Baptism by fire, my first pro tour of Miami

My first professional tour of Miami was a baptism by fire, a jump in the deep end of the pool: eight hours, on E-bikes, and in French!! Fortunately, my customers were a lovely French couple.

Tours are generally booked for 4 or 8 hours (occasionally some folks book less or more). An 8-hour tour of Miami is a lot of time, considering there really is not much of cultural, historical, artistic value concentrated in a specific area of Miami. Sure, there is Art Deco, Little Havana, Little Haiti, Wynwood, and a bit Downtown, but how long do you need to spend in Brickell? In Coconut Grove? In Coral Gables walking -or cycling around? But an 8-hour tour of Miami for an inaugural tour was a lot to prepare for, but I did prepare. Having a few years of experience as a tour guide since I set up Tonxo Tours helped to plan the tour.

The E-bike factor was fun. We rented the bikes in Haulover park, which was a bit of a schlep from my customer’s hotel in Bayshore, but it allowed us to check out Haulover pass, and to ride all the way down to South Beach!

After South Beach we crossed over to Downtown where we saw Gesù Church, the oldest church in South Florida and the remains of the Tequesta village, which is sadly now a dog park next to the Miami river.

It was then that my customer’s E-bike lost power (something about a sensor), so although I had my trusty Swiss Army knife to try to tighten some screws, it was to no avail. We decided to ride back to Haulover.

Despite the technical issues, the tour was still a success, and the customers were happy. It was a long day for me, but it was worth it. If you are in Miami on a Saturday and want an insightful, interesting, and rewarding tour (on foot or bicycle)? Contact me, we will try to make it fun!!

You should read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”

― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

The hype is real, The Brothers Karamazov is one of the best books ever written. For me it goes straight up in my list! It has the perfect combination of human behavior, philosophy, love (and lust), Russia, and much more, all beautifully written and woven together.

No spoilers, the book is about the three Karamazov brothers: Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei -Alyosha- and their father. There is also a half-brother, two women, servants, and many other characters who give the novel phenomenal depth and texture.

Ah, but it is a really long book! You exclaim. Well, yes, my edition is 776 pages, but look at them as an investment, or look at it as 7 books of 100 pages each, whatever just start reading. It took me four months, and it was time well spent.

My reference, my bar, is set at Don Quixote which was written 300 years before The Brothers Karamazov and for me, is still a better representation of human nature. But back to Dostoevsky:

This novel deals with the human condition from a deep philosophical and theological perspective, in doing so, Dostoevsky presents both sides of arguments. For example, in discussing the existence of God, Dostoevsky presents a profound argument against God with a brilliant story called The Grand Inquisitor and asking the age-old question “If God exists why do children die horrible deaths?” in the chapter “Rebellion”.  On the other hand, the author summons Voltaire’s quote “S’il n’existait pas Dieu, il faudrait l’inventer” (If God didn’t exist, we would have to invent him). Likewise for existentialism. Dostoevsky studies both sides of the argument at length: do we have free will and we exercise it? Or is everything destined to happen? Like Cervantes -and more importantly unlike Nietzsche- Dostoevsky proves that God exists, and that man decides his life. But you have to read all the way to the last word to get there!

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”

― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

In his arguments, the author quotes Voltaire, the Book of Job, the Byronic hero, and hundreds of other references. The Devil also makes an appearance in what looks like a clear predecessor of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita almost a hundred years later.

As far as narrative techniques, Dostoevsky does not only imitate Cervantes, but he also leverages Cervantine techniques: His narrator’s intromissions are constant and hilarious:  at one point saying, “I am not a doctor…”, or “It could all serve as the plot for another story, for a different novel, which I do not even know that I shall ever undertake”. During the critical courtroom scene, arguably the climax of the story he writes: “The whole courtroom rose in turmoil, but I did not stay and listen. I remember only a few exclamations from the porch on the way out.” Very, very Cervantine.

There are a number of interpolated stories, which add to the reader’s understanding of the overall narrative. Some are stand alone and some weave in and out of the narrative, becoming part of the story.

In conclusion The Brothers Karamazov is one of the best novels ever written and you should read it. It will make you a more understanding person.

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

            

On Being a Real Madrid fan, a Madridista.

In case you did not know, I am a Real Madrid fan, a Madridista. I figured I would mention it now that we are starting the Champions League knock out stage. Our first game will be against Liverpool, whom we beat for the title in 2018 and 2022!! So, as much as I want to win, I have to be realistic and understand how hard it is to win back-to-back Champions League titles (or anything for that matter…).  But that, as you would expect, does not dampen one iota my love for Real Madrid.

My dad would occasionally take me to Bernabeu Stadium when I was a child to see games, and then whenever I could snag tickets I would go. So, I cannot say that I go to every game -something particularly difficult when one lives abroad- but I still consider myself a fan and try to go whenever possible. For a time, my sister worked at Marca, the biggest sport (read soccer) newspaper in Spain, and she would often end up with free tickets!

Lucky for me, my girlfriend Celia is also a fan, and if we cannot go to Bernabeu we watch important games at her local bar, La Bodeguita (worthy of it’s own blog…).

Real Madrid has won 14 Champions League titles, 35 league titles, etc., etc. But it is not about the victories, more about the impossible comebacks, the last-minute goals that get us those championships, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, and Cristiano Ronaldo, Zidane, “Peđa” Mijatović, Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale… every move of every goal engraved in our memory.

So now you know, other teams are good and even great, but none come close to Real Madrid.

Breakfast in West Palm Beach: Hive Bakery and Café

Those of you who follow this blog at all might know that it started as a way to chronicle my Harley-Davidson (RIP) ride from Boston to Austin, Texas and back looking for a PhD program in Spanish Literature in 2011. After the trip I just kept writing and writing. I write about anything that interests me in any way: Academics and education, literature, The Camino de Santiago, culture, cities, food, cigars, travel and adventure, etc. Today is restaurant review day:

I recently had the opportunity to have breakfast with a dear friend in West Palm Beach at Hive Bakery and Café.

The restaurant is on iconic Route 1 (South Dixie Highway) across the street from the Norton Museum (which I have written about a lot, click here). The whole block is owned and run by the same folks. They have a home decoration store and business, and a clothing store.

Hive sits on a nice corner and has the obligatory artsy design (with a beehive pattern, get it?). Inside it is warm, well lit, and airy, very pleasant, with all the de rigueur décor. Your eyes immediately catch the counter full of delicious looking pastries. This being 2022, and West Palm Beach, the food was healthy but delicious, you will not find greasy diner breakfast fare here. The coffee was top notch, well made with quality coffee. My pain au chocolat looked very elegant, crunchy on the outside, but it missed the buttery softness inside. The service was attentive and professional. It was a perfect experience.

So, what is wrong with this place? Nothing. And that is the problem: it has no character, no personality, no charm, it is all Instagram perfect, there is nothing exceptional, it is sterile. Critically, it has no narrative, or the narrative is boring. Everything was good but not remarkable. If I never go back, I will not miss it, I will not miss the food, the people, nothing. It seems to me that nowadays everything is designed to perfection, consultants develop the perfect menu, accountants establish the perfect everything to maximize revenues, everything is so impeccable that it is boring.

When I get the chance to go out, I will always choose a place that has something, usually a combination of extraordinary (not expensive) food, character, personality, history, sense of humor, great staff, or an indescribable factor that makes you want to come back again and again. Hive is not that place.

On bicycles and cycling

For as long as I can remember I have been riding bicycles. I can count having had over ten bicycles through my life, some of which got a lot of miles on them, a couple of them were stolen from my front door!

But I do not want to bore you with my history of bicycles and bicycle riding, of riding around Switzerland as a teenager, of riding in different countries, and so on. I just want to motivate you to get on a bike and ride! Pedal as hard as you can, feel the wind in your face, you are creating that speed, it is all you!

Although some people obsess over their rides, I have to agree with the once great Lance Armstrong and say that

“It’s not about the bike.”

Lance Armstrong

In fact, I still ride an Orbea mountain bike I bought in 1990 (it’s the one on the photo). Just get out there and ride.

