Stuff one finds on the beach.

As my faithful readers know, my community service this year was cleaning the beach every Sunday afternoon. It was extremely rewarding to help, and at the same time to walk for an hour and to meditate while enjoying the beautiful beach and weather. A three in one: community service, meditation, and exercise.

During the Winter months, the strong winds (I guess) blew in all kinds of trash, sometimes in the course of an hour I had to empty my big bucket (you know, the 5-gallon blue buckets) up to three times! Now in the warmer months there was remarkably less trash. Anyway, that was my highly scientific (not) guess.

Fortunately, I am not the only one on beach cleaning duty, I do bump occasionally into other people cleaning up. The town also has 4 buckets available at the entrance to the beach if you want to grab one and clean up.

On top of all that there is a bit of a treasure hunter thrill, and a fun component to what you find or might find. Here is an incomplete list of things I have found:

  • Bottle tops – this is the most popular trash on the beach ☹
  • Plastic forks and spoons – really people?
  • Bottles – mostly plastic but also glass. All sorts of bottles: drinks, shampoo, oil, you name it…
  • Bits of plastic – from tiny to huge and in all colors. You cannot even tell what they used to be a part of.
  • Flip flops – every Sunday at least one! Usually, barnacle incrusted.
  • Cigarette lighters
  • Deflated balloon
  • Hammerhead shark – dead
  • Comb – I picked it up, not because I needed it.
  • Eyeglasses – no glass and broken, but I do not need them.
  • Lure – with a massive hook I gave it to a dude fishing.
  • Dog Tag – Palm Beach.
  • Part of a propeller – someone surely missed it…
  • Etc. Etc.

Oh, and make sure you do not step on the Portuguese Man-O-War… or their deadly, long tentacles.

Helping at church, on being an usher

One of the resources I leveraged years ago when I went through a rough crisis was going to church. While the church had always been there, I never really had a spiritual connection to it. Then I started going regularly, enjoying the time to recollect myself, the ceremony, the silences, begging for forgiveness, etc. and hopefully, if I was lucky a good lesson in the form of a sermon, these however are understandably rare.

The first church I went to during this crisis was St. Elizabeth in Milton, outside of Boston. I only went there for a couple of weeks and I spent most of the time (ok, all the time) crying. From there I went to Our Lady of Victories in Boston, which unfortunately has now closed. One day one of the Marist brothers who ran the church asked me to help during mass. I explained that I was not worthy of helping but they insisted. My first job was ringing the little altar bells before Consecration and Communion, then I started reading. Then I moved to North Carolina where I was warmly welcomed by the UNC Newman parish and Franciscan Brother Bill of whom I have written a lot about before here.

St. Ann’s in Naples was my home for a couple of years. Here in Madrid, I went to cute, tiny Our Lady of Lourdes for a while, and to the Jesuits for a few years, but my official parish and the one I have been going to for many years is San Fermín de los Navarros, which is basically across the street and where both my sisters got married. Like in Boston, the Pastor after seeing that I was a bit of a regular asked me to read, and I do so humbly and with pride.

Cut to the chase, after a few times at St. Marks in in Boynton Beach, I was approached by an usher and asked if I wanted to join their crew. I had never really thought about it, but I am happy to serve. The team is a fun, hodgepodge collection of characters, Christine who recruited me is, of course, the boss, the usher coordinator. I have to wear black pants, a white jacket, white shirt, and a tie. Yes, I look a waiter but since I am snob, I prefer to think I look like a sommelier. Since I did not have a white jacket, they lent me one… until I found a vintage one that I much preferred. The job is easy enough: be charming and welcome everyone as they come in, once mass has started guide the late comers to socially distanced seating, manage the Communion flow, at the end open the doors and say “goodbye”, then clean up bulletins left in the pews and put the collection in a bag. Easy peasy.

In conclusion, no job is too simple, too easy. Every honest job is honorable. I am happy to serve and to be useful.

First year back Stateside

A year ago I was locked up in Madrid, teaching a few classes on line, obviously Tonxo Tours was paused indefinitely. So I started looking for gigs around the world. As fate would have it, I ended up back in my beloved (not) Florida. Well at least the East coast of Florida which, having a bit more history than the West coast is a bit more diverse…

So, as I review the year, what are my main observations and conclusions:

I love my school! Saint Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary. We get students from North Carolina down to the Caribbean, and I get to teach them Spanish and English in a beautiful campus with great colleagues!

