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!

The assassination of character, the closing of The Parrot

Over the last few years, I have seen some of my favourite places close. This week The Parrot, my favourite bar in Naples, Florida, where I lived for two years was closed as the new landlord wanted to make the venue more upscale. Covid finished Ye Olde Waffle House on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill where I would regularly go for breakfast. Over the years, other favorite places have succumbed to landlord’s greediness, to developers plans, and so on.

The problem is not just that these amazing, authentic venues close, which is bad enough in and of itself. What comes after is even worse; an anodyne, generic, Instagram ready, boring venue with zero personality, with zero charisma, with zero vibes, overrated and overpriced.

What made these places special to begin with was not a specific décor (although that added character), or a basic but tasty menu, or as bob Seger would say Old Time Rock and Roll, it was, of course, the people, the staff. You made connections and eventually relationships just by going to the same place all the time. When you replace all that with a desire for profit, your employees are more concerned with results and policy than with getting to know you and serving you from the heart.

The result is a place that transmits no emotion, staff that has a limited range of interactions because they have been trained with a “corporate” mentality as opposed to a hospitality mentality. You see, when your only metric is profit, you lose humanity. Unfortunately, we are seeing the victory of greed, but at what price? The loss of community.

First year back Stateside

A year ago I was locked up in Madrid, teaching a few classes on line, obviously Tonxo Tours was paused indefinitely. So I started looking for gigs around the world. As fate would have it, I ended up back in my beloved (not) Florida. Well at least the East coast of Florida which, having a bit more history than the West coast is a bit more diverse…

So, as I review the year, what are my main observations and conclusions:

I love my school! Saint Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary. We get students from North Carolina down to the Caribbean, and I get to teach them Spanish and English in a beautiful campus with great colleagues!

Despite Covid issues like having to wear a mask to class, it still beat Zoom classes where students are sitting on their beds, getting up to brew a cup of tea…

I have worked hard at building my community by building relationships at school, volunteering as an usher at my church (wait for a blog post on that), and trying to socialize –although that boils down to me going to my cigar lounge once in a while.

Speaking of fate, I was lucky to find out that my friend from my schooldays in London, Manuel Andrés lives a couple of towns North of me in Juno Beach! We basically saw each other every week-end for pizza, barbecue, or trips to Ikea. Last weekend we crashed the Walker Cup which took place next door to him (watch for another blog post on that).

I have moved so many times –about 20- in my life, that I now have a fairly established routine: find a nearby church, gym, and yoga studio, bar, coffee shop, cigar shop/lounge, community service, breakfast restaurant, Trader Joe’s, etc. Of course it is tricky to check all the boxes, so there is a bit of give and take. For example, I do not really go to the bar much anymore, but I do have the beach to go running, swimming and walking/meditating, so it compensates.

All in all, it has been a positive year and it has flown by! Now I only have a handful of meetings, some paperwork and I am off to Spain, stay tuned!

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!

Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Taking advantage of my Spring Break, the other day I went with a dear friend to explore Jonathan Dickinson State Park. It is about 45 minutes North of Boynton Beach, but definitely worth the trip.

Since this is a massive park, you can camp, RV, mountain bike, canoe, kayak, etc. But my friend and I just hiked. There are many trails available, but they are all fairly similar in that the vegetation, landscape, etc. is mostly: low pine flatwoods. Although there are also cypress swamps, mangroves, saw palmetto, etc. It made for a wonderful and refreshing as the Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, forest bath, which the Germans call Waldeinsamkeit, although that refers more to the pleasant feeling you get in nature. So more of a resulting sensation than the actual forest bath itself.

The surprisingly beautiful Loxahatchee River crosses the Park. Surprising because it is unexpected and beautiful. There is a little beach for campers to swim, and you can kayak or canoe. If you are lazy there is a little boat that will give you a ride up and down the river!

One must pay attention when hiking to catch little things that would otherwise pass unobserved, like Pink Sundew carnivore flowers, or hawks flying, or a gorgeous woodpecker. We also spotted a nice Gopher tortoise and a copperhead snake (this one was dead, as it had gotten run over as it tried to escape the controlled burning… out of the fire and under the wheel, as the old saying goes…)

Jonathan Dickinson Park, so called for the fellow shipwrecked on Jupiter Island a few miles away from the Park in 1696, also boasts the highest “mountain” in South Florida, Hobe Mountain, complete with its observation tower. It is in fact, an 86-foot sand dune!! Admittedly, the views from the top are cool, since you can see the sea, the Intracoastal, and the massive park. The rangers were doing some controlled burning, which burns dead leaves and brush, but does not kill the bigger trees or saw palmettos.

We also saw the ruins of Camp Murphy, a military radio “school” during WWII.

