Day one in England and Me and C. stand on the pavement outside the post office on the Shepherd’s Bush Road, snapping away with the Pentax: a red double-decker bus; magenta Busy Lizzies spilling over baskets hanging from a wrought iron lamp post; a pristine example of a British public toilet capsule that looks like it could be an alien space craft in disguise. Do people really use those? asks a bemused C. I make him laugh by telling him that the doors open automatically if you stay in there for too long.
I drag him into the first charity shop we come across. Can’t resist the prospect of unearthing a few recycled Brit bargains in the racks packed with familiar labels and someone else’s cast offs. A couple of Jasper Conran shirts for him and a Monsoon top for me: ten quid. Resulting smiles: priceless.
Flushed with the pleasure of new gladrags in the bag, we decide to explore the aisles of the chemist known as Superdrug. I want to know how much the things I call ‘facewipes’ cost: you know, those totally convenient wet cloths that cleanse tone and something else all in one… I’ve always been mega lazy when it comes to skincare and thus a big fan, but in Buenos Aires if it says Nivea or any name I recognise on the cover, it’s out of my price bracket: In Argentina I resort to the Farmacity own brand and they’re between $9pesos and $12pesos (one pound fifty to two quid) for twenty five. Superdrug’s version looks a lot more luxurious and is only 99p for forty. I buy three packs. We’ve got to make a list of all the things we’re taking back with us, I say. L’Oreal hair dye won’t be on it. Six pounds fifty in Superdrug. Three quid in Buenos Aires.
Round the back of Shepherd’s Bush’s second hand stores and chemists we find Westfield, apparently the biggest shopping mall in Europe. We wander in… and out in about five seconds flat. C. is open mouthed to see people propping up the champagne bar in the designer section at 4pm… Everyone’s drinking, he says. We’ve just passed Walkabout, the Australian branded bar, overflowing with Saturday afternoon ‘beer glass in hand’ punters. I meanwhile am open mouthed at the number of people weighed down by an excessive number of designer carrier bags – haven’t they heard that Britain is supposed to be in the grip of a recession?
Tango Negracha-style shows no signs of being knocked by economics either, despite costing ten quid to get in (that’s more than $60pesos each… bloody hell!): it’s chocca. Carlos announces to me that he could be in La Viruta. The performance is by folk who normally hang out there… though I think he probably means the number of times he gets kicked. To my amazement I end up dancing with Shev down in the basement where there’s more space and the music’s electronic: he leads me a load of fun stuff I don’t normally do and I end up laughing a lot. I can’t help wondering what my milonguero boys would make of it all, and as the night progresses I do think of them and their closer than close embraces. I miss the familiar music too: even much of the traditional stuff upstairs isn’t really what I’m used to. But these days I’m celebrating the differences… or doing my best to anyway, so I throw myself into our first night on the London tango town. I confess that I don’t really want to leave at 3.30am when I turn to discover that my host has his tango shoes off and his coat on. That’s the adrenalin of travel across cultures for you, even a fifteen hour flight and zero sleep for two days couldn’t stop me wanting to dance and talk and meet new people and dance some more, until dawn. I silently give thanks that in Buenos Aires I can always get the bus home, or if desperate a pretty cheap taxi, and never need a car or to rely on anyone for a lift. Freedom. I must have it to feel joy and I know it. And it is fabulous to know it, and to normally have it.
I’m starving after all that dancing and I shout, Stop! as into view comes a petrol station bearing a M&S Simply Food sign that promises a treasure chest of goodies totally and utterly unheard of in Buenos Aires. I leave the boys in the car and it is touch and go whether they will ever see me again as I get lost in the shelves of convenience bacon and egg triple-decker sandwiches on brown rye bread, 4-packs of chocolate eclairs (that I have been known to eat in one sitting in lives past), 500ml tubs of fresh full fat custard… Half an hour later I’m at the kitchen table tucking into two enormous scones that ooze with strawberry jam and cream and I’m thinking that I absolutely will not care if I never see another plate of Argentine medialunas again. I start fantasising about how I can persuade M&S to open a store in Las Cañitas. As I eat jam and cream I feel like I am in the enviable position of standing in front of a giant pick and mix stand. An M&S scone from a Shepherds Bush petrol station at 4am; the sight of my Argentine in a five quid Jasper Conran shirt from Oxfam; the fun embrace of a British friend in the basement of a packed Holborn tango club… all London treats. Things to love.
Now, one week after Negracha and with a few days in the exquisitely beautiful and green Hampshire countryside behind me, I know a few things that I don’t love about me in this country too: having to drive miles just to find a pint of milk; not leaving myself enough time in my schedule to write; being invited to dance tango to music that isn’t even remotely recognisable as tango music. But, Brilliant! I shout in my most welcoming voice to all three. The first I can put up with for a few weeks; the second I can change from today; the third… I’m just saying politely, No, sorry, I can’t dance tango to this. Easy. It’s just bloody great to know who I am, what works, what doesn’t work, what I want and what I don’t want, and not being afraid to say so.
When you travel you take yourself with you right? I used to say that in a rather negative way. Like, Oh well be careful thinking that you can go and live in another country and everything will be different, because it won’t – you take yourself with you after all… What does that mean exactly? That we’re all screwed up and so we’ll screw up our lives wherever we go? But what if we are not screwed up. What if we know joy in one land and we are determined to carry that joy with us to another. Might that not be possible too? Well it damn well is.
I do see that I have to watch out for getting sucked in to ways that may be the norm here, but are no longer my norm (like not wanting to offend anyone, not saying no even when I long to, not making time for art over duty)… but that’s ok. I am learning to protect my joy. And I will do so whatever land I’m in. Is it selfish? Maybe. But on the other hand if, when I face you, I have not got joy in my heart, then I’m wasting your time as well as mine: across the coffee table; on the dance floor; on this blog page. Until this morning I haven’t wanted to write a word since I left Argentina. Today I woke at 5am and the words were desperate to escape. So here I am. Saturday morning. Rain pouring outside. Hampshire, England. Pick and mixing my life: Carlos asleep in the next room; a great and wonderful friend down the corridor; an unplanned day stretching ahead; dancing tango tonight in the New Forest. Mañana another favourite New Forest tango home of mine: Bramshaw. Monday, my family.
You take yourself with you when you travel? Yes you do. And for the very first time in my life, I’m taking a me I love, a me who at last is learning to fill her suitcases not only with tango shoes but with un-squashable Barbie fuelled honesty and joy. And how bloody marvellous is that?
Happy rest of the weekend guys. Till soon, from the most beautiful England that it is in my power to create,