Archive for June, 2015

What does one do when one of your most dear friends from university invites you to his housewarming party in a Greek seaside village? You tell them you are too busy working on your dissertation, that you have family obligations and that your graduate student budget does not allow for adventures in Greece. What does one do when he insists and ends up sacrificing his last frequent flier miles to get one’s sorry ass over in business class? You humbly and eagerly accept and pack some serious sun protection.

This is exactly what happened to me this summer (except the sun protection bit). My dear friend Matthew, who has been patient enough with me to be a groomsman at my two weddings and who came to visit me in Madrid last summer did just that.

I had not been to my beloved Greece since the mid-nineties, so going back – and for such an event was very especial. Mark Miller, the third musketeer, came in from New York on the same day as me, and Matthew drove us a couple of hours to his house in the lovely village of Toló, near the old Greek capital of Nafplio, on the Peloponnese mainland.

The house is more of a compound, high on a hill overlooking the sweet village of Toló, the sea and the beautiful islands. It includes Irina’s 8 Cooking Hats Cooking School and the house. When we arrived, construction crews were working frantically to finish all the last-minute details, and they would continue for the next two days before the grand opening party (but not before I befriended the construction guys – soccer is the key here – and they let me sign my name on some wet cement!)

The cooking school building has a bunch of guest rooms. Mark and I settled into the gym / Pilates / Zumba room and also temporary storage and staging area for all pre-party supplies: liquor and wine, fireworks, furniture, and random nick knacks. Not to mention two queen sized pull down beds and our own bathroom.

The first two days I must confess where hectic: Helping Matthew and Irina prepare everything for the party: peeling pistachios, making big paper flower pompoms – and hanging them up, shopping for enough supplies to feed a hungry Roman Legion, chopping and prepping all sorts of food with Alex (who would become a dear friend, my little grasshopper), Susanna and George, buying and transporting enough alcohol to fuel a year of parties in Ibiza, helping the DJs set up speakers and cables, organizing. Lots of organizing and cleaning. Lots of cleaning. Unfortunately Mark was suffering from acute chronic jet lag so he seemed to spend the first days just eating and sleeping. But he is such a fantastic sport that he took all our joking on the subject in stride.

For me, preparations for the party continued until even after the first few guests arrived, with just time for a quick shave and shower before helping to pass around mountains of food. Once the party started I could finally enjoy a gin and tonic, a cigar and dancing. Lots of dancing.

Matthew’s wife Irina learnt about Toló from Nelly, a classmate at hotel and culinary school in Switzerland. Nelly owns an adorable boutique hotel on the beach with her brother Manolis where Matthew and I would stop in between chores (remember, Mark was mostly sleeping) for a coffee, or frappé. Petros, Nelly and Manoli’s dad who adores Matthew, would insist on cooking us some eggs. It will be hard for you to find a nicer family than the Vlachakis.

Irina is a popular food blogger in the Russian Interweb, so we received plenty of Russian food bloggers and friends (picking them up and shuttling guests around was another fun chore!). We were also lucky that Alfonso, another of our dear friends from university was in the area with his sailing boat: the beautiful, sleek, state of the art Athina, so he also came, bringing with him his friend Alessio, a true Italian bohemian, ex actor, world traveler and master storyteller and his captain José.

All in all Irina and Matthew gathered an awesome group of beautiful, high energy people. The days after the party we went on excursions to the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus, to George Skouras’ vineyard and winery, to the town and castle of Nafplio, even on a boat cruise to a remote island, with its obligatory Greek Orthodox chapel on top – where coincidentally the aforementioned Nelly was baptized. Neither my hack writing, nor my hack photos can do justice to the time we had.

For me, to use a Greek word, my visit to Greece was cathartic. It had been about twenty years since I had been to Greece and I have such fond memories that I can now add to. This summer also marks the fifth anniversary of my full catastrophe (to use Zorba’s expression), so having ten days of fairly carefree sun and sunshine was a welcome relief.

Besides meeting a bunch of phenomenal people, I managed to go to church the morning after the party (getting up was a bit rough) for a beautiful Greek Orthodox service, eat lots and lots of delicious Greek food, spent the day sailing on Alfonso’s boat from Toló to Spetses (returning on his speedboat), visiting with friends and basically forgetting all my responsibilities for ten days.

It is at times like these, when you relax, let your defenses down, that life comes creeping back in, you can joke, laugh, feel, allow yourself to love and appreciate friends and allow yourself to be loved and appreciated by friends.