Despite Covid issues like having to wear a mask to class, it still beat Zoom classes where students are sitting on their beds, getting up to brew a cup of tea…

I have worked hard at building my community by building relationships at school, volunteering as an usher at my church (wait for a blog post on that), and trying to socialize –although that boils down to me going to my cigar lounge once in a while.

Speaking of fate, I was lucky to find out that my friend from my schooldays in London, Manuel Andrés lives a couple of towns North of me in Juno Beach! We basically saw each other every week-end for pizza, barbecue, or trips to Ikea. Last weekend we crashed the Walker Cup which took place next door to him (watch for another blog post on that).

I have moved so many times –about 20- in my life, that I now have a fairly established routine: find a nearby church, gym, and yoga studio, bar, coffee shop, cigar shop/lounge, community service, breakfast restaurant, Trader Joe’s, etc. Of course it is tricky to check all the boxes, so there is a bit of give and take. For example, I do not really go to the bar much anymore, but I do have the beach to go running, swimming and walking/meditating, so it compensates.

All in all, it has been a positive year and it has flown by! Now I only have a handful of meetings, some paperwork and I am off to Spain, stay tuned!

On grilling

It might be our reptilian brains, our primal instincts, but few things taste as good as grilled foods. It does make sense: fire + food, no middleman, no fancy sauce, no nothing.

Now, I got the secret to buying great secondhand stuff from Spencer, a brilliant and wise old student of mine: You have to watch Craigslist like a hawk. And I did, patiently waiting and searching for the right barbeque. When it popped up, I snatched it up.

It is a baby gas Weber grill (Spirit II E-210), but it is all I need, and it fit my teacher’s budget. I know, of course the charcoal ones are far better, but to cook for one person, it is a bit of a production, so I confess to falling for the convenience of pressing a button and presto!

I invited my friend Manuel to dinner in order to properly inaugurate (for me) the grill. I rarely eat red meat, so when I do it is a treat. I went to the butcher in town, The Butcher and the Bar, and bought a pound of filet mignon from grass fed, Florida cows.

Of course, I washed and cleaned the grill as the obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive Virgo that I am, and we were ready to fire her up!

It did not disappoint. The steaks (and the asparagus we threw with them) came out perfectly. My main concern was that being a small grill it was not going to have the heat to sear the meat, but I was wrong (as usual) (see the photos). Since then, I have also done swordfish, and it has also been delicioso!

So, if you are in SW Florida and want to put some shrimp on the barbie, hit me up!

A good cup of coffee (continued)

Yes, I talk about coffee a lot, and not because I am addicted to the stimulants, in fact during recent fasts, (for colonoscopy prep and for Lenten Fridays) I lived fine without it. And I only normally only have one cup a day. A standard 16oz size, not the Big Gulp Americans drown in. Well, lucky for me I have found a great coffee place in my neighborhood in what is otherwise the suburban wasteland of Southern Florida.

Common Grounds is a great little place despite its common name. The grounds are not Common, since they are single origin, fair trade, organic, all the feel-good stuff, but it makes for a tasty cup. The place is cute with real vintage furniture, a piano you can write on -it gets painted over when it is full-, and friendly, skilled staff. I have yet to try their pastries, but they do look tasty!!

Just as important as the coffee, the time you take to enjoy it, the space, the ceremony, your relationship with the barista, all make up your sensory and spiritual experience. Something that is normally mostly lacking in the big chain coffee shops.

The best company I can find nowadays here is a good book, as you can appreciate from the photos.

So, there you have it, if you are ever around Boynton Beach, hit me up, otherwise head over to Common Grounds!

Nature in my Southern Florida neighborhood

If you have at all followed this blog, you know how important nature is for me. Although I am a city boy, I grew up spending every weekend and Summer in the country. I still crave nature and try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. I have written before about the benefits of “forest bathing”, “Shinrin Yoku”. Although Boynton Beach is a suburban wasteland, there are a few great places to connect with nature.

The first and most obvious is the beach! I am lucky to live close enough to the beach that I can go for a run or if conditions are right, an open water swim about once a week. It makes my workout into a meditation; the sea clears your mind! I also go to the beach for my weekly “volunteering” shift where I walk and clean, mostly plastics, but also papers, old flip flops, etc. from the shore.

