La casa de Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca

Federico García Lorca is Spain’s greatest 20th C playwright (his poetry is also right up there). He is arguably one of the best in his business, period.

La casa de Bernarda Alba is the play I have read and seen the most. Teaching in Boston, every year I would drive my advanced students to New York city to see Repertorio Español‘s production. I have even seen a version done by illiterate Roma women, I also saw a bilingual production by UNC students while I taught and studied there.

The Teatro Español is the oldest running theatre in Europe (since 1583, 439 years ago!), so imagine my surprise when I found out that I was going to be in Madrid during a run of La Casa de Bernarda Alba! I wasted no time in buying tickets and inviting my girlfriend and my eldest niece.

The theatre is right downtown, in the middle of the aptly named Letras neighborhood (Barrio de las letras) because Cervantes and Lope de Vega and others lived there. My niece and I rode a rental scooter there and we met Celia at the theatre.

The presentation was top notch, possibly the best I’ve seen. But, like other times, the director took some liberties with the text, for example cutting out the maid and beggar woman characters, or cutting out dialogue, which I find insulting to the text and the author, grrr. The setting was very minimalist, basically the patio of Bernarda’s house.

After the play we went to dinner to my grandad’s favorite bar, the Viva Madrid, around the corner from the theatre.

It was a great evening, the show was amazing, and we all had a great time!

What is your favorite play? Tell us in the comments section.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a conference

One of the great benefits of being in Madrid for my Summer break is being able to attend all sorts of events that are difficult to find in South Florida.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a great series of conferences on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the brilliant Mexican Baroque writer (and musician, architect, scientist, and cook!), whom I studied a bit for my PhD at UNC.

The conference was hosted at the great Fundación Juan March (which I have already mentioned here) and the speaker was Esperanza López Parada, professor of Latin American literature at the Complutense University in Madrid.

The first lecture was on Sor Juana’s time, her life, and her writings in general. It is always interesting to learn new facts and perspectives on someone you have studied.

The second lecture focused on the poem Primero Sueño, and it included actor Beatriz Arguello reading the poem. The commentary and the reading were masterfully interwoven, making for an extremely rewarding experience!

López Parada cited my UNC professor (and PhD Committee Member Rosa Perelmuter, which was very moving for me). We even chatted a bit after the conference, which was a nice little plus.

Here is a video López Parada showed us of the adaptation into song of one of Sor Juana’s most famous poems: Hombres necios.

The best present ever, Rome.

Confession time: I had never been to Rome before last week when my girlfriend invited me for a few days. I had been to Milan, Lake Cuomo, and Sicily, I spent a lot of time for work in Florence. But I had never been to Rome.

My mind was blown. The absolute beauty, even in the apparent anarchy and chaos of traffic, mopeds, rental scooters, and tourists. Every little piazza, every big piazza, every sculpture, every cobble stone street, one is surrounded by inebriating beauty.

We stayed at a cute and quirky hotel on Largo de Torre Argentina, where Julius Caesar was assassinated, and although Celia had been there before, she was still game to walk all over town to the Pantheon, Forum, Jewish neighborhood, Piazza Venezia, Colosseum, Trastevere, Isola Tiberina, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Trevi, Villa Borghese, the Vatican, St. Peter’s, Piazza del Popolo, Castel St. Angelo, and church after church, you name it, we saw it!

We had delicious meals: my first real carbonara, my first real Jewish artichokes, amazing! Excellent coffee, great wines, an Aperol Spritz when evening started, lick your fingers pastries and gelato, you get the idea.

Two memorable experiences were seeing Velazquez’s Inocencio X at the Doria Pamphili Gallery and Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s. Although I was a bit disappointed in the Sistine Chapel: the crowds and the noise make it difficult to enjoy, if on top of that the Vatican cops are yelling “Silenzio!!” and “Move along!!” on their megaphones, then the moment is totally lost, sad.

Overall, I am still in awe. My senses are still aglow with the beauty, tastes, and sounds. I can’t wait to go back, which I should because I dropped a coin in Trevi fountain.

My favorite? Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s, but that might merit its own blog post.

