October 18, 2007

Passion in the plaza

This essay I wrote is in Hindustan Times Cafe today (October 18). It's a good day for it, because today is 166 months.

(Wish I could point you to it online, because they have also printed two of my pix, one of which I'm sort of proud of -- but I cannot find it online.)

Your comments welcome. Note to a previous commenter: periods now inside the parens.


Watching the tango performed in Buenos Aires, I promised myself that I would begin an article with these words: "You haven't lived till you've seen the tango." I haven't quite begun this article that way, but here are the words anyway: "You haven't lived till you've seen the tango."

Sultry, sensual, emblematic of Argentina, the tango is a presence everywhere in Buenos Aires. The time I made the promise, we saw it in Michelangelo, an elegant bar. The next day a young couple danced outside, in a sunlit plaza. On street corners, you can find "tanguistas" playing lush tunes on the bandoneon -- a variant on an accordion -- and guitar. Pictures of Carlos Gardel, beloved early 20th Century superstar of the form, are everywhere -- on walls, postcards and display windows.

You really can't escape the tango in Buenos Aires. Not that you should try.

Following the trail, we strolled through San Telmo, tango quarter of Buenos Aires. Michelangelo is at its northern edge, one of the oldest tango bars in the city. Next door is "La Ventana" ("The Window"). Further south are several more, including "El Viejo Almacen" ("The Old Market"), perhaps the most famous of all.

But even more than the bars, it's the artwork on the chipped facades of San Telmo's buldings that hint at the artistic heart that beats within. Here's the large "El Viejo Alamacen" sign, all Roaring Twenties curlicues and flourishes, evoking memories of that heyday of the tango. There, down the road, is an elegantly carved arched doorway that tempts but, sadly, is locked. Further, on Balcarce Street, is an exquisite green sign. "Escuela para Pianistas", it says, "Piano school." The creepers surrounding it match the lettering and artwork on the sign, curve for sinuous curve.

Our stroll took us to Plaza Dorrego, heart of San Telmo, and site for a Sunday morning antiques bazaar. Stall after stall crowd the little square, selling a cornucopia of stuff. All those things that gather in your drawers and cupboards, that you never throw away, are on sale here. Though now that I think about it, so is a lot you would, or should, throw away. Long defunct watches, old postcards, combs, cutlery, jewelry, pictures of Carlos Gardel, Victrolas, photo frames. Anything at all that's old and faded and broken and of no possible use to anyone anywhere anymore -- well, it qualifies as an antique and can be found in one San Telmo Sunday morning stall or another.

We bought several armloads.

Seriously laden down, we finally found our way out of the maze of stalls to the small platform where that young couple was whirling about, doing dance after graceful dance. Each time they started on a new one, they would hold up a tiny sign with its name and, more interestingly, strip off another layer of clothing. In this way, we always knew what the dance was, but more interestingly by far, they were always appropriately dressed -- or undressed -- for each dance.

When it was the "milonga", a predecessor of the tango, he wore a jacket and a rakish hat. She was in a demure knee length skirt, red scarf thrown gaily about her shoulders. Later, for the tango, he had on suspenders. She was down to a barely-there mini-skirt and elbow-length black gloves, wrapping a long graceful nylon-clad leg around his hip as they twirled past.

The chemistry they shared was obvious, nearly tangible. As she feathered her fingers across his cheek and looked longingly into his eyes, as he nuzzled her neck and draw her closer, as their sensuous movements played our emotions and longings like a violin, the questions came to me.

They haunt me still.

Are they dancing? Or is this a scene from their lives? Is this the tango? Or is their passion the real thing?

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