Fall 2001: I discovered tango almost by accident, in Lyon, France, in the midst of a welcome second year of studies abroad after spending one year in Paris. When I first moved to the city of lights, finding a home took a while. August in Paris, and everything is all but shut down. My life seemed to be in a continuous state of quest. No place to call my own, staying with family, friends, chasing apartment leads throughout the city, lining down staircases with fifty other students hoping that this apartment would become home, yearning for my home as I stared into the darkness of the Paris grumbling subways. It took a few months and a momentous trip to Ikea with several friends, but eventually I carved out a space that felt like home. It was my territory. It helped me define a path through the streets of Paris, riding my bike across town to the new Bibliothèque Nationale with its frightful symmetrical open-book towers and its desirable yet unattainable garden of truth I grew to love, discovering the city’s back-ways, its short cuts, and its hidden treasures. A year went by and it was summer all over again. I flew back to the US, spending time on both coasts, visiting family, then friends. Again I felt in transition, in boxes and suitcases left here and there according to various friends’ schedules: the following year, I would be moving to Lyon. My dreamer-lover in Paris, wanting to keep pace with me, felt that this was the time to move to Marseille. We coincided our trips, crossing France at a leisurely pace, camping in farms along the way, relishing in the last days of summer.
In Lyon, he helps me settle into my spacious dorm room. I have very few possessions, aside from my Ikea-bought white colander and a red bike bought at the Merteuil flea market shortly after the theft of my first bike right outside our front door on Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis in the 10th Arrondissement. While I was inside sleeping. Now in the safety of the dorm in Lyon, I ceremoniously place the colander in our shared kitchen’s counter; the bike I carefully lock next to our dorm room, after confirming that a guard will keep a watchful eye the whole time. Little do I know that this red bike will become a magic carpet ride from dorm to tango. But I don’t know this yet. My friend and I quickly pack the van, and make our way further south.
I grew up in this area of our planet. I grew up on this southern coastline. I grew up looking back at steep hills behind my home. Today in the car driving to Marseille to help my friend move into his new apartment, I can hear home in the cricket songs, I can feel it in the moist evening air, I can see it in the layers of rocks carving out mountain sides. I remember songs from my childhood.
On dirait le sud…
Finally in Marseille, we make our way through the old streets to his new apartment. Unlike mine, his move takes most of the afternoon. He’s a poet and a dreamer, and gives equal weight to his old copy of Moby Dick as he does to a rock found on a beach in Brittany three years ago with a friend. As we finish moving his seventh (or is it eight?) box of rocks up five flights of very steep stairs, we sit on the couch, exhausted, looking out to the terrace drenched in the setting sunlight. He reaches over and turns on the radio.
On France Inter, the CNN of French radio, an unbelievable story loops non-stop. I think of Orson Welles and his War of the Worlds. But slowly it sinks in that this horrifying story about planes slamming into the World Trade Center and people jumping out of the sky is no story. We listen in stunned silence, as unspeakable images of human powerlessness flicker through our minds. This is real. It is happening now, across the Atlantic, in my real home. The next morning, my friend and I walk, catatonic, through the sunny streets of his new town he now calls home. A foreigner in a familiar land I want to be back, yet I feel the weight of my itinerancy. When a couple realizes that I am American, they offer one of their cell phones to let me call home. Which home there to call? Home in the US is either North Carolina where I had been living for the past four years or Central Washington State where my parents have lived ever since we moved back to the States and where I returned every year for the winter holidays. I thank the couple for their gesture: There are no busy phone signals to call Durham or Yakima -- I've already gotten through to my parents and cut it short because it could quickly veer into politics. But this couple's random act of kindness to reach out and touch home in turn touch me deeply. In this shared trauma, I want to be with the people I love most. I want to be home.
I know a dancer whose life would be radically altered from the sight of those towers falling down. Within months of experiencing 9/11 he would go from being trader with Goldman Sachs to tango student, dancer, teacher, friend. For him, his reaction to 9/11 was a visceral reaction to a new world order. For me, I yearned for home while fully feeling the unmoored vagrancy of my itinerancy.
Months later, breaking myself free from the endless news of bombings and tired analyses of a New Other that have me so glued to my computer screen my spine must surely be out of alignment, on a friend's recommendation, finally I tear myself away from the screen and walk into my first tango class. Soon I will learn that tango is a dance born of migration at the end of the nineteenth century. Immigrants from Germany, Spain, Italy, France, immigrants moving across the world in search of work, building a new city, negotiating identities, longing for their old homes, creating new territories in a foreign land. But not only Europe: Afro-cuban culture and its habanera rhythm, clearly heard in many of the earlier tangos, also migrated toward the Río de la Plata, the natural river bordering Argentina and Uruguay. All these different migrant cultures intersected with music and narratives of loss and heartache played out in small plays across the Argentinian countryside. Within a generation a dance emerged that borrowed from here and took from there, to create a new cultural home.
When I finally break away and walk into my first class, this is what a find: a home. For my itinerant life, this filled my unmoored vessel, this anchored my self. I know: it wasn't that itinerant: I wasn't seeking a better life across oceans and continents, I was living simply but fully off a graduate research grant; I was often on a TGV, bound for Paris or Marseilles, often with a cat in tow. But for that brief time my home shifted like sand. Eventually I would trace a regular route on my red bike between Lyon's southern district of Gerland and the tango dance studio in the heart of the old city, its hills, les pentes de la Croix-Rousse. A regular route that had a system, a center, and brought me to home: dancing in the arms of partner, tracing gestures with others on the dance floor of a studio home.