Norton Museum of Art

The other day I finally had a chance to visit the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. I was thinking I was going to visit a small museum with a couple of obligatory Impressionists, a couple of Cubist pieces, maybe a few pieces from between the wars, plus some modern random stuff. Well, as usual, I was wrong!

To begin with, the museum is quite large – much larger than say, the Baker Museum in Naples. It consists of a three-floor modern building (designed by Foster) attached to the Art Deco original, plus a sweet garden with a nice modern sculpture collection.

After the necessary Covid protocols: temperature and hand sanitizing, I paid the steep $18 fee (plus $5 for parking). My museum viewing strategy, started years ago (possibly induced by the Guggenheim in NYC) is to take the elevator to the top floor and then work my way down. What was my surprise when I landed on the third floor and I saw a couple of massive 17th and 18th C. portraits! (The first painting you come to is an early 20th C. Orientalist, but probably because it was the only one of the genre there and they did not know where to put it). The third floor has a surprising collection of 16th to 18th C. paintings including Rubens and Tiepolo, and some sculptures, including a gorgeous Spanish wood carved Virgin Mary.

The second floor is mostly Chinese art where I am quite lost. There are Shang, Ming, Jin, and Qing Dynasty pieces which are all gorgeous.

The ground floor is where the majority of the collection is. And what a great collection it is! (for a smaller, private museum in Florida). Sure, you have your unavoidable Cézanne, Miró, Picasso (sculpture and painting!) and Monet, but also rarer Gaugin, Brancusi, Gris and so forth. The American art collection is solid:  A couple of Georgia O´Keeffes, Norman Rockwell, an early Jackson Pollock, Calder, less known but highly influential Milton Avery, even a Man Ray chess set! The old and new buildings are seamlessly connected, so you do not really know what part of the building you are in, unless, like me, you stumble into the old patio, which is a beauty.

A big part of the ground floor is dedicated to Contemporary art and the usually massive installations they require (maybe to compensate for technique? – no, to be fair, I must confess my old fashioned taste and lack of knowledge on the Contemporary art front.)

The garden and sculpture collection are also delightful. Who knew that Keith Haring did sculpture? well at least one, it is here!

There is the de rigueur over-priced cafeteria, but it is spacious and modern, and the food is good. You can sit indoor (as soon as Covid allows) or outside.

So all-in-all a highly recommended visit if you happen to be an art lover in South East Florida.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

The phenomenon of old mansions becoming museums is not a new one. A rich sod builds an incredible mansion and at some point, subsequent generations cannot afford the massive maintenance required and taxes imposed, so they sell it to a foundation or to the government who -if it is good enough- turn it into a museum, or the family turns it into a private museum and on top of that rent it for events, etc. This is the case of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami. What is rare in this case is that there are very few historic homes in Florida. Rich folks like to hang out together so they can talk about their toys, so Newport Rhode Island, or New York’s Upper East Side or the North Shore of Long Island, remember The Great Gatsby? has a higher concentration of mansions or palazzos, as the Italians call them- than all of Florida put together. There are a number of reasons for this: First, the so called “robber barons” built their fortunes -and consequently their extravagant homes- in the 19th Century, but Southern Florida did not get a railroad until the 1920s. So you could say Florida missed the train. Other factors are the terrible weather, hurricanes, and humidity which would discourage most people from building down here.

An adventurous visionary was James Deering, heir to the International Harvester fortune who purchased a massive plot in Coconut Grove, South of Miami. Together with his artist/designer friend Paul Chalfin they traveled through Europe and Egypt buying everything they liked, and then built Villa Vizcaya to house everything.

As you can see from the photos: the building is in the Renaissance style with a large patio and gorgeous rooms. The gardens are spectacular, with grottos, formal gardens with local flora, etc. While there is no one particular item that makes you say wow, the aggregate is beautifully integrated. Probably due to the disgusting humidity in Florida, you will not find any master level painting. But there are plenty of nice sculptures, tapestries, furniture, and other decorative arts.

So, all in all, a wonderful, highly recommended visit.

Nature in my Southern Florida neighborhood

If you have at all followed this blog, you know how important nature is for me. Although I am a city boy, I grew up spending every weekend and Summer in the country. I still crave nature and try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. I have written before about the benefits of “forest bathing”, “Shinrin Yoku”. Although Boynton Beach is a suburban wasteland, there are a few great places to connect with nature.

The first and most obvious is the beach! I am lucky to live close enough to the beach that I can go for a run or if conditions are right, an open water swim about once a week. It makes my workout into a meditation; the sea clears your mind! I also go to the beach for my weekly “volunteering” shift where I walk and clean, mostly plastics, but also papers, old flip flops, etc. from the shore.

On the opposite, Western edge of town is the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge which consist of two parts, a mile boardwalk in Florida subtropical forest, and massive swamp that you can walk next to, or canoe on. Here you can see a lot of Florida wildlife: gators, deer, and plenty of birds.