My favorite painting

The Prodigal Son, from my friend Irina

This might sound heretical coming from a Spaniard, but my favorite painting is not by Goya or Velazquez or Picasso or Murillo or Dalí or Miró, it is by Rembrandt (Leiden 1606 – Amsterdam 1669), and it is not even in a Spanish museum.

Unfortunately, I did not realize I was looking at what would be my favorite painting when I saw Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son when I was seventeen and visiting The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg with a handful of school friends. I was probably more concerned with looking at pretty girls or wondering about the evening’s plan with cheap Soviet Vodka -ah yes, the year was 1983, with Leonidas Brezhnev in charge of the Soviet Union!

Not long after, my father gave me a book: The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons by Henri Nouwen and I was deeply moved. I understood the painting and it became my favorite. Nouwen, a priest (1932-1996), threads the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32) with the painting, covering each detail, each character in Scripture and the painting.

The father’s hands gently placed on the boy’s back, the brother’s jealous, angry stare, the servant, the mother, even another person almost invisible in the background, the son’s broken sandals, the capes, everything has a purpose and a meaning. The painting, painted in Rembrandt’s last years, is as spiritual as they get. It asks for your meditation, it questions our behaviors as sons and daughters. You feel the weight of the father’s hands on your back, their warmth. The painting forgives you.

What was my surprise when I discovered that a poster of the painting hangs in my school’s library, right outside my office! I walk by it many times every day, and every day I am reminded of Rembrandt, of the Prodigal son, and of my trip to Russia many years ago.

Some of my other favorite paintings are Velazquez’s Meninas in the Prado, pretty much anything by Goya, Velazquez´s Inocencio X in the Doria Pamphili Gallery in Rome, every Sorolla painting, I’ve already mentioned Frida Kahlo in this blog, etc., etc., etc., the list goes on and on. But this one wins.

What is your favorite painting? Comment below, I would love to know!

Poster next to my office!

Mahler 5, New World Orchestra, and Michael Tilson Thomas

In a previous post I talked about Mahler’s Symphony Nº 5 (click here for that post). Well, I recently experienced it -one experiences more than listens to Mahler.

It had been about four years since I saw Mahler 5 at the Naples Philharmonic. I had also lived it with the great Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra years ago, but this was a whole other level:

The occasion was Michael Tilson Thomas “retirement” concert by his own New World Symphony. Now, some explanations:

Michael Tilson Thomas is a prodigy musician, Mahler savant, who founded the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami in 1987. He is just one of those visionary geniuses who overflow with talent. He conducted the whole symphony without the sheet music. In fact, his notebook was closed on his stand the whole time in a show of “I have the music, but I do not need it” it was hugely impressive to have around 68 minutes of music for many, many instruments memorized.

The New World Symphony is a place for brilliant young musicians to do a three or four-year fellowship performing lesser-known works, more adventurous programing, and just out there stuff, just do not call it Avant Garde!! This is an orchestra with personality. Every musician is an accomplished and talented artist who is not afraid to make his or her voice heard, it makes a massive difference when you listen to them.

As for Mahler 5, this is the most “Mahlerian” of his works. As I said before, one feels the whole spectrum of emotions on this symphony: from the funeral march that opens, the Adagietto which is arguably one of the loveliest love songs ever, victorious scherzos… it is a roller coaster of emotions.

Well, my dear friend and old student Bill invited me to Michael Tilson Thomas’ farewell concert featuring Gil Shaham playing Joseph Boulogne Concerto n. 9 in G major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 8 (c. 1775) as an appetizer and then Mahler 5…

As an added bonus, another one of my old students, Margeaux was there playing the violin!! I had not seen her since she graduated high school twelve years ago. I caught up with her at the artists’ exit and managed to say hi and get a picture with her!!

What an amazing experience to see Mahler 5 with Michael Tilson Thomas and his New World Symphony, and with one of my old students in the orchestra! Memorable.

Welcome to Miami

Miami is fun. It is just that getting in and out is such a headache. But once you are there it is playful fun. The other day I had the chance to walk around, right before the Formula 1 Grand Prix weekend.

South Beach might be the first thing we think of when we think of Miami; the Art Deco architecture, the amazing beach, the people. I testify to all of them.

