Argentina: The Bridge between Europe and South America
Buenos Aires Article 6-24-2011
Pictured: Colorful Houses
“Caminito” -La Boca
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires is often referred to as “the Paris of South America”: bridging the gap between the culture and history of Europe and the energy and emotion of South America, a little bit of both are united in a city that pulses with nightlife, energy, art, music and dance.
Buenos Aires’ culture is strongly influenced by Italian and Spanish roots: immigrants arrived from these European countries in the 16th and 19th centuries, and today, these influences can be found in everything, from the food to the architecture to the dialect.
Buenos Aires’ food, for example, blends typical South American cuisine and European influences: milanesas, for example, are breaded meat cutlets, quite literally, Milanese-style. Empanadas gallegos, on the other hand, is the Galician or Spanish empanada, a round meat pie typically filled with local seafood in Argentina. Ñoquis, more commonly referred to as gnocchi in anglophone countries, are also a staple of Argentine cuisine. However, what are perhaps the most famous elements of Argentine cuisine – local steak and dulce de leche – are South American specialities, through and through (although confiture de lait – milk jam – exists in France, but was likely invented simultaneously).
The particular dialect of Argentine Spanish shows even more of these influences, with elements of both Neapolitan dialect from Naples and Galician Spanish from northwestern Spain, closely related to modern Portuguese. The inflection of Argentine Spanish is closer to that of Italian than that of modern Spaniards, and words such as ciao, written chau, are borrowed and used extensively.
Those who studied Spanish in school may notice two other major difference: the use of the pronoun vos instead of the Iberian tu, and a pronunciation difference known as yéismo, where the sound represented by ll and usually pronounced y, such as in the word pollo (chicken), becomes more of a j like in the English azure. To make it even more complicated, another dialect of Argentine Spanish – lunfardo – mixes this Argentine Spanish and elements of European languages and Brazilian Portuguese, as well as wordplay and inversion. Originally developed by criminals as well as by gauchos, today, lunfardo is widely used and understood in Argentina thanks to its use in tango music.
Tango is, after all, one of the major cultural draws to this fascinating, dynamic city. It is first and foremost sensual, provocative music; it’s no wonder that the dance that accompanies it expounds upon this innate nature of the music. Argentine tango is just one of many forms practiced today, though all tango originated here, in Argentina, in the Río de la Plata area.
Many tourists reach first for the tango dinner show, a spectacle of this native dance with local cuisine and wine. Complejo Tango offers an evening experience, starting at 8:30 with a dinner that includes a choice of local specialties like cambalache or meat pies, traditional steak with red wine sauce, and red wine poached pears. The show begins at 10:00, narrating the history of tango in five acts over the course of about an hour.
BocaTango offers a completely different experience, with a typical Argentine barbecue dinner in a country-style restaurant, followed by a one-act farce, or sainete, in the Conventillo Walk, a show in which audience members are encouraged to participate. Later, professional dancers put on a cabaret-style show to complete the evening.
El Viejo Almacen is one of the oldest tango locales in Buenos Aires, offering a traditional dinner show starting at 8:00, with international dishes, and a show featuring four couples and four singers in a true Argentine tango experience.
To learn more about tango while on vacation in Buenos Aires, tango tour companies, like Cultura Cercana, offer tourists the unique opportunity to take advantage of the innate spontaneity of tango: small groups are led by a dance couple who help the members of the tour to understand the anthropology and history of the dance.
“Tango is a very complex social event, with lots of mixed emotions behaviours and traditions,” explains Dr Luciano Martin Bullorsky of Cultura Cercana. “You have to experience one night at a milonga (places where locals dance tango) to see how the seduction, competition, envy, tradition, belonging to a culture/group, elegance, being socially accepted, relaxing, dancing, hearing music, singing lyrics related to special social and political times or just about feelings.”
The Cultura Cercana staff suggests taking a class in tango before participating in a tour; this can be accomplished via academias, like the Academia Nacional del Tango or the Escuela Argentina de Tango, as well as individual classes with a teacher. Teachers can be found via tango magazines like Tangauta and La Milonga.
Once you’ve learned the basic steps of the dance, it’s time to try them out at a milonga: some traditional milongas include Centro Cultural Torcuato Tasso in the San Telmo neighborhood, which offers both tango lessons and free open milongas on Sundays. Club Gricel in the San Cristobal area offers several themed nights including “traditional” Fridays and “La Cachila” on Thursdays. Opened from Thursday to Monday, you can often dance until five in the morning at this famous Buenos Aires locale.
These traditional milongas, however, have a particularity:
“Dancing between men or between women is not allowed in the traditional milongas, even if you are just hetero friends,” explains Bullorsky.For dancing between gay couples or even non-traditional tango, Buenos Aires did not offer much until recently. In 2006, there was only one gay milonga in the whole city: La Marshall, which is opened to this day, and offers intensive courses.
“The gay milongas are also a very complex social event, but in a different way,” says Bullorsky. “… most gay milongas don’t respect other codes, as for example the way to invite to dance.”
To learn the particular codes of gay milongas, turn to two of the most well-known and well-respected: La Marshall and Tango Queer.
