At the turn of the 21st century, I learned two things about Argentina: never get in the way of football (soccer, Americans) fans or learn tango from an instructor a foot shorter than you. Twenty years later, my opinion has not changed.
When my friend Felicia and I arrived in Buenos Aires in September 2000, we were happy to discover that there was a football match between Argentina and Brazil the next day. We miraculously got tickets through our hotel to arguably the rowdiest public sport event in the world. We also arranged for a private tango lesson at a renowned dance school.
So our city trip began at the famous Club Atlético Boca Juniors in the colorful neighborhood of La Boca. We made our way through the sea of white and blue jerseys to the Argentinian end zone – thank goodness, not on the Brazil side as sportsmanship teetered on the edge of violence. In fact, the Brazilian players had to enter the stadium via a large, plastic tube so onlookers would not pelt them with bottles! Felicia and I jostled our way into our “seats” where we stood the entire game amongst fanatical fans.
An Aussie named David, whom we met at our hotel, came with us and buffered some of the game enthusiasm of male Argentinians who subtly tried to get their game on elsewhere. High fives were quickly turned into bear hugs. Felicia and I never received so many “high fives” in a few hours in our lives. Of course, their frequency increased every time Argentina scored.
“Va-mo Ar-gen-ti-na! Va-mo Ar-gen-ti-na!” Every syllable was drilled into our heads like a Spanish lesson.
David could not buffer the enthusiasm fast enough. He gave up and we all literally embraced the moments. Blue and white Argentinian shirts flew in our faces like flags waving in the wind. And mini flags were twirled around and around and around in the air.
The next thing we knew, Felicia and I were also being twirled in the air by random Argentinian fans as their country had beaten Brazil at their beloved sport. “Wooooo! Woooooooooo!!” We will never forget the intensity of enthusiasm. It was louder than a Rollings Stones concert.
Chanting, cheering, high-fiving, fist bumping, spontaneous hugging and any other expression of joy you can imagine continued as we made our way out of the stadium. The energy spilled out of the stadium and from every sports bar into the streets among every Argentinian.
As Americans, we were humbled by their level of enthusiasm for football, even compared to American football. It was an unprecedented level of national pride and an unbelievable cultural experience. We shuttered to think what would have happened if Argentina lost!
A few days later, after our arms and ears recovered, we attempted to learn about Argentina’s second greatest point of pride: tango. This sensual, complicated dance was actually the outgrowth of street fighting. It was like an early form of Argentina vs. Brazil among gauchos (skilled horsemen).
Based on our experience in Boca Juniors stadium, we thought we had a “leg up” on tango. Plus, Felicia and I had both taken dance lessons as kids and could fake our way through the waltz and numerous Latin dances. But we quickly realized you cannot fake tango, nor dance effectively with a man whose nose goes straight into your chest.
Our sweet, older Argentinian tango instructor was about a foot shorter than both of us tall Americans and he took turns dancing with us from one chest to the next. He repeated the basic six steps of tango, leading with his legs between ours and his hand on our backs.
“Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis …” he kept repeating as we did our best not to trip and laugh about his eyeline.
Tango steps are exacting and the physical closeness unforgiving. One misstep and the whole rhythm is off. So, our lessons were a series of bloopers and hilarious retakes. After 30 minutes each, we finally mastered the six basic steps but little else. No wonder experts say that learning tango is a lifetime feat.
Fortunately, beautiful examples of tango are plentiful in Buenos Aires from the streets to formal performances in a variety of venues. We continued learning it through observation … at a more comfortable distance.
We also got a sense of tango origins with modern gauchos on a ranch in El Calafate in the southernmost part of mainland Argentina. We were offered every part of a cow for dinner during an authentic asado (South American barbecue) and regaled with music and dances by cowboys. We were serenaded with guitars instead of blue and white jerseys.
Even more amazing was our trip to nearby Perito Moreno Glacier, 100 square miles of ice spilling into Lake Argentino. It’s the third largest freshwater reserve on the planet (surpassed only by Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets). Like mini football chants, the glacier made tremendous sounds as ice chunks broke off and fell into the lake.
Felicia and I also went to the far north to the Argentine-Brazilian border to see Iguazu Falls, the largest waterfall in the world straddling both countries on the Iguazu River. Even at this UNESCO World Heritage site the countries compete. Locals say Argentina puts on the show with about 80 percent of the falls but Brazil offers the view.
For us, Argentina only “came up short” once but we were filled with its national pride. We embraced it in more ways than one. Vamo Argentina!