Are you ready for your trip yet? Less than a week and you will be here! You must be scrambling for last minute stuff.
Saturday February 28, 2009
(this is the one in which we walk 40 blocks)
Saturday started off as a nice cool(ish) sunny day. Since we had no plans except to go to Sunderland at night, we decided to take a walk along Callao all the way to Alvear Palace Hotel. It’s like the Buenos Aires Ritz - and it’s located on Av. Alvear, famous for its haute couture and designer boutiques.
We went at a comfortable slow pace, looking at the shops along the way (including one with fashion jewellery and accessories - really nice colorful designs, but too expensive compared to the necklaces we got at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa). Some of the stores were closed, I guess they only opened on weekdays. The area is really nice to walk in - none of the hustle and bustle of the main streets downtown, nice "Parisian Belle Epoque" architecture, polite people (with money but not flashy). We passed by the Christian Dior store we bought a lot of Man Yung’s polos from last year - the quality is just not as good as Lacoste, but in any case they didn’t have sales on polos. It was only one little block always from Alvear.
Most of the designer stores were closed on Alvear too. There was an entire family subtly begging at the corner of Callao and Alvear - a man with his wife and children, and the strange thing was that they were dressed respectably. You wouldn't think that the man in the suit with his wife and children were begging except for their odd position on the sidewalk, stiff, awkward, body language and sullen, silent stares. Man Yung thought it seemed kind of harsh for the man to parade his entire family like this as part of his panhandling enterprise.
We went into Alvear Palace - it has a shopping concourse filled with antiques, expensive gaucho souvenirs and knick-knacks - but no air conditioning, so we didn’t stay and look. The hotel was grand, but not anything we haven’t seen in say, Chateau Frontenac or Royal York downtown. Man Yung said that it didn’t make sense for us to have tea or sit down for a bite to eat there - which was my original plan. Why spend money on these frivolities when you can have a huge delicious meal at La Madeleine, where they would appreciate your tips and give you great service?
There was Louis Vuitton next to Alvear but too bad, it was closed so I can’t get a bunch of designer handbags so I’ll look like any other designer handbag crazy chica on the TTC - so sad. But there’s one thing we’ve noticed in Bs As - not even the rich people carry handbags with big designer logos. Even the bags on display at LV didn’t show obvious logos. That’s maybe where the Argentinians are ahead of a lot of “fashionable” people in Canada and Hong Kong - they don’t need to show the labels in order to boost their self-esteem.
We passed a park right at the edge of the fair with huge trees with sprawling roots and took some photos. Some sinister looking people in green canvas vests were pretending to be Red Cross volunteers and trying to get people to give them “donations”. We ignored them and walked on.
Tree in the park at the end of Alvear. There's a lot of these kinds of trees in Buenos Aires - all along the Av. 9 de Julio, Plaza San Martin, etc., etc. I think they are called Ombú.
At one end of Alvear past LV is the fair we have gone to every year - a tourist attraction filled with tourist souvenirs and kitschy artsy items. Every year we’ve walked through it I have felt sweltering hot - but this year was much better and a little cooler, even though my throat was killing me. We used to pick up some souvenirs here for people, but this year we just didn’t (because you will be in Buenos Aires soon anyway ;-)) We took a little stroll through the fair, and watched a live acoustic band play something that sounded a lot like elevator music in the performance area next to a grassy lawn.
View of the stalls at the Recoleta Fair (also known as Feria de Plaza Francia)
Anywhere there is grass and open space in Buenos Aires, you may see Porteños sitting and lying down, basking in the sun. Here we are catching an open-air concert. I have a displeased look on my face that says "I'm bloody hot, and the sun is in my eyes."
You may not be able to tell by this photo...but these guys are playing "Muzak"
Under the canopies of all the stalls it can be sweltering hot.
