Monday, 21 April 2014

Tourist Tat

I like to wear little things that remind me of things. They don't have to be valuable. I've never seen the attraction of diamonds. My jewellery is mostly about love and memory and particular places. So why not have a little heart of "inca rose" on a little chain? I chose it very carefully from all the very similar ones on offer, and decided that I wanted a heart rather than an oval. Because, why not. We can't always be loved back.

Rhodochrosite Heart from the tourist market in Recoleta
 These cloths came in many colours, and I deliberated long before choosing the brightest. It makes a warm scarf, or a very cheerful, very "South American" tablecloth.

Woven cloth from the other market in San Telmo
Also near the market in San Telmo was a Free Hugs guy. A fine looking tall young black man with a friendly face and a sign saying "Abrazos gratis". I hugged him with pleasure. He said "Oooooo, como abrazás!". Which was nice.

There is a tremendous amount of directly tango-themed tourist tat in Buenos Aires, much of it vaguely representational of couples allegedly dancing. Most of it is quite repellent. But I loved these. They have the painter's name on the back - rather hard to read, but I think it is Alicia Corrarin. She was a very sweet, friendly lady, selling her work in the market, and when I looked at her miniature paintings I felt that she really understands that people dance tango with each other because it makes them happy. One of them kind of reminds me of me, and another one kind of reminded me of a friend, except not now because she's got thinner.

Fridge magnet paintings from the market in Recoleta.
Every time I see them on my fridge, they make me smile. Tourist tat is not pointless.

(On the other hand, while we're on shopping, the cash economy was, to me, the number one most tedious thing about Buenos Aires. Of course, I got used to it very quickly and practically forgot about it: but it does the place a lot of damage.  I probably spent roughly half, perhaps even as little as a third, of what I *would* have spent in the local economy on top of accommodation, if the gap between the official and the actual market exchange rate hadn't been so large, and I had therefore been able to buy shoes and whatnot without having to travel across the city carrying large wads of cash. Impulse buys just don't happen. In fact, I would have spent substantially more if I'd been able to buy basically *anything* without carefully hoarding minuscule sums of cash I wouldn't have thought about for a second about back home. How hard is it really to just issue enough physical currency in small denominations, so that people who have the power to earn it and the desire to exchange it for goods and services, can physically do so as often as they want? One of the most basic  tasks of government? A question that must surely have been studied, I know not where. I know it can't be altogether simple - it took Isaac Newton to suss it out in Britain - in 1699).

Saturday, 19 April 2014

"From" is a big word

"From" is a big word. People ask where a person is "from", expecting that there is a simple, truthful answer which they can use to understand something about you. Or, less charitably, which they can use to look up in their heads what polite or impolite prejudice to apply. One of the nice things about living in London is that rather few people make that mistake; and one of the nice things about tangoing abroad is that "London" or even "England" will do as an answer.

I had a very curious conversation once in which someone concluded "... Oxford, but I'm not from there any more". The sentence struck me as extraordinarily odd; almost ungrammatical: who would ever say such a thing? The state of being "from" somewhere is permanent. That's the whole point. You can't "not be" "from" somewhere "any more" - that's just not what it means. If you ever were, you still are. Or you are not.

I nodded politely. I suspected it might have had to do with the university, and it might well have been meant as an invitation to ask about that, but as a Balliol woman I had no intention of indulging any such nonsense.

A week or two ago I had dinner with someone I've seen twice in the last three months, and before that, hadn't seen for thirty years. She is the only person in my life - apart from my parents, and I'm not sure about them - who already knows where I am "from". It doesn't matter where I was born, how long I lived where, what accent I speak with. She knows where I am "from" because she is too, and she remembers me. And no other information can remove that knowledge. And somehow, inexplicably, we were on the same page.

