When Santiago arrived at the Nara station, we knew who he was immediately. Of course he was the only non-Japanese person in sight, and we were in Nara, Japan, which wasn’t exactly flooded with human traffic. But it really came down to the way he carried himself. Santiago, an Argentine expat, had that vaguely pirate/bohemian look — a slim black goatee with an upturned, semi-scruffy moustache, and an aquiline nose. He wore small golden hoops (so pirate!) and, as he walked toward the train exit, I felt pumped that he had accepted us as guests. Honestly, we were happy to sleep on anyone’s floor — and, despite our total desperation, we ended up getting a tango dancing pirate in, of all places, Nara. Pretty damn lucky.
If you’re an expat, you always get the same questions: When did you move here? How do you support yourself? Do you speak the language? I was once an expat, and I remembered the questions well. They’re worn-down cliches, and get boring after awhile, but people are naturally curious about how you ended up on the other side of the world. As we walked to Santiago’s apartment, the questions inevitably began.
“When did you move to Japan?”
“Eight years ago,” Santiago told us.
“How’s your Japanese?”
“Horrible,” Santiago admitted, laughing slightly. “But I want to improve my Japanese. That’s why I have decided to stay in Japan even though I have a lot of business nowadays in Russia.”
The apartment was a ten-minute walk from the train station, and the neighborhood was charming enough: a nearby temple, bicycles lining the streets, and the quiet buzz of a small residential neighborhood. We entered his three-bedroom unit and, as I slid off my winter boots, I noticed a pair tiny women’s shoes in the entranceway.
“Do you have a roommate?” I asked.
“No,” Santiago said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I live alone.”
Okay, then. Probably an avowed bachelor. Santiago then showed us our clean new bedroom. For the past week, Jared and I had shared rooms with total strangers and slept on cold floors with tatami mattresses, and the prospect of a soft mattress felt downright luxurious. Then, Santiago lead us to the kitchen, smelling of green tea and wakame seaweed. A woman sat at the table, smiling sweetly yet awkwardly in our direction. Santiago said, “This is my friend, Yume.” She looked to be in her mid- to late-30s and, based on her body language, I supposed she was Santiago’s lover. She had that anxious gaze — the one you give when you’re not sure where you stand. On the fridge, I saw the wifi username: openyourheart.
The second we were alone, Jared turned to me.
“Did you see his wifi password?!?”
“Yes — tantra92! So good!”
With a password like that, I knew we were staying with a full-fledged, tantric hippie. But I wasn’t exactly surprised. When Santiago had first accepted our couch request, I had Googled him — because, well, he seemed like an interesting person. And, sure enough, I found a provocative tango music video. It began with Santiago and a young woman dancing in a simple studio. Then, out of nowhere, the woman slapped Santiago across the face in grand Hollywood style, and she began crying as the tango music soared. The scene then changed to show the woman and Santiago, passionately making out in the shower, as water streamed down their faces. A bit much, huh?
But whatever. That’s CouchSurfing. So, we were sitting in Santiago’s kitchen, and he began talking about a bar he owned in Osaka. It sounded like a crazy club, or maybe I just imagined it that way. Really, I heard the word “bar” and lights went off in my head. It was hard to find Western-style bars in Japan, where people typically drank alongside their meals at izakayas. And forget about local parties; they were completely elusive to us. Sure, Japan was full of drunken salarymen, shady host/hostess clubs, and electric signs, promising sinful good times, splattered throughout Shinjuku. But, somehow, it was hard to find a place to just drink. No hostesses. No meals. No cover charges. Just straight alcohol.
And, right then, Santiago exclaimed, “We’re having a tango party tomorrow night! You guys should come!”
Thank. Fucking. God.
“That sounds fun,” Jared said encouragingly. “We’d be down to go.”
