Expat Magazine

This Bohemian Life

By Terpsichoral

“We’ve been walking for ever. When will we get there?” Mr Desert Enrosques complains, incongruously dapper in the pale beige and cream pinstriped trousers beloved of the male votaries of tango salónHe looks at me and, raising his eyebrows and puffing out his lips slightly, tugs a surprisingly pristine shirt away from his chest a couple of times in a gesture that clearly says “God, it’s hot.” “I’ve never heard of this milonga. Does it really exist?” asks The Puppy, uncharacteristically slouched in a wilting walk. “If there is no food there, you are a dead woman”, I warn our friend who is striding along ahead, looking infuriatingly cheerful. The dimly-lit streets are almost deserted. Opposite us, a shirtless guy squats on his doorstep, slurping from a mate straw. A black and white cat trots quickly across the road, haunches raised. We pass the long grey-white wall of a hospital, graffitied with a political slogan in bold, patriotic sky-blue-and-white capitals; the flag-adorned neoclassical facade of a school, set back from the road behind a garden of straggly  palm trees; the discreetly-glowing lipstick-red doorways, the plastic potted plants, and the sudden curved tunnel entrances to private car parks that signal telos. And then, without warning, we stop at a completely ordinary door — tall, narrow, with creaky wood, peeling plaster and rusty wrought iron — and are admitted up a narrow staircase and onto a hot and crowded patio, lit by an old-fashioned street lantern, the classic tango prop.

We eat large slices of napolitana pizza, served porteño style with spongy crust, oozing but flavourless cheese and almost raw slices of tomato. We drink red wine from squat glasses with ice cubes clinking in the bottom, toasting each other repeatedly, looking with superstitious pointedness into each other’s eyes each time. The air is redolent with the sickly sweet smell of marijuana. The high bare wall of a building opposite has been transformed into our personal tango cinema. A giant Antonio Banderas is camping it up as a fake Argentine, fake tanguero, pouting sexily and throwing his partner into dramatic sculptural poses. Meanwhile, through a large side window, we can see the twisting, turning, swirling twinned torsos of real tango couples. The murmurs of conversation begin to die down as a small, skinny bald man emerges and, spreading his arms in the gesture of a conductor bringing a movement to a close, announces the programme for the night in a quiet voice. The paintings on the walls are for sale and he introduces the painters; he gives his teaching partner a squeezy hug as he presents her to the group; he asks for contributions to a hat that will be passed around; and then he tells us that there will now be a performance.

With care, we manage to slot our bottoms together on the floor around the sides of the tiny, hot room, trying to find a way of arranging our bodies that will stop knees, elbows and heels from protruding, that will prevent knobbly ankles and the metal fastenings of shoe straps from pressing uncomfortably against the wood. The performer’s black velvet and lace dress — with the bare back, framed in velvet like an oil painting, the swallowtail skirts, the leg-baring slit — and her partner’s dark suit and slicked-back hair look beautifully, striking theatrical against the backdrop of so many people in shorts, in tank tops, in jersey yoga pants and spaghetti-strapped cotton onesies. The Troilo is rich and intense, dense as the fuggy air, and their expressions are earnest, eyes softly focused with concentration as they circle each other in the tiny space, her legs sweeping out in precariously broad circles, scissoring high into the air, looping through boleos, her fingers on his neck, entwined in his hair, as they walk the two brief steps the room allows them, noses touching, lips close at the end of a parada. Tonight, the gestures of tango escenario don’t seem as campy — or, rather, camp seems like an inadequate concept to describe this. It’s fin de siècle decadence transported to our young century: velvet and lace, legs of balletic grace, elegantly manicured fingers entwined in shiny black hair juxtaposed with stinking rubbish bags, graffitied walls, the sharp pungency of toilets, the queasy haze of pot.

We make our way back out to the patio where the bald-headed man is introducing a singer. We applaud him, as requested, with the quiet sound of clicking fingers, rather than with clapping. It sounds like a flock of night birds coming to roost on the patio. Pared down to the simplicity of voice and guitar, tango is urban folk music, storytelling, with all the focus on the lyrics, on the tales of nostalgia and lost love. The singer is unamplified and we listen to him in silence. He enunciates each word with lovely clarity — the words are as important as the notes. And, like a child hearing a bedtime story, I listen enraptured, although — or, perhaps, because — it’s a tale I know by heart. On the giant screen, Tita Merello wears a cheeky expression and winks at the camera as she sings, wiggling one hip, Marilyn-Monroe style. And out of her mouth I hear the sweet, soft baritone voice of our singer. The Golden Age dubbed over with the voice of the present day. Mr Desert Enrosques catches my eye and we mouth the words silently to each other. Narrow street, little street, far, far away, where we wandered hand in hand under a summer sky, dreaming in vain. With a street lamp, a doorway — just as in a tango. 

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