I’ve been in Buenos Aires a few weeks already but at last realization has dawned. I must, simply must learn the tango. It seems inevitable, after my first Sunday evening, witnessing the couples at the Glorietta de Belgrano.
Better late than never, I now launch myself into the world of Tango.
Oaky, perhaps “Launch” is too strong a word. Maybe, I lurch into the world of tango…
Besides, my very first two lessons, which turn out to be the initial push I need, more or less drop into my lap.
The first comes one Thursday at the school where I do my Spanish lessons.
The school announces it is providing a teacher that afternoon, (the definite highlight of its somewhat-scanty cultural programme.)
In fact my next lesson also starts via a happy accident, although the accident doesn’t appear so happy at first…
Two day after my taste of tango, I walk out of the apartment on my way to the shops. In the very act of closing the door, my brian shouts that something is wrong, but as the lock clicks, it’s a fraction too late, I realise I’ve left my keys inside.
This is a little bit more serious than it sounds, because not only can I not get back into the flat; I can’t even get out of the flat complex.
The complex has two further locked gates, before one gains the street.
My housemate Nefta is twenty minutes away. But he has barely been gone that long. He has gone to download music in an Internet café somewhere and probably just arrived, and settled down into his table. I really feel like a complete twit; I don’t want to inconvenience him.
No, I will not disturb Nefta. He will be home later. Meanwhile, even if I can’t get back in, some neighbour will surely let me out.
There are twelve flats in total, arranged in a large rectangle around the courtyard.
I ring or buzz each of the other eleven doors.
Alas- somewhat surprisingly- not a single person seems to be at home. (Or perhaps they are hiding from me, who knows?)
I decide to get all Zen about it. I sit down in the shaded courtyard between the apartments, smoke a cigarette and wait. (Zen-like)
After about twenty minutes, nobody has appeared yet.
I can’t spend the entire day stuck in a courtyard. I’m not that Zen.
Very reluctantly, and very apologetically, I ring Nefta. He tells me twenty minutes.
I sit down, smoke another cigarette and wait. (Zen-like, again, of course).
Fifteen minutes later, a small, highly dynamic woman appears. This neighbour is called Maria Julia. She enquires after my well-being. I explain the sorry tale.
Maria Julia is short on neither energy nor compassion. Seizing the bull by the horns, she takes me directly to a small door just off the courtyard. Here is a little utility room, used by the porter/concierge.
Hanging on the walls are about thirty-five keys.
We grab all of them and try each one in turn in my door .
But, thanks to Maria Julia, I can now at least get out of the complex. So, (now feeling like a total muppet) I put through another call to Nefta.
Nefta is already more than halfway home – he decides to continue. I tell him I am currently chatting with our neighbour Maria Julia, of number 10.
Maria Julia now provides her next suggestion. She points out that the rooftop terrace of every apartment is accessible from the rooftop terrace of every other rooftop terrace.
She lets me out on her terrace, to try my luck.
Getting from Maria’s roof to our roof involves walking around ten of the other twelve houses, along a ledge.
This ledge has no rail or outer parapet. It hangs over a forty-foot drop, a yawning abyss, over the courtyard, four floors down below.
On balance, and as I consider this feat of balance, I’d rather wait for Nefta. But one does have one’s image to consider.
I’m somewhat nervous but I try to look unconcerned. I try instead to look suave. Perhaps like Carry Grant as a society cat burglar in the South of France. What was that film? “To Catch a Thief” ?
Or, no, hang on, maybe I look more cold and focused. Yes, that’s it, like Matt Damon outside the US Embassy in Berlin, in The Bourne Identity. Well, I’m not sure which, Cary or Matt. But I certainly look like one of those two. Probably.
Sweating nervously in raw terror, I edge and walk, very carefully and slowly around the edge. I am terrified.
At last, I get to our rooftop. I clamber over the low parapet off the ledge, away from the yawning abyss and onto the terrace.
I try the exterior door leading down to the apartment below.
Naturally it is locked shut. Thee is no way in.
