Monday, February 29, 2016

Dancing Through Recoleta

29 February 2016

This is our first leap year while on the road, so it seems like an important date.  Or just an extra day to even out the calendar.

We continue to find interesting buildings, lots of shops, and of course places to eat.  My new favorite spot is El Athenea bookstore, with this beautiful marble stairway and intricate bronze railing.  The store has marble pillars on two levels with ornate capitals, ornamental plaster work on the ceilings, and huge picture windows overlooking Florida Street.  It seems as if many of the buildings were originally homes of wealthy business owners, so that the lower levels are decorative and, well, genteel is a word that springs to mind.

We've been enjoying our time in Buenos Aires, which is a huge cosmopolitan center.  The city itself has nearly three million people, although the province of the same name has almost 16 million.  So it's a big city, but, like many cities, is made up of distinctive neighborhoods.  We've mostly been in our neighborhood of Montserrat, the central part of the city and one of the oldest sections.  But we're starting to branch out.

We tried walking to Recoleta, the more posh neighborhood, but it turned out the directions we were given were wrong, so we finally hailed a taxi.  I loved the little "sidewalk tango" showing the steps directly on the sidewalk.  And of course I tried to dance the steps, as did many of the people passing by.  (No, the designer does not expect anyone to have three feet.  One begins with feet in position #1, and moves a foot to position #2, and so on.  You can see how intricate the dance becomes, with the dancers criss-crossing their steps while not tangling their legs.  It's really important to move the correct foot in the correct direction, because otherwise the couple could end up in a heap on the floor.  Plus the woman does little embellishments, such as positions #4 and 5, where her feet are crossed at the ankle as she stands and then steps backwards.  This is usually where I stumble, it isn't easy!)

Anyway, we arrived in Recoleta, near the park and the Church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar.  This church was completed in 1732 by the Recollect Fathers, members of a Franciscan Order of monks who established themselves in this area at the beginning of the 18th century.  They founded a monastery as well as the church, and a cemetery was attached.  This area was one of the highest points in the city of Buenos Aires; in the 1870s there were deadly outbreak of yellow fever and cholera, and wealthy families moved to this part of the city to avoid the mosquitoes of the lower neighborhoods.  Since then, Recoleta has been one of the most expensive and posh regions of the city. 

The residential areas are some of the most sumptuous and ornate in the city, and the shops are very upscale.

But the real draw to the area is the cemetery.

Like the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the Recoleta Cemetery is known for the ornamental crypts, vaults, statues, mausoleums, sarcofogi, and funerary art.  Really, these were some of the most decorative little memorials I've ever seen, with beveled glass domes and little towers, all looking like miniature cathedrals!  Absolutely incredible!

Plus if one knows Argentinian arts, culture, and history, all kinds of important people are buried here.  The best known, of course, is Eva Peron, and visitors pass by her grave daily, leaving flowers and other mementos of their regard.

The day we were there was a beautiful sunny day, and we didn't want to spend the afternoon wandering through a cemetery, it seemed a bit too sad.  So we went to the mall across the street and went upstairs, so we could look over the brick walls and down into the cemetery.  This actually afforded us a better view, and one rarely seen by visitors.  It really was a much better vantage point!

There's more of the city we plan to visit.  But summer vacation is over, and students are returning to school.  Autumn is in the air, and before the south gets too cold, we're going to head to Patagonia and the beaches.  We've rented a car, and will take a road trip for about three weeks.  

And we'll see what excitement we can find along the way.


Friday, February 26, 2016

Tangoes and Civil Disobedience

26 February 2016

The first two photos are of our tango studio - imagine dancing in this beautiful room with the chandeliers, ornamental plaster ceiling, and the carved wood molding around the edges.  These buildings are from another era, a more genteel time, when ladies tangoed in longer dresses and men wore hats everywhere but indoors.   

It really is a beautiful room!

I've attended four tango classes, and finally realized that we don't review our steps from day to day.  Each class, we learn new steps and new configurations of the dance, new ways to embellish or ornament our tango.  We also learn the milango, another dance, and new steps for that as well.  So while we aren't perfecting our dance, we're building a repertoire of tango steps.

At any rate, it's great fun and I'm having a really good time.  Plus getting lots of exercise, and dancing for a 90 minutes or more, three times a week.

The rest of the photos - well, this is the civil disobedience part of the blog.

On Wednesday, there was a MASSIVE demonstration of workers, marching from somewhere on Avenida 9 de Julio (two blocks west of our hotel) along Avenida de Mayo (one and a half blocks south of our hotel) to Plaza de Mayo (maybe six or eight blocks east of our hotel).  So yes, we were surrounded on three sides by this protest march of some 20,000 or so government workers.

