Thanksgiving vs giving thanks

Delivering Thanksgiving meals

Sorry for participating in the Thanksgiving overkill, but I figured this was a good a time as any to write about this.

While I am a fan of giving thanks, I am not a fan of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is another exaggerated and incongruous element of American culture. The other 364 days money and work take precedent over gratitude and even family. I know this as I consistently survey my students to see how many have real sit-down dinners with family, few do. I do not celebrate Thanksgiving, but I try to be grateful every day. An example of this might be the daily gratitude diary that I have written for years now. It is quite simple and rewarding, here is how it works. Find a blank notebook and then you write:

Monday – Three things that you are grateful from the weekend.

Tuesday – A good thing that you did or that happened to you, now or in the past.

Wednesday – Write down a resolution… and then fulfill it!!

Thursday – Letter of thanks. To anybody dead or alive, real or fiction, whatever.

Friday – Three good things from the week.

Weekend – rest

I use this as part of my evening meditation practice, and I find it extremely calming and satisfying.

Now, back to Thanksgiving. While the holiday does nothing for me, I love how quiet it is! It is the quietest day of the year! So, I can go for a run or a walk, stay home and watch a movie, cook, or write my blog.

We are blessed at work, because our kitchen staff led by Philippe from Bordeaux cooks an amazing Thanksgiving dinner for lunch a few days before the break, so I do get my share of turkey, stuffing, pies, etc. Also, this year my friend Manuel invited me on Friday to have dinner with his kids, so that was fun.

This year I celebrated Thanksgiving by delivering dinners to low income or sick people. It was organized very well by my parish, and I drove around all over Boynton Beach delivering meals. People were really grateful, which made it all worthwhile. Oh, for myself? I cooked some killer spaghetti!!

The New Yorker magazine

New Yorker covers

Confession time: Many, many years ago, when Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the planet what I loved about the New Yorker was the cartoons, I paid no attention to the amazing writing.

During the 70’s I lived in NY as a preteen so that does not count. But then I moved back to NY after college in 1987 and that was my first introduction to a lot of great writing like The Village Voice, The New York Times, and The New Yorker -although at the beginning I did confuse it with New York magazine, not the same thing.

After working in Boston for a few years, I moved back to Madrid, where lo and behold, my amazing corner kiosk (read that blog here) carried the New Yorker. Eventually the price made it prohibitive to buy, but I would still buy it occasionally. Once I remember a colleague at my university in Madrid brought in a couple of issues. After waiting a few days, I asked to borrow them, what a refreshing read!

You see The New Yorker has local news of events, which means reviews of the best gigs in the world, whether they be music, theatre, ballet, exhibits, etc. as well as book, cinema, and other cultural write ups. It also has restaurant reviews which of course is limited to NYC. But the real meat are the amazing articles and profiles, deeply researched, exquisitely written, and although heavy on the social justice theme, nicely varied. Recent articles included: the situation with the Safer oil tanker in Yemen, Brené Brown, stash-house stings, Jasper Johns, the glass ceiling in chess, Master Class, and on and on. There is also a humor column called Shouts and Murmurs which is usually hilarious! And there are always a couple of brilliant poems. Add to that an always eye-catching cover and you have a treasure. Every week.

Chapel Hill had a great magazine exchange and I always found New Yorkers to cleanse my palate from all the reading I was doing for my PhD! Now in Florida, I am lucky that my next-door neighbor subscribes, and she generously gives them to me when she finishes reading them, so I am back to enjoying the best written magazine ever.

New Yorker covers

The elusive and mythical paella

Unbelievable, in over ten years (wow this is an old blog) I have never dedicated a post to paella. This must be corrected at once.

You see, paella -the right paella- is a divine dish, it combines earthy flavors with spices, and rice, what is there not to like? Now to be clear I am speaking here about the original paella, Valencia paella which has as main ingredients: chicken, rabbit, snails, flat green beans, and local flat white beans, Garrofó. Ah yes, I hear the murmurs about seafood, and chorizo, and all kinds of ingredients… in time, my dear reader, in time.

Like everybody else in Spain and around the world, I have always eaten paella. But it was not until the early nineties that I started travelling regularly to Valencia that I discovered the real deal. Once you have that experience you will never feel the same about paella. I was lucky to have friends and customers that indulged me in taking me to real paella places, where it is prepared outdoors, on open fires of orange tree wood!

Although the first reported recipe for paella is from the mid 19th C, it was the Moors who brought rice to the Albufera lagoon outside Valencia. Also, the word paella comes from the old Arabic pallac (sp?) which means leftovers. Therefore, it is understandable that the original recipes had no pork nor seafood ingredients!

