Sunday, November 27, 2011

The streets of Buenos Aires

We've been in Buenos Aires now for two and a half weeks. We packed a lot of tourist sight-seeing into the first 10 days, and have significantly slowed our pace, which means I have fewer destination focused things to write about. I've decided to shift into summary mode: snapshots, impressions, and oddments.

Traffic in Buenos Aires is not terrible in the sense of gridlock like you might find in other major urban areas. However, the streets are definitely full of a lot of cars and busses. The horn is used liberally here, and traffic doesn't play by the same rules we use in the states. While not as insane as Sao Paulo, Brazil, this is not a place I would ever consider renting a car and trying to drive.

- Lane Lines are painted on the streets just like in the US, but these seem to be only suggestions of where traffic might go. In practice, cars just go where they want to go. In the US, we see motorcycles "lanesplitting" all the time, but here in Bs As everyone is lanesplitting. In addition to ostensibly showing how many cars across can be in the road at a given time, lane lines also show the contour of the road. They bend and curve with the overall street, so if you were following your lane lines on a windy road, you would travel in the same S shape as the road itself. If you did that, you would be an American. And you would probably get honked at because you'd be driving slowly and not paying attention to the way the other drivers are not following the lane lines. For instance, last night we were in a cab that was in the far left lane when we hit a bend in the road. The cab wanted to turn right after the bend, so our driver just went straight, crossing at least three painted lanes (and probably 5 lanes of cars) without using a signal other than the horn, which was used to warn another car that was crossing the same lanes in the other direction. The overall effect of this behavior is that cars tend to move more organically. I'm reminded of the way sperm travel en masse toward an egg - they all want to get to roughly the same place, and they all just jostle around each other trying to get there first. The lanesplitting may actually reduce gridlock in a way, because more cars can cram together into a stretch of road, and are less likely to stick out into the intersections, preventing traffic from flowing.

- Traffic Signals come in the same colors, but don't really mean what you think they mean. Red means stop and green means go, right? But if you're a pedestrian you do not have the right of way. That means the little green walking man may appear, but you need to watch for cars that might be turning into your lane. They will not stop or slow down, and will probably honk at you if you try to cross. The yellow light is the most interesting one to me - it seems like both sides of traffic get a yellow at the same time. If you've got a red light, it'll stay red, but the yellow light starts blinking. This essentialy means "you can go now, unless there's still traffic trying to get through the light in the other direction."

- Uncontrolled Intersections are standard. There are no stop signs, so if you're on a street that is not a major artery with traffic signals, every intersection is an uncontrolled intersection. The way these are handled is similar to what we saw in Mexico. People just slow down and nudge into the street. Whoever is most of the way into the intersection gets to pass through.

- One Way Streets help traffic flow. It seems like all streets that are not major thoroughfares are one way streets. The direction is indicated on the street sign by an arrow. The unidirectional streets end up being helpful in the uncontrolled intersections because you're only negotiating with one other direction of traffic. It's also kinda nice as a pedestrian because you're having the same negotiation with the vehicles on the road. The expectation is that all drivers and pedestrians will work together to make the most efficient flow. As a pedestrian, you wait until there are no cars coming before you cross. Or, you wait until a car is going in the same direction as you, which will cause the traffic going against you to stop. I once read a blog rant about how the one-way streets in Oakland's Chinatown area make it more hazardous for pedestrians because it enables traffic to flow more quickly. Having now walked the steets of Buenos Aires for a couple weeks, I think this is nonsense. The problem with those one-way streets is that they're too wide. If they only accomodated two lanes of traffic, and if each cross street was also unidirectional, I think they'd provide for good traffic flow and be pretty safe for pedestrians. Add in some street trees, and you might just have a great, walkable neighborhood, like Palermo.

- Exhaust Fumes here are intense. I haven't seen many people wearing the masks like in parts of Asia, but I've seen lots of people holding scarves or other fabric over their faces when walking on the streets that busses and trucks frequent. These two types of vehicles in particular seem to emit big, black, noxious clouds. In fact, after the first few days of walking around here, every time I blew my nose the contents were disturbingly dark. I took that as a sign, and adopted the same strategy of covering my nose with my t-shirt or scarf. I guess California's Clean Air regulations have been somewhat effective, because the contrast between air quality between the two BAs is stark. It's a shame, because there are so many beautiful buildings here in Bs As that are covered in layers of soot and grime. And the city is nice and flat, with lots of unique retail strips, which makes it pretty walkable. If they could get their act together to really attack the emmissions from vehicles, I think this city would be one of the most beautiful, impressive and livable cities in the world.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

La Ideal Tango

Day 9, Part 2

We had a plan after our early evening nap: head to a local nest of restaurants we had recently discovered, then check out a really cool looking bar we had read about, and if our energy held out, back to La Confiteria Ideal for the evening milonga. I brought along our dancing shoes.

