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Photographing Argentina

It's well past lunchtime when we duck into San Babila trattoria in Recoleta. It's amazing that Argentines aren't as fat as houses, what with the constant red meat and the fact that after Italians, they may consume more pasta per capita than anyone else in the world. An itinerant photographer wanders up and asks to take our picture. When he recognizes Aldo, he flushes bright red and almost prostrates himself. "Oh my. I didn't recognize you." Aldo laughs and says, "He's actually much better than I am. He's just more modest."

The next stop is the Teatro Colón. Aldo seems to quicken. It's admirable that after spending every night here for five years, he's enthusiastic about returning. Unfortunately, we're too early. The doors are closed. Aldo prowls around, looking for a way in. "I'm going to push some buttons," he says, disappearing behind a security gate. He emerges two minutes later with an usher, and we're in. It's gorgeous. Soon, it will be more so. The house is being restored for the first time since its construction in 1908. A full orchestra practices in one chamber with enormous chandeliers and wall-length mirrors. Onstage, a production of Massenet's Manon is in rehearsal.

Aldo's attention is everywhere but on Manon. He points to the domed ceiling: "When Perón was president, one summer was very hot, and so he brought two hundred blocks of ice to put up there to cool the place. Can you imagine?"

Aldo leads me out of the theater and points to a banister. It's made of beautiful, yellowing marble. "Do you see the fossils?" Upon closer inspection, I do—polished slices of prehistoric snail shell. They're luminous, like phosphorescent plankton. I imagine there must be season ticket-holders who have been coming here forever and do not know about this. Would I, if I hadn't come with Aldo?

He smiles. It's the kind of lesson in aesthetics he must have received from his mentor. "Buenos Aires has none of the big things of New York, Paris, or London. What makes it special is all the little things. The small sights, the subtle things, the places where the cultures mix, where the English meets the Arabic and the French and the Spanish just así. That's what you're looking for."

He checks his watch. "Come on. Do we want to see Evita?There are all these abandoned cats near her tomb. They're very well taken care of. I think you will love them."

Just as we leave the stairwell and enter the main foyer, I smell it: The Smell. I've never known what it is, but Argentina and gifts from there all seem to have it. It's a pleasant, resinous sort of smell, like an old violin. My guesses over the years have included certain kinds of varnish and, of course, leather. I still don't know. The Smell unlocks some inner treasure trove of nostalgia, and fondness, a world-weary appreciation for elegance and decay. Come to think of it, this is what some of Aldo's photographs do. Maybe, if the new airport X-ray machine doesn't vaporize my photos, so will mine.

THE FACTS
A one-day class with Sessa runs from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and includes a stop for lunch. Sessa will give you a choice of itineraries and cameras. $1,000 PER PERSON, PRINTS EXTRA; FAX 54-11/4803-9071; www.aldosessa.com.ar.

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