Originally we didn't plan to see the demonstration, despite the fact that Richard and I certainly have participated in our share of protests and strikes and such.  We received advance notice from the US Embassy here in Argentina, because we register our travels as we move from country to country.  Just one of those back-up safety precautions, in case anything dire happens.  

The embassy, of course, advises not to get involved, that protests that begin peacefully can change at any moment and become violent, yada yada yada.  We thought this probably was reasonable advice, and thought we'd stay in the hotel.

But then the bangs and crashes started.  We weren't sure if what we were hearing was someone firing blanks, or tear gas into the crowd, or if rival factions were shooting each other, or what.  I went downstairs and asked at the desk, and the man assured me these were rockets, like big firecrackers.  That no one was shooting at each other (as happened in Thailand while we were there), no one was firing tear gas (as during the Civil Rights movement).  This was just protesters lighting firecrackers.  

So, well, we went out to see for ourselves what was happening.  

And it was HUGE!

Really, the newspaper reports of 20,000 workers might be on the conservative side.  People were in groups of unions, or maybe offices - the government workers in aeronautics, or a group of social workers, or university faculty and staff - all with flags and banners and coordinating tee shirts or bibs over their clothes.  Men, women, families, babies in strollers, marching down the streets and along the sidewalks, spilling over onto smaller side streets, chanting slogans and singing songs.

Of course, we couldn't read many of the slogans, or understand most of the songs, nor comprehend what the flyers we were handed said.  So our understanding of the events comes from the newspaper article the following day.

There were a number of issues being protested - low salaries, working conditions, high prices, taxes being raised.  Also, roughly 20,000 public sector workers have been laid off, due to austerity measures on the part of the government.

But the key issue, according to the English language newspaper, is a new protocol essentially banning public protests and demonstrations, making such activities criminal.  So the combined state workers unions decided to protest this new law criminalizing protests.

I know, I'm a bit confused as well.  It's rather circuitous.  But there were protests in areas around the country, all state workers.  Basically shutting down the government for a day.

All while the president of France was visiting.  (However, France has more than its share of strikes by government workers, so this probably wasn't much of an issue.)

It was pretty interesting, seeing all the slogans and flags and the masses of people.  With periodic firecrackers, cherry bombs, and bottle rockets going off.  Singing, marching, crash bang boom, and some more flags marching by.  Then repeat.

It seems as if protests and demonstrations are a way of life here.  For example, President Obama is scheduled to visit and meet with the president of Argentina in late March.  It turns out that the dates coincide with the 40th anniversary of the most recent military coup d'etat.  So human rights activists normally hold a march to Plaza de Mayo to commemorate, and in some ways protest, that event.  The march will continue, people have been told that the security for Obama will not interfere with the march.  And human rights activists are trying to meet with the US president to discuss that country's role in the coup, having backed whichever side and thus participating in the disappearances that followed.  As I said, protests and demonstrations seem to be the norm, and even visiting presidents don't interrupt the right to strike and protest.

What can I say, the right to free speech seems to be alive and well in Argentina!

I almost forgot!  I went for a haircut, always an interesting experience in a new country.  Fortunately, there was someone working there who speaks English, so I could explain what I wanted and how much to cut, all that stuff.

After the haircut and styling, he chatted with me while I paid and all.  I explained we're retired and just travelling, that we don't have a home, etc.  And I started saying that we're doing all the things we've always wanted to do, so while in Argentina I'm - and he interrupts and says, "Oh, going to tango shows?"  I laughed and said, "NO!  I'm taking tango classes!"  He thought that was wonderful, and even better than tango shows, learning to dance tango myself.  

I guess he's used to most people going to watch the shows, not bothering to learn the dances themselves.

I thought it was pretty funny!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Just a Couple of Landmarks

23 February 2016

I went to my tango class on Monday, and there were about thirteen or fifteen students in class.  Three of us were beginners, with only one or two sessions.  All the others were dancing at an advanced level, and were really good!  Plus I was the only English speaker; everyone else understood Spanish (although I understood about a third of what was explained in Spanish); and five people spoke Russian.  What a group!

We reviewed what I had learned the previous week, then did some advanced steps.  I also had the chance to dance with several different partners, including one young woman who is in training to be a tango instructor.  So she helped me improve some of my steps and movements.  By the time I had to do the end-of-class performance with the instructor, I was doing pretty well - I can manage a few minutes of the routine and swish and swing and kick just fine.  Much more than that and I lose my balance, or kick myself, or stumble, and then I have to start over.  But at least I can do a few minutes!  (Plus the woman who was there for the first time told me that if I could learn all of that in two classes, she felt very encouraged!  So I guess I looked like I knew what I was doing.)

