If life were a city…it would be Madrid

Madrid is home (neo-mudejar background)

This is not my sentence; it belongs to the Madrid Tourism Board (or whatever it is called). A dear friend, old college classmate, and travel consultant extraordinaire Jen Donati passed it along after she met with the aforementioned Madrid Tourism Board recently in NYC.

The video as you can see is a bit cheesy, it uses all the current topics and techniques that end up making it a totally unremarkable video: a cute font, quickly changing shots (we have so much to show you, so little time! and we want this to be a dynamic video), a multigenerational and inclusive cast (perfect), hip and trendy folks in hip and trendy restaurants, hotels, and streets, a catchy American song in the background, even some hints of humor, ha-ha!

So, despite the video having everything required to be the perfect promotional video, it does not pull at your heartstrings, it does not really want to make me pack my bags and jump on the first flight to Madrid. Why? What is it lacking? Passion. This was a clip obviously made by committee.

“Wait” you will ask, “who cares about a promo video for a city?” Well, I do. I do because it is my city, because I am a tour guide there when I am home (check out my website), because I am passionate about cities, especially Madrid.

By contrast here is a remarkably similar clip to promote the 2017 Festival Flamenco Madrid. The music and the dance accomplish everything the other clip could not. Even being a minute longer (which could be a handicap in our ADD, Tik Tok world), the clip grabs you and does not let go. The settings, streets, plazas, venues are the same, but he music and movement are the key here, even, I am willing to venture, with a fraction of the budget.

At the end of the day, what have you got? Well, in my case an urge to go walk around my city that I miss so much.

On the importance of building community

Surprisingly, although I have repeatedly written about community in my blog, I have never dedicated a full post to it. Well, here you are:

It used to be that when you were born you had automatic community for life. Even if you lived in a big city, your neighborhood was your community, you would go to the same grocers, church, cafés, etc. Now, especially in the increasingly hyper-capitalist suburban individualist world, the concept of community has pretty much vanished.

Maybe because of the importance of community and the lack thereof, the US is obsessed with the concept of community. Sadly, for all the talk, community is another word they cannot spell.

With the different buttresses that community offered mostly gone, the only one that continues (mostly) standing is work. So, work has become -in many cases- our only community touchstone. Gone are the neighbors, the churches, the meeting points. We just drive from our isolated house to work and back. Of course, many folks have strong communities built around church and clubs and different associations, but even these are discrete and rarely connected, which means that you have your church friends, your work friends, your café friends -if you are lucky- and so on, but not the network, the rich tapestry that used to define community.

I have been keenly aware of this problem since I moved back to suburban US in 2005. It would eventually become one of the factors that led me to depression. Since then, I try to build strong communities wherever I go. My efforts other than work, fall on volunteering, church, and of course Film Club! Yes, I chat to some people at the gym, at yoga class, and at my café, but those venues have not surprisingly given any tangible results.

Like pretty much everything else in life, you have to actively work at building your community, it is not going to magically fall on your lap one day, a wonderful support network where you can express yourself and get any sort of help from moving a sofa to a comforting chat. Nope, you have to work for it. But more importantly than working to form your own little support group, your real community will flourish when you build community for others.

Notice that I did not mention family, which is of course the cornerstone of community. But when you move away from home, that most important foundation is only available on the phone or during visits -if you are lucky enough to visit.

The result of the erosion of community systems is that folks are increasingly lonely, alienated, and sadly, eventually depressed. So go work genuinely and honestly on your community, the results will be worth it!

Should you walk the Camino?

Many of the people I have met since I did my first Camino in 2017 tell me how much they want to do it. Most folks will never get around to walking it. Well, I am here to guide you.

What is your motivation to walk the Camino? In my case, I had dreamt about it for years, but it took my father’s passing for me to finally commit. Maybe you have heard from a few pilgrims that it was a cool experience? Or maybe you have a higher motivation. Although it is bad Camino etiquette to ask pilgrims why they are walking (it is none of your business, you can read more pointers here), most folks do it in between jobs, after college, to “find themselves.”

