Argentina, Land of the Tango
Travel Tale - No. 1 - Vol. 1
We spent nearly ten years in the land of the tango listening to milongas and tangos sung by Carlos Gardel. Everywhere you went in Buenos Aires, the Paris of South America, you could hear his voice on old records blasting through the open air stylish restaurants in the faded colonial buildings, even though he had been dead for many years.
The Argentine Republic, the eighth largest country in the world, boasts of lead, zinc, tin, copper, iron, ore, manganese, petroleum, uranium, and of course, the pampas. Since the cattle roam free on the flat lands grazing on acres of fresh pampas grass they produce the finest beef in the world. They also export some of the best red wine which we used to buy by the demijohn.
With its revolution of 1810, the Argentinos rid themselves of Spanish rule and interference. European immigration, foreign investments and trade marked the new liberalism, but regional disparities soon arose as the conservative landowners, supported by the gauchos and rural working class advocated autonomy, while the Unitarists of Buenos Aires, the city dwellers, upheld B.A. as central authority. The Unitarists prevailed ushering in prosperity and a new constitution in 1853. But soon economic failure, weak civilian rule, and resentment against the foreign landed elite, especially British connections, led to a military coup in 1943, propelling a colonel Peron and his ex-actress wife Eva, into La Casa Rosada in 1946.
After WWII, in 1947, President Juan Domingo Peron, established in the presidential palace and with the help of his charismatic and ambitious wife Evita, opened the doors to immigrants from war-ravaged Europe. He was determined to develop his economic program, stressing self-determination and nationalized the British railroads. They never ran on time again. He invited immigrants with good trades and education to help improve his country by opening the doors to battle weary people of Poland, England, France, Scotland, and even the Nazis. His economy was getting stronger and with the help of Nazi gold, which he later deposited in Swiss banks, Argentina was the land of plenty. There was no scarcity of food, fun, and fandangos. It was in this international milieu that I learned the damn difficult business of living.
How I loved to dance the Spanish Jota in colorful gypsy costumes with castanets, thumping feet and clapping hands, even if the nuns didn't approve. They told my mother that "ballet" would be more appropriate for a "young lady" who should be improving her lace needlepoint. "Terremoto" (Earthquake) they called me, as I had become a full fledged tomboy of youthful energy. I feared nothing in those days in South America, where I spent the happiest days of my childhood, but when I had to dodge bullets from one revolution after another, I was shipped off to Scotland to finish my studies. My parents were getting tired of listening to Evita wail over the radio about the reason she had married her Peron, "la razon de mi vida." She alone, but with the help of the unions, established the Peronista movement imprisoning any society lady who disagreed with her politics, throwing the rich Spanish doyennes in cells with prostitutes. Unable to be part of that ideology, we learned to keep our mouth shut. Nobody was allowed to openly criticize the Peronistas for they were in power and knew how to use it. Our English street name, 'Giles' was changed to Avenida Juan Domingo Peron, and we could see the handwriting on the wall. Eva Duarte de Peron closed down all the houses of ill-repute as they reminded her of her "meager beginnings" as the British whispered in The Buenos Aires Herald.
There was no television in those days, so I entertained myself listening to Tarzan and Cinderella on the radio played in Spanish while I developed my English imagination. Summers were siesta afternoons with a split work day; everyone went home at 12:00 for lunch, stayed out of the hot sun and went back to work at 4:00 PM till 8:00PM; and dinner was not until 10:00 PM. Then, the Argentines came to life and did not go home to bed until one or two in the morning, preferring instead to walk around the city listening to Carlos Gardel. It was in this vibrant cosmopolitan environment that I learned to ride horses, bareback, gaucho style, on an hacienda south of B. A., owned by a wealthy French count.
Mother was tutoring his son, Alejandro, during the summer months at their cattle ranch, while I was supposed to converse with him in the queen's tongue so he could practice another language besides the three he already knew. I remember Alex being a very shy and studious boy and I think perhaps his mother, the contessa, wanted me to keep him company. It wasn't long before I brought out the little devil in him. He loved horses and one day he suggested I ride "Noir Belle," but I seem to recall that it was he who took me for the ride of my life, as the ex-race horse champion put out to stud, took off like lightning. I clung to its mane in sheer desperation fearing decapitation from the branches in the trees, and together we were one as it raced Alex's horse till the sweat poured off it in buckets. I let out every bad word I knew in three languages while Alex laughed himself silly learning Polish profanity.
