Monthly Archives: February 2013

Thinking about taking a family sabbatical?

Lake Nahuel HuapiWe had a great experience during our 15-week sabbatical in Argentina.

While I hope you can get some useful information from my posts, I’d like to recommend the web site Radical Family Sabbatical as a resource that is valuable no matter where you are thinking of going. Matt Scherr created the site after his family completed a 21-month sabbatical in Ecuador, and he is committed to helping other families figure out how to make a “wouldn’t it be great” conversation reality. The site includes case studies (aka actual family sabbatical stories), tools for planning and conceptualizing, and lots of encouragement.

Go for it!

Buenos Aires, segunda vez

My first 24-hour experience in Buenos Aires didn’t make a great impression. It came on the heels of 16 hours of travel. It was hot. There was a long blackout.

But under more favorable conditions (rooftop pool), I’m starting to come around.

Chau, Bariloche

Nora, our landlord, and her husband Pocho

Nora, our landlord, and her husband Pocho.

We met some exceptionally nice people in Bariloche. They made us feel welcome, they made us feel more secure, and they helped us experience Argentine culture more deeply.

We saw beautiful scenery from on foot every single day, and we spent more time outdoors than we ever do at home.

These things you may already know from reading the blog. So, how’s our Spanish, right?

IMG_1635After 15 weeks in Argentina, Lou effortlessly switches back and forth between English and Spanish. His solitary play is often in Spanish. In the middle of the night or first thing in the morning, when he’s still groggy, he uses Spanish if he’s talking to Pete and English with me (someone should tell that kid I graduated with a B2 level in Spanish!). He has an American accent, most notably with Rs, but he chooses constructions that are more native-like than we would come up with. He doesn’t make mistakes between ser and estar, the two verbs that both mean to be.

Pete had a stand-out final week and left Bariloche on a high note. He would like to go to Chicago in May to take an internationally-recognized exam called the DELE that is designed to measure proficiency. He’s hoping to qualify as “advanced.”

We had a goodbye dinner at Alto el fuego, a really good parrilla restaurant where even I--the 22-year vegetarian--ate steak.

We had a goodbye dinner at Alto el fuego, a really good parrilla restaurant where even I–the 22-year vegetarian–ate steak.

And then there’s me. All along it was difficult not to measure myself against Pete—who is charming and funny in any language—even though he has 10 years of study and practice behind him. And it was difficult to be a perfectionist who loves language and also says things like “I’m going to revolver” and “She lost her bank card” (talking about myself). But I can say that I made a respectable amount of progress and have a good foundation to build on. To keep me motivated I’ve got two books waiting for me at home: a novel written in Spanish and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir translated into Spanish.


(by Pete)

IMG_01090Lucas passed out red noses at the end of the first day of class. We had just finished a role play between a buffoon, who believes in nothing but belittles everything, and a clown, who by traditional theatrical definition is a gentle, innocent being that is the opposite of the buffoon.

On the second day of class, after a lecture on infection control, I was interested. On day three, after a lecture on clown history, I was hooked.

Lucas was our charismatic teacher. He is an actor, director, and medical doctor who teaches a week-long class on how to be a clown. He is one of the founding members of an effort to help hospitalized kids heal faster through humor and interactive play.

According to Lucas, young patients passively follow doctors orders and wait to get better. However, through the intervention of a clown, he says, they can be brought out of passivity and into active participation in their treatment, which aids in the healing process. I think he’s right.

IMG_01095Lucas is deeply pained by the current portrayal of the clown as a menace, a drunk, and a figure of fear for children. So throughout the week we got history lessons on the clown as well as lessons on the subconscious psychology of the ill or dying patient.

The class culminated on Saturday with nearly 30 new clowns descending on a local shopping mall to practice their skills (I was excused from this part since I didn’t actually plan to volunteer as a clown). Mall security guards, still haunted by memories of the looting in December, panicked and started chatting on their radios. Lucas soothed their fears.

With Lucas

With Lucas

All in all, it was my best week in Bariloche. I also have a newfound respect for actors, especially those that perform live on stage.

Cerro Leones

At the eastern end of Lake Nahuel Huapi, about 15 kilometers from the center of Bariloche, the land changes dramatically: this is where a cold steppe zone begins and, if you continue east and north, eventually changes to a temperate steppe better known as la pampa, or grasslands famous for producing high-quality Argentine beef.

You can see the change in terrain from these pictures, taken during our tour of an extinct volcano called Cerro Leones.


People love to take their mate on the road.

People love to take their mate on the road. (photo from Wikipedia)

In one of my very first posts I included a link to the Wikipedia entry on mate (MA-tay). But if you’re like me, you didn’t actually read it.

Mate (the cup) comes in materials and styles to suit any taste, but I've heard a hollowed-out gourd--like this--is "best."

Mate (the cup) comes in materials and styles to suit any taste, but I’ve heard a hollowed-out gourd like this is best. (photo from Wikipedia)

Briefly, yerba is a small tree grown in northern Argentina, southern Paraguay and Brazil, and Uruguay. The dried leaves of this tree are used plain (mate común) or with other herbs to make tea in a special cup called a mate. Like green tea, yerba has both caffeine and antioxidants.

Lots of people have leather bags like this to carry their mate kit. I've seen hot water and disposable thermoses for sale at out-of-the-way tourist places, but no one sells brewed cups of yerba.

I’ve seen plenty of leather bags like this to carry mate kit. I’ve also seen hot water and disposable thermoses for sale at out-of-the-way tourist places. What I would never expect to see are  brewed cups of yerba for sale. (photo from Wikipedia)

In an Argentine edition of Reader’s Digest, a sommelier used the vocabulary of wine tasting (terroir, body, etc.) to discuss the characteristics of yerba. Like wine in France, drinking mate is both serious and as integral to everyday life—and therefore unworthy of comment—as preparing meals at home.

What I find interesting, and even heartwarming, about mate is the social role it plays. First of all, mate is something people often drink in company, always sharing a single cup and straw. In three months I have not tired of seeing people at their worksite or sitting on a patch of grass or at the beach passing around mate. Second, mate is something that a majority of Argentines drink daily, from the poor to the rich, and in this way it has a potential leveling effect. In a self-reflection piece published in an Argentine Vanity Fair-style magazine, the author noted that even while getting high, Argentines drink mate. Of course! Lastly, drinking mate—and drinking it socially—is distinctly Argentine (I’ve been told that Uruguayans don’t have the same sharing tradition). Having a common cultural artifact helps to unify a country that is geographically large and culturally diverse.

The closest I could come to a unifying tradition in the U.S. was Thanksgiving, which is notably different for occurring just once a year and which is being undermined by the Black Friday tradition, which has nothing to do with social connections and everything to do with blind consumerism. (There, now you know how I feel about BF.)