Unfortunately, the dinner at a little parisian looking cafe we found did not agree with C, and although we did walk to the Milion bar and saw that it was lovely, C couldn't shake the nausea that had set in after dinner. I walked him back home, and once I saw him safely in bed I decided to make my way back to La Ideal on my own. (Lest you all think I'm a cruel, heartless wife, please note that C both encouraged me to go, and did not look so ill as to warrant my staying home to care for him.)

Somehow, going to a milonga on my own was both exactly what I wanted, and also something to dread. I wasn't sure whether I would get any dances, and if not, I thought it would get discouraging and lonely to be sitting at a table all by myself and wistfullly watching the dancers. I had seen a woman doing just that at the previous milonga and felt a mixture of pity and horror. Pity, because I could recognize the loneliness and longing on her face, but also horror at the realization of what this dance tradition does to protect a man's ego and utterly debase a woman. She was all tarted up, painted like a prostitute and wearing a skimpy dress that revealed too much cleavage and too much leg. She was older than me, and not particularly attractive. She did not dance the entire evening, but she clearly wanted to. On the other side of her table sat a young, beautiful woman who was rarely to be found at her seat because she had a constant stream of men asking her to dance. It may be that the young woman was a significantly better dancer, but I'll never know because the painted lady never had a chance to show me how well she could dance. At the same time, the traditional cabaceo - where a man nods at a woman to indicate a desire to dance - seems designed to protect the mans ego and pride. After making eye contact, if a man nods at a woman she's supposed to understand that as an invitation to dance, and walk toward him. A woman 'rejects' a man's offer by simply refusing to make eye contact. Since the whole transaction happens without getting up from his seat, a man never needs to suffer the humiliation of walking over to a woman and having her refuse a dance for all the world to see.

So with the sad image of a lonely, desperately made-up woman in my mind, I walked up the grand marble staircase to the second floor of La Ideal, and found an empty table along the wall.

When we had stopped there for coffee in the afternoon, we sat at a table in the dining area on the planta baja (ground floor.) The most arresting visual features of the space are a floor composed of 2 foot square white marble tiles, and massive pink marble columns. On the far end of the dining room was a small bar, and on the side near the entry, trying to enclose the massive space, stood a few ornate glass cases filled with tchotchkes and mementos of a bygone era. Small tables covered the floor in between, adorned with simple maroon cloths. This place reminded me of the Century Ballroom, but not as it is today; it was more like the Century before the fancy restaurant, the stairway to the balcony, the Disney refurb. Like the big empty space that was just an abandoned ballroom before Hallie took the lease. It was a grand, old space, but all the things in it felt too small, unable to fill the emptiness. A building bereft.

When I entered the dance space upstairs, I saw that it was physically the same as the room below, with the same marble columns and floor. Instead of a bar, there was a small stage at the far end, and the tables lined the sides of the room to allow for dancing between the two rows of columns. The room was certainly not packed, but had a good number of people sitting at tables, and quite a few couples dancing. Somehow, the vastness of the space below was transformed by the new table arangement and the presence of people, into a more approachable and friendly environment.

I had read that the evening milongas at La Ideal tend to be a bit touristy, and I very quickly understood why. Even though there was no live music, I heard a smattering of applause from people sitting on the other side of the room. They were applauding the dancers, even though it's just a social dance, not a performance. Scanning the room, I saw that most of the people who seemed to be there just to watch were on one side of the room, at the tables with white cloths. I was sitting on the other side where I could see it was mostly locals. Some were not dancing but seemed connected to people who were dancing. I realized that the man at the entry who had gestured toward a table when I first entered the milonga must be sorting people. I guess I made the cut as "dancer" because I was holding a bag with dance shoes.

I settled in to my table, changed my shoes, watched some dancing, and ordered agua con gas from the waiter. Just as I was beginning to feel the nagging worry that nobody would ask me to dance, I saw a man in a brown pin-striped suit striding in my direction. Before I had a chance to register whether or not he was looking at me, he was at my table and had plopped his things down next to it. He nodded violently at me, with a glower on his face, then turned his back on me and walked away. I was fumbling to remove the wrap I was still wearing around my shoulders and wondering whether he really did mean to dance with me. At the edge of the dance floor, he turned and looked again at me with an even surlier frown, and jerked his head so violently I thought he might bite his tongue. I let the wrap fall to the ground, afraid I would mortally offend this guy if I left him waiting long enough to pick it up and put it on my chair. Feeling utterly like a dog being summoned to her master, I joined him at the dance floor and we began to dance. I found his lead hard to read. Every step I took seemed either clumsy or confused, and I couldn't tell if he was pleased, bemused, or irritated. The song ended almost directly after we had begun, and suddenly he turned, muttered some Spanish I didn't understand, and stormed over to my table, pointing forcefully with an open hand at my chair. Invitation or threat? With a look of utter confusion on my face, I regained my seat. He picked up his belongings and walked quickly away from my table. Was dancing with me really so bad that he had to dump me back at my seat after less than half a song? A young woman sitting a few tables down from me seemed to be snickering about it to her boyfriend. At first, I thought she was laughing at my confusion, or at my inexperience, but later I thought maybe she was laughing at the Cave Man and his very un-subtle approach.