If I had to define Miami, I would talk about the vibe, the throbbing energy, the vibrancy. It is a bold, loud, colorful place. The food options are improving constantly, better representing the cultural melting pot it is (haha pun intended).

Sure, if you walk around South Beach most of the folks are turistas, but, and here is one of Miami’s tricks: it is difficult to separate the turista from the local, granted part of it is because of the general lack of clothing one sees, but it also speaks to the diversity of the locals and their hedonist lifestyle.

A fairly unique feature of Miami is the “Ventanita” a window on the side of a restaurant, shop, or bar where you can order a coffee “cafecito”, a fruit juice, and in some cases a shake or a smoothy. These ubiquitous “ventanitas” allow you to have a quick coffee “sportello” style on the sidewalk or sitting at a nearby bench -so long as it is in the shade!

Other areas of Miami are more touristy like Bayfront and Bayside, but the beauty of Miami Beach is the mingling of folks. Enjoy!

Spanish teaching hack #752: using songs to memorize verbs

Most of what I know about teaching Spanish I learnt from Tracy years ago, and I am eternally grateful for that. One of those things is the importance of music in the classroom as a teaching tool. Sure, we learn songs and watch YouTube videos, but a lesser-known quality of music is as a mnemonic tool.

It is a well-known fact that irregular verbs in any language are difficult to memorize; there are so many! They are so hard! So, one way of helping to learn and memorize them is with songs, even if they are silly, basic melodies.

Here are a couple of examples of using basic melodies to help memorize irregular verbs: one is for the past tense preterit, and the other one for affirmative “tú” commands. Enjoy.

West Palm Beach, a celebration

Within the suburban wasteland that is South Florida, Palm Beach stands out as a beacon of civilization. Developed in the early 20th century by rich northerners who were scaping the cold and snow, it soon became the place for really rich folks to build winter homes (think Post cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Mar-a-Lago). If you were not rich enough to own a home you could always spend a few days at the iconic Breakers hotel. Nowadays, the Palm Beaches boast the Norton Museum which I have talked about already, and great dining venues.

I recently had the chance to explore Palm Beach at night. A colleague’s birthday was all it took to get three guys to go explore, improvise, and enjoy some drinks and a great dinner. Sure, there was some shop talk and some philosophy talk (they are both professors of philosophy, I am just an amateur) but mostly we just chatted and shared and enjoyed breaking bread together.

Pre-dinner drinks were had at the great rooftop Spruzzo bar atop the Ben hotel. The views were amazing, the drinks chilly, and the vibe great!

From there we walked around Clematis Street checking out the fun atmosphere, before settling down for dinner at Elisabetta’s Ristorante for a great Italian meal.

Overall, a fun time was had by all. I must say I was impressed by the cosmopolitan and sophisticated feel of West Palm Beach, I’ll be back.

Don Quixote, Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene, and madness vs. Existentialism

A good book and a good cigar

There are books that I re-read with certain regularity: The Old Man and the Sea, Voltaire’s Candide, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (you can read about that one here), Don Quixote only three times.

But I recently came across a book I had read as a teenager in the 80s and decided to revisit: Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote.

As you can see from the title -I will try not to spoil anything- in a fictional meta-reality, Monsignor Quixote deals with the adventures of a descendant of Don Quixote. There is a Rocinante and a Sancho. Greene converted to Catholicism at 22 in 1926 (you can read his bio here) and this novel deals precisely with -no spoilers- with religion, theology, and the Church in early ‘80s, post Franco Spanish society (It was published in 1982). The book is an easy, quick read, and, since I am always on the lookout for the far reaching effects of Don Quixote, I re-borrowed Monsignor Quixote (thanks Sue) and thoroughly enjoyed it.

My more faithful readers know that one of my research interests is the influence of Don Quixote on Existentialist philosophy. So my antennae are always poised to pick up on this theme. Monsignor Quixote does not disappoint! The references to the links between Don Quixote and Existentialism might have been written unknowingly by Greene, which I doubt, but they are there either way:

There is a heartfelt reference to Miguel de Unamuno who was a big fan of Don Quixote and a proto-Existentialist (read San Manuel Bueno, Mártir). This is an indication that Greene understands Cervantes.

