Monday, November 15, 2010

The good, the magical and the ugly tango

Evening milongas at Confitería Ideal are definitely on my dislike list. The matinees are tolerable on, say, a Monday afternoon when there are few milongas to choose from, but at night…good grief. 
Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the architectural beauty and history of the venue itself, and I recommend a visit by any person seeing Buenos Aires for the first time (tanguero or simply tourist), but that's also part of the problem. The venue is always full of gawkers.

Tango instructors prey on the tourists like vultures to road kill. The dance floor is sprinkled with the tourists who took their first tango lesson in the afternoon and have decided, unwisely, that they can brave a turn on a Baires dance floor—awkward and also dangerous. Local men (who should know better) make verbal invitations instead of using the cabeceo. Overall, the quality of dancing is disappointing. For entertainment value, however, Ideal also features the oh-my-God-I-can't-keep-my-eyes-off-this-train-wreck kind of tango, performed by a few “characters” from town—regulars that are a spectacle to see.

Against my better judgment, I agreed to meet a porteña friend of Matthew's last Saturday at Ideal. I was glad to go because I had not had the opportunity to meet Sofia before, but even in her email she promised, "The dancing is not so good, but perhaps you will find ONE good candidate." On the upside, there would be live music by Los Reyes del Tango and a performance by Coco and Osvaldo.

In hindsight, I should have left my dance shoes at home and just enjoyed the entertainment value of the place. One thing about Ideal, you won't offend anyone by breaking out your camera and taking some video of the dance floor. While frowned upon at the traditional venues unless there is a performance, at Ideal anything goes, which is probably why the characters choose to dance here.

I will share these oddities with you, but only if you promise to watch the above link of Coco and Osvald which captures the authentic Argentine tango I love.

The couple in this video rival another couple that frequent Ideal, Julian and Alicia who Matthew and I find endearing. Julian and Alicia have a "Golden Age" elegance to them in spite of their outrageous dance moves, where as this other couple is just out-and-out garish and strange. The clip is short and doesn't quite capture the full picture so let me help. 

She is donning a black corset that attaches at the crotch and rides up at the hips leaving a gap of skin at her red skirt waist. Safety pins keep the pieces from falling completely apart. Her snagged and running thigh-high stockings end at her butt cheeks—the true stars of the show. Spoiler alert: Let's just say she is not wearing her granny panties like a proper lady.

This is Julian and Alicia. Matthew introduced himself to them last year because we were so intrigued by earnestness. Their dancing in this particular clip is tame compared to their usual action. She will often do half splits, pelvic gyrations and deep knee bends all the way down to the floor while shimming her shoulders. They really are sweet people, are obviously dedicated to their craft, and I hope this clip at least illustrates what I mean by “Golden Age elegance.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Making the change

I am feeling a little bitchy today.

I am usually on edge when my stash of small bills starts to dwindle. When I realized today that I was on my last $10 peso bill, and only have $100 peso notes left in my stock-pile, I had to start scheming.

You never want to be without small bills in this town. Paying for something with a $100 peso bill for anything that costs less than $50 pesos is a humbling experience. It seems that vendors would rather turn down your business than make change for your $100. Even a $50 peso note will get you a look if you are buying something for less than $20 pesos.

As petty as this seems, it gets stressful when you want to buy a banana licuado for $6 pesos at the kiosco on the corner or asparagus for $5 at the produce stand and realize you only have a $50 note. I am to the point now that I don’t even bother to try. Some vendors will begrudgingly make the change after a lengthy hem-and-haw session, but the shame I feel later for taking their small bills is so not worth it. (Damn that Catholic guilt.)

Nothing is worse than wanting to go to a milonga and realizing you only have a $100 peso bill. I once was forced to wait at the door of a milonga for 15 minutes waiting for them to make change for my $100. I felt like a naughty child caught lying to the teacher and forced to stand in the corner with a dunce cap on. Twice I have had to ask for change from fellow tangueros to avoid this situation. Now, I just don’t go out if I don’t have change, it’s not worth the stress.

To put this into perspective, a $100 Argentine peso note is roughly equivalent to $25 U.S. Most milongas cost $20 pesos (about $5 U.S.). Can you imagine getting the third degree from any cashier in the U.S. for trying to make a $4 purchase with a $20 bill? 

When my small bill stash starts to dwindle, I usually head to the big chain grocery store in my neighborhood, Carrefour. Their cashiers have never given me trouble with making change, although I usually break a $100 by making at least a $20 purchase. Today, however, I had lots of provisions to purchase so I brought two $100 peso bills just in case my purchase was over $100.

When the total came to $103, my heart sank. Add to the situation that I stupidly forgot to leave the one $10 bill I had at home and absentmindedly pulled it out with my big bills when I went to pay. Seeing the smaller bill, the cashier handed back one of my $100s and asked me to provide the smaller bill. Crap.

“No.” I said, “Necesito el cambio.”  (I need the change.)

She stared at me. “How dare you!” She said to me with her eyes, “You can’t expect me to give you $97 pesos in change!” I stared back, held my ground. I can be a stubborn bitch when I have to be, and I wasn’t about walk out the door with fewer small bills than I came in with.

She finally sighed, rolled her eyes and called a manager over to bring more small bills. They both made sure it took a few minutes and whispered to each other as I stood waiting. The man in line behind me groaned. He was probably a tourist because Argentines are used to this crap.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Swimming in my head...