My options are now either standing here up on the roof terrace, locked out of the flat, and roasting slowly in the burning sun. Or doing the ledge walk again. It’s a tight call.
Sweating nervously- but still looking like Jason Bourne outside the embassy in Berlin- I climb back over the parapet, back around ledge and the 40-foot drop and safely back to Maria Julia.
She kindly invites me in, for a cup of mate.
Maria Julia’s apartment is, of course, exactly the same as ours in size, and the mirror image in configuration.
In every other respect it is completely different.
Carlos’ flat is a second home, almost a holiday home, bought not that long ago. It is pleasingly sparse and uncluttered, almost minimal.
Maria Julia’s flat is her home. It is a treasure trove of antiques and old furniture, of floor to ceiling bookshelves. The walls hang thick with art: old and more recent paintings, prints and engravings, including her own.
Maria-J is an artist, an engraver and print maker, a maker of drawing and collages and other things. She also works as an animator, filmmaker, music- video-maker and as an art director on other people’s films.
On the kitchen level she, or she and her partner, have laid what looks like a waxed and polished red clay floor. I feel like I am in a Moroccan souk. They have stained or waxed the wooden walkways too, also a darker reddish brown; they have knocked out the ceiling to expose the bricks, and to create more space for the extra mezzanine level they have constructed.
We drink mate.
Oddly, this is my first taste of this important South American drink, ubiquitous around most of the continent. It’s like as if I’ve gone to Italy and waited two weeks before my first coffee. She shows me how to make and how to drink it properly.
We talk about Argentine history and Irish literature. Maria Julia seems to know a lot about Irish literature. A lot about Ireland in general in fact.
I ask Maria Julia where her partner is from and am slightly dumbfounded when she tells me he is from between Monkstown and Shankill.
This is more or less the south Dublin coastal suburbs I hail from. (My mother grew up in both Monkstown and Shankill oddly.)
Her partner’s name is Tony. He is an economist.
Meanwhile, Nefta arrives back. He lets me back into the flat to retrieve my keys. I thank him and apologise profusely. Nefta leaves again. I return by invitation to Maria Julia’s. We drink more mate.
She tells me she and Tony have made a film about Eliza Lynch, the 19th century Irish woman, and former courtesan, who met in Paris and later married the phenomenally wealthy but slightly mad ruler of Paraguay.
I blandly mention I know a little about Eliza Lynch, because I once read Anne Enright’s novel on her.
Maria is vaguely scathing about the novel.
Later two colleagues of Maria Julia’s arrive, a director and editor/ assistant director she is working with. We all go to supper, at Bar Poesia.
On the way I learn from the director that the film is about aliens who kidnap native women from the jungles of the Amazon, to put them on the catwalks of Paris and Milan.
When I enquire I learn this storyline is a metaphor for sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Ah, a delicate subject, I say (delicately; I hope.)
We sit upstairs in Bar Poesia. This is when I learn about the murdered journalist in the photo on the wall, the man with the Irish name, Walsh.
The following night Maria Julia invites me along with her and a girlfriend along to a Milonga.
The word Milonga means lots of things, including a type of music and a type of dance, but usually it signifies the old-fashioned dance halls dedicated to tango. Tango is also a word with a lot of meanings. It is not only the famous dance of that name, but an entire literary movement of poetry and music.
We arrive and climb the flights of stairs to the hall. This is a really nice Milonga, very traditional, with old fans on the high on the tall ceiling and nice old basic tables and chairs.
Nearly all the clientele are Porteños, always a good sign.
Oddly though our dance teacher is a young French woman.
She is an excellent teacher; knowledgeable; skilful; patient; a good communicator.
She is however something of a purist, with perhaps the convert’s love of purity, of authenticity. She makes me concentrate on one simple forward stepping motion, on the shape of my embrazzo (the embrace); on the correct space between the bodies, on breathing and leading with the chest, signally the all important intention with a forward pushing chest movement.
I don’t learn a single paso, a single step.