Walking past the stalls, we couldn’t find again the vendor who looked like the spitting image of "El Indio" who was teaching baby tango steps to a blond turista last year. But we finally went into the “Buenos Aires Design” mall at the edge of the Plaza Francia - it’s in all the tourist attraction guides as some kind of cutting edge interior design furniture place. But we didn’t see much evidence of that - only a lot of tourist restaurants (they had American style food, Japanese food, Italian food, “Authentic” parillada, and of course, the Hard Rock Café) and a lot of tourists. It's a nice modern mall, open to the outside with patios, and it would have been nice to sit under an umbrella in the sun and having a beer, except the prices were tourist prices. There was only one furniture store that I could see - with a huge white and silver round garden bed with a canopy. Man Yung said “Let’s get it!” and I said “Sure! We can pack it and take it with us on the plane!” (like it would fit in our tiny condo. Our cats would love it though).
We walked a little around the area, past a young asian looking woman with two clever white terriers - the old one was too tired to play but the young one was excited about playing “fetch” with a ball while still on a leash. A few steps ahead and we encountered some streets that looked exactly like Parisian streets - leafy and grand - so much so that I swear they even smelled like them (like old stone and damp). The only thing that was not Parisian about this area was the great number of tangled wires overhead.
Streets in Recoleta. It's like you are in Paris! Except there are so many wires overhead it looks like someone was playing cat's cradle with the electricity grid.
On this same street is a empanada place called "El Sanjuanino". The décor is rustic Argentinian and the expository and poetic writings in the menu hails all manner of its “authentic-ness”. Could we have possibly stumbled upon the most “authentic” empanada places in the world? ;-) The walls were decorated with photos of the owners posed with famous people who we couldn’t recognize - but that's because we are gawking, camera-toting Norteamericano tourists. You too can feel like a gaucho on the pampas eating here - the tables were greasy and Man Yung put his hand on something gross ;-). The empanadas were 5 pesos each - 3 if you take out. We decided we’ll just eat something here and had 2 empanadas each with some water.
El Sanjuanino - you know you are walking into history when it is covered with a thin coat of decades old cow grease...better not lean on the table, Man Yung!
The empanadas were very big, pretty good (but not the best that we've tasted, despite the "authentic-ness" - but perhaps authentic empanadas are not supposed to be the tastiest) and although the menu said they contained olives, only EVERY SECOND ONE CONTAINED an olive. How they managed to do this I don’t know. The olive was very authentic in itself - it still contained the pit.
A handsome, young, clean shaven male tourist (yes, Man Yung, I remember these kinds of things!) sat at the next table, studiously reading. He seemed to speak Spanish to the waiter with much facility, and we watched him order some strange, adventurous and "authentic" stuff from the menu that were not empanadas. When we leaving, I asked him in Spanish what the hell it was that he was eating. He replied haltingly (with not as much facility as I had previously thought, and with a little bit of a gringo accent) that “It’s some kind of soup, with some stuff in it…”
We walked back to the hotel. My sore throat was not any better after the walk in the hot sun so we decided to go to the Farmacity that we passed along the way to get some Listerine. Back at the hotel I tried gargling with it - and I felt even worse. I decided to call my travel insurance and see if they could recommend a doctor.
They couldn’t, but they assured me that my case was covered by travel insurance and they started a claim file for me. I had to submit receipts when I got home. They usually took care of which doctor and did direct billing - but only in the States. Here they didn’t know who we could contact, so I called the hotel front desk and Ricardo (the gentleman that checked us in) told us to go to the German Hospital about 7 blocks away. We went to the lobby and Ricardo was eating, and when we spoke to him to confirm about the hospital we noticed he still had a big crumb on his lip.
We took the taxi there - the taxi driver knew where it was with me having to repeat the intersection. I had trouble saying the intersection name - Arenales was easy, but how to pronounce “Puerreydon” (or whatever that was)? It was really not that far away.
