On teaching French

Since I arrived at UNC, every time I bumped into the Director of French Studies – which was often because she is a keen supporter of the North Carolina Symphony which I also follow (although not as keenly), I would always offer my services to her as a French teacher. Little did I know that one day she would offer me to teach a section of French 105, French for High Beginners, i.e. students that have had previous exposure to French but are too rusty to go into intermediate level.

I cannot lie, my French grammar – which was never my strong suit to begin with – was, was, hmm, rusty. But my course coordinator who also happens to be my desk neighbor in our office had fantastic Power Point presentations covering the grammar.

French came to me later in life. I started taking classes in high school in London, which were complemented with great summers at the International Teen Camp in Lausanne in French Switzerland. I continued taking classes during university and spent those summers working in Paris, Bordeaux, Lausanne and Geneva, taking classes in the evenings and immersing myself.

After that I worked for a stint for a French stockbroker in Madrid, and tried to practice as much as possible with friends and work colleagues.

More recently, for my studies I have loved revisiting Montesquieu, Voltaire and other 18th C French authors.

So my speaking and reading are fine, but I struggle with the writing, due to the grammar, so teaching was not a total shock, and I compensated with total immersion from the music video to welcome the class to using only French all the way to the end of the session. The mix of students was as good as anyone could ask for. From quiet and shy overachievers, to frat bros, (to continue perpetuating stereotypes) to the whole demographic. I believe this always makes for more enriching classes. Our classroom in the Urban Planning Department building was nice and cozy and coincidentally had a massive wall sized reproduction of an antique map of Paris!

French Class outdoors

French Class outdoors

Three years down, one to go (hopefully)

Within the last month I finished my third year of my PhD studies and Chapter 2 of my dissertation, so I finally got to updating my poor abandoned blog, only to have the Greek internet swallow the blog post I have been writing for the last 10 days (more on that later), as if it were a multi-billion Euro loan from the European Central Bank. So, back to the old drawing board.

My sixth semester has been very intense. All semesters are intense, but in different ways. This was my first semester dedicated 100% to writing my dissertation and it was a new dynamic for me. I find writing, especially in the academic style very difficult, every sentence is a challenge, and then it gets corrected by my director and sent back for retooling. So it feels like one step forward two steps back. But eventually every page gets cleared after a few drafts, so it is very rewarding to make progress.

My volunteering has also been very exciting. The volunteer coordinator at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill asked me to participate in their Annual fundraising gala, this year the theme was Disney’s Aladdin… and I was Jafar! They were nice enough to let me keep the costume so I re-used it for the Romance Studies end of the year party, which this year was themed as “Happily ever after” i.e. your favorite storybook character.

Other highlights of the year to which I will dedicate blog posts were:

Being a Graduate Research Consultant for my Thesis Director’s undergraduate literature class.

A plethora of cultural events: music, ballet, theater…

The French Department had me teach French for High Beginners. It was a challenge but also great fun.

I was the Department’s soccer coordinator for the year, or as I re-worked it: The Romance Studies Sports and Wellness Coordinator.

This Spring I presented at a conference at the University of Maryland and at our own home grown Carolina Conference on Romance Studies.

All this and more will be coming your way soon, so stay tuned!!!…

My little pleasures

One of the many things I love about living in Chapel Hill is the amazing cultural scene. One really has to pick and choose what events to go as there is always so much going on. Most events are free or $10 as a student. Since this is one of my few indulgences, I enjoy preparing my evening around the event, which always ends with a decompression session at Zog’s and debriefing with the amazing musician / composer  and rock star bartender James Brown. This semester I have enjoyed:

Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performing Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1

The NC Symphony performing

Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto with an amazing Di Wu on the piano

A Bach evening

Brahms Violin concerto #77

The UNC Symphony’s

Beethoven Symphony No. 2

The Baroque ensemble with the amazing, charming and funny Prof. Wissick doing a mostly Germanic repertoire.

