The Life Mendocino
As I have now been in Mendoza for over two months, I think it's time I shared some thoughts on my time here so far. Though my project here is dedicated to exploring planning and urban design, exploring the culture of Mendoza and its people is critical to understanding the city and these themes. Today's post is a not-so-brief review of some of my experiences so far, from day-to-day activities to some particular experiences that provide a better context of what my life here has been like. NOTE: today marks five weeks that I have been in mandatory quarantine in Mendoza. All experiences described below occurred before March 17, 2020, the start of the global COVID-19 epidemic and mandatory quarantines (in many countries). Stay tuned for a follow-up on how things have changed here in Mendoza in my next post, The Life Quarantine.
Starting a New Chapter
Some might say quitting your job and moving to another country for a year in your 30s is career suicide. Maybe so, but sometimes it can allow you to experience things far more fulfilling than any job or "career" will ever bring. It can provide the time, and more importantly, the peace of mind to reconnect with what is truly important to you and to engage with people and experiences that you may have overlooked when your mind was so focused on work and striving for so-called success in your career. In other words, stepping away for a moment, while terrifying at times, can allow you to be more present and focused on other aspects of your life.
This is what I most looked forward to when committing to taking a sabbatical from my career, my life, and moving to Mendoza, Argentina. I had dreamed for so long about how much I was going to learn here and how much it would challenge my perspectives of the world. And it has! However, what has surprised me the most about my journey so far is not the cools sights and experience of travel, but the realization of how important the the theme of time with friends and family is in so many aspects of life.
After quitting my job and renting out my house (not to mention the hundreds of other tasks and long-term planning necessary to make this a reality) I stayed with my parents for the months of December and January at their farm in Upstate New York (outside of Rochester) before heading to Argentina. Like many, I have not lived at home for more than a week since I moved away for college, and upon graduating, I've lived across the country from them so we've really only been able to see each other infrequently and for short periods of time - a situation I think many can relate to. So, I was not sure what to expect. Admittedly, I was not looking forward to spending two months bundled-up in the house in the bitter and dismal winter there so the prospect of flying to the other side of the world where it was the middle of summer was frequently on my mind. But I quickly adapted to life indoors with my family for extended periods of time - an adaptation that I would soon find particularly relevant in my future.
Even though we were stuck together in the house for two month, we had a great time together and this time with my parents was truly memorable. I feel incredibly grateful to have had an extended period of time to really settle into a life with them. It gave me some time and exposure to get to know each of them on a deeper level than I was able to before living on the other side of the country with only short annual visits. I think the most interesting part of the experience is remembering certain habits or dynamics of your family that can only be experienced when given enough time together - many of which we forget when we are away for so long. My time with them was a great way to decompress after working many years without a substantial break and such a meaningful time for remembering what is most important in life.
So, thanks Mom and Ward for starting this new chapter off with me in style! Mom, I look forward to one day again starting our days together with our morning coffee chats. And Ward, I certainly miss our evening cocktail ritual. Please tell the sheep I said hello.
Above Left: My mom and her sheep, Storm and Brownie, in the middle of winter. That's right, among many things, she is also a Shepherdess. Above Right: Image of Mendoza in mid-summer (February) taken from Cerro de la Gloria. It was quite something to have become accustomed to being in the winter for so long to then be in the middle of summer in Mendoza. It's not something you can really prepare for.
The First Few Days
I landed in Mendoza at 8 am on Sunday, February 3rd (2020) after an over-night flight from New York. As I was not blessed with the ability to sleep on a plane, I was less than fresh to begin this journey and had every intention of going straight to my accommodations to catch up on some sleep. When I finally arrived at the place I would call home for the next 9 months, I began to realize that Argentina had other plans for me. After our brief introductions in my less-than-perfect Spanish, my hosts graciously invited me (maybe more like dragged me) to a family cookout/gathering or Asado at their gorgeous country home/farm or finca in the countryside of Mendoza nestled among the various wineries. Though I desperately wanted to sleep, I couldn't pass up this opportunity. So we rushed off to enjoy a beautiful day in the Valle de Uco.
