The moon shines in a dark blue sky over the San Francisco Bay. From the top of the hill I can see a million lights shimmering and reflecting in the water. As I stroll down the steep and windy road, past lush gardens hiding comfortable homes, I can hear tango music softly drifting through the air. On this balmy night, the doors from the dance floor to the terrace are open. There is the faint sound of subdued talk and laughter. As I approach the tall, multi-level house and begin to climb the steep staircase, the sounds become more distinct. I’m climbing up two, then three flights, catching my breath before approaching the last one, until at last there I am. I’m gazing at a several dozen dancers swirling around the floor and, on one side of the large room an enormous buffet bearing an overwhelming amount of delicacies. It is Friday night and a wonderful event has just begun.
The party is a by-invitation-only milonga, hosted by Sandra Kistler and Gregory White at their exquisite home in the Oakland Hills. It started about two years ago after the couple had met and decided to open the vast space of Sandra’s house to the tango community. Their aim was to create a monthly event in the tradition of a European-style salon. “We found that a lot of people in tango don’t actually know who they are dancing with,” says Greg, “unless they already are good friends.” Add to this the fact that people don’t get together for big dinners — and the idea was born for the “houseTango”. They started to invite a number of dancers from the community for “dinner and dance” on one Friday of the month. It immediately drew not just their friends, but also a large number of tango aficionados from the Bay Area tango community. The intimate setting of a milonga at their private home — which presents itself as the perfect space for entertainment with a large dance floor, elevated stage area for musicians, a grand piano, and spectacular views of the Bay — was an immediate attraction, just as were the culinary delights.
In the beginning Greg himself volunteered as the chef, preparing an enormous amount of paella, with friends bringing appetizers, desserts, and drinks to complete the buffet. After dinner, people would get up and start to dance. Some of the local tango DJ’s played the tunes for the night. But soon, word spread, and what had started as a small, semi-private event drew more than 80 attendees every month, with people coming from as far away as San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Sacramento, and the North Bay. The couple was getting concerned on how to handle the crowd. They began to ask for a donation, and then proceeded to set a fee to cover their own expenses and to pay for the tango musicians they now had started to hire. “We were hoping that would be a better way of controlling the number of people who would attend. But the contrary happened,” explains Greg, “even more people started showing up!”
And the monthly parties are only one aspect of what has now become a much larger project called “houseTango”. “It is a community of musicians, dancers, teachers, and organizers who are related to Argentine tango,” as Greg formulates it. It includes the monthly milonga, a scholarship for promising tango dancers, and a soon-to-come website for tango dancers.
“How does the scholarship work?” I want to know. Greg explains that both he and Sandra pick an aspiring young tango dancer: somebody who is talented, and they support him or her. This month’s scholarship was awarded to Dina Zarif, a young vocal talent and beginning tango dancer who sang to piano accompaniment during the salon at the house. Sandra Kistler had acquired on behalf of “houseTango” the scholarship for Dina in the form a full-day festival pass for the upcoming Official USA Argentine Tango Championship. The certificate was presented by Andrea Monti, the organizer of the Tango Festival.
But there is a lot more to come. The next goal for “houseTango” is a comprehensive website which, according to Greg, is going to be not only an improvement of the long-existing and popular TangoMango site but also a social media site for tango dancers. People will be able to create their own profiles, post news about themselves, and search for tango events. “The site will be geo-mapped”, explains Greg, “so people can find their way conveniently to events nearby or far away.” They should also be able to see which of their friends are attending which event at any particular day, thereby making it easier to connect with their favorite dance partners. The site will have different sections for social dancers and professionals, organizers and performers. There will also be tickets for tango events on sale. “We want to make it a common marketplace for tango dancers”, says Greg, “where people can find everything without having to browse the web.” The site has its own domain name: www.housetango.com and is already in its beta version.
