Posts Tagged ‘coffee’

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 are the best three reasons for being a teacher? June, July and August. Well that is the joke anyway. The last few years I have spent June in Madrid, doing research, hanging out with friends, walking about, and spending time with my family. This year besides my holidays in Greece, I spent most of my time at home with my dad. I did manage to go out for a quick coffee, to buy bread and the newspaper in the morning, and in the afternoon to the gym – with someone always staying to hang out with my dad.

One evening one of my old students from Buckingham Browne and Nichols was in town, I could not resist sharing my beloved city with him, showing him around, eating tapas at El Espejo and finishing a long evening walk at my favorite bar, Del Diego.

So I did not have a very social month, basically just working on my dissertation and hanging out and doing home stuff. Still, it was very enriching for lack of a better word. Once my father passed we came to La Navata, to the country house.

Madrid, like most cities, has a cadre of writers that have historically portrayed it. From Quevedo, to Moratín, to Pérez Galdós or Unamuno. I understand them well. I have often said – and I’m sure I’m not being original here – that cities are like people, with their quirks and ugly bits. Madrid never disappoints. In fact, I would say that just walking around the city is one of my favorite pastimes. And I always discover something new.

These last few years when I come to visit I like to spend most of my time with my parents, so I do not get out much. They – like the rest of us – are not getting any younger. But when my childhood friend Jaime, who is in the art restoration business calls to say he has access to the top of the Alfonso XII monument in the Retiro Park in Madrid, you go.

It was a clear, brisk winter morning in Madrid, the highest capital in Europe at about 646 meters (2,119 feet) above sea level. I walked down the Castellana, the main boulevard, the backbone of Madrid to the park. When I got to the monument, miraculously, there was no one there, extremely rare, as it is normally filled with tourists, romantic couples, Cannabis salesmen, etc. it would soon fill up, even with a professional photo shoot of a rather pretty model, as they tend to be.

This amazing sculptural set was made of a very soft stone that is literally falling apart. Some colleagues of my friend Jaime have been charged with researching how to restore it. When Jaime showed up we climbed up and up, a dark metal staircase to the very top, just under the statue of King Alfonso XII who reigned Spain from 1874 to 1885. There are some small windows as you stand under the bronze base of the statue, you can actually see the wickets that hold the king’s horse’s legs! Since they say a picture is worth a thousand words here are some photos to save me some writing.

After this amazing experience Jaime and I walked across the park to the nearby Prado museum for a coffee. Jaime did part of his training there, so he is obviously very familiar with it. I had not been there in five years, so going back was a very cathartic experience for me. At one point Jaime stood staring at Tiziano’s huge portrait of Carlos V on horseback. When I pressed Jaime to tell me what he was so profoundly looking at, he laconically replied “Hmmm, it looks like there might be some humidity damage on that corner.” Occupational hazards of hanging out with an art restoration expert! So we had a lovely coffee catching up, walked a bit around the museum and walked around the city. I must say, a morning does not get much better than that. Gracias Jaime.

Apologies for my prolonged silence. Getting my prospectus passed took some time. As you can imagine, maintaining my blog was not a priority. But that hurdle is over with, so I can tell you all about it.

The prospectus as I have said somewhere before is the document that says what you want to write your dissertation about, so it is kind of a big deal. Getting your prospectus approved requires a few pieces to fit together like a good Swiss watch:

First you must get five professors to be your PhD committee*. This step requires strategy, finesse and diplomacy. You want to have experts from your field that know what you are talking about and experts from outside your field that know how you should be talking. You want to make sure that you know these professors and that you can work well with them (and that they can work with each other). I cannot say how blessed I am with my committee, it is an all-star team! Like the 80s Celtics. My director is Irene Gómez-Castellano. I love her enthusiasm, her vision, knowledge and overall awesomeness. We meet once a week for coffee, and those meetings more often than not run well over an hour. During that meeting Irene will go over whatever I have written, whatever I have read, and whatever I have to read and write, and then we connect the dots, and talk strategy.

In alphabetical order my next professor is Frank Domínguez. The guru of Medieval Spanish lit. There is little I can say about him that has not already been said. He literally wrote the book on Medieval Spanish lit. More than that, he is an awesome editor, advisor, and scholar. But most importantly he is the nicest person: patient and understanding.

Juan Carlos González-Espitia is basically the reason I am at UNC. If you go back on my blog to when I visited UNC for the first time, he is the professor that welcomed me, showed me around, and gave me excellent advice. Although Prof. González-Espitia is a well-known 19th C. Latin American scholar, he is now spending more and more time on the 18th C. How lucky could I be? And how perfect for my committee.

Prof. Rosa Perelmuter is an authority on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, I have been working with her for three years now. I love her critical eye, her honest advice and how she knows everything! And to top it all off, she is hilarious.

