It's almost 10 in the evening and the temperature is as hot and sticky as it was at noon, the traffic noise in the busy street just as loud as it was at rush hour when people were making their way home.
We're having an early drink at Esquina Homero Manzi, one of Buenos Aires' most iconic bars in a city of a thousand iconic bars and cafés. Nearby sit groups of hipsters in skinny jeans and Puma sneakers, women of a certain age with nicotine-stained smiles and octogenarian couples dressed to the nines. Here, as in many confiteras and bars around the city, the night is just beginning, as is my search for the new Buenos Aires.
My new friend Cristina Villamor, a painter and milonguera, or tango dancer, looks around the bar, which is named after a prominent tango lyricist of the 1930s. His bittersweet song, Sur, played earlier on the stereo. The song speaks of nostalgia for the things that have gone, sorrow for the barrio that has changed and bitterness for the dream that died.
The lyrics are quite appropriate, given the current economic state of the country. As if reading my thoughts, Villamor takes a sip of her whiskey and asks, "How could I ever leave this city? It would be like abandoning a sick mother. Not because the country is in poor shape, but because in good or in bad times, Buenos Aires is what I love." This combination of cynicism and romance, nostalgia and hope, and a large dose of melancholy are almost ingrained in porte±os, as the city's populace is called, and is the essence of tango.
Villamor gives her head a little shake as if to shoo away a pestering fly, then quotes Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik, who said, "Mi patria son mis recuerdos." My country are my memories. Though I left my native city at a young age, I've tucked away deep in my heart memories collected on regular visits. In town for the first time with my husband and kids, I am determined to make new ones.
The night goes on forever in Buenos Aires, and my last stop of the evening is Salon Canning, a dance hall where Villamor sometimes organizes milongas, nights of tango dancing. The high-ceilinged room is packed with local 20-somethings (and plenty of 80-somethings), as well as tourists who've come to Buenos Aires to eat, drink and dance their way through the city.
I tell her when I was a kid, tango was something my grandparents listened and danced to. "Young people in Buenos Aires are taking a second look," she says. "Maybe they are reconnecting with it as something that is inside all of us: Tango is Buenos Aires."
Tango is cool again, I think, but Villamor says it's more than that. "How can one stop listening to a master like Piazzola? He's beyond tango. There's a saying: You don't find tango, it finds you."
We start early the next morning in the birthplace of tango, La Boca. It was once a humble section of the city where Genoese immigrants lived in conventillos or tenements, which they painted in vibrant shades of green, red, yellow, purple and blue. It still remains the most colourful neighbourhood in the city and a perfect place to spend a sunny morning. We stop at Fundación Proa, a space devoted to promoting modern art, such as the works of abstract Argentine artists. Nearby is Caminito, a pedestrian-only street that inspired a popular song of the same name. On weekends, it hosts a craft fair where tourists haggle for paintings, black-and-white photos of historical Buenos Aires boulevards, soccer jerseys and other trinkets.
For lunch we head to a neighbourhood parrila, or barbecue joint, where we eat our weight in beef while watching a couple dancing in the street. The parrila is packed and the owner, who is helping out, brings us our bottle of vino. I ask him why he thinks tango is popular again, not just with tourists, but with young Argentines.
He thinks it might have something to do with young people re-evaluating their national heritage. "There are people who are into tango not because it is fashionable but because it is part of the culture," he adds. "And there are people who were always into tango and are now in their 40s or 50s -- they always wanted to have a tango place and now they have the opportunity to open one."
Opportunity has knocked elsewhere as well. Across town is Palermo Soho, an eclectic neighbourhood teeming with young bohemians and intellectuals, some of whom have partnered to open chic little boutiques and trendy cafés set within reinvented century-old houses. At La Papelera, a newish café that's all raw concrete, checkerboard floors and plush sofas, we sip te con leche and listen to the owner talk to an electronic music artist about the changes the city has seen.
"Instead of looking for things outside the country I think that the crisis served in stimulating people to make things happen here," says the musician. "People are paying more attention to music and the arts, they're noticing what's happening around them, whereas before, people were very involved in their own thing."
Homegrown chefs are also thriving in Buenos Aires. After years spent working and training abroad, many have returned home to open their own restaurants. Hernan Gipponi is one such chef. He left Argentina a year before the crisis of 2001 and spent years working and training in Europe, most notably at the Michelin-starred Guggenheim Bilbao restaurant and El Poblet (now Quique Dacosta) in Spain.
In 2010, he opened his eponymous restaurant inside the chic Fierro Hotel. The young chef, who fuses Argentine traditions and locally sourced products (think crispy sweetbreads with potato fennel and lemon-grass broth), is creating what is arguably the most inventive food in the city.
Later that week, we head to San Telmo, where we spend the entire morning walking through tiny cobblestone streets lined with colonial-style houses, popping in and out of antique stores. My daughter, who loves to play dress-up, chooses vintage scarves and hats at one shop. At another stall, my son admires a shiny, ancient bicycle, while my husband checks out a pair of authentic mid-century modern chairs ($600 for the pair) that would cost thousands back home.
The square is full of classic cafés that stand as if frozen in time, old-timer bars where locals have been going for decades. By the time we head back to our hotel, pensioners carrying their chess sets begin to arrive, each taking his usual spot at tables under the shade of huge jacaranda trees. There they will sit to play and drink cortados all day long.
On our last night in Buenos Aires, we go to another milonga, this time at La Viruta. We sign up for a lesson and are placed with the beginners' group at the far end of the dance floor. Throughout the night, our instructors ask us to switch partners. So we do, shyly at first, and then, as some of us pick up the basic steps faster than others, we become more selective on who we pair up with, checking out potential dancing partners from the corner of our eyes.
That night as I lay in bed, I think about the tango steps I've yet to learn, the people I've met and the new places I've discovered. I am filled with tenderness for the city and, like everyone else I've met, I can't help but feel optimistic about its future.
I fall asleep and dream of the experiences I've had in Buenos Aires, the ones that have yet to become memories.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
Hernan Gipponi Restaurant -- Soler 5862 La Papelera -- Honduras 4945, lapapeleraresto.com.ar.
La Maison -- Honduras 5774, lamaisonba.com.
Algodon Mansion -- Montevideo 1647, algodonmansion.com Fierro Hotel -- Soler 5862, fierrohotel.com Hotel Home -- Honduras 5860, homebuenosaires.com.
Salon Canning -- Scalabrini Ortiz 1331, parakultural.com.ar; La Viruta -- Armenia 1366, lavirutatango.com.