Thursday, May 18, 2006

¡Qué quilombo!

Quilombo is word I try to use whenever in impolite company. It is somewhat less delicate than “a mess,” but just as common; perhaps a touch gentler than “a shitstorm,” which is an unjustly neglected word in English.

It is a word of African origin that came into lunfardo, the old school, urban slang of the River Plate, by way of Portuguese. Originally it meant “brothel.” There is probably a very good story, now forgotten, that initiated this shift in meaning from “brothel” to “mess.” Use your imagination.

It is in the quilombos at the end of the 19th century where that emblematic dance of Buenos Aires emerged, and not surprisingly, it too took on an African word passed on from Portuguese: tango.

Originally turned off by all the strutting and phony seductiveness of shows and street performers, I had no interest in trying to learn tango. It seemed a nostalgic, stilted recreation of something that in its origin was spontaneous and sordid – and apparently danced by only men.

Then a few friends took me to a milonga in the center. Not a glitzy place, not one of the famous milongas. There was a small, square dance floor, surrounded by tables. Most people were in their fifties and sixties. A few younger, quite a few a bit older.

As the music started, couples took to the dance floor, mulled around, chatted and finally, as the rhythm kicked in, they began to dance. There were no leg kicks, no sequins, no smirking beneath a fedora. None of that. In fact, the most noticeable thing was not visual, but audible: feet sweeping and scraping across the wooden floor. And, man, some of those viejitos had style: eyes closed, faint grins, small, precise steps and spins.

That I wanted to learn.

A few months ago, my Italian friend Enzo invited me to a class in a bar in Palermo. I was a bit apprehensive, but it turned out to be an unpretentious, friendly environment. Carlos, the teacher, is a warm, hyperkinetic man in his late 50s with bright blue eyes and floppy white hair. He taught me some basic steps and then passed me off onto an extremely patient girl.

Each class I spend a few tangos trying to remember what I learned the last class and have forgotten over the course of the week and then, once I get comfortable again, Carlos or one of my dancing partners gives me some advice, perhaps teaches me a new variation.

I still have a long, long way to go before I can consider myself a proficient dancer. But even now, even with basic steps and a fair bit of fumbling, I feel it.

Last Friday I had some folks over and, as the bottles of wine emptied, what started as a mellow party degenerated into a quilombo. No, not a house of ill-repute, but a vibe with just a touch of descontrol. Someone put on a CD of Pugliese, pushed my dining room table aside, and we were off:

Monday, May 15, 2006

Borges y yo

I just read Larry Rohter’s travel piece on Borges’s Buenos Aires, which was published yesterday in The New York Times. It is of course impossible to mention in a 2000 word article every bit of Buenos Aires with which Borges came into contact, so I thought I’d mention a few more. Also, I’d like to clarify a few points where he was less than precise.

Rohter says that “the Borges family's Palermo homestead still exists, at Serrano 2135, but it is not open to the public and there is nothing to mark Borges's passage there save for a small plaque.” This is a little vague. "Homestead" is a euphemism for "there is now a blah brick chalet-style dwelling where Borges's home once was." I recently saw an ad in the window of a realtor’s office – you can buy this piece of not history, apparently.

Also, a quick note on the street whose name was changed to honor Borges. Borges, in his poem “La fundación mítica de Buenos Aires” (“The Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires”), invokes the block where he grew up:

La manzana pareja que persiste en mi barrio:
Guatemala, Serrano, Paraguay y Gurruchaga.
(The very block that persists in my neighborhood:
Guatemala, Serrano, Paraguay y Gurruchaga

So, as my landlord Almirante pointed out, the bureaucrats who wanted to honor Borges ended up ruining his poem. Like the South Side residents in Toni Morrisons’s Song of Solomon who stubbornly refer to “Not Doctor” Street, many locals insist on calling the street Serrano.

If you’re interested in visiting a structure that Borges may actually have lived in, go to the Casa Azul (Tucumán 844), which now functions as a theater a la gorra (pay as much as you want). There are not one but TWO plaques honoring Borges’s residency there. The American equivalent to such nonsense is the “George Washington Slept Here” phenomenon.

Rohter mentions the lovely Plaza San Martín, near where Borges spent most of his adult life. The Kavanagh is an iconic art deco skyscraper that stands at the eastern end of the plaza. Borges hated it so much that he described it as “that tall prism that dominates the estuary whose waters are the color of the desert” and a tower “that notoriously combines the detested whiteness of a sanatorium, the numbered divisibility of a prison and the general appearance of a whorehouse" in his story “La muerte y la brújula." (“Death and the Compass.”)