And there are more plans for “houseTango”. A separate apartment in their private home will be reserved and rented for a special monthly rent to tango dancers who qualify for a scholarship. There are plans for using part of the space for yoga or pilates classes, art exhibitions and practicas. But this may not happen for a while. For now, the couple has its hands full by organizing and hosting the much beloved monthly parties at their home. “It takes weeks to prepare for each event”, says Greg, “and it always takes us a couple of days to recover afterwards.” He says it with a smile on his face though. And I can tell that they both love it, especially Sandra who glows with excitement every month as she opens the doors to her house: “That’s what this house is for”, she told me one evening as the crowd had taken over her kitchen, dance floor, the lounge area upstairs and the terraces, and all the sofas and chairs had been taken by her guests while she herself was sitting on the stairs to rest her feet for a moment, “it’s supposed to be filled with life and dance and people having a good time.”
The car got picked up today. It was old, and I mean, really old – from the last century – and had all sorts of problems and in the end it wouldn’t even start anymore. It didn’t make sense to keep spending money on repairs. So I suggested to donate it. Good idea. Only problem was that it took almost 2 weeks until it got picked up. We had pushed it out of the garage the other Sunday and down the driveway which is too narrow for a tow truck, so that the towing people could easily pick it up. It sat on the street in front of the house a week and then almost another week, and I saw it all that time sitting there and waiting for its destiny, feeling melancholic and bit impatient since I wanted it to get out of my sight and my mind. A car is a just a thing. But it’s still full of memories, stories, reminders of the past. I remembered the day when I picked it out from that huge dealer’s lot in Florida and we took it for a test drive, me pushing my husband to sign the contract. We urgently needed transportation in this sad part of the country. There was no other way of getting to work, shopping or anywhere else. Forget about riding a bicycle or taking public transportation, which was how we had gotten everywhere where we lived in Germany, Japan and California. I was being laughed at when I asked the real estate agent in Tampa to find us a house close to work so my husband could take his bicycle. You can’t go anywhere by bicycle!! So we got a car, the newest and fanciest one we had ever owned, a 3 year old Jetta. We are both not car people and not particularly status conscious, so this was a very proud moment for us! The purchase left enough money in the bank for some new furniture and other important items that we needed to start our lives at this new place. Several weeks later, driving to work and everywhere else, discovering the Florida beaches, small islands off the coast, the Everglades, both coasts, including Miami and St Augustine, it became clear that we depended on the car. But it also became clear that this car liked frequent visits to repair shops. It had issues that I had never even hear if before: a broken speedometer (my husband getting speeding tickets when the speedometer clearly read that he had been within the limits), alarms going off, dashboard lights flashing for no apparent reason, blisters starting to cover the finish, supposedly because of the Florida heat (did I mention this was a German car?). We kept hanging on to it, even moving with it to New York State (“Wrong direction!” My husband kept pointing out. “People move from New York to Florida, not vice versa!”). There, in the long cold winters, the Florida sand kept stubbornly hiding between seats and floor mats and no matter how many times I vacuumed, there was always a grain of sand somewhere. Still, we drove around in it, oblivious to the fact that as we grew older, so did the car. We found a new mechanic who promised to fix the electronic issue, then another one who supposedly knew better. The bills kept getting higher and higher. When I finally realized that my husband’s students drove newer and better cars than he did, I urged him to purchase a new vehicle. We downgraded the now “old” one to the transportation of tools and skis and Christmas trees and gave it occasionally to students from China who had just freshly obtained their NY drivers’ license. I suspect that the car took this as an insult and thus started to prefer spending even more time at the mechanic than in its own garage. Eventually it would refuse to move at all. So there we are. 14 years and countless memories later, it just got towed and disappeared down the street.
As I walked into town today, a sudden move in the bushes next to the road caught my attention. Before I could grasp what it was, something that sounded like a suppressed scream followed. Then I saw a hawk taking off with what appeared to be a squirrel between his claws. He flew up from the leave-covered ground, slowly gaining altitude, but it didn’t take long before he landed again after less than a hundred yards deeper into the woods. Several craws started their rasping sound, following the big bird, waiting in the top of the trees for their share of the prey. I was startled by that moment. It took me a few seconds to grasp what I had just witnessed. In all my years of spending time in the outdoors, of hiking in remote mountains and deserts, I had never seen anything like this. For a moment, I was torn between bursting into tears, fear, and excitement. But the emotions went by quickly and all that remained was my amazement for having witnessed the hunt of a hawk.