In the last week or so, I've noticed that my brain seems to be processing my thoughts more slowly. No, I am not tired. I am entre (in between) two languages and am finding it muy difícil (very difficult) to process ambos (both).

When I am on the phone with my family or a client from the U.S., I find myself stuttering slightly while my brain tries to process and speak English. Inglés for goodness sake! My native language. But the words just don't come readily anymore as my brain tries to automatically replace English words with Spanish words if I know the translation. I think of it as "owning" the word. If I know a Spanish word confidently, I own it, and therefore want to make use of it to reinforce my retention.

Some words, like "process" or "client" or "telephone," that are spelled similarly in English to the Spanish word (proceso o cliente o teléfono), look a little foreign now printed in my native tongue. As you can see, even as I write this, I find myself wanting to replace many English words and phrases with their Castellano counterparts. I've edited mucho out, but I've left some of these exchanges in my text (with translations in parenthesis) so you can see what I mean. I've done this from time-to-time since I have been here, especially in texts to Matthew when the Spanish word is shorter, saving my text characters so I can squeeze as much as I can into one message. Now, however, I realize this has become so frequent in my writing and spoken language that I have to be very careful when I send emails and speak to clients. Spanish slips in when I don't pay attention.

Por ejemplo (for example), yesterday I said to a client, "Es lo mismo," instead of saying, "It's the same." "Perdon," I then said, instead of "I'm sorry." It seems normal now to use these words, until I realize the other party has no idea what I am saying.

Todo el dia (all day), I subconsciously translate Castellano to English, English to Castellano, making mental notes of the Spanish words I don't know, or am not sure of. Trying to commit to memory new vocabulary and colloquial expressions. I need to own more words. I desire fluidity. Aha, just now another example. I would normally say "I want to own" and "want fluidity" but my brain just processed "necesito" more words and "deseo" fluidity because I have difficulty remembering and pronouncing "quiero" (I want) and often confuse it with "creo" (I believe). So my grammatical limitations in Castellano are now also dictating my choice of words in English. 

¡Ay dios mío! (Oh my God!) Espero que (I hope that) this means fluidity is just around the corner. It would be nice to have a conversation con (with) un porteño before I leave in December without having to say "No entiendo" (I don't understand) or "Hablás más despacio, por favor. Hablo un poquito de castellano." (Speak slowly, please. I speak very little Castalleno.)

Sólo puedo esperar. I can only hope.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Today was Censo Argentina 2010. Census day. Unlike the U.S. where we drag out the census compilation over months, Argentines shut down their entire country for 12 hours and mandate that people stay home until they have been counted by the censistas. I was no exception.

In a way, I live in a sort of bubble here in Buenos Aires, oblivious to the bigger world around me. Being a foreigner without competent languages skills puts you into survival mode. I focus on my day-to-day activities: Go to school. Maintain my business. Dance tango.

I am not completely unaware, but my tactic is to watch and learn, rather than inquire. I find that asking questions only leads to frustration when the answer does not turn out to be "" or "no." My brain turns to dulce de leche when I have no clue what people are saying to me. Slight obliviousness, I find, is a much easier state of being.

Luckily, Spanish teacher Fernanda keeps her students well informed and warned us yesterday to go grocery shopping as there would be nothing open today. Nada. No cafés, no supermercados. Everyone will be at home waiting to be counted, she explained.

Sure enough, all was quiet on the streets of Buenos Aires this morning and at about 10 o'clock, the censista buzzed my door. The questions were in Spanish; I understood little. Luckily, I have a sweet, non-English-speaking portera (sort of like a superintendent) in my building that accompanied the censista to my apartment and answered most of the questions for me. Number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Are there utilities? The usual census stuff, I think. I answered regarding my date of birth, where I was from and that I used a cell phone and computer. And that was that.

At about 8 o'clock tonight, a swirl of activity began on the streets outside. It was like rush hour only worse. The porteños must be antsy from being cooped up all day. I decided to take a little walk myself and see if my favorite heladeria was open. It was not, but I observed an enormous mass of people walking toward Plaza de Mayo which I live only a few blocks away from.

Must be protesters peeved about the way the census was handled, I thought. But they seemed a little more subdued than the usual Argentine protests I've witnessed. Lots of people had their kids with them, and there was no banging of drums, chanting or clanking of pots and pans. Maybe it's just an after-census celebration? I wandered around a bit to get a feel for it. Calm. A few banners and signs I couldn't read other than the name "Kirchner" which I know to be the president.

Realizing that I still needed to satisfy my sweet tooth, I ventured for the only open café I could find. It was crammed with people, but I found a tight spot at the bar, ordered a banana licuado and glued my eyes to the television which was fixed on the news.

Suddenly, I realized where I was. "Murio Nestor Kirchner," the TV headlines read. Holy cow, the president's husband is dead (I think)! Is it possible I've been wandering around a vigil for the former president (and first-husband), Nestor Kirchner, completely oblivious?

I finished my licuado which somehow ended up being peach instead of banana, but still delicious. (Note to self, work on your Spanish enunciation.) I went home, turned on the TV, and poked around on the internet. Yep. Kirchner died of a heart attack this morning.

Hard to say how this will impact the country as he still had his hand in politics via his wife, the current president, and he himself was expected to run for president again in the next election. Some view him as the savior of the Argentine economy after it crashed in 2001ish. Others see him as the puppet master of his wife's presidency. This already shaky country may get a little bit more unsteady after this turn of events.

