Archive for August, 2015

My granddad´s family was in the horse and carriage business, but my grandfather Antonio soon saw the advantages of the new automobiles. So he sold his shares in the family business back to his siblings and went into the car business, moving to Barcelona and buying and selling cars, driving, whatever he could do to live his passion.

He eventually moved to Madrid where he became a driver for the US ambassador, driving US Generals and dignitaries to see the Civil War front. After that he became the driver for the British ambassador – he always claimed they had better cars. There he transported allied pilots and crews rescued by the Resistance from the Pyrenees to Gibraltar in neutral, but really Axis friendly, Franco ruled Spain.Changing cars in different locations and sometimes carrying my father and uncle Antonio as decoys. For that job he got a medal from the Queen of England which he bequeathed to me. Although most importantly, with infinite patience, he taught me to drive.

So my dad and my uncle grew up in embassy garages, driving around, tinkering with, and washing, lots of washing, cars. They both grew to embrace motoring both of the four wheel and two wheel variety, and both passed that passion on to me, which I have continued to cultivate. This makes me a certified petrol head. When the Newburyport High School where Tracy taught needed a van driver, I was in. When a friend wanted me to drive their car from New York city to Boston, I jumped. When a friend in Boston needed to pick up some luggage she had left in New York city we drove down, picked them up, had lunch and drove back. I jump at the opportunity to give anyone a ride. I love driving.

I learned to drive – as did most of my friends in an old Citröen 2CV “La Petra” in the countryside outside of Madrid where there was lots of driving around, tinkering with, and washing, lots of washing, cars. That simple two cylinder, air cooled, beautiful car is still in our country house waiting for some tender loving care to get her back in running order.

My uncle used to work for Exxon in Spain so he had a fleet of Land Rovers at his disposal. When some of these where decommissioned and auctioned off, he got one for me when I was 18 or 19. It was a topless short wheelbase V6 and it was a blast. That started an ongoing love affair with Land Rovers which progressed to a Defender 90 in 1992 and to a Discovery in 1998.

When I moved to the US in 2005 we got a Toyota Highlander, I didn’t like it so much, so when I hit an ice patch and crashed we found a great deal in an Audi A4 to replace it. I loved that A4 so much that when the financing deal expired I traded it in for the same model – only station wagon. That is Helmut, still with me seven years later!

In between there have been Renaults, Seats, Fords, VWs, etc.

When my dear friend Alfonso got involved in car racing – he even raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it was great fun to follow him around to his races around Spain. Eventually he would start his own racing team and is now a successful competitor in GP2, the class right under Formula 1.

At UNC I was in the founding group of the UNC Gearheads Club. It is now floundering a bit, but in its heyday we had great fun going to car gatherings and to a great Porsche exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Fine Art!

My dad’s old V8 Mercedes is still sitting in the garage, waiting, like “Petra”, for some tender loving care. But the days of blasting down the autobahn at 200 km/h listening to jazz are not going to come back, so who knows what will happen to the old Bismarck.

The first times I saw Mélanie I must confess I did not pay much attention to her. In my defense I must say that I was in a bit of a rush and that in that very room was Francis, yes, the Saint Francis, done by my old friend Vicente Carducho. Nearby was Aesop, no, not Velazquez’s Aesop, but a version by my old Boston buddy John Singer Sargent, even Picasso was there. Ok it was a silly dish with a Centaur, which he probably whipped up between a swim at the beach and lunch at Vallauris, but still. But what really captivated me was my granddad’s old paisan Francisco, yes Francisco de Goya, he was upstairs in a couple of his Caprichos prints. Imagine finding Goya in a village in the middle of North Carolina, my mind was blown and I fell in love with Chapel Hill and with the Ackland Museum. My story with Mélanie came later.

Mélanie and I were formally introduced by a common acquaintance, a curator in the museum, in the Winter of 2013. After that I quickly grew to like her. We started seeing each other every Sunday. I would go to mass, then I would grab a coffee at the Carolina Inn and do some reading, and then I would go see her for a while. That was over two and a half years ago and we are still going strong. Our secret? when I am not reading to her, I monopolize the conversation.

After visiting Melanie just about every Sunday for the last few years – except during summer, I can tell you a few things about her: She is French, if you must know, from the South of France, Provence. She is a Marquise, so less than a duchess or a princess, but more than a countess or a baroness. This means that she is not the first French noblewoman I fall in love with, but that is a different story and it was a long time ago. At any rate, she is 30, she has been 30 since I met her, in fact, she has been thirty since 1789 when she was painted. Not a single wrinkle, that’s French beauty for you. Yes she is rich, check out that dress, that is heavy silk, with a stoat or ermine trim! She is artistic. Can’t you see her blue drawing paper? Where do you think the word blueprints comes from? Yes she loves to write, see the stylus in her hand? although the artist forgot to paint in an inkwell or bottle, or was he trying to tell us something? Hmmm. She is religious, her sash and medal means she belongs to a religious order, you know, for the nobility. She is wise, see the statue of Athena, or is it Minerva? never mind. Some people say she is married, but I don’t see no ring – and wedding rings have been around since the ancient Egyptians and Celts – go listen to Beyoncé.

Her full name is Mélanie de Forbin-Gardanne, Marquise de Villeneuve-Flayosc. Some call her Madame, maybe because she is nobility, but to that I say read the previous paragraph. Being noble and rich goes hand in hand with being a bit of a celebrity, even if she does not like it one bit. So besides the gossip that goes with being 18th C French nobility, and the painting, and being a “Grand Lady”, writer Allan Gurganus wrote a bit of a story about her, which, by the way is totally ficticious!!!