Ana Rueda is a world renown 18th C Spanish Lit. scholar. She is the head of the department at University of Kentucky. In an uncanny and wise move, Irene asked me to pick up Prof. Rueda at the airport when she came to give a presentation at UNC three years ago. Little did I know that she would one day sit on my PhD committee. Although I have stayed in touch with her since then, to get to know her better, I recently read one of her books: Cartas sin lacrar: la novela epistolar y la España ilustrada, 1789 – 1840. If you scroll down you can see all the places I read her book!

At the same time as your team is set up, your prospectus should be ready. I started working on this document in July so by August I had about 60 pages! I had to cut it down a bit to 40 pages – which is probably still a tad long, but it will all percolate into the dissertation anyway so it is ground already covered. You can find my prospectus attached in case you have problems falling asleep. A couple of pages of this is better than a handful of Ambien!

Of course the real magic happens when you put the dissertation committee in a room with the prospectus and the poor author of said prospectus. For me this happened on Friday. Prof. Rueda came in loud and clear through Skype and there I sat for an hour and a half while we reached two main conclusions: I write like a horse’s ass (which of course was not a surprise for me, sorry if you are reading this) and second, Padre Isla uses more than satire in his work, and I should embrace all his narrative techniques. This second bit is a massive relief as I was having a tough time limiting myself to the satire and I was struggling with the definition of satire.

There you have it, if you are lucky you get to pass your prospectus defense, and move on to writing your dissertation…

(Remember that this is an uncorrected document. If you are going to use it, cite it)

* This is at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Department of Romance Studies

Balson Prospectus 10-1-14

Cartas sin lacrar waiting for Rocinante's check up

Cartas sin lacrar waiting for Rocinante’s check up

Cartas sin lacrar at Five Guys

Cartas sin lacrar at Five Guys

Cartas sin lacrar at the Carolina Inn

Cartas sin lacrar at the Carolina Inn

Maria's First Communion!

Maria’s First Communion!

It's all their fault!!

It’s all their fault!!

Biblioteca Nacional Madrid

Biblioteca Nacional Madrid

18th C. Padre Isla manuscript

18th C. Padre Isla manuscript

"Uptown" Madrid

“Uptown” Madrid

Alfredo's Barbacoa

Alfredo’s Barbacoa

Niece and Nephew

Niece and Nephew

Home of 10 Champions leagues!!

Home of 10 Champions leagues!!

It has been a couple of weeks since I arrived in Madrid. It has been intense, full of family: my sister was here from Tenerife in the Canary Islands and my niece had her first communion. Being home also means that my way of life is totally different and I also have a physical and temporal distance from the end of the academic year at Carolina.

My way of life is different in that I go from living a fairly monastic life alone, dedicated to reading, to a life full of family and friends. The food is fortunately different and better, the coffee and the wine are far better, and I live in downtown Madrid as opposed to downtown Chapel Hill, which, as much as I love it, is a glorified village. Last Sunday was my niece (and goddaughter’s) first communion, and we had a very nice celebratory lunch with all the family. As I was at the buffet serving myself, a very nice lady in her horseback riding gear (the lunch was at a riding club) introduced herself. She was my ex-wife’s old massage therapist from when we used to live in Madrid ten years ago! It was a scene out of a Woody Allen movie, so I just chuckled to myself and carried on. I have also visited with family, taken my nieces and nephew out to lunch to Alfredo’s Barbacoa, my favorite burger joint. I have had lunch with dear friends and enjoyed some brief escapes around town, including my favorite bar Del Diego, and some favorite book stores.

Although my exams are over, I now have to prepare the prospectus for my thesis, which means… more reading, this time in my specialization area as I formulate the core of my thesis. When I arrived, I already had books waiting for me that I had ordered to be delivered here for the summer, I also had a chance to renew my library card. My library is a bit special as it is the National Library which is only a twenty-minute walk from here. It is the equivalent of the Library of Congress, only older. I have the privilege of walking over every morning and reading original 18th C manuscripts! Speaking of bumping into people, the other day at the library I shared a reading desk with Margaret Greer, a Professor of Golden Age Spanish Lit. at Duke. Unfortunately I was not wearing my Carolina blue, although we did have a nice chat – yes, we whispered. I am excited and looking forward to making some progress on the prospectus front so I can have a rough draft by the end of the summer…

Reviewing my teaching of this past year, (see previous blog post) my dear friend John Jenner: philosopher, connoisseur, MMA fighter, bon vivant, gourmet and gourmand explained it best when he valued my being pushed out of my comfort zone in order to do precisely this, to revisit my teaching. You gotta love friends that tell it like it is!

