Lightning visit to Chapel Hill

Since graduating in 2016 I had not been to Chapel Hill, and I was dying to go soak it up. So a few weekends ago I jumped in my car and drove off to my beloved Alma mater in North Carolina.

After stopping for the night at a roadside motel in Florence S. Carolina, I arrived in Chapel Hill in time for lunch. I walked across the ghostly campus to see my dear friend Mandey at her restaurant, Imbibe. She did not know I was coming and was very surprised to see me! She fed me a gorgeous pork belly sandwich!! I was happy to see they had successfully transitioned to a delivery and pick up restaurant! Unfortunately, the upstairs bar, Zogs, my second home in Chapel Hill was closed due to Covid. From there I walked down Franklin Street, across town, enjoying the energy and the community, something that I dearly miss in nameless, faceless Florida. I am glad to report that The Yogurt Pump is still serving (from a window) the best frozen yogurt in the world. My old friend Jedd has opened a cigar shop (World Headquarters Cigars) and I enjoyed catching up with him for a while. My next stop was the Student Store!! Where I overspent on UNC gear, although truth be said, it was mostly presents for family. I took the long way back, stopping to meditate at the Arboretum.

Confession time: The Catholic church at UNC, The Newman Center, is across the street from the Carolina Inn, the quintessential Southern hotel. From my first days in North Carolina, after church on Sundays I would go across the street to the Carolina Inn, get a coffee and sit in the lobby to read. Once, when my sister came to visit, she stayed at the Inn and had an amazing experience! So, at last I bit the bullet and stayed at the Inn, I was dying to, and it did not disappoint!

I had socially distanced dinner with a handful of dear old professors: Cristina, Oswaldo, and Irene. My heart was overjoyed with happiness to spend time with them.

Sunday morning, after a perfectly Southern breakfast –including grits! I crossed the street to church. Mass is normally being held outdoors on the parking lot during Covid, but due to the rain, mass was cancelled and the ceremony was going to be livestreamed from inside. At the beginning they did not want to let me into the building, but when I identified Father Bill, they did. Seeing Father Bill was a more moving experience than I expected. Mass, with only a handful of parishioners, mostly undergrads, was simple and beautiful. After mass we could not abide by the rules anymore and Father Bill and I fell into a heartfelt, teary (for me) hug.

After sadly checking out of the Carolina Inn, I drove to Irene’s house for lunch. And what a lunch it was, full of good food, laughter, memories, conversation, and needless to say: gossip! After that, it was a sad, lonely, and rainy drive back to Florida, stopping to sleep in Savannah Georgia.

Now I can’t wait to go back and see all the folks I missed in this lightning visit (you know who you are), and to go to mi favorite places that were closed for safety’s sake. As Terminator would say: “I’ll be back”.

The great American restaurant: The diner

Thanks to almost 30 years of the Food Network and food magazines, the US is finally waking up to eating good food. This is not to say there was no interest in food before. Look no further that the Amish communities with their all organic and local only fare -long before that was even a thing. For too long Americans in general only considered food as fuel for the body. Generally, Thanksgiving is the only exception when families cook and sit together to eat. Of course, there have always been restaurants around the country that venerated food. I think of Locke Ober’s in Boston, which my dad loved, and of course many others. Speaking of the Food Network, think of all the restaurants Guy Fieri features in his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show, revealing some of the generations old, mom and pop restaurants that are temples of food.

It is my opinion that diners are the finest representation of American food and therefore, culture. It boils down (sorry for the pun) to the Puritan/Protestant DNA, of our work ethic ingrained in our culture; work is the way to earn your salvation. It means one must have a big breakfast to work all day towards one’s goal. Thus the big breakfast at the diner, who has time to make eggs and toast and hash browns, etc, etc, at 5 in the morning? Lunch is a non-event: I have seen people wolfing a slice of pizza while they walk, a sandwich at one’s desk is more than acceptable, it is respected as a sign of your hard work, taking your time for lunch means you are a slacker.