If you travel Spain’s Eastern shore you are going to find hundreds of rice recipes, with seafood, black rice, with all sorts of ingredients -but they are not called paella, but arroz negro, arroz a banda, arroz caldoso, whatever whatever…

To make paella you need to meet a few requirements: ideally you have an open fire, you also need the paella, which is the name of the flat pan used to make the namesake dish. As far as the ingredients, forget it, you are not going to find the exact ingredients, bomba rice has little starch compared to the closest equivalent, Arborio, etc., etc. Paella is a totally local dish, appreciate that and move on.

I had often been paella sous chef, but I did not venture into making my own paellas until I had a gas grill and a paella pan in Boston around ten years ago. After leaving Boston I had a paella making hiatus until recently. As my followers will know, I bought a grill a few months ago, and then I bought a paella pan at the great purveyor of Spanish food, La Tienda. I love making paella, even if it is a mere imitation paella, it is as close as you can get outside Valencia. Let me know in the comments if you want my recipe and American ingredients, or if you have any other comments.

European School of Economics

The European School of Economics is a great little university. I had the privilege of teaching in their Madrid campus for two years from 2018 through 2020. Elio D’Anna, a visionary Italian founded the university with my kind of philosophy, that the student should actively own their learning process, which makes total sense, but it is not how most universities operate.

As I said, D’Anna is Italian, but the university is accredited in England, with campuses (campii?) in London, Milan, Rome, Florence, and Madrid. Students can rotate through the different cities during their studies.

Even more than the philosophy, I loved the small classes, which allowed me to tailor fit the program for my students. Most times, classes were small enough for us to meet at a local coffee shop. Outside of the sterile classroom walls, in a relaxed environment, students become more engaged and participative, and I would even wager better thinkers!

During my time there I taught all levels of Spanish. The students were actively interested in learning and inquisitive, they really engaged, which added to the immersion factor, meant that their Spanish really took off during their time in Madrid.

The school is really international, I had students from South Africa, Egypt, Botswana, all over Europe, Latin America, Japan, and of course local madrileños. The school has now moved to the quiet Retiro neighborhood, but when I taught there, it was in bustling Alonso Martinez Square!

For the beginning of my second year at ESE, I organized a tour/team building activity around Madrid. We organized different activities at the different stops of the tour. We all had a lot of fun and the students bonded and got to know each other!

Sure, a small university obviously has some drawbacks, but at the European School of Economics, the advantages far outweigh any other considerations, I loved my time there and would recommend it to anyone thinking of studying business in Europe!

Visiting Little Havana in Miami

Miami is about an hour away from me, and I hate driving down because there is always horrible traffic, but once I get there, I do enjoy certain neighborhoods. A few days ago, I spent the day in Little Havana and had a blast!

I started off with a “Cafecito” and a cigar. This neighborhood is full of coffee shops with a window to the street where you can order and get your coffee right on the sidewalk. There are also a handful of cigar factories, shops, and lounges where you can sit and enjoy a cigar while you chat. I stopped at El Titan de Bronze for some cigars. Otherwise, I was very restrained and did not splurge buying Panama hats, guayabera shirts, etc. etc.

For lunch I had a frita at the “El Rey de las fritas”. A frita is a Cuban hamburger made out of ground meat and ground chorizo sausage, topped with string fries. If you have never had one, let me tell you, they are divine. This specific restaurant is a time machine back to the 50s and 60s.

I also did a video for Tonxo Tours, my “side gig” which specializes in tours of Spain, but hey, you have to keep the Insta crowd happy and waiting for more!

In the afternoon I checked out some top-level domino games at a little park made ex-profeso for domino, called, you guessed it Domino Park!

The fun of Little Havana is just in soaking it in, walking around, enjoying the sounds and smells. Although you are in the massive city of Miami, for a few blocks, you might as well be in old Havana, with chickens and roosters running around in the neighbors’ yards!

A return to performing arts, a night at the opera

Good to enjoy performing arts again!!

Due to Covid, I had not been able to enjoy any performing arts for about two years. But l recently managed to go to the opera, so things are getting back to normal. While I have managed to go to museums and exhibits, most notably the Norton Museum of Art (click here for that blog post), I had not returned to the theatre, the symphony, a reading, a play, the ballet, the opera since just before Covid struck in 2020.

Although I know there are many performing arts venues in the West Palm Beach and Boca Raton areas, I have yet to explore them. But I recently saw that Opera Naples, my old opera, was doing Hansel and Gretel, I did not blink before buying my tickets!

You see, I need a lot of cultural and artistic stimulation, it paradoxically energizes and calms me at the same time. I have been enjoying concerts, plays, and operas since I was a teenager in London, so I must confess I am a bit of an addict.