My own state of obliviousness has also been shaken a bit. Time to pay more attention to the world around me, I guess. Time to be brave and start asking some questions. My first one, a yes or no question. Did Kirchner get counted in the census? Just curious.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Scratching the surface

A disheveled, elderly woman cuts in front of me as I wait in the lengthy reception queue at the clinic of Hospital Alemán. I look around to see if perhaps I missed something and if, in fact, I may have cut in front of her somehow. She turns to me, embarrassed and wide-eyed as she realizes it was, indeed, her mistake.

She rambles something to me in Castellano, which I understood to be an apology and an offer for me to return to my rightful place in line. I shake my head and gesture that she can remain ahead of me and meekly explain, “Hablo un poquito español.  Her eyes grow even wider.

For the next few minutes, as we waited in line, we had a tiny dialog in Castellano. She wondered how I was going to tell the doctor of my ailment if I didn't speak Spanish fluently. She worried for my health. I told her I hoped the doctor might speak a little English and that my issue was minor, not an emergency. I would be fine, I assured her. She seemed unconvinced.

The surface of Buenos Aires is pretty grimy and sad. Homeless families commingle with the monstrous piles of trash on the streets. The colectivos spit chunky black exhaust in your face, leaving your lungs congested and coating the buildings with greasy soot. Inflation is so ridiculous that even I have noticed the price increases already. 

Yes, of course, the newness has worn off; I've been here over a month. It's easy to see the shortcomings of a country that has seen very difficult times. But that's not why I am here.

Tango? Yes, I can tango anytime of day, and that’s nice. But, honestly, tango isn’t the only reason for me to want to stay here or even to return. Baires is so much more than tango, even to me now.

Many, many wonderful things about Buenos Aires when you look beyond the grime and grit. Elegant architecture. Delicious empanadas, dulce de leche helado (ice cream) and malbec. Traffic stopping cultural events to stumble upon like a symphony at the base of the Obelisk on a random Saturday, or the ten-hour (no exaggeration) parade of costumed Bolivianos dancing down Avenida de Mayo last Sunday. The Subte can get you across town in under 30 minutes (when there isn’t a labor strike) for about a quarter. But, if you dig just a little deeper than the superficial surface, you will find the real gems of this town. The people.

Ah, yes! ¡La gente de Argentina! ¡Los porteños de Baires! The people of this amazing place are my reason to love this city more everyday. On first  impression,
 porteños seem to be a rather dour citizen—understandable considering all the troubles they have had to bear over the years. (They are used to getting shit on by their government, quite frankly.)

Argentines rarely smile at you on the street, although they will stare pretty intently. They don't greet you enthusiastically when you walk into a store or restaurant; you may get a "Buen día," on occasion, but don't expect much more than that. Even the street vendors are a melancholy crowd compared to their overly aggressive counterparts in, say, Mexico or Jamaica.

However, when you have the chance to converse with an Argentine, even for just a few moments, even in very broken Castellano, you become their friend. They develop a genuine interest and concern for you, as if for a member of their family. Upon introduction, they welcome total strangers with a warm embrace and kiss on the cheek. Even men to men. Even doctor to patient. They are very touchy people. Kind, warm and loving. You just have to scratch the surface a bit.

Thirty minutes after my little conversation with the elderly porteña in the clinic queue, she found me still sitting in the lobby awaiting my consultation. She approached me, kissed me on the cheek, held my hand, looked me in the eyes and assured me all would be well.

"Todo está bien," she repeated several times, pointing at me to make sure I understood that she meant I would be fine.

"Sí, sí, señora, estoy muy bien," I nodded and smiled back to assure her I was definitely O.K. In the back of my mind, I ran through the short conversation we had earlier to see if I may have mistakenly told her in my broken Castellano that I was dying of a dreadful illness. But no, she is just a concerned Argentine. I scratched her surface and, just like her city, what I find is sparklingly brilliant.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My mates and mate

Yesterday, a chilly, spring-time-in-Argentina day, my classmates and I got a happy warm-up with a surprise from nuestra profesora, Fernanda, when we returned from our 11 o'clock recreo (recreational break). I was so excited when I saw her purplish thermos and small wooden cup sitting in front of her, filled with green herbs and silver straw standing on end in the middle. Fernanda, who looks like Eva Mendes and makes us all speak solamente castellano while we are in class, was smiling. I knew what this meant.

I suddenly got goose bumps from anticipation. After four whole weeks in Argentina, I thought this day would never come. And here it was, my first time! Fernanda was about to share with me and my classmates one of the most ingrained traditions of Argentina—the sharing of yerba mate.

If you know an Argentine, chances are they drink yerba mate (pronounced share-buh mah-teh). It is the drink of choice (over coffee or tea) for 90 percent of Argentines, but from what I can see on the street, I believe that statistic is wrong. It must be at least 98 percent.

Yerba mate and the traditional gourds, bombillas (silver straws with a filter on the end) and thermoses used to serve the drink are carried everywhere in Buenos Aires, everyday. Instead of carrying a Starbucks coffee in hand like we do in the states, Argentines carry their thermos of water tucked under their arm. If you pass a building with a security guard, he or she usually has a gourd with silver straw nearby. I have rarely been to a milonga where I didn't see at least one milonguero with a thermos and gourd sitting on their table, and if there is a restroom attendant, she is inevitably sipping mate as she doles out the toilet paper and paper towels. Vendors sell it on the street and all of the supermercados have almost an entire aisle dedicated to the herbs. (You only have two brands of toilet paper to choose from in Baires, but about 50 brands of yerba mate.)