It was a very unfamiliar feeling for me, and it took me a while to understand what it was. I didn't know what it felt like, to be from somewhere.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

On writing letters

I have just been re-reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses. An inscription on the title page tells me that I bought it twenty years ago. Published in 1782, it is a fascinating novel concerning the education of women in the author's society. It was made (minus a rather eye-opening sub-plot) into a striking film in 1988, and there are lots of other film versions, including a rather good Korean one in 2003. I read an interesting essay recently which argued that a film by its nature misses the point of a novel in which all the characters construct themselves in the form of their letters, and never even bother to describe themselves or each others' physical appearance. However, all that aside, one of the bits I was looking for just now was this - my translation is below.


[The main part of the letter, instructing the 15-year-old Mlle Volanges on the management of her two lovers and prospective husband, need not detain us.]

P.S. - A propos, j'oubliais... un mot encore. Voyez donc à soigner davantage votre style. Vous écrivez toujours comme un enfant. Je vois bien d'oú cela vient; c'est que vous dites tout ce que vous pensez et rien de ce que vous ne pensez pas. Cela peut passer ainsi de vous à moi, qui devons n'avoir rien de caché l'une pour l'autre : mais avec tout le monde! avec votre Amant surtout! vous auriez toujours l'air d'une petite sotte. Vous voyez bien que, quand vous écrivez à quelqu'un, c'est pour lui et non pas pour vous : vous devez donc moins chercher à lui dire ce que vous pensez, que ce qui lui plaît davantage.

Adieu, mon coeur : je vous embrasse au lieu de vous gronder dans l'espérance que vous serez plus raisonnable.
My translation:

P.S. - A propos, I was forgetting ... another word. Pay more attention to your style. You still write like a child. I know exactly why; you say everything you think, and nothing you do not think. That is all very well between the two of us, who should have nothing to conceal from one another : but with everyone! and with your Lover, above all! You will always sound like a little fool. Think well that when you write to someone, it is for them and not for yourself : so you should try less to say what you think, and more to say what will please them best.
Goodbye, dear heart : I kiss you instead of scolding you, in the hope that you will be more sensible.

Saturday, 29 March 2014


Tonight someone told me about a case of the widespread pain and misery it can cause when a person who is gay feels like they have to pretend to themselves that they are not. It had never occurred to me as a possible explanation of the behaviour I had heard about. I felt some sympathy and understanding I had not felt before.

I am so glad people can marry who they want now (as from two hours ago). Marriage is not for everyone, but the public endorsement is not a small thing. I hope it will give others the confidence to be themselves.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Art, Politics, Time, Space, Hair

This is a plan of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the museum of fine art in Buenos Aires. I went in while I was there; it was about thirty minutes' walk from where I was staying, and I was interested to see what would be inside. As you can see, it's quite small, (it looks bigger on the website), but it has some unique and interesting things. They include some compelling and very informative journalistic war paintings in Room 23, which I've never seen anything else quite like, and some horrifying drawings by Goya in room 8. It's also good for Rodin, but for a visitor the rooms of Argentinian painting are obviously of greater interest.

The impression I went away with was of very striking and beautifully executed, large 19th-Century paintings with plain political messages either nationalist or socialist. And lots of portraits of rich people and nude women, occasionally rich nude women, one looking very likely, if not very well painted, in a bath. And the detailed, panoramic, horrifying battlefields. All of those I really enjoyed looking at, and they made me think.

However, if you go there at any time, I would draw your attention to the large glass case at the street end of Room 17 (at the end, top right), in red. There's virtually no labelling to give you any information at all about what's going on, but it contains one or two dozen elaborately carved tortoiseshell mantilla combs, the widest a curved semicircle over a metre wide. That one has a pattern of foliage surrounding a male portrait. A smaller one, not on the website, had an elaborate hunting scene. Some of them obviously made social or political statements, but the labels gave a foreigner no clue. Who was Juan Manuel de Rosas and why did this lady want to display his portrait in her hair? How exactly would she have worn this comb, on what sort of occasion? What did it signify to her and those around her? How customary or widespread was this practice? How were they made, what did they cost, and what sort of people designed and made them? Was there some sort of my-comb-is-bigger-than-yours thing going on? Was it talked of in society? Did cartoonists mock it?

