Argentinian tango - It takes two baby!

Spanish class is good and today I start my 8 hours of tango lessons. What I wasn't counting on was the fact that it would just be me, the teacher and 8 intensive hours of dancing....AWKWARD!... 

He reminds me of an old (and when I say old I mean OLD...) ex called Laurence. A forty year old director who I went out with for 10 months when I was 24 and who lied about his age compulsively going from 32 to 35 to 37 to 39 in the space of the ten months i was with him. 

Learning tango is like learning a new language without words. The man leads and the woman follows and takes her lead from the energy and connection with the man. Its communicated silently from the pressure in the hold – sent down the mans' arms and into the womans hands and arms. 

I think – this dance will be good for me. 

Because I speak no Spanish yet and Daniel the teacher has very little English we communicate in French just to confuse matters... 

He doesn't teach steps in a routine as tango is an improvised dance. Instead we begin to dance straight away and he works on trying to correct my frame which I find incredibly difficult. Its the opposite of other Latin American dances which are all in the hips. One should keep the weight grounded in the feet whilst extending the top frame, leaning into the man and supporting everything from the core. 

Open your back, Support Your Core, Long steps, Weight in your feet, Open your shoulders, Close your Core, Long Steps, Weight in your feet becomes his mantra. He leads and shows me cues for different steps such as leading me into Ochos...when the woman twists her whole body left and right, stepping in a figure of 8 movement. 

Apparently I have a tendency to not support my core and constantly lean back and away from the man. That – I think is a metaphor for MY LIFE and relationships! 

Every now and then he stops to pour boiling water onto his mate pot. Mate is a traditional drink similar to green tea that is drunk religiously in Uruguay and Argentina. Its a rather time consuming effort of stacking up a little cauldron with tea leaves and sugar (if desired) then pouring over hot water from a kettle or flask and sucking up the liquid through a silver straw. At first on the streets of Uruguay I think it is just an old remant sold on market stalls for tourists – however people still stroll down the streets and loaf in the parks holding onto their little mate cauldrons and Daniel is no exception. 

That evening – and is if I havent had enough tango I discover a tango teacher that has got in touch via couchsurfing and is teaching at a Cafe Notable nearby. 

There are around 60 Cafe Notables in Buenos Aires and have been selected and singled out as contributing to the national culture and identity either through their architecture or because they have enjoyed the patronage of some important politicians or artists along the way. I go along to watch his lesson at La Confitera Ideal – a gorgeous elegantly faded Parisian tea room on Suipacha filled with little lined covered tables. 

Fabian is another couchsurfer who has decided to shave 5 years of his age and hasn't been entirely honest with the profile photo. He joins me for a coffee and we share a plate of pastries filled with (what else) dulce de leche and then I make my way home. I have no desire to join the class or milonga- I'm tangoed out. 2 hours of private lessons a day is intense. 

The next day i've received an email from Fabian- “ I would like to see you again, let me know if you would too..” I don't reply. The following day and i've received another email “I really want to see you again, I don't know why, just let me know...” 

I explain i'm already seeing someone in B.A and it wouldn't feel right.... 

“ You have a beautiful energy...” Daniel the Tango teacher informs me on day 2. Tango is all about the energy communicated between a man and a woman. However I cant help feeling he's not talking about the dancing any more.... 

“ I want to...how you say...Kiss you?” He says hopefully. “alright?” 

“errrrr NO!” I scream. 

As my professional poker playing friend - the Duffmeister General will tell you, I do NOT have a poker face – in fact I have the opposite whatever that may be and cannot conceal my obvious shock and disgust. Artem from "Strictly Come Dancing" he ain't. 

And i'm pissed off. I am British after all and therefore really quite repressed – we aren't known for our flamboyant displays of affection and being in touch with our passionate sexual side .Just being in a room with a man i've only known for 2 days and being held close in an intimate dance is difficult. I'm trying to open up, loosen up and now he's asking to kiss me!! He's speaking in a mixture of French, Spanish and English. I'm still not quite sure whether or not he's hitting on me or speaking about something else but I leave already formulating the complaints letter in my head. 

That night I go to a tango class that he is teaching in his studio followed by a Milonga. I suppose its good practice dancing with different men although constantly having my feet trodden on by sixty year olds who then reprimand me for not knowing “the steps” is becomig inreasingly annoying. 

"This is my place, I own it and live here” Daniel informs me. I have a feeling he's trying to impress and that I didn't misunderstand after all. 

Anyhow Nico comes to meet me and I duck out around 10.30 to go get something to eat with him. We end up having a Bondiola – pork steak sandwhich with relishes in bread from a stall near Puerto Madero then haed back to San Telmo for a drink. 

San Telmo is filled with artists, musicians and antiques at the regular Feria (fair) on sundays but away from the tourists and the tango dancers its still a wonderfully atmospheric place for a drink. We go to a cafe on the corner of the main square Plaza Dorrego (Plaza Dorrego cafe) that's touristy in the day but empty tonight. Its an old timeless little bar with graffiti etched old wooden tables, shelves stacked with dusty bottles and surly bar staff. It has character by the bucket load. We drink Malbec (what else.) 

I try and practice the Spanish i've learnt so far, I concentrate hard on making my voice try and sound nice and not massacre the language with my hard edged english vowels. Nico looks at me. 

"Are you planning on setting up a phone line beause you sound a little like a porn star....?" 

OK so maybe overdoing it slightly on the sexy spanish accent. Another day he tells me I sound like Hitler so you know...i like the to run the gamut. 

