The Argentine art of flirting

A young American learns to stop resisting and love the piropo.

Published May 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Amid the pale purple jacaranda of Plaza San Martmn, I fell into one of those impossibly long stares that strangers engage in here. I had been in Buenos Aires a week and my inner Argentine, developed during a previous four-year love-hate battle with the place -- a battle that had ended with my return to the States two years before -- was on an unprecedented high. Pheromones were no doubt wafting up from the crowd of park-bench lovers and the full-bodied Italianate Spanish was infusing my thoughts as the night jasmine perfumed the city streets.

So I playfully clung to his silvery gray eyes. We didn't trade smiles or winks, but my chest tingled with a soundless giggle. It was good to be back on the teasingly sensual Argentine streets.

But that night, as the wooden plates were being cleared from a gluttonous asado in which we'd sampled every cut of beef that could be barbecued, my friend Peter challenged the longevity of such public sensuality. I didn't hear what prompted the thought, but his words rang out across the raucous dinner party: "They don't say as many piropos these days."

A piropo is the most simpatico of flirtations -- a kind of street poetry that a man whispers just when he's close enough to look a woman in the eye. Traditionalists might memorize a rhyme popularized decades ago, like "Adiss florecita de arroz, maqana voy a casarme con vos." (Goodbye little rice flower, tomorrow I will marry you.) But even a mundane "!Qui piernas!" (What legs!), when delivered by a bewitching flatterer, is pure excitement -- a moment of unexpected intimacy with a stranger -- and then, before your cheeks have fully flushed, he's gone.

I had come to think of the piropo as the Latin-lover cousin of the white trash catcall. In the American version, a construction worker, towering above the world on a scaffold, whistles at a bouncy giglet on the sidewalk below, drawing upon her the cruelest attention. But the piropo is subtle -- with refined machismo, it replaces public humiliation with a private fantasy of romance. At most, a person walking beside you might hear, but often no one, not even the mystery man, looks to see your response. The compliment arrives quietly, like an anonymous gift.

I was horrified to think the tradition might be dying.

Of course, this stunning revelation was delivered by an eccentric foreigner -- a curry-addicted Catholic who had foolishly traded Bombay for Buenos Aires a quarter-century ago, only to be generally known as el hindz, since Spanish makes no allowances for monotheistic Indians. As a non-native, non-female, Peter would have seemed an odd expert on Argentine machismo -- but even after an afternoon of sidewalk flirtation, I trusted him to know.

With a fine frosting of gray hair, a well-rounded belly and deep brown eyes that barely shielded his heart from full view, Peter was always surrounded by women, playing confidant and romantic advisor to many -- including, I must admit, me. He had been my best friend in the final days of my expat extravaganza, the one who suffered through every grating argument about the narrow-mindedness that could flourish in these narrow streets -- and in my ex-lover. He also had an inquisitive mind and when we'd gone on assignment together -- he as photographer, me as journalist -- he would end up asking all the questions. Now I presumed he'd been interviewing piropeadores.

Viviana leaned into the table, pushing herself into the conversation with a coquettish wink, and said, "I don't hear as many piropos these days, but it's hard to know whether that's because they say them less or they just don't say them to me." There was an eruption of little-girl giggles around the table as the women -- every one a vibrant young babe sculpted into a form-fitting dress -- inwardly tallied their recent piropos and laughed. Cecilia, with her ebony tresses and voluptuous curves, took the apparent deficit of piropos with the same good humor with which she received the verbal ogling itself. Gisela, too, shrugged off the dearth of piropos and set her fairy-blue eyes teasingly upon Felipe. He and the other men at the table tickled their wine glasses and crumbled their bread, but said nothing.

I wasn't so quick to kiss the piropo goobye. How many times had I been hurtling down Avenida Santa Fi, plagued by some inane job-related worry, only to have it washed away by a furtive smile and a flattering line? "With eyes as bright as yours, who needs the sun?" There were times when a morning greeting of "!Diosa!" (Goddess!) was enough to bring on a secret, blushing smile that lasted all day.

