Paddle boarding, a wonderful experience

One of my colleagues is a keen surfer, who nowadays also paddle boards and paddle surfs. The last couple of weeks he has taken me out paddle boarding with him.

What a wonderful experience it is! You get to spend time on the water, working out, and in communion with nature, in a meditation. Already I have seen a spotted ray, a turtle -which was really zooming along! and a manatee (and some pink jellyfish).

We paddle out of the Ocean Inlet Park and paddle around the Intracoastal, checking out mangroves, and gorgeous waterfront homes! I am hoping that he asks me out again and maybe we get to go out to the open sea, I might have to earn my sea legs first.

If you get a chance to paddle board, do not hesitate, like the old commercial said: “just do it”.

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!

Get out in nature and walk

Boynton Beach is a bit of no man’s land, there is not much here. If you go South, you have the more interesting Delray Beach and Boca Raton, and if you go North, you are in the Palm Beaches. East is -as the name implies- the Ocean, and if you go West, you fortunately will hit the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a massive swamp.

Unfortunately, there is no forest in which to do a “shinrin-yoku” forest bath, which is just as well, because forest in Florida means jungle. Fortunately, there is a man-made trail that goes all around the swamp, it is very boring, but at least you get to walk in, or rather, along nature!

Last Saturday I went on a nice two hour walk on the trail. Since it is quite monotonous, it is easy to get into a rhythm and have a walking meditation. In winter, it is too cold for most of the Florida wildlife, so I only saw birds, plenty of interesting birds.

As I was starting my walk, I bumped into a group of my students! The seminarians from Raleigh had also decided to go on a walk! So we took the photo here before they went exploring.

Back in civilization, as soon as you exit the park there is a wonderful farm shop called Bedners. They have great produce, most of it their own – they have a huge agricultural plot behind the shop- as well as great homemade soups! So I stopped to get some groceries and soup.

If you have access to nature, any nature, go for a walk, you are welcome.

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.