There is only one option for air travel between San Rafael and BsAs, and that's a flight with Aerolineas Argentinas. As a non-resident required to leave the country every three months in order to extend your visa, you become very familiar with this escape route to international destinations. In time, you become accustomed to the quirks of Aerolineas travel - the frequent delays, last-minute schedule changes, the unexplained re-routing of your luggage via ground transport, even the junk food snack that's served in a ziplock bag on board. There are no movies available, but the in-flight magazine offers plenty of entertainment. Once you reach cruising altitude over the Pampas, it's a treat to read the Spanish to English translations offered in "Cielos".
The January 2011 issue included an article about cybertherapy, the recent practice of offering psychological counselling via the internet. The subject was serious, but the stilted, strange English text became a comedy of errors when I read the bold blue sidebar sentence shown here.
I had just stopped laughing when I came across this gem. Puzzled by the author's reference to fear of marijuana, I went back to the Spanish version and extracted the verb "optar." Not really a difficult verb to translate, given its English cognate.
Translators used to work with a pencil, an eraser, a sheet of paper, a dictionary and a brain. Today they use computer software programs that promise to instantly change text from one language to another while retaining meaning. What has been sacrificed in the race for innovative computer programs is the sensitivity of a human being who knows not only the rules, but the nuances of two languages, and can transpose those subtleties with grace, as well as accuracy. Like fine penmanship, it seems to be a lost art. Readers are left with copy so bizarre, that it becomes either a source of irritation or a joke.
Perhaps Aerolineas Argentinas is in the vanguard, introducing its passengers to a totally new language that I just haven't caught on to yet. Frequent fliers will no doubt adopt Aerospeak as their lingua franca in the very near future, so I'm practising basic phrases. The next time the ticket clerk asks about my preference for seating, I will confidently declare,
"On my trips going from strength to strength in Argentina of latex, I always pot for the window seat."
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
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