Our friends from the Edmonton tango community, Geoff and Susan, world travellers, had assured us that we could get by comfortably in Buenos Aires on $20 a day and a por favor. Always suckers for a good deal, we packed up our tango shoes and our Spanish-English phrase dictionary and set off on a pilgrimage to the Mecca of our new found religion. Twenty-four hours later, only slightly maimed, we hobbled off the plane into the mystical world of dance and romance, thrilled at the prospect of conquering a foreign culture and putting our tango expertise to the test.
Although no longer navigable at $20 per day, BA still remained quite a tourist bargain and we were enthralled with the elaborate architecture, the extravagant European craftsmanship, the plenitude of parks and roads that spread out forever, (one street, 32 lanes!). Getting around should have been easy with taxis outnumbering private vehicles, fares dirt cheap and drivers courteous and honest (although they all drove like Jaun Fangio wannabes).
The real challenge came in the communication. Our dusty old dictionary was just not up to the task, nor were we. Perhaps we travelled in different circles than our friends, but a por favor just would not cut it. Here in San Telmo, the heart of tango and a very authentic Argentine neighbourhood, English was as distant as a plate of salad greens in a parilla (a restaurant with a BBQ spit in the middle – a popular Argentine venue). The little Spanish we knew was apparently from some other continent and bore no familiarity to the street dialect and the distinctive Argentine Castellano, which often left us stuck on a street corner, not knowing how to ask directions, or standing stupified in front of a vendor with a line-up behind, haplessly trying to count out an undeciphered amount of change.
It was downhill from there. Before we had left Edmonton, I had made great pains to ensure that I would have email contact with my teens when I was away, so I had purchased a little laptop and brought along the proper power adaptors. One minor miscalculation. In Buenos Aires no one has home email. This is theoretically not a problem because at every street corner there is a telecommun-ications cafe that has phone service and internet access except that the Spanish keyboard is different and no matter what combination of keys I pressed I could not get the @ key to appear in my email address line. The shop owner apparently couldn’t understand my dilemma or didn’t care as I sat pathetically staring at a room full of computers and not able to use one of them. I was heartbroken.
Plan two: Call the only people we knew in Argentina who spoke English, our friends in Patagonia whom we were meeting later on in our trip. When I lifted the receiver, instead of a dial tone I got a thirty second taped message of more Castellano Spanish. Back to the desk clerk I went with the phone number in hand and asked him to dial. He had no more success than I did. Apparently the phone system was as unnavigable as the internet, even to the locals. (In truth, I don’t recall anyone having much more success with the phone system dialing out of region; there seemed to be a complicated series of codes that had to be cracked like the combination on a lock.)
I walked out a broken man, 10,000 miles from home with no way to make contact with anyone I loved or who cared about me. If we were to be mugged by a taxi driver and dropped off the end of a pier, (which we feared was going to happen at one point), no one would be any the wiser.
Off we went in search of a place to regain our composure, perhaps a quiet cafe for a good cup of coffee and some solitude. We were met at the door of a quaint out-of-the-way establishment by an elderly, elegantly dressed woman who greeted us formally in the textbook Spanish - the same Spanish that I had been studying for months prior but to this point had never been able to use. This was a homecoming! Someone whom we understood! The feeling was so overwhelming I walked in, went over into the corner and crumbled into a weeping, convulsing blob. Afraid that my hysteria might be contagious, Patricia and our proper, well-spoken host pulled away into the other room to address the task of ordering some coffee. As it turned out, this was not in fact a coffee shop but rather a chocolateria, with coffee merely a chaser for chocolates.
“No, no, we don’t want chocolates,” Patricia tried to explain, as we had been on a three day diet of meat and cheese, (the only menu item we knew how to order, served everywhere all the time). Her protestations were interpreted as wanting more chocolates and merely incited the woman’s eagerness to satisfy us. In desperation Patricia pulled out her dictionary with her spare hand, the other one carefully balancing the saucer of chocolates and coffee, and tried to find some phrases about ordering food. The only phrase she could come up with in our pathetically inadequate phrase dictionary was, “I would like to start with the onion soup, please.”
Pitching the dictionary, Patricia committed both hands to managing more chocolates while I slowly recovered from my convulsions in the corner and returned to normalcy. Apparently the emotional release was cathartic and after washing down our sweets with a shot of espresso we were ready to face the day again.
