The Fox and the Stork

A few months ago, at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown, a dear friend and old colleague from Seacrest Country Day School started reading to her Lower School students via the interweb. She called her daily reading “Trespassers Will” , and she soon reached out for more readers to help her with her daily story, including me!

Of course, I volunteered. Our only issue was reading a story in Spanish and then adding English subtitles. Although I have uploaded a few videos to YouTube, I had never done the subtitle bit. The trick lies in synchronizing the voice to the subtitle. It took a few tries, including the one where I deleted everything as I was almost finished, grrr.

The Fox and the Stork is an ancient Aesop fable. La Fontaine refreshed it in the 18th C as a perfect vehicle to teach and enjoy, the Dulce et utile theme of the time. It really took hold of the popular imagination, and was popular in the 19th and 20th C. I even have a tie with the fable’s motif! (you can see it on the video)

At any rate, I read the story, recorded it, added the subtitles, and now it has a whopping 48 views, I am sure it must be a record of some kind.

So, for your viewing pleasure, here is the story of The Fox and the Stork, and a clip from the real pro, the aforementioned Angela doing her thing. Spoiler: she is phenomenal and light years ahead of my hack job. Enjoy:

Marcelino

My mother has a country house in a tiny village near the mountains of Guadarrama, North of Madrid. We have been coming here for weekends and Summer since I was a child. The village has a train station, a small river, a supermarket, a church, a pharmacy, a convenience store, a couple of restaurants, and a hair dresser, but the most important place in the village is the café/bar/restaurant: Marcelino.

Marcelino sits near the Guadarrama river by the road to a bigger village a few miles down. It was built by the grandparents of the current owners stone by stone in the early 20th C. Since then it is the central meeting point of the village. It is the place where I had my first drink in the smoke-filled bar in the early 80s, and the place where I enjoy a coffee every day during Summer. The fourth generation is starting to work there, making coffee, and serving drinks, no privileges.

It is interesting to see the flow of customers. In winter, the local moms meet for coffee after dropping off the kids at school. After lunch, the old men come down for their card game, in the afternoon groups gather for the tertulia (conversation) and coffee. And in summer nights everybody comes for the barbecue!

The coffee is not particularly good. It is old school Spanish coffee, which means it is torrefacto: over-toasted and with added burnt sugars to boost the flavor and aroma (see my previous post on coffee). But that is exactly what you should expect in an old-fashioned café in a Spanish village. My preppy friends from Madrid hate it, but that is missing the point of the tradition. There is a basic lunch menu, which is handy in emergencies and all day bocadillos -simple sandwiches made with Spanish French-style baguette.

But the real food comes at night when they fire up the barbecue! Outdoors, right in front of the diners. While they will oblige and throw a burger on the grill if you ask them to, the specialty here are the local sausages: chorizo and morcilla. Chorizo is the more familiar as it is spicy pork sausage. Morcilla is the lesser known sibling made of ground pork with its blood, with either onion or rice, what the Brits call “Black sausage” but that is where the similarities end. Morcilla has a strong, tangy but sweet taste. And Marcelino grills the best! The barbecue menu also has pinchos morunos (the Spanish evolution of shish kebabs), and steaks, plus salads and other traditional dishes from the kitchen.

After dinner you can stay until after midnight enjoying a drink. In fact, Marcelino is one of only a handful of bars that serves Xoriguer, a gin made in the Balearic island of Menorca, which happens to be my favorite. But that is a subject for a different post.

Desperate Literature (or interesting bookstores and libraries)

I fell in love with literature at the American School in London with a couple of great teachers: Soledad Sprackling for Spanish Literature and James McGovern for English. But I did not fall in love with books until college.

At Bentley University I discovered the Bowles Reading Room which had beautiful books. It was glassed in from the rest of the library and every day I went there to do my homework but would invariably end up looking at the wonderful books. I loved that room so much that at the end of my studies, I donated a book about Spain to the Collection. (I contacted the librarians who got me this rare photo of the Reading Room for this post, thanks!).

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

But I would have to wait until after college to have enough disposable income to buy books, which, living in Boston, was very easy. Some days on my lunch break I would sneak to Goodspeed’s to look for treasures. Such is my love for books and literature, that years later, I ended up getting a PhD in Spanish Literature! (see previous posts)

Speaking of UNC, one of the highlights are the libraries. Plural. The old library is the Wilson Library (which is featured prominently in Robin Williams’ great film Patch Adams). I spent hours studying in this library and a couple of times studying very old books in the Rare Book Collection. The big, modern library is the Davis Library with its 7 million books. There, I soon made best friends with the Spanish book librarians Teresa and Becky. I would walk to their office deep in the heart of the library and talk books, (and gossip). This library is as close to the Borges idea of a library as I have ever been: massive and repetitive, but with a soul.