Not only are bicycles fun to ride, but they are also very practical. I used to ride to work in Boston and Madrid, long, long before it became the hipster thing to do. I still ride to chores around the village in the Summer. Unfortunately, I have not gotten around to getting a bicycle in Florida. One of these days…

So, if you do not have a bicycle get one, there are great used ones on Craigslist or Wallapop, then get going!

PS: The Camino: For the record, I am against doing the Camino de Santiago on a bike. This might be difficult to understand, but on a bicycle, you are going too fast to focus on your journey, on the spirituality of what you are doing, you are mostly focusing on not cracking your head open and on staying on your bike. I see folks on amazing electric bicycles and what they are really doing is a great excursion on the path of the Camino, but they are not doing the Camino. I do respect folks on vintage bikes or on plain vanilla bikes, not the hi-tech stuff!!

Pros and cons of teaching in different sized schools

I am blessed to have a very varied teaching experience. I have taught in public and private high schools (and middle schools), I have taught in big and small (and tiny) universities, even in a lower school! Today let’s focus on universities.

Of course, big universities have all the prestige and apparent endless budgets. You are spoilt for choice: dozens of libraries to study in with every resource imaginable, Nobel prize winning professors, infinite dining options, excellent gyms and recreation facilities, et cetera, et cetera. Having said that, there is also a dark side: thousands of students make it much harder to make connections, much higher bureaucracy, and the politics make Washington DC look like a children’s playground.

On the other hand, smaller schools although limited in budget and infrastructure offer a massive human plus. Things get done faster, smaller classes, more chances to connect with colleagues, staff, and students, and in my case, the opportunity to coach the soccer team! Something impossible in a big school.

St. Vincent de Paul has only around 120 students and 20 something teachers, so the community is much tighter, everybody knows everybody and this makes for more and mostly better relationships.

If you are deciding, at the end of the day, as usual, it is up to how much you are willing to invest in the people around you: your colleagues, your students, your staff. Then it does not matter so much where you teach, what is important is how willing you are to make connections!

Hispanic Heritage celebration at the Norton

The Norton Museum in West Palm Beach is such an oasis of culture for me that I have already written about it five times in this blog. Well, here is the sixth:

Understanding the importance of Hispanic Heritage and Hispanic Heritage month, the Norton organized an open house “Nuestra Cultura” day in celebration. I took advantage of the opportunity and took some students from my classes. We had a blast!

We skipped the piñata making table, the Latin dance lessons, and the food stalls. We checked out the mercado set up in the garden, and what we really dug our teeth into was the actual museum. Although the collection is small, it contains top notch art. We walked around discussing different pieces and paintings.

We had a wonderful time, and I enjoyed (finally) being able to share the Norton with my students!

If life were a city…it would be Madrid

Madrid is home (neo-mudejar background)

This is not my sentence; it belongs to the Madrid Tourism Board (or whatever it is called). A dear friend, old college classmate, and travel consultant extraordinaire Jen Donati passed it along after she met with the aforementioned Madrid Tourism Board recently in NYC.

The video as you can see is a bit cheesy, it uses all the current topics and techniques that end up making it a totally unremarkable video: a cute font, quickly changing shots (we have so much to show you, so little time! and we want this to be a dynamic video), a multigenerational and inclusive cast (perfect), hip and trendy folks in hip and trendy restaurants, hotels, and streets, a catchy American song in the background, even some hints of humor, ha-ha!

So, despite the video having everything required to be the perfect promotional video, it does not pull at your heartstrings, it does not really want to make me pack my bags and jump on the first flight to Madrid. Why? What is it lacking? Passion. This was a clip obviously made by committee.

“Wait” you will ask, “who cares about a promo video for a city?” Well, I do. I do because it is my city, because I am a tour guide there when I am home (check out my website), because I am passionate about cities, especially Madrid.

By contrast here is a remarkably similar clip to promote the 2017 Festival Flamenco Madrid. The music and the dance accomplish everything the other clip could not. Even being a minute longer (which could be a handicap in our ADD, Tik Tok world), the clip grabs you and does not let go. The settings, streets, plazas, venues are the same, but he music and movement are the key here, even, I am willing to venture, with a fraction of the budget.

