa de Tango at Humberto Primo 558.

The serious tanguera should know about Maria Jazmin. Maria's is my favourite tango shop. It is a place where dreams are made. I sit on the long sofa to watch women arriving in jeans transform into tangueras. Maria designs and makes the clothes. She is tall for a Porteno, with a slim tanguera body. Today she walks in heels elegantly wearing a slimline skirt in black trimmed with lace to the waist. You know when she approves of a choice, her designer's eye fixing and breathing a soft "belissima". This is why Stephanie is one of her favoured customers - she displays Maria's creations perfectly without a lump or bump to be seen. 

We leave, Stephanie clutching a Jazmin bag containing two of Maria's latest designs, one made specially for her. For me it has been a full day of activity. "Now, which milonga tonight?", Stephanie asks.









Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Tea at Alvear Palace

It was back in 2007 that I met Cristina. Our legal professional practices were, and remain, mirror images - both having practiced as lawyers for many years, later as mediator/facilitators. Our cultural roots were even deeper than professional ones, with similar senses of humour, occasion, politics, and intellectual outlook. So taking tea together has become an annual ritual not to be missed.

As previously, we select the Alvear Palace Hotel as our meet venue - not simply because it is one of the two best hotels in Buenos Aires, but because of its cultural resonance, a place where Buenos Aires meets London over tea.

The English arrived in Buenos Aires in 1806 then under Spanish rule, as merchants and industrialists. By 1825 Britain became one of the first countries to recognise a newly independent Argentina, and in 1939 British investment in the country was 39% of its total economy, with rail, ports and other infrastructure being funded by the English. The Hurlingham Club was opened in 1888, and in 1912 Harrods launched their only store outside London here in Calle Florida. But for the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas crisis, ties between the UK and Argentina would have been some of the strongest international links.

So it is of little surprise that afternoon tea is of significance here in Buenos Aires. There remains a strong and wealthy  'English' population here, and 'English' English is the most popular language after Castillano. They still take tea, and to do so pass English-style letter and phone boxes in Recoleta.

Our reservation is for 5.30 pm and we meet in the hotel foyer. As befits 'afternoon tea', we meet promptly in British, rather than Argentine time. 

In Buenos Aires the culture, as with the architecture, never remains static - but evolves in an organic way. So, hugs replace handshakes - not just one hug, but several. Within moments, twelve months of absence becomes but a twelve second pause...it is as if we meet on consecutive days. And so to the Orangery. 

The Orangery is a salon, similar to those of Harrods, Fortnum and Mason or the Ritz. Waiters circulate, white gloves contrasting with their red jackets. Menus are brought by a young woman in a charcoal coloured suit. These enumerate the choice of tea and question whether Champage will precede or follow the cake. Our table is large, but the room uncluttered. Adjacent tables are distant, so as to screen conversation. Today, there are no business meets, one family celebrating a significant birthday, another relaxing together, children sipping from china tea cups as if they were born to this life.

The cake tiers rise in three plates - at the top the sandwiches, cut without crust, each containing a taste delight of cucumber, smoked salmon, and other delicacies. Below we reach the cakes, small tarts festooned with miniature fruit and dome-topped dainties , almost too small to cut.

Of course we do cut the cake - that is the reason for the knife and fork, two essentials when it comes to afternoon tea at the Alvear. Fingers are for holding the cutlery, not fingering the food. 

During this account, you, my readers have been patient, for I know that the one aspect about which you wanted to read - was the tea.

I order a blue Earl Grey, for the taste equates with the experience of afternoon tea. Cristina selects a precious blend. Stephanie - for reasons entirely obvious to those that know her well - selects 'Sophie', an aromatic infusion of roses, fruits and spices. These are brought to the table on silver salvers - bearing two pots and a strainer. The hot water from one is infused into the other where it remains for but minutes. Then the infusion is returned to the original pot via the strainer, to produce the perfect cup of tea, remaining perfect at whatever stage or temperature. 

Our china cups tinkle on china saucers; our glasses of Champagne chink in a toast to health and the occasion of taking tea together. Somewhere I sense the keys of a piano, although today the salon grand remains foresaken. Conversation ranges law, mediation, history, culture, language and family. It is unhurried, and uninterrupted from any source. 