We go outside, filled with cheap but great red wine and kiss on the door steps to the cafe. Fairy lights string the trees that surround the square and I can't help thinking to myself “ God I love my life...It's fucking great!”

Market Day in B.A and the rolling hangover begins...

I had a feeling (through the vomiting and the waves) that I would lose my heart to Buenos Aires before I arrived... and sure enough it doesn't take long. From the first night and seeing the cavalcade of Bugsy Malone cars from the 30s. Wandering around the streets the Paris of South America comes up again. The cobblestoned streets of san telmo, the great green feathery trees that line the parks with huge rose blooms, and all the beautiful art nouveau cafes “the cafes notables.” 

This city is ridiculously romantic. Even the homeless come on to the buses and try and sell their poetry to make money. There are second hand book shops on every corner and then of course there is the tango.

Plaintive songs of loneliness and heartbreak, and a dance of despair, passion and sexual longing. The sadness seems to seep into the cobblestones. You can see it in the portraits, the lost souls with sad drawn faces, bodies clinging to each other. 

Its market day in San Telmo every sunday. The main street - Defensa – leading down to the main tree lined square is crammed with traders sellling alpaca jumpers, little mate pots and spoons, freshly squeezed orange juice and empanadas. A guitarist is playing “Ave Maria.” Without realising it a huge fat tear rolls down my cheek...and i think... 

“this is the kind of city that could make you feel sad for something you never even knew you lost. "

I finally get down to the main square. Navigating crowds of tourists on three hours sleep and a rolling hangover is horrendous. 

I have already started to crave vegetables and fruit from three weeks travelling in Brazil but having landed in Argentina. Now I realise that breakfast (and in fact lunch and dinner time too ) is dominated by a creation that can only have been invented by lucifer himself - dulce de leche, a thick caramel made out of condensed milk that comes neat for spreading on bread for breakfast, on the flan mixto (the local dessert (crème caramel with whipped cream and ddl) or with ice cream for good measure. An alternative traditional Porteno breakfast is soft white cheese, bread and dulce de leche with a coffee. Alternaively you can get a media luna - a slightly smaller than european sized sweet croissant often served in a group

of three to accompany a coffee. 

My stomach expands accommodatingly .


I have decided to try Couchsurfing - a site where like minded travellers hook up and are able to stay on locals' sofas for free in the spirit of cultural
exhange. I post up a general message on the Buenos aires
“noticeboard” informing the city of my imminent arrival. I decide to take a responsible attitude and just approach hosts who are women in their thirties. Unfortunately all good intentions go out of the window when I see the sudden influx of messages from the hot young men of Buenos Aires suggesting we meet up for a drink. 

I have emails from: Jorges a rugbyplayer; Damian a retail entrepreneur; Fabian – a tango teacher; Leandro – photographer; Nicolas - a lawyer and Martin whose profile picture shows him in leathers and an open necked shirt astride a motor bike. Average age – 25. I officially LOVE couchsurfing. 

However for my first experience I really don't want the pressure of rocking up to some guy's place who I fancy to kip on their couch. I mean...that would be weird - right? So – I choose someone I don't fancy, who has references and recommendations from friends and seems interesting - he works for a camera company but pursues photography as a hobby in his spare time and has a thing for Germany... 

Mattias lives on Corrientes – one of the main thoroughfares in B.A in a barrio called Villa Crespo. He's a dark skinned slightly lpaunchy Porteno with a shaved head, goatee beard and the trade mark dark circles under his eyes. Thanks to some very late nights I am flagging and his flat is freezing. We eye each other uncomfortably and I think – oh god – I hope he doesn't murder me in my sleep. 

He asks if i'd like to listen to some music and proceeds to introduce me to Jose Carraldo – a folk singer with a large beard and gravelly plaintive voice – the Argentinian Johnny Cash! He plays the most beautiful and haunting song by this singer – Razon (reason) A lonesome tune of the gauchos (the cowboys from the plains.) Then he introduces me to Piazolla -a revered and very famous composer celebrated for for taking traditional tango music and reinventing with modern jazz riffs. 

And then he cooks me dinner – a piece of steak (what else!) with a grated carrot and spanish potatoes (cubed with onions) it's delicious. My stomach does cartwheels of joy at the sight of some vegetables. I'm now thinking I may marry him. 

Having been momentarily side tracked by all the pretty that has crawled out the woodwork to woo me in this city I seem to have overlooked the real beauty of Couchsurfing – the opportunity to have exactly this kind of experience. Sitting in a local's flat, eating an authentic home cooked meal, sharing wine and stories of our own culture, art and politics of our home.

We talk about the riots in London (a recurring question to me on my travels) and how I managed to end up getting a rickshaw through the centre on the night in question. About Christina Fernandez and her husbad – their monopoly on the country, how they make popular decisions to get votes from the poor such as free football one for kids but don't use the money to improve the biggies such as healthcare and wages. That football has become the new opium of the masses – used to control the poor and un educated. 

And we talk about the country's gory recent history. Sitting in a park watching business men filling up the cafes at lunch time for coffee and cake (a strangely male pastime here) its easy to forget that this civilised and ever so European city is actually part of a third world country with a horrific recent past. Some 10 - 30,000 men, women and children are said to have "disappeared" under the bloody regimes of the military dictatorships that have governed Argentina from the 60s through to the 80s. To this day the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo - bereaved mothers and grandmothers of their "disappeared" children protest in white head scarves with the names of their child embroidered onto it. Still once a week they gather in Plaza de Mayo square to protest and serve as a constant reminder to the goverment of their missing children, their brutal crimes.