Sunday, January 28, 2007

Day 7, Part 2: Livin' La Vida Boca

January 19

With an exhausting 6-hour workday in the sun behind me, we head off to La Boca in the southeast corner of Buenos Aires for an afternoon of food, shopping and…photography? (I couldn’t think of a third thing to write.) Known as the birthplace of the tango, this one-time shipyard has a famous walkway, the Caminito, where tango dancers perform and artists exhibit their work. One of the first things we see is La Bombanera, the stadium for the Boca Junior soccer team. Or futbol. Or whatever they call it down here. It’s huge and Liz wants to get a picture for her soccer-crazed husband. We mention this to Julietta but something gets lost in the translation and we end up stopping right outside one of the gates. So much for photography. Fortunately, we’re also right outside a shop for the elusive soccer scarf, also for Liz’s soccer-crazed husband. They have scarves for every team around. Buenos Aires alone has a ton of them. Liz needs to get a scarf from Boca Junior and River Plate.

This is easy enough to do but not advised. Soccer loyalties run deep in this town, as well as in every town that is not in the United States. The rivalries are taken very seriously and no two teams are hated rivals as much as Boca Junior and River Plate. Julietta explains that it goes well beyond the field. It’s about the fans themselves. Boca Junior is from La Boca. Right on the water. Cobblestone streets. Immigrants. Blue collar. Hardworking families. River Plate is the opposite, including it’s location on the opposite end of Buenos Aires. It’s sort of like the rivalry between the Yankees and the Mets, but the rivalry here rarely goes beyond a war of usually stupid words. Even the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry doesn’t get violent. But you just can’t like Boca Junior and River Plate. It doesn’t make sense, like being a compassionate conservative (the preceding statement concludes the political part of the blog). We decide to buy the stuff anyway, partially because we’ve spent a week looking for the right scarves and partially because we look too touristy to know any better. I purchase a scarf for MPC which supports a team whose mascot is an undertaker. Must be a lot of fun at supermarket openings.

The scarves have a musty smell. To Liz, they smell like some kind of reheated food. Either way, the smell is not as bad as the area where we have now parked. It’s not me, I swear. I know I haven’t bathed or done anything very hygienic today but it’s not me. The smell dissipates a bit after we walk around. Or maybe we’re just used to it. So we find a place for lunch.

Today’s lunch is brought to you by La Perla. We sit outside under some umbrellas. I drink a Quilmes, which is one of the local beers. Looking around this week, you’d think it was the only local beer. The name seems to be on every outdoor item: umbrellas, chairs, coasters, etc. It’s a pretty decent beer but I’m not an expert. I’m just a tourist who is also a magnet for every street urchin around. At one point, a kid walks up to the table and asks something. I wave him off and say no (which means “no” in English) because I assumed he was asking for money. Julietta is giggling. She tells me that the kid wants to know if I want a picture of myself with hair. Is offending your potential donor a good way to get money? Not in this case. After the fact, I decide that it actually was pretty funny and I actually see the kid a few more times during the day (it’s not a huge area) but I don’t get up the nerve to ask him for the picture.

Even after a week here, I’m still reluctant to ask questions. It’s pretty stupid of me, considering no one expects me to know anything about anything down here. But still, I muster on. For lunch, I order what seems to be a steak sandwich. I can get the regular one or I can get it “completo”. I assume that “completo” means “complete” and therefore either means it’s bigger or it comes with fries or something. Like ordering a burger in a diner and getting “deluxe”. Well we all know the old cliché about what happens when you “assume”. I was correct in my thinking that it comes with more stuff. No fries, but lettuce and tomato. And cheese. And ham. I sort of understand the cheese thing but when did ham become a condiment? I’m sure this wouldn’t pass Robert’s condiment test. Now this all could have been avoided if I had bothered to ask what “completo” meant. I also should have remembered Michelle’s stories about Buenos Aires being ham-crazed. Instead, I have to send it back. And the thing about sending stuff back is that everyone else at the table starts offering their food. It’s very nice of them but I’d rather sulk in my Quilmes.

Tonight is dinner and a tango night. We dine at Far+cia (pronounced “far-mas-cia…see what they did with the “+”?) which, apparently, used to be a pharmacy. It’s in the San Telmo section of Buenos Aires, where we were on our first night here. I don’t know if we’re in a gay part of town or if this is a gay restaurant or what but all the maps and brochures in the lobby area are all gay-themed. No matter. The food is good, even thought the menu is weird. It seems as if we all got different menus. Or maybe Wanda is the only one missing some pages. It’s basically a stack of laminated index cards with English translations on the back and all held together with a ring. Liz tried something which, to her, tasted like wet dog. Or feet. I forget which. She has a way with words, that one does. I do like the music a lot and I notice it more when, for the second time this week, I hear a jazzy, lounge version of “Boys Don’t Cry”. After some dialogue and research, I find an album on iTunes called Jazz and 80s. I highly recommend it.

