Hello Buenos Aires, where European arrivals built a cityscape that was familiar to them from the places they had immigrated from. But they also built something that is distinctly local: tango. The dance grew from a longing for what was left behind and for a human connection. Now the tables are turned: leave Buenos Aires and the thing you miss most is tango.
“Miiiii Buenos Aiiiiires Queriiiiido (My Dear Buenos Aires)!” booms from the mouth of a big woman as we turn the corner. Close to her a gorgeous girl in fishnet stockings, her eyes closed in surrender, presses her body against that of an Al Pacino junior lookalike, dressed in a smart white suit. The toes of her high-heeled shoes softly caress the cobble stones in anticipation. Then Pacino moves, and she turns and spins in complete harmony with him. It is difficult to see what is happening. The movements are impossible to follow. Yet she never once opens her eyes.
Plaza Dorrego on a Sunday afternoon is a sensual stage of singers, musicians, dancers, antique sellers – and pickpockets. But by far the most impressive sight are the tango dancers. Those legs! I wonder how they can move so fast without tripping. And look at that couple over there: they must be in their 80s. I am hardly able to walk after a long and exhausting flight with delays and stopovers. I had thought I might catch some sleep first, but this exciting city won’t let me. Not today or, as it will turn out, not for the rest of the week either. What was it that Madonna sang in Evita?
“Fill me up with your heat, with your noise, with your dirt, overdo me. Let me dance to your beat, make it loud, let it hurt, run it through me.” I look at my partner and we decide: “Let’s keep going!”
The next day, peace has returned at the Plaza Dorrego, but it still turns out to be the ideal starting point for a memorable day. Jetlagged, we enter the Bar Dorrego for some strong coffee and are instantly catapulted back 80 years in time. The uniforms of the proud waiters perfectly match the black and white floor tiles. The worn wooden tables are occupied by porteños, as the citizens of Buenos Aires are called.
A bar is the school of all things
In this city, a bar is much more than a place to drink a glass of wine. According to the tango song “Cafetín de Buenos Aires” it is the school of all things. Two middle-aged men at the bar are having such a passionate discussion about politics and bad women that I am afraid a fight might break out. Their neighbor, however, is not in the least bit impressed and continues to read his newspaper intently.
Next to him sits a man who stares into his cup of cortado (espresso with milk) and looks seriously depressed. Some grey suits are doing important business, judging from the hefty handshakes and rolling laughter. In a dark corner, a man and woman are seated close together, so intent on each other that I wonder if I am witnessing a marriage proposal. Too many emotions for my empty stomach.
Buenos Aires is a city whose essence could easily escape you. There is a long list of must-sees and must-dos but we soon learn that many so-called highlights are not worth a visit. An equivalent of the Louvre or the Acropolis doesn’t exist, and the “Eiffel Tower of Argentina”, as the Obelisco is called, can be dismissed. So, what does make this town so irresistibly attractive? In one word: ambiente! Buenos Aires is a city you must experience, you have to be out there and feel it.
Tango will teach you more than any guidebook
Prime examples are the different barrios, villages within a city, each with a charm of its own. The people who are born there often live there for the rest of their lives; they go to school, meet their loved ones, work, raise a family and finally die there. For generations, the colorful neighborhood of La Boca has been known for having a typical working class air. San Telmo is teaming with artists and old renovated houses that remind you of the Latin Quarter, and barrio Palermo has a very prominent jet set quality.
Of course, it is the intense nightlife, with the tango as its undisputed protagonist, which completes the Buenos Aires experience. The tango will teach you more about the city than any guidebook ever could.
The most colorful place in Buenos Aires is Caminito (little street) in La Boca. In 1959, all of the houses in this little shabby street were painted from top to bottom in the colors green, blue, yellow and red – works of art in their own right - and soon the other streets of the neighborhood followed. It meant a new start for this poor neighborhood, where at night in the whorehouses of the calle Necochea the vulgar tango was danced and malaria was common. Nowadays painters sell their work in the streets, and a vivid art scene has erupted including contemporary and folk museums, which were previously forbidden in the times of the generals. Caminito is named after a tango song from 1926.
Argentines witnessed the rise, and downfall, of Maradona
As we venture further, the streets turn grey again, and in the contaminated harbor we come upon rusty, half sunken ships that have no purpose anymore. We pass café La Cancha, a popular hangout for soccer fans, which is as lively as the surroundings are neglected. The nearby stadium of Boca Juniors, which is popularly known as La Bombonera (the candy box), is where Argentines witnessed the rise, and much later, the downfall of king Maradona.
As evening falls on San Telmo, the oldest barrio in the city, we stroll along the old aristocratic houses. Then we hear tango music coming from an empty restaurant. We investigate and see that the tables are pushed aside, and three couples are dancing in a concentrated way. Clase de tango! We enter and order a glass of wine, too shy to participate. The beautiful teacher, a strong woman of around 40, shows how it is done, but the courage to join in escapes us.
“Pain on which you can dance,” the tango is called poetically. We feel sorry for an old woman in a flower dress who is practicing ochos (figure-eights) against a wall. She seems so utterly alone it hurts to look at her. Why isn’t there anyone to hold her while she makes her turns? But the tango is not about happiness. A couple in their 30s tries very hard to dance in harmony, but every something keeps going wrong and they start to blame each other; “Why don’t you follow me?” “I beg your pardon, why don’t YOU lead me, as a real man would?”