My love for diners started way back in 1983, my freshman year in college in a small town outside of Boston. Exploring the town, I discovered Wilson’s diner. Its shiny blue and chrome was beckoning, inviting. What a discovery! It looked like a railroad car that was permanently placed there. And what a breakfast they had, buttery everything. Big dollops of butter to make the pancakes, the eggs, the omelets, the hash browns, everything! The first times I went with my best friend Theo who quickly got to chatting with the staff in Greek. I was amazed at the coincidence until I learnt that many, if not most of the New England diners are family owned and run by hardworking Greek immigrants. There is obvious irony in the fact that a Greek family was cooking perfectly buttery, greasy American breakfasts. I immediately fell in love with Wilson’s and walked the couple of miles  -sometimes in foot deep snow- into town on Saturdays for my breakfast: eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage, pancakes, I tried everything and everything was delicious. During those four years of college I explored other diners: The Blue Diner in Boston, and the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, quickly cementing my love for diners and what they represent.

Since then I have had the chance to discover many diners and I always make it a point, whenever and wherever possible to breakfast in a diner: The Empire Diner in Chelsea (The New York one, sorry) around the corner from my apartment after college, The Agawam Diner near Newburyport where I lived for a winter, tiny Casey’s Diner in Natick where I would sometimes take my advisory group, it is so small it does not even have a regular door, but a sliding door which takes up less space, the famous Red Arrow Diner in Manchester New Hampshire where presidential candidates go get their photo taken during the primary election campaign. There are not many diners outside of the Northeast, but that does not mean that there are not great breakfast places that do the job of the diner: Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe in Chapel Hill is one of them. I even held the oral component of my final exams there; the students had to order their breakfast in Spanish from the wonderful Latino staff (although the ownership was Greek!) to pass the class! Visiting the University of Virginia, I discovered the White Spot on which I wrote one of my earliest posts (you are going to have to scroll way down…). The Clover Grill in New Orleans, I even bought their T-shirt: “We love to fry, and it shows”, Plato’s Diner in Maryland, and so on.

The other day I discovered The Boynton Diner in Boynton Beach in Florida, and I am happy to report it is a perfect specimen of the species: great waitresses, perfect breakfast, and, of course, an endless cup of piping hot coffee.

Why a Ph.D.? (Revisited)

After the first year of my doctorate program, and with a couple of weeks of distance to reflect and let it all sink in, it is time to come up with some road markers, some conclusions:

The program is everything I was expecting for and much, much more.

I have learnt so much, I have “discovered” Medieval and 18th C. Spanish Lit. – where have I been hiding for my whole life? Part of the secret to my discovery has been having Profs. Domínguez, and Gómez-Castellano as my teachers. They are the real deal: knowledgeable, patient, encouraging, understanding, I could not have wished for better role models.

My colleagues are also top, top shelf, both in the Masters and Ph.D. programs, in Spanish French and Italian: Sam, Ruben, Thomas, Anne, Emily, Miguel, Zully, Andrew, Rob, Sarah, Drew, Massi, K-N, Martina, Gloria, et cetera, et cetera.

The other side of the coin, my teaching experience has also been out of sight. I have taught three fantastic classes of Intermediate level Spanish language, 203. I have been very impressed with my students, a great, diverse, fun, brilliant mix. It has been a thrill teaching – even at 8:00 am. We had great discussions, games, learning moments, fun and end of the term breakfasts at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, where the students ordered their breakfasts in Spanish!

Beyond the in-house academic powerhouses, I have met people I never expected to meet: David Gies – Jedi Master of 18th Century Spanish Lit. (UVA) and Ana Rueda, the grande dame of 18th Century Spanish Lit. (UK) (who I even had the chance to pick up at the airport and have a drink before a lecture!). I also met novelist and journalist Rosa Montero and Spanish choreographer and ex-dancer Nacho Duato, not bad for a village. And speaking of dance, I saw The Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham and Marie Chouinard dance companies, the Monteverdi and Cleveland Orchestras, heard Verdi’s Aida, and over a dozen different takes on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, et cetera, et cetera.

Yes, the first semester was mayhem, and yes the last week of the Spring semester was Hell, but all in all,Magnolias Ale and Ruben Sunrise going to class Sunrise going to class a very positive experience.