Old San Telmo
We guessed when we arrived that the building dated from the time of Napoleon, but the agent who let us in told us it probably pre-dated Napoleon.
The building was constructed with stone and had beautiful tile floors that appeared to be original. The apartment itself had been updated, and was modern and stylish, but the owners have carefully preserved the old charm.
All around us in San Telmo were buildings of similar vintage. Some were in better condition than others, but it was clear this had been an affluent neighborhood in its day, two centuries ago.
San Telmo was built on a bluff above the river and harbor. Over time a series of massive landfill projects pushed the Buenos Aires waterfront out a mile or two, into deeper waters, creating an enormous flat section of the city that is mostly parkland. In the old days, however, the ships and the wharves of the harbor would have been plainly visible from San Telmo, just down the hill.
Alas, poor old San Telmo was ground zero for a Yellow Fever epidemic that swept Buenos Aires in 1871.
The Catholic Church in San Telmo — San Pedro González Telmo — has a plaque on its exterior wall commemorating the victims.
The middle class fled this neighborhood for higher ground. San Telmo became a run-down slum, and languished for years in poverty.
Despite this sad history, San Telmo retains a great deal of its 19th Century character and charm. At present it is enjoying a renaissance.
Our first hint at the importance of the tango in this neighborhood was the “house instructions” we found on the coffee table in the living room of our apartment. They warned that tango practitioners should not wear spiked heels when rehearsing on the polished wooden floors of the apartment.
At the center of San Telmo is the elegant old Plaza Dorrego. It is a beautiful square surrounded by substantial-looking four- and five-story buildings with French-influenced architecture.
The entrance to our apartment building was on one corner of the square. It was an ideal location, right in the center of the action, but we were insulated from the noise of the square because our unit was in the center of the building.
We arrived in San Telmo on a Sunday morning and got settled into our apartment. During the day on Sundays, the Plaza Dorrego and all the streets leading into it are closed to traffic and dedicated to an enormous antiques and flea market. It’s a great scene.
Especially noteworthy, though, was the tango dancing on the square on Sunday night, after the antique sellers packed up their booths. When we emerged from our apartment that night, we discovered that a large section of the square had been lined with a portable wooden dance floor. Large loudspeakers were set up for the music. (On other nights there were live musicians, depicted here, but on Sunday night it was recorded music we heard.)
Literally dozens of tango dancers took to the dance floor. It was a remarkable and beautiful cultural experience to watch.
The tango originated, we were told, as a dance between prostitutes and their male customers in San Telmo and the adjacent La Boca neighborhood.
The dance itself is certainly very provocative, especially the role of the female partner.
Whereas the male dancers typically dress in dark suits and ties, perhaps with a dark fedora hat, the women are a contrast. They wear tight, brightly colored dresses, frequently slit up the side, to show off their legs.
The tango, they say, is “the vertical expression of horizontal desire.”
The music that accompanies the tango sounds to our ears like turn-of-the-19th-to-20th-Century Italian immigrant music, which apparently is what it is. It’s jazzy, but in an old-fashioned way.
What was especially sweet about the Sunday night tango gathering in Plaza Dorrego was the wide age range among the participants. Old and young mixed freely on the dance floor. It was clear the tango is not some sort of anachronism. It remains a vibrant aspect of popular culture in Buenos Aires.
Also memorable was the ritualistic way in which men approached women with a request to dance. It was like watching a nature film about birds in the wild engaged in their mating behavior. Men who found themselves turned away by a prospective dance partner seemed to have no difficulty rebounding and moving on to a new prospect.
Perfect strangers were able through this elaborate ritual to team up into couples and then glide across the dance floor like passionate lovers, and indeed they are lovers while their dance continues.
How peculiar, it seemed to us, that such a frank and open display of sensuality — even among perfect strangers — occurs under the noses of the authorities in this highly Roman Catholic country!
There are in San Telmo and throughout Buenos Aires various clubs where tourists and affectionados can see the performance of a “tango show,” and perhaps take a lesson and try it for themselves.
For us, though, the memory we will treasure is seeing dozens of ordinary people dancing the tango, outdoors, on the Plaza Dorrego, on our first night in Buenos Aires.