As plates empty, they are removed quietly and unobtrusively, without sensing the hand that reaches for them. We glow slightly with the Champagne that somehow reached a spot that only Champagne can. Over two hours elapse before we conclude our tea. Now the Orangery empties as residents and others return to their rooms and homes. With the swipe of a card, we leave, descending the hotel stairs to the street and a rush of warmth. Here we stroll Recoleta, its fashionable stores and fancy restaurants still open. We part in Av Gral Las Heras as air conditioners drip through evening air to the street below. 

 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Knife grinder

After the rain the pavements are washed, the gullys have been drenched, and the sun shines on a clean city. The row of Jacarandas seem spritely as they soak their roots from underground reserves. We walk Chile towards Entre Rios. Filigree shadows are cast across the sidewalk from the shrubs of hidden gardens. Ahead, the sound of music.

We have heard the sound before but known not what it was. Panpipes, but of a shrill nature rather than the sonorous modulation of Peruvian pipes. The scale from A to G and then down to E. Somewhere in the scale the notes sharpen with a plastic lilt. It repeats - and stops - then repeats again. I look across the street, and behind to identify its source. I check the balconies and glance within darkened door ways.

Ahead, a man wheels his bicycle. One of those old ones with a battered black frame and disjointed pedals. The handlebars stick out straight and a side stand leans out towards the kerb. Its owner makes leisurely progress, but seems intent. And then it happens. He lifts small panpipes to his lips and blows another scale. The notes are shrilled by proximity. He looks expecatantly as he passes the hardware shop.

Attached firmly to the cross bar is a grindstone, one of those that are revolved by pedal power. Its surface is both rough and smooth, round but worn, its edges shaved away. As he lifts his cap, a shock of grey hair falls across his eyes, and he shakes it back from his face. I notice that his fingers are those of a pianist, long and slim. He is a knife grinder.

Knives are serious investments here in Buenos Aires, especially those made from a softer steel that quickly take an edge. As Stephanie and I pass the corner shops I pause to examine rows of knives - simple cooking knives, steak knives, long elaborate decorative daggers with leather scabbards. The cheaper ones bear a Brazilian mark; the more coveted are of Argentine make, with engraving and rustic wooden handles. 

A grindstone is so diffrent from a steel. The edge is taken to the finest cut, then finished with an oiled stone and then smoothed with a rough cloth. Both sides are addressed, but in different ways, depending on the bevel and the handedness of the user. Sharpness demands that the weight of the blade should be sufficient to cause the cut. I feel for my small penknife attached to my keysafe and conclude that this may not be the right knife. We pass; a customer calls to him; he stops; and we wish that we had our camera.



Photo by courtesy of Knivesgrinders  


Monday, 9 January 2017

Buenos Aires - after the weekend

Buenos Aires is a place where the weekend matters.

In Europe, that 'weekend feeling' has largely evaporated, Saturday and especially Sunday becoming indistinguishable from other days of the week. In a summery Buenos Aires, Friday still sounds a clarion call for the weekend. Here is a feeling of anticipation, and wind-down - as traffic chokes 9 de Julio for an hour and office workers return home on busy colectivos. Soon that is all over, and the weekend starts in earnest.

Pass any restaurant on Friday night between 9 pm and late, and you will see families dining together. Not as in Europe, where the cost of eating out precludes all but the well-off. Here, ordinary working people arrive - often with tiny, well-behaved children who sit, smile and eat with their parents, grandparents, aunts, cousins - and especially their favorite uncles and grandfathers, their slicked back grey hair, whiskers and friendly faces setting them apart as fun people.

Later, after 11.30 pm, the young families give way to families with older children, couples and groups of friends, eating steak or sharing a pizza, together with a bottle of wine, large Quilmes Cristal beer or litre bottles of fizzy fruit juice, so popular in the humid evenings.