You 100% should walk the Camino. For clarity, for healing, for your mental, spiritual, and physical health, to get to know the country in a way not even Spaniards know, for culture: history, architecture, art, food, etc., to disconnect from civilization (you are not walking the Appalachian trail), but just walking for hours on end each day means that you are not looking at a screen for those hours, and yes, for fun.

Your first task is committing, maybe therein lies the issue.

Your next step is to figure out how much time you have. For the full enchilada, you are going to need thirty something days. Or you can do a shorter Camino like the Primitivo which will take you around 12 days. Any less and you are really cheating yourself out of the transformative experience that is the Camino. Sure, you only need to walk 100 km (62 miles) -less than a week- to get your Camino certificate, your Compostela, but if you are walking the Camino to hang a certificate on your wall, you might as well just go to Disney World.

Once you know how much time you have, take a look at all the different Caminos, you can start in Paris, Geneva, Madrid, Lisbon, Bordeaux, you name it. The Camino starts at your doorstep.

Money. The Camino in Spain is relatively inexpensive. You can get away at 30 Euros a day. You will need more if you want to stay in hotels instead of Albergues, and much more if you are going to walk in France or anywhere else in Europe. On the other hand you will need much less if you camp and/or if you make all your own meals.

Then you make your travel plans: planes, trains, buses, whatever.

And your equipment, there are a million YouTube videos on this, even I have written about it here.

That’s it, you are on your way, Buen Camino!

Paddle boarding, a wonderful experience

One of my colleagues is a keen surfer, who nowadays also paddle boards and paddle surfs. The last couple of weeks he has taken me out paddle boarding with him.

What a wonderful experience it is! You get to spend time on the water, working out, and in communion with nature, in a meditation. Already I have seen a spotted ray, a turtle -which was really zooming along! and a manatee (and some pink jellyfish).

We paddle out of the Ocean Inlet Park and paddle around the Intracoastal, checking out mangroves, and gorgeous waterfront homes! I am hoping that he asks me out again and maybe we get to go out to the open sea, I might have to earn my sea legs first.

If you get a chance to paddle board, do not hesitate, like the old commercial said: “just do it”.

Picasso in Warmer Climes: Works on Canvas, Clay, and Paper

For many of us growing up in the eighties, Picasso’s art is something we just grew up with (the Impressionists, especially Monet, are also right up there, but this is a post about Picasso). By the time I saw my first real Picasso painting, I had seen so many prints, posters, photos, etc. that I do not think I was that impressed.

The first Picasso painting that I remember seeing was no less than the Guernica, at the NY MOMA, (before it was returned to Spain) in the late seventies. I was more impressed with the size than the horrors of war that it portrays -also, I was, like, twelve.

Along the way, I became a fan of Picasso, studying his art, his career, his life. The whole thing is fascinating! My first full time teaching job, back in 2005 I organized a trip from Boston to NY to see the Picassos -back at the Museum of Modern Art! I relish any and every chance I get to explore his work.

Fast forward to last week when I made it to the last day of a tiny Picasso exhibit at the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach. It was worth it even if it only had a handful of works, equally divided between paintings and ceramics.

The exhibit was titled Picasso in Warmer Climes: Works on Canvas, Clay, and Paper, and it focused on Picasso’s last few decades, when he was prolifically generating art.

Every single piece of art Picasso created is brilliant and genius, but I have a soft spot for his interpretations of Don Quixote. Here was a tiny ceramic jug with a simple image of the Knight. Picasso and Don Quixote were implacable individualists creating their own destinies.

With such a massive oeuvre, there are Picasso exhibits everywhere constantly, so keep your eyes open for an exhibit near you soon!

What shoes to wear on the Camino – Part II

This is a follow up on my surprisingly popular What shoes to wear on the Camino post (which you can read here).