Hansel and Gretel is obviously based on the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, and while it is quite grim, the music is amazing -as should be expected of Wagner´s student Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921). Opera Naples has partnered with the Bower School of Music at Florida Gulf Coast University, so many of the roles were played by very talented college students, wow!

It was nice to see that Opera Naples has done some work to improve the venue, since it actually sits in an industrial estate in a bit of a dodgy area. It has created a new and bigger lobby, created a bar area and they even had a food truck for us!

Since I was in that neck of the woods, I took the opportunity to meet up with my old student Lukas to catch up with him. We had a lovely coffee on 5th Avenue and even walked to the beach to check it out. The Gulf side beaches are far nicer than the Atlantic side, obviously, they are Caribbean!

So overall, a wonderful day out and great to be slowly returning to the arts!

The triumph of the short story

Good things come in small packages, they say. In Spain we say: “lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno” the same thinking can be applied to the short story. If you can develop characters and plot in not too many pages instead of hundreds you might have what it takes.

Your end of apprenticeship project in the Middle Ages required you to do a miniature of whatever your craft was; If you were a carpentry apprentice you had to make a tiny piece of furniture. These pieces where far more difficult to make than a regular sized piece. Again, the same goes for short stories. Boiling down a full story to a few pages requires a craftmanship not all writers have.

Short stories are the reason I fell in love with Literature (yes, with capital L). My high school Spanish lit teacher Soledad Sprackling had me reading Borges, and García Márquez. Later on I devoured Poe, Hemingway, Cortázar, Cervantes’ Novelas Ejemplares, Rosario Castellanos, Fuentes, etc. etc.

I recently read back-to-back books of shorts stories and was surprised to see that I have never written about short stories in this blog.

Las guerras perdidas is by Oswaldo Estrada, a dear friend and professor at UNC. Unfortunately, I never took any of his courses since our research interests did not match. Regardless, we became good friends. Last year on a weekend trip to Chapel Hill he even hosted a tapas dinner for me. His bittersweet short stories about loss and pain are beautifully written, his prose is reminiscent of García Márquez “Y aunque te bañes y perfumes, siempre hueles a tristeza.” Estrada’s insight into the human condition is precise, but sweetly narrated, which makes for a wonderful read. Highly recommended, five stars, two thumbs up!

Chilean Benjamín Labatut writes Un verdor terrible (oh yes sorry, both books are in Spanish). Labatut focuses his stories on physicists and chemists, scientists and their discoveries during the first half of the XX C. These are deeply researched stories that mix fiction and history in unknown (to the reader) quantities. It makes for scary but rewarding reading, riveting.

If you like short stories and read Spanish, I recommend both of these books. You are welcome.

Please leave your comments and recommendations below!

Camino Francés vs Camino del Norte, which is better? My opinion

As soon as people find out I have done the full Camino Francés AND the Camino del Norte they always ask the obvious question: which is better? Well, here are my thoughts.

Like everything else in life, it is all about your personal tastes, the purpose of your Camino, etc.

The French way has more varied terrain, switching every few days. You get the Pyrenees on day one, then the rolling hills of Navarra, blending into the vineyards of La Rioja, eventually you get to the agricultural hills of Burgos, before hitting the plains of the plateau of Palencia and Leon before arriving at the hills of El Bierzo and the ancient Celtic hills of Galicia. The North or Coastal route on the other hand is amazing beach after amazing beach, and amazing forest after amazing forest, oh, and the only flat bits are the beaches, the rest of the time you are going up or down, which makes this route much tougher physically, but extremely rewarding as you are never more than a day or two away from the sea.

Also since this was the predominant trail in the late Middle Ages, the French way has a lot of history and a powerful spiritual charge, every chapel, every church, and cathedral just has this literally awesome, moving presence. By contrast, the Northern trail was abandoned in favor of the Francés as the Moors were driven out of the peninsula so, in fact, you are walking a much newer trail without so much of the spiritual aspect.

Food is probably better on the North route, as you partake from the bounty of the lush, green countryside and the ocean. This does not mean that the French way is bad, it just does not pass-through San Sebastian, arguably the best food per square foot in the world!!

North Coast of Spain is very green. Why? Because it rains a lot! So, if you commit to the North way, make sure you are prepared mentally and physically to deal with rain, sometimes for days… The French way on the other hand tends to be much drier.

Finally, depending on when you are doing it, the French way can become a bit crowded, while the North route has consistently less traffic.

If you are more into exploring cities and towns, both ways offer great stops, San Sebastian, Bilbao and Santander on the North, Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos or León on the French way.

So, in the end it boils down to what you want from your Camino. If you are looking for tradition and spirituality, go with the French way, if you prefer breathtaking views and more of a physical challenge, go North.

