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Patrizia Chen

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My First Tango

Posted: 06/10/10 12:53 PM ET

I had forgotten all about it until last November, when my novel was published and people started asking me questions. "Yes, I've been dancing for six years, and yes, tango must have been in my DNA..." were my standard answers. Then, suddenly, bent over the lectern from which I was speaking, it dawned on me: the first time I danced tango was at the Pyramids in Egypt, in distant 1967.

Embroiled in a passionate and romantic love story with someone much older than I was, I had fought my family and friends for about three years, defending my right to marry the man I wanted. His parents were thrilled, mine much less. I was only eighteen; he was thirty-six, a scarred person, with a difficult past and a big name. I was fascinated by his aura: a bit of a debauchee, he knew everyone, had been everywhere, had attended all possible fancy parties. Wide-eyed, I listened to his stories. He was the epitome of sophistication and I had fallen, head first, into spellbound adoration.

But one day bad things started happening. Suddenly set aside -- like the sweetly obedient wife I was about to become -- I witnessed him flirt with the many available girls who floated around him during the sensual, jasmine-scented Sicilian summer. Unable to understand what was happening, I suffered like hell.

At this point my family must have organized a secret save-Patrizia roundtable, because I swiftly found myself on a plane to Egypt. I landed in Cairo after midnight and was immediately embraced by my uncle, at that time a military attache at the Italian Embassy. "La, la, no, no..." were the first Arabic words I learned, addressed to the storming group of kids who clamored for baksheesh. A car and a driver took us quickly home.

"And now keep firmly in mind that you have to behave!" Uncle Renato sat me down as soon as we entered the living room. Sternly he told me that, given his position and the political situation (the disastrous Six Days War had just ended) I had to be careful and act like the "good girl from a good family" I was. Lecture absorbed, I readied myself to turn into Miss Perfect Guest, and cheerfully entertained the various dignitaries, danced at many parties, and truly enjoyed the Gezira Club and our Egyptian friends.

One day, a group of diplomats organized an evening outing to Giza, where I used to ride every morning. I was curious. I had never seen the Pyramids at night. The silence of the desert, broken only by the soft music played at the restaurant, and the fat full moon painted across the sky, were -- still are -- unforgettable.

We sat down and various dishes -- in the quantity and quality that only an Arabic host would dream of -- were immediately passed around. I can still smell the tehina, my very first encounter with a dish different from what I was accustomed in Italy. Succulent koftas, spicy kushari, melt-in-the-mouth shish kebab, and all sorts of other plates piled up in front of us. It was my first encounter with exotic food and the beginning of many future culinary discoveries. An entire new world had opened up for my already well-trained palate and afterward I'd never be able to accept only one type of food.

Out of the blue, a good-looking man stood in front of me and invited me to dance. Tall, dark, sleeked back hair, handsomely dressed in a double-breasted suit, he extended his hand. And, of course, I took it. He held me tight, enfolded against his right shoulder. It was natural and comfortable and I slipped into his arms, easily following his rhythm.

When I think of those moments, I remember the darkness of the restaurant, the flickering candles. I hear the music. It was a picture-perfect moment, exactly like all the romantic books I had devoured. I, the heroine, had finally forgotten, for at least a few minutes, my broken heart. I let go, accommodating my body into the embrace of my knight. I was happy. "Come with me." My uncle's freezing voice unexpectedly cut into my dream and I was dragged, confused and still dazzled, back to my table.

"I'm not going to allow you to dance tango this way, and with a married man! His wife is in Argentina. What do you think she would feel if she saw you?" He held me down, pinning me to my chair. "Tango? Married?" I looked at him, horrified. My improbable bubble had brutally burst.
It would take me forty-five years before I would dance tango again...