Today, Richard and I had lunch next door to my dance academy, at Café Tortoni.  I did some research, because I was a little confused.  This Café Tortoni was established in 1858.  There's a painting by Edouard Manet, titled "Chez Tortoni," painted in 1878 or so.  I was curious whether Manet travelled to Buenos Aires, or what.  Turns out that there was a café in Paris named Café Tortoni, and when the Frenchman Monsieur Touan came to Buenos Aires, he opened a café and named it "Café Tortoni" after the place in Paris.  (Side note - the Manet painting was at the Gardner Museum in Boston, and was part of a group of paintings stolen in 1990.  Current location unknown.  And yes, I've included a copy of "Chez Tortoni" in here, just to set the tone.)

So, the Argentinian Café Tortoni is lovely in an Old World sort of way - beautifully carved woodwork along the sides, Corinthian pillars through the center, mirrors all around, paintings covering the walls, and leaded glass ceilings and room dividers.  Little marble-topped café tables.  Specialty coffee drinks, exotic cakes and tortes, fancy sandwiches, and afternoon tea are all on the menu.  One of those places where elegance and manners are still in vogue, where meals and life are savored and enjoyed.  It was delightful!  (Their website:

I decided to head over to Casa Rosada after lunch.  I was distracted by all the beautiful buildings along the way as I walked down Avenida de Mayo.  La Prensa, I think maybe the major building of the newspaper?, was exceptionally gorgeous, with all kinds of ornamentation, wrought iron, and a statue of justice on the top.  

The Plaza de Mayo is at the end of Avenida de Mayo, and Casa Rosada is just beyond the plaza.  Casa Rosada is the Presidential Palace, meaning it is both the executive office and the home of the nation's president.  

Plaza de Mayo was created in 1580, and in some ways is considered the heart of the oldest part of Buenos Aires.  Since it's right in front of the Argentinian equivalent of the White House, it's a popular location for political protests.

There currently is some kind of ongoing protest, either on the part of veterans of wars, or perhaps people protesting against wars.  I'm not sure exactly what these signs say.  Something about the veterans of foreign wars, numbers of dead, no justice, no health care, free certain political prisoners.  There was also a tent that seemed to say it was the camp for veterans of a certain war.

I think this is some kind of "Occupy Plaza de Mayo" movement, trying to get justice for military veterans.  I didn't think I should ask any of the many military guards standing around.  I wasn't sure how I could get more information.  So I tried to read the signs, and understand what was going on.  

The most telling sign was a circle of figures painted on the ground, the Keith Haring style figures like the outlined bodies of dead victims on the street.  With names painted in, and splashes of red paint looking like wounds.  I think the entire protest was against wars, and the way veterans are treated.  The lack of services, especially health care.  The morass of red tape.  Homeless vets.  PTSD.  Sound familiar?  The same things we talk about and protest against in the US.

There's another protest march planned tomorrow, and we think it will continue down Avenida de Mayo, just down the block from our hotel.  We'll ask what this demonstration is about, and see if we can get more information.

But I came to see Casa Rosada, and there it was, behind the signs about "Liberty and Justice."  The Pink House.

The original part of the building dates back to 1713, but embellishments and additions have been added and the building renovated through the late 1800s.  The current building is described as Italianate, though it isn't exactly in the style of Italian architecture either.

The big question is why pink?  One story says the president took the colors of the two opposing parties at the time, red and white, and mixed them to demonstrate unification.  The less poetic story (and more gory explantion) is that the building was painted in cow's blood to combat damage from the humidity.  (Yuck!)

But yes, this is where the Perons lived during his presidency.  Where Eva Peron stood on the balcony to address the people of the nation who adored her.  And where she died, much too young.  Also where Juan Peron served as president, was overthrown in a coup d'etat, and was later re-elected and served as president until his death.  

So this building, which looks so pretty and cheerful in its crazy pinkness, has a long and sad history. 

I did ask two guards about the flags on the light posts - they alternated between Argentinian flags and French flags.  The guards explained that some official from France is coming tomorrow.  (Which might have something to do with the planned demonstration.)  And that later in March, when President Obama is here, they will fly the flag of the US.  ("La bandera de los Estados Unidos")  This conversation was all in Spanish, which is why I'm not exactly sure who is coming from France.

I should add that this is the third or fourth time one of the Obamas will be in the same place where we are - first in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; then in Cambodia; now in Argentina; and we both vaguely remember some other place but we're not positive.  Anyway, we seem to be hitting important political locations without knowing it.  Doing our own low-key diplomatic relations.  

Too bad we can't get paid by the government for doing this, right?