Our old cooker wasn´t the highest quality piece of equipment. Even new, bits started falling off it at an early stage. We were told this was because the black coating cracks when heated; er, like, it´s a cooker. OK, whatever. Consumers have lots of rights in law, but in practise it takes seven years to get a civil case to tribunal, so manufacturers can still be sure n0-one´s going to see it through. Twelve years later, all the black coating had long since dropped off, only two of the gas rings worked properly, and the oven was a white knuckle ride. To keep the gas flowing, the oven knob had to be wedged with a broom handle, and the flame sometimes went out, but the handy broom handle would keep the gas pumping out even without a flame, so if someone lit a match the whole thing would explode. It gave a new meaning to the concept of “living by faith”, and after the second time of nearly losing my eyelashes, and conscious of a news story where two teachers in a school in Buenos Aires were blown up by a dodgy cooker, we figured it might be time for a new one.
With perfect timing, we received a generous donation for the specific purpose of replacing our cooker, from a lovely lady who we are looking forward to being able to thank in person one day. With less perfect timing, the whole country closed for coronavirus about two minutes after the money arrived in our account. So for the last umpty weeks of lockdown we have been coaxing life out of the death-trap and looking forward to buying a new one. Finally our shops have been allowed to open under restricted conditions, and one of our first expeditions into town was to check out cookers.
That´s it from both angles. We chose something mid-range that appears to be better made than its predecessor. Time will tell, but so far it´s going great and no-one has lost any eyelashes.
Celebratory pizzas under construction. Pizza making is an art form in Argentina, they imported the concept from Italy and made it their own. Want pizza bases? Open a bag of flour. Want pizza sauce? Take an onion and three tomatoes and start chopping. If your Argentinian friend comes to visit in England or the USA you almost definitely shouldn´t try and serve pizza unless you´re sure you know what you´re doing.
Finished products about to be put to the test. Apologies for the bottle of wine to any friends in countries whose lockdown rules means they can´t buy alcohol. Good wine and permission to drink it are two of the many simple blessings of life in Argentina.
Here are a few unfinished and not very sophisticated things that I am currently thinking about. Feel free to add anything that might help via email or Facebook.
I’m pretty certain that covid19 is not the apocalypse despite all the headlines using similar terminology. Not any sort of Biblical endtimes apocalypse, nor the zombie variety, nor any other doomsday scenario. For the adults among us, we have already lived through a lot of bad stuff in our lifetimes. The main difference is that most catastrophic events were a long way away and we were barely aware of them because they were happening to other people. Writers and readers of apocalyptic, or indeed any other, types of headline, are almost entirely from the affluent Global North and therefore by definition, we have been shielded from experiencing the real effects of poverty, conflict, and disease. Basically we need to grow up and decentralise. I am not the centre of the universe; it isn’t all about me. Bad stuff isn´t intrinsically worse when it happens to us (or because we fear it might happen to us). Bad stuff that happens to other people is still bad stuff. The fact that we were asleep when it happened to someone else doesn´t mean that it didn´t happen or that it didn´t hurt.
Malaria is a mosquito borne disease that the world health organisation estimates affects between 300 million and 500 million people every single year and causes approximately 450,000 deaths every single year. In Argentina we don’t have malaria, but we are currently experiencing an outbreak of dengue, which is also a mosquito-carried pasasitic disease. Dengue is less lethal than malaria, killing 25,000 people per year, but it is also estimated to affect globally up to 390 million people per year, of which 96 million cases are deemed to be medically significant, and approximately half a million people go on to develop severe haemorragic dengue every single year. This is but one example of a human catastrophe that the Global north is mostly unaware of, because if the news ever covers it at all, it will be three lines in a column filler halfway down page 17. It also raises the question as to how much closer we might be to solving these and other problems if we were throwing covid-scale resources into finding the answers.
So what to do. What to do? I disagree with the folk who want to say that covid is sent by God. But that doesn’t mean he might not find a use for it. And I’m wondering if one thing that this time might be understood as is an invitation to stop. Just stop. As nature takes over the spaces vacated by human activity, social networks have exploded in a frenzy of motivational messages, pressure to do stuff, learn stuff, achieve stuff, keep to a lock-down timetable broken into half-hourly activities and keep ourselves and our children busy and achieving in order not to lose momentum and keep up to speed ready to explode out of the traps when the race resumes.
But what if momentum was exactly the thing we were supposed to lose? What if this time was given to us as an opportunity to ask ourselves the purpose of our frenetic race to self destruction? What if this was our chance to question our capitalist doctrines of productivity and measurable achievement?
