Welcome to Miami

Miami is fun. It is just that getting in and out is such a headache. But once you are there it is playful fun. The other day I had the chance to walk around, right before the Formula 1 Grand Prix weekend.

South Beach might be the first thing we think of when we think of Miami; the Art Deco architecture, the amazing beach, the people. I testify to all of them.

If I had to define Miami, I would talk about the vibe, the throbbing energy, the vibrancy. It is a bold, loud, colorful place. The food options are improving constantly, better representing the cultural melting pot it is (haha pun intended).

Sure, if you walk around South Beach most of the folks are turistas, but, and here is one of Miami’s tricks: it is difficult to separate the turista from the local, granted part of it is because of the general lack of clothing one sees, but it also speaks to the diversity of the locals and their hedonist lifestyle.

A fairly unique feature of Miami is the “Ventanita” a window on the side of a restaurant, shop, or bar where you can order a coffee “cafecito”, a fruit juice, and in some cases a shake or a smoothy. These ubiquitous “ventanitas” allow you to have a quick coffee “sportello” style on the sidewalk or sitting at a nearby bench -so long as it is in the shade!

Other areas of Miami are more touristy like Bayfront and Bayside, but the beauty of Miami Beach is the mingling of folks. Enjoy!

Don Quixote, Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene, and madness vs. Existentialism

A good book and a good cigar

There are books that I re-read with certain regularity: The Old Man and the Sea, Voltaire’s Candide, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (you can read about that one here), Don Quixote only three times.

But I recently came across a book I had read as a teenager in the 80s and decided to revisit: Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote.

As you can see from the title -I will try not to spoil anything- in a fictional meta-reality, Monsignor Quixote deals with the adventures of a descendant of Don Quixote. There is a Rocinante and a Sancho. Greene converted to Catholicism at 22 in 1926 (you can read his bio here) and this novel deals precisely with -no spoilers- with religion, theology, and the Church in early ‘80s, post Franco Spanish society (It was published in 1982). The book is an easy, quick read, and, since I am always on the lookout for the far reaching effects of Don Quixote, I re-borrowed Monsignor Quixote (thanks Sue) and thoroughly enjoyed it.

My more faithful readers know that one of my research interests is the influence of Don Quixote on Existentialist philosophy. So my antennae are always poised to pick up on this theme. Monsignor Quixote does not disappoint! The references to the links between Don Quixote and Existentialism might have been written unknowingly by Greene, which I doubt, but they are there either way:

There is a heartfelt reference to Miguel de Unamuno who was a big fan of Don Quixote and a proto-Existentialist (read San Manuel Bueno, Mártir). This is an indication that Greene understands Cervantes.

There are explicit mentions of Monsignor Quixote acknowledging his existence, which is a big step in understanding who one is.

The novel deals with our doubts and beliefs, the Existential anguish that drove Kierkegaard (but not in those words), the father of Existentialism -which would make Cervantes the great-grandfather of Existentialism (read about that here).

Finally, as any alert reader would expect of a novel with the name Quixote in it, it talks of madness. Of course, folks -specially those who have not read the novel- often confuse Don Quixote’s drive and purpose with madness (which drives me mad). I will not elaborate but Don Quixote knows who he is, it is just that nobody understands what he is doing, so they call him mad. This leads me to my first and hopefully last political statement ever on this blog: Former President Trump was often called Quixotic, for whatever reason, and the people who labeled Trump like that have obviously never read, and/or never understood Cervantes’ novel!! A similar point is seen in the film Easy Rider when Jack Nicholson as George Hanson says:

Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.

I guess I could have written a more academic article about this book, and maybe I will, but for the time being, enjoy.

A good book and a good coffee

A return to performing arts, a night at the opera

Good to enjoy performing arts again!!

Due to Covid, I had not been able to enjoy any performing arts for about two years. But l recently managed to go to the opera, so things are getting back to normal. While I have managed to go to museums and exhibits, most notably the Norton Museum of Art (click here for that blog post), I had not returned to the theatre, the symphony, a reading, a play, the ballet, the opera since just before Covid struck in 2020.

Although I know there are many performing arts venues in the West Palm Beach and Boca Raton areas, I have yet to explore them. But I recently saw that Opera Naples, my old opera, was doing Hansel and Gretel, I did not blink before buying my tickets!

You see, I need a lot of cultural and artistic stimulation, it paradoxically energizes and calms me at the same time. I have been enjoying concerts, plays, and operas since I was a teenager in London, so I must confess I am a bit of an addict.