An Argentine home is not complete without at least one gourd and bombilla, including my own apartment. I was also furnished with an electric water pitcher to make preparation quick and easy. I have been anxious to try out my supplies if the time ever came.

So now you are probably wondering why the heck I didn't just go out and buy myself some herbs. Got the equipment. It's readily available. What's the big deal?

Well, you see, I am a bit of a traditionalist and yerba mate is the drink of friendship. Although the Argentines drink it on their own, it is traditionally meant to be shared by friends, from the same cup and bombilla, along with a great conversation.

I wanted my first try to be an authentic experience. I didn't want to just order mate in a café or ask the grocer at the corner market how to make it. I wanted an Argentine friend (or at least a knowledgeable expat) to make it for me, to tell me how they like it best, to show me how they make it, and then have a great conversation about love, and life, and philosophy. At the very least, I hoped that I may happen to be seated at a milonga with a group of friendly women that just happened to be sharing mate and were willing to offer it to the yanqui.

But, I have to be honest. As much as I pondered about the ritual of drinking mate, I never thought I would actually like the drink. I am not a tea drinker, and I do not like coffee. My drink of choice has always been water, and since yerba mate is usually described as "bitter," I really couldn't imagine acquiring a taste for it.

Fernanda filled the little wooden gourd with water and passed it first to Grant from New Zealand on her right. "No, gracias," he said, shaking his head, cheeks turning crimson, "no me gusta."

"You've tried it before?" Fernanda asked, in Castellano. "Try just a taste of mine," she urged, "everyone makes it different, you might like it this time."

He took a quick sip, made a face, shook his head again, ears crimson now, too, and passed it on to Australian Bridget. Fernanda gave a big laugh.

Bridge tasted, stifled a yucky face, giggled and then tried to pass it back to Fernanda with a "Muy bien, gracias." 

Fernanda continued to laugh. "No," she explained, passing it back to Bridget, "you drink until the liquid is gone and then I refill it and pass it to the next friend." Bridge sipped again, her blue eyes suddenly reflecting a connection to the tradition. She smiled, and finished the small pool of herb infused water.

Fernanda took the cup and filled it with more water. She then handed it to Brazilian Carla. Mate is popular in parts of Brazil as well, but Carla admitted she wasn't too keen on it. She was, however, respectful of the ritual and sipped her portion with a smile, too, before passing it on to Tilde from Sweden.

As the gourd was passed around from classmate to classmate with varying degrees of approval, I anticipated my own reaction. Would it be horrible, I wondered? How bitter is bitter? These people are all coffee drinkers and they are making faces. What am I going to think?

Suddenly, Irish Brian next to me was finished, and with a quick fill up from Fernanda, it was my turn. I put my lips around the silver straw and took a small sip, unsure. The bombilla warmed to almost too hot as the liquid rose through metal, passed my lips to my tongue. I, too, smiled, surprised by its sweetness.

"¡Es muy bien!" I exclaimed, and then tried to put sentences together to explain myself.

First, I wanted to describe the flavor, like a green tea, but richer, more flavorful, distinctive. Spicier, perhaps. I wanted to tell Fernanda how excited I was to finally be able to share this ritual. To let her know that I was honored to be served by her and thrilled to be sharing this experience with my seven classmates from all around the world. I wanted to thank her for sharing such a brilliant tradition in a way that could not be more special and memorable. I wanted to gush! I wanted to be eloquent! Crap.

With only four weeks of lessons in Castellano (OK, four weeks plus over four years of Spanish between high school and college over 16 years ago), I could only piece together something like, “¡Yo no tomo té o café, solamente agua. Pero es está ¡muy bien!”

Fernanda, kindred spirit that she is, read the exclamation marks in my spoken phrases. She understood what my enthusiasm meant, in spite of my lack of vocabulary and sound grammar. She beamed at me as I finished up my turn, passed the gourd back to her for a refill and then handed it over to my fellow estadounidense, Chris. 
Fernanda explained that she uses peppermint infused yerba, as she showed us the bag, and sweetens the water when she puts it in the thermos so the outcome isn't bitter. She shared with us the benefits of mate—how it is good for the immune system and the digestive tract, and that it is a natural appetite suppressant and gives you “mucho energía.”

For the next hour-and-a-half, we passed around the little gourd from amigo to amigo, mate to mate, Fernanda refreshing the herbs as necessary, using the filter at the end of the bombilla to remove the depleted yerba and prepare each fresh batch. Annie, the other Swede, shared her cookies, and Carla dug out two packages of crackers from her backpack to pass around.

Our conversation passed from yerba mate to our favorite love songs and movies, our families and beloved pets, the culture of our countries and Johnny Cash. We spoke in broken Castellano, none of us, other than Fernanda, native speakers, but we all understood each other. And we all appreciated the importance of great conversation, mates and mate.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

¡Chau, mi amiga!

Carmen was my first friend in Buenos Aires. We met at a milonga two weeks ago and bonded over our misadventures in the tango scene. She was here for a month and left today to go back to her home in Montreal.