The agenda for that day was to make it to a milonga (tango dance). We had thoroughly researched the wheres and whens before we left Edmonton so again, presumably, we were well prepared. Not far from our residence was the Confiteria Ideal with the marble floor and pillars that often appear as a foil for the glitz of tango movies. Dressed theatrically in our dancing attire and pesos, maps and brochures in hand, we headed out onto to the street corner to flag down a taxi and direct him to our destination.
Another minor miscalculation. It was Sunday in Buenos Aires: there were huge political protests going on in the city centre. En route to our destination the traffic came to a complete halt. As our driver could take us no further we were asked for the fare and politely instructed to get out. Between us and our destination was a 30 lane highway, a park and a thick mob of protesters. Off we trekked dressed in our tango finery, Patricia balancing precariously in her high-heeled heels, and I in my Carlos Gardel fedora, trying to look as inconspicuous as two penguins.
By the time we made it to the Confiteria our shoes were muddied, we were exhausted, and our tango luster had thoroughly faded. Patricia, whose feet had been troubling her earlier, now was in no condition to be dancing. We plunked ourselves down at one of the tables and resigned ourselves to being spectators. After a seemingly interminable period of sitting on the sidelines, I determined that I was going to get in on the action. Since my partner was out of commission, this meant I was going to have to ply my trade on the open market and wade into the sea of experienced local dancers.
Tango etiquette, which I had properly researched, included numerous cultural anachronisms, all seemingly designed to protect the males inflated but fragile ego. One such customs was, if you wanted to dance with someone, you eyed her from across the room. If she reciprocated with eye contact it indicated that she was interested in your offer. In this discrete manner, a woman would gracefully accept or rebut a man’s offer without anyone else being any the wiser. The problem was that, without my glasses, I could barely determine the sex of a person from across the room, let alone whether she (or he) was returning eye contact.
I did exactly what any culturally insensitive, boorish Canadian would do in that circumstance. I brashly paraded down the sidelines and started propositioning the women who weren’t dancing. I was not one of those machismo Argentine tangeros who could not deal with rejection. I took blow after blow directly to the ego but continued to proceed down this line until, at the very end, an elderly woman with pink hair took pity on me.
Up we went on to the floor. After only a few steps into the dance this poor maligned woman began screaming at me, in Spanish of course. I had no clue what she was upset about and began vehemently defending myself in English, of which she couldn’t understood a word. I became desperate. My training in tangero folklore had made clear that if a woman walked out on you in the middle of a dance, I as a proper tangero, totally humiliated, would have to go out back and stab myself. (All tango violence is knife inflicted. They like their knives more than their lives.) So in the middle of the dance, in the centre of the dance floor we are squared off, she infuriated, I desperately pleading as if for my life. Fortunately she stuck the dance out and I lived to tell. Returning to the table devastated, Patricia attempted to console me, “At least you had the nerve to try.”
OK. Now we are at a serious impasse. I could accept the language barrier and that we could not be understood well enough to order a proper coffee without chocolates or something other than a plate of meat and cheese, but to not be understood on the dance floor with the universal language of dance was too much for me to come to terms with. Something was seriously askew. We needed help.
The next day our agenda was adjusted to include more tango lessons. Our host was also, conveniently, a dance instructor, so we booked a session. We showed her our stuff, fitting in all the kicks and pivots and spins we could manage, then stopped to accept praise.
Her muted compliment, “Well you sure know a lot of steps.” Another but. “But you are lacking in an energy connection.” She then wafted into an esoteric explanation about how we were to envision this ball of light between us which would guide and empower the dance. Patricia got all excited as this energy stuff apparently makes perfect sense to her. For me it was more confusing that the pink-haired lady screaming Spanish to me in the middle of the dance floor. See the energy, feel the energy. I come up short again. Apparently all that learning, all those lessons, amounted to nothing because I could not get the energetic connection. I was back on the dance floor at La Boheme desperately trying to be right here and not in front of myself or behind myself.
I start pulling threads together. Breathing, sensing the energy, leading with the chest, they all orbit around the heart chakra. I had been doing my classic disconnect, splitting my physicality into what happens from the waist down and the neck up and leaving the heart out of it altogether. According to this teacher, and contrary to the tango folklore, tango is not about studly men and slutty women doing sultry, seductive steps. It is all about the heart, the key element that I have been understandably, quite reluctant to embrace. Tango is a dance of love.
Am I up for this? Certainly love factors heavily into Patricia’s and my dance experience, (as it does with most everything we engage in). But to unabashedly parade my affections out onto the dance floor to share it indiscriminately with whomever my dance partner happens to be?
This question follows me deep into the night. As I drift into the Land of Nod familiar voices started up in conversation.