The hospital is in a big grey building - the emergency is at the side and not the front. Or rather “the emergency where they overcharge foreigners is at the side and not the front”. I was afraid that I would be in for a long wait just like in Toronto - however, that was totally not the case. They have everything set up efficiently - the front desk directed you to a specialist based on your case, you then lined up at a cashier a few steps away (where the two male cashiers sat behind glass booths), gave your personal details and passport information, paid your 150 peso consultation fee, got your receipt, and you would be told to wait in the adjacent waiting area for your name to be called. The waiting area was empty with two rows of seats on the side and a flat screen tv playing the current soccer match. I sat down for about 30 seconds and the specialist (I looked at the receipt and it was some kind of OOORRINGGSHHOAAAOSSEEGNINNTHA specialist - well, not exactly this, but a really long unpronounceable and scary looking title nonetheless that I can’t even recall how it’s spelt - called me into the examination room.
The doctor was a very nice, pretty young lady who seemed to want to greet me and say goodbye with a kiss, but I felt that was too bizarre and remained stiffly and awkwardly unreceptive - hey, to think about it, just like some of the "North Eurozone" tourists we meet at the milonga. They must do things different here because the last time I checked, my family doctor doesn’t give out free kisses ;-). It didn’t seem that we could conduct the examination in English, so we spoke in Spanish. Luckily I studied some medical vocabulary just before coming to Bs As - I was preparing to discuss illness with the old maestros because these days they have all sorts of ailments (see Osvaldo last year - we could talk about the progress of his health, but this year he had recovered and was quite ok) but surprise, all that studying became useful for me!
So, the doctor posed all the regular questions - how do you feel, what hurts, any mucus, any swollen lymph nodes etc... A quick visual examination revealed inflammation of the throat. Then the doctor brought out a big black suitcase with some kind of machine in it and said “How about I take a look using this ______” My Spanish was not so good as to know what it was (are you surprised?) Well, I wasn’t going to say no - and then this big long black tube was produced which was inserted into my nostril down into my throat through my nasal passages. I think I must be superhuman not to 1) sneeze, 2) gag, 3) sneeze and gag at the same time. I didn’t even do one or a combination of the above when she told me to swallow and to make the “ahhhh” noise when the tube was still in there (ewwww). It must be some optical tube. After that nasty and intrusive experience, we concluded that yes, I indeed had an infected throat and she wrote some prescriptions and told me to bring a “radiograph” to the cashier again. I asked her if what I had was serious or contagious and the answer to that was “no”. I have to say though, the doctor was very kind and nice.
Well, there was a reason why she was kind and nice. That was because the “radiograph” COST 720 PESOS!!!!!!! Man Yung and I were in shock. Hurray for travel medical insurance - I ended up paying by credit card because we certainly didn’t have so much cash. Man Yung told the cashier that he should have got rid of his wife ;-).
We got our prescription filled at the hospital - yes, the services were expensive but the medicine was 40% off. After we submitted the prescription note, we were directed to the cashier again - we had seen the “chico” at the cash so many times he was now like family. I thought that I had to go back to the pharmacy to get the medicine - but no, if they are charging 720 for a “radiograph” they do things efficiently - they sent the antibiotics in a cylindrical container through an air pressure delivery system. It was amazing. But they could only fill part of my prescription - they had the antibiotics but not the cough syrup, I had to get that somewhere else.
Although the sticker shock was awful, I felt much better with the knowledge that I was not going to die (at least not yet) or spread some potential fatal disease to the tango masters. We still had some free time so we walked back to the hotel from the hospital (we probably also didn’t want to take a taxi because we felt so much poorer after paying the doctor). Santa Fe was busy and filled with people - you have to be cautious but not as much as on Corrientes - it is also greener with its trees and not so dry and polluted. Trees make a big difference wherever you go. We looked at restaurants along the way - there are some really nice ones - and popped into an accessories shop to buy some packages of girly cartoony stationery for Osvaldo and Coca’s grandchildren.
