Archive for February, 2011

On Friday Ben & I are having a cocktail party, our first one as a couple and our first in our adopted winter home, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I hope to buy roses at a ridiculously low price, and scatter the petals in the two fountains in the courtyards of our rental home, just as our favourite restaurants here do. Tomorrow is the anniversary of our first date, and we will celebrate it by returning to the scene: the lovely Fabrica la Aurora, a turn of the last century textile factory, now converted to showcase and studio for many contemporary artists. In a town founded in the 16th century, you would expect history to be close to the surface, and indeed, it survives in the magnificent haciendas, treacherous cobblestone streets, and striking churches that give the town it’s unique colonial character.

During my first trip to San Miguel, the famously fabulous weather was horrid: cold, rainy and miserable, the only saving grace being the lack of snow. But even the need for boots and wool wraps could not diminish my enthusiasm for the live music, the variety of restaurants and the warmth of the people I met. Admittedly, most of my new friends were like me: travelers of a certain age from North America, looking for a little warmth and a few new experiences. San Miguel is an ex-pat paradise, with something for everyone, from the new age spiritualist, to the gourmand to the would be artist.

This time, with another year of Spanish lessons straining my brain, I hoped to delve further into the culture of San Miguel and even Mexico. I have traveled to Mexico several times, mostly to the Yucatán area, and was struck at how rich and unique the different regions of Mexico are, in terms of food (my passion), customs, costumes, and culture. So with that in mind, I attended a Literary Sala on Bi-Culturalism.

The panel had an equal number of men and women, and those from Mexico and the United States. (There are a lot of Canadians here too, but the Americans seem to dominate not only by numbers but by involvement and leadership in the community, at least as far as I have seen. There are so many visitors from Canada this year that a tour guide asked me if there was anyone left there. Nope I quipped: we have left Canada to the snow, the polar bears and the sled dogs. He was from Texas: there is an odds on chance he believed me!)

So what did this panel of writers and professionals have to say about the challenge of being brought up in one culture and choosing to then live in another? Not surprisingly, most had found their way across the border for love. So they were highly motivated, as least initially, to make their way successfully.

One doctor had followed her physician husband to the cold of Connecticut, having to do her residency again to meet the U.S. requirements. It was her observation that Americans work incredibly hard. For couples to be comfortable she said, they must both work, and they both work to exhaustion. And then on the weekend there is all the other work to be done: the shopping, the household chores, the yard work. Mexicans she said, think all Americans are rich, and have so many machines to help. But the lawn mower does not move by its self, nor does the vacuum cleaner. Her answer: Americans should have more domestic help.

Which of course if you live in San Miguel, or Mexico and have a reasonable income, domestic help is the norm. Our March rental home has a maid/cook and a gardener 6 days a week. It is expected, customary and exactly not what the mostly American audience was expecting to hear from a Mexican.

What good have Americans brought to San Miguel? The employment of locals in well-paying and secure jobs. Over 100 non for profit organizations  created and run by  energetic retired expats that support worthy causes like the splendid Library, the SPCA, the disabled, abused women, scholarships for student, and many, many more.

And the downside of all this pale skin and silver hair? Gentrification has forced house prices up dramatically. Consequently, it has become very expensive for the children of Mexicans to stay in San Miguel. (But as the practical doctor pointed out, the same thing happened in Connecticut when wealthy New Yorkers started looking there for weekend homes.)

One the American panelists was a journalist who had married a young man while he was still in high school. She expected that things might change after marriage, but no: they moved into the tight quarters of the extended family home where his grandmother still cooked his favourite meals and he still played basketball after school!  She definitely had the funniest tales of cultures clashing, mostly around too much sharing and too little privacy.

She also had one of the most telling stories of cultural differences: when her first child was born, she found herself suddenly thinking just like her Anglo friends back home, frantically wondering where the money for his Harvard education was going to come from. When she voiced her concerns out loud at a family gathering, her Mexican relatives turned to her husband with raised eyebrows and a familiar look that meant, something along the lines of  “what were you thinking, bringing this woman into our home?”

For as the grandmother patiently pointed out, or perhaps with exasperation, “”Every child is born with his own sandwich”. Loosely translated, this Mexican homily means that if Harvard is to be his destiny, his destiny will be provided for. Why worry about it now?

Also to be filed under the category of “I had no idea that you felt that way”, was the response from an ambitious and successful young Mexican businessman, who as a  teenager,  had regularly been smuggled across the border to work as a roofer in LA. When asked: “What do Mexicans really think of North Americans?”, he said, “They think you are all rich, spoiled and think only of your money. It’s what they see on Mexican television,” he said with a shrug and a smile. What else can you expect?   The not so benign influence of The Housewives of Orange County or Jersey Shore perhaps?

He also made one of the most sensible remarks of the evening: “I am not a gold coin”. It is another Mexican homily that sounds so much better in Spanish, as does most everything really. His point: we are all human: we are not all good, nor all bad. Please do not assume that all Mexicans are universally virtuous (or have no sense of time, or no ambition, or any other cultural generalization)  and we will not assume the worst of all of you, despite what we may see on television. An excellent foundation for successful bicultural relationships, here or perhaps even back home in Canada.

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In Spanish, the word for the incline of one’s head that is a nod is a “cabezada”.  But a nod can be so much more than a nod when you are in Buenos Aires.    For the gesture is central to the ritualized dance of tango, a dance that is intertwined with Buenos Aires in the imagination of travellers.