During my studies at UNC, one summer I got a Fellowship to do research at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. What an experience! To get to the rare book collection you have to pass not one, but two security checks, you cannot bring in any pens, books, phones, etc. Books there are treated with the care and reverence one would expect of -in my case- over two hundred year old books. I spent every morning that summer reading most of Francisco de Isla’s first editions, manuscripts, and other pieces attributed to him but not his. That experience is one of the highlights of my academic career. (Their coffee shop in the basement was also excellent – and subsidized! but that is for another post)

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

After UNC I moved to Southern Florida, which is a wasteland for books -must be the humidity. But, in 2016 I did read this great article in Vanity Fair, (to which I have subscribed and read every issue from cover to cover since around 2006) about this magical book store in Santorini called Atlantis Books.

Fast forward to 2018 when my dear friend Matthew came to visit me in Madrid. He stayed at a hotel in the old part of town. One evening after I dropped him off, around the corner from the hotel, on narrow Campomanes street, I bumped into Desperate Literature. I was ecstatic! What a discovery, what a find! A tiny bookstore, but filled with books mostly in English, with a few in Spanish and French for good measure. It was a tiny paradise, an oasis of… books!

Books in time of Covid

Books in time of Covid

I soon found out that this bookshop is part of Atlantis Books which I had read about in that Vanity Fair article. It all fit in, a collection of magical bookstores.

During this Covid-19 pandemic I found out they were sending books to folks. I ordered one and I was able to make use of my workout time to ride my bicycle to pick it up.

In conclusion: support your local -hopefully quirky- bookstores, and read.

 

My happy place, El Escorial

 

Although I have talked about it in various posts, I have never dedicated a  post to my favorite building, my happy place, and arguably the most important building in Spain, El Escorial.

I am blessed in that my parents bought a house not far from this place when I was a boy. My restless dad would often take me here for quick excursions, to walk around the palace, the village or the surrounding countryside. As soon as I could drive (17 with my British license) I started going there on my own: to walk around, to read, to write.

Possibly the main reason El Escorial is so special is that it is a monastery that is a royal palace and a royal palace that is a monastery. So it is huge by monastery standards but it is austere and spartan by palace standards. But it is more than a palace and a monastery: it has one of the finest libraries in the world, a magnificent basilica, a pantheon with (most) Spanish kings (and reigning queens), a school, an art museum, etc.

It was built by my favorite Spanish king Philip II. He had such drive and desire to build it that he spent a fortune to have it built as fast as possible. It was built in 21 years from 1563 to 1584. The result is arguably the finest representation of Renaissance architecture in Spain (his dad Carlos V, built another great Renaissance palace in Granada, but that’s a different story). What happens with most huge old buildings is that they took so long to build that they were started in a certain style and finished in another style altogether -and oftentimes, other styles in between. This is most visible in cathedrals. Oh yes, Philip II is the one who sent out the Invincible Armada, in fact, you can see the desk where he worked -and where he received the news of his defeat.

The palace is built entirely of local granite, has 14 courtyards, and thousands of windows, doors, blah, blah, blah. As you can see from the photos, it is amazing, grandiose but sober. There are plenty of books and web sources about it, so I do not need to add to the mountains of information. There is also the village where the palace is. It is a beautiful little village with great food, little bookshops, and cafés. The combination of countryside, palace, and village is really magical. When a group of the king’s scouting committee where checking out where to build the palace they were caught in a fierce storm that they interpreted as a signal. So they figured that is where they should build. There was a semi-abandoned mine there (Escoria means slag, mining residue, thus Escorial). Plus there is evidence of pre-roman, Celtic settlements in the area, adding to the mysticism and aura of the place. I could go on for hours and hours, but a. I will spare you and b. you can hire me to give you a tour!

Many years ago, chatting with a work colleague and friend we discovered that we were both fans of El Escorial, so we soon founded the Asociación A. de Amantes de El Escorial. (The A. stands for apocryphal, but don’t tell anyone), it is a bit of a joke, but we now go at least twice a year for Asociación “meetings” that involve dinner and a walkabout!

