Now would’ve been my usual window to visit Argentina and Uruguay. From JFK it’s 10 nonstop hours to Buenos Aires. Seasonal shift makes this an appealing travel time.
Southern Hemisphere seasons are reversed. While northerners are anticipating shedding winter gear for spring wear, southerners are bidding ciao to summer and waiting for fall.
By mid March the worst of their summer has subsided. Cooler zephyrs shove tropical discomfort, particularly its beating rains, back north into the Torrid Zone.
What remains is a somewhat reinvigorated populace taking sweet forever before shrugging off languor. Returned wealthier residents have sunned themselves in Florianopolis, Brazil, or on the Uruguayan coast stretching east of Montevideo. The less moneyed have endured traffic on perpetually clogged Route 2 to bask in the more plebian paradises of Mar del Plata and Pinamar.
Early March, schools have reopened. Students, still restive from the break, resist settling into scholarly comportment. Retailers and office workers perform their tasks by rote, likely continuing so until days require jackets and nights blankets.
By then I’m long gone. I linger there just enough to appreciate the young, slender, fresh, brown-limbed brunettes whose modest apparel forces greater scrutiny of their attractiveness.
While walking along Buenos Aires retail promenades, a man may be deceived by the impression he proceeds in Spain or Italy instead. Women browsing or being served bear little kinship with their sisters elsewhere throughout Latin America. No exotic Brazilian mixtures, slight, if any, notable indio features. It’s as if they’re replicas of their immigrant Seville or Naples forbearers.
Such European beauty notions foster attitudes most North Americans might rightly disdain. That sort of ingrained “lookism” which exalts certain characteristics while demeaning others lessened its grip on us through civil rights and the women’s movement. Two social levelers which haven’t seeped much below the Rio Grande or into the Caribbean Basin.
If they ever realize the incongruity, one hopes they will properly resolve the matter.
The crumbling Second Empire (or is it Belle Epoque?) Buenos Aires streetscape is perfect for aimless wandering or idling. And if one must idle, why not do so behind Ray-Bans at a sidewalk cafe, attended by assiduous waiters? Either way it’s pleasant being among lively stylish people as they go about their business in manners we’d consider performance.
Alive as its days are, Buenos Aires nights pulse even harder.
My first visit, I struck up an unequal friendship with Sophie. It’s designated so because I was a Yanqui. “Yanqui” I can handle. Gringo would be beyond the pale.
A man, my intentions towards Sophie were clear. Dark, good-looking, simmering, rolling r’s ready to erupt, she was bored, underemployed and underpaid. Therefore, we did pleasant things to and for another.
We met at a showing of La Dolce Vita. Serendipity or what?
Sophie had spent time Stateside. To her my allegiance couldn’t have been plainer had it been stenciled across my forehead. We quickly came to an understanding: during our, um, interludes, I wouldn’t insult her and she wouldn’t exploit me. Intentionally. Too much.
Only interludes occur in South America. Episodes transpire here and in Europe.
Sophie led this Yanqui through our first mutual nights. She and coterie of similarly disposed amigas our nocturnal revels quickly acquired were Palermo habitues. “Palermo” will serve as the general rubric for Buenos Aires’ flash neighborhood. It encompasses distinct and subtle districts. We flitted among many.
The girls enjoyed their colorful long cocktails and the opportunity to flaunt Sophie’s butter and egg man. My indulgence allowed them to smoke Marlboros instead of local acrid weeds; to imbibe freely rather than nurse drinks; to make shows of their amiga’s (and by extension, theirs) unexpected fortune. The girls were loud, gleeful, argumentative and fully, carelessly “in the moments.”
Swoon in their company as I did, Palermo, all of them, chafed me. While Sophie and her cohort cackled and capered, we were resented. Or our involuntary audiences smoldered with envy and jealousy. Too often at some seen to be seen scenes I felt the rooms’ merriment ebb around us into muted derision.
