Forest bathing – Shinrin-yoku

As we are confined to our homes during this Coronavirus crisis. One thing we can do is think of the future, of trips and adventures. Something I cannot wait to do is to enjoy a forest bath.

Last Summer walking a stretch of the Camino de Santiago with Satomi, a wonderful Japanese pilgrim, I learnt about Forest Baths. It means pretty much that, walking through a forest enjoying it and taking it all in. Use all your senses to touch trees, smell the air, listen to the sounds, see the trees, and the forest. It is a full body experience if you open yourself up to it.

The ever surprising Japanese culture came up with this concept of forest bathing in the 80’s and called it literally shinrin-yoku, forest bath. As rural areas emptied and urban areas grew. What began as a bit of marketing is now a wellness trend which has never stopped being there.

My discovery is not some obscure practice, even Time magazine has written about it, saying this in their May 2018 issue:

This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.

I have been lucky to enjoy many forest baths, even when I did not realize I was forest bathing. My last one being during my meditation retreat to El Paular Monastery (see previous posts). I am planning on forest baths as soon as this nightmare is over.

So there you have it. Get out and take a forest bath. You are welcome!

(For the more visually inclined here is a nice clip on forest bathing from CBS, enjoy)

 

Jojo Rabbit

As I write this the planet is in lockdown due to the Coronavirus – Covid 19 pandemic. So, since I am stuck at home, how about some blogging?

One good thing about being back in a big city like Madrid is the ease of going to the cinema. One can walk or easily take public transport to the many movie theaters. Recently (pre-pandemic obvs) I went to see JoJo Rabbit.

Spain has an outstanding film dubbing industry. All movies are very well dubbed. Fortunately, there is always the option of seeing non-Spanish language films in the original language with subtitles, these are called Versión Original. Whenever possible I go to the cinemas that only show VO films.

Without any spoilers, JoJo Rabbit is a film about Third Reich Germany as seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who happens to have a very special secret friend: Adolf Hitler. This film does not fit into any category, it feels like an indie, it is a comedy, a drama, a coming of age, a war movie, etc. Labels do not do this film justice. To give you an idea of the eccentricity of the film, it ends with Bowie’s “Heroes” juxtaposed with this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke (The Book of Hours (I, 59):

“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

I’m sure that some might read “Third Reich”, “Adolf Hitler”, “comedy” and automatically call the PC Patrol, just like they did with Borat. But you might miss the point that humor is an excellent tool to open eyes and hearts.

A couple of technical bits about the film: the only “star” is JoJo’s mom, Rosie, Scarlett Johansson. The film is directed by Kiwi Taika Waititi, who was inspired by Christine Leunens’s book Caging Skies which his mom recommended. By the way, Waititi does the role of Hitler -as seen through a ten-year-old boy, and it is hilarious!

As my followers know, I am a big fan of Wes Anderson and Woody Allen, and this film has a bit of both, it is colorful, insightful, and funny.

I could go on and on, but here is the trailer and now go out and see the film. You can thank me in the comments section!!

‘Love is the strongest thing in the world.’ – Rosie

Football from the stands (not the sideline, and not the pitch)

This is the first year in a long time that I am not coaching nor even playing football (soccer for the Philistines on the other side of the pond). Instead I get to see all my nephew’s games from the stands – and it is fun!

For fourteen years I coached soccer. One of the first schools I worked at (Milton Academy) needed an assistant Boys Varsity coach, having played more or less all my life I got the gig! Walnut Hill being an arts school did not have an athletic program, but that did not stop us from playing pickup on Friday afternoons, we had a blast. And we found out that future K Pop star Eddy Kim had a lovely touch! At Buckingham Browne and Nichols they needed a Girls Varsity Assistant coach, that changed my whole perspective on the sport. I had never payed much attention to girls soccer, but I quickly found out that they play as a team much more than the boys do. They pass the ball much more, and big plus, they look like they are listening to the coach!

At UNC I really had the football bug, so I organized the Romance Studies Community Soccer program to play on Friday afternoons. This was a great way of getting the grad students together with some undergrads and different folks that would join. It was good fun and occasionally a bit competitive which gave it a good edge!

At Seacrest Country Day in Naples Florida, I was honored to be the Head Girls Varsity coach. These girls worked super hard and we had a great two seasons, building a team. Since Seacrest is a small school, the sense of community is very big and I really felt embraced by the team. Occasionally I would step in to help out the boys’ team. One such time was the District final game which we won for the first time in history. What a thrill to have been on the sideline of that game!

Now back in the old country I  miss coaching, but every Saturday with my sister and sometimes my nieces I enjoy just watching my nephew play! It is all the fun, without the responsibilities, and, of course, I get to critique the coaches – and the players!! Vamos Chamar!!