Why is this my happy place? Maybe its the radiation from all the granite, maybe the fond memories of walking around, maybe the relaxing qualities of the beautiful renaissance lines, I really couldn’t tell you.

 

Tonxo Tours

 

 

 

Well, I guess the first thing I must do is apologize to my followers for a very long silence. Soon you will know the reason. As you might know, about a year a ago I returned home to Spain after many – thirteen to be precise – years in the US. With a clean slate, I decided to start a business that had been on the back burner for years: I have become a personal tour guide, creating bespoke tours of Spain under the name Tonxo Tours.

Showing people Spain is my life calling. I am passionate about sharing my culture, history, language. After showing Spain to all sorts of folks for years, I have decided to start Tonxo Tours and make my joie de vivre available to all! I have been toying with this idea since the late 90s, so it is about time to get going, don’t you think?

Most tour companies boast about their team of specialists, well, I am that specialist. I have been giving tours of Madrid and of Spain since my twenties. I have worked with British rock bands, schools and universities, foundations, executives from all over the world, even the Monaco Olympic Sailing Team, I would love to show you around!

After twenty odd years in the business world and thirteen teaching in high schools and universities in the US, it is time for me to do what I do best, which is to share my passion for Spain.

Why has it taken so long you might ask? My life has been marked by a peripatetic lifestyle, moving to New York when I was ten and then to London, Boston, Paris, Bordeaux, Geneva, Lausanne, Chapel Hill, Naples Fl., and so forth to over eleven cities. Cities became my friends. I loved discovering what made each one unique ̶-how they got their personality. I spent my time in museums, cafés, theaters, concerts, operas, ballets, all of which unavoidably infused me with a love for the arts. Sharing my love and knowledge of cities and their cultures soon became a venue to express myself. As a teenager I gave tours of Madrid and London to friends and family, something I continue to do and enjoy, which has led me to create Tonxo Tours. My experience and passion radiate on the street: Explaining Spanish history, architecture, food, music, sometimes all of them at the same time!!

When I started thinking about setting up a tour company I was aware of the tremendous competition in the market. Just in Madrid you can jump on a sightseeing bus and casually check out the city while chomping on some churros, you can take a Segway tour, there are a bunch of tapas tours, there are free tours, you can get a tour on a tuk tuk, a golf cart, an antique car, even in a pink Rolls Royce! In contrast to that, my philosophy is simple: a no gimmick, quality driven, discreet – yet fun – bespoke tour that will cater to what you want to experience, see, taste and hear, not the other way around.

I can arrange exquisite lodgings, extraordinary experiences, delicious food and drink,

with only one purpose: creating unforgettable memories.

But why would anyone choose Tonxo Tours? you might ask. Here’s a few more reasons:

  1. I am a native, a local, born and bred here, but with the advantage that I have lived abroad many years. I have dual citizenship USA / Spain, offering me a perspective unattainable to most.
  2. Passion: I love sharing my culture, my history, my food, my architecture, art, music, dance, etc. This drives me.
  3. Experience: I have been doing this for years with friends, colleagues, schools, universities, foundations, etc. From 1994 to 2004 I had my own company (but that is a different story) which took me to every city and town in Spain at least a couple of times a year, more for the big cities. So I really know Spain like the back of my hand.
  4. DNA: My grandad worked for the British and American embassies, often times driving dignitaries around – he even got a medal from from Queen Elisabeth (but that’s a different story). My dad was restless. We would go on excursions every time he got bored – which was often – He was also a Spanish history buff which rubbed off on me, so I have been reading Spanish history and literature since I was a youth, which eventually led me to get a PhD in Spanish literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (again, different story).

I received my undergraduate degree in business. I specialized in management, the human part; what motivates people? What makes them tick? I used these skills in my first jobs in finance, photography and management before using them to run my own business for ten years, importing and selling industrial machinery in Spain and consulting for European companies wanting to expand into Latin America. I moved back to the US, where I started teaching in 2005, and although I was making a fraction of the money I used to make, I felt much happier and more fulfilled. In the meantime I got a Master’s and then a PhD in Spanish Literature from UNC. Returning home to Spain allows me to indulge in my true vocation. I am able to apply my many skills developed and honed over the years. So don’t over think it, contact me and I’ll be happy to show you around!

Let me know when you are going to be in Spain and what you want to do and see. I will personally take care of you, if you just want to spend a few hours walking around old Madrid or if you want to spend two weeks exploring Spain, I will be happy to set it all up.