We had a good time eating and drinking too much and schlepping from milonga to milonga. She introduced me to the Abasto Coto (the BsAs version of Super Target) and La Cabrera (a super swanky steakhouse in Palermo Soho with Argentine prices); I tried helping her master the cabeceo and loaned her my Happy Tango guidebook.

I mentioned when I first arrived in Baires that commiserating is like breathing. For the past week, Carmen helped me breathe again. We were in the same boat—solo women trying to navigate this crazy tango world. I will miss her company. ¡Chau, mi amiga!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Milongas, money and a new pair of shoes

What a relief to have cash again! Two weeks with no ATM card in a city where cash (in small bills) is the preferred method of payment, often the only accepted method of payment, put me on a pretty tight budget. I celebrated the delivery of my long awaited PIN with a trip to Comme Il Faut on Wednesday afternoon. 

Not sure exactly when I turned into a woman willing to shell out over 100 U.S. dollars for a pair of shoes, but it happened somewhere between the first time I heard DiSarli over two years ago and the day I first walked into a tango shoe store in Buenos Aires last year. The flashy colors, glitter and smell of new leather somehow re-wired my brain. In my defense, a good pair of dancing shoes (even with three-inch heels) really does make the difference in foot comfort when dancing for hours on end.

Comme Il Faut shoes are highly regarded in the tango community, but I had no luck last year finding the perfect pair. My trip to the tiny boutique in Recoleta this week was a little different. The first pair presented to me ultimately ended up being the one I chose, but not before trying on over a dozen pairs ranging from simple to shiny, glittery to down right gaudy. (Honestly, some are just plain tacky and ugly.)

After plunking down $500 pesos (you can do the math, and I did get a $20 peso discount for paying in cash) for my pink, turquoise and black patent leather beauties with a tulip design on the heel, I did start to feel a little guilty. First, I really am not a woman that splurges on frivolity. Designer names have never been my thing. I shop clearance racks for clothes and, prior to my trip last year, had never spent more than $25 on a pair of shoes. Well, maybe $50 for my first few pairs of ballroom dance shoes, but I found them to be a poor substitute for a quality leather Argentine tango shoe. Second, the economy in Argentina is bad. Most Argentines don't have $500 pesos for dance shoes. It feels a little "rude American" to strut around at a milonga in a brand new pair Comme Il Fauts.

I texted my reservations to Matthew as I waited for the Subte, my sleek Comme Il Faut bag in hand; the locals gawking at my billboard of shame. "Too fancy for the town they were born in?" He replied. "They should be ashamed." Still, I thought, perhaps I should just save them for when I get back to the states. That didn't happen.

My new Comme Il Fauts got a double dip in the milonga pool that night when my friend Carmen and I went to Salon Canning after discovering that the quality of dance partners at Confitería Ideal on a Wednesday evening was down right horrendous. My urge to break-in my new purchase won out over my sense of decency. Tourist venues, is my partial justification. My shoes really didn't stand out amidst the other Comme Il Fauts, Neo Tangos, and other top-dollar dance sandals on the floor. I am employing Argentines by buying and using them, right? (Big sigh.) Or maybe I really am just another rude American.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The walk to mi escuela

Every weekday I walk about 3/4 of a mile from my apartment to my Spanish language school. I take different routes everyday and it's a delight to discover what's around the next corner. Here are some favorites...

I start my daily walk down these three flights of stairs in my apartment building. I do worry about taking a tumble since I am usually running late.

 Not so much greenery in my barrio (neighborhood), but this gentleman is out every weekend mowing and pruning this tiny plot of vegetation located just across the street and a few doors down from my building. Such dedication.

 This is the Supermercado that has scary dairy and questionable meat products. I steer clear of those. I do buy my 6-liter jug of water from here every week because it's my closest market. Six-liters is heavy so you gotta buy close to home. I have several other nicer grocers in the area to choose from when I need to stock up on provisions. 

Right across the street from the scary market is Iglesia de San Juan Bautiste. It's a beautiful structure. Devout Argentines cross themselves as they pass churches. Being a recovering Catholic myself, I find that amusing to watch.
 I risk life and limb everyday by crossing the infamous Avenida 9 de Julio. It is one of the widest streets in the world.

 If you count Lima and Bernardo de Irgoyen, the streets that flank it on either side, 9 de Julio is 20 lanes wide. On several occasions I've meant to count myself, but I always get distracted. I will try again tomorrow. 

Three medians help keep pedestrians safe from the insane amount of traffic coming from all directions. I am only able to make it 3/4 of the way across in one go. I am going to try to get all the way across some day. I did watch a man make in one light, but he was sprinting. (This median probably had grass in its better days.)

When you are standing in the middle of the chaos whizzing by, you can calmly enjoy a great view of the Obelisk. And get an update of the traffic up ahead.

Or enjoy this statue of Don Quixote near the corner of Avenida de Mayo.

The architecture in Baires is reminiscent of Paris. Lots of wrought iron and stone detail.

If you don't look up once in a while, you miss some of the most gorgeous parts of the city.

Unfortunately, you also have to spend a lot of time looking down. Walking is hazardous in this town. You may survive 9 de Julio only to get gobbled up by a hole in the sidewalk. As careful as I try to be, I stumble almost everyday and worry about twisting an ankle. Not a pretty fate for a tanguera.

If I take the route down Avenida de Mayo on a clear day, I get an amazing view of El Congreso.

 I just find it funny that they have a place called Wini Dogs. This is one place I will not be eating at.

