Archive for July, 2015

So there I was, having just closed my company and sold our beautiful apartment in Madrid overlooking the Retiro Park. Just moved back to Boston and struggling in my new career as a teacher in a tough public school. Reading the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine one day, there was an article about career recycling, reinventing yourself, blah, blah, blah. The “more info” bullets had a couple of career coaches names. So I called one of them.

My previous life in the photo business

My previous life in the photo business

It was Lauren Mackler. We agreed to (I think) a twelve session program and she kicked my ass (figuratively). We went back to my core values, my upbringing, my education, my deep needs and professional desires. She wrote everything down on big sheets of paper. We did the Myers Briggs test – and a bunch of others – surprise, my ideal job is teacher (only after preacher which is pretty similar).

We worked in the nicely done basement of her house, really well and hard for the whole program, she is tough and had me in tears a few times. I learnt so much about myself: where I really wanted to be in the future, where I could and would work best, etc. etc. I still have all her notes and occasionally go over them with colleagues who are a bit lost professionally.

Ten years later and Lauren has done very well for herself: published a book, spoken at the Harvard Business School, on TV and become a bit of a celebrity in the coaching business, good for her! As for myself, I am happy I worked with her and that she helped me unleash my potential. Did we expect me to be getting a PhD in 18th C. Spanish literature at UNC? Well no, but that is beside the point. The point is that she is a great coach and I am happy to recommend her if you need any sort of career help.

PS: This blog is totally independent, and I only write what I feel like writing!

Ah yes, that time again when one has to start thinking of finding a job. Since this will be (Insha’Allah) my last (academic) year at UNC. I have to start thinking of what I will be doing come September of 2016…

One of the few things I am certain of is that I am passionate about teaching, especially my language, my culture, my literature. I am hopeful that someone somewhere will need a Spanish teacher with over ten years teaching experience and a PhD in Spanish Literature for next year.

Narrowing down my job options, I would love to be the coordinator of an American university’s study abroad program in Spain – ideally in Spain, near my family. But I know I will thrive teaching at a small liberal arts college or at a secondary school where I can also be a “dorm parent” and coach, what they call in the business a “triple threat”.

Where? You ask. Well I must confess I have fallen in love with the South – who wouldn’t? and I do love the East coast, its history, culture, and relative proximity to Europe. But I would love to explore new grounds: Asia, Korea or Japan, the Middle East, Africa, Oceania, and of course old Europe, make me an offer!!

Experience? In my first job I was in charge of training / coaching / herding? the summer interns that came to Grantham Mayo and Van Otterloo in Boston. From then on in the late 80s I have always enjoyed the training and mentoring part of my jobs. During my stint as a stockbroker in Madrid since I was not doing much in the teaching/coaching/mentoring realm I volunteered to teach English at the Colegio de Huerfanos de la Guardia Civil in Madrid  As a sales manager I was in charge of team training and later as consultant I would do the same around Latin America. Once I had my own company from ´94 to ´04 I loved all the training that happened for new employees. We even organized yearly retreats with a coach to help us improve. In 2005 I started my professional teaching career teaching at public schools, private schools and at UNC for the last three years.

They say in Spain “el movimiento se demuestra andando” (something like movement is proven by walking) so here are a couple of videos of me trying to teach. One at Walnut Hill, the oldest private arts school in the US and my first semester at UNC. In case you are really interested I have also included my abridged CV, feel free to ask for any more info!!

Antonio Balsón CV Academic -abridged-

My childhood friend Jaime introduced me to brother Eulogio in the summer of 2011. I was floored by this man’s overflowing spirituality, granted he is a pro, but still. We got to spend the day with him and I was mesmerized.

The other day without Jaime’s two kids we drove over the Guadarrama mountains with our bicycles in his van to the monastery at El Paular to meet with brother Eulogio again.

Brother Eulogio is a “retired” 82 year old Benedictine monk. He was a Vespa mechanic before becoming a monk at 23. At the monastery he was put in charge of meeting with couples that wanted to get married there, later he managed just about all the other jobs at the monastery.

El Paular was built as a Carthusian monastery in 1390. By the time it got dismantled in the confiscations of Mendizábal of 1835, it was mentioned in Juan Ruiz’s Libro de buen amor, as its protagonist embarks from there on one of his “excursions” where he will meet the terrible Serranas. It housed the monk that wrote a Glosa to the Coplas por la muerte de su padre by Jorge Manrique. It also housed Enlightenment writer and first romantic (according to Russell Sebold) José de Cadalso, among others.

In 1958, the monastery was reopened under the Benedictine order. Eventually a luxury hotel was opened next door – which is now closed. Nowadays there are only 6 monks left and a couple of “visiting” monks. The monastery houses guests that can stay and take part in the monastic lifestyle. Jaime spent years there doing great restoration work in the beautiful chapel and the cloister, so he knows the monks very well, so much so that he just walks in, the other day, through the kitchen!

Some of the recent accomplishments of the monastery have been reuniting all the Vicente Carducho paintings that lined the cloister and had been scattered after the confiscation as with the choir engraved wood chairs.