She is of course entirely correct; these things are vital and need to be learnt. But I am aching to have a few steps, to try and dance.
Beside this main hall upstairs is a small practice dance room.
The floor here is made of large glass tiles or bricks, each about a metre and a half square. The room is dark, but the old glass floor illuminated from the floor or courtyard far below.
It is slightly alarming, yet oddly wonderful, dancing on glass.
I won’t say it was like dancing on air.
Nobody could mistake my leaden steps for dancing on air. But then, I intend to improve.
As we are leaving the Milonga late that night, the old man who tends the ticket desk in the upstairs lobby tells us this house once belonged to the Lynch family. To the family, of the mother, of Che Guevara, in other words. With their distantly Irish ancestry, or maybe not so distant, I don’t know.
No doubt Che used to visit his grandparents here, on breaks from his medical study at the university. There are pictures of him all over the city, although more on the scale of posters, T-shirts, graffiti and fridge magnets, not the huge images ones sees all over large public buildings in Cuba, where he is still revered as a sort of deity.
Che Ernesto Guevara y Lynch.
A night or two after this tango outing, I meet Maria Julia’s partner Tony. Tony has just returned from a weeklong trip to the mountains of the distant north to visit a carnival there.
He brought his mother, who is visiting from Ireland.
The bus trip was 29-hours in total.
Understandably, Tony’s mum is resting upstairs.
Tony is an economist, here several years, researching and writing a masters’ thesis on default. His work compares Argentina’s 2001 collapse to Ireland’s present crisis and impending collapse. It argues Ireland badly needs to negotiate a de-fault, in a structured way, while we still have some bargaining power and before we simply run out of money an de-fault and collapse in an entirely unstructured way, with no bargaining power or assets left at all.
I am inclined to agree. Why should Iceland but not Ireland default? Why should generations of Irish children grow up in an impoverished state with ever-dwindling resources and opportunities, since the government decided to (or was bullied into) paying the losses of unsecured junior bondholders?
Tony doesn’t just argue for a structured de-fault. Some of his other proposals are even more radical, like re-writing the constitution and changing our legal code.
We argue slightly on a few details.
But I don’t want to talk about this stuff. I am holidays, dam it.
I am depressed with the gloom at home.
I am a melt-down-denier.
I am an ostrich.
We both agree it’s complicated.
Later, to cheer ourselves up, and continue my dance instruction, we go to another Milonga- Catideral.
Catideral is a fantastic place, an enormous, vaulted space as the name suggests, dark, looming, atmospheric, with a stage in between the two entrances. The centre of the room is a large wooden dance floor and several rows of tables and chairs around the other two sides. Facing the stage is a bar for food and drink. There is a huge heart hanging high up
Catideral is quite famous I learn; it’s in all the guidebooks.
I would know this, if only I had a guidebook.
We do our lesson. We have about an hour and a half and time flies. I finally learn, or at least half-learn, a few steps.
I feel clumsy and a little embarrassed but I enjoy myself.
After the lesson we settle at our table. We drink local wine and eat a few empanadas. I dance with Maria Julia.
Sitting at the table in front of us is a separate group of friends, including some very beautiful women and one pleasant looking chap.
I assume the whole group are Porteñas- Buenos Aires folk. But Maria and Tony knows one of the women. It turns out she is a Turkish woman, long resident in BA. Her friends are also all Turks, over on holidays visiting from Istanbul.
I dance with two of them. One is a very clever, funny woman who had a film production company in Istanbul. She sold it, bough a couple of apartments for income, then went to live in a stone cottage, on a tiny island in Greece. She is hilariously funny.
I chat with another of the group. Apart from looking like a curly-haired Pre-Raphaelite beauty, she is also a Yoga teacher and an architect.
I was in Istanbul once. It truly is one of the really great cities of the world, ancient and soaked in history and romance like Jerusalem or Rome, vast and metropolitan like London or New York.
I really must go again.
Perhaps that’s the problem with traveling.
Once you go somewhere good, like here, you want to go everywhere good.