Eating out has an altogether different feel and connotation from that outside the Latin world. It is a leisurely affair, the table for the night, the little cameras, the toasts, the hugs, the waves across to other tables that are not really separate but form an organic whole. The waiters stay busy, moving quickly from table to table, carrying large plates of meat, or calamari, or pasta - or a pizza the size of a small bicycle wheel. Glasses clatter to the table, and corks are pulled without ceremony - save for the peremptory tasting ritual. The atmosphere is like two interconnecting cogs, the small, fast one of waiters - revolving the large slower one of diners.

On Saturday traffic is lighter than midweek. The emphasis is on shopping and portenos fill the streets; but not in the same way as previously. Now the pace slackens to a stroll, and greetings are shouted across the sun-filled street in Castillano. Neighbours meet under the shade of an occasional street tree to stop and chat. Saturday is a big preparation for party night.

As the evening arrives, young girls brush out their hair and apply their makeup; teenage boys are torn from their computers, and wives will pass over a freshly ironed shirt. The clubs, bars, milongas fill towards midnight, and the restaurants resume their busy trade. Portenos are out on the street, some simply sitting on steps by the pavement, or enjoying the luxury of a balcony above. For festivals, the portable barbecues appear on the sidewalks, together with stools or upturned buckets as seats. Smoke and the smell of cooking drift on the evening air. Shadows fall and voices hum under the Jacaranda trees.

Sunday brings yet another change. Where have the Portenos gone? The streets are deserted, even by the cartoneros - the street people that collect boxes and plastic to sell. The baker is closed. Cafes struggle to open by noon, and perhaps mid-afternoon the few teatime couples or groups of older women sit and drink coffee together. Even the solitary taxi drifts, as if the driver has lost his way, free-wheeling to lights and stopping well before they change to red. On green there is a further pause whilst the driver returns his mobile phone to the dashboard, and the taxi slides slowly away looking for a fare. 

Then Sunday evening. A quiet settles over the city. Families are indoors to eat, or sitting in hidden gardens to the rear of their homes. Family time is coming to an end. The boys are solitarily back in front of their screens; the girls are messaging their friends. He brushes the collar of his jacket, she carries a pile of fresh laundered towels to the bathroom. The weekend is over. Tomorrow, the city will return to its weekday state of agitation and rush. The dove that has called from eves will disappear for the week. And we await the next weekend with fresh anticipation. 

 


Friday, 6 January 2017

Mad about shoes - Katrinski

To dance tango, you need good shoes'. Well, as a man of a certain age I am not too sure about this, but I can reveal 'that happiness is a perfectly made tango shoe'.

Its 3 pm here in Buenos Aires and we stroll for the 39 colectivo. Strolling is what we do best in 33 degrees of hot sunshine, keeping to the shaded side of the street, and waiting in the shadow for lights to change. Today it is not a long wait. As expected, two nos 39 arrive together. Why is it that buses bunch? Then we set off, both drivers playing cat and mouse with the bus queues, for no discernible reason, sometimes stopping, sometimes not.

We reach Santa Fe - one of Buenos Aires' busiest and longest roads, now taking two way traffic, so long as you are a bus, a bike...or a taxi. We sit near side and watch the streets slip by as we travel west on the grid. Our destination stop is Coronel Diaz 1502, although today we alight in Santa Fe just after the crossing. It is now a 6 minute walk to our destination here in Palermo.

Stephanie presses the bells in turn, and from one choice comes a voice from the first floor balcony. "Stephanie, is that you?" She steps towards the kerb and looks up to see Katrin, a tall, elegant Swede lean from the balcony. Within moments the door is opened and we hug.

Previous readers of my blog will know all about hugging. Kisses and hugs are ubiquitous here in Buenos Aires, and it matters little whether or not you know your 'hugee'. All that matters is that you do it and mean it. Hugging with feeling. Women, men and both. It is as natural as saying 'good day' but more enchanting.

We mount the cool stairs to the first floor that Katrina shares with other small enterprises. A right, then a left brings us to her room which overlooks the street and is flooded with afternoon light. For a shoemaker, it is surprisingly neat. White boxes pile against the walls, and shelves show specimens of a dozen styles.

