Monday, 25 December 2017

Christmas Day in Buenos Aires

No city is ever silent. At quiet times, they sit and wait; only to burst into momentary flurries of activity at the slightest excuse. 

It’s the morning of Christmas Day in Buenos Aires. The rubbish lorry has just departed, having ground its way along Defensa, the clattering of bottles now receding into the distance. The city’s hum, always present, is this morning the white noise of air conditioners preparing for a drippingly hot day.

Last night was different. Whilst in Europe, cities go wild at New Year in the expectation that the next year will be better than the last, here in Buenos Aires it’s the arrival of Christmas that urges Portenos to ignite their celebratory firecrackers and fireworks. It starts at midnight, or minutes before for those with urging children. At first, just the occasional small flash and bang of a firecracker followed by a puff and smell of spent black powder in the air. Then the turn of the local gatherings, with dozens of fireworks lifting from the centre of each street bathing groups of neighbours in blue and silver light. Eventually, the large civic displays take to the air, and the skyline of Buenos Aires is turned from ink to glitter in a thousand explosive orbs.

The displays go on into the night. At 1245 hrs a huge display erupts from San Lorenz, one of San Telmos’ tiniest streets leading below from Defensa. As each rocket explodes another follows, and for four minutes the sky glistens with coloured sparks and showers.

Retiring from the roof, I pull the shutters to muffle the sound of distant explosions that continue across the city. Below in contrast, harmonious voices of a group of families and friends sing folklorique to the accompaniment of a guitar; and the scent of their asado lifts on a sudden breeze.

Today, it's Christmas. Sparrows chirp, and the resident green parakeets fly boisterously across the roofs. Otherwise, there is a gentleness to the start of the day. A shutter lifts, morning sun flashes on a distant window, an early morning cat sprawls out on a warm ledge. I fold the windows back, sip tea, wait for Stephanie to wake, and the day to begin.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Eve with Empanadas

The door is open at El Gauchito and Juan leans against the counter. It is like entering a very small cave, enough seats for six or seven ‘flacos’, or four to five ‘gordos’. The tiny room is festooned with photographs and newspaper clippings. Four glass shelves bear piles of freshly made empanadas - carne, pollo, jamon y queso and caprese. Behind the shelves is the counter, and rising above it, steps lead to the place where the empanadas are prepared - ‘empanada heaven’.


Every centimetre of the wall is covered and every shelf crammed. A TV flickers the news in one corner where the wall meets the ceiling. ‘Aladdin’ - alias Nachito, returns for the evening shift. His large athletic frame fills the doorway and a firm hand shoots out in greeting. “Oh, the best empanadas in Buenos Aires? - thanks for the review”. We hug too, for a handshake simply does not convey the importance of the moment. 

Within seconds, our bag of hot empanadas appears from a hand down the stairway, we pay and exit into a street still warm after a hot day, despite the evening air. Independencia is busy with office workers returning from late shopping trips and carrying small parcels. At the corner of Bolivar, seated on a small stool, a street vendor sells posies of cream gardenias from her plastic bucket. Traffic bunches at the junction before flying on to the next set of lights. 

We return to Defensa, climb the 40 or so stairs to our apartment which is now caught in silver moonlight. The rooftop table is set, the Portillo Malbec is aired, and the empanadas are laid out. 

Whilst two forks are set, there is only one way to eat an empanada. Taking a gentle, but firm hold, lift a corner to the mouth, then the bite/suck, followed by a stroke of the chin with the back of the hand to wipe away the juices. The Portillo tastes rich, peppery and full. A single string of Christmas lights twinkle and Stephanie’s eyes flash a moment of satisfaction. 

“Happy Christmas”, I say. ‘What better way to spend a Christmas Eve?”  Stephanie just smiles and lifts yet another empanada to her lips.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

It’s time to talk about Katrinski

Women, shoes and tango; three words that go together well. To these, those living in, staying at, or visiting Buenos Aires should add a fourth - ‘Katrinskis’.

I should make it clear. This blog is inspired by shoes - with no hidden deviance or incentives to hyperbole. Katrinski is just like any other bespoke shoe maker in Buenos Aires, but better. And it is her professionalism, attention to detail, line of sight, shape and form - that makes her shoes outstanding.

Stephanie and I arrive in Gallo on the 29 colectivo and walk to Katrinski’s studio via Soler. Within seconds of pushing the bell, she is there to escort us to her first floor atelier overlooking the street. Her workbench sits just inside the door. Here are her tools: leather shears, mundial tailor scissors, nickel hammers, shoe knives, lining pliers, rasps; and the skeletons of shoes - neat heels and soles awaiting leather uppers. Ranged beneath the window are finished shoes, glistening with style and sophistication. Shoe boxes containing hidden delights mount up the wall to the left.

Over to the right is the leather-trove: a cupboard containing small rolls of the finest hides, fabrics and leathers - some bright, others shimmering. They feel soft to the fingertip, with almost an elastic stretch. They smell divine.