The next morning, we got up around 11 am. Jared headed to the bathroom. As he walked down the hallway, he saw the backside of Yume standing by the mirror. He was about to say, “Good morning, Yume!” — and then someone else turned around. Yup, an entirely different woman stood before him. Her name was Chihiro, he learned, and and she was — surprise! — a tango student of Santiago’s. She seemed incredibly comfortable in Santiago’s home, and as she languidly walked toward the kitchen, I noticed how differently she carried herself. There was something sad and private about Yume, as if she was trying to anchor herself in Santiago’s world. But Chihiro didn’t give a fuck. She was a fashionable Osaka girl in her early 20s who saw Santiago as a casual lay — and, for that reason, she was probably more realistic about the whole affair. But who am I to say what happened between Santiago, Yume and Chihiro? As a CouchSurfer, you walk into other people’s lives, without judgment, and just see what unfolds.
Later that night, Jared and I left for the tango party. Santiago told us to arrive on the early side so we boarded the Osaka train at around 7 pm. After some time, Jared asked about the address of the bar. We hadn’t looked it up yet. So I pulled out my phone, looked up the bar, and then realized that — shit — we weren’t going to a bar. And we weren’t going to a club. According to Google, we were heading to a straight-up dance school.
“A dance school?!? Ugh, I thought we were going to a bar,” Jared moaned.
“Yeah, I thought it would be a bar too. But I guess they teach dance classes there.”
“Dance classes. Great,” Jared said. “I bet he’ll be one of those guys who forces people to dance, and then teases their dancing. He’ll be one of those guys who gets all macho about dancing.”
Macho about dancing? What the hell was Jared talking about? And then I remembered the awkward tango music video and began to understand his dread. By the time we got off the train, Jared looked comically miserable, and I began teasing him.
“How bad could it be?,” I asked. “It’s just a dance class!”
It was our first time in Osaka, which is culturally distinct from Tokyo, and we saw the changes immediately. People sometimes jay-walked (crazy scandalous!). People sometimes smoked on the streets. People sometimes laughed out loud in public. It was noticeably more relaxed than Tokyo, which was littered with rules at every turn, but we didn’t have time to soak in the scene. We were headed for a tango school.
We finally made it to the studio/school (whatever it was). The space was medium-sized, in Japanese terms, with bright red walls — like, rockabilly lipstick red. There were sexy-ish, flouncy curtains and a random assortment of imagery — Che Guevara posters, the Virgin Mary, old records and photographs of an Argentine cafes — on the walls. Santiago stood at the front with an authoritative teacher pose. And, most awkwardly, there stood Yume with three Japanese middle-aged women in “Latin” outfits, looking completely serious about dance, in the center.
“Welcome to the lesson!” Santiago beamed. “Please join us!”
Jared turned to me, “Lani, join the class!”
Great. So I was going to be the sacrificial lamb of the evening. Jared cozied himself up at the bar with a Suntory whiskey, pleased that he didn’t have to dance, and I joined the class. We were first instructed to “walk with feeling,” and we began strutting in circles to a loungey, David Lynch-esque song. Usually, I would feel entertained if I was dancing-walking to trashy cabaret music. But everyone was so damn serious. As I dance-walked through the room, I noted that all the students were women. Did Santiago have tango groupies?
Santiago then told us to pick partners for our first dance. After partnering with a Japanese woman, I realized the humiliation that was set before me. In typical Japanese fashion, all the women in the class, including my partner, had studiously mastered the tango moves. They knew exactly what they were doing. Within three minutes, my partner even refused to dance with me unless I changed my shoes. Fine, I slipped on some metallic heels provided by the studio. All the while, Jared watched the class at the bar, quietly laughing in amusement.
After some time, Santiago called “Switch partners!”
My next partner, a Bulgarian expat, was much more understanding. She had arrived late to class and, as it turned out, played an important role: She was Santiago’s translator. Unlike Santiago, who had lived in Japan for eight years and failed to learn basic Japanese, the Bulgarian had actually mastered the language, more or less. Even better, she was a good sport about my dancing. According to the rules of tango (from what I gathered), I was supposed to basically follow the lead of my partner, including blindly walking backwards (ummm, not comfortable) and doing sexy cross-steps over his/her legs. Apparently, I sucked because the Bulgarian told me, “Tango says a lot about people — and I think it shows that you don’t like taking orders from men.”
Throughout the class, I was running to the bar to take shots, hoping to make the lesson more tolerable. But I was suffering under the burden of heavy tango drama.