The UNC Opera doing Shakespeare inspired bits

The UNC Playmakers theatre did Into the Woods and A Midsummer night’s dream in back to back performances

The “amateur” theatre group did Dracula, which was brilliant and funny!

And of course no season is complete without The Nutcracker, the NC Ballet’s performance.

Since I choose to go to all these concerts I do not go to rock, pop, jazz, etc. concerts of which there are, of course, even more. I hear about them from my students that go to see groups like Corporate Herpes and so on. Hmm, not for me any more. Although I do feel bad that I have not yet partaken in the experience of going to some of the more popular venues for those kind of gigs. Who knows, I might let my hair down someday (joke) and go!!!

I am already excited for next term’s performances, which include UNC Opera doing Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, The Mariinsky Orchestra, Kronos Quartet, Britten’s War Requiem, Martha Graham, Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, and who knows what else, I can’t wait…

Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill

The best time of the week for me is Mondays from 6 to 9 pm when I volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill. I love my team: evening manager Michelle, night manager Antoinette, volunteer chair masseur Bill, and my shift partner, the Batman to my Robin, the Ginger Rogers to my Fred Astaire, the Ying to my Yang, etc., Margaret! There are also the Therapy Dogs with their owners and the different dinner groups that cook for the families.

The first question people ask me when I tell them I volunteer at the House is what do I do there. Well, on a typical evening there are families to welcome and check into and out of the house, there are rooms to set up for incoming families, there is always tidying up to do, vacuuming, helping out volunteer dinner groups, cleaning the kitchen and dining room if the dinner group has not done so, I also manage the ADP Sorority volunteer girls that come in to help out – they are great! I am also the official announcer of dinner on the PA. I do this in English and Spanish for our Hispanic families and I occasionally throw in the accent of whatever geographic area dinner is from! I am also the official receptionist for the people who bake goods for the house, mostly high school kids that get Community Service hours. A big part of that job is making sure the quality of the baked goods is up to the high standards of the House. Another part of my job is just to hang out and be there. Sometimes you chat with members of the families because they need to talk, so you listen to their stories.

You see, we get so caught up in our lives and we think our lives suck and we bitch and complain. When you listen to a parent whose kid is in the hospital for whatever reason, or you get the privilege to actually hang out with the kid, and you realize that maybe my life is not so bad. It is not unusual, when I finish my shift for me to leave the house crying. So if the weather allows I prefer to ride Rocinante to the House so my tears dry in the wind.

Speaking of Rocinante. The other day was a quiet evening in the house (some rooms were closed for renovations), and the House had just launched a fundraising campaign selling Ronald McDonald socks. The campaign asks those who purchase socks to take an “interesting” photo with them and post them on the House’s internet site. So we wheeled old Rocinante into the House to take our pictures with the socks on. Good times!!

Then there is the annual volunteer recognition brunch in which we celebrate the volunteers that have been there since forever and have worked literally thousands of hours, amazing!

So now you know where to find me on a Monday evening. Come on down and I will show you around.

Wrapping up another semester, #5

Part of the problem with being an eternal optimist is that one always thinks things are going to be easier than they are. This last semester is a good example. The semester started off uphill, with me losing my washer and dryer (see previous post), getting a speeding ticket, and more importantly having to finesse my doctoral committee and getting my prospectus approved.

The exam was on November 7. You can read my previous post about it, but is was at the same time a grueling yet highly enriching experience. That afternoon I celebrated by playing soccer with my colleagues (more on that later) and then by going to see Benjamin Britten’s opera, Curlew River, inspired by the Japanese Noh theater (more on that also later). And of course, after all that by having a drink (or two) at my favorite bar, Zog’s.