I took some medicine when we got back to the hotel, and then we went out to eat. We wanted to try another restaurant that was opposite La Madeleine on the other side of the street - on previous trips Man Yung had always wanted to try other restaurants, and we had looked at the menu of this other restaurant when we passed by many times.
Apart from two women and the waiters there was no-one in the restaurant. The waiter directed us into one of the deep leather booths and gave us a menu, then disappeared. It wasn’t that the menu was expensive, or that the food selection (they had everything, and Man Yung was interested in the parrilla) wasn’t good - it was the complete lack of service that made us just get up and leave. The waiters seemed annoyed to be bothered by customers. It was almost 7 p.m. and there were no customers - for good reason, I guess, because we got up and left as well. [Now Man Yung realizes why we were bothering the waiters - no one in Buenos Aires eats until 9 p.m. We were way too early. But La Madeleine is 24 hours and is ready to serve patrons any time of the day.]
So we went back to La Madeleine. As I said, my appetite was returning so I ordered Man Yung’s steak with mushroom sauce, and Man Yung ordered a steak with pepper sauce and potatoes in baked in cream and parmesan - both very delicious, and heavy.
Somewhere along the way on this busy day I called N (the expatriate tango blogger who we were supposed to hook up with) and told her that I couldn’t make it to the free Café de los Maestro’s concert on Saturday evening. I had left her a message on Friday night but I wanted to make sure that I got in touch with her too - we didn’t have definite plans since her eye was infected but I didn’t want a misunderstanding either. We talked about how it was at Sin Rumbo etc. We also called Alberto to see how he was - still not so great, and we told him about Sin Rumbo too to amuse him. I am using the phone a lot this trip, and my Spanish must have improved because it appears I can actually have conversations on the phone without any body language! We called Osvaldo and Coca to see whether we had to make reservations - but they were making them and meeting us there.
Martha left us a telephone message that they would be coming too to Sunderland. We were just about to leave for Sunderland when we picked up the message so we weren’t sure whether there were places reserved for them - yikes. Anyway, we took the taxi to Sunderland - and was surprised that it cost only 30 pesos. Sunderland Club is on a residential street - you didn't expect a milonga place until you spot the sudden, glaring illumination of the lights and the big painted sign above the entrance in blue italics on whitewash. We didn’t have much time to examine the way the building looked - Osvaldo and Coca were already outside, early, and we went in with them. They didn’t have to pay the entrada, so we didn’t have to pay for them.
The gym is about half the size I thought it would be after seeing so many videos on Youtube. The ceiling is high, the floor looks like granite (I brought a new pair of Comme Il Faut with me because the soles were smoother - I feared that the floor at Sunderland would be just as terrible as at Sin Rumbo. Man Yung strained his kidneys trying to pivot on that floor) - and was actually quite reasonable to dance on. We arrived early, there weren’t many people and no-one was dancing - but Julio Duplaa was there on the opposite side of the room. A light must have gone on in his head when he saw us with Osvaldo and Coca as to what kind of style we were dancing (Of course he may have another light go on when Martha and Manolo came as well to sit with us.) He was happy to see us and said hello. Coca seemed a little upset when we arrived and told her that Martha and Manolo were coming too (she said “I didn’t know that!" - she must have been worried about seating arrangements) the table that was reserved for us already said “Osvaldo Manolo Coca Martha” - and it was the VIP table right next to the table of Jorge Dispari, Maria Carmen and their "posse". Osvaldo made us sit right at the edge of the floor, and Martha and Manolo sat opposite us - they came a little bit later before the dancing started.
Osvaldo had actually invited many of his friends to come. There was a blond lady from Brazil called T with her boyfriend, the mustached C. She was very animated, always shrieking and laughing and hugging Osvaldo and Coca and acting like the life of the party. Another couple sat next to us - the woman had a riot of curly hair and looks a little like L (a Toronto tanguera) and the man was a big, hefty, benevolent looking man with a balding head. They danced very well, except she had to lean quite a lot to dance with him. Osvaldo and Coca's friends looked like that they had a bit of money, and definitely, tango was a diversion and not a job for any of them.
