Thomas Barnard, writer
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After five visits I have a feel for this place. One can begin anywhere. One could ask why, for example, do my fingernails have so much dirt under them at the end of the day when I spent no time in the garden? One could comment on the auto fumes which are pungent and pervasive, really third world. But to begin at the beginning, I think the place to start is with the French women staying at the house where I am staying.
They called to check about canyengue lessons. Were they at 8 pm? Yes, they are told. They arrive promptly, in that perfect French accent kind of way. They learn there is no canyengue lesson at 8 pm, in fact, there is no canyengue lesson at all. If they want to wait until 9 pm, there is a milonga lesson.
This happens constantly. My Spanish teacher called to cancel my lesson. I go to her office. She is not there. I come back, and Pilar, owner of the house where I am staying says I will murder her. She forgot to tell me. But she’s so charming and good-natured that I cannot hold it against her.
My French friends were going to take Candombe lessons. I point out their teacher at Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo where El Indio dances dramatically to the cumparsita. They run over to see him. No, the lesson in the magazine will not happen. If they had not seen him by chance, they would have turned up to an empty room.
There are exceptions. An American friend and I decide that three things work: the taxi's, the subte (the subway), and Cotto (a grocery store). The taxi's are omni-present. Walk down any well-traveled street, and they will appear singly, or a school of taxi's will swim by. The main line of the subte (short for subterráneo) is old and rickety, but they come frequently and reliably. Cotto, the grocery store, must have learned from America. The air-conditioning is painfully cold. The checkers quick. The only thing they don't have are packers at the end of the check out.
Lateness is not a pastime, it’s not routine. It’s ingrained, it’s part the national psyche. I call a girl for a date. She says call tomorrow. She’s late for her dinner date with a friend, but adds, laughing, “but he’ll understand. He’s also an Argentine.” He?
I wouldn’t expect their IMF payments to be on time, either.
The economy has high unemployment like a lot of Latin America, running somewhere between 15%-20%, which would be a major depression in the States. So, maybe it’s the norm, but I’m told things have gotten worse. My Spanish tutor informs me that rooming houses like the one I am staying in are a recent phenomena. It seemed like a natural thing. My landlady was left with a large house at the end of a divorce, and as a psychologist, she had trouble making the mortgage payments. Renting rooms was a natural solution to solve a problem.
There are others signs of strain. For example, my Spanish tutor had her laptop computer stolen during my stay. One day it was there, the next day she points to its proper place, my head rolls to the right and poof: it’s gone. She starts lighting candles. I ask why. She says, “To drive off the bad karma.”
Counterfeit currency is also a problem. Everyone is always holding paper currency up to the light to check the watermark, or putting it under a black light to check for streaks in the paper. I myself was stuck with a 5 peso note that didn’t make it past the black light. Worse off were the travelers I met at the airport on the way home three trips ago. They were stuck with several $100 Federal Reserve notes. They showed them to me. I couldn’t see anything that would tip me off they were fake.
I have been taking Spanish lessons for weeks and weeks. Finally, I confront my Spanish tutor, “English is easier.” She nods her head yes and smiles. I had always been under the impression that English was hard, difficult. Okay, the pronunciation in English is a problem. You blame that on the French. William the Conqueror came over in 1066 from Normandy and conquered England. The court spoke French. That’s straightforward. They spoke it in the royal court for hundreds of years. By the time of Chaucer in the 1400’s, the French had been absorbed into the language along with all their lousy silent vowels. For the funny consonants, you have to look elsewhere.
In English, you only say you. The Argentines have four: tu, or usted, or vos, or vosotros. Chalk one up for the English. And the conjugations are basically easier.
In English, a regular verb conjugates like this: I, you, we, they speak. Exception, he speaks. In Spanish, the same verb develops hablo, hablas, habla, hablamos, hablan. Every single damn, maldito one is different. Irregular verbs, of course, are hell in anybody’s language.
And English doesn’t have all these masculine and feminine nouns to remember. A big job. Nor do you have to do all this concordoncia, or agreement of nouns and adjectives.
That’s bad enough, but their tipoffs for masculine and feminine nouns are riddled with exceptions. Example, nouns that end in a are supposed to be feminine, but problema is masculine. Looks feminino, but is masculino. I tell my tutor, it’s a transvestite.
She laughs, but then says that a transvestite in the Palermo section of town suffered a silicone explosion last night and died. Now we’re off the subject, my specialty, and back in English. She says she has a cousin who has a plastic surgery clinic. The surgery is cheap, and they see explosions at least once a week. So, beware. And airline travel with its cabin pressure difficulties is especially troublesome.
She says belleza (beauty) is a regular industry in Argentina, where it has to be admitted the women are spectacular. There is no other satisfactory word. The popular combination of Italian and Spanish genes is a winner. As my Swiss companion says, “something special.” Clothes are designed to show the flesh. Belly buttons are common enough, pants hang low on the hips. Breasts somehow look full even when they're not, and even when they full, as we've seen, they're not always real. But it has to be admitted nearly all the time they look damn good.
Not verified was a report that there are so few clothes in the bigger sizes that they had to go to the legislature to get recognition for the more Rubenesque women. But it feels palpably true. But even the bigger girls are beautiful, and it’s a nice thing to get a kiss from one of these beauties.
These are people of Italian descent, and the kisses are norm. And one of the most popular milongas at the moment is called El Beso (“the kiss”). But there is kind of an odd thing going on here. If you go to the milonga, you smile and kiss someone as you enter, but then they go their seat, and begin the transformation into tango creatures of the night.
The manner of agreement about dancing is done with the eyes. You look at your desired partner, and if she claps eyes on you and nods, then you nod back and you dance. But after the social kissing, oftentimes the women don’t see you anymore. You become invisible. My Italian/Swiss friend who lives in Marseilles and speaks Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and English complains bitterly about about his invisibility. Moons about the movie where Claude Rains plays the invisible man. I say, why go? He says this is his cup of poison.
I tell this to my tutor, and ask how do I say that: a cup of poison. She laughs, una taza de venon. She says she’s familiar with this sense of humor. I tell my Italian/Swiss friend, and he says, “But did you her that you must drink every last drop?” That would be the ultima gota, she tells me. But his novia (girl friend) is of the same ilk. I had a good day and was beaming. She said if it’s a problem I could put a pebble in my shoe. Somehow, it’s not a surprise that they turned out to have the same bankcard PIN.
I, too, have had nights of invisibility. I have decent luck dancing with other extraneros, foreigners. And the Germans, Dutch, Swiss, Scandinavians are generally speaking, very fine dancers. One Argentine instructor told me he thought the best average dancer was to be found in Amsterdam. One wonders whether it’s the damn, maldito Germanic mentality. The thoroughness of it all. Or whether it’s just when you get to the level where you are willing to travel 14 hours and pay a thousand bucks for a plane ticket you have a certain high interest level and skills to match that explains the high level of the foreigners in Buenos Aires.
As it is, I seem to pick up partners one at a time. I think if I could stay for a year, I would have all the partners I could want. One German here, another Swiss there. Another from Buenos Aires. With eight years of dancing and countless lessons it’s no surprise when a teacher who comes over to teach some Brazilian women tries me out after the lesson is over. And so Mimi Santapá becomes a regular partner.
My Spanish tutor complains that the people who inhabit the milongas are vampiros. Anne Rice would fit right in. Indeed, it looks like some of the old tango dancers, the old milongueros are feasting on the life force of the younger dancers. My tutor says they’re losers. I ask, “Como se dice "losers" en Español?” She says, “Losers. Same as English.”
Well, there was a tall woman with black hair who was pale, but with the makeup was positively eerie. And others seemed to have no job, which was maybe true, given the unemployment rates. They came day after day after day. And the schedule was the vampire schedule. These people came out after dark, and disappeared just before dawn. The black hair of these Italian and Spanish girls, the uniform de rigeur, tango black, the highly stylized dance, the only thing we are missing is a milonga with the right name. It won’t be named Dracula or vampiros. It will probably be named for one of Rice’s characters, Armand. You think of her coven of vampires in Paris.