I shy from Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires’ glitz trap, and humbler outlying barrios. No need to travel 5,000 miles for badly cut coke rails or present myself as a riches laden, slow-moving galleon for the local Argentine street pirates.
Given choices, and independent of Sophie, or subsequent casual companions engaged, I prefer stalking in two different barrios, San Telmo and Barrio Norte.
Artful decay along San Telmo’s narrow thoroughfares are vivid tableaux of Buenos Aires past. Dusty inviting shops and the elegant but worn residences above them must be repositories of passion, thwarted, squandered, or expended. No doubt if some of those walls could talk they’d yell, toss hair, flare nostrils and utter oaths of inexhaustible love or swear eternal vengeance.
Who the hell wouldn’t want some of that!?
Thus far the best beef I’ve eaten in Argentina or Uruguay was served at Des Nivel on San Telmo’s main drag, Defensa. From the sidewalk this parilla would be nobody’s idea of great shakes. Looking inside even less so. But atmosphere is not an applied cosmetic.
Abutting the entry a grill where the aroma of searing succulent cuts intend to fan passersby carnivore appetites. Constantly on the stereo, Carlos Gardel, Argentina’s national crooner. Before Sirius made such devotionals common, a local FM station committed its airwaves to the 70-year dead singer’s entire playlist. While portraits of Evita and Maradona are absent, there’s no lack of Gardels grinning down off Des Nivel’s walls.
The cat’s an on-key cult.
Unlike San Telmo, Barrio Norte’s esthetics could’ve issued from Anyplace, USA. Other than the Spanish signage, that is.
I’ve found it a fine locale in which to base myself. Two main bus lines run near the hotel. The subway avails a few streets down. Perhaps the world’s showiest bookstore, El Ateneo Grand Splendid, waits less than a block away, while the corner newsstand guy knows I buy El Clarin, not La Nacion.
Baser delights exist a lope (going) and crawl (returning) away. Fortunately, I’m older and more mature now because if I weren’t the Shamrock is the sort of saloon which could’ve had my head and liver racing to see which burst first.
Despite the name it’s not an Irish bar. A map of Eire and an Irish tricolor do not confer echt-ness. Proximity aside, three factors compel my frequent Shamrock attendance.
One, Happy Hours end at midnight. Two, inexpensive drinks. Three, until Argentina’s most recent economic reversal, a great mix of people filled the place. Exceptional as the first two attributes are, the third receives the prize.
Although I believe the Shamrock will always be chockablock nightly from 10 or 11 until dawn, its prior patronage seemed equally balanced among locals, foreigners and us. Lack of Argentines with discretionary cash has reduced their percentage. Without them the room is skewed. They’re the social enzyme.
Most hours I attended English predominated. Didn’t matter from where the speaker hailed, he or she likely spoke classroom English. Meaning they took to heart all the grammar and usage instructions we skipped. Also, patrons are so relaxed there.
Not relieved. Not drunk. Well, not piss drunk. Nor disguising insecurities and desperations beneath false fronts. I mean really pleased to be amid other people who are just as glad to be in such mutual company.
That’s a great nutrient for good times, right? As if the drinks contained an insouciance elixir besides the alcohol already therein.
I can’t explain. However, I do know it overwhelms my inner clock, squashes my already low inhibitions, allowing me to stay upright and lucid among the hardiest until night becomes gray morning. I rarely lasted that long as an undergraduate. In Buenos Aires, I became an iron man 2-3 times weekly.
Should I have hooked up sometime during the night, the best part wasn’t the short eager walk towards my hotel bed. Nor anticipating or entering intimacies in that bed. No. The best part became arriving just as the breakfast buffet began. That early, only the most driven, Type-A, hardcore, hardass visiting executives might assault the exposed pastries or whatever warmed in the heating trays.
There are no such go-getters in Buenos Aires.
Accompanied by that night’s “little friend,” alone except for the bleary-eyed breakfast staff, we’d grab some medialunas. Coffee for me, always juice for the woman, and claim a table.