This Spring I had the opportunity to present at a conference other than our own Carolina Conference on Romance Literatures. I participated at the University of Maryland’s “Perspectives on Power” conference. I had a nice drive to Maryland, although I always manage to get lost around the DC area. I took a day off to visit Washington, since I had not been there since the late ’70s (yikes!). I walked to the metro in College Park into downtown and had a lovely day visiting DC. I popped my head in at the Spanish consulate for some paperwork, had a lovely coffee, visited the Vietnam Veterans memorial which I had never seen (that is how long since I had been to DC), bumped into an old Buckingham Browne and Nichols student and spent the rest of the day at the National Gallery, which is in one word: extraordinary. Although it was rainy and gray all morning, by the afternoon the sky had cleared and I managed to enjoy a lovely sandwich outdoors.

The next day I presented at the beautiful U of Maryland, where the great Spanish writer Juan Ramón Jimenez taught during his exile. For my presentation, as usual, I focused on my man Padre Isla and his keen use of power in his texts. The grad students and other participants were all very nice, with a large contingent of students who had flown in from China for the conference, impressive.

And with that I drove back to old North Carolina. Of course with the obligatory traffic jam exiting DC on 95 South…

I also presented at our Carolina Conference and I again spoke about Isla, this time about his cunning use of imagery. Fascinating stuff. I had the privilege of presenting with legendary prof. Joaquín Rodriguez-Barbera from Sam Houston University in Texas. The conference is a great opportunity to bond with the department colleagues and faculty, and to meet interesting people from all over.

Every year the graduate students that organize the conference work hard with the faculty to bring in top-level keynote speakers. This year we had Cuban author and academic Gustavo Pérez Firmat. He gave awesome back to back presentations to cover his two literary fronts as author and academic. I was mesmerized by his intelligence, sharpness, and humor. When after his presentations I went over to thank him, we figured out that he reads this blog. His words were something like, “I was trying to figure out who this half catholic, half crazy guy was!” Needless to say I was flattered by his accurate description and by the fact that he knew of AntonioyRocinante.

The conference has two key social moments: The party hosted by Prof. Domínguez in his lovely home. Every year Joaquín is put in charge of making a serious paella, this year we sadly celebrated Joaquin’s last paella, as he is apparently throwing in the apron. The Domínguezs are even generous enough to let me smoke a cigar in the garden – which apparently reminds Prof. Domínguez of his childhood in Cuba.

The other key event is the closing banquet. Celebrated at the lovely Weathervane restaurant it is the nicest social event of the year with great food, drink and conversation. Every year prospective students come and they have a chance to let us convince them of how great our program is.

An editor's job never ends

An editor’s job never ends

For reasons that are still unknown to me, the directors of both of the academic journals of the Romance Studies Department have signed me on as editor to their magazines. Prof. González Espitia is the Editor of Hispanófila, which is in his words: “a journal with a long tradition that for over half a century has published essays on literary, linguistic, and cultural topics dealing with the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking worlds.” For this journal I asses incoming articles for fit with our editorial criteria. It is a very enriching job where I learn a lot from the (to me) anonymous authors and from Prof. Gonzalez Espitia’s experience and wisdom. The other academic journal, Romance Notes is led by Prof. Oswaldo Estrada and is also over fifty years old. For this publication I do the final proofreading to make sure all punctuation, notations, etc. are correct and that the article is ready to publish.

Seeing both ends of the editorial process is very interesting and makes me think about my own hack writing. I did send an article for consideration to a Spanish journal last year, of course it was rejected. But once I settle in on my dissertation, I will try again, this time I will shoot for more journals in order to increase my chance of publication.

Yes, I know I repeat myself all the time, but one of the main reasons I love Chapel Hill is the thriving cultural scene. There is always something culturally stimulating going on. Being at a concert, a play, a ballet, is a great break from the day-to-day but at the same time a very enriching experience, which I believe leaves an almost invisible sediment at the bottom of your soul, mind, heart. This sediment, like in a good wine adds to the richness and flavor of the wine. Among other events this year I went to:

  • The Pittsburgh Symphony playing Mahler 1 symphony.
  • Benjamin Britten’s Japanese Noh theatre inspired Curlew River
  • Unavoidably in December, the Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker
  • The Maarinsky Orchestra playing Prokofiev
  • Kronos Quarter with my dear friend and composer James Brown. This concert included a very nice question and answer period post concert.
  • Brian Blade, a brilliant jazz drummer with my dear friend and cigar aficionado Jedd.
  • Britten’s War Requiem
  • Pierre Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich playing Pierre Boulez on dueling pianos!
  • Martha Graham Dance Company
  • The Monteverdi Orchestra playing the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 with Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting. One of the most amazing shows I have ever seen!
  • The North Carolina Symphony playing Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. A great and hopeful hymn that represents the beauty that is America.
  • Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure played by a small company in the local movie theatre!
  • UNC Opera’s hilarious rendering of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus
  • UNC Baroque Ensemble’s Fall and Spring concerts with the great Professor Wissick leading.