It wasn't that I was so hard up for attention. Like many an expat, I had bound myself to Argentina with a passionately woven romance. I think, actually, I had gathered piropos like tokens of acceptance from my new country. Their delivery was predicated on the belief that I understood both the language and the culture of the piropo, which is so foreign to my American roots that if there existed some kind of world consciousness that could identify me as a yanqui, I never would have been treated to a single one. But these mysterious piropeadores behaved toward me as if I was Argentine, and it was as if by comprehending them, I became one.

A bittersweet nostalgia for that seqorita I had struggled to become rippled through me as I polished off a final espresso and began the requisite round of cheek-kissing goodbyes. Peter directed the taxi to Viviana's place, where I was staying while working on a travel video. Then, sitting up front while Viviana and I commandeered the back seat, he asked the driver if it was true that they said fewer piropos these days. The taxista, who was in his 50s and surely putting in 14-hour days to make a living, agreed. "There's no time," he said flatly. "Everyone's in a hurry. There's no siesta anymore, no time to dream up silly verses."

By then we had left the curving cobblestone streets and crumbling, belle ipoque barrio of San Telmo and were barreling down Avenida 9 de Julio, heralded as the widest in the world since the government bulldozed a collective of neoclassical mansions to roll out eight lanes in each direction. During the day it was a motionless sea of traffic, and even now, at 2 a.m. on a weeknight, it was busy -- quick schools of red tail lights darting past the opulent opera house and into the current of another rushing boulevard.

Memories of my Argentine life cascaded down these avenues, and I recalled discomforting moments during my education in the ways of this sensual culture: It had been unnerving to learn that the piropo was not always an anonymous affair. Countless times, I had arrived at the office of some government minister or well-known executive whose secretary had put me off for weeks, and the big muckety-muck would size me up while shaking my hand and purr, "If I had known you were so beautiful, I would have agreed to the interview ages ago."

At first, I would just freeze and return their winking words with an icy handshake. But gradually, as the filter through which I had been trained to view the world dissolved, I found humor in these fawning men in suits. Sure, they were sexist and a bit grotesque, but they hadn't been schooled to not say what they were really thinking. And their admission of attraction -- if you could even call it that -- seemed harmless. I suppose any feminist would have howled at my apathy, but by then I would have howled right back if I could have found the party responsible for draining the sweaty-palmed humanity, with its unchecked crushes and flirtatious freedoms, from my homeland. Over time, I came to revel in Argentina's unbridled acceptance of everyday sexuality, and with my feminist education and Seven Sisters diploma in tow, learned to offer a smile and genuine thanks to these piropador-acquaintances, before turning to the interview at hand.

I awoke the next morning in the tiny twin bed in Viviana's apartment, troubled by the dwindling piropos and wondering what such a change would portend for Argentina's relationship to sexuality. If the taxi driver was right and over-busy lives were to blame, I wondered if the country would ever recover. The government was hellbent on arriving in the devoutly worshipped First World; competition, longer workdays and the American entertainment monoculture had long begun their beguiling encroachments on simpler ways of life. I could hardly bear to think that my sexual paradise -- not that of an easy lay, but one in which casual attraction had a voice -- could be Americanizing. The last thing the world needs is another prudish freak show of a country, I thought, hanging my towel beside the bidet and pulling on a sleek black dress.

I slipped into a taxi and headed to La Boca. The portside brothels and bars that had witnessed the birth of Argentina's sultry tango had long given way to an impoverished barrio turned tour-bus standard. Decades ago the cheap rent had attracted artists, who converted the little houses on stilts into an outrageous palette of kaleidoscoping reds, greens and purples. Now a booming business in sidewalk watercolors and other "local crafts" attracted European and American tourists. I hadn't ventured here for six years, since the very first week of my Argentine sojourn, and wouldn't have been back if the blatant color schemes weren't perfect for TV.

