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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
In 1972 radio host Peter Gzowski of the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) held a contest for listeners to come up with an expression that was the equivalent of the saying "As American as apple pie." The winning entry, submitted by a 17-year-old music student named Heather Scott, was "As Canadian as possible under the circumstances." This phrase sums up Canadian restraint, politeness and a self-deprecatory outlook fostered in a nation constrained by its geographic location next door to a political and economic superpower. It doesn't mean that Canadians lack a national identity, we just tend to keep the volume down and be discreetly patriotic.
Aside from true allegiance to Tim Hortons Donuts
, Canadians are a nation of pie lovers just like their southern neighbours. I have fond memories of the pie and coffee counter at a livestock auction house near our Ontario home. Monday night was auction night, and the womens' group from a local church baked pies for the weekly event. Their menu included rhubarb, lemon meringue, strawberry, raspberry, plum, peach and of course the classic apple made from the Northern Spy variety that thrives in Ontario orchards. It was fun to sit on a stool at the counter eating apple pie while listening to the lowing of cows and the rhythm of the auctioneer's fast-paced chant. The smell of barnyard competed with cinnamon on warm summer evenings at the sales barn.
To revive that memory and practise my pie-making skills, I bought a bag of fresh apples in San Rafael from a farmer who was selling fruit from the back of his pickup truck. A three kilo bag cost only five pesos, and the fruit was crisp and juicy. The trick to making a superb apple pie lies in the peel, which many cooks toss directly into the garbage without a second thought. The intense flavour of the fruit can be extracted by simmering apple cores and skins with 1/2 cup of water and a tablespoon of sugar while preparing the pastry. The resulting pink liquid is reserved and spooned back into the baked pie through the open latticework of the top crust. Since the juice is full of pectin, you don't need to worry about watering down the filling.
I use a Canadian pastry recipe clipped from the Globe and Mail newspaper many years ago, a recipe that never fails to produce a light, flaky, tender crust. 2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of chilled butter, 1/4 cup of lard and one teaspoon of salt are blended together until the mix resembles cornmeal. Ice water mixed with a bit of vinegar or lemon juice is spooned into the mixture, one tablespoon at a time while blending the pastry gently with your hands.
It usually takes about four or five tablespoons to bring the pastry together into a neat ball, but this can vary with the weather, as temperature and humidity affect the behaviour of flour and shortening. Light, quick handling is essential to keep the butter from melting. The pastry is wrapped in waxed paper and placed in the fridge for about an hour before rolling out on a cool marble slab.
The filling consists of sliced apples, sugar, tapioca for thickening, freshly ground nutmeg, cinnamon and a spoonful of cognac or rum. I add a few dabs of butter on top of the filling, then weave the pastry strips over and under. The top crust is brushed with cream before putting the pie into a 450 degree oven. 15 minutes at that high temperature, and then the heat is reduced to 350 degrees for the next 50 minutes or so, until the crust is nicely browned and the filling is bubbling up through the latticework (making a mess of the oven!).
Apple pie is comfort food, no matter what nationality you are, or in which country you happen to reside. As expats we find the occasional reminder of our homeland reassuring. A slice of pie, a podcast from CBC radio, an article from the Globe and Mail or a Skype conversation with a family member can lift the spirits and put stressful things into perspective as we make our way in Argentina. We are as Cangentine as possible, under the circumstances.
The graffiti message scrawled on a wall in San Rafael reads as a definition for our culture's perception of time. The past is memory (behind us), the present is truth (here and now), and the future is hope or wish (ahead of us.) We look back at the past and forward into the future, but this generally accepted model for reality isn't the only one that human beings have constructed as a framework for existence.
I have been listening to the fascinating five part CBC radio podcasts of the 2009 Massey Lectures
presented in Canada by cultural anthropologist Wade Davis. Entitled "The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World" the series explores the different ways in which aboriginal people relate to the environment and define their cultures. Davis refers to South American groups that are descendants of the Inca, the 6 million people living in parts of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina who speak a language called "Quechua" as their mother tongue. In Quechua the word "qhipa
" means "behind" and "the future." The word "nawpa
" means "ahead" and "the past."
The speakers of Quechua consider the past as something known and seen, positioned in front of them. They make a gesture with the hand in front of the body
when they discuss the past. The future, unknown and unseen, lies behind them. This concept of time, which is the reverse of our own, makes the present moment a rich experience, imbued with ancestoral knowledge and tradition. The mountains, sky, soil, plants, - all aspects of nature are respected for their history and revered as sacred. To be alive, and to move forward, is to be actively engaged with a legacy from the past.
Wade Davis suggests that the awareness of an ever-present past fosters a connection with nature that favours continuity over change. "A child who is raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective spirit will be a profoundly different human being than a youth who is brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock, ready to be mined. The full measure of a culture embraces both the actions of a people and the quality of their aspirations; the nature of the metaphors that propel them onward."
I honoured one of my ancestors today by preparing a recipe from my maternal grandmother's kitchen. Simple to make and delicious to eat, "Cloud Biscuits" are light, fluffy reminders of her excellent baking - the cookies and pies and cakes that never failed to delight Gladys Nichol's family and friends. Made from flour, butter, baking powder, egg and milk, these good old-fashioned biscuits can be sweet (with sugar added) or savoury (with the addition of herbs, spices or grated cheese.) I rolled the dough on a floured surface to about a 3/4 inch thickness - not too thin, Grandma would say - and cut the biscuits out with the rim of a drinking glass. That's how she used to do it, and her mother before her.
As we enjoyed tea and biscuits on the terrace, clouds drifted in from the Sierra Pintada mountains, gathered and formed a solid bank of thunderheads along the horizon. It seemed as if the past had just arrived at my table.
"The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." - Albert Einstein