Although I consider myself more of a teacher than a scholar, I do enjoy research and writing. Also, I get to do my research at my pace and not at the breakneck pace demanded by the research universities.
If you are an old timer of this blog, you know that my PhD dissertation was on the early works of 18th C. Francisco de Isla, before he wrote his best-selling Fray Gerundio. This time I focused on Isla´s first writings after the Gerundio, still up to his old crafty rhetorical tricks and double plays. Right after selling out the first edition of the Gerundio overnight, the head of the Carmelites denounced the book to the Inquisition, Isla´s defense of his novel is the Apologia por la Historia de Fray Gerundio, and that is what my paper is on.
Chapel Hill will always have a special place in my heart. The four years that I lived there studying for my PhD were very enriching, even though I was teaching and getting my doctorate at the same time. I loved the University, my classses, the town, the community, my colleagues and professors, my volunteering, the lot.
So without the Covid restrictions of last October’s lightning visit (read about that here) I was able to see old colleagues and classmates, to spend time with Irene, my dissertation director, to have a long conversation with my old spiritual director Fr. Bill, to have a great catch up with my favorite librarian, Teresa, to revisit the Ackland museum, to go to mass, to have a meal at Imbibe and a drink at Zog’s with Mandey the owner, to enjoy a cigar with my brilliant friend Jedd, to buy too much UNC gear, to walk around campus, to enjoy a YOPO frozen yogurt, and basically to walk and soak it all in. It was so comforting, it felt like coming home.
Miami is about an hour away from me, and I hate driving down because there is always horrible traffic, but once I get there, I do enjoy certain neighborhoods. A few days ago, I spent the day in Little Havana and had a blast!
I started off with a “Cafecito” and a cigar. This neighborhood is full of coffee shops with a window to the street where you can order and get your coffee right on the sidewalk. There are also a handful of cigar factories, shops, and lounges where you can sit and enjoy a cigar while you chat. I stopped at El Titan de Bronze for some cigars. Otherwise, I was very restrained and did not splurge buying Panama hats, guayabera shirts, etc. etc.
For lunch I had a frita at the “El Rey de las fritas”. A frita is a Cuban hamburger made out of ground meat and ground chorizo sausage, topped with string fries. If you have never had one, let me tell you, they are divine. This specific restaurant is a time machine back to the 50s and 60s.
I also did a video for Tonxo Tours, my “side gig” which specializes in tours of Spain, but hey, you have to keep the Insta crowd happy and waiting for more!
In the afternoon I checked out some top-level domino games at a little park made ex-profeso for domino, called, you guessed it Domino Park!
The fun of Little Havana is just in soaking it in, walking around, enjoying the sounds and smells. Although you are in the massive city of Miami, for a few blocks, you might as well be in old Havana, with chickens and roosters running around in the neighbors’ yards!
It looks like I have never dedicated a blog post to my love of cigars. Today I visited my favorite cigar shop in Madrid and realized it is time to change that.
The thing is, one has to focus on the little pleasures of life, the little things that give one some respite from this mad, mad world we have created. A decent cup of coffee or tea sitting down reading, writing, chatting with a friend/s or contemplating, not a gallon coffee when you are running around or working like some crazy Americans I see. A little walk somewhere that lets you breathe. Chocolate, a nice drink, a while with friends, sport, many things can be a recess.
One of those occasional pleasures for me is a good cigar. I have enjoyed cigars since my first job after college, around 1988, when I could finally afford some nice things. My first cigars where bought at L.J. Peretti in Boston, but when I came to Spain and discovered Cubans that was the end of non Cuban cigars, unless one was under duress, as one sometimes is.
Montecristo Nº 4 is my standard smoke. Ideal in most circumstances and one of the best balanced cigars you can smoke. Special occasions require different choices. For example the bullfight requires a longer smoke. An after breakfast smoke requires a softer touch, and so on. A lot also depends on what you are going to have with it, rum? Brandy? Cognac? Bourbon? Wine? Coffee? Decisions, decisions.
When I returned to Boston in 2005 I was blessed to find Gloucester Street Cigars. José was a true gentleman. That was my little escape place. When I moved to downtown Boston they held the spare set of keys to my apartment! We also did two phenomenal cigar night fundraisers for Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, raising well over $3000.
Now in Chapel Hill I am fortunate to have a small porch on which to enjoy a good smoke. I have corrupted my dear friend Jedd to join me in my cigar smoking pleasure, to the point that he has become quite an aficionado and even has a nice cigar cabinet where he sells cigars at Zog’s. This might be a case where the teacher surpasses the master!
Like any good hobby, cigars takes time. They must be kept in perfect conditions. Then there is the lighting ceremony in order to get an even start, and then enjoy. Very important, when you are finished never extinguish, squash, crush, or in any way tamper with the dignity of the cigar in its last moments. Just let it quietly drift away. Anything else will burn the precious oils and make the cigar furious and it will stink (literally).