After passing my exam I slumped into a bit of a post prospectus depression. My next goal is defending my dissertation, but that is not planned until the Spring of 2016. So all of a sudden I was without an immediate goal. This required some getting used to. I could finally, after three years, watch movies (more on that later), or enjoy dead time. That first Saturday I celebrated with a glorious breakfast at my favorite breakfast place Ye Olde Waffle Shop, and waltzing around Chapel Hill as if I owned it. Stopping at this store and that, hanging out at the old bookstore, and the museum.

As always teaching is my passion and this semester did not disappoint. I taught two sections of Intermediate Spanish 203, one of them in the Philosophy building. This allowed me to enjoy their philosophical bathroom graffiti.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so I soon changed my rhythm and got busy. I talked strategy with my professors to attack the dissertation, Prof. González Espitia named me to be a grad student editor of the department´s literary journal Hispanófila, and I started to prepare my dissertation by re-visiting the first four works of my beloved Padre Isla.

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Washer and dryer. Or how every cloud has a silver lining.

The washer and drier on their way out

The washer and dryer on their way out

 

Everybody I tell this story to tells me to write about it. So here it is:

When I first moved to my little cottage in Chapel Hill it lacked a washer and a dryer, although there is a perfect nook for them in the kitchen, there are no electric, water or drain installations for them. After watching Craigslist like a hawk I found both units from an older lady who was moving to Florida. Helmut could only carry one machine at a time, but eventually, they were both home.  Updating and hooking up the electrics, water and drain and air exhaust was going to cost well over a thousand dollars, which of course was much more than I wanted to spend. As was to be expected, the landlord wanted nothing to do with all this.

Smoking a cigar with the boys that were my neighbors, I mentioned this. Lo and behold they had all the necessary hookups in their basement but without the machines! and the basement had an outside door. We quickly realized that if I put my machines in their basement, and put a lock on the outside door we could all do our laundry, it was a win/win for all, and so we did.

This set up continued my second year here. The new neighbors were a great group of girls, including the daughter of one of my department’s professors!

But this year, the house changed ownership, management company and tenants, with the new girls being a group of sorority princesses. They wanted nothing to do with our standing set-up, nor with the machines! They had the landlord install new ones. Pleading with the management company led to nothing, I had to take my units out of their basement and sell them.

Fortunately I found a good home for them in the house of a friend’s newly married son.

So now I have to go to the laundromat.

Recently, a new home “stuff” shop  opened next door to the laundromat. The other day I stopped in to kill some time. Sally, the owner, is the funniest lady! Within minutes of walking in she was playing Andrés Segovia in the shop and we were sipping an extraordinary tequila, apparently made by George Clooney! A friend of Sally’s then walked in… and he is interested in Spanish tutoring. Next thing you know I have a new tutoring customer. Which goes to prove that every cloud has a silver lining.

Summer Summary

Well, I have been so busy writing my thesis prospectus all summer that I have not had time to update this old blog! But the prospectus (the first draft at any rate) is now well on its way after my Thesis Director recommended some corrections today at the Daily Grind Café. But now back to my summer.

The month of June I was in Madrid going to the Biblioteca Nacional every day and getting some phenomenal research accomplished. Some highlights of June were: celebrating my father’s birthday, going to Alfredo’s new place (see previous post), going to Pedro Espina’s new restaurant Soy to say hi to my old friend and Spain’s best sushi chef, my old student Jacob’s visit to Madrid (see previous post), and pretty much every moment spent in the city enjoying the smells and sounds and tapas and sights.

In July I went with my family to our beloved Mediterranean island of Mallorca. As you can read in other year’s posts it is a great time. Very low-key: great breakfasts, beach, poolside lunch, siesta, workout, pool time, nice Mediterranean dinner, a lovely evening walk, and a drink and some reading for me, repeat. This year around my nieces and nephew were one year older, so more fun, and we had the World Cup to follow – despite Spain’s early departure we enjoyed all the underdog teams putting in great performances! Unfortunately we were only in Mallorca for a couple of weeks.