We are so enmeshed in a system that measures the value of a person according to our perception of their production that we can’t stop doing it, even when the world at the moment requires that most of us produce frankly nothing. The world will not change one iota if I spend the lockdown knitting a life-sized replica of the Taj Mahal. And more importantly neither will my value as a human being.
I will not ruin the life-chances of my kids if they don’t learn quadratic equations this year. Personally I’m horrified by an advert I keep being pushed in Facebook on how I too could teach my two year old to read fluently if only I purchased this system. How about if two year olds were allowed to be two year olds and do normal two year old things like eating mud and draw on the wallls without profiteering twats playing on parents’ anxieties?
What if it was time to start by stopping and asking questions about what is important. What are we going to pick back up again? If I am fitting in seventeen meetings before lunchtime, how many of those people am I really seeing or hearing? Or more importantly, how many of them would say they had felt seen and heard? How far am I meeting my own need to believe that a lot of people need me? And possibly, which two of those people could I really make a difference to if I had some proper time for them?
The phrase “think globally and act locally” still needs a lot of unpacking, but I think it may be a key, to use this time of un-planning and un-doing to help us to ask on one hand, “What sort of post-covid world do we want to live in?” and therefore, “What can I do to make a small but real difference to that?”
We are bored but healthy, for which we give thanks.
Necessity is the mother of invention. The oven is dead (I wrote about that before, we are really missing it until the shops open again) and it was Boyfriend’s birthday, so I went experimenting and discovered that it is possible to make cake on the stovetop, in what they call here a “baño maria” I don´t even know how to say that in English, it literally means Mary´s bath, probably shouldn´t think about that too deeply. It´s where you cook stuff in a pot (or cake tin) standing in a pan of water. There were two colours of sponge and lots of sweets. It worked great.
We would very much like to go to the plaza, or out cycling, horseriding, dogwalking, anything outside, which we aren´t allowed, but we have found that the flat roof of our house is a good location for alternative fun. The sunsets are pretty nice too from up there. Yesterday we were playing volleyball with some of the team on the roof and the rest on the patio, which might not have been the safest but was entertaining and everyone survived. Danny´s favourite rooftop game is pretending to be an extreme parkour runner, jumping over pipes, wires and chimneys.
The ancient bedspread which I cut a chunk off in order to make last year´s advent calendar came in handy again today to make not-very-surgical masks. The latest municipal ordinance is that anyone out in the street has to wear a face-mask, so I ran up a few this afternoon. I thought for about one and a half seconds about going into business but decided I´m better suited to rooftop olympics. It´s way more fun anyway. And probably more useful.
And not only have I participated in a couple of zoom meetings, and just about come out alive, but I even managed to set up a zoom account and organise a meeting. Not only did I not die of anxiety (despite thinking I might), but everything worked and there wasn´t even any bad language in the process. All of which is pretty amazing, and the fact that I even attempted all that probably means we have been shut in for a while. Needs must. This picture isn´t mine, alas, but it seems appropriate for the circumstances. What the Last Supper might have looked like by Zoom…
So here we are in the second week of nationwide obligatory lockdown, hunting rabbits and carving daily notches on a stick…. It’s pretty civilised all told. Food shops are largly open so we’re not yet out in the fields with a bow and arrow. Our oven has died, but the four hobs still work and the microwave’s OK for making cakes. The cooker was due to be replaced anyway, we even have the money to pay for it thanks to a generous gift, but we just hadn’t planned for it to die right now when the shops are shut.
We are settling into something like a routine that involves getting up not too early, drifting into breakfast, followed by some school work in the mornings, lunch, then “siesta” essentially early afternoon downtime when we ignore the kids glued to screens for a while, then snack-time, board games or something similiar, a dip in the paddling pool for those who want it, posting everyone through the shower, more food, storytime and bed.
All the young people in the household have been set academic tasks, which they are tackling with varying degrees of enthusiasm(!) Probably the biggest surprise is Danny. We are having a lovely time doing his activities, and he is producing more in an hour at home than he has ever done in a day at school. I still might not want to homeschool him (or anybody else) for very long, but I’m thinking another month of this wouldn’t do him any harm at all, after which he might nearly be caught up with his peers anyway.
Danny’s undemanding approach to life is also boding him well in current circumstances. Yesterday evening he arrived in the kitchen at bedtime when I was making a jelly. “Is that for lunch tomorrow?” he asked me. “Yes” I said. “Oooh, aren’t we lucky?!” he said, absolutely genuinely. It’s at times like now when we’re grateful to have produced kids who think they’re having a good day because there’s jelly.