The finca was truly picturesque. It was like something you would see on a postcard of Argentina (and actually felt like being on a ranch back in New Mexico). When we arrived, after passing through a long tree-lined driveway, I was introduced to the large group (probably 15 people) of family members. Tired and slightly timid about my language skills at the time, I was a little overwhelmed at first. Even in the most comfortable settings, it can be challenging to be a stranger in a large group, but I quickly came to learn, and this is still very certain in my mind, that Argentinians are some of the friendliest people in the world, especially when you are lucky enough to be joining them for asado. They were incredibly accommodating and several spoke very good English, so that helped a little too.
Above: Asado being prepared on the parrilla (pah-ree-jya). It is customary to snack as you go...my favorite part. More about Asado below.
Luckily for me, it is customary to take a nap or relax with a siesta after the mid-day meal. As if I was not already tired enough and now full of heavy food, I found the closest couch and fell fast asleep. The next thing I remember was waking up to someone telling me it was time to go with a big smirk on their face. I didn't think anything of it until I checked my phone and found several pictures of myself sound asleep (image below). I soon realized I had been sleeping for hours on the couch of someone I barely knew. How embarrassing! I think they all got a good deal of fun out of this. But hey, I felt great afterwards.
Above: Me sound asleep on the couch. "The guy on the couch"
Above: Various elements that reminded me of New Mexico.
My New Home and Family
One of my greatest preoccupations in planning for this trip was securing a place to live for nine months that would be not only affordable on my small stipend, but comfortable and conducive to reading and writing. I initially began looking for apartments and AirBnBs where I could have the whole place to myself, thinking I would like to have a refuge and space to call my own. One day I was connected to a family here in Mendoza, through a mutual friend, that rents out rooms in their home (not through AirBnB). The thought of living in someone's home and especially with their family, having to live under their rules and such, was not what I had in mind for my adventure so initially I was reluctant to pursue this opportunity. However, after the time I got to spend with my family in New York and realizing how much you can learn by living with others, I started warming up to the idea. Given that this experience was supposed to be a learning opportunity and cultural immersion, I pushed past the idea of needing a place of my own and committed to renting a room in the place I would soon call home.
Now, having been living with the Abraham family (below) in their beautiful (and giant) home, I realize I could not have found a better place to live nor a better community of people, teachers, and friends as I have come to appreciate everyday living here with them. Since day one, they have opened their home and their hearts to me as if I was one of their own. They are some of the most generous and joyful people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and they have made it their mission to ensure that I get everything I need and that I learn all there is to know about Argentinian (Mendocino) culture, food, music, and language.
Above: The Abraham family hanging out poolside. Note the bug spray on the table. The mosquitoes are vicious here. This was very unexpected as it is a desert city.
Above: As an added bonus to being in the presence of such great people, I also have the pleasure of bonding daily with these two cuddly creatures. Tom, the cat, is quite the character and we have coffee together each morning. By we have coffee, I mean I try to drink my coffee while he also tries to drink my coffee and eat my breakfast. Diana, the dog, is a beautiful and sleek bundle of nerves, but we love her anyway. The two of them play together and it is quite entertaining for me to watch this odd pair.
Better Late Than Never
When I visited Mendoza for the first time in 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting Matias Esteves (now Dr. Esteves). Matias is an architect and researcher with the CONICET and University of Mendoza who studies earthen architecture and sustainable design in arid regions, so our interests overlapped quite a bit. We had developed some really great ideas together during the first visit and have remained in touch since then, trying to find ways to collaborate and continue to develop knowledge around the parallels of our respective cities. Well, finally, after 7 years, we have now submitted our first joint-proposal for an earthen architecture conference in New Mexico (mostly him because he's way smarter than me); nonetheless, we finally accomplished our goal. It has been really special to reconnect after so many years and I look forward to more opportunities for collaboration in the future!
Day to Day
I very much been enjoying my life here in Mendoza for many reasons. The weather has been incredible, the food is great, and I have unlimited freedom and time to explore something I am very interested in. I have heard many stories about people who take a year off to travel or other Fulbright Scholars that spend their whole time traveling. This undoubtedly sounds awesome - a dream come true. But ever since I arrived in Mendoza, I have not had the urge to explore outside the city as I have become quite content with my day-to-day life here. I think mostly because I'm surrounded by great people and am learning so much. So for now, no cool travel posts, but at some point I'm sure I'll be able to explore the beauty of Argentina... or will I ?!