Defensor del pueblo

Defensor del pueblo

La unión y el fenix

La unión y el fenix

20131230_102640

Angel caido

Angel caido

Café en el retiro

Café en el retiro

Castellana

Castellana

20140101_194322 20140101_202347 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith all the reading I have to do I only took ten days to visit my family in Madrid this Winter Break. I was happily busy with my parents, sisters, nieces and nephew, but a couple of times I managed to sneak out and walk around my Madrid, absorbing every sight, smell, sound and feeling. I love this city. While every city is unique in its personality and character, Madrid seems even more unique. This might be due to the fact that for centuries Madrid, although the capital of Spain since around 1561 was extremely isolated. It is not only the highest capital in Europe (667 m, 2,188 ft. above sea level), it is also terrifically well protected, surrounded as it is by mountains. It is also in the middle of nowhere. No harbor, no navigable river, sitting in the middle of a massive plateau. Unless you needed to visit the king, you really had no reason to go to Madrid. The name Castille does not come in vain. Of course it has Arab influences, and every type of cultural imprint since the Middle Ages, most notably the French influence of the Bourbon dynasty starting in 1713. So Madrid is a village in La Mancha, never mind the more or less 6 million inhabitants. But it is my home town.

But, what is a city but a collection of people at any given moment? Madrid is where you can find Medieval feudal noblemen (and their wannabes) – “Hello? We are in the 21st Century!” You want to shout as you shake them by their tweed lapels, to tattooed hipsters brewing their own beer and roasting their own coffee. You can find ladies dressed in couture next to punks who think we are still in the 80s. From Ferraris to ancient Seat 600s. From Arab inspired chickpea “cocido” stew to frozen yogurt, from blistering heat to snow and ice, Babies and old relics walking side by side, in the summer months this happens into well entered the night. It is these contrasts that make me love Madrid. In winter you can still find old ladies selling roasted chestnuts next to glossy shop windows, or a Chinese owned convenience store selling “bocadillos de chorizo” late, late at night.

Although most morning were devoted to walks with my dad, one morning I took my niece and nephew to the Retiro park where María roller skated while Jimmy skateboarded. It was chilly and we stopped for Cola-Cao – the Spanish brand of hot cocoa – and coffee in one of the bars around the park, it was a blast!

And the neighborhoods. I chat with my coffee shop owner (Felix) with my newspaper kiosk owner (Yague), with my cigar expert (José), with concierges, with the lottery sales lady, with shopkeepers I have known since I was a boy, with neighbors, with the bank employees, even the local cops.

A heartbreaking aspect of these visits is that I do not have enough time to visit everyone I would like to see. It is a delicate knit of family time, friend time, and some me time. I was lucky to visit with some friends and family, to walk around a bit and to catch a couple of interesting art exhibits near my parents’ home.

Although my visit to Madrid was short this time, I still had time to refresh and renew my love for this city I love so much.

Rocinante hanging w a '59 Chevy at the post office

Rocinante hanging w a ’59 Chevy at the post office

Warm and clean covered Helmut (and Rocinante)

Warm and clean covered Helmut (and Rocinante)

Rocinante @ 5 Guys

Rocinante @ 5 Guys

Rocinante and Helmut

Rocinante and Helmut

Burguer at the Saxapahaw General Store

Burguer at the Saxapahaw General Store

Rocinante has complained that this blog is titled antonioyrocinante, and yet it mostly mentions Antonio and not Rocinante. So here are some news on old Rocinante.

Unfortunately, the truth is that there is not so much to say about lovely, trustworthy, tough, old Rocinante. It has been a quiet semester for her. The only noteworthy outings we made where to Raleigh, the capital of NC, a mere 30 miles away, Cary, a nearby village some 20 miles away, and Saxapahaw a lovely hamlet with a reconditioned old textile mill and a General Store that has fantastic food!! It is a lovely ride on back roads to a great lunch, coffee, cigar and read!

Other than that I try to take Rocinante out at least once a week, even if it is down the road to grab a burger at the local 5 Guys or to run some errands! When not out and about, she sits on the driveway keeping Helmut company or – if it is raining, she comes inside with me until the sun comes back out and we can ride again!

Rocinante’s highlight, if you asked her, would probably be getting an oil change and her 24 K service done at Rommel’s Harley Davidson in Durham. She also got a new right hand (gas) grip, apparently they did not have the left hand one…

Neither one of us can wait until the Spring and getting over this exam to be able to go on a good ride!

As for Helmut, little can be said, he sits on the driveway, bored to tears. I was so remorseful that I bought him a nice cover so all the leaves from the tree he lives under would not fill his engine bay. We go to Trader Joe’s once or twice a week, and to the Ronald McDonald House when the weather is too bad to take Rocinante. I feel bad for Helmut, used as he is to blasting around New England enjoying 3 digit speeds. Now in our old age, the three of us live quiet lives – although occasionally we do stretch out our legs.