However inconsiderate are the dancers around lacking in etiquette are the dancers around one, however clumsy one’s partner, a good salon tango dancer stays smooth and unfazed. The best take obstructions in their stride, turning near cock-ups into movements of humour and grace. As in dance, so in life.. and life runs on words.
‘Tema’ is Argentine Spanish for theme or motif. It is used in music, academia and art. People with ‘tema para un rato’ have a lot to discuss. ‘Temas verdes’ are environmental issues. At the start of my first visit to Argentina, ‘el tema es’ conjured artistic and cinematic themes, grand plans, beautiful images.. great possibilities.
I was so wrong.
Argentine people are as likely to use ‘el tema es’ as a precursor to reasoned discussion as Putin is to call off the war with Ukraine tomorrow while also giving them compensation and telling the world he is sorry.
el tema es… I don’t know know where the milonga is” – from the taxi man at midnight when I asked why we were going in circles
“el tema es… it’s not in our precinct’s jurisdiction” – from the police sergeant when; after a four hour interview, he wouldn’t give a crime number for my insurance claim.
“el tema es… we don’t actually have a ramp to get in, despite the wheelchair friendly sticker on our window” – from the restaurant owner when; I arrived there with money and ready to eat with a wheel-chair using friend.
“el tema es.. that the hotel that confirmed my room by fax the previous night hasn’t been built yet” from the local tourism representative after I had cycled there in torrential horizontal rain.
“el tema es.. that while the men here are incredibly sexist, it’s OK because we know how to be high maintenance/how to manipulate them/how to handle them” from so many milonguera acquaintances that I lost count.
“el tema es.. well, basically I’m using those words to give myself time to make something up”
“el tema es…people use it when they’re trying to say something they know you’ll not like” from a Porteño friend when I asked if it was ever used positively.
Ceci -my friend and cultural translator- suggests that ‘el tema es’ is used by people who can’t discuss things properly, when presenting their opinions as fact*. I take it as a metaphorical instruction to duck (or an instruction to duck metaphorically). Hear it and either the cock-up fairy is about to visit, or you’re about to be splashed by a load of soggy wet brown stuff as it bounces off the rotating blades.
To make life the smoothest dance you can, treat the phrase like a vampire would sunlight. Avoid it where possible and be graceful whenever you can’t.
*wouldn’t it be nice if there was a similar single English phase that warned us of oncoming bullsh*t. Oh.. hang on….