But enough of this superficial silly talk. Mélanie has a heart of gold. She was extremely well educated, she loves the arts and culture, and philosophy. Therein lies the problem. The Estates-General has just met in Versailles, ending up in a tennis court after Louis XVI kicked them out of the Grands Salles, where they were meeting. Heads are about to roll, many heads, literally. If you look closely, Mélanie has a longing in her gaze, her eyes are almost watery. She could care less about the painting and the painter, and the dress and the furniture. She has read Kant and Hobbes and Locke and Voltaire. She knows we can have a better world, but these Enlightenment thinkers full of Reason are forgetting a small detail: love. My Mélanie knows we can, and should, have a better world with everything that entails. When I go see her on Sundays she tells me all this, just with her eyes.

I can’t wait for next Sunday to go see Mélanie.

This year I had the privilege of ending my summer holiday by inviting my younger sister and her two oldest kids to spend a few days with me in Chapel Hill. It was fantastic! We all flew at the end of July into North Carolina only to find that the battery had died on old Helmut. So the next day, after a delicious breakfast at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe and jump starting the car, we headed out to Audi Cary where they lent us a wonderful Q5 for the day while they changed the battery!

We drove to Raleigh where we visited Ray Price Harley Davidson, with its great drag racing museum. Then we went to downtown where we visited the Museum of Natural Sciences and had lunch at the Museum of History.

During our ten days here we went to church, visited every corner of campus, the Basketball Museum, the Planetarium, the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, Wilson Library, the Ackland Museum, Hillsborough with its fantastic Matthew´s chocolates and Ayr Mount plantation, we even went to Duke (shhhh!!) and Durham.

They met some of my favorite people from Chapel Hill: my classmate, office mate, and little sister (in the absence of my real little sister) Alejandra who picked us up at the airport, Patrick my mailman, the folks at Ye Olde Waffle Shop, Missy Julian Fox, the folks at the Ronald McDonald House, Father Bill and Adam at church, the folks at Trader Joe’s, even the High Priest, Professor Frank Dominguez.

The culinary experience was just as awesome, we went to Five Guys, Suttons, Maple View farm for ice cream, Buns for their grilled salmon sandwich, Mellow Mushroom for Pizza, Top of the Hill, Akai Hana for sushi, and the highlight being North Carolina barbecue.

Other highlights were when we played soccer on one of the soccer fields, or when we set up the big screen digital projector home theater to watch Disney’s Alexander and Annie, volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill, visiting the Mall (and the outlet mall), Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target, and of course Walmart, which Jimmy loved.

We had a blast. My niece, infused by the entrepreneurial spirit of the land set up a table on the street to sell her hand-made bracelets. Unfortunately, living in a dead-end street in August meant that she did not have many costumers – although she did manage a couple of sales, the proceeds of which she donated to the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill!

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It looks like I have never dedicated a blog post to my love of cigars. Today I visited my favorite cigar shop in Madrid and realized it is time to change that.

The thing is, one has to focus on the little pleasures of life, the little things that give one some respite from this mad, mad world we have created. A decent cup of coffee or tea sitting down reading, writing, chatting with a friend/s or contemplating, not a gallon coffee when you are running around or working like some crazy Americans I see. A little walk somewhere that lets you breathe. Chocolate, a nice drink, a while with friends, sport, many things can be a recess.

One of those occasional pleasures for me is a good cigar. I have enjoyed cigars since my first job after college, around 1988, when I could finally afford some nice things. My first cigars where bought at L.J. Peretti in Boston, but when I came to Spain and discovered Cubans that was the end of non Cuban cigars, unless one was under duress, as one sometimes is.

Montecristo Nº 4 is my standard smoke. Ideal in most circumstances and one of the best balanced cigars you can smoke. Special occasions require different choices. For example the bullfight requires a longer smoke. An after breakfast smoke requires a softer touch, and so on. A lot also depends on what you are going to have with it, rum? Brandy? Cognac? Bourbon? Wine? Coffee? Decisions, decisions.

When I returned to Boston in 2005 I was blessed to find Gloucester Street Cigars. José was a true gentleman. That was my little escape place. When I moved to downtown Boston they held the spare set of keys to my apartment! We also did two phenomenal cigar night fundraisers for Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, raising well over $3000.

Now in Chapel Hill I am fortunate to have a small porch on which to enjoy a good smoke. I have corrupted my dear friend Jedd to join me in my cigar smoking pleasure, to the point that he has become quite an aficionado and even has a nice cigar cabinet where he sells cigars at Zog’s. This might be a case where the teacher surpasses the master!

Like any good hobby, cigars takes time. They must be kept in perfect conditions. Then there is the lighting ceremony in order to get an even start, and then enjoy. Very important, when you are finished never extinguish, squash, crush, or in any way tamper with the dignity of the cigar in its last moments. Just let it quietly drift away. Anything else will burn the precious oils and make the cigar furious and it will stink (literally).

Now that the US and Cuba are normalizing relations I can go to my favorite and Madrid’s best cigar store (which must make it a top place worldwide) on calle Barquillo to stock up until Christmas break!

If you enjoy cigars and want to learn more I definitely recommend Gabriel Cabrera Infante’s Holy Smoke a hilarious history, guide and manual for cigar smokers.

Rocinante does not like my cigar smoking, after all it is tricky to concentrate on two things that require attention at the same time. So I have to wait until a break in the riding to enjoy a smoke.

What am I smoking now? When I visited Greece, my dear friend Alfonso gave me a box of Trinidad Fundadores, a smooth Laguito cigar!