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 birthsCanada'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%.
, 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.
, 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.
As Canadians, we are no strangers to winter. Our acreage in Alberta looked like this for six months of the year:
It was a frosty -42 degrees Celsius one January morning in 2005. The CBC radio announcer warned that exposed skin would freeze instantly
at that temperature, a pleasant thought to start the day with. Confronting severe cold meant a careful layering of thermal underwear, sweater, jeans, parka, boots, hat, scarf and gloves before stepping outside. It was hard to hear our muffled voices under all that protective gear, but as we walked with our dog through the frigid forest, we sang Gilles Vigneaults' Canadian anthem. "Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver,Mon jardin, ce n'est pas un jardin, c'est la plaine,Mon chemin ce n'est pas un chemin, c'est la neige,Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver."
Even the dog wore boots
Despite the past two weeks of unusually cold weather across South America, our winter experience here in Argentina has been a welcome change from the harsh Alberta climate. Cold means -3 degrees C at night and 17 degrees C at noon. We had one snowfall this month, but the insignificant dusting of white stuff disappeared by midday. The hardy greens that we planted in the vegetable garden late in the fall continue to thrive through the winter months and look like this:
We do have winter jackets, but like our electric heating units, we only need them on for part of the day. It's not unusual to wear a heavy wool coat in the morning and a t-shirt at lunch. Today we sat outside on the terrace and enjoyed French onion soup, a shish kebab of grilled beef and a green salad combining arugula, spinach and lettuce from the garden.
We paired our meal with Clos du Moulin Cabernet/Pinot Noir 2008,
blend elaborated by the French connection - Bodegas Chandon
- in Lujan de Cuyo. Aromas of ripe fruit, prunes and jam are followed by a smooth, silky mouth texture that finishes with tobacco and spice flavours. A bottle of Clos du Moulin costs 25 pesos at Vea supermarket.
"In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer." - Albert Camus
I have been working on a series of photographs documenting the children who live on fincas in this area. The style of photography I am aiming for is candid and natural, with the goal of showing the lifestyle of kids in rural Rama Caida; how they play, go to school and interact with friends and family. My original intent was to be objective, but I'm finding out just how hard (if not impossible) that is.
Every farm household on our street has children, so my subjects are close at hand. Driving home the other day, we passed a pair of boys playing in their front yard, and when they waved eagerly at us, I decided to take out my camera and photograph them. They were with a family member who was babysitting, so of course I explained the project I was working on and asked her for permission to take some pictures of the brothers. She was intrigued to hear that I will be exhibiting the series of photos in Canada, and gladly gave her consent.
Shortly after I arrived home, I heard a horn honking at the gate. The boys' parents Erica and Leo wanted to speak to me. They were not at all concerned about the fact that I had taken a few photographs of their two sons, but were upset that the boys had not been cleaned up and properly dressed beforehand. Embarrassed by the childrens' soiled jeans and casual sweatshirts, Erica invited me to come over to her house later in the day to re-shoot my photos. She also wanted to make sure that her newborn baby would be included in my pictures.
Waldemar children 1906
"The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own," wrote Susan Sontag in the 1977 collection of essays entitled "On Photography." My concept of photography was clearly not the same as my neighbours', and my spontaneous timing had offended her. She would have preferred advance warning, allowing time to formally prepare the scene and present a cleaned-up version of her boys, ready to pose for a studio portrait. Like any mother, she wanted her children to be presented in the best light. I was guilty of behaving like a tourist, seeking a personal souvenir to take home and show off.
I apologized to Erica, and arranged a time to visit her house for another photography session. I have little or no interest in creating the kind of photo she has in mind, but I have to make amends for my impropriety. I'll have an extra portrait printed and framed for her to hang on the livingroom wall - not the one with the children playing freely in the dirt, but the other indoor shot with clean, pressed Sunday clothes, shiny shoes, combed hair and bright, smiling faces. A photograph that reflects her perfectly valid version of reality, not my own.
"Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience."
- Susan Sontag
Slick digital images are the norm in advertising today, but many San Rafael storefronts display hand-painted signs that are whimsical, attractive and one-of-a-kind. I toured the city with my camera to photograph some of the retro signs that liven up the streetscape.
The anthropomorphic key is featured in several of the cerrajerias in town. This one looks like a legless distant cousin of Mr. Peanut circa 1920, with characteristic gloved hands and stick limbs.