Katrinski (Katrin Urwitz) came to Buenos Aires from Sweden just over ten years ago. Since then she has dedicated herself to making shoes for dancers - up to 8cm heels for tango, and her famous ‘Katrinski flats’ for every occasion. In a previous blog I said that no woman should be without her Katrinskis - for the open air milonga, the time after midnight when feet in heels are exhausted, or simply to walk the city streets in style. 

A first pair of Katrinskis tango shoes constitutes a rite of passage from ‘dancer’ to ‘tanguera’. Today Stephanie selects a high open heel, double cross-over strap style in embellished nude gold. The sample are so light that they seem to float in the hand. The finished shoes will be bespoke-made in three weeks.

As we leave and walk hand-in-hand to ‘La Pharmacy’ bar I boast to Stephanie, “So that’s my Christmas shopping done”, and grin with a pleasure that only us guys will understand. “Now, who’s going to buy the coffee?”

To visit Katrinski’s Facebook page click the link

Monday, 11 December 2017

International Tango Day

It is Monday 11 December, and you will immediately realise the significance - it is ‘International Tango Day’ here in Argentina and across the tango world.


Why 11 December? Well it is, of course, the birthday of Carlos Gardel, who had he survived an airplane crash in 1935, aged then 44, would have been 127 years old today. Julio De Caro, tango composer and band leader, was also born on this day in 1899. Luckier in life and death than Gardel, Caro remarried aged 60 and died at the age of 80.

For tango dancers, their legacy is about equal. Without Gardel the singer and movie actor, we may not know tango today. It was Gardel that breathed romance into the music and gave it immortality. In 1928, his sales of 70,000 records in Paris in the first 3 months of his visit, paved the way for his films ‘Cuesta abajo’ and ‘El dia que me quieras’ six years later. Through them and him tango reached an international audience of film-goers and music lovers, where it has remained since.

Isabel del Valle

 Carlos Gardel’s widowed mother, to whom he was devoted  

Romance came at a cost for Gardel. His long-term ‘lover’ Isabel (pictured with him above) was kept secret to preserve his eligibility as a heart-throb. Carlos’ actual sexuality however remained slightly opaque. Later in life he and Isabel separated: she found the love she craved; he remained single to his death.

Julio de Caro was a colossus amongst band leaders, and dancers throughout the world count him as one of their favourites. Without Caro, Argentine tango music would have lost a critical peg that changed and matured the music through the 1920’s and 30’s, and made it accessible to high society.

I am the grandchild of Caro (and maybe Gardel). You, my dear reader possibly the great-grandchild. As such, we remember both this day, and this dance. Later, as the temperature drops at dusk, the streets of San Telmo - and other barios throughout the city - will fill with tangueros. There will be music and embrace. Argentine tango, cherished daily, will receive its annual and deserved celebration.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

San Telmo Diary - the first weekend


8.30 am and sun streams through the open window onto a table covered with a white lace tablecloth and bearing Francesca’s cream teapot full of fresh tea. Someone sings below, birds chirp from the roof rails, eight parakeets squark as they fly past in formation, in the distance lorries grind away from the lights on Av Independencia.

A Saturday city. Weekends in Buenos Aires slow down from the weekday race. They have an altogether different pace. Waiters at the little cafes on Calle Defensa no longer rush from table to table, but stroll in the sunshine. The air is lighter, softer, crisper, as is our weekend mood.


This year I have brought binoculars with which I scan rooftops from the terrace. To the north maroon-red brickwork marks a monastery. Beyond, the distant towers of Puerto Madero pepper the skyline towards Retiro. East, the view is towards the classical colonnades of the university engineering faculty building. All around are roofs and terraces, some with palms, others with plant pots. Half a kilometer away an elderly woman retrieves a towel from the roof line. Four cats laze on a remote ledge. Windows glitter as morning shutters are opened. 


One tiny, white, passing cloud blows past on a light breeze. As it moves, it dissipates into the morning’s warmer air. It is time for breakfast. “Let’s head for Origen?”, suggests Stephanie. “What a good idea”, I rejoin as we head for the stairs.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

San Telmo Diary - Pesos

In Europe, shopping is but a simple swipe away. Here in Argentina cash is king. Portenos (the people of Buenos Aires) prefer US dollars to pesos, and pesos to credit, so before leaving the UK we armed ourselves with dollars for rent, a fist-full of pesos and a couple of Halifax Clarity cards, giving charge-free transactions on larger purchases.

Cash machines are ubiquitous throughout the city, but each transaction carries a toll in both charges and exchange rate; so welcome to the ‘mysterious art’ of currency exchange.

It is Wednesday - our second day in the capital, and we need to think about cash. 