On the opposite, Western edge of town is the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge which consist of two parts, a mile boardwalk in Florida subtropical forest, and massive swamp that you can walk next to, or canoe on. Here you can see a lot of Florida wildlife: gators, deer, and plenty of birds.

Finally, a few blocks from home I have the Seacrest Scrub Natural Area which is a small park mostly hosting Gopher turtles. This little park is perfect for a quick walk to clear your mind, meditate or just wander.

So I can’t complain as far as outdoor venues is concerned.

The “new” volunteering

Volunteering is one of my favorite things to do. I find that helping others, however indirectly it might be, is one of the most rewarding endeavors one can aspire to.

I started volunteering after my breakup in 2010 in Boston. Community Servings cooks and delivers food to homebound families (due to illness) all over the Boston area. Spending my Saturday mornings chopping carrots -or whatever else needed to be done- was the best therapy. And I made great friends in my “squad”.

In Chapel Hill I spent four years volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House. The house hosts families of hospitalized children, free of charge, as long as the child is hospitalized. Monday evenings from 6 to 9 were spent cleaning the kitchen, cleaning, and preparing rooms for families, welcoming families and showing them around, vacuuming, sorting soda can tabs (the aluminum is well payed), whatever needed doing. I cherish the friendships I made in the house during these years.

Two of my favorite guys Ramses and Ronald!

Naples Florida is a bit off the beaten track, so my volunteering took a two-pronged approach: Every Saturday I sorted stuff at the Saint Vincent de Paul Society Thrift Shop and then took it out to the showroom floor. I also helped at Champions for Learning, helping low income students get into college! This was extremely rewarding, as I helped students with their college essays or interview questions. The smiles on their faces when we made a sentence work or when they figured out an interview question were all I needed to fill my heart with joy.

Back in Spain I volunteered at the Ronald McDonald Prenatal Family Room at the La Paz Hospital keeping the room in tip top shape -and baking brownies for the families! I also volunteered at my local Caritas Chapter warehouse, sorting donated books, furniture, and electronics for low income families. I quickly integrated with the team and the hours passed quickly sorting and helping folks out.

Baking brownies for the Ronald McDonald Family Room

Then Covid struck and I moved back to Florida. Although there might be volunteering possibilities out there, I am cautious. At the same time, I miss the camaraderie, the rewarding feeling of helping others.

Fortunately, I live near the beach where I go for open water swims every week (weather, rip currents, and surf conditions permitting), so the other day I grabbed a bag and went for a walk picking up trash. I spent an hour and a half walking, meditating, and retrieving plastics (mostly), all sorts of bottles, 2 flip flops (different), bits of rope, bottle tops, and random trash. While it was a lonesome project, I did clean up the beach ever so slightly, and I got some exercise and meditation done, so I will be repeating this socially distanced volunteering again soon!! (next time I will take a bucket since the plastic bag did not like the wind).

The pros and cons of multiculturalism

Moving from NYC to Boston 1988

We first moved to New York In 1977, I was 12. From there we moved to London in 1979, from there to college in Boston in 1983, and so on for back and forth between the US and Europe. As I recently wrote in my “Diversity Statement” for a job application:

I have had the privilege of growing up in multicultural and multiracial environments, cities, and schools: New York City, London, Paris, Madrid, Boston, etc., so since childhood I have been bathed in diversity: cultural, racial, religious, sexual, socioeconomic, etc. On top of that I have had the privilege of traveling widely.

So, while being multicultural is definitely an enriching experience, it does have its drawbacks: The first one is that you no longer “fit” into any particular “set” culture, you become a bit of an outsider whenever you are in an environment of population that is “born and bred” in a place.  The second and more insidious aspect is that you might no longer meet certain legal or bureaucratic requirements to say, work in a place.

This is what happened to me when I returned to Spain in 2018. My US degrees (Including a PhD) are not recognized in Spain to work as a teacher. Furthermore, to get all my paperwork approved and transferred and certified and triple stamped would have taken years. Besides the paperwork, there is a mentality issue. Teachers in Spain are generally not a respected, appreciated, and certainly not well remunerated part of the population. There are historical and social reasons for that, but I will leave them for another post.

Long story short: I have returned to work in the US as Assistant Professor of Spanish and Assistant Director of the Language Department at Saint Vincent de Paul, a major seminary in Boynton Beach Florida! This was not an easy decision, leaving everything behind for a job, but I could no longer live in a country that refused to acknowledge me professionally.