Katrin Urwitz started life as a theatre makeup artist, but was seduced first to tango, then to Buenos Aires which she has been visiting since 2007. Seeing tango shoes that collapse within the season, she decided to make them herself, giving rise to the Katrinski brand - handmade shoes for the discerning tanguera. That said, Katrinski is famed for flats - the perfect flat shoe that combines comfort with style. Women say that once you have worn Katrinski's you will never be without a pair. 

Her neat but strong hands reveal her art as a shoemaker. She undertakes almost all of the processes herself, crafting shoes to fit particular feet. She glances down at Stephanie's size 38's, knowing immediately the size, the shape, the fit, and those little idiosyncrasies that make the difference between an adequate shoe....and heaven. "I will cut the right shoe slightly higher to capture the small toe", she says, missing nothing; and glances disapprovingly at my clumpy MBT's. 

Today, Stephanie orders two pairs - a pale rose/bronze pair with closed heel and t-bar for tango; and a pair of red vintage shoes for 'Twinwood'. The third pair - of course - Katrinski flats, for walking the streets of Buenos Aires in style. These she receives in a perfect Katrinski bag; she will have to wait 3 weeks for the rest.

We pay, and leave. Leaving Katrinski's is like parting from a shoe fantasy. We descend to the street and walk three blocks on Charcas to the coffee shop 'Pharmacie' known for its coffee and pastries. Our pavement table against the rubber tree gives sufficient shade to sit in comfort, whilst watching the portenos of Palermo walk past with their dogs. Stephanie hugs her Katrinski's and smiles.

 



Thursday, 5 January 2017

Cleo the dancing cat

It seems that you love Cleo the cat. From a regular readership trickle, the blog 'Dancing with the Cat' soared virally into cyberspace, receiving a record number of views. Maybe its because of Cleo's photo posing with Stephanie; maybe because search engines love cats.

Whatever the reason, readers have said that they want to know more about the dancing cat of Buenos Aires, and who am I to deny them this?

Cleo is a house cat. The sort of cat that owns the house which she never leaves. I am sure - if we left the door ajar - she would poke a small black nose into the street before retreating to safety; but in fact her world is here at Casa Luna.

Cleo stalks the public areas of the house. She patrols the kitchen, mounts the staff stairs to the laundry, visits the Porteno room and tours the terrace. She knows each tub and plant pot in the wide passageway leading to the Garden room, she sidles against the dance studio rails and checks each corner of the garden with a sniff. Tables are out of bounds to the cat, but perceptive early morning risers may see her momentarily jump from the garden table to the ground. 

It being a tango house, of course Cleo is a tango cat. She knows the orchestras of the Golden Age - Rudolfo Biagi, her favorite; Juan D'Arienzo next, with a soft spot for Pedro Laurenz. With each, she adopts a different gait - sometimes quick and sharp, other times slow and purposeful. With Anibal Troilo she adopts a prance, then a pause; with Pugliese - a jump, and maybe a crash. When we play Piazzolla, Cleo simply becomes the inscrutable cat, and drifts to another place.

Cleo watches the guests - maybe for a forbidden tit-bit of food, or for the stroke of her back. But the guests watch Cleo. She demonstrates the illusive tango walk, her paws flicking the ground as if she owns each step; which of course she does. She will walk, then stop; but in stopping, her body continues to move as muscles ripple with inflection. She indicates a direction and goes - a lead of distinction. She is the perfect milonguero.

I sit here in the garden and Cleo caresses my leg, a ocho cortado, and enganche and a pasada. With me she is a follower and will wait for the next move. 

So, should you want to learn Argentine tango, you really need a tango cat.

 
   

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Pizza in heaven

I got into trouble when I recently wrote about a cheese shop. "Why a cheese shop, for goodness sake? Aren't there more important things in Buenos Aires to write about than that?" 

The simple answer is.....'yes' - pizza!

You need to understand something quite fundamental about Argentina. The language is officially 'Spanish' but those Spanish speakers that visit Buenos Aires quickly conclude that they cannot understand the Portenos. It is because they speak Castillano - a mix where Spanish meets Italian  - meets Buenos Aires. Many Portenos (I was tempted to say most) revel in their Italian ancestry. Some have secured Italian passports on their granparents' birthright. 