Next to the entrance of my school is this painted plaque. I think it says, "On this site stands the house in which Carlos Gardel lived in Buenos Aires from 1893-1900." (To my Castellano speaking friends, feel free to correct my translation.) This a happy coincidence; Gardel is sort of the patron saint of tango.

This is Rolando, the school's cheery doorman. He greets me every morning with this bright smile when I arrive and bids me "Ciao" when I leave.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yo estoy enferma.

My body is rebelling against me. It seems that whenever I travel, especially to a different climate, I end up with some sort of cold, flu, sinus congestion thingy. It starts with the sniffles and ends up a hacking, congested cough and sore throat. Miserable.

Since my condition has been putting a damper on my tango activities, I decided it was time to seek a doctor before I feel any worse.

I was teensy bit concerned about getting medical treatment. You never know what the facilities and staff are going to be like in a foreign country. Hordes of sick people crowded into a dank, smelly waiting room. Quack doctors speaking broken English, prescribing unnecessary testing to cheat the unsuspecting foreigner. Impatient nurses with unwashed hands reusing thermometers without sanitizing first. Who knows. Argentina is a pretty modern city, but their economy is bad; so too may be their health care system.

I needn't have worried. Hospital Alemán (to us English speakers, that translates to German Hospital) came highly recommended by Sallycat in my favorite Buenos Aires guidebook Happy Tango. I also contacted my traveler's medical insurance carrier to see if they had any suggestions for health care providers. They, too, recommended Alemán. A third recommendation came from a friend on Facebook (thanks again Van), and Fernanda, mi profesora de español, confirmed this hospital was "muy bien." Score. I was going to the German Hospital. (Uh, the one in Argentina.)

Excellent choice. Alemán was located a few blocks from a Subte (subway) line that I could easily access from school. When I arrived, I was quickly signed in by a gentleman who spoke just enough English and was patient with my broken Spanish. We understood each other well enough to get me registered. My time spent in the bright waiting area was only a few minutes. 

The doctor looked just like my brother-in-law, Mike, who is also a doctor. This doctor, however, spoke English with an Argentine accent, not a mild southern drawl like Dr. Mike, or even a German accent for that matter. He prescribed meds for my symptoms, recommended lots of rest and fluids and sent me on my way. The whole experience took about a half-hour and only cost 148 pesos (about $37 U.S.).

OK, so this excursion turned out to be a not-so-exciting-adventure, but, hopefully, it will help get me to a milonga tomorrow night.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Enjoy your adventure. Intrepid tanguera.

Saturday is date night in Buenos Aires, I've been told. A single girl at a milonga stands little chance of dancing. The Argentines only dance with their own ladies on date night, which means no wandering eyes to embrace others.

It is strange to not dance on Saturday night since that is the only night to tango in Orlando. Every Saturday, almost without fail, Matthew and I dress up and head to El Patio de la Morocha for the weekly milonga.

Last night, Matthew Skyped me as he was getting ready to go to the Patio solo and expressed regret that I wouldn't be with him. It made our hearts heavy, but I encouraged him to go and enjoy the dancing. It's the least I could do since he has been so supportive of me.

In June, just over a year ago, I started getting emails from an acquaintance I knew only casually from dancing at the Patio. Would I like to practice with him, he wondered. It made me nervous. I was still in the process of divorce and just getting over a dance partnership gone bad. He persisted and we became sort of pen pals.

In the midst of my chaotic life, I booked a three-day trip to New York City to dance tango with strangers. (If you can't get to Buenos Aires to tango, the next best place is NYC.) It was the first time I traveled alone to a destination that didn't have family or friends on the other end.

When I detailed the plan to my pen pal, Matthew, he expressed admiration and encouragement for my bravery in pursuing the NYC tango scene. "Enjoy your adventure. Intrepid tanguera," he wrote.

His words throughout my trip, and then after I returned home, gave me comfort and courage during one of the most difficult times in my life. That support continued as our relationship blossomed from pen pals to dance partners to committed couple.

Matthew breathed life into the dreams that I had in my head and helped create more aspirations for me than I thought possible. He spoke passionately about traveling the world. Of going to Buenos Aires to live. To learn Castellano. To tango any time of the day or night. To learn tango from the masters of our art. To dance with the milongueros whose hearts beat to the rhythms of Gardel and Di Sarli.

Now that our hearts and lives are so intertwined, my living this dream is bittersweet for both Matthew and me. Everyday I wish he was here, but the timing wasn’t right for him, and I needed to stop putting off what I should have done years ago. But he still encourages me everyday to enjoy the adventure.

My first week in Buenos Aires was in no way void of snags. I struggle with day-to-day communication with the locals. I lost my ATM card. I've been fighting the cold I always get when I travel to a new climate. I've confronted loneliness on a level I have never felt before. 

But in spite of these obstacles, maybe because of these burdens, I have also experienced moments of sincere joy and happiness. I have been invited to dance by the dreamed-of Argentine milongueros. I am learning (slowly) to speak their language. I have been encouraged in my 
dancing abilities by teachers I admire. I have been inspired by the city itself—its people, its beauty, its spirit.

My happiest moment of the week, however, would have come whether I was in Buenos Aires or not. I became an aunt again. Mariella Joon was born on Monday morning to my brother, Richie and his wife, Stephanie. And in spite of being almost 5000 miles away, I was thrilled to be able to see her in action for the first time via Skype yesterday. She is beautiful.