Confusion turned to partial comprehension as the cortina or interlude music played, denoting the end of the set of dances. I had read somewhere that you never dance more than one tanda back to back with the same person unless you intend to do more than dance that evening. This is similar to the story I heard about the significance of a cowboy hat being placed on your head while dancing in a cowboy bar. The next tanda had started, and my agua had arrived while I was dancing. Before I got a chance to drink, a man sitting at the table next to me turned and opened his hand with a subtle nod. I think he also said something about bailar (to dance) and smiled. I nodded and we both stood up and walked to the floor together. This, I thought, is a much more civilized way to request a dance. And he was also a better dancer. Unfortunately, we only danced a single song, at which point an announcer came out to introduce the band. We made our way back to our seats, and my partner said something with proxima in it, which means next. After a few dead minutes while the band set up, the live music started. Unlike with our previous milonga, people began to dance right away rather than waiting and watching for several songs. Possibly because the caliber of the music was not as good, or because the people here were not as fanatical about tango and tradition. I'm not sure why.

Before I had a chance to turn and see if my friend next door had intended to dance this next one, or wait for the next full tanda, Mr. Surly was in front of me with the same furrowed brow and violent nodding. I danced a full set with him and saw that his repertoire was limited. Between each dance, he took out a travel-sized packet of facial tissue and offered one to me as he mopped sweat off his face. At the end of the tanda, he swiveled, led me back to my seat with the same militaristic air, and made his way down the room to terrorize another woman. As I watched him leave, I wondered whether he had enjoyed dancing with me, or whether it had been a chore. And that's when I finally understood: he was a self-appointed ambassador. I had met one of these before from my days of swing dancing. He was wearing the perfect 40's era mafioso suit, had the perfect slicked back hair and the famous tango scowl. He was here to show the tourists a strange caricature of tango, and he took his job seriously. He worked the room, dancing with every woman younger than himself, and I don't think it ever occured to him to enjoy it. Nor did he seem to have any passion for the dancing or the music. It was all ritual and posturing.

Now it was time for performances from a pair of professional tango dancers. They danced a few tangos, and then invited all the locals to join them in a traditional folk dance that seems to be releated to a Peruvian dance I saw on late night TV the other day. It had elements of contra dancing (long lines that move in unison, with partners standing opposite each other) and also reminded me a bit of schuhplattler because the women did this swoopy, skirt fanning action in front of their partner while the men did fancy stomping and jumping and other "preening" type of movements. It also involved scarves. The performances were good - certainly not at the level of the tango show we went to earlier in the trip, but the dancers were very good.

By the time all this was finished, I noticed that the guy next door was gone. I was a bit disappointed because I was hoping to dance again with him. However, I didn't have long to sit before an old gentleman emerged from the corner of the room and nodded at me warmly. We danced, a full tanda, and he seemed delighted. Between dances we tried to communicate a bit - the usual "where are you from" and "how long are you staying" - and he mentioned at one point something about his or my dancing being very musical. At the very least, I would agree that his dancing was very musical. He didn't seem to know a lot of moves, but I really enjoyed the way he actually danced to the music, stretching out movements when the music was slow or legato, and making them sharper during a more staccato phrase.

After that set, I entertained a constant parade of old men who had been hidden in the corner of the room. Actually, I think it was just three men taking turns, but I enjoyed dancing with them all, and was grateful for the partners. At some point, I noticed that there were very few people left in the room, and I noticed The Scowler angling toward me. I quickly looked at my water, and took a drink. Then I fumbled with my napkin. Anything but make eye contact with him - I had plenty of other people to dance with that actually seemed friendly and frankly better at tango. Maybe that makes me a snob, but I didn't have any interest in dancing another set with him.

Finally, the only people left seemed to be me, the professional dancer who had given the demo earlier in the evening and his friends/family. And Mr. Grumpy Pants. I had looked a few times toward the pro to see if there might be a chance of dancing with him, but he seemed deeply engaged with his people and not inclined to dance. I began looking for my waiter so I could pay for the water, but that was a bit tricky since it involved looking in the direction of both The Suit and The Pro. At one point, it seemed like The Godfather was headed in my direction. In a panic, I took my dancing shoes off - a great way to show that you're done dancing for the night. Then, suddenly, The Pro is standing on the dance floor directly in front of me with his hand proffered. I pointed at my shoes and shrugged. "I've already changed my shoes," but then I decided to try anyway in my flat little street shoes. I've danced tango in sneakers before, so how bad could it be.