Hansel and Gretel is obviously based on the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, and while it is quite grim, the music is amazing -as should be expected of Wagner´s student Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921). Opera Naples has partnered with the Bower School of Music at Florida Gulf Coast University, so many of the roles were played by very talented college students, wow!

It was nice to see that Opera Naples has done some work to improve the venue, since it actually sits in an industrial estate in a bit of a dodgy area. It has created a new and bigger lobby, created a bar area and they even had a food truck for us!

Since I was in that neck of the woods, I took the opportunity to meet up with my old student Lukas to catch up with him. We had a lovely coffee on 5th Avenue and even walked to the beach to check it out. The Gulf side beaches are far nicer than the Atlantic side, obviously, they are Caribbean!

So overall, a wonderful day out and great to be slowly returning to the arts!

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!

Marcelino

My mother has a country house in a tiny village near the mountains of Guadarrama, North of Madrid. We have been coming here for weekends and Summer since I was a child. The village has a train station, a small river, a supermarket, a church, a pharmacy, a convenience store, a couple of restaurants, and a hair dresser, but the most important place in the village is the café/bar/restaurant: Marcelino.

Marcelino sits near the Guadarrama river by the road to a bigger village a few miles down. It was built by the grandparents of the current owners stone by stone in the early 20th C. Since then it is the central meeting point of the village. It is the place where I had my first drink in the smoke-filled bar in the early 80s, and the place where I enjoy a coffee every day during Summer. The fourth generation is starting to work there, making coffee, and serving drinks, no privileges.

It is interesting to see the flow of customers. In winter, the local moms meet for coffee after dropping off the kids at school. After lunch, the old men come down for their card game, in the afternoon groups gather for the tertulia (conversation) and coffee. And in summer nights everybody comes for the barbecue!

The coffee is not particularly good. It is old school Spanish coffee, which means it is torrefacto: over-toasted and with added burnt sugars to boost the flavor and aroma (see my previous post on coffee). But that is exactly what you should expect in an old-fashioned café in a Spanish village. My preppy friends from Madrid hate it, but that is missing the point of the tradition. There is a basic lunch menu, which is handy in emergencies and all day bocadillos -simple sandwiches made with Spanish French-style baguette.

But the real food comes at night when they fire up the barbecue! Outdoors, right in front of the diners. While they will oblige and throw a burger on the grill if you ask them to, the specialty here are the local sausages: chorizo and morcilla. Chorizo is the more familiar as it is spicy pork sausage. Morcilla is the lesser known sibling made of ground pork with its blood, with either onion or rice, what the Brits call “Black sausage” but that is where the similarities end. Morcilla has a strong, tangy but sweet taste. And Marcelino grills the best! The barbecue menu also has pinchos morunos (the Spanish evolution of shish kebabs), and steaks, plus salads and other traditional dishes from the kitchen.

After dinner you can stay until after midnight enjoying a drink. In fact, Marcelino is one of only a handful of bars that serves Xoriguer, a gin made in the Balearic island of Menorca, which happens to be my favorite. But that is a subject for a different post.

Greece again (five years later)

My love for Greece started during my first visit there in 1985. Since then I have returned a few times and enjoyed it every single minute. It is easy for me to remember the last time I went to Greece because it was the Summer right before my father died, 2015. This time was a bit different.

My love for Greece is very much in the Romantic vein, like Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats or Shelley. Maybe even in a philosophical vein like Socrates and Plato, like the Stoics. In Greece you are transported to the origins of our Western civilization, our education, our way of thinking, dare I say, we haven’t even improved that much the concept of Democracy… other than the obvious -although we might even be regressing on that front since it looks like the state of Florida will not allow convicted felons to vote, as if they were not citizens.

The special aspect to this visit was that I arrived by boat! (see previous post). Our first stop was Methoni. This village sits on the farthest South Western corner of the Peloponnese (the mainland) and is therefore a strategic location for anybody passing by. Because of this strategic location, there has been a castle there since Medieval times. During the Venetian expansion they took over the Ionian sea, up to and including Methoni, building or re-building the tower which manages to be strong yet elegant at the same time. Later, the Ottoman Empire took over, and they added their characteristic Byzantine “touch”. Eventually the town and the castle passed hands a few more times as it saw action during the Turkish invasion and World War II. In this fortress in Ottoman times Cervantes was held captive after his participation in the Battle of Lepanto.

Right between the castle walls with its Venetian coat of arms -The winged lion of St. Mark’s- and the beach is the lovely Methoni Beach Hotel, where Efi served us a couple of delicious Gin and Tonics! Since we had swam ashore, we were lucky to find a generous fisherman that gave us a lift to the boat. Even though he was a Barça fan and that he did not like Real Madrid, I am grateful for the lift.