If you want to know more about me, you can read check out this blog about my random thoughts, travels, and whathaveyous.  You can check out my website tonxotours.com and/or my Instagram: tonxotours

Santiago de Compostela

One of the advantages of being a freelancer is that I can take a couple of days off when I can fit them in. So recently we escaped to Santiago de Compostela. I know this Northern jewel well, but last time I was there when I finished my Camino in June of 2018 I didn’t stick around and took the first train back to Madrid. This time we went for three days.

Santiago was built since Roman times mostly out of granite so if it rains and it gets dark the streets and the buildings take on a mystical glow, a very special shine. We were lucky it rained when we went!

Of course the main event is the Cathedral which has been there in one shape or form welcoming pilgrims since the Middle Ages, although the Romans already had a temple there. Other must sees include the square Plaza do Obradoiro (check out the live webcam!) that houses the Cathedral, town hall, parador and university, the awesome modernist market, the park, the contemporary art museum, the folk museum, and, of course, a bucket full of churches/monasteries. But really the best thing to do is to walk around the old town enjoying the atmosphere, the little shops, the bars and restaurants…

We were lucky to stay at the Parador, the original pilgrim’s hospital which is on the Cathedral square and is the oldest hotel in the world!

The other main attraction is food! Needless to say the seafood cannot get any fresher as Santiago is a few miles from the sea. The octopus, the barnacles, any fish is just perfect! There are two local wines to have: the crisp, seabreeze infused Albariño and the lesser known cousin Ribeiro made inland along the local rivers (thus the name).

The Cathedral was under extensive restoration efforts so we could not enjoy mass with the massive incense burner – the Botafumeiro, oh well, maybe next time.

Beauty vs Nihilism

Don Quixote and Sancho in their quest

Don Quixote and Sancho in their quest

I recently read two articles published one day apart that made me want to write about them.

The first one is a book review in ABC Cultural by Manuel Lucena Giraldo of Padre Ladrón de Guevara, a Jesuit who critiqued over 2.115 writers! Apparently they were all horrible, regardless of nationality: Pio Baroja, Rubén Darío, Victor Hugo, Flaubert… all “lead to the desolation and disconsolation of the soul”…

The second is a brief interview of Spanish author Luisgé Martín, this time from El Cultural de El Mundo who believes the world is going to hell in a handbasket, which of course is not a new concept. The idea goes back to the lacrimarum valle (valley of tears) of the early Christians.

What struck me about these two articles was the pessimism, the negativity. Now, I might not always be a ray of sunshine, but there must be some hope and/or reason for us to be here.

Aren’t you amazed at the energy in us? around us? everywhere? Coincidence? maybe, but it sure feels good to believe in something bigger, otherwise what is the point of the beauty around us? This takes me to the Ladrón de Guevara article: novelists, poets, artists all help us to see that energy, that beauty. While I confess that I have not read either author, and I do think that a contrarian view helps to add contrast to the picture, I do believe we cannot only think in black and white.

What I am driving at here is what Richard Rohr calls the “oneness”, that is you cannot have light without dark, life without death dry without wet, ying without yang, and so on.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Carl Sagan

 

Return to culture (at last)

One of the massive pluses of living in a major world capital is the amazing cultural offering one has access to. I really needed this cultural stimulation. The problem with the word culture is that it has been made to sound elitist, refined, distant from the people, the stuff Frazier and Niles Crane did, but in truth it is just beauty, beauty created by man – and woman of course! The least important bit is if we call it culture, art, or whatever.

I have been lucky to live in major cities where I became a cultural junkie: London (where it all started for me), Paris, Boston, New York, even Chapel Hill – a college town, but obviously with a thriving cultural scene. Unfortunately Naples only had a couple of cultural outlets (which I squeezed every last drop from), and in NJ I didn’t get a chance to explore although of course the heavy stuff was in NYC…

In the less than three months back in Madrid I have been lucky to experience:

  • A brilliant piano recital by local piano star Luis Fernández Pérez playing Händel, Scarlatti, Rameau, and Bach. For free at the Fundación Juan March.
  • A play/recital of Federico García Lorca’s poetry by stage icon Nuria Espert.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre’s eerily prescient play Nekrassov (1955) about the “fake news”.
  • A gorgeous version of The Nutcracker by the prestigious Compañía Nacional de Danza and the Teatro Real house orchestra!
  • Visits to the Sorolla museum, the Museo del Romanticismo, and a score of art exhibits including “Rediscovering the Mediterranean” at the Fundación Mapfre with paintings and sculptures from the XIX and early XX Centuries.
  • After fourteen years I again became a member of the Amigos del Prado, which allows me free entry to the Prado, avoiding the queues. I have, of course, already gone twice!
  • Seeing a couple of concerts in bars around town by chance.
  • Never mind being surrounded by amazing architecture.