It wasn't great. My balance was a bit off, and I could tell I was way out of my depth. He tried a few things that I just couldn't seem to get, and I felt clumsy. I made some lame excuses about having difficulties with my street shoes, but I knew that a very good dancer would be able to dance without her shoes. I felt like a mediocre painter blaming the crudeness of his paintings on his brushes. After the first dance, The Pro said something to the DJ and made a motion that looked like what we in the US use to say "cut it off." The hand swiping at the neck like a blade. Then he said something to me about liking this song, which I think was intended to make me feel like maybe the hand motion hadn't meant what I thought it did. But the set was a brief one - only three songs. And while I could tell The Pro was a great dancer, I was happy that it was over. Somehow, I just didn't feel connected to him, and even though there were moments of grace and loveliness, I felt awkward most of the time we were dancing.

The waiter was at my table when I finished, so I settled up, and left.

Friday, November 18, 2011

La Vida, La Boca

Day ...9?

The days after my birthday have gone by swiftly. Not necessarily because they were jampacked with activty, but because the whirlwind touring has caught up with us. Mental fatigue has set in. Even though we've said we would slow down or take it easy, we're still managing to pack in a lot of stuff, and a lot of walking.

The highlight reel for the end of the week: MALBA, La Boca, Confeteria Ideal Milonga.

Thursday was our day to check out the museum of latino art, otherwise known as MALBA. They had an exhibition of work from Carlos Cruz-Diez, who is now C's new hero. It was fascinating to see the artist's progression from somewhat crude, represntational art to these very abstract, very cool works of art that change based on your perspective. The name of the exhibition was "El color en el espacio y en el tiempo" (Color in Space and Time) and it certainly was just that. The more recent art had strips of board with different colors on each facet that stuck out of the painting in various degrees and angles. The effect was that you could walk up to a painting, looking at it dead on, and see nothing but a solid color; then when you walked over to the side, you would see a rectangle of a different color emerge. A flat picture would certainly not do this work justice, so even if I had been able to take pictures I wouldn't be able to share the experience with you. I really enjoyed the exhibit. You should check it out if it ever comes to a museum near you - if that sort of thing appeals to you.

Friday we headed out early for La Boca. It really was pretty early for us - we had breakfast at home and were ready to leave before 11am. The guidebook was full of dire warnings about how dangerous La Boca is, how it is home to the poorest segment of the population, and it's not safe to walk along most of the side streets, or along the water. However, it also has this big tourist destination: El Caminito. The neighborhood is situated right next to a port, and was once inhabited by poor Italian immigrants who built their houses with corrugated steel and other materials on hand. It is said that they "borrowed" paint for their houses from the ships they worked on, resulting in the houses being painted in bright, sometimes garish colors. It is also said that the tango dance started in the brothels of this neighborhood. Tourists flock to see the brightly painted houses, which have been kept in much the same condition over the years. If anything, the colors have gotten brighter and more eye catching. One or two famous brothels have been turned into museums with life-sized sculpture of men in suits and whores leaning over balconies. I think these are made of papier mache or something - possibly plaster - so they have a crumpled look to them.

The result of all this "historial preservation," if you can even call it that, is that you have something like SF Fisherman's Wharf stuck in the middle of a neighborhood like West Oakland. (For those who don't know SF Bay Area references, replace Fisherman's Wharf with any tacky tourist trap you know, and replace West Oakland with any poor, crime infested, slightly industrial, inner city neighborhood. The tourists mostly confine themselves to this little circuit where they walk around taking pictures of all the brightly painted houses and browsing the trinkets in countless little "antique malls" or souvenir shops. Most of the junk on offer here is made in China, but even the made-in-Argentina "crafts" seem to be mass produced and gaudy. And over priced.

We had other things in mind. C had read about a great parilla somewhat off the beaten path that had played host to a few celebrities over the years. A hidden gem called El Obrero. To get there, we would need to walk a few side streets in La Boca, which had me a trifle worried because of all the dire warnings in our guide books. All sources encouraged cab or tour bus to get to and from La Boca, and "don't even consider walking along the waterfront" back toward San Telmo. So before we set out, I removed all of our credit cards from our wallets, and stashed a few hundred pesos in this silk bra pouch I had purchased for the trip - an easy way to hide a few bills that is much less conspicuous than the typical traveller's money belt. I figured this way if we did get robbed, we would avoid the hassle of needing to cancel credit cards, and would still have the money to get a cab back home.