Have you done both Caminos? Leave your thoughts in the comments!!

On Sushi, Soy, Pedro Espina, and Akai Hana

Sushi is without a doubt one of my favorite foods. The pure, clean flavors, the simplicity of presentation, the ceremony, the whole package just makes for an amazing meal and experience.

I was not introduced to sushi until after college in 1987. Fortunately, I had a very urbane girlfriend in New York City at the time who taught me how to eat sushi, all the rituals, and all the basics. I was hooked (ha-ha).

A few years later when my dear friend Alfonso would come to Madrid, the two of us and my sister would walk over to Suntory -yes part of the Japanese whisky company- to have dinner at the sushi bar. We eventually became quite friendly with the Chef, Pedro, who eventually informed us of his starting his own restaurant. Tsunami was amazing! Near my home, we would walk over when Alfonso stayed with us. Here Pedro ran the show with his Japanese, kimono wearing wife, Tamayo.

Pedro is a fascinating fellow who lived in Japan for years, learning the craft of sushi. He is also a world class boxer, although now he mainly coaches his daughter.

A few years later Pedro suffered a rare health issue and he had to close his restaurant. After some time, maybe even years, he opened another restaurant, Soy. This time there was no fanfare, the restaurant, which does not even have a sign outside is on a quiet, residential street. It is a tiny, intimate space with five tables and a tiny bar counter reserved for last minute friends without reservations (guilty as charged). Here Pedro does not really work with a menu -although one exists. You sit down and he feeds you amazing, delicious, gorgeous dishes. It is now a bit cliché to say so, but this is a culinary experience like few others.

The result of knowing Pedro for almost thirty years now, is that I have become a sushi snob. So I do not really eat a lot of sushi other than at Pedro’s.

Fortunately for me, Chapel Hill (ok, Carrboro) has a tiny, extremely good sushi restaurant, Akai Hana. Although I was on a tight student/teaching fellow budget while I was getting my PhD, I would occasionally splurge at Akai Hana. They made a quail egg shot that was an explosion of flavor in your mouth like you have never experienced!

In the suburban wasteland that is Florida, I have not yet tried a sushi place. If you know of an authentic, good quality sushi place in Palm Beach County, please let me know in the comments, I will be eternally grateful!

Summer reading recap

Confession time: I have a problem that started around high school, I cannot stop reading. I read anywhere, anytime. I have books and magazines strategically placed around the house: the dining room table, the bathroom, bedside table, etc.

My summer reading was -as usual- an eclectic mix of books, here are some reviews:

Ramón del Valle Inclán Luces de Bohemia. I am a bit ashamed to disclose that I have a PhD in Spanish Literature and I had never read this (to my defense, my specialty was 18th C. literature, and my sub-specialties were Colonial Satire and Medieval Spanish Satire). I was surprised how fresh this book felt. Although it was written in the 1920s it might just as well have been written today. It is a satirical but profound glimpse of Spain at that time. It also introduces the concept of “esperpento” which offers a distorted and grotesque view of the world which paradoxically acts as a corrective lens to better appreciate the situation.

A critical factor of the Camino de Santiago is weight. The library of the albergue in Roncesvalles (the first stop of the Camino Francés) is full of Bibles that pilgrims with the intention of reading have “donated” because of its excessive weight and bulk. This year I carried Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows which is a beautiful study of Japanese aesthetics and culture, a gorgeous essay on the philosophy of traditional Japanese interior design.

Back in Madrid I read Henri Brunel’s The Most Beautiful Zen Stories – The original is in French, and I do not think there is an English translation. The book, as the title explains has short and sweet stories, but always with a bit of a sting – a question, maybe, unanswerable, at the end.

My beach reading was a gift from my dear friend Paco Navarro: Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (Alles umsonst in the original German). A story about a family during the last days of WWII in Germany. A great read about family dynamics, history, the human condition, and war.

Back in my mom’s country house I dug into another war, this time the Spanish Civil War, from the hand of dear friend Monica Moreno, who writes about love and family during that fratricidal war in Otoño y nueces. Her first adult novel after a handful of YA books, is well documented and intimate. Get it on Amazon here!

Back in Florida I explored Velazquez’s masterpiece painting Las Meninas through Néstor Luján’s Los espejos paralelos, which brings the painting to life through each of the characters, including the dog! Luján takes us to the dark hallways of Madrid’s old Alcazar palace, life in the court of Philip IV, and Madrid. A delightful read –specially if you are a fan of Velazquez and Las Meninas!

My last book before Fall was Richard Rohr’s The Divine dance which reflects on the deep spirituality of the Trinity and how love flows through the universe and us!

So there are a few reading recommendations in case you needed any, you are welcome.