In October 2012, Londoners Michael Kent and Marta Krupinska set up Azimo as a currency transfer business. Until then, currency movement was the domain of the banks who charged hefty fees and gave poor rates of exchange. Azimo’s idea was to simplify and speed up money transfers in an easy-to-understand way. Overnight, with a fingerprint and two keystrokes, pounds sterling in your bank account could become one of 80 different currencies in 190 countries. For me it meant that pesos could be collected from agency offices throughout Buenos Aires in the knowledge that 10% of Azimo profits go to charities, and each member of the Azimo team gets a monthly day off to volunteer in their local community.

Leaving the apartment I descend from roof to street level for my journey to Calle Florida and the offices of Argenper. Today is the first hot day of the year with temperatures of 27 degrees and climbing.

Defensa is already busy, and making progress along the footway is a challenge, especially where the pavement is overtaken by roadworks, or simply disappears - only to reappear in ten paces. Yesterday’s city centre demonstrations have left behind a collection of crowd barriers which line the road as I approach Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada. 

Crossing the square I enter Calle Reconquista, the place where in 1806, the Spanish immigrants of Buenos Aires gathered to swear allegiance to their cause - the removal by force of their recent British overlords, returning the Rio de la Plata to Spanish control. Today, Reconquista is the main banking area filled by clerks and cashiers dodging huge bullion waggons. 

Reaching Calle Lavalle, I turn west towards Calle Florida. This is the heart of the microcentre, where years past, cows would be driven and milked at the side of the street. Now the junction is distinctive for performances of street tango under the direction of Jose Carlos Romero Vedia and his students.

At Florida 537 I slip beneath the building into a wide entrance way and descend a stationary escalator to the lower ground level. Wide malls lead past countless units. I head for the underground garden and twin ramps leading to Argenper. Today I arrive early at 9.15 am. The door opens, but the waiting area is deserted. A sign reads ‘Cambio abierto 1000 hrs’. I approach the counter and Daniel looks up in surprise. “Why you here so soon”, he says looking at the sign, “we wait for money to come”. ‘’But ok, its you - so we see if we have enough pesos!”, he exclaims with exaggerated nods.

I tender my passport open at my tourist visa, together with a note of the Azimo transaction number and my Defensa address. 

Pending arrival of the day’s cash it is too early for the electronic counting machine drilling dozens of bank notes in seconds, so Daniel searches in his drawer, pulls out and hand counts sufficient cash to meet the exchange. Cash secreted, I bid Daniel farewell, ascend the dormant escalator and head for the street. 

So, tonight we can eat. “And maybe a glass of champagne?”, says Stephanie. 

Use my Azimo invite and get £10.00 off your first transfer.

San Telmo Diary

He looks over his glasses and directs a thumb to a screen. Fingermarks register our return visit. He smiles. Without words his eyes say ‘Welcome to Argentina’. Through the ‘nothing to declare’ channel, from the kiosk we buy a Manuel Tienda Leon coach ride from Ezeiza to Buenos Aires, and walk towards the electric doors. 

I look at Stephanie and our eyes meet. We had pictured this moment as one we would recognise: the point of transition between two worlds: leaving Europe and returning to Latin America.

There is something about the moment that is singular. Flight side is busy in a workmanlike way. It is a last refuge, where you may check your luggage, retrieve a purse of pesos or find an address. The doors slide and we pass through to the city side - a new, vibrant, pulsating Latin world of humanity. Tiers of drivers hold placards, some hastily drawn in felt-tip, others boldly announcing corporations; porters rush around with trolleys and cases; families holding flasks of mate are meeting and hugging; police stand in small clusters; voices call; a shrill whistle blows and a surge of taxis and coaches jockey for position on the grid.

Outside the terminal its hot, yet fresh. A light breeze stirs tall palms and blows fallen blooms of purple Jacaranda across the paving. We have arrived.

All vehicles arriving at Ezeiza at some stage must leave. Like other airports around the world, it is after all just a point of transition, its currency being ‘the journey’. But whilst arrival here is simple and seamless, departure is typically Argentine. 

Our coach bustles onto the exit lane. Already horns are sounding, the coach driver shouts at a taxi. Vehicles rush for the exit, each space a small war-zone. Our bulk and the telling dents to the rear off-side carry the day as queues of small cars and taxis snarl behind us. Now the breeze ruffles stretched curtains at the windows and there is a rhythmical chink from the limp workings of the speed limiter as it hangs uselessly against the bulkhead.

On the autopista and through two sets of tolls, we are now heading into the city. Alongside is our strangely familiar Buenos Aires, a city in constant flux with half-built blocks and roofs covered with water tanks and satellite discs. From the raised sections of the carriageway the city stretches interminably, dense, sprawling and compact. Millions of lives are buzzing like small electrical currents and with them, the hustle of city life. We descend from the elevated Autopista 25 de Mayo, turn east in Avenida San Juan onto Paseo Colon. Working our way through the crisis bus-lane road works, we arrive at Retiro. The coach squeezes into the narrow dog's-leg entrance to Manuel Tienda Leon coach stop where we transfer to a little grey taxi, and start our return journey to San Telmo.