At one point, Jared turned to me and asked, “How bad could it be? It’s just a dance class!”
Fine, point taken. It was bad. So, I finally tried to leave the class and drink alongside Jared. But Santiago saw me creeping away and corralled me back into the class. So I continued to dance horribly and ruin everyone’s dance experience instead. And, as the dance class chugged along, I began to see the cult-like admiration for Santiago. Sure, he may have been our CouchSurfing host with maudlin Youtube videos. But, to his student body, he was the only real Argentine tango instructor in town. He was the mysterious foreigner from Buenos Aires who they wanted to sleep with, or who they had already slept with, and he had the confident swagger to try to convince the rest who remained lukewarm.
About mid-way through the class, a Swedish businessman walked into the studio and began talking to Jared. He was, I guess, really into tango — like pretentiously into tango. As Jared told me, the Swedish Bro said, “Santiago is the real deal in Osaka — he’s the man.”
Finally, after two hours of excruciatingly awkward dance lessons, the tango “party” began. This was the time to cut loose and dance the night away. In reality, it was an extension of the dance class. As I peered past my Asahi beer, I found Yume performing deep body rolls in the middle of the dance floor, undoubtedly hoping to grab Santiago’s attention. But Santiago walked over in our direction, approaching Jared at the bar. He asked Jared why he wasn’t dancing. At that point, the Swedish Bro was dancing with the Bulgarian, Yume was doing some serious Flash-Dance type of shit, and all the other students were engaged in tango. Jared explained that he just wasn’t that into dance.
“I hope you don’t mind me standing by the bar and not dancing,” Jared said.
“Oh no,” Santiago started. “It’s fine. I guess you’re just one of those people who want to observe many things in life.”
Damn. Santiago was on a roll with the whole Macho Dance Attitude. But it could have been worse. All night, Santiago had inhabited an entirely different personality. He talked with a paternalistic confidence. He swiftly corrected students’ dance moves. He let the students fawn over him. So, if that was all he was going to say, we would take it.
At one point, Yume walked over to our table.
“Are you staying at Santiago’s place tonight?” she asked.
“Yeah. We’re staying one more night. Are you?”
“I hope,” she pouted.
Ah, the tragedy of falling for an expat, tango-dancing player.
The night slowly wound down and, eventually, we had to catch the last express train. Santiago made his rounds of goodbyes, hugging people and kissing them on the cheek. When he came to Yume, he did the same — a hug and small kiss on the cheek. In other words, he wasn’t taking her home. Yume flashed me a look across the bar — a wounded sort of acceptance — and we left the studio.
Just in time, we boarded the last express train for Nara. And, miraculously, the whole Santiago Latin Macho Lover role disappeared. He became cool again. Just like that. We talked about travel and Bill Hicks, and he shared remarks about Japanese love hotels. It was as if the role he had occupied in class — so authoritative — had been shed completely, and Santiago was once again the goofy expat. At one point, he spotted an attractive young woman, standing next to her boyfriend, in the train. Turning in her direction, he flirtatiously purred, “You’re very beautiful” in English. The woman blushed and her boyfriend did the same. They seemed so taken aback by this brash foreigner that they could only blush in embarrassment. And then we all disembarked from the train and stumbled back to the apartment.
The next morning, Jared and I left Nara. Our time with Santiago was over. It had been a short but thoroughly amusing trip of tantric weirdness, tango-dancing honeys and pretentious dance bros. Santiago was a good guy who had opened his home to us (something most people won’t do — period). He played different roles in his daily life, and perhaps he broke a few hearts along the way, but he was also a bewildered expat, managing a business and love life through a language that he couldn’t understand, and finding enough humor to enjoy the ride. At times, I wanted to tell Yume that Santiago would never be serious with her, and I wanted to ask the Swedish Bro to shut up. But, mostly, I wanted to keep my mouth shut and sit outside that world, observing it from my own private angle. When you CouchSurf, you’re invited to abruptly appear in other’s lives, or at least witness the intimate affairs of others. But you’re really not entitled to anything but a bed, mattress or floor. The rest is just pure luck.