This Summer I walked my third full Camino, the Primitivo (you can read about that here) and it was awesome! It is a relatively short Camino of 320 km (200 mi.) which I managed in 11 days. Part of what made it great was my shoes…

This year I switched from Salomon to the Nike Pegasus Trail 3, and they were fantastic: great support, cushioning, grip, comfort, weight (or lack thereof). Overall a 10. I did get one blister, but it was not the shoe’s fault, it was the wearer’s fault for doubling up a stage and walking 40 plus km (25 miles) with the last 20 km (12 mi) on tarmac on a warm day; I deserved it.

Let me reiterate that if you are walking the Camino in the Summer, you normally do not need boots, unless they are really lightweight, and you need the ankle support. Trail running or hiking shoes are the best option, much lighter, more breathable, etc.

Of course, every foot is different, but I wholeheartedly recommend this shoe!

Have you done the Camino with Nike Pegasus Trail 3? What was your experience like? If not, what shoes do you recommend? Let us know in the comments!

Buen Camino!!

Lunch at the monastery

During my last week of break, I was warmly invited to lunch at El Paular monastery by the Father Prior. What a treat!

Summer Thursdays the monks organize a paella lunch at the orchard and invite friends of the monastery. So, my friend Jaime and I drove over the Guadarrama mountains to the Lozoya Valley where the Monastery sits on an idyllic location, cradled by streams. We stopped for a coffee at the village of Rascafria before heading over to the old monastery.

We had a chance to walk around and even visit the gift shop. Then we went to one of the chapels for Sext prayers. After my few retreats and visits, I remembered knew how the Diurnal prayer book worked, something that always baffled me before. Then we headed over to the massive -now sadly abandoned- orchard. The barn has a massive porch that houses the long table where we all sit.

After the bell is rung three times, and the table is blessed, lunch includes some chips while lunch is brought out, a salad, the famous paella, melon and watermelon, sweets, coffee and after lunch liqueurs, including their own home made digestif. We sat next to John, one of the retreatants who happens to be the manager for Spain of the World Community for Christian Meditation, what a character, obviously we had a deep conversation.

After a walk around the orchard and the monastery, we sadly headed back over the mountains to Madrid, glowing with the inner peace that the monks imbue.

An Enlightenment dream

The Enlightenment arrived late to Spain; we loved the Baroque so much we stuck with it longer than we should have. After many efforts by many folks like Benito Jerónimo Feijóo, my man Francisco de Isla, and many others, king Carlos III finally changed all that.

One of the worries that had nagged Spanish monarchs since 1492 was that only a fraction of the gold and silver that arrived from the Americas actually made it to Madrid. Sevilla was the main drop off point, so a lot of the wealth stayed there (either legally or less legally). The solution? Build a canal from Sevilla to Madrid so more of the riches could make it to the capital.

In 1781 the plan was made: build a massive dam to feed a canal that would connect the 500 km (300 miles) from Madrid to Sevilla.

The dam was started, but as usual in Spain all sorts of problems arose; there was not enough labor, so soldiers were brought in who were replaced with prisoners… then there were financing issues… the 90 mt (300ft) dam was about halfway done, when a massive storm in 1799 wreaked tremendous damage. So, they just gave up on the whole thing and forgot about it.

Well, this unfinished abandoned dam, la presa del Gasco is actually 8 km (5 miles) from my mom’s country home as the crow flies, and I finally had a chance to go with my friend Jaime and his brother Jose Mari. The walk, following the never used canal is easy, and once you turn a corner, and you see this behemoth, you are filled with awe at what was the most impressive hydraulic project in 18th C. Europe.

After walking around and checking it out in complete awe, we went to a restored part of the canal nearby where we had another little walk along the canal.

The sheer size of this construction, the perfect fit of the rocks, the ambitious plan, it is all baffling.