The Dance:

Every visitor to BA will experience tango:  on the street, at a glitzy dinner show, or in the local dance halls called “Milongas”. We were fortunate enough to spend our tango evening as the guest of an Australian who has made tango his passion, indeed his life.   The venue was the Milonga Canning,  close to the charming and lively neighbourhood of Palermo Soho where we stayed for several days. Milongas are open every night, but regulars have their favourites for each night of the week, and will show up around midnight, often dancing until 3 or 4. Little alcohol is consumed and there is no sign that the dance is prelude to something more. For these enthusiasts, the dance is the end in itself.  They hold their heads high, frames seemingly rigid, while they effortlessly circle the dance floor, often with eyes closed, their still upper bodies belying the intricate footwork taking place below.  There are no dramatic sweeps across the dance floor with rose in teeth:  these movements are often dramatic but are complex, studied and more graceful than erotic.

The Rules:

We have never taken a lesson, (and frankly, a year of lessons in Canada would not be sufficient to brave the floor in this kind of venue) and so put our chairs in to face the table, not the dance floor. The placement of chairs only one part of the unspoken code of the tango.  The invitation to dance, and the subsequent agreement or refusal is proscribed as well.  A man will see a woman across the floor that he wishes to dance with, and will attempt to get her eye.  She may already be dancing or sitting between sets. Each set is at four dances, and you must dance all four dances with the same partner or risk insulting him or her terribly.

The Invitation (The “cabezada”)

After making eye contact, the man nods slowly to indicate an invitation, the “cabezada”.  If the lady is disinclined to dance with him, she does so with a casual look up and away over her shoulder.  Since the man has made the nod as he walks towards the lady (the music has started and time is wasting!) the subtle look away allows him to save face and walk on, none the wiser that he has been turned down. Indeed in those traditional Milongas, the ladies were all seated in a row outside the men’s room, so the spurned partner could simply walk on to the facilities, no one the wiser. If she agrees, she simply takes his extended hand as he pauses in front of her chair

The Partner:

So how does a man decide whom to choose?  (Women do not ask men to dance in a Milonga;  tango is a very traditional dance at heart) Well, it may be his wife or novia, but more likely not.  People come to dance, not to couple or create couples.  One thing that struck us about the evening is that age and age differences are no barrier to tango.  Women of more than a certain age danced with men on the fresh side of 30.  Women danced together as seriously as they danced with men.  In one case, a couple of petite Asian ladies danced together most of the evening, their eyes closed, and heads touching lightly just at the forehead. Their moves were so complex and their approach so delicate and refined, our host was desperate to catch the eye of the prettiest one who was dancing lead. Most often, dancers will recognize each other from another nights’ Milonga, or they have seen the other dance that evening.

Hence, the first set of the evening is critical. That is where the man demonstrates his skill at covering the floor, mastering tempo changes, and most important, showing off the lady to best advantage.  The lady for her part shows her willingness to be led, her ability to move her feet effortlessly in intricate moves around his feet and legs, and her flexibility and stamina.  If you or your partner makes a bad or indifferent showing early in the night, your options will be limited!

Women wear dresses, or wide pants with slits up to the thigh, to show off toned, hyper – extended legs terminating in elegant yet impossibly high heels.  Either tango leads to great legs or it is a pre-requisite for the dance. Either way, it certainly seemed to be much more fun than aerobics class back home!

The Shoes:

There are of course special shoes for tango (all proper sports have specialized equipment after all!) which are have higher heels than ball room dance shoes, and have very flexible soles, allowing the variety of weight shifting and extensions.

In our funky neighbourhood of Palermo, there were an astonishing number of stores featuring the original work of independent shoe designers.  Yes, of course, a country that produces so much beef has a lot of cow hide as a by-product. But that alone does not account for the sheer brilliance of some of these shoes.  Architectural constructs in striking colours, mixing shiny patent leather and glowing kid: I joked about buying a set of three to display on my living room mantel,  they were that close to works of art! And there were purses in every colour, style, and size.   I restricted myself to three but could have bought a dozen and never repeated a theme.  Did I mention that very few of these shoes or handbags topped $100 USD each?

If you have always wanted to have a very well made and convincing knockoff of a Jimmy Choo, Louboutin or Manolo, you will also not be disappointed.  I felt like SJP before she started making bad movies!

Yet another reason for women (and men too I suppose) to love Buenos Aires is that they appreciate women of a generous figure. There is no fear of the muffin top here, and bountiful booties abound. Perhaps it can be attributed to the regular consumption of beef, likely the highest in the world per person, but there were fewer obese people there than I have seen in other Latin or South American countries.  Gyms are everywhere, but pastries are a national obsession as well, and most portenos (the correct name for residents of BA) eat 4 or 5 times a day.  You and I will find it easy to get into one of the best and most popular restaurants at 8:30 or 9 pm because the locals won’t be there until midnight.

What else to love in this beautiful city? The stunning architecture, the fabulous food, funky street cafe’s, elegant boutique hotels, the excellent shopping, and I could go on. But I will do one better:  put Buenos Aires on your “bucket list” as it was on Ben’s, and experience one of the world’s most enjoyable cities for travelers. You cannot possibly be disappointed.

p.s. If you are interested and are going soon, I will gladly share my “finds” for shoes, bags, hotels, restaurants etc. I

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