Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sampling Culture in BA

This happy group of students of Spanish as well as all things cultural in their temporary home away from home, Buenas Aires, have just been to the Teatro Colon to see three opera ballets by Igor Stravinsky. They´re celebrating with a variety of taste treats (an incredible ice cream sundae for me) and alcoholic beverages (I discovered that cognac goes quite well with a selection of helados). Don´t we look happy? (from L to R: Toni, me, Lorraine, Jani and Amelia)

The Teatro Colon is a venerable institution, a huge concert hall that debuted with Verdi´s "Aida" in 1908 and was the biggest in the southern hemisphere until Sydney built their hall. It holds 2,500 in the audience with room for 500 standing. I´ve heard that more than 1,000 workers are employed behind the scenes and I´ll learn more when I take a tour on Monday. Inside, the Teatro is U-shaped with six balconies. Lorraine, Toni and I were pleasantly surprised that seats were available on the day of the performance, for only 230 pesos (about $75). Seats on the floor were twice that. Perhaps that´s why the hall was way less than half full, a real shame. We sat at the edge of the first balcony on the third floor (lower floors contained boxes), and peered down on the orchestra (4 grand pianos for one numbers), singers and dancers. Jani and Amelia waved at us from the stratosphere where their SRO tickets cost only 5 pesos each (about $1.50). The performance featured three pieces by Stravinsky. "Les Noces" was about a wedding between an initially reluctant and later enthusiastic couple. While the singing was in French, a Spanish translation was shown on a screen over the stage, thereby helping to advance our linguistic progress. The second piece, "Les Rossignol," was based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, "The Emperor´s Nightingale" and featured a magical bird, one emperor, and lots of subjects, as well as a fisherman whose role was unclear. The final piece was "Petrushka," and it appeared to be about the director of a dance troupe and his dancers. If I understood it correctly, the director was bisexual but ultimately it was the male dancer who broke his heart. Does that sound like Stravinsky? I knew BA was gay friendly, but...

Today was a very full day. I´m typing this at an internet "locutorio" near my apartment, and a group of three Hare Krishnas just danced by on the sidewalk, chanting through a loudspeaker. An hour ago I was walking in the early evening through an extremely crowded shopping area along Avenida Santa Fe in Recoleto. I´ve been to a number of such areas in this large city and the streets are always thronged with people and the modern stores full of the latest glossy consumer items. I browsed in a large bookstore designed like a concert hall, with a cafe where the stage should be. And I looked through the CD bins at a two-storey music store next door. I´m beginning to think that American cities are drab and spiritless compared to some of the places I´ve visited in the last couple of years, Buenos Aires, Bangkok and Rome foremost among them. And when the stores close, porteños party. The bars and clubs are full from midnight until dawn (so I´m told, not being a night owl myself).

What I do is explore. Today I slept in because of my late night cultural expedition to the Teatro Colon. Then I walked past the giant new mosque to the Parque 3 de Februaro (the significance of that date escaped me), rented a bike and pedaled around a lovely lake. There were strollers, joggers, bicyclists like me, rollerblade hockey players, others playing soccer and ping pong, a couple of groups doing yoga, and a jazzercise class. The weather is unseasonably warm and everyone was taking advantage of it. After strolling through a rose garden to see Borges´ bust among other writers in a poetry corner, I stopped at an outdoor cafe for a cappuchino followed by a dulce de leche cone, and then walked to the nearby Museo de Evita. A lovely series of exhibits and video footage have been gathered to celebrate the life of Eva Peron Duarte. I learned that she favored fashions in black and white and earth colors. I wonder why she didn´t wear anything brighter? Perhaps she didn´t want to outshine her husband. There is something about her that I find admirable, despite the hype, then and today. She rose from humble beginnings and really did strive to help her people, particularly women, the poor, elderly and children. It´s too bad it had to be in a fascist context.

My second pilgrimage today was to the home of tango singer Carlos Gardel, now a museum, in the Abastos district not far from where we had our first tango lession the other night. Since I signed up for this trip, I´ve been educating myself about music and film in Argentina, and Gardel is a giant, even though he died in a plane crash over 70 years ago. He is Presley and Sinatra rolled into one. Gardel is one of the three icons of Argentina, along with Evita and soccer hero Diego Maradona. The museum contained little beside clippings and photos, and some household artifacts of the 1930s. But the neighborhood features his picture on the side of buildings, and some of the houses on his street are painted in colors unknown to Evita.

Finally, I stopped at the Clasica y Moderna Cafe on the busy Avenida Callao. Like many of the cafes I´ve visited in Buenos Aires, it is a quiet haven away from the crowds. This one also contains a wonderful bookstore. It features performers in the late evening and even Mercedes Sosa, Argentine´s best known folk singer, has appeared there. Yesterday I had lunch at the Richmond along the pedestrionized Florida, where Borges once ate. In the basement, old men played billiards and chess as they have for decades. Sitting in some of the cafes, I am reminded of what the Java House (later Union Street) might have become. But I´m afraid we in Santa Cruz are not part of a similar cafe culture, despite the crowds at Lulu´s and the Pergolesi. Someone needs to open up a branch of the Cafe Tortoni or the Richmond in our city.

It´s hard to escape the shame of being from the United States. Everyone comments about Bush and is pleased when I explain to them that not only do I hate him and his policies but that I am not alone in my country. I had an interesting discussion with a taxi driver last night about Hiliary Clinton whom he likes(she´s not my choice). And the newspaper headlines here (BA has many more papers than any American city) scream the news about Lebanon and Bush´s unqualified support for the atrocities being commited by Israel while the rest of the world watches and does nothing. We´re a long way away from the Middle East but not far enough.

Tomorrow I´m off to a giant flea market, or feria, in Matadores. Hasta luego.

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