Thursday 28 November 2013

Customs and Language and Dancing (Long)

I had had two theatre things recommended to me, but I didn't get there. When I wasn't dancing I mostly wanted to be outside in the sunshine. It is wonderful to be in Spring for three weeks when it is about to be Winter back home.
I don't speak Spanish very well, although I understand quite a bit and can make myself understood for simple things, and the occasional more interesting thing with people who already know me otherwise. But it is so interesting to feel the low-level steps of acquiring a language. In seven days I had reached a point where I sometimes gave a correct or at least comprehensible answer, to a simple question or command, and only afterwards understood consciously what both of us had said.

The general sound is very like Italian, for obvious historical reasons, and if you get confused and speak Italian, which I did more than once, a lot of people will be able to guess what you wanted to say.
This works totally fine in the formal milongas, given that all you are there to do is dance, and any more general socialisation, coordination, banter, or exchange of ideas with the men involved is customarily arranged and executed by other means. Three weeks is not long enough for someone like me to figure out the customary ways of doing all that (other than the obvious - Facebook), so it is not going to happen. The only exception was a fascinating tour of parts of the city with the friend of a friend, who I had been introduced to by email beforehand.

The result, for me, was an entertaining, extremely simple, and efficient night out. The women sitting beside me were always perfectly friendly, and were happy to exchange information and the usual sorts of remarks and minor mutual assistance, in whatever way we could make ourselves understood. Mutual assistance is often needed when you leave your table to dance, since the women's tables and chairs are crammed extremely close together. The men seem to have more room; perhaps there are fewer of them.

As for getting dances, my way of doing it at the encuentros worked for me without any alteration at all, to the apparent satisfaction of everyone. I danced a lot - every other tanda, sometimes more, sometimes less - and once I felt satisfied, I had no hesitation in going home to bed. I only once stayed to the end - a nice side benefit of not really knowing anyone.

So the thing to plan for is getting the first dance. Arriving for the first time with the lady I was staying with helped; the previous introduction was also much appreciated; but having found my way around, I was perfectly fine on my own. You can get a bad seat or a good seat, but this only matters for the first visit. Once a few partners recognise you, it doesn't appear to matter a damn where you sit, they know where you are, and will be looking. At Obelisco, a new venue used by more than one milonga, there are not many poor single seats. At El Beso, also used by several, there are.

And again, if you're a regular at the European encuentros, and very probably the marathons, you're highly likely to know at least one or two faces. I did, at all of the busier milongas. And failing that, a calm glow and a smile would probably work too, perhaps with a little patience.

Even if you were only a regular of the traditional-style milongas in the M4 corridor, I think you would still have no problems with any of the essentials; you have to know that the woman is expected to remain seated until the man is actually right there and can't really get much closer, but there is a very high chance you already do this anyway.

At the "young" or "informal" milongas, people used a wide range of personal mixtures of looking, nodding, and asking, exactly like they do everywhere else. Given the shortage of time, I tweaked my personal mix in the direction of dancing more, gaining information, and getting started, then I dialled the mix back when it started to stress me out.

I visited at least four different types of milongas during my stay. They felt radically different from each other, and some were quite unique in quite different ways. My impression was that the scene is very diverse, and the differences give you a real choice. I stuck to my strengths and saved time by concentrating on the most traditional, but I'm glad that the social side of where I was staying led me to some others as well.

It clarified my ideas a little about what I appreciate most in a dance, and what other people appreciate about mine. I enjoyed throwing shapes at Milonga 10, and also had some very nice dances; good following is certainly appreciated there. It's also appreciated at the traditional milongas, but my more intimate and inward dance is appreciated more as well. I most appreciate partners who connect with the music emotionally, are physically able to express that, and want the same from me. I don't mind if they sing in my ear.

They are very good at being appreciative, in surprisingly coherent and specific ways. Sometimes with a English sentence, constructed in advance with the most touching care, and delivered like a rose.

If I were there for longer, but was still there mainly to dance, I'd might end up going for a mix of the hard-core-traditional, the slightly less formal traditional ones like La Piccola, which unfortunately I was only able to visit once, and a bit of the 10/Pepa kind of thing. However, although there were one or two partners I was very sorry to say goodbye to, and there was certainly potential to find more over time, I felt no desire to actually stay longer. It's a great place to be a tourist.

My first dance in Buenos Aires was with a woman, at Viva La Pepa.

I would never have guessed from anyone's description how crazily entertaining Cachirulo is. It's a hoot.

Anyway. No special instructions were necessary anywhere, the main challenges most of the time were just finding my way there (solved with the very cheap taxis, which swarm like bees, pollinating all the businesses of Buenos Aires), finding the actual door (easier than it is here, because the venues have lit-up names), finding the small-value notes to pay entrance, not losing the raffle ticket, getting in and out of my seat without tangling in the tablecloth, and correctly pronouncing something I wanted to drink ("una tónica" being a very safe fallback).

