Ok. So it's three weeks in and here's the truth about getting dances here: Its tough. In fact, it can be brutal. More than one book has been written covering the inevitable tango downer that comes from being ignored all night. I've certainly danced, but with no Argentine woman under 50. That group has the demeanour of bored cats, and so far, will have nothing to do with me. Word is, the locals won't dance with you until they see what you've got. So you have to choose your first dance carefully. One false step, and you're toast, or, in this case, a burnt 'media luna...'
And I've had some good dances. The kind that might put me in good stead with the locals. Walk smoothly; keep the turns tight and graceful; keep it elegant and simple. Don't over-reach. No triple Ganchos with a half-twist (oh, wait, I think that's a figure skating move...). But still, here's what it feels like as I try to a apply the Cabaceo, a way of communicating with your eyes to procure a dance:
scanning scanning hey youlooknicewannadance?
Ok ok that's ok keep looking whatabouther shelooksnice okay, eyes-trying-to-lock-
Ok, not her, ok, what about h-
fuck off .
And so it goes. It's humbling - some might say demoralizing. All I can say is, thank God for the Germans. I seem to be dancing with a lot of Germans, who I'm becoming rather fond of. And Russians seem to be in an amenable abundance.
Well, it can't be all tango all the time. I'm here for two months and I need some semblance of my regular life. Last Saturday night I went to the equivalent of what we have in Vancouver: The Philosopher’s Cafe. But here it's Vino filosofico: Wine and philosophy. For 150 pesos, you get a couple of glasses (to the brim!) of Malbec and three empanadas. I was so happy to find something other than tango – I was missing some intellectual stimulation.
We file upstairs to a private room in a restaurant. The topic was “The lost art of Listening”. How we yearn to be heard; how this 'being heard' is one of life's great validations, but the listening is often lacking (yes, yes, guilty as charged...) Being truly engaged when listening to someone while in conversation has always been a challenge, and even more so now with the smorgasbord of innovative distractions. I mean, how could I possibly be expected to continue listening to you when texts keep coming in...
After the presenter spoke for 40 minutes, the floor opened up. People gave examples of their experiences while lamenting the state of listening skills among today's youth (as our parents did with us...)
Then, a man of around 60, with a light linen jacket, perfectly pressed shirt and slicked back hair slightly grey at the temples, took his turn. He said, “You know, there were some terrible things that were going on in the 70's in this country. People were taken from their homes in the middle of the night. Well, I was one of those people. I was put in a tiny square room. You had to stand – you couldn't even bend your knees, and I was left their for a week, that this little closet with no light, and no sound. And I found that I was listening for sounds. Just listening. More than anything, I wanted to hear something. When they let me out after a week, everything seemed like a festival of sound, and it was good to listen, and to hear.”
He tells the story rather matter-of-factly, like, it was just a thing. And I have to let that sit there a minute. This is a country where that kind of thing, for some, in order to cope, was 'just a thing.'
In so many ways, Buenos Aires is not like other Latin American countries. For starters, I don't see a lot of indigenous features. The European flavour is abundantly clear, both physically and architecturally. And getting out of the airport was un-Latin American like in its efficiency...
BUT. I pick up some groceries at the supermarket and the slight twenty-something cashier is having trouble with the receipt-tape because it keeps jamming and it's slowing the line, even though it's the '10 items or less' line. When it's finally my turn, my total is 111 pesos, and I give her 112, but her tape jams again, and she has to fetch the manager to swipe into the computer to reset something, but I'm happy to forgo the peso and be on my merry way, but she'll have none of it. I say “gracias” and turn to leave, but she says 'no, you have to wait', And I say, it's okay you can have the peso, but this causes her considerable distress and her voice rises and she says “sir, you have to WAIT.” and the security guard looks over to see what the fuss is, and I wonder why she's so fixated on giving me change I don't want and a receipt that's of no consequence to me.
My father worked in northern Argentina in 1979-80, and inflation was close to 200 percent (it topped out at 433.7 percent in 1983), and you wouldn't get change in coins, because it wouldn't hold it's value from the beginning of your transaction to the end, so they would give you something that WOULD hold it's value – no, not gold, but buttons, or those little hotel size sewing kits, and you'd hand over your bills, and the till would ding open and there would be buttons and sewing kits and other knick knacks where the nickles and quarters would usually go. and I had quite a collection by the end of that summer visit to the little town on the Paraná in Misiones. So maybe the cashier here was thinking, “we've been through a hell of a lot to be able to give you money that has the same value when you first picked up those chicken legs to the time you're ready to pay for them, so, goddammit, I'm giving you your peso whether you want it or not!' I don't know, really, but I demurred and waited unenthusiastically for my peso.
But the insistence on making me wait for a receipt and a peso lest security be called puts the country firmly in the company of other of it's geographic brethren. “We follow the rules to an absurd degree, and to the detriment of efficiency, because it's that soupçon of control that we have over something, and I'm afraid, sir, that I must insist on it...” Maybe. I don't know.
And all of this while the city crumbles. Buenos Aires is a majestic city that's definitely a bit crumbly. But the juxtaposition of the majestic with the dingy creates a kind of ragged beauty that I love.
And, you know, you might be a bit crumbly, too, if you had to default on 82 billion dollars in loans (in 2001) and have your peso devalued and a tax base that comes from God-knows-what because the level of distrust is so high that I don't think there's a lot of desire to pay them and there's an awful lof of cash-only businesses here, which tells me one thing. So, actually, it's amazing that there's any infrastructure at all, so the crumbly bits, well let's just call it 'character'. And that rusted out shell of a car left parked for years on the street, and it seems like nobody's responsibility to remove? That's art, man. Real fucking art. It's certainly a statement; and the city seems to work well enough, even if some of it feels jury-rigged. The broken sidewalks that will never get repaired; the old buildings that are sagging and in disarray – I mention them only because one Vancouver dancer told me he'd never come back – the streets are full of dog shit, and it's dirty and dangerous. Yeah, well, no one ever said Buenos Aires was made for indoor cats. And, anyway, the dog poop leads to mindful walking. Imagine that – it's a spiritual practice!
Now, it you'll excuse me, I have to go take another kick at the (bored) cat...
Lalo Espejo is a writer, monologist and political satirist whose work has appeared on CBC radio, campuses across Canada. He has also taught writing and presentation skills at career colleges in Vancouver. firstname.lastname@example.org