The other fortunate thing is that we didn’t get round to taking the pool down before all this happened. Normally I clean it and put it away when schools go back for the year. So the younger element and I are enjoying fresh air and exercise in it most sunny afternoons.
I remember being one of those kids who could always find something to do in the summer holiday and never wasted time wishing school would hurry up and start again. Not having a TV gave us a wide set of skills for self entertaining. Now our own kids are pretty similar, even though they do have access to screens. So, in the mornings we have mostly been at the riding school which is a fine location for different activities as well as riding, and in the afternoons we have done a variety of stuff as well as hanging out in the paddling pool when the temperature gets too much.
We went to see “El Robo del Siglo” (the robbery of the century) at the cinema. It’s an Argentinean film based on the true story of a bank robbery in Buenos Aires. It’s a good story, and it was nice to watch a film of a genre different from Hollywood plastic. Danny said “I didn’t understand that film. If they’re adults, and adults know that it is wrong to steal, why would they do it?” Fair question.
We rebuilt the Notre Dame! Last year when we visited Paris, we spent a whole day exploring the Notre Dame and really loved it. So Danny chose a Nanoblock model of the cathedral to build. We made it, and it was on display in his room, until a younger member of the household decided uninvited to take it apart. That was when we realised that we should have kept the instructions. I tried to figure out how it went using internet photographs, but my skills aren’t that sophisticated, so I contacted the manufacturer Kawada in Japan to ask if I could have replacement instructions. They said contact a distributer. So I contacted a distributer and they said they couldn’t do that. So I went back to Kawada and we toed and froed a bit until I said this is the first time I’ve bought a Nanoblock model so maybe you could see this as an opportunity to show me your great customer service. And a couple of days later I got a pdf attachment of the instructions to rebuild the Notre Dame for free and for nothing. So for the record I would like to say that when challenged, Kawada and their distributer Schylling have given us great customer service. And the model is really nice. We finished it yesterday. And I saved the pdf.
Danny the other evening appeared wearing long trousers, and a long sleeved hoodie with the hood pulled over his head, and his spiderman mask. Since it was still 37 degrees outside, I raised an eyebrow at him. And he said “I opened the office door and there was a bug and it tried to sting me, and I was afraid it might still be cross with me, so I’m in disguise.”
Now I’m busy thinking about Scout camp, to be followed immediately by family holiday, leading into team conference, and I realised school will start pretty much as soon as we get back from all that, so I’m trying to be as prepared as we can be before we go away. The last few days we have been gathering signatures on the medical paperwork. This afternoon Joni went to the dentist. I am still recovering. The whole thing was reminiscent of a Horrid Henry story (Francesca Simon has been one of our favourite authors for many years). In fact we decided we should write a new chapter entitled Horrid Henry goes to the dentist, encorporating the line “Horrid Henry’s mum decided that his father would take him next time…”
The writer of Ecclesiastes says there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, 3 a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, 4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, 5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, 6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, 7 a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, 8 a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
The same wise guy also says ” Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (Ecclesiastes 12) He’s right of course, and we’re taking him seriously. We here are in full summer mode, so there is also;
9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
We´re four weeks off the end of the academic year. Finally. Which is still something like ten percent of the teaching days, but the rhythm of Argentina´s academic year means that by this point no-one cares if anyone learns anything or not. I´m fine with that. I´m turning into the opposite of a pushy parent as far as formal education is concerned, returning to my woofty born-in-the-seventies roots of starting from kids’ interests and needs.
Joni is in his last month of primary school. He is looking forward to the summer holidays. I am looking forward to never stepping into that particular establishment ever again. In fairness, Joni has done fine there. But he´s also the kind of kid who would do OK anywhere – no behaviour issues, no academic difficulties, work done, folders up to date, gets on with everybody; a perfect sausage churned out from a sausage factory. Maybe that´s fine, maybe that´s their function, I just have an idea that a good school might offer something more. The thing that particularly draws my attention is that since we changed Danny to a different school, there isn´t a single member of staff willing to meet my eye, let alone talk to me, which has been more than a little uncomfortable for the last two years while Joni has still been there and I have still had to attend parents meetings etc, and heaven forbid that any staff might ask if Danny is still alive or how he´s doing, even though several parents still do. I find it infantile. I have tried to rise above it, but it´s wearing and I´m glad we´re nearly done.