Jaime and I spent the morning chatting with brother Eulogio. He asks pointed questions and reasons with you. It is one of the most – if not the most – intense and spiritual experiences for me.

We had not asked to stay for lunch, so we said our goodbyes, picked up our bicycles and started an excursion to the top of the Peñalara hills. We had a lovely pic-nic by the side of the Lozoya river and carried on until we had to ditch the bikes and continue hiking for a good hour until we arrived at the source of the Lozoya, the Cascadas del Purgatorio. We had a refreshing swim in the pools before heading back down. Near the end of our trip Jaime got a flat so we had to walk the last couple of miles to the car.

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What are the best three reasons for being a teacher? June, July and August. Well that is the joke anyway. The last few years I have spent June in Madrid, doing research, hanging out with friends, walking about, and spending time with my family. This year besides my holidays in Greece, I spent most of my time at home with my dad. I did manage to go out for a quick coffee, to buy bread and the newspaper in the morning, and in the afternoon to the gym – with someone always staying to hang out with my dad.

One evening one of my old students from Buckingham Browne and Nichols was in town, I could not resist sharing my beloved city with him, showing him around, eating tapas at El Espejo and finishing a long evening walk at my favorite bar, Del Diego.

So I did not have a very social month, basically just working on my dissertation and hanging out and doing home stuff. Still, it was very enriching for lack of a better word. Once my father passed we came to La Navata, to the country house.

Many personal obituaries start by mentioning a favorite memory, or a first memory they have of the departed. This, besides being personal, offers the opportunity for a funny or intimate story or anecdote. On the other hand, professional (read press) obituaries focus on the achievements of the departed.

For my father I am throwing out both styles and let’s see what we get. Part of the reason for this is that I do not have a specific memory, or a funny memory, or a first memory. Well, I have many and not one of them particularly sticks out. Nor do I have a list of achievements for him. He did not discover penicillin, nor the theory of relativity, nor did he invent the light bulb. But from humble beginnings he worked hard to bring up a family.

The secret of his success is due to the vision of his father (my grandfather) Antonio, who sent him to the British School in Madrid, meaning that my father was a rara avis: an English speaking Spaniard in the post civil war, Franco ruled Spain of the 50s.

A couple of times I have heard the cute remark about how the important thing on gravestones is the little dash that separates the birthdate from the date of death. Duh.

Something else to keep in mind is how we label and put people in their little boxes. Yes my dad devoted most of his life to international banking, in fact he was an important cog in the Spanish international banking scene of the seventies and eighties. But that is not all of who he was. Yes was a keen motorist and loved cars and motorsports. Yes he was a keen fan of Apple computers, especially given his age. Yes he managed to track his family back to the mid eighteenth Century, but that is not who he was either. He loved jazz – although later in life he got to appreciating classical music more, so every Christmas I would record for him, originally a cassette tape and eventually CDs and finally USB sticks. He loved to read the newspaper which he did every day without fail. That is another trait I learned from him. He loved food and wine and would equally enjoy a cheese sandwich on a park bench as a Michelin starred meal.

He was a brave and decisive man who at a young age went to London to learn about foreign exchange. He lived with my mother across the street from Ashburton Grove, home of Arsenal Football club, but that did not make him an Arsenal fan, if anything he was a Real Madrid fan. After learning about foreign exchange in London, he started an upwards trajectory that would not stop until his retirement in the late 80s.

In the 70s he was offered to start the New York office of the bank. Being the elegant visionary that he was, he opened shop in the iconic Seagram Building on Park Avenue. We all packed up and left Madrid, I was twelve. It was a bit traumatic but I would eventually get the hang of moving back and forth, and it would become a way of life. After three years in New York came five in London and then back to Madrid, by then I had started my own nomadic way of life, going to college in Boston and working in France and Switzerland during the summers.

But back to Manuel. He had that kind of knack to be in the right place at the right time and looking good while doing it. Of course it did not hurt that his brother-in-law – my uncle and godfather – was a renowned tailor that made him all his suits!  BTW that is where I get my suit wearing custom, in case you were wondering. The other side of that coin was that unfortunately my dad travelled constantly, so we did miss him at home.

As a teenager up I remember blasting all around Europe in the big old Bismark at 130 miles per hour with any excuse. Eventually I would even be allowed to drive – that was fun.

My father retired in the late 80s and started all kinds of hobbies: playing with computers, taking a genealogy course to track his family tree, but most importantly spending time with friends, travelling with them and basically hanging out with all sorts of people. Manuel made friends easily, from all walks of life: artists, Bohemians, noblemen and gypsies, doormen and executives, everybody. About this time he became a part of the Boina club. The boina is the Spanish version of the French beret. This “club” basically consists of a bunch of guys meeting at a great basque restaurant for dinner and appointing 2 new members: a male and a female boinero who had to make an induction speech. This group had a fantastic network of contacts so the list of members is basically a who´s who of Madrid: writers, artists journalists, politicians, professors, you name it, of course my dad with his love of cars was the unofficial chauffeur of the group, picking up and dropping off the new members, this way he always got to hang out with them one on one!