I don't know where Alejandro is these days, probably living in Paris married to a French contessa and raising polo ponies, but our little secret still holds, we never spoke English to one another as instructed by my mother and expected by his strict mother. We had a language all of our own, we liked to speak Spanglish, mixing up words in a sentence in both languages and developed: "geringoso," that only we could understand. Those were fantastic days when his family grew huge watermelons and we watched as the gauchos made an asado, roasting an entire sheep while preparing the chimichurri sauce, as the two of us got drunk on red wine.
The land of the tango should be on every traveler's wish list. The city full of fun that never sleeps invariably energizes those who visit it with its vitality. The great shopping for leather goods, the magic of the Teatro Colon, one of the best opera houses in the world, La Boca, where you can eat and eat, fish, lamb, pork, and bottles of red and white wines are brought to your table ad infinitum, by the "portenos", whether you ordered them or not.
Argentinean joie de vivre is legendary, even in tough times. People walk around the city whistling, singing and saying "piropos". How I used to love the men make passes at me, telling me I was "una nena preciosa." Some guys had quite a line and would recite poetry, but I would never acknowledge, laugh or ridicule their attempts of playing Romeo because it was all part of the game of being alive in a country that was quixotic in every way.
For me Argentina will always be my first love for that is where I discovered my first love. His golden hair seemed out of place with that of the rest of the circus performers. As my Adonis swung from the trapeze like a golden god of freedom, I decided that was what I wanted to do. Run away with him at the age of thirteen and become a circus performer too. But my parents had other ideas and I was sent to St. Hilda's Catholic High School for girls. Damnation! How I hated that ugly uniform with a tie that hid my newly emerging shape.
I grew up there with Polish intelligentsia, the writers, ballet dancers, and displaced aristocrats who managed to escape Hitler's ambitions of demolishing the Polish race. We all congregated at the Polish Club, "Dom Polski" where I heard fascinating stories about their lives, even if I did not comprehend every word. I was too young and sheltered to understand the horrors of war and what they had all been through; and how they were cooperating with the Jewish community in a nearby town to give them updated information of Adolf Ikeman sightings. But my mind was filled with fantasies as I had just discovered how interesting boys could be, especially when they asked me to dance. I learned to swim in the murky brown waters of the River Plate at Tigre where we kept a small fishing boat and where I would hear stories about the illusive Graf Spee meeting its macabre death.
We spent many a happy time during vacations in Cordoba; I can still see the orange-red hot earth and the cool green mountains, and taste the purple grapes the size of apples. It was there that the locals taught me to drink Nobleza Gaucha mate, a green tea in a gourd with a silver and gold straw passed around from person to person, as an imitation of the ritual their English counterparts imbibed in at 4:00PM every afternoon when they brought out their black tea and china cups. How can I forget our winter vacations in Bariloche on the Chilean border, where Latin honeymooners go to be alone and where now the Miami Ski Club takes us skiing, to escape this Florida heat.
Even President Eisenhower kept a cottage to go trout fishing in their wonderful lakes, and Jackie Kennedy and the Duchess Sarah, liked to fly down every now and then. So I am in good company indeed, in saying, I am glad that is where I spent my formative years learning to be a free spirit. If you are looking for a place to have a holiday I strongly recommend B. A., even though there is that ever-present: "Yankee Go Home," graffiti sprawled on walls. But stay out of the region of convergence of Argentina-Brazil and Paraguay borders because of the extremist organizations, narcotics trafficking, money laundering, and arms smuggling. Also be alert to the hooligans in the city who steal your wallet at knife point in the taxis.
Everybody speaks some English in Buenos Aires, which means "good airs," as they are used to the Brits. I know, I grew up with Daphne Smythe, a brit brat who would not let me have pink as my favorite color because it was hers only! So I chose blue and compromised. Life's too short!! Live it as the Argentinos do. They really know how! I talk about some of this in my next release: HUSBAND HUNTING, coming out in about three weeks.
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