There are explicit mentions of Monsignor Quixote acknowledging his existence, which is a big step in understanding who one is.

The novel deals with our doubts and beliefs, the Existential anguish that drove Kierkegaard (but not in those words), the father of Existentialism -which would make Cervantes the great-grandfather of Existentialism (read about that here).

Finally, as any alert reader would expect of a novel with the name Quixote in it, it talks of madness. Of course, folks -specially those who have not read the novel- often confuse Don Quixote’s drive and purpose with madness (which drives me mad). I will not elaborate but Don Quixote knows who he is, it is just that nobody understands what he is doing, so they call him mad. This leads me to my first and hopefully last political statement ever on this blog: Former President Trump was often called Quixotic, for whatever reason, and the people who labeled Trump like that have obviously never read, and/or never understood Cervantes’ novel!! A similar point is seen in the film Easy Rider when Jack Nicholson as George Hanson says:

Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.

I guess I could have written a more academic article about this book, and maybe I will, but for the time being, enjoy.

A good book and a good coffee

Which shoes to wear on the Camino

Shoes are arguably the most crucial element in your Camino kit. You are going to walk many hours a day for many days. The number one issue with pilgrims is blisters. You have been warned.

I am really excited to walk my third Camino this Summer, and I needed new shoes. For my first Camino I used Salomon XA Pros, and they were formidable I did the whole Camino with nary a blister (I might have gotten a couple of “hot spots” -pre-blisters- but never developed full blisters).

For my second Camino I chose the same shoe, only newer model in bright blue. Unfortunately, these did not perform as well as the first pair, and I ended up losing both my big toenails, twice (yes my toenails were cut very short, but wet feet in a steep downhill are going to slide). If you have never lost your toenails, it is not painful, but it is a bit of a nuisance, and they take almost a full year to grow back out.

This year I did my homework. I did a comparative spreadsheet checking out a few internet websites. (attached) –it is in no way comprehensive, or professional– it is just a few references from a few random running shoe websites. Once I had my ranking, the move was to find the best price, that is where the Palm Beach Outlets come into the picture. New Balance, Nike, and Asics all have shops there, and the Nike Pegasus Trail 3 came in as the best ranked at the best price. I “broke in” the Nikes during Easter break and loved them! I will give you a full report after my Camino…

Here are a few pointers on Camino shoe buying:

  • Unless you are doing the Camino in the Winter, you do NOT need boots. Most pilgrims walk in the warmer months, and you do not want your feet baking inside of boots.
  • I once met a very bright German pilgrim; PhD in math, an internet startup in Berlin in their fourth round of capitalization… but his feet looked like steak tartare from wearing Alpine hiking boots!!
  • On the other hand, you do not want to wear sneakers/running shoes/tennis. They are not designed to pound the ground for miles with a backpack on, and you will also soon develop blisters.
  • The ideal shoes are trail running/hiking shoes. They are designed for this kind of thing.
  • When you are at the shop, with the laces undone, inch your foot all the way forward, you should be able to put a finger between your heel and the shoe. This means that your shoe should be half a size to a full size bigger than your “normal” shoes. Your feet will expand when walking for hours every day.
  • Gore-Tex or no Gore-Tex? When it rains, your feet will eventually get wet, Gore-Tex or not. So, I opt for NO Gore-Tex, this way when it is not raining my feet will breathe, and when it rains, they will get wet either way. Remember if you are in the Gore-Tex club you are going to have to stop and take your shoes and socks off every so often to let them breathe a bit. A rhythm busting nuisance when you are walking.
  • Soles: the terrain you are going to walk on is going to differ vastly from long stretches on tarmac (yuck) to grassy fields, but most of your walking is on dirt tracks, so you do not need a super aggressive pattern (unless again, you are going to walk in the mud of winter)
  • Once you have your shoes, make sure you break them in. Try to walk at least a few miles with your new shoes in order to avoid any unwelcome surprises.
  • Your feet do most of the work on the Camino so make sure you take care of them! Remember to have your toenails cut very short.

A whole blog post could (and might) go into socks. For the time being remember wool and no stitching…