My wish for her is that she will have big dreams for herself. That she will always know that she has people in her life that love and support her. That she will never underestimate what she is capable of. I hope she is able to pursue whatever passions and dreams she fancies.

Enjoy your adventure. Sweet baby girl.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hola, Argentina. No hablo español.

Living your dream comes with a huge dose of reality. And reality is not always a nice bubble gum flavored sugary syrup that makes you feel better instantly with its wonderful placebo effect. Instead, reality tastes like the battery acid liquid you have to drink before a colonoscopy and has unspeakable side effects. (If you've never had one, trust me, it's not pretty.) And, just like that nasty stuff, you have no choice but to drink the whole gallon.

I have traveled to many non-English speaking countries in the past. Goodness, I've even been to Buenos Aires before, so I am a bit familiar with the way things tick around here. But it's a completely new dynamic when you're not with someone else to share the experience. A companion that you can look at, shrug your shoulders and giggle with when the taxi driver keeps talking to you in Castellano even though you have told him, "No hablo español." It's nice to have someone in the same boat with you. Already, I miss commiserating. Commiserating, like breath, is a natural human function, I think. It validates.

Since I arrived in Buenos Aires a little over 12 hours ago, I've also realized how much I take basic communication for granted in everyday life. The smallest bits of information are so difficult to convey. Like asking for matches at the grocery store so you can light your gas stove and make dinner. Or trying to explain to the apartment manager over the phone that there is a beeping sound coming from somewhere in the apartment like a smoke detector battery dying, but the smoke detector is too high to reach and you don't have a ladder to check it out. (Come to find out it was actually a carbon monoxide censor with a bad battery that was easier to get to. And for your own future reference, I think I have discovered that the translation for carbon monoxide to Spanish is carbon monoxide.)

It's all so exhausting. Especially when you're functioning on only five hours of restless, red-eye flight sleep. (And when I say "you," I really mean me.) This was my day.

Not to mention I had to drag two seasons worth of provisions (a.k.a. three heavy suitcases and a backback full of clothes, toiletries and a laptop) through the street to a café to wait 30 minutes for the owner of my apartment to arrive and let me in. Then I couldn't get a clear call to a client on Skype today so after four attempts I finally called her on my cell phone, which probably cost me a million dollars. (She was very chatty.) I stepped in a mystery puddle (the skies are blue, no rain in sight) on my way to my Spanish school and got sticky mud (I hope it was mud) all over the cuffs of my only pair of jeans (I packed light, really I did). And the grocery store nearest me has scary dairy (past expiration dates on the yogurt) and seems a little creepy. Yep, still my day.

I admit, tears have been shed, some physically and some just on the inside. Some from loneliness. From aggravation and frustration. Sleep deprivation. A couple times from relief and the kindness of strangers. Like when the café owner saw me struggling outside with my suitcases and lugged them up the steps for me without hesitation. And when another customer at the scary grocery store found me outside to give me directions (in Spanish and a lot of hand gestures) to a better grocery store. (Which I found later.) And the taxi driver that drove me from the airport this morning, rambling on and on with advice I couldn't understand. I think he wanted me to know that I should never give large bills to taxi drivers because they will cheat me. (Or he was confessing that he had cheated a lot of people?) Either way, he seemed genuinely concerned about my well-being, and he was very kind to me.

After this exhausting morning and afternoon, my brain told me to go to bed and start over tomorrow. I completely ignored that, of course. I didn't come here to lie in bed and feel sorry for myself now, did I? Nope.

I've been nervous for the past month about my first milonga. The "códigos" of tango have been haunting me. The ingrained rules of etiquette surrounding the Buenos Aires milongas leave a foreigner like myself susceptible to many faux pas. I've been here before, and I saw how brutal the scene is when you don't have a partner. Fortunately, I did have a partner with me on my last trip so I was protected from being one of the downhearted women I saw leaving milongas early because they never got asked to dance. But what if this time I don't get asked to dance? I'm not used to having to rely on the cabeceo to attract dance partners. What if I haven't mastered that yet?

Determined to tango, I put on a simple black dress, layered on a sweater and leather jacket (because this ain't Florida, it's still winter here in Argentina), grabbed a pair of tango shoes, (sent a little request into the universe for Carlos Gardel to watch over me) and headed to Confitería Ideal (coincidently, the first venue Matthew and I went to on our trip last year).

I was anxious the entire way. What if only the creepy guys with the worst leads (the ones even Matthew couldn't protect me from) preyed on me? Would I have the guts to turn them down? My thoughts were rampant. What if I tripped? Worse, what if I kicked someone? Or worse than that, what if I didn't dance at all? Anticipation of the unknown is so intimidating. Daunting.

My heart was racing from my overactive brain activity, and the six-block walk I made in haste. But when I drifted through the doorway of that familiar venue, felt the marble beneath my feet and heard a tango playing up the staircase, I surrendered. 

In this little space of Buenos Aires, for just a couple of hours I am not a foreigner. These people are not strangers to me. I don't know their names or their faces, but I speak their language. I speak tango. And when that reality passes through my head, the taste is not so bitter. It's pretty sweet, actually. Like the dulce de leche I am eating as I share this adventure with you. (I'll share my adventure, but I'm not sharing my dulce.)