One of the most important aspects of my project is to connect with many different professionals and academics who represent a broad range of fields and disciplines as urban design, water, and sustainability are complex issues. To ensure that I could get a holistic view of Mendoza and to easily connect with various professionals and researchers, I managed to embed myself in one of Argentina's premier research institutions, the CONICET (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas or National Scientific and Technical Research Council). There, I have had the great fortune to be learning from a highly-talented and diverse group of researchers known in the CONICET as the LaDyOT (lots of acronyms, I know). The LaDyOT (Laboratorio de Desertificación y Ordenamiento Territorial or Desertification and Land Management Laboratory) is dedicated to evaluating and understanding the ecosystem services and the processes of territorial and environmental transformation of drylands and arid regions. Their mission is to carry out investigations of biological physical conditions and the demands and responses of human groups to contribute to the effective planning and management of the territory. They represent an interdisciplinary approach including perspectives from Geography, Sociology, Architecture, Biology, Veterinary Medicine, Hydrology, Ecology, Geology, and others.
I've really enjoyed getting to know the team and have learned a tremendous amount of information from them. What I've come to appreciate the most about them is observing the quality of leadership from the Principal Investigator, Elena Maria Abraham, and seeing how they all work together and actually collaborate. In my experience, this word collaboration is thrown around in business and design, but rarely is it true collaboration. Here, there seems to be an overall desire to generate great work and egos are checked at the door. In general, culture in Mendoza seems a bit more group-focused rather than individual-focused as we are used to in the U.S.A. In addition, everyone on the team has been incredibly kind and generous with their time and knowledge. As communication in technical Spanish can sometimes be difficult for me, we've adapted to using "keywords" or "Hashtags" to convey ideas and information, which has become a source of great entertainment for all. The institute and this group have been instrumental in expanding my network here. Every time I meet someone new, they make it their mission to connect me with someone else that can provide a different perspective on my research. Most of these people are really interesting and just as warm and receptive. It's been a very positive and encouraging environment to say the least.
Home Office - (Before it was the only office)
For the first time in my adult life, I've had complete autonomy to structure my day as I see fit. I now understand why entrepreneurs do what they do - it's very liberating, but it has its challenges. As the CONICET office is a 30 minute walk (and I walk everywhere here), I often elect to work from the house. It is very tempting each day as I look out the into the back yard and see the scene below calling my name. While the office (structured environment) has its place, I can see clearly now how much the day-to-day stresses at the office, including commuting, can affect your creativity and ability to think. Having the opportunity to feel completely uninterrupted, relaxed, and to work outside, I feel my mind has never been clearer and more creative (hmmm, I wonder how this might play out in the near future?).
They say the best way to learn another language is to live among those who speak it. Becoming fluent in Spanish has been a life-long goal of mine. I've gone through periods over my life where I learned the language through classes and short language immersion programs, but it never seemed to stick. As I have been immersed daily here, my language skills are advancing steadily. However, as I want to be able to communicate on a higher level, to be able to discuss more complex subjects, I enrolled in a course at the National University of Cuyo (Universidad Nacional de Cuyo) called Spanish Language for Foreigners.
The course was held three days per week for four hours each day. It was a lot of work, but very interesting as they cover material about Argentine culture, history, grammar, and even local dialects. I would highly recommend this course to anyone who is here for a month or longer. It was also quite affordable and the teachers were excellent.
Learning the Culture of Argentina
When most people hear I'm in Mendoza, they ask me how I like the wine as it is well-known for its viticulture, especially its famous Malbec. But there is so much more to "Mendoza" than wine! In fact, I'd argue that the other aspects of the culture here have helped make wine so popular. To be honest, yes, I absolutely love the wine with the ambiance, food, and company that make each glass special. One of the greatest contributions wine has brought to Mendoza in recent history is the extravagant bodegas that showcase the talent of Argentinian architects (also refers to landscape architects). As I have not yet had the chance to venture out to the wine region, Mendoza has many smaller local bodegas that have a great urban charm, like the Dos Familias bodega (below). I really enjoyed my evening here and was really inspired by the atmosphere created by this outdoor space. Most of the space was a large lawn where people laid out blankets (provided) or at at tables much like the vibe of an upscale backyard picnic. The food was great and very affordable. I would recommend checking it out on a nice night.
Above top: Images taken from a nice evening at Dos Familias bodega in Mendoza. Above bottom: 505 reminded me of my home in Albuquerque, New Mexico where the area code is 505. Many smaller bodegas like this exist throughout the city where you can have dinner and try different wines without traveling out of the city.