But it turned out to be a godsend, for here I met Oscar, a vaguely creepy street artist and tango dancer. Handsome and aging, he absolutely dripped with Argentinity beneath a pale fedora and worn blazer. My question about what time the art stalls opened prompted the first piropo of my trip: For a woman as beautiful as I, he said, the stalls would open at any hour. With a hint of a smile, I asked if it was true that they say less piropos these days.

"Sadly, it is," he replied. Asking my permission, Oscar led me to a nearby park bench, arranged his silk aviator's cravat, lit up a cigarette and told me the history of piropos.

"In the old days," he said, looking straight into my eyes with familiarity, "men came alone to try their luck in the New World. They left their wives and families behind. Soon there were far more men than women in Argentina. How do you get the attention of the only woman around?" His eyes followed a passing teenage girl, whose deep tan traced its way from her painted toes right up to the hem of her 4-inch skirt. "By saying the most beautiful words. It's the same as dancing the tango -- maybe you're ugly, but if you are a beautiful dancer, you have a chance."

His chatter drifted toward the salacious dance and he began, as any tour book would, to tell me how it had been prohibited in Argentina until news of its European popularity reached these shores and gave it cachet with the locals. He made a valiant effort to impress me with his travels to the United States to lecture on the tango, while running his eyes over my legs. I steered him back to the piropo.

"Men used to dress well, act properly and try to impress the girls. Today everything is much more aggressive," Oscar said. The famed melancholy of the tanguero spread across the elegant lines of his face. "The city runs at such speed. And women ask men out. You don't need a polished turn of phrase to get a girl to sleep with you."

There was something uncomfortably forward about his manner as he said so, and for a moment I wondered if he had interpreted my pert response to his piropo as some kind of invitation. The woman my mother raised me to be wouldn't have dreamed of sharing a park bench with a flirtatious art-hawker. She would have run at the slightest sexual innuendo. But in Argentina, I could only chuckle, finding no hint of impropriety in his banter. I relaxed back into my seat.

"Before, I would work a piropo in my head until it was something wonderful. Then, if I impressed her enough with the verse, maybe she'd agree to have a coffee with me. If she found me interesting, maybe she'd give me her number. And maybe we'd go out again. It was all very slow." He shook his head, enraptured by the memory of a difficult, old-fashioned conquest. For a second I wondered if this story -- told by a man who had mentioned that he'd been married more than 30 years and spoke proudly of his grown daughter -- was more fantasy than truth.

In any case, it was time for me to get back to work. I thanked Oscar and began to extricate myself from his reminiscences with a goodbye handshake. He insisted on giving me his card, then pulled my hand closer. "Remember," he said, reprimanding my cold exit strategy, "everything here is a kiss." His lips brushed my cheek and he took his leave with a broad smile.

That evening, sitting on the floor with a glass of Malbec, I recounted the tale to Viviana. What was really going on with the piropo? After all, Oscar, that peddler of art and history and flirtation, had agreed with my friend Peter's theory that its popularity was diminishing. And like the taxista, he blamed its demise on speed and modernity. But our whole damn encounter had been a piropo. Oscar's scheme had worked on me: He'd said something charming that had enticed me to pass half the morning with him. At that Viviana nodded and broke into a rollicking laugh.

I called Peter. I was eager to tell him the story of Oscar and discover the genesis for his theory of the dying piropo. Filming on my travel video was starting the next day and I was moving to a downtown hotel to join the crew, so Peter and I arranged to meet in the lobby after I checked in.

I gave Viviana a goodbye kiss and headed downstairs to find a taxi. The sidewalk was busy with children coming home from soccer and ballet, and friends parting ways following an after-work drink. An unoccupied taxi was just coming into view as the silhouette of a man came up the street. I saw only dark hair, a brown coat. But then his eyes pierced mine and with the practiced flourish of a piropeador, he gestured at my luggage and asked, "Oh sweetness, must you leave so soon?"

I was besieged by silent giggles and a faint blush as he disappeared into the hazy pink evening.

By Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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