As we acclimated to Buenos Aires (see Part 1), we observed that while the country may have a female President, Argentina remains a “macho” society. At the milonga (tango hall) the man asks the woman to dance, never vice versa. And he does so with a flash of his eyes, so she must scan the floor like a hawk, watching for a subtle solicitation. In the tango itself, the man always leads.
We saw this firsthand when we met up with an expatriate American friend gone native, who took us to a “real” milonga, well beyond the touristy parts of town, where hundreds of local people congregate (for over five hours on a Sunday night!) to dance, drink, talk (but never while dancing), and occasionally, incidentally, eat something.
The rituals are very precise. The DJ or band plays a set of three or four songs in the same tempo/style. The main styles are two types of tango and a kind of fast waltz, although somewhere along the way, for variety, they throw in a “rock” set (and by “rock” they mean anything from Glenn Miller to Creedence Clearwater Revival). Between sets, there’s a brief rest during which the DJ plays a couple of minutes of some markedly different type of music—something clearly undanceable, like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” (Only at a milonga—and maybe during a square dance—would that clear the dance floor!)
In a restaurant or cafe the check is always brought to the man. Even if the woman produces her credit card, it’s returned to the man, as if he could sign for her card. On the plus side, it’s considered impolite for the waitstaff to bring the check before you ask for it, and I have always felt that a society where you’re expected to linger over dinner or drinks is a society that has something going for it. Even in a busy restaurant with people waiting to get in, we never felt the remotest inkling that they were anxious to turn over our table.
We had good food just about everywhere, even at hotel breakfasts. A unique highlight was a dinner at La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar, a “molecular gastronomy” restaurant where we were served a 16-course clinic in creative food preparation. This is the kind of place you usually get to experience only vicariously on Food Channel specials where they take you into the kitchen at some place like Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, the pioneer of this type of cooking. The chef at La Vineria had worked at El Bulli, so this was the real thing. Real one-bite frozen octopus head. Real olive oil dust. Etc. It was an excessive, almost incomprehensible sensory experience. (Especially while sleep-deprived—it’s hard to get any decent sleep on an airplane. We shouldn’t have gone to La Vineria on our first night. But you live and learn. If you live, that is—I was a little worried we wouldn’t actually survive the 16 small but eye-opening courses.)
Cutting-edge cuisine aside, Argentina is most famous for grilled meats, especially grass-fed steak. I don’t normally like steak. But they sure do have good steak here, and as usual when traveling, I surprised myself with what my rice-and-tofu-trained gut was able to adapt to. On the sweet side, the Argentines are very big on dulce de leche and excellent ice cream. Hard to go wrong there.
Just up the river is the lovely suburb of Tigre, gateway to the Paraná Delta. If you think the Mississippi is brown with sediment, you have to check out this place.
A boat tour took us through the Delta’s river system. People live on the islands in houses raised on stilts.
When they need supplies, they don’t have to row to the mainland, they can buy from a supermarket boat.
Meanwhile, the crew of our bus-sized tour boat kept us happy with delicious coffee and our first alfijores, the ubiquitous dulce-de-leche-filled cookies that we subsequently couldn’t get enough of.
On the way back, a stop at the market town of San Isidro featured this beautiful neo-gothic cathedral.
Back in B.A., the streets teemed with residents and shoppers and, in some areas, tourists. We stayed in San Telmo, a charismatic old neighborhood with cobbled streets and something of a small-town feel.
Uptown a bit was the Plaza de Mayo, with the famous Casa Rosada, familiar to fans of Evita. We took a tour through the sumptuous spaces inside, and stepped out onto the balcony from which Eva Duarte de Perón raised her famous arms before the adoring masses.
In the next installment we say goodbye to Buenos Aires and head south to the “bottom of the world” to walk on a glacier, eat calafate mousse, and drink hot chocolate in a tent.
Plus there’s more steak.
Continued in Part 3.