Consequentially, pizza is as important as politics. And possibly taken more seriously. A blog about Buenos Aires would be neglectful if it did not feature pizza at least once.

It has gone 9.00 pm - still early for the Portenos - but Tom, Arlene, Stephanie and I set off for El Mazacote. Meeting the other day with one of the world's greatest milongueros, and my first dance master, Oscar Casas was quick to mention the reputation of El Mazacote. "This is where the Portenos bring their Italian relatives for pizza", he affirmed with a look of serious contemplation. "It is, how do you say, magnificent; how pizza should be". 

We enter straight from the street. Hugo the waiter looks up with a half smile. At this point we are simply four diners needing a table. We settle against the inside wall. Despite rain, it is still hot and humid, and the air conditioner above our heads sends welcome slivers of cool air to refresh. Hugo returns. In one movement four glasses, four plates, four sets of cutlery and one menu appear. Stephanie, with her mastery of Castillano - and pizza - takes charge. "No 22, grande, Lopez Malbec y agua con gas". We demure.

It arrives without fanfare. There is no flamboyance; it is simply there. Huge, delicious, sizzling with cheese, topped with green olives, pastry delicate and thin, topping stretching right to the edge.

Tom pours the Malbec. I pour the agua. Our forks are poised.

So, what is special about the pizza of El Mazacote? The first sensation is of the topping - rich, hot and full, creating a special springiness and stringiness to the tongue. The second is the base - rolled to perfect thinness, cooked to the optimum point. It feels soft yet crunchy, contrasting the topping. 

Around us other families and small groups have arrived. This is a family affair. This is where conversation and food combine in an utterly Porteno way. Others drink coke or Quillmes. We swallow mouthfuls of Malbec and feel its earthy tannin against the softness of the cheese, and then suffuse.

You need to allow at least a good hour to share a pizza in Buenos Aires; less would be seen as undeferential to the pizza cause. We have lost count of time, probably because we never sought to count it. We share the small bill and show our appreciation to Hugo, who now smiles voluably. With hugs, we leave to walk the shortest route home to Casa Luna. 

Have you enjoyed the pizza? I sincerely hope you have. Don't forget - it is an institution. It is a part of the Capital Federal. This could be your reason to visit. And if it is, remember to invite us to share your table for a number 22.





Monday, 2 January 2017

Dancing with the cat

Here at Casa Luna there is never a shortage of tangueros. It is a tango house. But sometimes, it seems the usual tango proposals are not enough. Stephanie is dancing with Cleo.

I sit in the drawing room and watch and write, the perfume of Michael's gift of flowers wafting across the table, early evening light catching an antique sideboard, and though the doors to the dance studio the sound of Monique Haas playing Debussy's Claire de Lune.

Daniela Pucci y Luis Bianchi's classes have set Stephanie on a new dynamic course of tango, Key to this is working with the core - developing the perfect level of strength balanced against flexibility - every step lead by the hip.

This presents challenges. The first is to leave behind so much that has been learned inadvertently -  mistakenly. Thinking in terms of steps must go; to be replaced with a forward or backward projection of the hip, bringing in its turn, the movement of the leg. The muscles that count are those of the core, not the leg. The core creates intention. And beauty.

So Stephanie dances with Cleo, the house cat. Cleo stalks her every move, walking deftly as Stephanie's feet caress the floor. The cat knows where to be, as only a cat can. She does not slip between her legs. She waits, as a phrase on the score.... the phrase complete, she moves. She glances not up, nor down, but simply feels Stephanie's intention and direction - the perfect follower.

Ravel's 'Pavane Pour un Infante Defunte' gives way to Chopin's 'Nocturne No 1 in B flat minor', as if from Biagi to Pugliese. The light is now fading. A lifting breeze causes the garden to shudder, then fall into stillness. 

Schubert's '4 Impromptus' set the evening score. No 2 in E flat sings gently from the studio. Cleo has retreated to a wooden chair where she now curls and dreams. And I watch Stephanie as she concludes her practice and lifts her hair clear of her head. Yes, Buenos Aires is about tango. 

And tango is about life.