Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Buenos Aires vacation is an urban adventure


To hook. When a tango dancer wraps a leg sharply around and in contact with the partner's leg by flexing the knee and releasing.

BUENOS AIRES — At the start of the seduction it happens. The stare. The fleeting touches. The quickening flutter of excitement. The wondering, will it end before beginning?

And then the man's arm gracefully reaches out, the palm upturned. He's waiting, waiting . . . waiting.

The music kicks in, the mournful piano notes twisting with violin strains.

She steps into his embrace.

I am the only one watching the crowd and not the tango dancers. Camera shutters whir and snap. Some people in the crowd hold smartphones aloft recording the moment to post on some social networking site as proof of their fantastic vacation.

February's late-summer humidity blankets Buenos Aires. I desperately need a handheld fan and a bottle of water to deter the 90-plus-degree heat.

But back to the dancers, whose fully clothed twisting bodies — he's in black, yes black, pants and long sleeves, she's in a full skirt with three-quarter sleeves — meld with the sad strains of the music that once symbolized Argentinian discontent. My gaze settles on his face and I watch the beads of sweat turn first into a solo trickle, then into rivers running down his face.

Like a needle skipping on a record, time stops and my perfect Argentine moment is lost.

The dancers still tango. The music still plays. But reality intercedes.

There is no stage or adoring audience. Just a dusty patch of concrete, tucked in between tables of Porteños hawking pieces of their history to eager tourists at the weekly antiques market in San Telmo's Plaza Dorrego.

This is the contradictory essence of Buenos Aires. Stunning art nouveau architecture hides under decades of grime or street-side graffiti or both. Fences surround national monuments in front of the Congresso to keep them from being defaced. At closing time, trash spills forth over Palermo's beautiful, tree-lined sidewalks in front of closed markets, causing walkers to dodge limp heads of lettuce and past-their-prime apples.

Still, I am hooked.


Curtain. A brief musical interlude between a set of dance music usually three to five songs at a milonga, a tango dance event.

My husband and I do not globe-trot. Our passports do not contain stamps from far-flung locales. A typical vacation requires packing up the car and returning to our familiar Midwestern roots.

But in 2004, we honeymooned in Paris. For a week we ate breakfast each morning in the Luxembourg Gardens, strolled along the Seine or through art museums and dined in quaint cafes.

When our plane taxied down the runway at Charles de Gaulle, we promised ourselves we would travel again.

Some people hoard books and papers, we hoard frequent-flier miles.

Once we had enough stashed away to go somewhere big, our final destination had to meet several criteria: It had to be far-flung enough that we could never afford the airfare without using frequent-flier miles. That eliminated most of Europe. It had to be a country where the dollar was still strong. Again, Europe was out, even with the continent's current economic woes. It had to have a wine-growing region.

When my husband, David, suggested Buenos Aires, the Paris of the South, we toasted our choice with a glass of malbec from Mendoza. And the planning began.


To make an entrance. In the tango, it occurs when a dancer steps forward or otherwise enters the space between a partner's legs without displacement.

The door clicks shut and I head back to the expanse of windows to greedily take in the view. Buenos Aires' city center spreads out before us, the high-rise buildings eventually giving way to the shimmering waters of the Rio de la Plata. Twenty hours ago, we anxiously awaited the first leg of our flight from Tampa, and now we have keys to the apartment that will be home base for our two-week vacation.

From 15 floors up, the blaring street noise — a medley of rumbling bus engines, screeching taxi brakes and aggressive car horn blasts — fades to a whisper. From 15 floors up, it's easy to forget that not only are we the cliched strangers in a strange land, but we are non-Spanish-speaking strangers.

And then there are the parting words of our landlord, "People think Buenos Aires is an exotic place. I don't understand why."

I chose not to answer him.

It is early on Day 1 and the options are endless: We can visit the dead at the Recoleta Cemetery, or take the behind-the-scenes tour at Teatro Colón, or pop in for an afternoon libation at the famous Café Tortoni. Instead, we stroll along the tourist-trap-friendly Calle Florida, a safe and easy introduction to the city.

Six hours later we are lost.

I duck into a McDonald's to use the bathroom while my husband stares at the map in our guide book again. Yes, a paper map. I can't think of the last time we had to consult a real map and not our smartphones for directions.

