When an artist friend mentioned a few years ago that he regularly got up at 4:00 am to watch European soccer on television, I was more than a little surprised.  I just didn't think of David - a serious painter and professor of fine art - as an avid sports fan.   Soccer?  What would he find so fascinating about soccer?  The answer came with a little probing.  "I like to watch soccer because each field is a different shade of green, depending on the location, the time of day, and the weather.  I make notes on colour," he explained.  Proof positive that there's something for everyone in the beautiful game!
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As  the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament takes place  in South Africa, passion for soccer seems to have taken over Argentina.  National pride,  Latino machismo and a genuine appreciation for the speed and accuracy required in the game, are factors that heighten the excitement for Argentine fans.   The colourful personalities and star status of forward Lionel Messi and coach Diego Maradona are an added draw for many viewers.  Television sets have been mounted at the end of each aisle in Vea supermarket, so customers can stay tuned even while grocery shopping.   San Rafael has become a city of spectators, all keeping their eyes on the ball while eagerly awaiting Argentina's next  important match.

Robert, who played soccer as a schoolboy in Holland,  gets excited over the fast-paced technical aspects of the game and delights in moments when precise placement of the ball resembles clockwork.    The geometry of passing and the split-second timing of shots on goal appeal to him.   His perception of the game fits the rhythm of this video:

At the opposite end of the couch, I enjoy  slow motion re-plays, where camera work and tight editing make the  players' movements sustained and graceful.  Colliding bodies appear to hover in mid-air, the ball floats like a helium balloon off the top of a players' head, and each miniscule expression of frustration, anger, joy or triumph becomes a monumental close-up.   In these elongated frames, soccer becomes a sport as visually engaging as a ballet performance.   I am reminded of the video work of U.S. artist Bill Viola, whose slow motion interpretation of a painting by Pontormo entitled "The Greeting" employs the same effect.  I saw the full-length version several years ago  in a gallery in Cologne, and it left an indelible impression on me.   Here's a short clip.
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The perfect meal to pair with soccer viewing is osso buco (veal shank), which takes 90 minutes in the oven, the same amount of time as the game itself.  During the pre-game warm-up, I sear the meat in a frying pan with pancetta, which adds a rich bacon flavour to the shanks.  Onions, carrots and celery are combined with a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, a cup of white wine and some chicken stock to simmer in the pan for a few minutes.  As the opening kick-off begins, the shanks, vegetables and sauce are placed in a covered casserole dish and put into a low oven to braise for the remainder of the match.  At halftime, I make gremolata, the traditional herb topping for osso buco, which consists of chopped Italian parsley, garlic and grated lemon rind mixed with a tablespoon of lemon juice.  I cook some large potatoes in the microwave, peel and mash them.  By the time the match has been decided and  the final whistle blows, the tender veal is falling off the bone and a delicious dinner is ready to be served.  

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We pair the soccer feast with Novecento Syrah 2009 from Bodega Dante Robino in Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza.  This wine needs to be opened early in the game to breathe and unfold its unique coffee and spice flavours.   A bottle of Novecento costs 17.09 pesos at Vea.  


Here's another good  reason for  viewing the World Cup games.  The grass planted on the South African soccer fields was supplied by Pickseed, a Canadian seed company and is a hardy combination of perennial rye grasses, Zoom (an appropriate name) and SR4600.
Manitoba farmer Brad Rasmussen was never a soccer fan until the seed grown on his farm was sent to the stadiums in South Africa.  He's watching the tournament to see how that bright green turf holds up!

 
 
We have  errands to do at the beginning of the week and get up early in order to fit our shopping into the 9:00 am - 12:30 pm time slot, the window of opportunity before the sacred midday siesta interrupts trade and commerce.  Let me take you along on one of our typical morning tours of  San Rafael.   
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Montemar
We drive into town and park the car seven blocks away from the centre, on Castelli a sidestreet where it's free.  The parking system in downtown  San Rafael requires a one peso municipal ticket placed on the dashboard indicating your time of arrival.  You are allowed an hour per ticket, and can use a maximum of two in one spot, but we don't mind leaving our vehicle behind and walking several blocks to Mile Zero, the corner of Av. Hipolito Yrigoyen and Av. San Martin.  Our first stop is Montemar, where we wait in line to exchange some money.  The exchange rate is going up steadily and today we receive 3.91 pesos for each U.S. dollar.

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Fax
Walking back one block on Yrigoyen, we arrive at Libreria Fax, a stationery store that carries all kinds of school and office supplies.  We take a numbered ticket from the machine at the entrance and wait for our turn.   I need some tracing paper for a sewing project, but I don't know the exact word in Spanish, so I have to describe to the salesgirl what the paper looks like and how I intend to use it.  She is very patient with me, in spite of the long line of customers waiting to be served.  Discussing a purchase is standard procedure for shopping in Argentina, because most merchandise is kept behind the counter, beyond the customer's reach and often out of sight.  I am shown several plastic products which I explain won't pin properly to the fabric.   "Ah! Falta papel de molde!" the salesgirl says at last, and like magic,  translucent tracing paper appears from a bottom drawer.  3 pesos buys me two large sheets.  Now at least I know the right word for it.  

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Tijera
On to Tijera, a very busy merceria where fabric and notions are sold.  I find some delicate lace that will be just right as trim for the little dress I am making for my new granddaughter. The clerk at the notions counter measures and cuts two meters of the lace, writes down the amount owing (6 pesos) and hands me the bill, which I then have to take to the cashier to make my payment.  Once I've paid, the receipt is stamped "Pagado" and is handed back to me.  I return it to the notions clerk who gives me my package of lace.  The separation of merchandise from the handling of cash  is common practice in Argentina;  a definite  inconvenience  for customers, but an effective anti-theft measure for store owners. 

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Ketobac
We turn off at Av.  San Martin and walk a few blocks to Ketobac a specialty food store that carries a wide range of regional products.  This is a tourist magnet, a shop that caters to busloads of visitors during the height of the season.  We buy two flavours of dark chocolates  (orange and dulce de leche) and some pitted  D'Agen prunes for 36 pesos.  

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Nina's
It's 10:30 now, and time for a break, so we stop at the newly-renovated Nina's Cafe on the corner of San Martin and Olascoaga.  This is an excellent coffee house which offers a casual, light meal menu during the day, and drinks with live entertainment in the evening.  This morning we're greeted by the regular patrons, mostly men, who linger over coffee, chat with one another and read the newspapers.  There is no urgency  here and certainly no suggestion from the waiters that perhaps one should pay up and clear out.  This is not a fast food establishment.

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Brunch


We order two espresso coffees and one large omelette to share.  The omelette is filled with a generous portion of ham and cheese and is served with bread and a side salad.  Total for our delicious, nourishing brunch comes to 32 pesos.

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Vinos y Olivos
Right next door to Nina's is a small store called Vinos y Olivos that specializes in San Rafael wines.  The charming owner, Alfredo, recommends a Malbec that we haven't tried yet, a 2006 Calduch Gimeno, which just so happens to be his own label.  Calduch was his father's second name and Gimeno was his grandmother's maiden name.   It's always a pleasure to talk with Alfredo about wine, farming, travel and current events. He once worked as a photojournalist for NBC and enjoys speaking English with his customers.  We buy two bottles of wine for 50 pesos.

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We head back up Yrigoyen and stop at Farmacia Mayo to buy  skin cream.  There's no need for a repeat order from a physician to refill a prescription here -  it's sufficient to show the box or container to the pharmacist to purchase more of the same medication.  There is also an examining room at back of the drugstore where pharmacists  give injections or administer simple treatment for minor ailments.  Drugs are about one third the price of Canadian pharmaceuticals and are exactly the same brands as those offered in North America.   The skin cream costs 8.90 pesos.  

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FAS Electricidad
Robert needs new fixtures and bulbs for the exterior lights at the finca, so we stop at FAS Electricidad.  The friendly clerk helps him choose a heavy-duty industrial quality fixture that can be mounted on our steel frame carport without the problem of collecting water when it rains.   The four fixtures and eight low consumption 15 watt bulbs cost 346.77 pesos.

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Claro
It's almost 12:30 as we drive homeward down Balloffet.  Some of the storekeepers are already closing up and locking their doors for siesta time.  We hurry into Claro Rapipago to pay a bill that's due for our internet service and to purchase time for Robert's cellphone.  Our home in Rama Caida lies beyond the zone of Internet service providers, so we use a plug-in modem for connecting to the web.  The monthly bill is 128.99 pesos and we spend 50 pesos for more phone time. 

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Purchases
Shopping in San Rafael is always part social event, part learning experience and sometimes a test of one's patience, too.  For the most part,  stores are small, specialty boutiques that offer a limited range of goods and provide service at a snail's pace.  There are often hurdles to overcome in the completion of  a transaction:  shortages of essential products, long line-ups, inefficient recordkeeping, unexpected system failures, parts missing inside packaged goods and inflexible return policies.   The best approach is to take it easy, don't get annoyed and don't try to accomplish too much in one trip.  If you can't get everything done today, there's always manana.  Our total for the morning adds up to 661.66 pesos or $169.22 U.S.