We’ve also decided that there is a big difference between the Topher we see at work and the Topher the rest of Manhattan sees on the weekend. He’s “Topher” from Monday through Friday afternoon and “Chris” on the weekends. Or maybe it’s “Criss”.

Dinner takes forever and we need to get to the tango show. It’s right around the corner at a place called Bar Sur. It turns out they’re celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. The show started at 10 and we’re pretty late so we’re ushered into a dark, tiny room with tables crammed in and some performers at the front. It’s like something out of “Cabaret”. The performers are really eclectic and strange and they all take turns coming out of some room small room behind them. I don’t know how they all fit in there. But the show is great. I thought it would be all tango dancing but it’s actually a mixture of dancing and some music and some singers. The first thing we see when we sit down is a sad, drunken French woman singing along with her elderly, hunchback pianist. I don’t know what she’s singing but you get the sense from the way she’s performing that it’s something sad.

Up next is an old man who looks a lot like a bald Ian McKellan. He has a great baritone voice and he mixes his singing with comments to the “crowd” (there can’t be more than 20 people in here and that’s too many). I have no idea what he’s saying but other people are laughing so I smile politely. He comes out for a second time and does the inevitable thing where he asks questions to the crowd. He comes to us and Julietta and Wanda are silent. Bad timing considering they are our only Spanish speakers. We tell the guy that we’re from New York and he starts vamping a bit of “New York, New York.”

This is followed by a woman who may be American. She’s singing in English and this proves to be a bit of a letdown. I mention to Susannah that, in comparison to the other singers, English is a pretty ugly language. I mention this to Liz as well and she disagrees. This actually is a bit of a running theme called, “Liz and Susannah Could Never In A Million Years Be Roommates.”

Up next is a strange trio of musicians playing tango music. One man sits in a chair and plays an accordion. It looks kind of small for an accordion, but kind of big to be the kind of squeezebox sailors play in Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. And then the dancers come out. I really love the dancing. Tango is such an amazing, precise dance. I notice that the woman seems to do all the work. The man just walks back and forth in a fancy manner. Sure he has to lead but how hard can that be? Part of it must be the look. Although one of the dancers looked really young and had a nose that would have fit in really well at my Bar Mitzvah.

After the dancing, the dancers look for volunteers from the room. Wanda went up there twice. She looked good up there and moved pretty well for someone who doesn’t know how to tango. We tell her this and she says she doesn’t know how to dance. Only salsa and samba. This is like saying you can’t sing except for opera. I watch another woman from the crowd dancing. She’s wearing what Liz calls “mom jeans”. The woman dances really well and I mention to Susannah that, with the right partner, any woman can probably dance well. She agrees. I mention it to Liz and she disagrees. Figures.

I was thinking that if the woman dancer asked me up there, I’d actually go. I was drunk enough at the time. But she never asked. None of the woman did. They all danced with the same guy, who looked like a regular who also knows tango. The one time a guy from the room got up to dance, he turned out to be one of the loud Americans with a goofy laugh and equally goofy comments to his dance partner. He ruined it for everyone else.

Julietta headed for the ladies room during one of the breaks. The restrooms are right behind where the performers are...performing. So when the next set starts, she's basically stuck back there. It's actually funny to see her step out of the ladies room and stand there, unable to move until the song ends.

So after a few hours, it’s time to go. It’s between sets and some of the performers are sitting at a table enjoying some wine. It’s impossible to leave unnoticed and the Ian McKellen guy comes over to thank us for coming. I say “us” but it’s really me because everyone else has walked out already. I shake his hand and give him hug and a kiss on the cheek. I don’t know why but it seemed like the thing to do.

Outside of Bar Sur, we try to decide what to do next. There’s something on Susannah’s face. She goes to wipe it off and it turns out it was a mosquito. So now she has a streak of blood on her face and the potential for a nice welt on her cheek. She and I decide to head back to the hotel while Liz, Topher, Wanda and Julietta decide to go out. Susannah and I get in a cab with a driver who sort of knows English. I tell him the name of the hotel several times. I’m sure he was told the name of the hotel before he got back in the cab. He drives around the block once, I guess thinking that we wouldn’t know any better. At one light, he turns around and tries to sell me his watch. It was actually a nice watch but I decline. We approach the hotel and the driver points to it and says, “oh, Hotel Madero!” as if it’s the first time he’s heard the name. And when we get out, he seems to have lost his ability to speak English. We ask for a receipt. A piece of paper. A pen. Anything. I was going to go into the hotel to get some help but leaving Susannah with this guy didn’t seem like a good idea. As if I could have protected her or something. We eventually give up. Susannah pays for the cab and we move on.

I watch some more American TV with Spanish subtitles. New words (if I can read my own handwriting): Que medo (it’s scary), cuata con eso (you got it), dejala ir (let her go), es libre de nuevo (you’re free of the carbonite). Oh, I’m watching Return of the Jedi. Han can’t believe that Luke is a Caballeros de Jedi (Jedi Knight).

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