Mind, body, and soul, meditation, exercise, and yoga and more (not in any order)

Read good books, life is too short to read trash!!

Read good books, life is too short to read trash!!

Going to church, any church will boost your soul

Going to church, any church will boost your soul

A walk in the mountains

A walk in the mountains

Last outdoor meditation of the day

Last outdoor meditation of the day

A simple cell in a monastery helps you focus

A simple cell in a monastery helps you focus

The Camino will change your life. Source: Club Renfe magazine

The Camino will change your life. Source: Club Renfe magazine

High fiving all around

High fiving all around

Practicing Yoga on the Camino, wonderful session!

Practicing Yoga on the Camino, wonderful session!

Richard Rohr's wonderful lessons

Richard Rohr’s wonderful lessons

For a few years, since 2010 to be precise, I have been actively seeking inner peace, not just talking about it with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other, looking at the stars. It is only with breakage that one slowly lets go of the ego and matures through Kierkegaard’s three stages that we have seen before (the aesthetic, the ethic and the spiritual). I believe that all of philosophy and religion is based on understanding the existence of the ego and separating from it. We see it in the Stoics, in Jesus, Buddha, good literature, etc. etc.

With my divorce and the life changes brought about by that trauma, I started seeking solace and understanding. My knee-jerk, basically subconscious, reaction was going to church on Sunday– and have not missed a Sunday since (maybe a couple but only for reasons of force majeure). Other organic resolutions were to crank my exercise, to work with a therapist, starting with the amazing Dr. Nemser and others since, and volunteering. I started reading Scripture every night, and speaking of reading, I started seeking more profound books. Then I got hooked on Richard Rohr’s daily meditation. Then I started yoga. With time I started meditating, then came walking the pilgrimage to Santiago (I can’t wait for my fourth this Summer) eventually, back in Spain, my retreats to El Paular Monastery and starting a gratitude diary. Has it worked? All I can say is that I am happy to be on this path.

All these actions have gradually made me know myself better, which is to say my mental construct of myself: my ego. Understanding this is the first step in breaking away from that tyrant. You see, we are born ego-less, just living the moment, enjoying life. This is what Paul Tillich calls the Ground of Being, where we will return -hopefully- just before dying (if this is of interest, I recommend Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Dying). Then as we grow up we develop a strong sense of self, necessary to establish oneself as an independent being. This is one of the reasons I love teaching adolescents when this ego creation is on full blast. Once we establish ourselves we don’t really need the ego any more, but we stick with it, most of us until we die. Only through trauma, breakage, do we realize that the ego is not necessary, in which case we start to let go of it. That is where I find myself.

The church part is easy, you just go. While I do not necessarily enjoy all the dogma, I do enjoy the chance to reflect, the ceremony, the sermon if it is good and eventually the community. In fact, my church in Boston, Our Lady of Victories and here in Madrid, San Fermín de los Navarros both asked me to participate more actively by reading or being an altar helper. This tiny contribution to the community goes a long way in making one feel helpful.

I started seriously meditating in 2016. It is painful to quiet the mind –the ego- by making it sit still for twenty minutes, but eventually you manage. The trick is to be very still and focus on your breathing: feeling it, visualizing it, maybe quietly reciting a mantra to help you focus on the breathing. I use the Insight Timer app and it really helps and motivates.

The gratitude diary works like this:

  • Monday: write three good things that happened over the weekend.
  • Tuesday: Write about a good moment in your life.
  • Wednesday: Set a task and accomplish it!
  • Thursday: Write a letter (in your diary, or you can send it) to someone you are grateful for.
  • Friday: Write three good things that happened during the week.
  • Saturday and Sunday are off.

About the life changing experience that is the Camino de Santiago I have already waxed poetic many other times on this blog, so scroll down to read it!!

The Yoga bit is really enriching. As opposed to the US where Yoga is basically a workout, my teacher in Madrid, embraces it as it should be: a way of life, a philosophy. So there are lots of breathing exercises and meditation, and in between some movement ashanas. When a class is not available I use the Down Dog app on my phone

Last weekend I again managed to escape to El Paular Monastery to spend four days with the Benedictine monks. This is as simple a life as you will ever live. Praying five times a day, walking in the mountains, eating in silence, working in the monastery, meditating. If you get a chance to do a retreat, do not hesitate, the silence is worth it!!

In conclusion, yes, I am in the search for spirituality. Many folks say we they are in spiritual journeys, the truth is more that they are spiritual beings in human journeys.

 

 

Sigüenza

A bit over an hour north-east of Madrid lies the town of Sigüenza. I remember going there for an excursion for lunch once with my father when I was a teenager, and again with my family in my twenties, but I had not gone back since. In early January I went with my girlfriend. What a great town it is for a quick week-end getaway!