The “Biblioteca Nacional” that Rohter mentions is no longer the Biblioteca Nacional. The current Biblioteca Nacional is an architectural monstrosity located in Recoleta, so ugly that it is worth seeing. I wonder what Borges had to say about it. (Not Rohter’s fault, but this is the library listed on the linked page).

Lastly, though Rohter talks about how Borges loved to walk through Buenos Aires, he doesn’t mention “Sentirse en muerte,” a piece in which Borges describes a stroll from Barracas to his neighborhood of Palermo. A serious walk, halfway across the city. It can be found in the collection El idioma de los argentinos. It is an itinerary this flânuer will soon follow.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Autumn Leaves

Proust, that famous vago, said it best:
"Je ne regardais en somme tout cela avec plaisir que parce que je me disais : « C'est joli d'avoir tant de verdure dans la fenêtre de ma chambre»"

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Y la vuelta vamo' a dar

Sensible Argentines and guidebooks alike tell you that you should never, nevereverever, watch an Argentine soccer game from the tribuna popular – the section of the stadium where the barras bravas (fan clubs) chant, dance, curse and jump for the duration of a game. On the Sunday night news, the recap of games frequently shows images of fans fighting the police, fighting one another, lighting flares and climbing the fences and screens that cage them like animals.

But after watching and hearing La Doce, the famed and feared hinchada of Boca Juniors from a seat in the platea (the seats) a few weeks ago, I knew I had to experience it up close.

Naturally, it was something I wouldn’t do alone, but luckily two visitors – two petite, blond American girls were willing to ignore the sensible advice they too had heard.

On Sunday Boca was playing Independiente in the stadium of el Rojo. It was to be decisive, because Boca could clinch the league championship with one game remaining in the season.

We arrived in Avellaneda – the town just south of the capital where both Independiente and their archrival, the beleaguered Racing Club play in adjacent stadiums. The walk from the train station was lined with police in riot gear who, at one intersection, held us up as they let fans of el Rojo head towards their separate entrance.

After being patted down on three separate occasions, we entered the stadium and climbed the bleachers. It was an hour to kick off, and the tribuna was already filled to standing-room capacity.

We pushed our way to a spot in the aisle, and there we stood for the next three hours, pressed against and jostled by strangers who, in the end, reacted to our presence with bemusement and graciousness.

Thirty minutes before kick off, the chants began, interspersed with taunts and insults to the hinchada of Independiente – a swarm of red who returned the songs and puteadas with equal passion.

Ten minutes to kick off, a guy standing next to us turned and shouted to us: “The songs are easy to learn.” He was already hoarse.

And as the teams took the field, I could feel the concrete bleachers vibrate from ten thousand pairs of feet, and the voices of those who surrounded me overwhelmed my ears with a song that hasn’t yet left my head: Boca, mi buen amigo / esta campaña volveremos a estar contigo... (Boca, my good friend, / this campaign we will again be with you).

When Boca scored its two goals, we were caught in an avalanche of bodies rushing towards the field. As I was picked up and pushed forward, I saw the drink vendor go head over heels, his upended tray showering us with Coke.

After their victory (2-0), the Boca players gathered at the goal in front of the tribuna and joined the fans in celebrating their second consecutive league championship. Pato Abbondanzieri, the goalkeeper, scaled the thirty-foot fence and sat on top of it, bookended by fans, and sang, shouted, and pumped his fists (see picture).

There is simply no equivalent in the States to this outpouring of passion and semi-controlled chaos. It is a spectacle that is horrifying and beautiful all at once, and to be in the middle of it – fully aware of the many things that could go wrong – produced both a sense of individual insignificance and a delirious illusion of belonging completely to something epic.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Amores perros

Pedaling through Recoleta, I saw a man move his way slowly down the street, surrounded by a pack of domesticated dogs.

Immediately I hopped off my bike and snapped a couple of pictures. Finally I had captured on film a sight that is as much a part of everyday life in Buenos Aires as dodging dogshit: a paseador de perros.

I asked Mario if he ever had problems with the dogs. No, he said.

“But don’t they ever get scared?”

“Sometimes,” he said vaguely, eyeing the rigging to which no fewer than fifteen leashes were attached.

We crossed the street. A brutish-looking mastiff stopped to urinate against a utilities box. Mario smacked his head against the metal box, and the group went on its way.

“And do they all get along?”

“Some of them make friends, others no.”

Mario charges 100 pesos a month, per dog for this service.

New York dog owners pay far more to have a dog walker, or even a dog runner, take their pet out, never in the company of more than a few other dogs.

Think of all the money they would save on Zoloft prescriptions, canine psychologists, and acupuncturists if their dogs could socialize in large groups on a leisurely, daily stroll.