Tis the season for syncretism

A year ago (blog entry Christmas 2010) I made a promise to myself that this year we would incorporate some family Christmas traditions, and particularly some that remember why we celebrate the Christmas story.  And so we have. 

In Argentina Catholic tradition dictates that the Christmas tree goes up on December the 8th, which is apparently the day of the Virgin Mary.  I have no idea what connection she has with Christmas trees, and looking up the origins of Christmas trees suggests that they might be either Catholic or Pagan depending on which legend you believe (In fact about the only thing they couldn’t possibly be is Protestant since they existed before the Reformation).  But anyway Catholics and Protestants alike put up their trees on the 8th of December, and Joni was very excited about ours so up it went. 


We’ve been decorating it ever since, with home-made paper chains, and gingerbread biscuits, and decorations made at school and nursery.  It might be finished in time for New Year or so, but at least some of what’s on there will be storable to give us a head start for next year, and it has kept us entertained for a few afternoons. 

Under the tree are a couple of Nativity story books, and a wonderful hand-knitted stable scene which I picked up while we were in England.  Stable scenes are unreservedly Catholic here, often dismissed as “idolatry” by Protestants, so I can only assume that the thing that makes Christmas trees “acceptable” is that they might be of Pagan origin(!)  But anyway, we’re foreign so we can pretend not to know the rules, and our Stable scene is fantastic, means that kids can enact the Christmas story without breaking anything.


Our has had a couple of additional stuffed dogs added from the toy box for good measure.  And Joni has an interesting take on the Christmas story…. (appears wearing his wellies) I’m Father Christmas (sets out a rug on the floor) and Mary and Joseph have to come to my picnic and get presents….

Danny meanwhile performed a starring role in our church Nativity, for which most of the minor characters ahem(shepherds and the like… actually anyone except the family) had been replaced by dancing Santas.


Joni thinks that celebrating Jesus’s birthday is a great idea:  We must have a birthday cake with “tomaties” (that’s smarties to everyone else – ed) and a candle and sing Happy Birthday.   And so together we made and decorated it. 


Tomorrow we may go to Mass in the morning (Protestant churches cancel their services if Christmas falls at a weekend).  And between now and then we will shortly be heading for the home of some friends in the adjacent town of Frontera, where we will see in Christmas in time-honoured Argentinean fashion; good liquor, good company, the gentle sizzle of cow on the barbecue, and fireworks at midnight. 

And a merry blooming Christmas to you too.  Whatever your traditions, whatever your ethnicity, whatever your churchmanship, may we all know something of the real Christ who became flesh and came and dwelt amongst us. 

Off to School, possibly

Joni and I are both off to school, possibly. 

Joni technically should start in the official school system this coming March.  Up until now the sala de 4 (4 year olds class) has been an optional first year.  The Argentinean government has decided to make it compulsory, starting this year .  Cunningly they haven’t provided any extra classrooms or teachers in San Francisco (I couldn’t say if they’ve resourced it any better anywhere else in the country; quite possibly not), so the last couple of weeks have been a mad scramble for places.  We went into a lottery (literally; raffle tickets in a hat, I was there) for the school we really wanted, but there were only four places vacant as kids with siblings in the school are given priority (one sensible feature at least) so we weren’t in luck there.  Schools are also taking a clear line that there may not be more than 24 children in a sala de 4.  Teachers’ unions are very strong here, they hold the country to ransom at least once per academic year so it goes with the territory that you wouldn’t find a single teacher willing to teach a single child beyond their allotted quota.  In this instance I am more than happy to know that my child isn’t about to be shoe-horned into a group of forty by some cheapskate minister for education, even if it does leave us with a temporary problem (hopefully temporary anyway).  So meanwhile, still lacking a school place, I went trawling around a few other schools in the city until one of the head teachers sent me off (I guess along with several others) to harangue put my case to the ministry of education. 