Finally, a few blocks from home I have the Seacrest Scrub Natural Area which is a small park mostly hosting Gopher turtles. This little park is perfect for a quick walk to clear your mind, meditate or just wander.

So I can’t complain as far as outdoor venues is concerned.

The pros and cons of multiculturalism

Moving from NYC to Boston 1988

We first moved to New York In 1977, I was 12. From there we moved to London in 1979, from there to college in Boston in 1983, and so on for back and forth between the US and Europe. As I recently wrote in my “Diversity Statement” for a job application:

I have had the privilege of growing up in multicultural and multiracial environments, cities, and schools: New York City, London, Paris, Madrid, Boston, etc., so since childhood I have been bathed in diversity: cultural, racial, religious, sexual, socioeconomic, etc. On top of that I have had the privilege of traveling widely.

So, while being multicultural is definitely an enriching experience, it does have its drawbacks: The first one is that you no longer “fit” into any particular “set” culture, you become a bit of an outsider whenever you are in an environment of population that is “born and bred” in a place.  The second and more insidious aspect is that you might no longer meet certain legal or bureaucratic requirements to say, work in a place.

This is what happened to me when I returned to Spain in 2018. My US degrees (Including a PhD) are not recognized in Spain to work as a teacher. Furthermore, to get all my paperwork approved and transferred and certified and triple stamped would have taken years. Besides the paperwork, there is a mentality issue. Teachers in Spain are generally not a respected, appreciated, and certainly not well remunerated part of the population. There are historical and social reasons for that, but I will leave them for another post.

Long story short: I have returned to work in the US as Assistant Professor of Spanish and Assistant Director of the Language Department at Saint Vincent de Paul, a major seminary in Boynton Beach Florida! This was not an easy decision, leaving everything behind for a job, but I could no longer live in a country that refused to acknowledge me professionally.

Desperate Literature (or interesting bookstores and libraries)

I fell in love with literature at the American School in London with a couple of great teachers: Soledad Sprackling for Spanish Literature and James McGovern for English. But I did not fall in love with books until college.

At Bentley University I discovered the Bowles Reading Room which had beautiful books. It was glassed in from the rest of the library and every day I went there to do my homework but would invariably end up looking at the wonderful books. I loved that room so much that at the end of my studies, I donated a book about Spain to the Collection. (I contacted the librarians who got me this rare photo of the Reading Room for this post, thanks!).

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

But I would have to wait until after college to have enough disposable income to buy books, which, living in Boston, was very easy. Some days on my lunch break I would sneak to Goodspeed’s to look for treasures. Such is my love for books and literature, that years later, I ended up getting a PhD in Spanish Literature! (see previous posts)

Speaking of UNC, one of the highlights are the libraries. Plural. The old library is the Wilson Library (which is featured prominently in Robin Williams’ great film Patch Adams). I spent hours studying in this library and a couple of times studying very old books in the Rare Book Collection. The big, modern library is the Davis Library with its 7 million books. There, I soon made best friends with the Spanish book librarians Teresa and Becky. I would walk to their office deep in the heart of the library and talk books, (and gossip). This library is as close to the Borges idea of a library as I have ever been: massive and repetitive, but with a soul.

During my studies at UNC, one summer I got a Fellowship to do research at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. What an experience! To get to the rare book collection you have to pass not one, but two security checks, you cannot bring in any pens, books, phones, etc. Books there are treated with the care and reverence one would expect of -in my case- over two hundred year old books. I spent every morning that summer reading most of Francisco de Isla’s first editions, manuscripts, and other pieces attributed to him but not his. That experience is one of the highlights of my academic career. (Their coffee shop in the basement was also excellent – and subsidized! but that is for another post)

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

After UNC I moved to Southern Florida, which is a wasteland for books -must be the humidity. But, in 2016 I did read this great article in Vanity Fair, (to which I have subscribed and read every issue from cover to cover since around 2006) about this magical book store in Santorini called Atlantis Books.

Fast forward to 2018 when my dear friend Matthew came to visit me in Madrid. He stayed at a hotel in the old part of town. One evening after I dropped him off, around the corner from the hotel, on narrow Campomanes street, I bumped into Desperate Literature. I was ecstatic! What a discovery, what a find! A tiny bookstore, but filled with books mostly in English, with a few in Spanish and French for good measure. It was a tiny paradise, an oasis of… books!

Books in time of Covid

Books in time of Covid

I soon found out that this bookshop is part of Atlantis Books which I had read about in that Vanity Fair article. It all fit in, a collection of magical bookstores.

During this Covid-19 pandemic I found out they were sending books to folks. I ordered one and I was able to make use of my workout time to ride my bicycle to pick it up.

In conclusion: support your local -hopefully quirky- bookstores, and read.