Lots of people came to greet the “Masters” at our table - even Jorge and Maria Carmen came over to say hello. The difference was that Martha and Manolo would wait for people to come over to say hi to them - while Osvaldo and Coca would go all over to say hello to everyone. Everyone knew everyone there. Jorge and Maria Carmen brought their entourage along, including their daughter Samantha, “adornista extraordinaire”. She had short hair and ribbon tying her shoe to her legs in the criss-cross pattern, ballerina style - her mini-dress and shoes were all in black. I realized something. Last year at Sin Rumbo we bumped into the Disparis and they had a bunch of people with them - including a girl who could do so many adornments it was amazing to watch. She didn’t happen to be “just a disciple” - she was their daughter (she was kind of wearing the same kind of shoes and dress as last year) No wonder. If you have been dancing tango from the time you were in your mother's womb, you too would be able to do the impossible adornments at the speed of a hummingbird's wing.
Comme Il Faut and shoes like them are now commonplace - even the older Porteñas are wearing them. One woman wore an extravagant yellow and black pair, but too much was going on in those shoes - ribbons, white polka dots, stripes, everything. It looked like the shoes had all the symptoms of the plague all at once. Once upon a time, people were afraid that their shoes were too flashy - but now, no matter whether they dance well or dance horribly, everyone is wearing over the top rainbow coloured stilettos.
Martha and Manolo actually danced a lot - but Osvaldo and Coca danced even more. Osvaldo still runs out of breath, so we were a little concerned for his health. We danced when we were told or urged to - since we were with the “Masters” it would be embarrassing for us to be rushing on the dance floor every minute without them. We were also keeping an eye on everyone’s belongings. Osvaldo talked (complained) to Manolo about us and how Man Yung has stolen all his steps. Manolo reassured him that that was the way we first met - Manolo and Martha saw Man Yung dancing Manolo's steps and they stopped him and asked him “Who is your teacher?” - to which Man Yung quite aptly replied - “You are” (That is such a classic).
Sunderland was not actually as crazy as I thought it would be - there were more good dancers there than anywhere else we went, and although there were tourists, only a few were stupid, like the Nuevo couple that kept on their big moves and big boleos on the dance floor. I kept on expecting a large group of tourists to show up after midnight - but they did not materialize. It wasn’t that packed, the night we went - in Youtube videos you see people sitting on the benches next to the wall, but this time they were empty.
We have been dancing better and better these days since we arrived - but Martha may not be pleased that I am dancing “plain style” without adornments. People on the side would watch us, smile, wave to us or give us the thumbs up to tell us we were dancing well. Carlos Rivarola, sitting at one of the tables on the edge of the dance floor, stared at us intently, wondering where the hell we came from and what the hell we were dancing to look so much unlike the rest of the tourists. Osvaldo’s friends were impressed, and Osvaldo was very interested when we were dancing his steps - he kept on looking and looking at us like he couldn't believe that his Tango DNA has somehow reproduced in a couple of chinese people in a small tango community on the other side of the globe.
E, the clowny guy from the big annual nuevo tango festival (you have to guess which one we are talking about), performed. Perhaps that’s why the tourists didn’t come this night - the good dancers would scoff at his clowniness and the tourists who would appreciate him wouldn’t travel so far to Sunderland because they would be afraid to be ripped off by the taxi driver. Julio Duplaa looked very grave looking at their awful performance, but some of the bits were funny (especially to Osvaldo‘s friends). I can’t believe they let them perform to to four songs. It must have taken up at least twenty minutes of dancing time. The last one they “tried” to dance normal tango to Di Sarli’s Bahia Blanca - nope, it really didn’t work. Actually, it highlighted their suckiness.