When we stepped out of the cab into the tourist trap of El Caminito, we both laughed at my precautions. The place was swarming with tourists, and with locals trying to take advantage of them. Want to take a picture with a tango dancer? How about sticking your face into a painting of a tango dancer? No? Do you want to have a drink at this fine restaurant? How 'bout this one? The in-your-face hawking reminded us of the strip along the waterfront in Ensenada where rows and rows of taco stands are set up next to picnic tables. Walking down the strip you are accosted from all directions by persistent, almost desperate, salespeople offering 2 fish tacos for a dollar. We walked the circuit dutifully, took some pictures, and then left the touristed area in search of our parilla. This led us past the famous stadium where local futbal favorites La Boca Jrs are based, and then down a few side streets, where the houses were not painted, and were mixed with car shops and little markets with sad looking vegetables.

We found El Obrero without incident, and since it was just after noon there was not a single patron in the restaurant, and about six waiters. We found seats and took in our surroundings. The place was covered floor to ceiling in futbal memorabilia; photos of legendary players, pennants, etc. While we were there, we watched a couple come in and donate a pennant to the wall. The man was proudly showing off the autograph he had gotten on the back of it. They love their soccer in these parts.

As we were eating, the restaurant filled up with mostly locals. True to the name (El Obrero means something like the worker or working man) most of the patrons who came in after us were single or groups of working class men. Some were in greasy coveralls, and all were dressed more casually and less fashionably than the locals we have seen to date in the rich and trendy neighborhoods we've frequented. The food was great - we ordered lomo again (did I mention I've finallly discovered that it means tenderloin?) and I must say it was at least on par with the first lomo I had at Juana M, and possibly the best steak I've had in Argentina. Plus, I was pleased to find a simple arugula salad on the menu, since most of the salads we've gotten have been disappointing - too many ingredients, and bitter lettuce. This one came with way to much parmesan cheese, but that's a problem easilly solved by letting it sink to the bottom of the bowl. Otherwise, the arugula was excellent.

Walking back from the restaurant, we took the major avenida cutting through town as we had been instructed by our tour guides, and swung around to see the other major point of local interest: a big orange metal bridge, just called La Boca bridge. C got some pictures, and as we were turning to head back to El Caminito a nice woman came up to us gesticulating wildly and shaking her head. "Muy peligroso" and "siempre la avenida" and other words of caution. She was telling us to always stick to the large avenue, not to go down any side streets, telling us it is very dangerous. This simple gesture of kindness sets La Boca apart in my mind from sketchy 'hoods in other parts of the world, where people don't generally come up to a stranger and set them on the path to safety. It seems like big city folk in the US generally keep to themselves, and even when they see wayward tourists heading for trouble most people just don't want to get involved. I hope I'm wrong about that characterization.

We followed the nice woman's advice, walking around the port back to El Caminito rather than taking the more direct route I had been eyeing. Rather than catching a cab, we decided to take a bus up to San Telmo (finally! I convinced C to try the bus, and it was totally easy!) and then walked from San Telmo to Centro again, looking for a little resto he had seen on our first day there. We never found it, but we landed at Confiteria Ideal (to be described in the next installment.) We have never needed naps so badly as we did after this mammoth day. And we hadn't even had dinner yet.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

La Gran Cuarenta

Day 7: The Big B-Day

With fresh clean clothes and a whole day of "whatever you want, Lo, it's your day" ahead of me, we set off immediately for Palermo where I was hoping to go to a boulangerie-type shop I had seen on the web instead of our local coffee joint. When we got to the neighborhood, we found that our destination was papered over. We've heard that things open and close quite rapidly in Palermo, so you can't trust what you find in the guide books or even on the web. Undiscouraged, we did find an awesome bookstore with a cafe in the back. The bookstore itself reminded me of the Elliott Bay bookstore in Seattle. But maybe a bit more modern, and with really tall ceilings. The cafe had a tall plaster wall spanning two floors that was covered in black and white graffiti. It also had an atrium area. We ended up getting close to the standard morning fare, but at least at this place there was a larger selection of pastries.

After breaking the fast, and browsing the bookshelves, we headed out to the main destination for the day: Gretaflora, a shoe store specializing in really cute tango shoes. I bought a sassy pair of shoes, and then we wandered around the area checking out the shops and grabbing a bite here, a drink there. I was somewhat hoping that I could find a killer dress that I could wear out that evening, but it's become abundantly clear that the little designer boutiques in Palermo are a bit more expensive than I'd like, and targeting the younger, slimmer set. You'd think with all the surgical enhancements I've seen around here that I might find something built for bustier broads. But alas, I still have not found the store for curvy ladies.