Now that the US and Cuba are normalizing relations I can go to my favorite and Madrid’s best cigar store (which must make it a top place worldwide) on calle Barquillo to stock up until Christmas break!
If you enjoy cigars and want to learn more I definitely recommend Gabriel Cabrera Infante’s Holy Smoke a hilarious history, guide and manual for cigar smokers.
Rocinante does not like my cigar smoking, after all it is tricky to concentrate on two things that require attention at the same time. So I have to wait until a break in the riding to enjoy a smoke.
What am I smoking now? When I visited Greece, my dear friend Alfonso gave me a box of Trinidad Fundadores, a smooth Laguito cigar!
What does one do when one of your most dear friends from university invites you to his housewarming party in a Greek seaside village? You tell them you are too busy working on your dissertation, that you have family obligations and that your graduate student budget does not allow for adventures in Greece. What does one do when he insists and ends up sacrificing his last frequent flier miles to get one’s sorry ass over in business class? You humbly and eagerly accept and pack some serious sun protection.
This is exactly what happened to me this summer (except the sun protection bit). My dear friend Matthew, who has been patient enough with me to be a groomsman at my two weddings and who came to visit me in Madrid last summer did just that.
I had not been to my beloved Greece since the mid-nineties, so going back – and for such an event was very especial. Mark Miller, the third musketeer, came in from New York on the same day as me, and Matthew drove us a couple of hours to his house in the lovely village of Toló, near the old Greek capital of Nafplio, on the Peloponnese mainland.
The house is more of a compound, high on a hill overlooking the sweet village of Toló, the sea and the beautiful islands. It includes Irina’s 8 Cooking Hats Cooking School and the house. When we arrived, construction crews were working frantically to finish all the last-minute details, and they would continue for the next two days before the grand opening party (but not before I befriended the construction guys – soccer is the key here – and they let me sign my name on some wet cement!)
The cooking school building has a bunch of guest rooms. Mark and I settled into the gym / Pilates / Zumba room and also temporary storage and staging area for all pre-party supplies: liquor and wine, fireworks, furniture, and random nick knacks. Not to mention two queen sized pull down beds and our own bathroom.
The first two days I must confess where hectic: Helping Matthew and Irina prepare everything for the party: peeling pistachios, making big paper flower pompoms – and hanging them up, shopping for enough supplies to feed a hungry Roman Legion, chopping and prepping all sorts of food with Alex (who would become a dear friend, my little grasshopper), Susanna and George, buying and transporting enough alcohol to fuel a year of parties in Ibiza, helping the DJs set up speakers and cables, organizing. Lots of organizing and cleaning. Lots of cleaning. Unfortunately Mark was suffering from acute chronic jet lag so he seemed to spend the first days just eating and sleeping. But he is such a fantastic sport that he took all our joking on the subject in stride.
For me, preparations for the party continued until even after the first few guests arrived, with just time for a quick shave and shower before helping to pass around mountains of food. Once the party started I could finally enjoy a gin and tonic, a cigar, and dancing. Lots of dancing.
Matthew’s wife Irina learnt about Toló from Nelly, a classmate at hotel and culinary school in Switzerland. Nelly owns an adorable boutique hotel on the beach with her brother Manolis where Matthew and I would stop in between chores (remember, Mark was mostly sleeping) for a coffee, or frappé. Petros, Nelly and Manoli’s dad who adores Matthew, would insist on cooking us some eggs. It will be hard for you to find a nicer family than the Vlachakis.
Irina is a popular food blogger in the Russian Interweb, so we received plenty of Russian food bloggers and friends (picking them up and shuttling guests around was another fun chore!). We were also lucky that Alfonso, another of our dear friends from university was in the area with his sailing boat: the beautiful, sleek, state of the art Athina, so he also came, bringing with him his friend Alessio, a true Italian bohemian, ex actor, world traveler and master storyteller and his captain José.
All in all Irina and Matthew gathered an awesome group of beautiful, high energy people. The days after the party we went on excursions to the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus, to George Skouras’ vineyard and winery, to the town and castle of Nafplio, even on a boat cruise to a remote island, with its obligatory Greek Orthodox chapel on top – where coincidentally the aforementioned Nelly was baptized. Neither my hack writing, nor my hack photos can do justice to the time we had.
For me, to use a Greek word, my visit to Greece was cathartic. It had been about twenty years since I had been to Greece and I have such fond memories that I can now add to. This summer also marks the fifth anniversary of my full catastrophe (to use Zorba’s expression), so having ten days of fairly carefree sun and sunshine was a welcome relief.
Besides meeting a bunch of phenomenal people, I managed to go to church the morning after the party (getting up was a bit rough) for a beautiful Greek Orthodox service, eat lots and lots of delicious Greek food, spent the day sailing on Alfonso’s boat from Toló to Spetses (returning on his speedboat), visiting with friends and basically forgetting all my responsibilities for ten days.
It is at times like these, when you relax, let your defenses down, that life comes creeping back in, you can joke, laugh, feel, allow yourself to love and appreciate friends and allow yourself to be loved and appreciated by 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.