Et cetera, et cetera, down to awesome street musicians and performers! And this is with limited time and money. The cultural menu is, in fact, overwhelming, but I am happy to nibble and enjoy!

Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.

Jawaharlal Nehru

 

On the importance and beauty of blogging

The lonely work of blogging

The lonely work of blogging

Blogging has been a fantastic tool for me, an outlet, and a hobby. What started as an academic adventure blog about riding my motorcycle (RIP) to visit universities for my PhD, morphed into a bit of everything blog: Musings on academia, random essays/articles, personal anecdotes, still the odd travel piece, my favorite things (restaurants, bars, cigars!), and personal notes. In fact, my most read items are my essay on Existentialism in Don Quixote and my dad’s obituary.

My students always appear shocked when I tell them about my blog. Which is surprising because they are super connected. In fact everybody should blog. You see, Instagram (follow me at tonxob) is only visual, Tweeter is limited, and old Facebook, well, we all know the shortcomings of FB. Blogging on the other hands requires a bit more thinking, planning, writing, it forces you to write – at least try – coherent thought and how to express it.

I recently found an old blog post from a professor at the LSE about precisely this issue. So here it is, click here to read more. Here is a bit of a tease…

A good proportion of the people I have come across may be brilliant in their field, but when it comes to using the interwebs, tend to sound like the querulous 1960s judge asking ‘What is a Beatle?’ (‘I don’t twitter’). Much of life is spent within the hallowed paywalls of academic journals (when I pointed out that no-one outside academia reads them, the baffled response seemed to be along the lines of ‘and your point is?’).

Here is the address if you prefer to cut and paste:

An antidote to futility: Why academics (and students) should take blogging / social media seriously

There are a few blog platforms to use. I have used WORDPRESS from the beginning and I love it! you can have your blog for free. Come on and join the club!

 

 

Sevilla

It had been over fourteen years since I had been to Sevilla, but I recently managed a three-day getaway to that magic city by the Guadalquivir, and it never disappoints.

The reason for the trip was the various exhibits celebrating the 4th Centenary of native baroque artist Bartolome Murillo’s birth.

Back in 1992 Sevilla hosted the World Fair, called Expo ’92 coinciding with the 5th Centenary of Christopher Columbus departing on his little trip from that city along its navigable river. The Expo was a smashing hit. For it, Spain built its first high-speed train from Madrid, the AVE, which, reaching speeds of 300kph (186mph for those stubborn Imperialists) does Madrid – Seville in a nifty 2.5 hours! So obviously we took the train. Once there we stayed in a gorgeous loft overlooking the Archivo de Indias and the Cathedral with its amazing Arab Minaret turned bell tower, the Giralda.

Sevilla is a walking city, so that is what we did, walk around the park, by the river, along the old streets of the magical Santa Cruz neighbourhood, across the river into the Triana neighbourhood, peeking into the cute patios, checking out old palazzo Casa Pilatos, and the new “setas” designed to give shade to the main square on the hot summer days. Along the way we arrived at the Museo de Bellas Artes which is hosting the main Murillo exhibition. To say it is breathtaking is an understatement. The museum has gathered Murillos from around the world so you can really go deep into Murillo’s craft, style, personality, and nuances. It blew my mind.

But besides Murillo, Seville has amazing food. We stopped at old hangouts like Morales, Las Teresas and el Rinconcillo where I used to go with customers and suppliers, and enjoyed the arab influenced tapas, the bounty of the nearby Atlantic and Mediterranean, and local specialties like garbanzos with spinach or ox tail, all washed down with lovely local white wines and sherries.

Something else that is abundant in Seville is churches. There are churches and convents and monasteries on every block and each one is worth stopping in. It might seem glib to say but most of these temples are Baroque, it can be a bit overwhelming to see such a profusion of decoration: angels and leaves and thingys. It looks like there is no space left without a decoration, and that was precisely the goal, in fact it has a name: horror vacui in latin, meaning fear of emptiness. A main reason for the wealth of baroque art is that Sevilla was the landing port for all the ships coming in from America, so a lot of the silver and gold did not make it out-of-town, if you get what I mean.

If you have been to Sevilla you know one could write for hours about it. If you haven’t been, what are you waiting for?