Back in the mainland we went straight to my parent’s house in the countryside (see previous posts about La Navata). If Mallorca is low-key, this is even more low-key, my routine here is a pre-breakfast swim to wake up, breakfast on the porch, walking to the village for bread, newspapers and to have my coffee in the old café, helping my niece and nephew with their Summer homework, (which this year included reading Le Petit Prince with my niece!), hanging out, lunch and siesta, punching out a page of my prospectus, working out, swimming, dinner and drinks, cigars and chatting – or reading, if nobody is around for conversation. The only routine breakers are driving my mom to the market, going to church on Sundays, and occasionally hanging out with old friends. One of these traditional outings is dinner at El Escorial with Paco Navarro. We walk around, eat, enjoy a coffee and then walk around some more. It is one of my favorite outings and one we have not missed in years!

Then my sister asked me to go hang out with her and her kids in the North Shore of Spain while her husband stayed working in Madrid. I took the train – and the harbor taxi, and had a wonderful week with them. They stay in this old manor house in this cute old village and the only choices they have to make is which beach to go to and which restaurant to have lunch at! Paradise.

The last week I was in Spain I received a request from my Medieval Literature Professor to take a photo of a painting in the cathedral at Toledo. I jumped at the opportunity and I spent a wonderful day alone walking around the old imperial city. I had not been to “the Jerusalem of the West” (for the Jewish, Arab and Christian cultures that thrived in the city) in four years and it was wonderful to slip into the many churches and museums alone with no schedule. I had a nice lunch and a coffee overlooking the Tajo River. It was a very healing experience. I don’t think the photo Prof. Domínguez asked me for came out very well, but still, the excursion was worth it for me.

But by August 5 I was back in old Chapel Hill wrapping up my prospectus and settling down… And now I am back in school teaching two sections of intermediate Spanish 203 and happy to be in my quiet monastic life.

Dad's birthday lunch!

Dad’s birthday lunch!

Breakfast w Jimmy

Breakfast w Jimmy

Chiringuito Camp de Mar

Chiringuito Camp de Mar

20140629_211219 Camp de Mar

Always reading

Reading in Santander

Dinner at El Escorial OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

With the photographer's dog!

With the photographer’s dog!

Camp de Mar

Walking back from the beach

Walking back from the beach

Harbor taxi!

Harbor taxi!

Lunch?

Lunch?

at the Cinco calderas

at the Cinco calderas

Las cinco calderas

Las cinco calderas

Toledo Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

PhD year two, check.

Graham Memorial, a great place to read.

Graham Memorial, a great place to read.

Wilson Library Reading Room

Wilson Library Reading Room

On the porch

On the porch

Even in the Harley dealership

Even in the Harley dealership

Spring

Spring

 

Five Guys

Five Guys

And just like that my second year at UNC is finished. As with last year, the academic schedule is so demanding that I did not have time to blog. This semester has had one theme and one theme only. My PhD qualifying exams. Every week since last semester I read, and read, and read. Every week I met with my incredibly patient professors to go over the readings, chat, and be quizzed. Spring Break was dedicated to reading, Martin Luther King Day was dedicated to reading. Although I have been reading for this exam for over the last two years, the pace for the last three months was intense, I read non-stop January, February, March and halfway through April.

For the oral exam, you are in a conference room with your three professors sitting around you. The first, very pointed question about the prologue of the Libro del Buen Amor threw me off kilter. I bungled through it best I could and from there the exam became a bit more conversational between the four of us. At some points during the exam, the three professors would get into a discussion about this or that, and I must admit it was really exciting to see them spar at such a level, it was very inspiring. My exam was at noon, right after I taught my Spanish for Business class. I had time to eat a sandwich and to make espresso for myself – and to treat my committee to, which was nice. After being grilled for almost two hours – although it feels much longer, I passed my orals.