There are two main highlights to the town but many interesting bits to fill in between those two bookends. And bookends they are as they are situated on each side of town: The castle sits at the top of the hill, and the cathedral at the bottom. They are connected by the medieval wall. Within those walls are a handful of old churches, from Romanesque like Santiago and San Vicente to 19th C Santa Maria. There is a Renaissance town square, monasteries and convents, and like any good Spanish town a bunch of bars and restaurants!

The medieval castle, where queen Blanca de Borbón was kept prisoner for a few years since her dad King Jean II le Bon did not pay the dowry, became the bishops’ palace and eventually was turned into a gorgeous Parador hotel in the 70s. Imagine staying in a medieval castle but with awesome water pressure, great food and Wi-Fi!! We got a great deal, so we stayed there!

The town is perfect for walking around. Although we went in early January and it was freezing, there are plenty of places to check out and warm up!

The highlight is the Cathedral, originally Romanesque and then modified in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and eventually Neo-Classic styles. The main attraction in the cathedral is the tomb of “El doncel”. This fellow, Martín Vázquez de Arce was a local nobleman who was killed fighting for Ferdinand and Isabelle against the Moors in Granada in 1482. What is extraordinary is his tomb: he is not lying down like every other bishop and nobleman in every other cathedral… he is reclining, reading a book in his suit of armour, waiting for his eternal rest. The detail in the carving of the alabaster is exquisite to the point of whimsical: his page carefully holding his foot, his eyes open, etc. it is a gorgeous sculpture –funerary art at its best!

The rest of the cathedral is no slouch: a Greco painting, an outstanding collection of tapestries, amazing architecture, two pulpits: a Romanesque and a Renaissance one, etc., etc.

The Clarisas convent just happens to have an ancient burying ground outside their doors which is simply covered with a glass for you to appreciate the architecture and human bones! The nuns make the best chocolate truffles you can imagine. Since these nuns do not allow you to see them you have to buy the sweets via a rotating door. As a certified chocaholic, I can attest to the quality of the truffles! I did not bother tasting anything else.

As in any good Spanish town, food is the soul of the place. Sigüenza lies pretty much along the dividing line between Old and New Castille  – so called as Castille progressed on the expulsion of the aforementioned Moors… So you get both cuisines, North and South.

The surrounding villages are obviously much smaller than Sigüenza,but are very rich in history and culture. Make sure you check out Atienza and Medinacelli.

Tonxo Tours

 

 

 

Well, I guess the first thing I must do is apologize to my followers for a very long silence. Soon you will know the reason. As you might know, about a year a ago I returned home to Spain after many – thirteen to be precise – years in the US. With a clean slate, I decided to start a business that had been on the back burner for years: I have become a personal tour guide, creating bespoke tours of Spain under the name Tonxo Tours.

Showing people Spain is my life calling. I am passionate about sharing my culture, history, language. After showing Spain to all sorts of folks for years, I have decided to start Tonxo Tours and make my joie de vivre available to all! I have been toying with this idea since the late 90s, so it is about time to get going, don’t you think?

Most tour companies boast about their team of specialists, well, I am that specialist. I have been giving tours of Madrid and of Spain since my twenties. I have worked with British rock bands, schools and universities, foundations, executives from all over the world, even the Monaco Olympic Sailing Team, I would love to show you around!

After twenty odd years in the business world and thirteen teaching in high schools and universities in the US, it is time for me to do what I do best, which is to share my passion for Spain.

Why has it taken so long you might ask? My life has been marked by a peripatetic lifestyle, moving to New York when I was ten and then to London, Boston, Paris, Bordeaux, Geneva, Lausanne, Chapel Hill, Naples Fl., and so forth to over eleven cities. Cities became my friends. I loved discovering what made each one unique ̶-how they got their personality. I spent my time in museums, cafés, theaters, concerts, operas, ballets, all of which unavoidably infused me with a love for the arts. Sharing my love and knowledge of cities and their cultures soon became a venue to express myself. As a teenager I gave tours of Madrid and London to friends and family, something I continue to do and enjoy, which has led me to create Tonxo Tours. My experience and passion radiate on the street: Explaining Spanish history, architecture, food, music, sometimes all of them at the same time!!

When I started thinking about setting up a tour company I was aware of the tremendous competition in the market. Just in Madrid you can jump on a sightseeing bus and casually check out the city while chomping on some churros, you can take a Segway tour, there are a bunch of tapas tours, there are free tours, you can get a tour on a tuk tuk, a golf cart, an antique car, even in a pink Rolls Royce! In contrast to that, my philosophy is simple: a no gimmick, quality driven, discreet – yet fun – bespoke tour that will cater to what you want to experience, see, taste and hear, not the other way around.