Our next stop was a couple of “fingers” over, the quiet little island of Elafonisos, with a great wild beach at Simos. Unfortunately, we did not have time to explore the shore.

The next day we sailed by the amazing Monemvasia, a massive island plateau with a fortified village. It is reminiscent of the Israeli Masada fortress! But our destination was the island of Spetses. We arrived at the lovely cove of Zogeria, with its obligatory chapel and beach restaurant (what in Spain is called a chiringuito). A short motorboat jump away is the main town of Dapia with its old and new harbor. The village sits -like most Greek island villages- on the slope of the hill. Fortunately, only residents can have cars on the island, but still everybody moves around on dusty old scooters and quads with the occasional golf cart or electric runabouts.

Due to the relative proximity to Athens (there are a few high-speed passenger ferries from Piraeus), Spetses is one of the popular getaway islands for Athenians to weekend. Think Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket for Bostonians. This influx of well to do Athenians leads to nice restaurants and shops, with the downside being higher prices and some crowding.

The village is well distributed and has all the requirements of a nice Greek town -and then some:

  • A cute shopping street
  • A grand, old-school hotel: the Poseidonion
  • Great fish restaurants on the harbor
  • Coffee shops
  • Old churches
  • A fantastic bar with the biggest collection of Scotch I have ever seen, and old Rock and Roll!
  • It even has a couple of museums, the Spetses museum which chronicles the history of the town and the small but rich Bouboulina museum. This museum in housed in Bouboulina’s grand 19th C house downtown. She was the first woman ever to have been named Admiral for her continued fight for the independence of Greece. If you are in Spetses it is worth the short visit.

On my last day, my dear friend Matthieu came to lunch on his lovely Boston Whaler motorboat and we went to his house on the mainland village of Tolo. The next day, after a nice dinner by the sea, it was time for me to return to Madrid. Just like that, my short visit was over. But I cannot wait to return to my spiritual home.

A good cup of coffee

Of course I have mentioned coffee many times before in this blog, but I have never dedicated a post to it. About bloody time, some of you might say.

As my friend Theo would say I am a bit of a late bloomer, at least on the coffee front, maybe because I did not hit my teenage years in Madrid but in London in the 80’s where a good cup of coffee was as unheard of as a sunny day. Ditto for university in Boston later that same decade. Although I do remember some memorable coffees in the Italian North End where a few cafés knew how to pull a solid espresso!

When I finally got back to Spain in the early 90’s, still young -mind you- then the coffee consumption crept in unannounced. You see, in Spain at mid morning everybody takes a coffee break, who was I not to enjoy a cup? Thus an addiction began.

I do not drink a lot of coffee, preferring to focus on quality over quantity. Normally it is just one a day, mid morning. While travelling, it will be at least a couple, one with breakfast and one mid morning. If I have lunch out, I might have an espresso to finish.

During my PhD, I would meet with my awesome Thesis Advisor a couple of times a week to go over my progress at UNC’s now defunct The Daily Grind, where they knew our orders by heart. Those coffees remain in my memory as some of the most enriching ever.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

– T.S. Eliot

Relative to the rest of Europe, Spain does not have the best coffee. You see after our Civil War (1936 to 39) we had a rough famine through the 40’s while the rest of Europe was in WWII. We were lucky to be included in the Marshall Plan that helped us out. We had a scarcity of coffee so it was over roasted to increase flavor. Folks also drank chicory instead of coffee since this grows naturally in Spain and was widely available and much cheaper. Sometimes they mixed coffee and chicory (in proportions depending on what you could afford). A final trick was to add caramel to the coffee, again to push the flavor. All this means is that we got used to bad coffee, torrefacto. Nowadays this is not so much the case except if you go to a remote village where they still like it “old” style.

Another great coffee moment is Sunday after church, where I do not have any time limit on my coffee. In Florida I would go to Bad Ass Coffee next to St. Ann’s, although eventually I moved to The Brick for the more comfy sofas to read on. Here in Madrid I go to the wonderful Pancomido Café where the girls know me enough to prepare my coffee when they see me walking in!

More important than the coffee itself might be the coffee time: a time of reflection, or reading, or of company, and conversation. The ceremony of coffee whether at home, or at a coffee shop is also equally important; taking the time to enjoy a coffee alone or with a friend.

 

A good cigar

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!

A few days in Madrid

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.

My Madrid (continued)

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.