The inspectora at the ministry of education assured me that no child will be without a place, and she posted me to yet another school which she said would definitely have spare places (it’s the sink school, everyone’s last resort).  It wouldn’t have been my first choice (or even my fifth) but a place is a place and if there was one up for grabs…  However; “I have no idea why she thinks I have room… I have space for 24 children in the sala de 4, and I already have forty signed up so that’s sixteen going on the waiting list…”  I make a quick check out of another school for good measure but the same story; if even sink schools are operating waiting lists then there really are no places to be had.  Back to the inspectora – this time I ran into a few other parents of 4 year olds queuing to see her,  apparently some are even gearing up for court battles to get their children in  she appears to be oblivious to unfolding chaos and expresses surprise that there were no spare spaces at the school she had sent me too.  We’ve just had elections here this year, a lot of these appointments are “rewards” to friends and family of people who were elected, I’m beginning to suspect that the inspectora may be one of them.  (I wrote this piece yesterday and today I found out I am correct in that supposition; no great surprise there).  However, she does reiterate that no child will remain outside the system and suggests that they will probably be opening some new salas de 4 in February for the new academic year in March.  And if nothing else she is in no doubt that I will be banging on her door several times a week from February onwards along with a few dozen others by all accounts.  To be honest Joni is four years old, if he spent another year at nursery I don’t think it would jeopardise his chances of getting to university, so we are fairly philosophical about the whole thing and certainly not about to fight it out in court; it is just one of those “authentically Argentinean” experiences and in any case we’re only in December; really absolutely anything could happen between now and March.  

I meanwhile as part of my “having-my-qualifications-validated-in order-to-be-able-to-work-in-Argentina” saga, have to revalidate my secondary school education as punishment for originating in a country which doesn’t have an agreement with Argentina.  The ministry of education (seen a lot of them of late with one thing and another) have allocated me to a secondary school.  In between everything they have come up with a fairly sensible plan in that instead of having to repeat my entire secondary education, they propose to devise an exam incorporating the specifically Argentinean aspects of the curriculum in four subjects; history, geography, citizenship and language.  I already met the geography teacher; we had a good chat about physical features of Argentina, agricultural production, climate regions, principle rivers… luckily I like geography.  The language curriculum is a bit of a puzzle to me… it is really language and literature.  There is a lot of grammar, most of which I haven’t a clue about so I’m going to have to put in some legwork on that front before February.  But my real question is about the literature.  This is an “Argentina-specific” exam designed to add the Argentinean element to the education I have already completed.  The books they want me to read include Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, and George Orwell.  If this is Argentina-specific, who on earth would be on the more “general” list????  Whatever, I am to be examined on this lot at some stage in February, the plan is to invent a single exam per subject, broadly encompassing the standards expected from second to sixth form.  And whatever else happens, I am awarding myself a GCSE for perseverance. 

Salute you sir

The normal quality of workmanship in Argentina ranges from poor downwards, and while I know that my saying so will cause a few people to wince in a culturally sensitive sort of way, actually to pretend that this is not the case would be to do a worse injustice to the (sadly tiny) minority of tradesmen here who are busting their asses to provide a professional service and make a living against the prevailing tide of cowboys printing money for rubbish.  We had someone fix our toilet with a piece of string, twice; Martin fixed it properly himself the third time and so far it hasn’t broken again.  We had someone charge us through the nose for fixing the washing machine, and left it even more broken than when he’d taken it.  Not only that, but when we called someone else to remedy the remedy, the second guy said “I know about this machine, the other guy phoned and asked me what to do, but I told him I couldn’t really say without seeing it…”  And if I had a pound back from every time we’ve been charged a special rip-off price for being foreigners; in fact Martin once overheard a taxi-driver asking his friend whether Martin was good for a mark-up… And so, I am writing this little piece as a homage to the man who fitted our new bath. 

Baths aren’t very common here, although they are becoming more common in middle class places like San Francisco.  (Here’s a thing… if you try and adapt a UK bathroom into a wet-room e.g. for a disabled person, it costs the earth and then some, here all bathrooms are wet-rooms because it is apparently the cheapest way of making a bathroom; go figure. But I digress…).  Joni finally decided that he had grown out of the baby bath which he has been folding himself into since birth, and announced that we needed a “big boy’s bath”.  Mummy decided she agreed with him… showers are great for sensible things like efficiency and cleanliness but you can’t beat a soak in a proper tub.  So the big boy bath project was born.  Buying it was the easy bit.  Then it sat in the garage for two months while we tried to find someone to fit it.  Previous people who we have used included some who we’d never invite back, one who had committed suicide, and two who had stopped being plumbers and were now apparently running a shop.  But eventually we were put in touch with a largish, dour, could-almost-be-Scottish type who came on the day he was supposed to, did the work he was supposed to do, set in motion a succession of other tradesmen to perform other related and non-related tasks, did a passable job at cleaning up after himself, and charged a reasonable price at the end. 