A couple of miscellaneous things I really noticed in the traditional milongas:
  1. Most people don't start dancing until well into the first song of the tanda. The introduction and statement-of-theme is used for greetings, compliments, and conversation. Those who do, usually dance on the spot rather than overtaking.
  2. At the end of the tanda, you find yourself already back within a couple of metres of where you started at least 60% of the time. When you think about it, it does make sense, as they started in the right relative positions and mostly at the same time (because they didn't move until well into the first song), and all they have to do is adjust the speed a little in the last track. And there's no reason for the man not to do so, as it saves him an unnecessary walk.
There were two things I didn't know that I wished I did:
  1. How to dance acceptable rock-and-roll, because all the traditional milongas play at least one fairly long section and it's really fun (I am happy to sit down for salsa).
  2. How you get a partner for the chacarera - because all the traditional milongas do that too, and I really like dancing chacarera. I only danced it once.

Monday 25 November 2013

What's this then?

I decided to find out where something important was, and what it looked like, by walking there and looking at it. On the way, I encountered this. It looks like a cross between the V&A and the Medici Chapels - not the Michelangelo one (although that is impressively weird in its own way), but the 16th Century ones with all the coloured marble. Plus palm trees and roses.

Walk, walk, wait, what?

Here's a stepped-back view, for context. It's on the other side of the street from the Heisenberg thing.
Just a minute!
After a bit of boggling, and pondering various features, it came to me that I had read or heard about this, or something like it, somewhere, and that it might have had something to do with drains.

The sign was not a forwarding address, as I briefly understood it, but simply means that the front door is on the much less important-looking street around the corner. Which was going my way anyway, so I continued.

Please direct correspondence around the corner

I knew the style was somehow V&A - it's covered in 40,000 Royal Doulton tiles. It's a water pumping station, the fruiting body of a vast mycelium of pipes under Buenos Aires.
Decorative tiles supplied to your requirements - by Royal Doulton
And they built it like this because  otherwise, the public of 1894 would have had nothing to look up to and admire, and might not have properly appreciated the engineering and logistical achievement of clean running water for the big city at the end of the Earth, or related it to the drastic reduction of yellow fever and typhoid.

Down with typhoid and yellow fever! Rejoice!

This is a way of thinking neglected, perhaps unjustly, in our times.

There is actually a guided tour on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but I missed it because I was always asleep. There's also this statue of The Keen and Friendly Sanitation Worker Who Has Finished His Lunch:
Clean moustache and spanner, good to go
Palacio de Aguas Corrientes - Water and Sanitation Museum

Saturday 23 November 2013

And At Houses

A house is such an ordinary thing, but they are so different everywhere. All the houses my parents have lived in together were smaller or bigger versions of a single design, which for perhaps a century around 1900 was a popular, common, and pretty good design for a comfortable house that's suitable for the English climate.

It has bay windows (if you can afford them, and especially if they can face southwards) for maximum light, and a big block of brick down an inside wall (a wall shared with the next house) to retain heat from multiple fireplaces. Every room has some sort of window, and the nicest room is the one with the nicest window. There is a sloping roof for the rain to trickle off, and a back door, usually opening from the kitchen. There is a little bit of space behind the house, where you grow grass, flowers, or vegetables as inclination or necessity drives, and (if you can afford it) a smaller bit in front. In past times the toilet would also be out there, then they came inside and were put upstairs. If you can afford it, there might be two front doors with a little porch in-between, keeping warmth in and mud out. The house is on two floors, with the bedrooms upstairs (although around here, few can afford a whole house, so most are divided into two or more awkward flats).

The house I stayed in, however, was a completely different design, with all the large, cool, windowless rooms opening off a terrace or all-around balcony that was originally open-walled and now has large, openable cloud-glass windows. The tremendous rain runs quickly down drains in the flat roof terrace and on the balconies - and, if necessary, down the front steps, which are marble, a storey high, and have a wrought-iron door that opens directly onto the street. The neighbouring dwelling is underneath it, follows the same shape, and has its own door. There is no other entrance or exit. There are similar-looking houses in Paris, but I've never actually been inside one.

Outside my room:

Little Suitcase

Thursday 21 November 2013

Me and Charles Darwin look at Streets

The almost-perfectly regular grid pattern, give or take a few forks and mergers, is still there. The streets and the pavements are wide. One consequence is that a corner is a more planned and deliberate thing than it is at home, and there is a particular style of unofficial embellishment which appears on many of them:

Corner embellishments
Similar symbols appeared above the corner shop near the house I stayed in, and above many other corner businesses. I don't know what they mean. The photo above also happens to include the only Ginger person I saw during my stay.

My first impression, in the taxi from the airport, was that the city had been dropped in an enormous park.
This doesn't seem to happen any more.
I can't swear they weren't there. We were probably going too fast.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

How certain are they?

When I saw this, I read it as an ingenious and funny reference to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. But now I'm told it's just a reference to a TV show. (It might still be ingenious and funny, but I don't watch much TV, so I don't know. It might not.)

"Heisenberg - Live free or die"
More postcards follow.

My other favourite was the message on the back of a kiosk selling magazines, sweets, mobile phone credit, and whatnot. I didn't take a photograph because my internal risk manager declined to get the camera out, but it read:


Which is German, and means: