Even the most creative individuals occasionally find themselves stuck in a rut, or as they say in Spanish "ser esclavo de la rutina."  Working in the same location,  using the same method, approaching the same subject matter, employing the same style, ad nauseum, can be a mind-numbing trap for artistic types.   When art-making loses its lustre and spark, it's time to cut loose, break out of the studio,  seek new experiences and get back into joy mode.  
Valle Grande
Artist Kate Kirby and her friend Vicky Stuart have organized a get-away program for visual artists that allows painters to practise their craft, while enjoying the scenic environs of San Rafael, Argentina.   "Art in the Andes" includes art instruction, accommodation, all meals, sightseeing, wine-tasting and more, as part of a combined education/travel package.  It's like summer camp designed for grown-ups.

Finca la Susana
The Stuarts, a Scottish couple whose family has been established in Argentina for three generations, play host to visiting artists in their gracious Victorian country house. Finca la Susana has a lush perennial garden, a swimming pool and a large screened-in porch that's ideal for summer gatherings.  The grounds provide plenty of interesting locations for plein air painting, but if garden subject matter seems too tame, the desert,  Sierra Pintada mountains, Valle Grande and the snow-capped Andes are not far away.  Instruction is offered on a one-to-one basis by Kate Kirby whose background includes 11 years of teaching experience at the Open College of Art in the UK.  Both Vicky and Kate are graduates of the Edinburgh College of Art, where observational drawing was taught as an essential skill, one that serves as a solid foundation for painting.  They encourage the use of sketchbooks,  facilitate group discussions about art-making, and help individuals to discover and develop a personal style.  

At work outdoors
Kate explains that she adapts her painting and drawing program to meet a variety of objectives.  "If the client is a complete beginner, I can provide a structured teaching approach for however many days are required.  Alternatively, if an established artist wants to spend time here and just wants to be pointed in the direction of interesting landscapes and then have a chat about their work at the end of the day, they are welcome, too. (And of course anyone at any stage in between can participate.)"  
The atmosphere for this art adventure  is informal, relaxed and open-minded because after all, it is intended to be a holiday - a  refreshing  break  from the usual routine.

In keeping with the Scottish theme and in the spirit of experimentation,  we opened a bottle of thistle and tartan-labelled Caledonia Torrontes/Semillon 2008.  Ronald MacKay, who hails from Coupar Angus, near Dundee, Scotland produces this wine from the grapes grown on his finca in Rama Caida.  He also owns and operates a  nursery which sells quality vinifera rootlings for five varietals.  The Finca Caledonia website offers some fascinating historical tidbits regarding Scottish settlement in Argentina.  This lightly-oaked blend of fruity Torrontes and  dry, citrus Semillon is a pleasant, elegant vino, perfect for summer porch-and-patio days.  

Scotch eggs
I made Scotch eggs, a simple-to-prepare treat that's ideal  fingerfood  for Sunday brunch, a picnic or a tailgate party.  In the UK, this is pub food, a hearty snack enjoyed with a pint.  The eggs are boiled for 8 minutes, peeled and cooled, then covered evenly with a layer of pork sausage meat.  I spice the meat mwith nutmeg, cinnamon and a little  grated onion.   The meat-covered eggs are then rolled in dry breadcrumbs and deep fried in hot oil for about 1o minutes, until thoroughly browned and crisp on the outside.  These eggs can be eaten warm or cold, and are great with a spoonful of mango chutney.  For an unusual  variation on the Scotch egg recipe that's become a big hit in Manchester, England, have a look at this article from BBC news.
A bottle of Caledonia Torrontes/Semillon sells for 16 pesos at La Cava wine store.
The all-inclusive rate for "Art in the Andes" painting holiday is 400 pesos per day.

Here's an image of a Kate Kirby painting that I purchased at a 2009 exhibition of her work at Casa Burgos in San Rafael.  It's a piece that lifts my heart every time I look at it. 

'Once More' mixed media, by Kate Kirby
"The Last Knit" an animated film directed by Laura Neuvonen of Finland,  gives a humorous account of creativity that leans toward obsession, the exhausting struggle to relinquish a familiar routine and the exciting discovery of a new source of inspiration.  Sometimes letting go is the hardest part of change.
When I studied  Cultural Conservation at the University of Victoria many years ago, one of the assignments was to complete an inventory of buildings.  The houses on one city block were recorded, photographed and evaluated using a weighted scoring system.  A building's significance was determined according to criteria such as historic features, style, condition, authenticity and age.   This exercise was a preliminary step in the process of heritage designation and long-term preservation of the city's architectural gems.   The lesson learned was that you have to know  and understand what is out there before you can protect it.
I read with interest an article in Los Andes newspaper reporting that a team of high school students is creating an inventory of trees in the district of Guaymallen, near Mendoza city.   The students each have a section of the city to work on, and are busy recording location,  identifying species and evaluating the overall condition of individual trees.   What a great project for raising environmental awareness and laying the groundwork for an arboreal preservation plan!

Trees at the edge of the canal on our finca
Canadian scientist Diane Beresford-Kroeger would applaud this endeavour.  In her 2010 book "The Global Forest" she stresses the importance of trees as "healers" of the planet, while explaining their vital role as hosts for diverse insect and bird life, and as anti-erosion and anti-famine plants.    She states that the Western forest has not been intelligently managed since the Middle Ages, when a seven-year renewable cycle meant continuity, and 64 items of market value were carefully harvested from the sustainable woodlot.   Beresford-Kroeger promotes the idea of creating a bioplan for one's farm that includes the addition of trees at the edges of the cultivated agricultural field.  

"A bioplan will walk organic farming one step further to increase the biodiversity of native species of plants and animals.  Quite often an organic farm, good though it may be, can be a desert, too, if the farm is just composed of mile upon mile of crops in an empty acreage.  The forest must come back to the farm in the form of an orchard, nut orchards and set-asides of select trees. "

If you want to reintroduce a forest to your property, Beresford-Kroeger has these suggestions: 
  • Choose quality seeds or saplings  of species native to the local area, selected from the oldest, healthiest specimens.  These epicenter trees are the most resistant to drought, climate change, and pestilence.
  • Mix deciduous and coniferous trees.
  • Post bird boxes to encourage wildlife presence, (their manure adds necessary nitrogen and an assortment of plant seeds to the forest floor).
  • Allow wind to pass through, bringing spores for lichens, mosses, ferns and mushrooms.

Alamos, a windbreak for the vineyards
Beresford-Kroeger would also be pleased to know that I am reading  the Kindle version of "The Global Forest" which was delivered in paperless format.   She points out that the sex hormones in trees called "gibberellins" are bleeding into the large bodies of water where trees are milled for the pulp and paper industry.  This huge  hormonal load is being dumped directly into our drinking water and xenochemicals  can now be found in the bodies of all mammals, including humans.   As she so eloquently says, "The broken forest is in our children's tears."

At her country home near Ottawa, Ontario,  Beresford-Kroeger has planted and cultivated, over a 30 year period, an incredible garden comprised of over 6000 species of trees, shrubs and flowers.  She also maintains a seed bank for the future, and is actively working to educate people about methods for the renewal and preservation of biodiversity.  

"The civilized world has not put a finger on the pulse of nature. It has ignored the pattern in which nature works, as if man himself is an independent species apart from the web of it.  The truth is that man is only one species and he stands on a fragile platform of life that is but a whisper away from death.  There is some time left.  There is time for a different way of thinking in which man can rethread the needle and sew a life for the future."

Bodegas Los Toneles ( the barrels)  is located in Guaymallen at Bandera de los Andes 1393.  The winery boasts an excellent restaurant and conducts guided tours of their facility with wine-tastings.   Owned by the Millan family, Los Toneles  produced this bottle of  2 Estacas Chardonnay 2008, with its aroma of tropical fruit and toasted bread, a medium body and a pineapple finish.   We paired the wine with a citrus salad that celebrates the fruit of our trees -  grapefruit and orange segments, walnuts and green olives -  tossed with arugula, butter lettuce, endive and thin slices of goat cheese.   A bottle of 2 Estacas sells for 15 pesos.

Citrus Salad
There are two words for "gift" in Castellano, "regalo" and "obsequio".  According to my Argentine friend, "regalo" is a personal gift and the more formal "obsequio" refers to a business gift.  They are synonymous in the Spanish dictionary, but in my own mind, there is a significant distinction between these terms.  
The gesture of giving a gift is an expression of generosity, appreciation and goodwill.  A genuine gift has no strings attached, and is not encumbered by an expectation of receiving something in return, or gaining  entitlement to favours from the recipient, or buying special status.  It is voluntary and spontaneous and pure of heart.  My experience with gift-giving in Argentina, however,  has been fraught with misunderstandings.  In this country generosity is often treated as a weakness, a serious character flaw or an act tantamount to bribery,  rather than a virtue.  One well-meaning gift can open a Pandora's box of problems in this cultural milieu.


We gave a gift of nearly new, good quality furniture to an Argentine couple who had helped us in the initial stages of settling in  San Rafael.  I was somewhat surprised when I didn't hear a single "thank you " from our friends (let's call them Los Amigos)  and later wondered if the contemporary style of the dining room set was not to their liking, after all.  Were the leather seats not quite the right colour to match their decor?  On their next visit to our house, Los Amigos asked about the floor lamp and an air-conditioning unit that we had not included in the gift package - would we be keeping those items?  When we left the city to visit Uruguay for three days, they picked all of the peaches from our trees on the finca.  Los Amigos never apologized for helping themselves to the fruit and didn't offer us even one of their many jars of preserves made from the same.   On returning from subsequent out-of-town trips, we were dismayed to find that our vegetable garden had been invaded by a not-too-careful thief who snatched  squash, beets and carrots and left behind trampled rows of lettuce.  Whenever we met with Los Amigos they pleaded with us to provide a character reference for their 26-year-old daughter, who was planning to apply for a job at a local hotel.  They insisted that we personally introduce her to the manager and if she wasn't hired, then it was suggested that we could find her a job through our network of business contacts in Canada.   As the demands increased, our encounters became more strained.  In the end, we had to back off and cool our relationship with Los Amigos. We were at a loss to explain the behaviour of these seemingly decent, church-going, middle class Argentineans of European descent.  What had gone wrong?   I realize  now that our "regalo" had been  mistakenly interpreted as an "obsequio".  

"Obsequio" comes from the Latin noun "obsequium" which means "compliance" and the verb "obsequi" which means "to follow".   The term  "ingenui in obsequio" (free men in dependence) was used to describe the vassal/lord relationship within the feudal system.  The vassal was granted a piece of land in exchange for his pledge to provide military service to the lord.  A portion of the harvest from the land was offered to the lord to ensure protection and good standing for the vassal.  

In English, the word "obsequious" means "servilely obedient or attentive, fawning, deferential" and I think our gift made us appear that way to Los Amigos.  Our offering was perceived as an unreasonable  request, and they really didn't know how to deal with it graciously.   We had inadvertently demeaned ourselves and our apparent neediness presented an opportunity.   The receipt of a table and six chairs entitled Los Amigos to "lord over us",  to take freely from our property and demand a multitude of personal favours.   

When I read an article from CNN about American philanthropists who are acquiring and donating large tracts of land to the Argentine government for use as protected nature reserves, I was struck not only by the donors'  largesse, but by the unfortunate  negative reception they received from Argentineans.  The Tompkins (founders of Esprit Clothing and Northface) immediately became suspect foreigners and unsubstantiated,  ulterior motives were pinned to their good deeds.  "Gracias"  would be a more appropriate response to a generous donation that will save endangered species of flora and fauna, protect the forest and preserve vital riparian landscape. 

As foreigners, we can't take every nuance of cultural difference personally, or we would be full-time walking wounded.   The expression "tener un corazon de roca" translates as "to have a heart of stone."  Sometimes that's essential for survival here, although it doesn't come naturally.   We enjoyed a glass of Alfredo Roca Malbec 2008 with dinner last night.  A blueberry and raspberry aroma, plum flavour and strong tannins from a nine month resting period in oak barrels contribute to a classic wine that pairs well with asado (grilled meats) and pasta dishes.   The Bodega Roca was established in San Rafael in 1905 and the family-run company continues to be a leader in Mendoza's wine industry.  A younger member of the Roca family, Alejandro,  keeps wine enthusiasts  up-to-date with viticulture news on his blog.   A bottle of Roca Malbec costs 35  pesos at La Cava wine store on Hipolito Yrigoyen. 

"We should give as we would receive, cheerfully, quickly and without hesitation, for there is no grace in a benefit that sticks to the fingers."  
- Seneca, Roman philosopher mid-1st century AD

Today is "Children's Day" in Argentina, a day celebrated by family gatherings featuring a festive meal and presents for the kids.  It's a good time to give some consideration to the living conditions, rights and opportunities offered to children in this country.
The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child determined that children have the right "to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health care and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health."    Let's look  at some statistics from Index Mundi based on 2009 numbers.  

Argentina's  Infant mortality rate: 11 per 1,000 live births
Canada's  Infant mortality rate: 5 per 1,000 live births  

The infant mortality rate is considered by experts to be the single best indicator to represent the health of the population.  
Clearly Argentina has a long way to go to improve child health during the first year of life.  But so does Canada.
What these statistics don't reveal is the growing disparity between certain segments of the population.  Infant mortality in both countries  is higher than the national average among indigenous groups.  In Canada, the province of Saskatchewan with its large Native population has an infant mortality rate of 8.3.  That's the provincial average, but in two of the northern Saskatchewan health jurisdictions, among the Native population the rate is 14.5.  In Argentina, the province of Formosa with its large Native population has an infant mortality rate of 25.1.  These rates reflect higher numbers of infants with low birth weight or congenital malformation and also a higher incidence of sudden infant death syndrome.  The lack of medical facilities in isolated areas plays a role in infant deaths, as well as the quality of pre-natal care and level of parental education.  There are often cultural beliefs surrounding birthing practices which prevent mothers from getting the very best care.  One of the saddest stories I've read about women in Canada was this recent article from the Globe and Mail, an account of Inuit mothers who must be flown out of their northern community to give birth in a medical centre. The women don't like to be separated from their families and often hide the fact  that they are pregnant in order to avoid re-location.   The end result of a complicated labour endured in a remote village without medical intervention  is often infant death.

The infant mortality statistics have to be weighed in terms of past history and global context to gain some perspective.  Argentina has steadily improved from an average infant mortality rate of 16 in 2004.  It ranks 148th out of 221 countries on a chart listing the highest mortality rate as number one.  In comparison with other South American countries, Argentina has the second lowest infant mortality rate.   Canada, on the other hand, has been slipping in the charts:  in 2004, the infant mortality rate was 4.75, a lower number than today.  Canada ranks 186 out of 221 countries, which is not an admirable position among industrialized nations.

Students in San Rafael
What about a child's education in Argentina?  The current government has declared education mandatory from the age of 5 years, and children must complete 9 grades.  Public transportation is free for students and even young children take the bus independently to and from school.   University is tuition- free and open to everyone at the undergraduate level.   Literacy rate is 97%.

In Canada,  public school starts at age 5 and includes 12 grades, but the legal age for dropping out of school is 16.  University education is expensive, with average tuition fees amounting to $6,600 Cdn. per year, not including the cost of students' books, transportation and accommodation.    Literacy rate is 99%.

Educators and sociologists maintain that the greatest determining factor for a child's achievement in education is the level of education attained by his or her parents, a fact that implies a bleak outlook for a bright child whose parents never went beyond high school.  A recently published international  study by Mariah Evans from the University of Nevada showed  that the presence of books in the home can increase a child's education by 3.2 years.   An in-home library of over 500 books had the greatest effect on a child's educational achievements.  

In Argentina, books are expensive and the range of available literature is limited.  Students use photocopies of textbooks, rather than the real thing and libraries have inadequate collections because few borrowers actually return the texts. ( Whenever I have loaned an English language book to an Argentinean, it has come back dog-eared from repeated photocopying, as these multiple copies can be sold to other readers.)  Perhaps the greatest gift that one can to give a child on Dia de los Ninos is a book.

Overall, conditions influencing the health and welfare of children in Argentina are improving.  From what I have observed in my own community, the Native children benefit from inclusion in families that are close-knit, with several generations actively involved in child-rearing.  Parents and grandparents are present in their lives and serve as positive role models.  The Argentine children I have met are polite, confident, articulate and respectful of their elders.   They may not have the material luxuries of their Canadian counterparts, but their emotional and spiritual needs are well looked after within the family unit.  

In Canada 11% of the population lives below the poverty line.  In Argentina, the number is 23%.  But does a low household income determine that a child who grows up in a poor family is bound to be disadvantaged for a lifetime?   Surely there are simple, efficient ways to break the cycle of poverty and improve the prospects for all children.