P.S. I must acknowledge Sally Blake who wrote the brilliant book "Happy Tango: Sallycat's Guide to Dancing in Buenos Aires,"  and published it just in time for my trip. With Sally's advice, I knew that Confitería Ideal would be my best choice for a Friday afternoon milonga, a venue I would not have considered without her direction because I had a terrible time there last year with "bottom feeders," as Sally calls them. Sally gave me the determined confidence to decline verbal offers from at least a dozen of these men, something I did not have the courage to do last year. Instead of frustrating myself by dancing with them, I was able to give a simple, "No, gracias," with little recourse. What a relief! I was able to choose my partners through the cabeceo, and truly found my own "happy tango." Muchas gracias y besos, Sally!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Tag-A-Long Traveler

I almost forgot that I am within days of Buenos Aires. By this time next week, I will be settled into my apartment in a foreign land and will have already experienced my first “sola” milonga. (I get a little flutter when I think about it.)

I’ve been easily distracted from my upcoming big adventure by the Pacific Northwest at my doorstep for the past 11 days. I am getting pretty proficient at being a tag-a-long traveler. It’s been my good fortune to be able to adventure with Matthew on many of his work trips this past year—Curaçao, Jamaica, Quebec—and, this week, the islands of Puget Sound.

 We had a week of down time with Matthew’s family in the burbs of Seattle before heading out to the islands for his grueling travel writer itinerary. (OK, it’s not that grueling, but his job really is much harder than it sounds.)

 Last Saturday night we found a milonga called Tango Underground in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district. “This is our last milonga together before you leave,” Matthew pointed out before our last tanda. I gave him my weepy-frowny face—a common expression lately as my big trip draws near.

 So many "last things" have happened in the past few weeks and it makes my heart a little heavy. It’s not that I don’t want to go, but every new adventure means giving up the familiar and comfortable in exchange for the unknown. Will my pets be OK while I am gone? Did I pick the right apartment? The right Spanish school? Will the locals dance with me? I have no answers to these questions yet.

 My trip last year to Buenos Aires was wonderful, but I had a definite advantage—Matthew. I had a dance partner for every milonga. He speaks Spanish. He had been to BsAs twice before. He already knew the best tango schools and milongas, the layout of the city, the quirks of the taxi drivers, where to find an apartment. I just happily followed along. I like being the tag-a-long traveler. It’s a pretty easy gig.

 So why have I decided to go to Buenos Aires alone? It’s not the most convenient time. I will be a bit lost without Matthew. I didn’t retain the Spanish I learned in high school and college. I will miss my dog and cats. It may be difficult to run my business from Argentina. (OK, these aren't the answers, these were my excuses not to go.)

 So why am I going? My heart told me to. That’s the only answer I can think of. I just need to go. For me. Now.

 On Thursday, I will be brave. I will get on that plane by myself. On Friday morning, after my red-eye flight, I will go through customs, get a cab from Ezeiza Airport and head to my new apartment. I will get my keys and ask about the nearest grocery store and laundry services. I will walk to my language school and take a little tour of the facilities. And then...

I will find a milonga, and (hopefully) I will dance.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Follow your bliss.

About this time, two years ago, I was sobbing in my therapist's office requesting meds and searching for answers. Donna seemed not to have any answers.

Instead, a script was written to give me temporary relief from my anxiety and malaise, but with it came an assignment: "Make a list of 100 things that make you happy," Donna requested. "Don't over think it, just make a list, even if you repeat the same thing 100 times."

What did make me happy? My house? The things in it? The success of my businesses? The comfortable lifestyle my "success" afforded me? My marriage? The prospect of having a family? None of these things made the list.

Instead, my list was mostly a mix of people and food that I loved (my niece and nephews, banana cream pie); places I wanted to go (Argentina, Greece, Egypt); adventures desired (learn a foreign language); and many things tango. TANGO! (The embrace, the connection, the movement, the shoes.)

Within days of making that list, I realized that my marriage didn't jive with my happy list. Within a year, I realized that I no longer needed to be medicated to be happy. Today, as I turned the keys to my apartment over to my landlord, I realized I am happy even homeless. (Possibly happier homeless?)

My yearbook quote my senior year of high school was “Follow your bliss.” (It was my second choice, but they wouldn’t print my favorite Paul Simon lyric, “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”)

At some point since those innocent days, I got off track and started following other peoples' bliss. I made choices based on what I thought should make me happy, rather than my heart’s desire.

I went the traditional route. Got married. Nested in a big, beautiful home. Prepared to have babies. Drove my career. It seems blissful, right? I should have been really, really happy.

But here’s the truth about me. I was not a great wife. I hated the big mortgage and the stifling confinement that came with the beautiful house. I don’t want to have babies, but I love being an aunt. And I don’t want my sole identity to be about how I make my income. It took my happy list to figure a lot of this out. (My happy list, a divorce, hours of therapy and an extremely open minded boyfriend.)

Tomorrow, I am hopping on a plane with my sweetheart Matthew to take a little pre-adventure to my big adventure. (A Seattle/Puget Sound Island appetizer before my Buenos Aires main course.) When we return in two weeks, I will have just enough time to grab my overflowing suitcases (six pairs of tango shoes are already packed), kiss my Matthew goodbye (until he comes to me in November), and head south for 3 ½ months. Very far south.

Am I scared? Yes. Terrified. Do I speak Spanish? No. But I will learn. Do I know anyone one there? Not really. But I will make friends. Do I know what I am doing? (No.) Yes! I can tango. I am following my bliss.