Unfortunately my Spring was so busy that I did not manage to go to any of the Playmakers Spring productions.

And this does not include lectures, readings, exhibits, nor any of all the more alternative goings on, in which I choose not to participate, one must set limits. All in all an extremely fulfilling year that had me thinking, feeling, laughing and crying.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Last year a couple of our classmates organized a very informal indoor soccer scrimmage on Friday evenings. For some reason I took up the responsibility this year. I booked one of the outdoor fields and had a great time every Friday evening. We were blessed with great weather all through the Fall semester. Basically we allowed anyone who showed up to play. We had a 59 year old Colombian fellow, middle school kids, undergrads and grad students from other departments play, so we re-named our scrimmage: Romance Studies Community Soccer. By opening it up to the community we hope to provide and give back a little bit.

In the winter we moved our games indoor to one of the courts, and by the end of the year, we received official acknowledgement from the department’s Graduate Student Government to legitimize the position and I have passed the baton to a young fellow in the department who did not miss a single game!

This Spring, I was my Thesis Director’s Graduate Research Consultant for her undergraduate Spanish Literature since 1700 survey class!

Prof. Gómez Castellano and I had to apply for this position to the undergrad College of Arts and Sciences, and we got approved. The job entails being a resource to help the students with their research. But since Irene and I were both very excited about this, we took it to the next level. I did a presentation on Goya… at the Ackland museum, who pulled a bunch of their Caprichos prints to show us in their special viewing room. I organized a visit to our specialist librarian, superstar Teresa Chapa to whom I should devote a whole blog post to – and her equally awesome partner in crime Becka, sometimes the three of us just chat in their hidden away office, deep in the inner sanctum of the library, and chat books and gossip. But back to this Graduate Research Consultant business. Basically it is a great opportunity for me to be immersed in an undergrad lit class. I was there to help, but at the same time I learnt a lot from the experience.

The class was a full 19 students, which is a lot for a higher level lit. class, but the more the merrier!, a big class at this level is also a very healthy sign for the department, and for the major and minor in general.

Technically there is no need for me to go to class – the pay is very low and I am only payed to work X amount of hours (I don’t even know how many), but I love the class and I learn so much from my Thesis Director that I went to all the classes anyway. Of course some of the students did use me as a research resource and met with me to go over their work, which was very interesting and fun work.

The experience is highly recommended, I hope to do it again.

Since I arrived at UNC, every time I bumped into the Director of French Studies – which was often because she is a keen supporter of the North Carolina Symphony which I also follow (although not as keenly), I would always offer my services to her as a French teacher. Little did I know that one day she would offer me to teach a section of French 105, French for High Beginners, i.e. students that have had previous exposure to French but are too rusty to go into intermediate level.

I cannot lie, my French grammar – which was never my strong suit to begin with – was, was, hmm, rusty. But my course coordinator who also happens to be my desk neighbor in our office had fantastic Power Point presentations covering the grammar.

French came to me later in life. I started taking classes in high school in London, which were complemented with great summers at the International Teen Camp in Lausanne in French Switzerland. I continued taking classes during university and spent those summers working in Paris, Bordeaux, Lausanne and Geneva, taking classes in the evenings and immersing myself.

After that I worked for a stint for a French stockbroker in Madrid, and tried to practice as much as possible with friends and work colleagues.

More recently, for my studies I have loved revisiting Montesquieu, Voltaire and other 18th C French authors.

So my speaking and reading are fine, but I struggle with the writing, due to the grammar, so teaching was not a total shock, and I compensated with total immersion from the music video to welcome the class to using only French all the way to the end of the session. The mix of students was as good as anyone could ask for. From quiet and shy overachievers, to frat bros, (to continue perpetuating stereotypes) to the whole demographic. I believe this always makes for more enriching classes. Our classroom in the Urban Planning Department building was nice and cozy and coincidentally had a massive wall sized reproduction of an antique map of Paris!

French Class outdoors

French Class outdoors