I can arrange exquisite lodgings, extraordinary experiences, delicious food and drink,

with only one purpose: creating unforgettable memories.

But why would anyone choose Tonxo Tours? you might ask. Here’s a few more reasons:

  1. I am a native, a local, born and bred here, but with the advantage that I have lived abroad many years. I have dual citizenship USA / Spain, offering me a perspective unattainable to most.
  2. Passion: I love sharing my culture, my history, my food, my architecture, art, music, dance, etc. This drives me.
  3. Experience: I have been doing this for years with friends, colleagues, schools, universities, foundations, etc. From 1994 to 2004 I had my own company (but that is a different story) which took me to every city and town in Spain at least a couple of times a year, more for the big cities. So I really know Spain like the back of my hand.
  4. DNA: My grandad worked for the British and American embassies, often times driving dignitaries around – he even got a medal from from Queen Elisabeth (but that’s a different story). My dad was restless. We would go on excursions every time he got bored – which was often – He was also a Spanish history buff which rubbed off on me, so I have been reading Spanish history and literature since I was a youth, which eventually led me to get a PhD in Spanish literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (again, different story).

I received my undergraduate degree in business. I specialized in management, the human part; what motivates people? What makes them tick? I used these skills in my first jobs in finance, photography and management before using them to run my own business for ten years, importing and selling industrial machinery in Spain and consulting for European companies wanting to expand into Latin America. I moved back to the US, where I started teaching in 2005, and although I was making a fraction of the money I used to make, I felt much happier and more fulfilled. In the meantime I got a Master’s and then a PhD in Spanish Literature from UNC. Returning home to Spain allows me to indulge in my true vocation. I am able to apply my many skills developed and honed over the years. So don’t over think it, contact me and I’ll be happy to show you around!

Let me know when you are going to be in Spain and what you want to do and see. I will personally take care of you, if you just want to spend a few hours walking around old Madrid or if you want to spend two weeks exploring Spain, I will be happy to set it all up.

If you want to know more about me, you can read check out this blog about my random thoughts, travels, and whathaveyous.  You can check out my website tonxotours.com and/or my Instagram: tonxotours

Camino de Santiago #3 Camino del Norte

People start the Camino de Santiago for all sorts of reasons: adventure, self-improvement, fitness, spending time with their partners or friends, personal growth, finding oneself, etc. Upon finishing my third Camino, I have found that my main reason is a spiritual one – which by the way was the original purpose of the pilgrimage.

This year I did the Camino del Norte which  “officially” starts on the Spanish border with France at Irún. I crossed the Bidasoa river that separates the two countries, had a coffee in France, got my first stamp on my Credencial (the pilgrim’s “passport” that gets stamped along the way) and so got my official start in France, how is that for one-upmanship? or just for snobbery! This Camino then goes all along the North shore of Spain until turning in at Ribadeo to finish at Santiago.

Technically this is the second oldest Camino. When European Christians first started going to visit the tomb of the Apostol James in Santiago they either took a boat to one of the nearby ports in Galicia or to Oviedo and then cut inland to Santiago – that is the Camino Primitivo. Then came the coastal route, and when the Moors had been pushed South enough, pilgrims started going along the interior of the country on much easier terrain than the constant hills of the coast, this would become the Camino Francés, the most popular and most long-lasting Camino.

Now, before I continue let me point out that specially the Camino del Norte is a bit of a scam. You see, the Camino really was abandoned in the XX Century. In 1978 there were only three recorded pilgrims arriving in Santiago. Then in the ’90s it came back into fashion with younger people going on this route of self discovery. With increased popularity regional governments needed to re-mark and really re-establish the Camino. For the northern route this was difficult since the medieval paths that would unite villages along the valleys were now taken over by roads, so especially the Basque and Cantabria governments reinvented the Camino as a hiking route over hills and mountains where medieval pilgrims would never have set foot as they would have been eaten by wolves, bears and/or assaulted by bandits!

My Camino was glorious. The first day it crests a long mountain with amazing views of the sea and of the valley inland, finishing in San Sebastian, one of Spain’s prettiest towns and with the best food in the world. The second day it rained, and on a difficult descent, with wet socks I hurt both of my big toenails. This would be a bit of an issue for the rest of the Camino, but you do need some suffering in order to fully enjoy the Camino!

The Camino del Norte is known for it’s beauty. You walk between gorgeous beaches to verdant valleys day in and day out, through postcard perfect villages and some of the prettiest cities in Spain: San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón… The down side, if it can be called that, is that there is little variety as compared to the Camino Francés which changes topography constantly from the wooded hills of Navarra to the dry tableau of Palencia. The Camino del Norte also lacks the spiritual “weight” of the Francés with it’s open churches, pilgrim’s masses, etc.

I can’t wait to finish the few days left of this Camino and get started on the Primitivo…