Bath under construction

Work in progress

Shiny new bath

Finished item.

Bath being tested

In use.

It isn’t a Henry Moore, some of the finishing might even be described as scruffy.  But it’s there, complete, working and fitted in a professional manner, and so for these and the other reasons given above, I salute you, I recommend you to our friends, and I will call you first next time.  

A special kind of stupid

San Francisco is a land-locked city, in a land-locked province, something like fifteen hours from the nearest decent bit of coast-line in any direction, which is pretty hard to imagine coming from our small island in the north Atlantic.  Even to reach a stream big enough for paddling means a trip of a hundred kilometres or so.  And since we’re not exactly well served with swimming pools (one; open to the public sometimes on weekend afternoons during the summer), a pool in the back garden is almost an essential item.  Posh people dig proper swimming pools, the rest of us buy a “pelopincho”; essentially a large paddling pool which we construct in November, and take down again in March.  Ours is the smallest in the range, and is big enough for me n’ the kids to have a good splash while minimising the risk of accidental drowning (or either of them drowning the other on purpose). 

Since even the littlest pelopincho still requires quite a lot of (expensive, metred) water, I went to the shop and asked what people normally do to keep the water clean for a while.  “One of these….” being a white plastic container with a screw top and a few pinprick holes.  Into the container goes a cake of chlorine.  This floats around in the pool and releases chlorine into the water; she reckoned a cake would last a month or so.  In it went and bobbed around for a week or two until I next uncovered the pool, only to discover that it had totally bleached one corner, while the other side was filled with wriggling larvae.  This suggested that coverage hadn’t been as even as one might suppose, and I wondered if the chlorine cake was still alive and active. 

So I took the white container out of the pool, undid the lid and sniffed. 

It was. 

“Chlorine gas is a pulmonary irritant with intermediate water solubility that causes acute damage in the upper and lower respiratory tract. Chlorine gas was first used as a chemical weapon at Ypres, France, in  1915…”    (http://emedicine.medscape.com)

It took the first minute for my respiratory tract to regroup sufficiently to take the next breath; the necessary one with the fresh air in it. Maybe should have gone to A&E at that point, but a flick round the internet suggested that the treatment of choice is humidified oxygen and that most victims of chlorine gas poisoning go on to make a full recovery (apart from those subsequently shot by the Germans), so I figured that I had statistics on my side even if my own common sense appeared to have jumped ship.  As for the humidified oxygen, the air in sweaty San Francisco is about as humid as it is possible for a gas to get without actually becoming a liquid, and probably has around 20% oxygen which is handy for things like supporting life.  Meanwhile my recovering eyes, nose, throat and lungs serve as a reminder that we won’t do that again, will we boys and girls?


(Disclaimer: This is “one for Granny”, so if you are offended by ropy home videos of other peoples’ children, look away now.)

Here is some very rough quality video of our smallest boy’s first attempts to crawl.  His technique is something to behold, feet first, at great effort, and highly pleased with himself.  It looks extremely inefficient, it is extremely inefficient, and yet, turn my back for two minutes and we have variously found him heading out of the front door, trapped behind the fire (unused at this time of year, fortunately), or wedged behind the computer trolley (don’t try this one at home ladies and gentlemen).

Presenting Daniel the Human Caterpillar:

The World in San Francisco

I didn’t realise the local rag had such a wide readership!  Last week was apparently the “day of the immigrant”, and in a polar opposite to coverage in the UK press (“bogus asylum seekers” etc.) the media here positively celebrate the diverse contributions that immigrants bring to enrich the local culture (especially when said immigrant is white, in this aspect we do overlap with the UK gutter press).  San Francisco being an agricultural backwater attracts nothing like the cosmopolitan communities of a Buenos Aires or Cordoba, so “Los Ingleses” were wheeled out to provide official comment for La Voz de San Justo

la voz newspaper

la voz newspaper

You could probably put it through a translator for the details.  It is mostly accurate apart from various spellings of my name, and I’m not fully certain how How did you come to San Francisco? “we’re working for a mission organisation” managed to become “Martin Frost and Hazle (sic) Cant arrived six years ago looking for a tranquil place to live…”  (in fact one might argue that the two ideas are 180 degrees apart).  Other than that though, it gives a positive account of us, and has us giving a positive account of Argentina, and by the number of people who have stopped us in the street this week it appears that most of the city has read it; all good for public relations.