At the end of the day, what have you got? Well, in my case an urge to go walk around my city that I miss so much.

On the importance of building community

Surprisingly, although I have repeatedly written about community in my blog, I have never dedicated a full post to it. Well, here you are:

It used to be that when you were born you had automatic community for life. Even if you lived in a big city, your neighborhood was your community, you would go to the same grocers, church, cafés, etc. Now, especially in the increasingly hyper-capitalist suburban individualist world, the concept of community has pretty much vanished.

Maybe because of the importance of community and the lack thereof, the US is obsessed with the concept of community. Sadly, for all the talk, community is another word they cannot spell.

With the different buttresses that community offered mostly gone, the only one that continues (mostly) standing is work. So, work has become -in many cases- our only community touchstone. Gone are the neighbors, the churches, the meeting points. We just drive from our isolated house to work and back. Of course, many folks have strong communities built around church and clubs and different associations, but even these are discrete and rarely connected, which means that you have your church friends, your work friends, your café friends -if you are lucky- and so on, but not the network, the rich tapestry that used to define community.

I have been keenly aware of this problem since I moved back to suburban US in 2005. It would eventually become one of the factors that led me to depression. Since then, I try to build strong communities wherever I go. My efforts other than work, fall on volunteering, church, and of course Film Club! Yes, I chat to some people at the gym, at yoga class, and at my café, but those venues have not surprisingly given any tangible results.

Like pretty much everything else in life, you have to actively work at building your community, it is not going to magically fall on your lap one day, a wonderful support network where you can express yourself and get any sort of help from moving a sofa to a comforting chat. Nope, you have to work for it. But more importantly than working to form your own little support group, your real community will flourish when you build community for others.

Notice that I did not mention family, which is of course the cornerstone of community. But when you move away from home, that most important foundation is only available on the phone or during visits -if you are lucky enough to visit.

The result of the erosion of community systems is that folks are increasingly lonely, alienated, and sadly, eventually depressed. So go work genuinely and honestly on your community, the results will be worth it!

Should you walk the Camino?

Many of the people I have met since I did my first Camino in 2017 tell me how much they want to do it. Most folks will never get around to walking it. Well, I am here to guide you.

What is your motivation to walk the Camino? In my case, I had dreamt about it for years, but it took my father’s passing for me to finally commit. Maybe you have heard from a few pilgrims that it was a cool experience? Or maybe you have a higher motivation. Although it is bad Camino etiquette to ask pilgrims why they are walking (it is none of your business, you can read more pointers here), most folks do it in between jobs, after college, to “find themselves.”

You 100% should walk the Camino. For clarity, for healing, for your mental, spiritual, and physical health, to get to know the country in a way not even Spaniards know, for culture: history, architecture, art, food, etc., to disconnect from civilization (you are not walking the Appalachian trail), but just walking for hours on end each day means that you are not looking at a screen for those hours, and yes, for fun.

Your first task is committing, maybe therein lies the issue.

Your next step is to figure out how much time you have. For the full enchilada, you are going to need thirty something days. Or you can do a shorter Camino like the Primitivo which will take you around 12 days. Any less and you are really cheating yourself out of the transformative experience that is the Camino. Sure, you only need to walk 100 km (62 miles) -less than a week- to get your Camino certificate, your Compostela, but if you are walking the Camino to hang a certificate on your wall, you might as well just go to Disney World.

Once you know how much time you have, take a look at all the different Caminos, you can start in Paris, Geneva, Madrid, Lisbon, Bordeaux, you name it. The Camino starts at your doorstep.

Money. The Camino in Spain is relatively inexpensive. You can get away at 30 Euros a day. You will need more if you want to stay in hotels instead of Albergues, and much more if you are going to walk in France or anywhere else in Europe. On the other hand you will need much less if you camp and/or if you make all your own meals.

Then you make your travel plans: planes, trains, buses, whatever.

And your equipment, there are a million YouTube videos on this, even I have written about it here.

That’s it, you are on your way, Buen Camino!