Returning home, we took a "disco nap" for an hour, then started to get ready for our evening out. C had made reservations at a foodie hot spot. We got gussied up, and I strapped on my new shoes. Sucre was a gorgeous restaurant with an open kitchen at the back and a two-story bar wall housing beautifully lit bottles of all shapes and colors. Halfway up the wall is a catwalk by which you gain access to the bathrooms. In addition to the stunning environment, we enjoyed a very good meal. The menu featured more lamb than beef (yay!) and the extensive wine list offered a great selection of wines from Argentina and elsewhere. We had a delicious plate of octopus, the most tender and tasty octopus I've had, as well as an amazing tarte tatin with a roasted heirloom tomato on top. The tarte was a bit sweet with the roasted tomato, and the pastry crust was perfectly flakey. For our main, we had a divine lamb shoulder with cous cous. The wines were good, but didn't knock my socks off. For dessert, a chocolate volcano (volcada if the menu had been in Spanish, which it was not.)

I'd say the only 'problem" with that dinner was that it could have been anywhere in the world. And even though we had a "late" reservation at 9pm, the place was almost completely full of Americans (or English speakers, at least) when we got there. As mentioned, the menu was entirely in English, so I was wondering if anyone who actually lives in the city ever eats there or if it's just a guidebook destination. Only when we moved on to our entree did we start to see some Portenos filtering in, once again showing us that even when we delay eating to what we think is the "right" time, we seem to be a half hour early still.

On this night, I was glad to be dining a little earlier, though, because we had a milonga to attend. After dinner we took a cab back to Palermo, and entered Salon Canning. It's a beautiful space, and we were early enough that we were able to get a table. We sat watching for a tanda or two (a set of usually about 3-4 dances) before getting up to take a spin. Then we settled into a pattern of dancing one tanda, and sitting out a couple. At some point after we had danced a few times, I noticed a man smiling and nodding at me. I was so taken aback I had to look around to be sure he was actually motioning at me, but indeed he was. I walked over and we stepped out onto the dance floor. We danced one number, and as we were waiting for the next one to get going, he asked me (in English) where I was from. When I told him California, he seemed to get excited and said "Really? Where in California?" and when I told him SF he said "Why don't I ever see you out dancing?" Turns out he lives in Walnut Creek. We finished the tanda together and he thanked me for the nice dances. That was the only partner I had other than C for the night, but it was nice to meet and dance with one other person. It's just funny to come all the way to BA to dance with someone from the other BA (SF Bay Area.)

Around midnight, we noticed that Willem Dafoe was in the house again. This time, we actually saw him dancing a few times. (He's in the center of the above photo - not that you can really tell, but it's the best I could do...) He seems to be just learning, as I saw him doing the "basic" pattern and one or two other moves. He seemed a bit tentative, and was definitely concentrating. I feel sorry for any man just starting to learn tango, because it's so complicated at first. For a celebrity, it seems like it would be worse, because it's hard to recede into the crowd while you're dancing. I know I had a hard time not watching or seeking him out in the crowd. At least a non-celebrity can be mostly assured that nobody will be watching him for very long, so people are not likely to notice if you do the same move over and over. Or if you flub something. Anyway, I hope Mr. Dafoe finds enjoyment in it, and I wonder if we'll see him again before we leave. C wants me to aks him to dance, but I think that would be too forward. Besides, I have only seen him dancing with the one woman in his entourage.

It must have been around 1 am when an announcer came out and introduced a band. Until then, we had been dancing to taped music, but now, well after midnight, the band finally came out. They were amazing. I think there were only seven players - 2 bandoneones, 1 piano, 1 keyboard, 2 violins, 1 upright bass, and a horn player (might have been the keyboardist) - but their sound was really rich. It sounded to me like an orchestra. The playing was great, with lots of drama and dynamic range (both tempo and volume.) I was surprised at the response from the crowd when they first started; the floor had been cleared and everyone stood or sat watching. Noboday danced for the first three numbers, after which two, then three, then several couples started dancing. Finally, the floor was packed again, but I thought it was interesting that it didn't fill up immediately when the band started playing. It was as if they all wanted to focus some attention on the players first. The audience was definitely very appreciative, and several people were filming. I took a snippet of video on my phone just to capture the sound.

By about 2:30, my feet were throbbing, and I decided it was time to go. The milonga lasts until 4 am, but I didn't want to force C to stay that late. He was shivering from the AC, and we were having difficulties navigating the floor when it was so packed. So we settled our drink bill and grabbed a taxi. Because there were others leaving at the same time, it took us at least three minutes to flag down a taxi. Usually, we get a cab within a minute. As we were getting into the cab, we saw a group of dancers spilling out of another one, on there way in to the dance. On a Tuesday night. These people are hard core.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Domingo in San Telmo

Day 5:

While planning this trip, Palermo was the destination of choice for C, but I've been more looking forward to San Telmo. Everything I've read about it made me think we'd feel at home there, and not just because it is known as the heart of Tango in Buenos Aires. It's also known as an artist district. San Telmo was once the richest neighborhood in town, until the wealthy fled during a yellow fever outbreak. It is now more of a working class neighborhood with a bohemian, artsy vibe, and fabulous old architecture hinting at the former wealth. In a way, it reminds me of parts of Capitol Hill in Seattle. Not in terms of architecture, but in terms of the vibe.