Another version on Rivadavia
The scale of the faucet and bathroom fixtures makes these graphics stand out, even from a drive-by perspective. The images cover the exterior walls of the store and are signed by the artist, Mauro, in the lower righthand corner.
Mauro also created this smiling octopus whose legs surround the doorway of the pescaderia like brackets. When the door is shut, it actually looks as if one tentacle is stuck inside!
The giant sparky battery at Mario Stilo's has genuine 50s kitsch style. It covers the garage door while overhead the catchy slogan reads "The battery of the future."
A rather naive rendering of fruit fills in for the real thing during siesta time and after hours. The produce has been painted directly on the surface of the security gate that covers the shop facade when the store is closed.
Sometimes the design of the hand-lettering is enough, without additional illustration. This hardware store has a fine logo, with a bold typeface and a powerful uppercase "M". It's just missing an "h" after the "c".
We went to the Tower Hotel for lunch, ordered veal cutlet and laughed out loud when the meat arrived with a cheesy happy face on it!
Only the wine pairing presented a serious dining decision. We sobered up and chose Infinitus Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2008
, an excellent blend from Patagonia. This wine announces its arrival with a strong aroma of cassis, raspberries and cranberries and offers medium body and smooth tannins. The Domaine Vista Alba
, owned by Frenchman Herve Joyaux Fabre, produces grapes in Alto Valley, Rio Negro, a cooler zone than Mendoza province's fruit-growing region. A bottle of Infinitus Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot costs 19.50 pesos.
Mendoza's irrigation system is unique in all of Argentina. Water supplied by glacial run-off from the Andes flows through a system of reservoirs and dams, canals and ditches to convey moisture to fields, orchards and vineyards. Gravity driven flood irrigation was the brainchild of the Incas, whose basic engineering concepts still work today to facilitate agriculture in a dry desert zone.
Steel gates control the flow
Written into the deed to our property of 7.5 hectares, is a clause that allows us 9.5 hours per week of irrigation time. We pay an annual fee for water usage and must keep our bill up-to-date, otherwise the water rights can be reallocated to another finca. A schedule of hours distributed by the Water Co-operative outlines start and finish times for all of the farmers on this street who access water from the roadside riego. Sometimes our turn for irrigation occurs during the middle of the night, and at other times it takes place during the day. Our worker is responsible for closing off the neighbour's gate and opening our own to allow water to flow onto our alfalfa field. There is a spirit of mutual respect and co-operation inherent in the whole system. If your crop needs extra water, you can usually find someone down the road who is not using their turn and will gladly give you additional hours. If you're not available to irrigate during your specified time, you can work out a trade with another farmer. The weekly give and take of such a vital resource keeps neighbours on good terms.
Winter riego, clean and dry
At the beginning of June the water is completely shut off at the dams. The imposed dry spell of about 6 weeks is an opportunity for cleaning the system and making any necessary repairs. Each finca owner is required by law to clean the riego of the immediate upstream neighbour, clearing any weeds and debris that might obstruct the flow of water onto the land. This is usually done by burning the vegetation in and around the canal, and working the channel smooth with a hoe. An inspector of waterworks comes around to each finca to make sure that the cleaning has been completed.
Summer riego, flowing
We look forward to July 14th, the day when the water returns. The babbling of the stream that fills the canal is a welcome sound, a harbinger of spring and renewed growth. It is a gentle assurance that the cycle of the growing season will soon start all over again, and the land will produce an income.
We buy fish during the dry times at Pescaderia Puerto Deseado on Av. Balloffet. The most economical fish to buy in this shop is merluza or hake. Our South African friends tell us that hake is used for bait in their country, but it's the only fresh fish available in San Rafael. We purchase four milanesas, which are filets covered with a seasoned breadcrumb mixture, ready to be fried.
The fish dinner pairs well with Cabrini Chardonnay 2005
This wine has notes of green apple, mushrooms and damp vegetation, followed by an acidic finish. It comes from Perdriel, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, from a bodega
established in 1918 and operated today by the fourth generation of the Cabrini family. A bottle of Cabrini Chardonnay costs 19.90 pesos. Four milanesas de merluza cost 14.99 pesos.