Danny is also looking forward to school being over. Really he´d like to leave altogether, a mere decade or so before time! This year in 3rd grade he still mostly has short days, from 8 till 12, apart from Tuesdays and Thursdays which look more like the English system, from 8, with a lunch break and classes finishing at 2. Next year in 4th grade and above, he will go from 8 till 2 every day. The other day I told him, remember you need to go in for lunch and we´ll collect you at 2, and he said “No way, how many more times am I going to have to do this?” so I reminded him that next year he will have to do it every day. And he cried real tears “When will this torture ever be over…?” He doesn´t really hate school any more since he changed schools, but he´d be happy not to have to do it. And it hasn´t been a great year for him, it hasn´t been a disaster, but last year was his best year ever and this one has been mediocre by comparison. We´re hoping he might get a different teacher next year, he’s in a mixed 3rd-4th grade class this year, and we´re hoping he doesn´t just pass to the 4th grade half of the same class with the same teacher. She a nice enough person, but she’s never got the measure of Danny, and he requires a lot of creative thinking to get the best out of him, which is what his teacher had going for her last year, and this one hasn´t been a relationship made in heaven.
Meanwhile, thinking forward, we´ve finalised Joni’s secondary school place a couple of weeks ago. After lots of chopping and changing, we basically let Joni decide, given that it´s he who will have to put up with it every day. He made a short list of three, the agricultural school, the technical school, and finally he settled on the “proa” (say pro-a) which is a modern experimental style of school being trialled here. We went along to the introductory meeting and he and we really liked the look of what they are trying to do which is way more funky and creative than anything we´ve seen in Argentina so far, with lots of project work based on student led initiatives. Apparently the rest of the city thought the same, which may be an indication of the need to modernise the rest of Argentina´s creaking education system, as there were literally four people chasing every place.
In order to wittle the numbers down, they held an obligatory workshop for parents, which I attended, and an obligatory workshop for prospective students so Joni went along. There they split them up into groups and gave them taster sessions in Maths, English and programming. The secretary told me that she was sitting in on Joni’s english class, where the teacher asked a bunch of questions and Joni didn’t put his hand up, so probably the teacher thought he didn’t know anything so she gave him a piece of paper to read, which he did. The secretary said “I saw that teacher’s face…” Then the teacher said “I like your accent, are you studying English?” And Joni said no. Which is true but… evil child!! Finally, they did a names in the bucket draw for all those who had turned up to the two workshops, which while unsophisticated is probably fairer than the UK system at least from when I was last involved, where oversubscribed schools cherry picked middle class families according to the parents´ability to write an essay on the form (do they still do that?) Anyway we were very fortunate that his name came up. And apparently the English teacher has forgiven him – they met in the corridor after the draw and she congratulated him on getting in and said she was looking forward to seeing him (exacting her revenge?) next year.
So that’s the round up of formal education. On the informal side, on Saturday we put our big paddling pool up on the patio for the summer and the younger element spent the weekend testing it out while it was filling:
Now it needs filtering and chorinating regularly to keep it going till February. And Joni took part in his first horse jumping event:
Proving that school isn’t always the most important place for learning things – heck, who needs quadratic equations if you can save your life in water, and gallop a horse over a pole without falling off?
“We should go camping in Miramar just you, me and Danny” said Joni. “Daddy and the others don’t like camping anyway”. Which is true. So we piled a heap of stuff in the car, including enough bedding for a couple of potentially sub-zero nights, and a packet of marshmellows for good measure, and drove the couple of hours to the shores of the big salt lake known as the Mar Chiquita, literally “little sea”, and our favourite campsite on the edge of the small town of Miramar. It was cold to go in the water, although we did get in up to our ankles at various points, sometimes intentionally. Otherwise we walked, birdwatched, flew kites, clambered on rocks and trees, hired a funky four-wheeled bike with “uber” painted on it (I loved that, would probably be sued for copyright anywhere else in the world), made fires, toasted marshmallows, and generally had a fine few days playing Swallows and Amazons.
From one of our regular contacts in the bird observatory, I managed to source and purchase a copy of a newly published book of birds of Cordoba province. There are over 300 species in the Mar Chiquita reserve, and we had some adventurous walks tracking down a small percentage. Here are a few specimens that we managed to photograph.
For anyone who might be wondering why the names aren´t the same in English and Spanish, it´s because they aren´t direct translations. They are simply the different names that the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking worlds use for the same bird.
And now today school has gone back, boohoo, and the routine starts again.