Martha and Manolo left at 2:30 a.m. and we accompanied them out the door. We said we had to stay until Osvaldo left because Osvaldo invited us - they agreed that was the polite thing to do. Of course it took them a long time to leave - everyone had to say goodbye to them - and then in the corridor just outside the restaurant part of the building (and where everyone was smoking) a short man who looks a dwarf version of H from Toronto stopped them and grabbed me and started dancing some steps. He tried to do more and more stuff (he is want you would call one of those “fancy dancers”) but it didn’t really make a difference to me. Since we were dancing open embrace, I was even able to do some adornments, and Man Yung said Martha was giggling when she saw I was doing adornments and following this guy so well. “H” claimed to know someone from Toronto, “La Turca” somebody. He claimed that everyone in the world knew him (while we were wondering who the hell he was). I said “Sure, everyone knows you!” I know better than to argue with drunk people or Argentinians with big heads (and small bodies).
Some more highlights of the evening - we saw Samantha dancing with a “very old milonguero” - but very energetic, because he was doing many moves and also dancing rock and roll with Samantha. We saw Ofelia, who is 80 and the mother of the organizer at Sunderland, but who has the legs of someone half her age. We bumped into Juan Esquivel again, with his girlfriend, and he thought we were there by ourselves and was about to invite us to sit with him - and we told him no, indeed, we were with Osvaldo and Coca. While dancing, we encountered “H” on the dance floor and switched partners so I had to dance with H and Man Yung had to dance with his partner (who wasn’t a very good follower at all - “H” even dances like H from Toronto with his pushing and shoving, lack of music and awkward embrace). We danced with “L” and her boyfriend - he’s pretty good, and she’s pretty good, Argentinians are naturals if they dare to dance. Samantha danced with her dad (doesn’t it look weird when they do that?) The Dispari table had a father who danced with his eight year old daughter - she was already pretty amazing. Man Yung didn’t like it though - it looks like some tango professionals are training their children to be nothing but tango dancers from their infancy. What about school and trying to get into a normal profession? The tango scene couldn't possibly be good for children. When we finally left the milonga we saw a young professional tanguera (who had been dancing up a storm at the milonga) standing outside leaning against a post, smoking a cigarette - she isn’t even twenty yet and already she looks worn out and world-weary. The life of Tango appears glamourous - but just take a few steps off the stage or outside the milonga - we suspect you may find hard living, drugs, loneliness and heartbreak.
We can’t believe it but Osvaldo and Coca stayed until the bitter end - after 4 a.m. Surely he should not be partying so hard given his health? We paid the tab for the entire table - even for T and her boyfriend who had a meal and champagne (and were lovey-dovey all night). It was around 250 pesos, but lucky we paid for everyone and not just the “Maestros” - because Osvaldo made T and her boyfriend drive us home. Think of how embarrassing it would be if we didn’t pay for them as well!
Osvaldo and Coca take to the floor at Sunderland during the last few tandas of the evening, February 28, 2009. How gentle and musical they are! (But, oh, what party animals)
Driving back into town, T and her boyfriend followed Osvaldo’s car, and they would pass each other and roll down the window and gesture wildly and yell endearments to each other. EVEN ON THE HIGHWAY. The cars would swerve all over the road as they waved and shouted in the quiet barrio night. Those crazy people. Then Osvaldo and Coca took the highway in the other direction.
T was nice, and we chatted with her a little bit. She told us that Osvaldo was teaching at Saraza on Tuesdays, and that it was a very nice milonga and we should go. She gave me her email address so that I could email her and she could email back the address and times. She must have a bit of money because she usually lives in Brazil and had been in Argentina 4 months already (but not on vacation). She had been to Toronto as well.
By the time we reached the hotel it was so late (or early). We were exhausted. That was waaaaaaaay too much party for one night.
Sunday to follow….