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!


  1. Wow, what a first day. Glad you found a nicer grocer (dulce is always a great band-aid). So proud of you for going to a milonga on your first day, plagued with stress and exhaustion!

  2. Sounds like you have landed on your feet. Literally! I can't wait to see you when I get there because you'll know all the ins and outs, by then. I love the blog. Keep on writing!

  3. Thanks for the feedback, Amy and Deborah. It's nice to know people are actually reading it. Deborah, definitely get a copy of Sally's book from Amazon before you go. It's super informative.

  4. I heard about your blog from your sister Monica....I am Gina Rader's sister if you remember her. I just wanted to say I enjoyed reading your blog and you are a very talented writer! You are interesting and relatable with some really cute humor. Keep writing and I will keep reading!! Many blessings on your journey through Bliss!
    Laura Rader

  5. Hi, Laura!

    Thank you so much for reading and your feedback. I am glad to know more people are reading than just a few friends and my immediate family--it motivates me to write more.

    Also, if there is ever anything in the tango lingo you don't understand from the context of the blog, do not hesitate to let me know so that I can elaborate better for my non-dancing audience. Besos, Amy :)

  6. I think it would be great if you could post about a milonga, obviously it's some sort of dance party, but it is really clear there is something very special about it to you and I have no idea what it is. I would like to hear about what it is and what makes you so drawn to it. What it does for you or what the significance is.....

  7. Great idea, Laura. I will make this a topic soon soon. :)

  8. Love your blog!! It's always fascinating to hear about other cultures and how you are adapting. I haven't been outside North America :| I can travel vicariously through you! LOL! I really admire you taking a huge step like that. I'll be an avid reader!!! Besos! xo

  9. Thanks, Lisa! It excites me to have readers that I may inspire. When I started this blog, I couldn't fathom anyone even reading besides my immediate family and a few tango friends.

    Do you dance tango, may I ask? I want to make sure I am giving enough information to non-tango readers so that you are not lost as I write about this crazy tango world. If you ever have questions please let me know and I will either clarify in comments or make it a topic for a future post.

    I will keep writing if you will keep reading. Besos, my friend. Amy :)