While wine is certainly an important part of Argentinian culture, especially in Mendoza, I think it is Asado that reveals the most about what is important in this country - family, food, wine, and the time to enjoy them. Asado is basically a ritual of grilling large cuts of meats, sausages, and vegetables over a bed of coals while eating, drinking, and enjoying your company. It's common for people from the U.S. to assume Asado is the equivalent of what we call a barbecue, but it is actually quite different (and NEVER tell and Argentinian that it is the same, or you might end up over the parrilla yourself!). Asado is much less of a production than what many in the U.S. are used to. The meats of Argentina are naturally very tasty and thus, only salt and pepper are added to flavor them. The rest of the effort is spent on enjoying the day. To spare us both some time, here is a great site that describes asado and how it is prepared. Take a moment to check it out!.
Above: El Asador preparing us a fine meal on the parrilla in the garden for my birthday.
One of the things that I love most about Mendoza is you can smell grilling meat all day everyday, especially on Sundays when it is typical for families and friends to partake in this all-day ritual. But it doesn't have to be a formal event. I've seen many people rig a small parrilla on a sidewalk or on a university campus as shown in the picture below. So cool!
Above: Spontaneous asado on the university campus.
Mate (pronounced mah-tay) is to Argentinians as coffee is to Americans. Actually, that's an understatement. Mate is life in Argentina. Mate is a tea of sorts that has a long tradition in Argentina and is both a drink and social ritual. It is prepared by steeping dried leaves of yerba-maté (Ilex paraguariensis), more commonly referred to as yerba, in hot water within a hollow calabash gourd or mate (traditionally) and is served with a metal straw (bombilla). Mate is seldom enjoyed alone, but rather in a group, each taking their fill and passing it along after refilling with fresh hot water (and yes, everyone shares the same straw). Whether it is the office, school, or the park, you will find groups of people partaking in this cultural experience at all times of the day. It's probable that if you see a group of people in Argentina sitting in a group, the mate is flowing. There are many intriguing aspects and a rich history of mate. Learn more about it here.
This is particularly relevant to my interests in how people use public spaces here as they flock to public parks, plazas, and any inviting space at all times of the day to enjoy mate together. It is interesting to consider how this ritual has informed the public spaces of Argentina or is it that the spaces have informed this ritual? If this ritual was not so group-centric or focused on being together in a public space, how might both of these aspects need to adapt? How might this relationship be informed by a sudden shift in one or the other?
Above: Images of mate. Image on the left intended to compare coffee (associated with my attachment to New Mexico) and mate (associated with Mendoza).
Above: Video showcasing Mendoza's premier green space, Parque San Martín. It provides an idea of the quality of green spaces and their value here.
What's your water doing these days? Don't worry...I'll wait for your response. Chances are you haven't had to think about water in your life, at least beyond paying your water bill. Most people in the U.S. do not have a close relationship with their local water resources. In the U.S. we seem to be disconnected with our water and thus, our cities and built environments reflect these values (or lack there of). The basis of my project here, and essentially my existence in Mendoza is to understand the value of water and green spaces to the inhabitants here in comparison to my home in the U.S. Though this topic is going to be discussed in depth elsewhere, an interesting observation of Mendoza in regards to understanding these relationships is represented in the image below. Here, they have frequent updates of how the water resources for the city are trending, just like you would see a report on the daily stock exchange. In my opinion, this demonstrates an awareness and concern for the local water resources and, therefore, a demonstrated value and active relationship with the environment.
Above: Reports from the General Irrigation Department (Departamento General de Irrigacion) aired frequently on news channels keeping people informed about the volume of water in reservoirs and the flow of rivers.
How to Party like and Argentinian
Learn to Dance and Sing
Something I've always been curious about is how Argentinians seem to always look fit when they eat and drink as they please. Perhaps it is genetics, but I think it has to do with the fact that when they party, they dance and sing all night! I'd like to consider myself someone that can run with the best of them, but I have to bow down to the folks here who keep it going all night. My favorite part of the night is when everyone starts singing together. It's not just a few, it's everyone. The video below is from a rather fun evening. You can't see much, but the point is to capture the sound of everyone singing and dancing together.