But fair is fair. Where is my Spanish tutor coming from? She never goes to the milongas; however, she does love the dance. She takes private lessons from a tanguero/psychiatrist. And it turns out she has been doing psychoanalysis for years. Why there are so many psychologists and psychoanalysts in Buenos Aires is a mystery that craves a solution. It seems everytime I turn around I run into one.
And in the end, while there are many pale regulars, there is a cross section. I ran into a woman who worked at UNICEF, a grade school teacher, an unemployed lawyer, students, a taxi-driver. So, it is unfair of my Spanish tutor to lump them all together. Although it's also unfair to suggest she really means it. She's a sly one. She's looking to see if I get her sense of humor.
But there's always a hint of the truth in the exaggerations of humor. And when someone you know and expect will dance with you turns you down, you are brought up short. And so it was that I expected the dance partner of my tango profesor, with whom I had danced in lesson after lesson, would dance four songs, a tanda, with me. But no, she shook her head, “No.” And she seemed like such a nice girl. Maybe she’s in the early stages of becoming a vampire. She’s still gets up during the day and is charming for the students, but at night she’s testing her powers.
But she isn't representative of all the natives, some of whom are very sweet. And the natives can be very fine dancers indeed. But where’s the surprise? If you can dance every night of the week, you have every opportunity to improve. Some of them do. Not all. But I know girls who stay out until 5, get up at 8 and go to work. They do it day after day until they collapse. It's a common thing in Buenos Aires. One porteño said that his one daughter comes home at 2 am, and the other leaves at 2 am. If you want night life, this is the place. They dance until the sun comes up and then it’s time to get back in the coffin.
If anything gave you a clue about the Argentine mentality, it might the two words from the song, Gallo Ciego (Blind Rooster). Pretty much all of Latin America feels that the Argentine thinks he is a little more than he is. Arrogance might be another such word. The Argentine has the arrogance of the rooster, but he is a little blind to the circumstances around him. Maybe it's a necessary to be a little oblivious if you want to remain arrogant. Certainly it helps with dancing. As I learned firsthand in a private lesson from Juan Carlos Copes, considered by many to be the leading male tanguero (tango dancer) in the world. He said you must lead from the chest. It's not a matter of moving your arms every which way, it is a matter of intention. You show your intention from the chest. It is a lesson I must learn over and over. The most recent incantation came from Carlos Gavito, famous lead dancer from Forever Tango. He said, "First you must stand like a man." For me, standing like a man is a little like waiting for the first bullet to hit on Omaha Beach. I'm a little too paranoid to stand like a man. (I would need to be blind, not to belabor the point). But I do my best, I try to think like an Argentine. Speaking from experience, it takes a certain ego to project the chest. You must puff yourself up a bit. Try to be more than you are. You must think a little like a rooster to pull it off.
But the arrogance of the Argentine mentality ticks off the rest of Latin America, and in Mexico City, where many Argentines fled during the dictatorship, the saying goes that you could make a fortune selling an Argentine for what he thinks he's worth and buying him for he's actually worth. It's instructive, but it's like America. Not every American voted for John Kennedy or George W. Bush. And similarly, in Argentina for every blind rooster, I'll show you another modest Argentine who is railing against the stereotypes, and is unhappy about the state of his country. Unfortunately, just as there are obnoxious Americans traveling abroad, so are there Argentinians.
Certainly, the pernicious and continuing difficult times in Argentina have had their effect, filmmakers are recording the wasting away of the middle class. It would be easy enough to blame it on the Americans, but over the border in Chile, the economy is far more robust, which they say, was run out of Milton Friedman's office at the University of Chicago.
Argentines tell me that it's the corruption. Rampant corruption. But it is deeper than mere a few pesos exchanged here and there, it is the ingrained thing. The expectation that everyone will be late for their appointments. Criminals in America expect you to be on time and have the money; in Argentina you would expect even the criminals would be late for their appointments and a peso short.
There is a filmmaker, who in the tradition of the famous Argentine writer, Borges, recently made a film about subway train that gets lost under the city. They check the blueprints for the subway. They consult the managers. They make a big effort to recover the train, but they simply cannot find it. Perhaps no metaphor better describes the situation for Argentina. It is a country searching for some reasonable identity as changing times become ever more challenging.
Published in Tango Noticias in April and June, 2001