 
 
Dear Victoria:
You're just three days old now, still fresh and new, and already your photo has appeared on Facebook.  What a thrill to see your round, pink, perfect face for the first time!   Although I live far away from where you are, I  look at your picture and feel the miracle of you taking centre stage in my thoughts, my dreams and my heart.
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Victoria Elizabeth Maminski
Hold on tight, Victoria, for this is going to be an exciting ride.  You have entered a world where your opportunities are unlimited, your future is bright and you can achieve any of the goals that you aspire to.  Growing up in Canada, you'll benefit from a fine education system, excellent health care, a safe environment, good nutrition, and a stable government that protects individual rights and freedoms.   Your parents will make sure that all of your material needs are met.  Even before you arrived they prepared the nursery, filling your room with furniture, clothes, toys and books.  There's a mobile hanging over your crib that's designed to stimulate and delight your infant brain when you're awake and a wind-up music box that plays soothing songs to calm you down when it's sleepy time.   You won't lack for anything and you'll never have a dull moment.

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Parents, Jasen and Emily
Your parents are intent on nurturing your self-esteem and meeting your emotional needs. You are blessed, above all, with caring family members who are eager to love and cherish you, cradle and rock you, sing and read to you, play with you, teach you new skills, answer your questions and shower you with their undivided attention. Victoria Elizabeth  is such a confident, regal name that I have no doubt you'll grow up with the poise, good manners and grace of a queen.   

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Finca kids
How wonderfully privileged you are!  Every day in Argentina I see children who are not so fortunate.   When you come to visit your Grandma on the finca, you'll soon discover that the conditions you have enjoyed in childhood are not equally available for all youngsters.   The truth is, Victoria, that things aren't always fair in this world.   Your happy, secure status as a Canadian born into prosperity comes with an obligation.  My hope is that you will become mindful of the needs of others, and dedicate some time and effort to giving back.  In English these are  important verbs to add to your vocabulary: to volunteer, to donate, to support, to contribute, to participate.  You and your generation will possess the know-how, resources and stamina to find solutions to many of the world's serious problems.   As Henry David Thoreau said, " Each child begins the world again."  

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I celebrated your birth by baking a spice cake called kimbly, a Welsh tradition for honouring the  new baby and ensuring good luck for the future.  The recipe for this cake came from a Canadian novel "The Birth House" written by Ami McKay.  It's a terrific tale about birthing practices in rural Nova Scotia at a time when midwifery was competing with modern medicine. 

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It is customary to drink an ale with birthing cake.  Your step-grandfather Robert chose Quilmes Stout, a nice dark winter beer that's full of yeast and molasses flavours.   We made a toast to your arrival with wishes for health, happiness,  and sound wisdom.  And here's a song that just might become your favourite lullabye.   


With all my love, 
Grandmother Elizabeth Jane

 
 
The nights are getting colder as winter approaches and in the late afternoon gathering kindling has become an essential ritual for families in our neighbourhood.  Finca houses are modest dwellings, poorly-constructed, devoid of insulation and designed to stay cool.  Fireplaces offer the only source of heat and when evening temperatures hover around the freezing mark, country folk endure a bitter chill that seeps into cement or ceramic-tiled floors and lingers until noon the next day.  
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Keeping warm in Argentina is not like keeping warm in Canada, where  efficient central heating, fibreglass-insulated walls and roofs, and double-glazed windows create an effective barrier between indoors and out.   Our defence system here consists of handmade fabric "snakes" that plug drafty window wells and door cracks, heavy woollen shawls, thick slippers, hot water bottles and a goose down quilt for the bed.  When the sun sets behind the snow-capped Andes, we bundle up and hunker down.

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Kindling
While wood fires and comforters offer low-tech solutions for combatting the cold, I have discovered one high-tech device that is a lifesaver in this season.  Kindle!  The  new e-reader allows me to download books from Amazon.com in seconds at a reasonable cost, without requiring a computer.  My entire library is now stored in a handy, lightweight device that fits into my purse and can travel anywhere.  Kindle allows me to make personal margin notes, add bookmarks, save clippings, search for a word or look up its dictionary definition at the flick of a switch.  When it's time to make dinner,  I  use a text-to-speech feature and listen while the book is read to me.   Reviews of Kindle often wax nostalgic for the texture of print on paper, coffee rings on faded covers and dog-eared pages, but I'm actually not missing any of those bookish attributes.   In a country where English-language books are nearly impossible to find and imported books are taxed at a prohibitive rate of 50% on the cover price, Kindle is truly the answer to my prayers for open access to literature.

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I have some catching up to do with reading material, as I've missed so many of the newly-released North American and European titles.  My Kindle  can hold 1,500 books, so I'm just getting started with "The Pattern in the Carpet"by Margaret Drabble, "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science" by Richard Holmes, "Solar" by Ian McEwan and "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill.  While kindling, I can't resist snacking on luscious, chewy coconut and dulce de leche squares from Belen bakery.

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Dulce de Leche liqueur made by Tres Plumas is our preferred fireside drink.  There's an historical connection with Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson which adds intrique to this rich-tasting, caramel dessert liqueur.  A bottle of Dulce de Leche liqueur costs 14.99 pesos and six coconut squares can be purchased from the bakery for 8.50 pesos.

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Los Andes