Here's a link to an excellent seafood cookbook entitled "A Good Catch"
by Jill Lambert. I picked up a copy during a trip to Wolfville, Nova Scotia and was delighted to find my son Nick Nutting listed as a contributing chef, with his recipe for octopus included in the collection. This book offers sustainable seafood recipes from the top chefs in Canada, while promoting the idea of eating locally harvested, fresh, nutritious fruits de mer.
In need of a cultural break, we visited Buenos Aires for a few days to enjoy some music, dance, fine art, film and theatre. There is a daily flight with Aerolineas Argentina from teeny tiny San Rafael airport to the big city. It takes only an hour and a half to travel from quiet campo to bustling metropolis for a weekend of entertainment.
The most exciting event of our recent trip was the arteBA '10 contemporary art fair held at La Rural exhibition space. Over the years we have attended art fairs in Frankfurt, Maastricht, Amsterdam and Toronto, so we have several models for comparison when it comes to rating the Buenos Aires event. This fair was first class all the way - from curatorship to lighting to visual presentation. The artworks, drawn from commercial galleries all over South America, ranged from representational to abstract and included photography, installation pieces and video, as well as more traditional paintings and sculptures.
Anzizar with his painting
"Urban Birdwatching" by Jose Luis Anzizar appealed to me as a joyous and elegant series of canvases created with collaged elements cut out and applied to the surface. The artist's catalogue quotes him as saying that this group of paintings,"rescues the surrounding visual chaos which we usually overlook." The random nature of the squiggled lines suggests a haphazard flight path, or the casual doodles of a wandering mind, intercepted every now and then with an image of a bird or the silhouette of an aircraft. These paintings, presented by Elsi del Rio gallery, seem to capture the buzz of Buenos Aires.
VO4 by Ventoso
A fascinating series of wall-mounted sculptures caught my eye in Renoir Galeria de Arte's booth. These works, created by Abel H.Ventoso combine forms and linear patterns made from chunks of high density foam. The artist's background as an architect clearly informs his refined volumetric compositions. I like the way subtle tonal variations of black and grey affect the spatial relationships in this piece.
Magdalena Murua's black and white
Artist Magdalena Murua's work was presented at the fair by Praxis International Art. Murua cuts and pastes minute pieces of comic books, creating a mosaic effect from the small bits of colour or black and white cartoons. She starts with a grid and then applies the segments intuitively in stripes or waves. These works read as op art abstracts from a distance, and collage at close range, where graphic traces and fragments of text from the comics are visible.
The only questionable aspect of the BA fair was the pricing of the art. When I asked gallery owners for prices, every small work was $3,500 U.S. and every large work was $10,000 U.S. I assume that this was a starting price point, meant to be negotiated. We are used to a North American square inch price formula that's objective and consistent with the size of the canvas. Nevertheless, the values at arteBA appeared to be quite reasonable for both emerging and mid-career artists, and any serious collector could find high quality work here at a good price.
After the show, while waiting for a cab to take us back to our hotel, we couldn't help but notice multiple graffiti stencils decorating the streetscape. This artist's message certainly hits home.
Looking at art does work up an appetite, so we headed for Empire Thai
on Tres Sargentos. Owner Kevin Rodriguez, a banker from New Jersey, moved to Buenos Aires in 1996 and established a Thai restaurant as an alternative to what he describes as "the city's three p's - pizza, pasta and parrilla." And what a welcome dining experience it is! The coconut soup served here is absolutely the best we've ever eaten, and accompanied by a dish of Pad Thai with krupuk and a plate of tender beef satay, makes a satisfying meal. Kevin lets me in on the chef's secret - he makes his own coconut milk from scratch.
Just around the corner on San Martin is the luxury shopping mall Galerias Pacifico, which offers a wide range of leather goods, cashmere sweaters, cosmetics, fragrances, jewels, designer purses and electronics. On the upper floor is the Borges Cultural Centre
, which houses a small auditorium. We enjoyed a Sunday evening performance of Evolutionarte
, a dynamic flamenco show directed by Marcela Rodriquez.
The streets of Buenos Aires reflect all the contrasts of life in Latin America. The well-to-do casually step over the poor souls who sleep on the sidewalk. The city is both charming and harsh, beautiful and ugly, with a veneer of extravagant wealth and an underbelly of desperate poverty. It is an eye-opener.
Buenos Aires' beautiful Teatro Colon offers the ultimate theatre experience: see my article on Hubpages
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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