We had decided to check out San Telmo on the day when everyone else would be doing the same - namely the San Telmo market or street fair that happens each Sunday. I've never seen such a big fair. In truth, it could have been a few blocks shorter, because I started to see duplicates in the trinkets and bags on offer, but we enjoyed strolling the miles of vendor stalls. Correction: mile. I mapped it and it comes out to about a mile-long stretch of closed-off cobblestone street lined with vendors and completely packed with tourists and Portenos alike.

Very close to the beginning of our journey through this tchotchke bazaar, we stopped to watch an old tanguero who offered to dance with women in the crowd. We watched a few touristas stumble through some dance moves. Then C pulled out the camera and pushed me forward (like I needed any encouragement) so I could give it a whirl. The tanguero took my hand and held me in a very light, open embrace. We took a few steps, and he said a few incomprehensible words of encouragement. He the led a half ocho (is that called a cortado?) and smiled a big smile at me. He asked if I was Spanish, I think, but maybe he was asking if I speak Spanish? I said no, and he just smiled and said something like "ah well" as he led me in a few more figures. After a few bars, my turn was over and he sent me off with applause. Thus ended my first dance with a local. C got some great photos, but they're on the camera, and therefore not accessible right now. I'll post those when we return home.

The rest of the San Telmo day went well. We saw a lot of cool things, and purchased a few. After walking all the way up to Centro and back, we were tired, but not ready to head home. On the way, we stopped for coffee/tea at the first place that actually offered me an array of tea choices. It was a sweet little place that reminded me of my mother-in-law. It had cute little bistro tables, and it doubled as cafe and housewares shop, with nice vases and things along one wall. This was the first tea in Buenos Aires I've been able to enjoy without adding milk. After our drinks, we wandered further in the direction of a large park near the border of San Telmo and La Boca. I had read about a resto I wanted to check out in that hood. However, it was still late afternoon, and we needed to kill some time. We found a cool looking bar/cafe next to a large park, and had more drinks. This place was named after a hipopotamus, and had a big iron hippo up on one of the cabinets. C ordered a cervesa (beer) this time but I went for tea again, since it's the only thing without sugar, aside from water, that I can enjoy. I'm hoping to get some weight-loss benefit from all this walking, and loading up on sugar doesn't seem like the best strategy.

After drinks, we strolled around the park, in awe of the vitality of this city park. Unlike other city parks we've frequented, this place was full of people: kids running around playing games, families with small children, a large group of old men huddled around three chess games, and a smattering of smooching couples. I read somewhere that young people typically live with their parents until they get married, so they never have a place to go for marathon make-out sessions. This is where the parks come in handy. Sure enough, I don't think we've been to a park yet that didn't have at least one couple in a lip-lock.

By this time (around 7pm) the wind had kicked up, so we wanted to get into a warm place. We walked down to the street with the little restaurant I was looking for. I didn't remember the name, but I figured I'd find it based on knowing roughly where on the street it was. We did end up finding a place, but it wasn't the one I was looking for. We tried to order food, but for the first time since we arrived in BA, we were on "American" time instead of Argentine time. Restaurants do not open for dinner until at least 8/8:30, and we were trying to order dinner at roughly 7:30. Sorry, la cocina esta cerrada. So we decided to order mate service instead, while we waited for dinner time.

Mate is a strange drink. Interesting, but not particularly enjoyable to me. In fact, it tasted to me like a liquid cigarette. I am not the first person to make this comparison to tobacco. We munched on toast, drank a fews sips of this really bitter liquid (even after adding sugar) and looked at our photos to while away the hour before dinner service started. After drinking a fair bit of mate and the previous few cups of tea, I felt wired. I was glad when we could finally get to eating, and surprised to find that this all-vegetarian restaurant we stumbled into served the best bread we've had in BA. And the dishes we ordered were fantastic, and came as a welcome respite from the meat-centric diet found elsewhere in town. I would certainly go back - at the approved lunch or dinner hours.

A Day of rest

Day 6:

We designated Monday as a day of rest. After the marathon sight seeing of our first few days, we needed some time for upkeep. Agenda for the day: laundry, hang out at cafe and draw or write. The only real entertainment planned was to check out a tango class and practica in the evening.