A week later, Holy Thursday in the afternoon, I received my written exam. In this exam each professor gives you two questions and you choose one question for each. Then you write, write, write for that afternoon and the next two days straight. It is grueling. Trying to coherently put on paper everything you have learnt over two years in sixty hours. Basically you eat, sleep and write and write and write.

Surprisingly and fortunately I passed both oral and written exams, with a rare High Pass on my Medieval written exam! The sense of depletion after the exams must be somewhat similar to post-partum depression. The shifting of gears, the changing of tempo, of lifestyle, is very peculiar as the pressure to read – although not entirely gone, not for at least two more years – is lifted and you have time to look around, smell the roses, watch a movie, take more time doing things that you have rushed over the last two years, like going to the gym, or even eating.

I did manage to squeeze in some great concerts: Wynton Marsalis, the Israel Philharmonic, the North Carolina Symphony, András Schiff played Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Yefim Bronfman’s Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2, The English Concert Orchestra played Handel’s Theodora, The Carolina Ballet performed the obligatory Nutcracker, I saw Shakespeare’s Tempest, Mary Zimmerman’s hilarious Metamorphoses – both with a pool cut out in the proscenium!, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and it’s sequel Buoso’s Ghost by Michael Ching both performed by UNC Opera, all the UNC Baroque ensemble’s recitals. With the UNC Gearhead Club I went to see a Porsche exhibit at the Raleigh Museum of Art, that was fun.

The gearheads

The gearheads

20140125_135234

With my limited graduate student budget I only managed to discover a couple of new restaurants: a sushi place in Raleigh, an Indian place and Al’s Burger Joint, both in Chapel Hill. Another highlight was when my course coordinator gave me tickets for the Greek Festival in Raleigh, great food!

Other than those occasional outings my life was limited to working, the library, the gym, church, and the supermarket.

That is about it for my academic year. I received half a Summer Research Grant in order to do some research in Spain, so I will spend some time in musty Spanish libraries…

Here is the visible part of my work this year: the reading list

bibliografia firmada

 

My Chapel Hill

Sushi!

Sushi!

The Carducho (or Carducci)

The Carducho (or Carducci)

The arboretum

The arboretum

The Carolina Inn

The Carolina Inn

(delicious) Taco Truck

(delicious) Taco Truck

Did I mention Gelato?

Did I mention Gelato?

Mandey of Zog's w a broken finger

Mandey of Zog’s w a broken finger

The pool in the theatre!

The pool in the theatre!

Older posts might mention this, so please excuse my old age and incipient dementia. I want to tell you about Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill, I tell people, is a village, a thriving, dynamic, diverse village, but a village nonetheless. It has the advantages of a village: everything is walking distance from everywhere, it is easy to make relationships, safety, $4 movies at the main street (Franklin St.) Varsity movie theatre, all this translates to community. On the other hand there is a thriving cultural scene. Just this semester I have seen: Wynton Marsalis with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Andras Schiff playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, L-E-V an Israeli modern dance company, Shakespeare’s Tempest and Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, both with a swimming pool built into the proscenium!, opera (UNC’s The Orpheus Diaries), an early modern Spanish, French and Italian concert, with period instruments! And of course the, for me obligatory Nutcracker ballet. If that was not enough, I have gone to a couple of fascinating conferences by top presenters, for example, one on Baroque Spanish Literature. And then there are always gigs at Zog’s, my favorite bar, that range from reggae to punk to New Orleans Jazz. Given my constant need for stimulation, Chapel Hill delivers. An example of how Chapel Hill fits me like a glove might be Sunday mornings. After my breakfast and coffee I walk to church which is always a rich a rewarding experience with the wise and funny Monsignor Wall. After mass I cross the street to The Carolina Inn, where I enjoy a nice cup of coffee in the cozy living room where I do some reading. Then I walk up the street to the Ackland Art Museum where I sit down in front of a painting to do some more reading. In fact I always sit down in front of the same painting: Madame de Villeneuve-Flayosc, a sweet 18th Century lady with whom I like to converse about the goings on in the Enlightenment. Finally, it is home for lunch, or if it is nice weather for a nice Rocinante ride to search for a nice lunch.