Fernet and Coke
Runner up in popular drinks contest next to wine is Fernet and Coke. It's a little bitter, so it's not for everyone, but it really grows on you if you know how to mix it correctly. Apparently it makes for a great hangover cure too! Here's a recipe if you want to try it - Fernet and Coke
To really get a taste of the liveliness of life in Argentina, I was lucky enough to be here during the most important time of year for Mendocinos- Vendimia. La Fiesta Nacional de Vendimia (Mendoza’s harvest festival) is the most popular festival of the year and one of the largest wine festivals in the world. It celebrates the kick off of the Mendoza grape harvest season, dating back as early as the 17th century. For a week the streets and plazas are full of events, music, parades, and of course, wine. The celebrations felt very lively yet comfortable at the same time and I really enjoyed witnessing so many happy people together at one time.
Above: The fountains of many plazas are dyed to represent wine. It's quite striking and very unusual when you first see it. Activities are everywhere in the city during Vendimia and they go late into the night.
Above: Final celebration event for Vendimia. (Fiesta Nacional de Vendimia)
Helado (Ice Cream)
When I visited Italy, my fondest memories from the trip all involved eating ice cream. The Italians are well known for the some of the best in the world. I knew that Argentina has been heavily influenced by Italian culture, but I never imagined I would have access to some amazing ice cream! One of the best places to get ice cream or helado is called Dante Soppelsa (check out this link as my photos don't do it justice). Now there are many great spots for helado here, but these guys take it to the next level. The entire experience is truly a work of art. The service is impeccable and each employee takes great care and attention with your order, treating your treat like a one-of-a-kind sculpture. The owner, who works there every day and seems to pay an incredible amount of attention to every detail (I watched him straighten all of our napkins so they aligned perfectly on our table), will even come buy to give you soda water to wash it all down. I actually think the soda is my favorite part.
Dogs of Mendoza
There is an abundance of dogs in Mendoza. They seem to be everywhere and most often, not on a leash or even with an owner at all. While this might seem strange and even scary in many other cities, there is something special about Mendoza where most of the dogs are very friendly, well fed, and relaxed. At first it is intimidating to see a pack of dogs running toward you on the sidewalk, and admittedly, I tensed up the first time, but they just ignored me and ran around my legs. Most often you'll see several dogs sleeping or lounging in front of a building. It seems leashes are not necessary here so dogs wait outside for their owners while they are inside. What's interesting is that dogs and people seem more relaxed around each other than anywhere I've been. Perhaps it's because the dogs (even strays) are fed and well taken care of and the anxiety of being on a leash is removed so everyone is a bit more relaxed.
Each day on my way to my language course, I saw this pup (below) sleeping in front of one of the offices at the University. I know he belonged to someone because I witness his owner set out a small bed for him next to the door. Each day all of the students and faculty would stop to pet him and give him a little love. No leash. No problems. No Animal Control.
I've always enjoyed starting my day with sitting outside and listening to the birds while enjoying a coffee, This is usually a relaxing and calm event for me as the songs of most birds are soothing and tranquil. However, this practice has become a bit less tranquil thanks to my new and most unexpected companions in the trees - Monk Parakeets or Catas. They are quite loud, but every time I hear their unusual call, it reminds me that I am in an unusual place in an unusual time.
Do you ever notice how you use your silverware? People use silverware differently here, and they let me know how unusual they thought my table habits are. I think it has to do with how much meat they eat. The grip is different. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I think I like it!
Waiting for the bus
People in Mendoza have a tendency to stand out in the street, quite a distance from the bus shelter, while waiting for the bus. I haven't quite figured out why this is, but I think it has to do with flagging down the bus.
I moved to the desert (Albuquerque) from Florida to get away from the mosquitoes. So, when planning to live in Mendoza, an arid city, I was shocked to find how many mosquitoes are here. It is likely due to the abundance of water in the city and a topic worthy of investigation in my project.
I don't know if it is great genetics or something about the language that causes people to use their voices differently, but Argentinian people have very beautiful voices - that kind of deep and smokey voice that makes for excellent singing. For this reason, Argentinian music is excellent and it's a treat to hear people singing in the streets and in unison at parties.
Thanks for taking the time to read through all of that! I hope you enjoyed it. Stay tuned for my next post about how I'm spending my time here in Mendoza during the mandatory quarantine. It makes for an interesting perspective.