Since La Marshall’s establishment of gay dance evenings, openness towards the gay and lesbian population in general, but in particular with regards to tango, has taken leaps and bounds. Mariana Docampo, organizer of Milonga Tango Queer (Tuesdays at 10:00) as well as of the Festival Internacional de Tango Queer de Buenos Aires, cites gay marriage legislation as a major reason behind this: “I think that in the past several years, Buenos Aires has become a very friendly city with regards to the gay and lesbian population. In general, the porteños (locals of Buenos Aires) are very open and hospitable. Since 2010, this has become even more obvious, with the legalization of equal rights marriage, which modifies the position of homosexuals in society in a radical way.”
Quite a change from 2006, when Wednesday nights at La Marshall were the only place gay tango dancers could go, an evening founded by Augusto Balinzano and Miguel Moyano, one of the world’s only professional gay tango duos at the time. Today, La Marshall offers not only Wednesday night milongas, starting at 11:00, but also tango classes from 10:00 to 11:00, lead by Balizano himself, with projects to expand to Saturday night milongas.
On Tuesdays, head to Tango Queer, which Docampo insists is a great locale, not only for gay tourists, but for everyone to experience tango: “(queer milongas) are an option in the tango scene in general. At the beginning, there was a bit of resistence, but now it’s much more slight, and now queer tango is beginning to be seen as a “type” within the tango scene. The Milonga Tango Queer as well as La Marshall are two important milongas in the tango circuit, and an option for tourists and tangueros in general, not only for the gay population.”
What to do in Buenos Aires when you’re not dancing tango? According to Lugar Gay, which also offers tango classes on Sundays at 5:00 with Augusto Balinzano of La Marshall, there is no specific gay area in Buenos Aires. This bed and breakfast, however, is a great place to start if you’re looking to meet likeminded tourists: Lugar Gay is the first and only gay bed and breakfast in Buenos Aires, centrally located in the San Telmo district.
San Telmo is one of 48 barrios or neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, known for its thriving nightlife and underground clubs and bars, like La Boca, which is slightly southwest of San Telmo, and is popular with tourists thanks to its milongas and tourist shops. The Boedo district, meanwhile, is known especially for tango and milongas, though some of the clubs in this area remain more traditional and frown on same-sex dancing. The “downtown” area of Buenos Aires is Microcentro, also known as “City porteño” to porteños, or simply “The City,” and is the commercial center of Buenos Aires.
Recoleta is mostly residential neighborhood, though it is very well-known and often mentioned in tourist publications for its famous “cat cemetery,” the Cementerio de la Recoleta, containing the graves of such famous Argentines as Eva Perón and Raúl Alfonsín, as well as thousands of victims of the 1871 yellow fever epidemic, buried in the large and ornate mausoleums that make up the majority of the cemetery. The “cat” portion of its nickname comes from the slightly mysterious presence of hundreds of stray cats that live in the cemetery, seeming to guard the dead.
To get to Buenos Aires, you can fly directly into Ministro Pistarini International Airport, also known as “Ezeia,” so called for the suburb in which it is located. You can also fly in via Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay into Aeroparque Jorge Newbery airport, in the Palermo district. This is especially useful for those wishing to stay in Argentina longer than three months: a tourist visa for Americans lasts only this long, but by crossing into a bordering country, you can extend your stay easily, as visa regulations are quite lax in Argentina. For a quick day trip into Uruguay, visit Montevideo, which is accessible via Buquebus; the trip is only about 3 hours long, with 3 or 4 ferries leaving daily.
When planning a trip to Buenos Aires, it’s important to remember the distinction in seasons between the southern and northern hemispheres: summertime in Argentina – and the National Day of Tango (December 11th) – is the best time to visit the sultry city and take advantage of all it has to offer, including tango. As Docampo says:
“Argentine tango is an attractive experience for tourists in general, because it’s a dance that clearly shows a means of our culture and our way of feeing and being. It also allows people to socialize easily thanks to a physical language that removes language barriers. These encounters make interpersonal relations that much easier.”
Tango can be found all over Buenos Aires; the activities cited are only some of the many locales tango-lovers can choose to visit. Here are the addresses of the ones mentioned in the article:
- Dinner and Dance Shows
- Complejo Tango – Avenida Belgrano 2608, Balvanera
- BocaTango – Brandsen 923, La Boca
- El Viejo Almacen – Av. Independencia y Balcarce, San Telmo
- Tango Tours
- Cultura Cercana – Lavalle 1546 piso 5° F oficina B, San Nicolás
- Tango Lessons
- Academia Nacional del Tango – Avenida de Mayo, Monserrat
- Escuela Argentina de Tango –
- Viamonte esq. San Martin, Centro
- Talachuano 1058, Talachuano
- Tacuarí 471, San Telmo
- Traditional Milongas
- Centro Cultural Torcuato Tasso – Defensa 1757, San Telmo
- Club Gricel – La Rioja 1180, San Cristobal
- Gay Milongas
- La Marshall – Maipú 444, Almagro
- Milonga Tango Queer – Perú 571, San Telmo
- Bed and Breakfast
- Lugar Gay – Defensa Street 1120, San Telmo
- Cementerio de la Recoleta – Junin 1760, Recoleta
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-by Emily Monaco, freelance, travel-writer