Winter tango

IMGP6722 Hot from my bath, I cheerfully make plans to go out. Two friends from here, two mates from there, Carlos on his way home from Barracas where he is searching for a gas leak… empanadas in my tummy. Optimistic. Full. No idea how cold it is outside.

I manage to uncover one clean skinny t-shirt, of a rather zesty ‘naranja’ – well maybe tangerine, and jeans in the boxes that make up my wardrobe. I try to think about elegance for once: I choose a coat that is definitely more charm than warm. Before Carlos can say ‘radiator’ I have him showered, fed and on the Subte, zipping towards Catedral through the dark tunnels of Buenos Aires. I think he tries to suggest a different jacket at some point before we leave, but I am too busy organising him into the plans of my various friends to listen.

We arrive in the land of off season tango San Telmo: lone leather coated man on the door; $23 pesos ‘entrada’ between us instead of the required $24 from the $25 I hand over because no-one wants to admit to having a spare peso coin; even the music drifting down the stone steps sounds a bit thin.

Upstairs my dear tanguera friend is dancing with a tanguero on the rough wood floor in the semi darkness. Me and C. sit in our coats, order a coffee, and I reluctantly take off my knee length boots and thick socks and put on my old black patent tango shoes with the open toes. My feet shrink under the table.

It is a joy to see the tanguera and the tanguero dance together. Her face is dream like over his shoulder. They look like they have been dancing forever in the space lit with red. They look like they belong on that floor, in San Telmo, in Buenos Aires. She is elegance. He is in a short sleeved shirt. They look comfortable. They look warm.  We watch for a while, we embrace them when they stop. Their welcomes touch my heart, but by now I can’t feel my knees.

Me and C. dance in our coats. The floor is old and my heels discover a few pot holes. I trip over C.’s shoes. He hasn’t changed his: he’s dancing in my dad’s cast off Marks and Spencer specials. We sit. My body begins to rust.

We are now five at the table, and there are perhaps five other people in the room. We chat in a mixture of English and Spanish. I find my tongue has seized up. I lose words in castellano, and the ones that come spill out all ‘stumbly’. ‘Do you want to speak English?’ offers the kind tanguero. ‘No,’ say I. ‘Carlos won’t understand.’ And I stutter on clumsily. I wonder how the hell I manage at home speaking castellano day in day out. How does C. understand anything I say? I start to shrink. I text my friends and tell them to do their own thing. Back at the table I decide to switch to English after all, but I seem to have forgotten how to make sense in my own language too. I shrink a little more.

The kind tanguero invites me to dance. I am happy. But out there on that naked wooden floor I think I actually do disappear down the cracks. My body first. Then my head. Then my heart. I can only say sorry, and I feel sad that I do. Where have I gone?

Carlos makes a tiny flower for the tanguera. Someone else at the table mistakenly pulls off the stem. The flower head lies disconnected.

The kind tanguero invites me to dance a second tanda. By the last track I feel my soul warming. I hope he feels it too. We say our farewells and he heads out into the night.

Carlos makes a new stem for the tanguera’s flower. She puts it in her beautiful hair. I put on my socks and my cosy boots. Me and C. dance again: my boots and my dad’s shoes comfortably cover the holes in the floor.

We walk the empty streets to find a taxi. The meter starts at $3.80 since the latest price hike and a couple of blocks from the flat we get stuck behind a trash truck.  We wait for a team of men to clear every scrap of split open and spilt rubbish bags from a mountain behind a tree. The meter clicks up to $25.56. I say, ‘Let’s get out and walk, I’m not paying to sit here.’

On the pavement Carlos starts laughing. He says to me, ‘You are so funny, the things you say out loud that other people wouldn’t say…’ and he imitates me, lovingly. I feel my mind running over the night: all the things I said, all the things I did, how I danced, how clumsy I was, how lacking in elegance… I stop myself. I decide it’s time to grow again. I’ve crushed my own spirit enough for one day.

‘I love you,’ I say. And I make sure I say it to Carlos too.


8 Responses

  1. An Argentine boyfriend is better than any teacher for learning the language. The less you speak English, the faster you’ll become fluent in Castellano. It takes time to think in the language, but using it is the best way.

    I’ll never forget hearing a foreigner say in desperation, “doesn’t anybody here speak English?” She finally realized that in order to survive in Buenos Aires she had to learn the language.

  2. Hi Janis

    Thanks for your comment. I totally agree. The reality is that me and C. speak Castellano from breakfast till bed! And when we are together with English speaking friends I always try to speak it as much as I can, as I hate him to feel excluded.

    Here I was really writing about those occasional moments I get in this new chapter in my life when for what ever reason: hungry, cold, missing something, or with no explanation at all I lose a bit of confidence and forget that I can speak, dance, live, and a little of me slips away…
    Luckily I can get myself back faster these days!

    I only have to think back to me and C. and the days of the dictionaries and drawings to know that I have come a long way with the language… having him in my life has pushed me to learn in a way that classes never could have done.

    I think like you, that if you decide to make a life in another land then you have to be prepared to learn the language or you will never survive. I used to have days when I dreaded even going to the shops because it was such an effort to ask for things… that is very isolating. I am glad those days are gone.

    Yep, Argentine boyfriend definitely recommended!


  3. Yeah, Sally. I know those days where I am just not on the ball. When I’m tired or my equilibrium is off kilter. I was faltering on Friday, and I finally told someone, “Yo olvidé mi mente.”

  4. Hey stilllifeinbuenosaires, yes exactly. It happens. We pick ourselves up. We walk on. Thanks for identifying with me. It means a lot.


  5. I have those moments too, though sometimes in my case, a bunch of Italian comes flying out of my mouth without my thinking about it. That probably saves me since most of the time I’m understood.
    But oh goodness some days I can talk a mile a minute in Spanish and other days I just stare at people and scratch my head.

    You wrote about Thursday in such a lovely way. 🙂 And the second flower is still in tact and sitting on my desk.

  6. Tina,
    Keep the flower, as I will keep this post to remind me of in many ways a special and unique moment in our Buenos Aires journeys. It may have been ‘winter tango’, but the warmth of friends connecting was at the centre of it all. And in the end, that is precious indeed.


  7. It’s funny when I am reading you talk about places like Maldita/Queer (sounds like their floor, anyway), and Ideal–where I also danced my first day in BA but didn’t see O&C until months later at Sunderland)… on the one hand I feel like I am reading about the past as told by someone who is still IN the past, since after you leave a life like that in a place like that, it seems too dreamlike to be something that can still be happening in the present… and yet I know there will be people like us but ten years from now, and then BA will be in THEIR past and on forever.

    Have you ever been on the ride Pirates of The Caribbean at Disneyland? I went there as a kid in 1969 and it remained in my memoryvision as a real place, a place where I wanted to jump ship and live amongst the pirates and wenches. And now reading your stuff is like reading letters from someone who DID jump ship in Pirates of The Caribbean and is still there. And so I think, well, it’s a fantasyland, isn’t it, that doesn’t really exist, but how lucky she is to still be in it.

  8. b.

    Sorry for the delay in my reply. Been a bit busy the past week.
    Well, I think the fantasy is mainly in the telling eh? 😉
    But I love it that my writing makes you think this way!

    Hope you are happy in your tango, and in life back home.
    Will you come back to Buenos Aires do you think?


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