For the rest of our stay in Buenos Aires the tango holds us in its grip, there is no escaping it. We take lessons every afternoon in different places in San Telmo, and practice at night in the milongas. In the Las Fulanas restaurant at Plaza Dorrego the waitresses, dressed in traditional costumes, turn out to be tango virtuosos as well. One night as we are seated close to each other enjoying a romantic moment, one of the waitresses asks my partner to dance.
Tango is very intimate and sensual
I see him stumble on the dance floor, in the firm grip of this determined girl, who is clearly taking the lead. The ‘me Tarzan’ in him is nowhere to be found, and has probably gone into hiding in the jungle. “How was it?” I ask him, when he returns to the table. “As if I kissed another woman,” he confesses. Tango is very intimate and sensual, and it can be an intimidating experience to dance with a stranger. “Well,” I reply, “don’t worry, I could see you didn’t like it!” Until five o’clock the next morning we struggle and embarrass ourselves on the dance floor.
In the ‘lungs’ of Buenos Aires, the great parks of Palermo, Recoleta and Retiro, with their artificial lakes, botanical gardens (the Jardin Japonais is recommended) and exclusive sport clubs, the porteños come to take in some sun and oxygen. Businessmen loosen their ties and since Argentina is in the middle of an economic crisis and times are tough, some read the want ads. The parks also form the stage for one of its strangest citizens, the paseaperro (dog walker). All of the rich and famous, who are too busy making (or spending) money, trust him with their very expensive dogs, who, as it turns out, need to pee and poo too, just like regular dogs.
Our eyes are diverted to the Barbie-like platinum blonde Argentine women. They are super slim and dressed to the height of fashion. Now we understand why, quite recently, designer Paula Cahen d’Anvers introduced size 0 in her collection. The message seems to be: be beautiful and people will respect you. Even ordinary woman spend fortunes on beauty treatments and clothes, and the clinics for plastic surgery are fully booked months in advance (ex-president Carlos Menem has had three face lifts already). “Tea with sweeteners is what keeps me going,” a woman sitting next to us confesses. She is so thin that the wind could carry her away.
An Argentine can commit suicide by jumping off his ego
Argentines have another obsession; their neuroses. Nowhere in the world is the concentration of psychiatrists denser than in Palermo, also nicknamed Villa Freud. “An Argentine can commit suicide by jumping off his ego,” is a popular joke, and rather to the point because, according to their therapists, they have a deeply rooted minority complex and are experiencing a permanent identity crisis.
They don’t feel South American because almost all of them have their roots in Europe, but they clearly aren’t European either. It seems this inner emptiness is camouflaged by the extreme emphasis put on outer beauty. The fact remains that the combination of Spanish, Italian, Slavic, and Indian features has indeed produced stunningly beautiful men and women.
Thursday, 3pm, Plaza de Mayo. There is hardly a bigger contrast imaginable than between the Barbie clones with their facelifts and Gucci sunglasses and the very down-to-earth somber mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. These women wear white head scarves embroidered with the names of their missing children. There are only 40 of the mothers, and one wonders, what can these poor helpless old women possibly achieve when faced with a city of 12million people who all act as if they don’t exist?
Office workers are passing by without giving them as much as a look, while the mothers carry banners with slogans like ‘Those who accept compensation money prostitute themselves,’ or, ‘The mass killers deserve punishment!’ In silence the brave women make their rounds in the square, as they have been doing every Thursday for more than 20 years now.
Then we see some of them cry
They are joined by a group of noisy students from Europe and at first we are horrified by their seemingly inappropriate behavior, but then we see some of them cry. They have suddenly realized that each of these women has lost a child in the Dirty War (1976-1983). Children who were loved and raised to become independent, albeit maybe a little radically thinking human beings who stood up against injustice. To realize that these children were abducted and possibly tortured, raped, and eventually murdered, is mind boggling. As if losing their children wasn’t enough, these women were faced with another blow; the knowledge that the people responsible for their children’s deaths would go unpunished.
During the Dirty War society knew about the censorship, the repression and even the torture, accounts of which were published in the papers of 1976. This history is something Argentines would rather forget. That is, except for the mothers. Using a small microphone a mother shouts angry words at the Casa Rosada, the pink government building from which Argentina’s leaders such as Juan and Eva Peron once addressed cheering crowds. But now the square is empty, apart from a sightseeing bus with tourists, who quickly take a picture from behind the glass and continue on their way to the next highlight.
The marble family grave markers are the size of small houses
Six days and nights in Buenos Aires are wreaking havoc on our senses, our bank accounts and, last but not least, our legs. But wow, do we feel alive, in love, and full of passion! With our last energy and determination, we visit the cemeteries of Recoleta (Eva Perón) and Chacarita. They are perfect examples of a stereotypical ghost town. The marble family grave markers are the size of small houses, some looking like proper churches. The paths between the graves are paved and as wide as a street, some surrounded by parks with high trees.
Argentines have an obsession with the dead and actually celebrate the day of death more than the birthdays of their most famous citizens and loved ones. One such citizen is tango hero Carlos Gardel, who died in a plane crash in Colombia when he was still young. The tomb of Gardel, who has a metro station named after him, receives many visitors every day. We see a young woman place a cigarette between the fingers of the hand of his life-sized statue, and then light it. When the cigarette has burned out, somebody else will replace it with a new one.
This scene gives the words of his most famous song a deeper meaning: “Mi Buenos Aires / the day I will see you again / there will be no more worries and forgetfulness…”
Keep the fire burning, Carlos, we will be back!