As usual in Spain, the local authorities do not want to declare this a heritage site, a protected historical site, a park, nothing, because of building and construction licensing possibilities, i.e.: money and corruption. Disgusting.

This is one excursion worth doing before the whole valley is filled with gaudy houses.

Peering into the void

A very special visit to Toledo

One of my dearest childhood friends is a top art and antiquities restorer (I have mentioned him before here). This year he invited me to spend the day with him in Toledo where he had to supervise the restoration of a bridge his company is working on. Little did I know that the bridge was just the opening act of the day:

Our first stop was the bridge Tracer is restoring. The Puente de Alcántara started life as a Roman bridge before going through different modifications and updates. The medieval Order of Alcántara fortified it and protected it, giving it its current name -which is ironic since alcántara is bridge in ancient Arabic, so the bridge of bridge! Jaime’s company is working on the medieval tower, their work is impressive, but what really struck me was the formidable views from the top of the towers.

From there Jaime showed me a couple of churches -side by side- he worked on years ago: Santa Fé and Santa Cruz. In them we saw intricate Moorish arches, a beautiful, coffered ceiling, gorgeous renaissance entryways and staircases, a vaulted medieval ceiling, on and on, oh and some silly modern art that really showcases ancient workmanship!

But Jaime’s ace up his sleeve, his piece the resistance was taking me to the Cathedral where his old friend Jesús, the head of maintenance, gave us a very private and incredibly special tour.

Now, I have been to the Cathedral of Toledo a bunch of times, I have shown it to student groups, visiting friends, I even took some photos there for my dear professor Dominguez a few years ago. But this was beyond my wildest expectations, we barely stopped at the “regular” stuff other than for Jesús to point out some unique feature of whatever it was we were looking at.

We started by taking the elevator (the first one installed in Toledo) to the second floor of the Cathedral’s cloister, there we saw queen Isabella’s apartments, some excellent views, and we learned about the two falcons they have just adopted to deal with the pigeon issue.

Then we walked around the cathedral with Jesús pointing out this and that, until we went into a “secret” room hidden behind an iron gate and a velvet curtain, then another iron gate to the Cathedral’s reliquary! I must confess this moment was really moving for me, mainly because I was not expecting such a room, with such a treasure inside, it was beautiful and amazing, my hands were trembling!

We ambled a bit more, checking out the image of “Lust” which I had photographed years ago for Prof. Dominguez, and the 18th C. “Transparente”.

After our visit, we walked around town a bit and we had lunch where Jaime used to eat when he was working there, but after the Cathedral, it was all a blur for me.

August: Osage County, a 21st C. Bernarda Alba

August: Osage County British poster

I recently wrote about Federico García Lorca’s La casa de Bernarda Alba (you can read about it here). But since I had not written about film, or Film Club since March, here is an update.

This month for Film Club, we chose to do a deep dive on Meryl Streep. This is the first time we try this format as we normally pick a theme or genre, but it worked out well, I think. We saw (in chronological order) Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, Julie and Julia, and August: Osage County.

Warning, only minor spoilers. In August, Streep plays Violet, a recently widowed, pill popping matriarch and mother of three women (played by Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis who all do phenomenal jobs!). When the family arrive for the father’s funeral the drama unfolds, just like it does in Bernarda Alba… the hidden truths come out, old stories float up to the surface, rivalries are woken, and so on.

Just like with Bernarda, the action takes place mostly in the house, and in Summer. Both these factors add to the tension in both works. August deals with a larger cast which does an amazing job, but the brunt of the work falls on Streep and Roberts; to see both these heavyweights in the same frame is powerful and dramatic.

Of course one has to keep in mind that these works are almost a century apart, but the human drama, emotions, and feelings are the same.

The film is Tracy Lett’s adaptation of her own play and is intense, well crafted, and poetic.

If you want to see outstanding performances, specially from Streep and Roberts, this film is highly, highly recommended.

With my niece pre-show