Enough people told Joni that he should be a basketball player, being a head taller than the rest of his class and most of the teachers, that he thought he might give it a try. Basketball is a thing here in San Francisco. It´s probably the second sport after football and there are quite a few clubs around, so he joined one that’s just a few blocks from home and started taking himself to and from training on his bike a couple of times a week. He´s not the most co-ordinated player on the team, but he´s getting better and he’s having a good time. So the next step is to collect the paperwork in order that he can participate in tournaments. Yes, that requires paperwork. In Argentina breathing requires paperwork.
The heaviest chunk of paper was the medical. No worries that the whole country had to do school medicals only just a couple of months ago, which could well be an acknowledgement that the school medical is a waste of the paper it is written on, this much is certainly true. So we made appointments to collect the information and signatures required.
The ECG – yes we really had to do one of those – showed up a minor insufficiency, which automatically pushed us up to a second tier of further tests to investigate how real or significant it might be. The ultrasound was kind of cool as a spectator sport, I never realised how much a heart moves, it is a veritable machine all working in co-ordination. Then we moved into the stress test, where they put him on an exercise bike and increased the resistance while measuring heart function. And finally they stuck a bunch of electrodes and a holter monitor on him which he had to wear for a day and a night.
-I’ll take it off tomorrow morning. Said the doctor.
-In school time? Asked Joni, hopefully.
-Yes. Unless you can be here at seven in the morning. Hang on, where do you go to school? … Oh my house is just two blocks from the Rio Negro… Here I’ll write the address down… Why don’t you call in on your way to school and I won’t be there by then but my husband will take the machine off you.
So we did, and he did. And the whole thing caused me to smile for a couple of days thinking about this funny world, and this quirky country that tries so hard to dot every i and cross every t with its eye-watering bureacracy, and yet, humanity and community still keep finding ways of shining through sometimes in the most unexpected of details.
As for the medical stuff. He has a minor insufficiency which is practically normal in human animals. It doesn’t require any further intervention and he can play in any basketball tournament he likes. Or he will be able to when I’ve finished the rest of the paperwork this week.
Life happens too fast. While I´m thinking about something I´d like to write about, the next thing is already happening. Here´s a couple of things from the last few days.
Danny had his eighth birthday and around twenty children came to entertain us for the afternoon.
That rocket cake nearly killed me, I made a large round that I was going to colour with blue and green icing for the world, only I discovered at ten o clock at night that some unidentified being in our house had done I don’t know what with my food colourings, possibly used them as poster paint, so I only had black, brown and yellow left. I did a night sky with chocolate icing and stuck some stars in it. For the rocket I made two cylindrical cakes in sweetcorn tins, stuck them on top of each other, added an ice cream cone on top, wrapped the whole thing in white fondant and decorated it. Except it collapsed. I probably should have put a metal skewer through to hold it together. And then the dog ate one of the chocolate wings that fell off, so I had to buy more chocolate. In the end I ended up putting the rocket on its side rather than upright. It worked out fine and the kids enjoyed it.
We bought him this second hand piano which we found online. He´s enjoying picking out a variety of tunes with one finger, starting with Frere Jacques at seven o clock on Saturday morning, according to his brother who didn’t fully appreciate the finer musical points of the wake up call, and yesterday evening he was working on Bonnie Tyler´s I need a hero. His piano teacher´s going to love it.
This was us on Saturday morning. The 25th of May procession is an annual event marked in every town and city up and down the country to commemorate the Revolucion de Mayo, a series of events leading to Argentina’s independence from Spanish rule in 1810. Literally every institution in the city participates in the procession, including the municipal dust carts and cement mixers; they process before the schools, who in turn process before the band, after which follow the clubs, societies and voluntary organisations, led by the Scouts. By virtue of being in full uniform, arriving early and looking tall, Joni was drafted in as last minute substitute to carry one of the district flags – the purple one in the centre of the photo. I like the 25 May procession, it’s a funny mix of formal and informal, lots of protocol, drum bashing and flag waving, and at the same time there’s room for any small Scout or football player to participate and wave at mummy or daddy as they go by.
Some of the advanced riders went off for a jumping event, and I found myself in charge of equine therapy in San Francisco for a few days. So Martin wandered in to lend a hand. We had a good time, it reminded us a lot of when we used to work together on my scheme with adults with learning difficulties in England. We were spontaneous and informal in a way that would almost definitely not be allowed in these days of rules and much paperwork. I think that’s kind of sad – ask any of those guys or their families how many regrets they have about the opportunities we created. There are some things that are still good about life in Argentina.