I have no idea, and they weren't telling. Charles Darwin, on his visit to Buenos Aires, had this to say:
Otherwise, I remain ignorant. However, on International Women's Day, just last week, I saw this:

These four Spanish women (you can only see three and an elbow) had made mantilla combs out of paper and card, written their messages on them in English, and worn them with fringed shawls to announce "I am Spanish and I demand abortion rights". At least, that is what it announced to me. The signs they carried were in Spanish, but the combs in English, this being London.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Grace, and the phantom

I've just been watching archive videos of Yevgeny Plushenko and remembering how beautiful he is. Such grace - that mastery of the physics that makes the man appear to fly, to move softly and subtly and effortlessly, with instant acceleration, deceleration and control.

It frequently makes full-speed video look like slow motion.

Part of it is musicality - even in Olympic competition, the music rarely seems like simply a background or framework for the choreography. In many routines he still manages to make the movement look as though it's motivated by the music, and that contributes a lot to the illusion of ease, and the reality of grace.

Of course, it works much better in the gala routines, which are more like pure dance.

I often think that it's a mistake to learn how to move by trying to make it look a certain way. If the movement has a meaning, something to do, say, or express, then beauty is an automatic byproduct of efficiency in doing that. I can't prove that, it's just my opinion. For me, seeing that something looks wrong is often a good way to identify an inefficiency or bad habit and discard it. Seeing the way someone else does something, and noticing that it looks good, can also be very helpful in working out how to do it better. But trying to look a certain way, or to do anything simply because it might look good, is mostly confusing and counterproductive.

An individual performance is about how it looks for an audience, yes. But I think it looks better when it's looking that way at least partly in the service of meaning something.

Bonus: Destin and his Phantom super slow motion camera explain the physics of ice skates.

My favourite thing about the internet these days is all the pop-science educational content that gets straight to an interesting point. Or if they do waste time, it's with genuine banter rather than irritating apology. Not a Pensive-Presenter-With-Landscape in sight.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

My dance and Buenos Aires

It takes a few weeks before you can say how your dance has changed, if it has.

I made no deliberate changes and took no classes, except a leaders' technique class with Marcelo Gutierrez, which I found very useful, and recommend. I also helped another of his students revise some work by following him for an hour under supervision, and that student's improvement was very marked when he put the advice into practice; like having an engine upgrade. But on the whole I prefer not to mix classes with social dancing too much, I prefer to separate them in terms of time, especially if any marked changes are likely.

Jet lag definitely helped me to make a flying start: I nearly always dance better when I'm fairly tired, because it eliminates mental noise and the tendency to try too hard. I was also confronted with a completely new set of partners, the majority of whom had a high level of emotional connection to the music, expressed through uncomplicated (but focused) vocabulary and technique. This helps the follower to keep a good connection and concentration level, and my concentration level improved dramatically. It helped me to simplify my dance and let go of unnecessary effort, which is something I need to do from time to time.

I was able to bring this back with me. That was nice, as it was something I had wanted to work on. I came back with memories that help me recreate that when I need it. I'm not sure that it has lasted till now, but it certainly lasted a while and is probably retrievable, in favourable conditions.

I also felt that I got more robust and resilient to balance or mobility problems in the partner, which a year ago would have sabotaged me for several hours. This might have been something I had already, but didn't know about - I can't identify what caused it specifically. I felt able to be, confidently, more adventurous than I normally am at home and to dance with a wide range of people. The reasons were complex and the effect was probably enhanced by the shortness of my stay.

I regained a sense of inspiration and adventure that I had been looking for. The concentration comes with that. I regained the ability to lose myself in the dance with a wider range of partners. At least some of this has stayed with me.

I got mixed reviews from partners at home: I was more grounded, more subtle, less inclined to think, possibly a little less responsive, but the response was positive from those who noticed a change.