Here ending and beginning blurring, the sweetness of the medialunas then never failed astonishing me. Having eaten them at later morning hours, those treats weren’t as tasty. Had they rested hours on some tray one could say they’d gotten stale. But people like sweets. Guests scarfed those things, prompting continual replenishment.
Likely there is solid scientific basis behind my time/place specific sharper sense phenomena. I prefer the mysterious. For reasons unknown, medialunas that hour of morning, under those circumstances, are simply sweeter. Sweeter than stolen kisses.
I overheard one of the best shutdowns at the Shamrock. A young American woman, a college exchange student, had fixed on an Argentine. He was a handsome kid, but wasn’t entirely full of himself. Yet. She was wholesome. Taking in her complete package, bosomy too.
She made strained conversation with him. Proper upbringing kept him polite, though just barely.
Finally, girlfriend scraped the bottom of her intriguing questions barrel. She asked if he could tango.
A crushing little smile smeared his face. He answered, “If I were Japanese, would you ask if I knew karate?”
Before ever visiting Argentina, I bought Paul Pellicoro’s tango instruction book. We have preconceptions of different cultures, no? Between a gaucho herding cattle or assuming a Latin lover mien, no way I was saddling up Trigger! So I hoped Pellicoro could baby me into a heartbreaking rake.
By myself I was ballroom competition ready. Dragooning a local practice partner, telling her “do everything I do except backwards,” tango’s basic eight steps became at best uncoordinated, at worst spastic.
Clearly the brain bone was disconnected from the leg bones.
I didn’t surrender to discouragement. Or ineptness. By the time I boarded my first overnight flight to Argentina, toes and knees more often than not stopped mashing and bumping those of another.
The first milonga I entered was by chance. Having spent initial days gaining my bearings, I felt sure enough to dare a wide-ranging nocturnal sojourn. Wandering got me lost. Even today I don’t know where I was. Had the streetlights been dimmer, they could’ve been gas lamps.
The few pedestrians seen seemed shady. Of course in that light everybody was ill-defined.
A beacon of sorts cracked the night. It lit a doorless doorway, a red curtain sheeting the opening. From inside came the prancing lilt of tango music. Doubtless Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova flashed their heels within.
Inside the vestibule, the doorman eyed then informed me [my translation], “Mister, this is a milonga, not a whorehouse.”
Bluffing but glad, I told him he was telling me nothing I already didn’t know.
Inside reminded me of a basement rec room out of my teens. All it lacked was one bare red bulb hanging from the ceiling. Adjusting my sight, I saw the setting more substantial than the old grind rings.
Couples mostly my age or older scuttled around the floor. I guessed the city’s cool and crazy contingent would wait until the weekend before making their ironic appearances.
The milonga contained no wallflowers. Just seated women waiting to be collected by the numerous hunters roaming the dance floor fringes. I knew etiquette dictated my requests be graceful and should she decline stuff my disappointment behind an “ah, alas.”
First time the rookie got in the box he didn’t strikeout. In these parts we call that good.
Though it suffices, I shouldn’t resort to the word “strange.” But strange it was being partnered with a woman — with women — who knew the steps. Every woman I danced with moved at an impossible ease. And they were considerate, too, because that night, as well as others afterwards, every one covered my missteps.
I read somewhere the author Eve Babitz took up tango. In a perfect world she’d strut her stuff in Buenos Aires while I visited. Naturally I’d hope to stumble across her in a milonga. And naturally she’d accept my offer to tango. By then I’d be more adept though still rely on the open embrace.
Babitz gets mentioned because her writings indirectly affected me when I was still impressionable. Okay. Callow. Looking back, I now understand how powerful an advantage that was. Thankfully Jill, the woman wielding it, treated me kindly. If men had made her suffer, the transference probably would given me issues with women today.
Jill was a huge Babitz fan. No. An acolyte. Bibles she wouldn’t swear on. Babitz, though … a whole stack of her books. Jill was cool then. Memory makes her cooler today.
Those are the conditions.