We did manage to buy laundry detergent, and get our clothes cleaned. We also did some drawing and writing. We went to dinner in Palermo. Wound up at a place called Miranda, which had good standard parilla fare; we ordered bife de chorizo, grilled vegetables, and a baked potato. After dinner we wandered over to the practica. We had already missed the lesson by the time we set out for dinner, and both of us were feeling a little too tired to brave the milonga. So we looked at it and went home. The overarching goal being to rest, I think we accomplished what we set out to do for the day.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pure exhaustion

I'm getting a bit behind the times here, so I'm going to start condensing and collapsing. Condensing the posts, and collapsing from sheer exhaustion.

Day 3:

Things are beginning to blur together a bit. Day 3 was a Friday, and we walked up to a cafe called Clasica y Moderna for brunch. Actually lunch. Even after 5 days in town we still haven't managed to get up before 11 am. But this doesn't seem to be a problem. Classica y Moderna is a cute cafe with a bookstore in the back. Really nice "old-school" feeling to it. From there, we wandered our way back toward our apartment, taking in some of the shops in Barrio Norte and Recoleta along the way.

We decided to go out to the cabaret show at the theme-park like Faena "Hotel and Universe" in Puerto Madero, co-designed and art directed by famous architect & designer Phillipe Starck. The experience was exquisite, which is a good thing because it was also extremely expensive. Even by San Francisco standards. Let's just say that we dropped more money on this night than we did on my birthday a few years ago at Masa's. Those in the know will know what I mean.

The show itself was top notch - great tango dancing, and excellent musicians. One of the singers reminded both of us of our friend Adam in Seattle. The food was very good, although the lomo I had on our first night was definitely better. But that's to be expected at these tango shows. However, given that the meal reservation gave us access to a table right in front of the stage, I would say that it was well worth it.

Beyond the show, I can't even describe how amazing the rest of the space was. The theater was draped all around in red velvet and made me think of a David Lynch film. To get into the theater patrons walk down a very long hallway with several bars, a restaurant, and a gift shop along the way. The entire hallway has a long black velvet bench cutting up the middle. Looking into the restaurant next to the theater, I could see porcelain unicorn heads lining the walls, with white linens on the table. I can't do it justice, and didn't have my phone to take photos, so you'll just have to take my word for it. The effect was stunning and fantastical. The pool bar was also amazing in a completely different way. Nice and loungy.

Anyway, it's clear that the Faena-Stark team have built something exquisite and unique for the 1% to enjoy while not seeing anything else in Buenos Aires. Why bother checking out the bustling city when you could stay relaxed in your little bubble of a "Universe?"

Day 4:

After seeing Puerto Madero by night, we decided to walk there by day. The focus/highlight of the trek would be the Puente de la Mujer, designed by Santiago Calatrava. It was a long walk, made even longer by the little detour we made up through Plaza San Martin. It's a bit of a blur now, but I'm sure walked up into Microcentro in search of a specific cafe C read about in one of the guide books. I think we were also lured in by the prospect of seeing the inside of Casa Rosada, the presidential palace akin to our White House, only much cooler because it's Pink. :)

We walked through the gallery of the house, but decided not to get tickets and wait in line to gain further access. Instead, we walked back down to the river and crossed over to Puerto Madero. Along the way, we saw a lot of runners in Nike shirts that said "We Run Buenos Aires." Wondering if there had been a race earlier that day, we took a break at a waterfront tourist trap where we could enjoy views of the rivier and the famous pedestrian bridge. As we enjoyed our bebidas, we saw more and more of the runners making their way along the river. As we were paying our bill, we heard the cry of announcers over a loudspeaker somewhere across the river, and then we saw masses of runners moving along a parallel street. We made our way across the bridge, taking lots of photos, and toward the sound of the loudspeakers. As we got to the place where the race had started, we saw the runners near the front of the pack that were coming in to the finish. C said it was a 10K, and it appears the first runners completed it in under 40 mins. At least, I thought I could make out a clock at the finish line with a leading 4 in it. [Edited to add: I looked on the website and it appears the first runner clocked in at 28 minutes!]

Later that evening, when we got home and decided to veg in front of the TV, I got out my trusty google maps and calculated our wanderings. According to my calculations, we walked at least 10K in well over 4 hours. Maybe not as impressive as the run, but I felt some kinship with those runners. And as I made my way up the stairs to our loft bedroom, I definitely felt like I had run a race.

Las Observaciones de los Dias:
- Portenos are really into their 80's Americana. We've been to an "American Diner" in Palermo SoHo with impeccable 50's era furnishings, serving somewhat American-style milkshakes and food, and projecting 80's music videos on the wall. Almost every cab ride has featured some hits from the 80's on the radio, and we wandered into an entire mall devoted to American skate punk style, with lots of shirts and gear featuring bands like the Ramones. We've even heard a nuevo-tango version of Blue Monday by New Order.
- I do not look at all like a Porteno. This was made abundantly clear by the 3-4 year old girl from another apartment in our building who stared wide-eyed at me as we were passing in the hall. Her dad had to chide her not to stare.