An hour and two more wrong turns later we bask in the icy air blowing from the AC unit in our Buenos Aires pied-a-terre. I institute two rules for the rest of the trip: Consult the map before we leave each morning, and if we get lost, find a Starbucks. They have free Wi-Fi.


The embrace; a hug; or dance position.

Minutes ago we stood in front of the Casa Rosada, Argentina's pink presidential palace where Eva Perón addressed her adoring masses. But I am not Argentine nor an Evita worshiper; still Madonna's voice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's words to Don't Cry for Me Argentina fill my head. I know my connecting Madonna with Evita would be blasphemous to the Argentinians who still wait in line to leave flowers at her tomb in the Recoleta Cemetery.

Now, we're joyriding on the subway, or subte.

"Where are we going?" my husband asks.

I look around the car. We sit on slatted wooden benches. From each of the car's smallish windows hangs a leather strap providing the means to open or close them. Dark wood frames the doors, which you also open yourself.

"Nowhere," I reply.

"We're riding through history," is what I long to say, but he will find that a ridiculous sentiment and tease me about it for the rest of the afternoon. I say nothing more and enjoy my moment on the beautifully restored, original subway cars. Buenos Aires' A Subway line dates to 1913. It was the first underground transportation system in Latin America. The original cars still traverse the tracks daily.

This is how our vacation plays out. I am the trip planner, guide-book reader, listmaker extraordinaire. My history-loving husband is the budget keeper, adding a quick dose of reality when our joint plans become too grandiose. With more than a week in the city, our trip doesn't have the frenetic pace that drove our time in Paris.

We sleep late. We meander through the city streets sometimes with no specific desire other than to enjoy the architecture that can be Parisian art nouveau on one block or American art deco and Greek neoclassical on the next. We check off sights on our list daily:

• The Recoleta Cemetery: Home to Evita's final resting place; many of the tombs contain small winding staircases to the subterranean levels where the older caskets are stored.

• The MALBA (home to Latin American modern art): Even the benches are functional works of art with the pieces of wood turning into individual tendrils that extend up and over the walls in the museum's atrium.

• The Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo: An 18th century restored French mansion that provides insight into life during the golden era of Buenos Aires' rise as one of the leading destinations for European immigrants.

• The behind-the-scenes tour at the Teatro Colón: The first two architects died untimely deaths at 44, leading many to believe the project cursed. The third architect, a Frenchman who agreed to take on the project, was already over 44. He survived.

We even manage a three-day respite from the city for a cross-country trek to Mendoza to drink wine amid the vineyards, the snow-capped Andes looming in the distance.


Tango close. An ending to a basic pattern similar to a half of a box step. 6, 7 and 8 of the 8-count basic.

I wake on the morning of our final day and feel panic, the kind that comes from worry that we missed out on that one must-see sight. I feel like I'm only starting to understand Buenos Aires and its crumbling sidewalks, svelte and friendly Porteños the locals — and pride in its boom-and-bust history. Despite the economic woes it suffered at the turn of the 21st century it feels like a country back on the brink of the boom.

Mentally, I tick off what I have learned and done:

I know that if I yearn to escape the workweek craziness of the city center, Palermo is just a subway ride away. There, I can window shop under a dense tree canopy, sate my appetite with some of the city's best and most unique restaurants, find English-speaking Porteños and relax in one of the many parks with nary a bus in sight.

At the grocery store, I know that the eggs are not refrigerated, that you weigh the produce before you get in the checkout line and that local beer can be cheaper than American soda.

I feel in love with San Telmo and its rainbow-hued murals, crammed antique stores and the historic plaques that litter every block: This famous person slept here, or that one wrote a book there, and this site was once a jail.

I have crossed large multilane streets — 11 lanes in Palermo! — that would have pedestrian overpasses in the States.

Now our bags are stowed and the car taking us to the airport turns on to Avenida 9 de Julio. City workers move metal barricades into place for the Carnaval parade later that evening. I'm sad to leave before the raucous party.

I turn around for one final glimpse of the obelisk and the Teatro Colón. It was a fantastic trip, but I have a feeling we won't be back.

The rest of the world beckons.

Jennifer DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8881.

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