On another level, I have state of the art fitness facilities: gym, swimming pool, basketball courts, etc. There are nice restaurants, cafés and shops (being realistic, and keeping in mind that we are not in New York City). There is a planetarium and an arboretum, there are world class libraries. Best of all, I am so busy reading and working that what little time (and money) I have to spend, I know will be good!

Cities and Friends

Besides the enriching experience of teaching, the other benefit of being a teacher is the holidays it comes with. No, we don’t make bank, but not even French government employees get our kind of time off. So after unwinding in Chapel Hill and going on a nice ride with Rocinante (see previous posts) I jumped “the pond” to visit my family in Madrid.

I know I am not original when I say that cities are like people, at least my relationship with them is similar. My relationship with Madrid is that of an old friend and lover. We know each other’s dirty little secrets, but we respect each other like the old friends we are. So coming to Madrid is always special.

One of the first visits I do is to Patxi Navarro. A dear, dear friend from my financial services days. We share a twenty three year friendship. Together we founded the Asociacion A. de Amantes del Escorial since we are both passionate about that monastery/palace/school/village. It is always great to catch up and hear about his life. Another obligatory meeting is with Andrea, another dear college friend who has been there through thick and thin, we had a nice lunch at a neighbourhood “menu” restaurant. A third key friend and one that deserves extra credit when I see him is Felipe Pérez de Madrid, “Pipe”, “The Pipe”, as he is from Valencia. We had a quick coffee in between trains for him, just enough to make sure everything is ok and have a quick laugh. Gracias amigo.

After a few days in town, I was blessed with the visit of Mark Miller and Matthieu, two of my dearest, closest and best friends. We went to university together, Matthieu was a groomsman in my first wedding and Best Man at my second wedding, where Mark was the usher. I had not seen Matthieu since celebrating New Year’s ’08 in NY when Mark, the most gracious and generous host, arranged a spectacular party. Since he is in NY I have had the chance to see Mark more regularly, but not since moving to Chapel Hill.

We spent three days together, eating, walking around the city, drinking, smoking cigars, eating, walking around the city, drinking and smoking cigars. We had paella, roast lamb, jamón, tortilla, garlic shrimp, lots of tapas, wine and coffee. We went to my favorite places, including Del Diego where we met comedian Leo Harlem! It was fantastic to catch up, to share some of the secrets of my old friend Madrid with some of my other old friends, to have a good laugh, good discussions, reminisce and talk about our futures.

Besides the enriching experience of teaching, another benefit of being a teacher is meeting students that eventually become friends. Two days after Mark and Matthieu left, I reunited with Jenny whom I had not seen in a year and a half. Since she graduated from Walnut Hill and I went to see her dance at Mount Holyoke. She is spending the summer in Valencia and came to Madrid for the weekend. We had burgers at my favorite restaurant in Madrid, Alfredos Barbacoa and it was great to catch up, have a good laugh, a good discussion, reminisce and talk about our futures.

My visits to Madrid are few, far between and shorter than I would like them to be, so I never get to see all my friends and family. But one morning coffee I always have is with my godmother Isabel, “Isita”, she is brilliant, funny and wonderful and her advice is always spot on, prejudice free and caring. I love her.

So in one week in Madrid: I reunited with the city, the oldest of friends, I reunited with old, university friends and with new friends – and with my godmother.

Tapa

Tapa

Casa Botín

Casa Botín

Tapas

Tapas

Comedian Leo Harlem

Comedian Leo Harlem

Fernando jr. and Fernando del Diego

Fernando jr. and Fernando del Diego

Del Diego

Del Diego

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

Julieta en Alfredos

Julieta en Alfredos

Here is to friends, I salute you.

Photo creds: Mark Miller (except Julieta)