San Telmo

In Argentina, Buenos Aires, Sud America on August 17, 2010 at 3:14 am

Street markets are for people watching, grab a seat outside a bar/resto/cafe and watch the myriad people walk past, slowly, stopping and starting, leaning in to peruse more closely the wares on display, the goods to buy.

I’ve got no space to carry anything with me, so I was avoiding malls, shopping precincts/districts, markets. No desire to fill my bag with trinkets and nick nacks, mementoes of my travels, solid markers of the places I’ve been. If I do buy anything it has to be sent back, to be kept in storage until I return, less is more and I’d rather have fewer more intense keepsakes than any item that catches my magpie eye.

But holding myself back from the street fairs I am keeping myself from seeing the citizens of that space do what they always do, what everyone always does, buy tat for themselves and their loved ones. But I also miss the opportunity to see the locals, miss the chance to really look at them in the bright light of day, when the weekend is upon them and they leisurely go about their lives. Miss the stage set up and the free tango lessons, the San Telmo drum school dancing and drumming down the narrow avenue, the food vendors pulling their wares, their cries reverberating along the cobbles, kids being pulled to and fro, the slow walk of couples hand in hand, the stop and stare and quick discussion of the goods up for sale, each stall holding the goods of an artisanal, book marks, jewelry, slogan t-shirts, mate gourds, scarves, dresses, shoes, toys and games, sitting on the kerb, blanket spread out in front of them, sipping their own mate, chewing on a choripan, smoking yet another cigarette.

Stop and watch the final preparations as a stage is being set up, the lights angled down onto the impromptu dance floor, the crowd around the edges leaning forward in anticipation, amused chuckles as people are taught the basic steps of the tango, how to hold their partner, how to step, when to step, people playing at tango until…

The old couples lit by those bright lights, step out, gliding across the cardboard dance floor as the young crowd stands and watches and takes photographs. This isn’t for play or for show they are living this moment. The women’s foreheads pressed against their partners cheek, eye closed, bodies closer, swirling across the dance floor, first only a handful of couples then more and more, as the strings wail high, and the accordion pushes and pulls its mournful notes into the ether.

I see no one under thirty on the dance floor, the music that brought these couples together that bound them tight as youths, of no use to their children and grandchildren, a footnote in argentine history even as we tourists scrabble to find the authentic slice of this dancing tradition. But these dancers don’t care about that, all they care about is the music, and the movement of their bodies and the steps they learned so very long ago, loving the joy it brings and that flush of remembrance of youth and desire and the beginnings of love.

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