Sunday, May 11, 2008

Tortoni tango

marcia and lee have a standing babysitter on saturday nights, so the four of us decided to see what this tango business is all about.

we went back and forth on where to go. there are big vegas-style shows with all the bells and whistles, but none of us (well, none except mo) are vegas types, and we just don't feel great about spending a porteno's week's wages on a single night of flash entertainment designed and delivered for tourists. we're too good for tourism.

at the other end of the spectrum, we could have gone to a milonga, one of the social dances that are held every hour of every day and every night of every week here in buenos aires, but we're not quite that real.

likewise, we're too rich to line up for the free shows, too old to go to the ones that start at midnight, too snobbish for the ones in english, and so on.

solution: cafe tortoni, the venerable establishment on avenida de mayo. cafe tortoni is so beloved as to be a cliche of the traditional cafe, except that it really, really is that good. founded in the 1850s, the cafe has seen decade after decade after decade of buenos aires life. its walnut walls are dark with smoke and secrets, its floors empathed by the trails of a thousand servers, its walls thick with tributes to this place. in the back corner sit three statues: borges the writer, tango singer carlos gardel and the poet, feminist and suicide alfonsina storni, artists forever present in this gran cafe.

for tango, then, the tortoni. we lined up outside with everybody else until marcia had a chance to use the magic word "catorce": fourteen, our reservation number. at that, we were whisked inside, past all the diners just settling in, to the sala alfonsina, where we were shown to a table at the very front. around 8:25, three old men and one younger man came out. at 8:30 prompt, they started to play. and what music! piano, accordion, violin and bass playing the yearnings of single men waiting for women to become available; strains of homesickness and the vast expanse of the sea; helpless love for buenos aires; death in the yellow fever epidemic; wild desires, and losses, and desires anew; and, always, passion. the dancers were exquisite, tango being one of the few dances i know where the men's parts are as interesting as the women's -- the product, no doubt, of developing in brothels where men danced with men to while away the time (or so the story goes). the singer left it all on stage, so much so that we thought she overdid it, at least until we chatted with her on the sidewalk after the show. there, she told us that this evening's show had been harder than usual for her: "my mother died two days ago," she said, "and now i have no family left in the world." then she corrected herself, "no, i have my dog." she blinked a few times, rapidly. "i just love the tango music so much....," she trailed off. then, rallying: "but if you have enjoyed the show, i am content, i am happy in my heart." she crossed the street into a daschiell hammett-like fog, and was gone.

i know: this all sounds rather melodramatic and overdone. but before you roll your eyes and click off this post (you're too cool for passion, yes?) consider the following two comments on the tortoni experience. the first is from don juan carlos de boron, king of spain:

To the Tortoni Café, which has managed to preserve the flavour
of the old times, when all manner of Argentine intellectuals would gather here; of course the Spanish also gathered, like Federico García Lorca, and now, when they come from Spain, they come to visit their Café. With my kindest, most affectionate regards.
His Majesty, King of Spain
Don Juan Carlos de Borbón

the second comes from someone closer to home:

What a treat to visit a piece of history and enjoy both the ambience and the delicious meal! Thank you.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1997.

which of these do you think better captures the spirit of the tortoni?


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