For years every morning he would walk around the Retiro Park in Madrid, and he would often meet people there. Some of them became close friends. He walked every day until he no longer had the strength to walk out the door. The twelve years that I lived in Madrid, I always loved living overlooking the park so I had the light and could run and walk. Many weekend mornings I would bump into my dad walking and I would walk with him. Those walks were very special.

Possibly his biggest project after retirement was installing and improving the sprinkler system at the country house in La Navata. In fact, more of a hobby, it might have been his summertime obsession. I joked with him that he was like Enea Silvio Carrega, the hydraulics obsessed uncle in Italo Calvino’s story Il barone rampante. Fixing the sprinklers, changing water pumps, pumping water from one well to the other, tweaking the irrigation software. For this project he would enlist Mohammed, our local gardener to dig a ditch here, uncover a pipe here, make a hole here and so on. You would wake up on a hot summer morning and see chubby Mohammed trudging around the garden following my father who would be wearing his immaculate Panama hat overseeing the watering situation.

My father was diagnosed with an advanced pancreatic cancer in 2012. Thanks to the phenomenal staff at the Hospital Clínico San Carlos and specifically to Dr. Sastre, who managed to sneak him into the last spot at a clinical trial for a new pancreatic cancer drug manufactured by Celgene. This was a massive and miraculous success that increased my father’s life from an average of 5 to 9 months to three and a half years. These have been a tough three and a half years for Manuel as he struggled with his illness. The last few days, my mom, terribly stressed from being basically the sole caregiver all this time, took advantage of the fact that I was home from North Carolina to take some days off in Mallorca with her grandchildren. So I spent my father´s last week alone with him. Despite the fact that it was a tough situation for us, we had a very nice last bonding experience. We did not talk much, as by then he was spending most of his time sleeping. I slept on a bed next to him, to help him at night.

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Manuel died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of July 3 on his bed, surrounded by his family, like Don Quijote or Rodrigo Manrique.

It has been so long since I was caught in a summer storm in Madrid, I don’t even remember the last time. Of course it does not help that I have been living in the US for ten years now, and that when I do come home I spend most of my time at home with family. So it was a rare, rare treat when a recent afternoon I went for a bit of a walkabout and half an hour out I found myself in the most intense, refreshing, and overall awesome storm. At first I stopped at the entrance to a building to protect myself, but after a while, bored of waiting, I went off and enjoyed getting wet, cleansed and cooled down.

Contrary to popular belief that “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain”, the rain in Spain favors the north shore. So much that it is intensely green, not unlike say Ireland, or the north of France. The plain however – and Madrid sits right smack in the middle of it, if fairly dry. Madrid is also the highest capital in Europe sitting 646 m (2,119 feet) above sea level, making it very dry as well as hot in the daytime and cooler at night. Of course Global Warming and desertification do not help, and the dry South is slowly creeping its way North.

my old Cavafy

my old Cavafy

Sad and melancholic after returning from Greece, I found my old Cavafy book and I am re-visiting it!

My brother Theo introduced me to Constantine Cavafy years ago – through his poem Ithaka (which I posted on this blog on August 19, 2011). Now as I reread poems I discover new beauty in his words. The poem which has struck me the most during this re-reading has been God Abandons Antony or God Forsakes Antony, published in 1911. The story is of a defeated Marc Anthony in Alexandria (which centuries later would be home to Cavafy). After being moved by its elegance I remarked on the importance of the story of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. Of our fascination with that love story, with ancient Egypt, with the Roman Empire, and so on, so I started thinking of my favorite connections to this story…

The first one that came to mind where the lyrics from one of my favorite Rolling Stones songs: Blinded by Love, when Mick Jagger sings:

The queen of the Nile

She laid on her throne

And she was drifting downstream

On a barge that was burnished with gold

Royal purple the sails

So sweetly perfumed

And poor Mark Antony’s

Senses were drowned

And his future was doomed

He was blinded by love

Of course Cavafy’s poem is born from Plutarch’s telling of the story. Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen used the poem for one of his songs, but changed Alexandria, the city, to Alexandra, a woman. Of course there is Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra born from a translation of Plutarch, there is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and so on and so forth, but for now I leave you with Cavafy in his own translation:

If unexpectedly, in middle night,

an unseen company be heard to pass,

with music and with voices exquisite, —

turn not away and uselessly lament

your fortune that is giving in, your work

that came to nothing, the projects of your life

that proved illusory from first to last.

As one prepared long since, as fits the brave,

bid now farewell to the departing city,

farewell to the Alexandria you love.

And above all, do not deceive yourself:

say not that your impression was a dream,

that, it may be, your hearing played you false:

to futile hopes like these never descend.

As one prepared long since, as fits the brave,

as most fits you who gained so great a city,

approach the open window steadily,

and with emotion, but without the plaints

and supplications of the timorous,

listen — knowing it to be your last delight —

listen to the elysian sounds, the exquisite

instruments of the mystic company;

and bid farewell to the city you are losing,

farewell to the Alexandria you love.