Museo Lázaro Galdiano

A few years ago I wrote about the Museo Sorolla in Madrid, a hidden gem in the big city. A small, personal sized museum, which proves that there is no relationship between size and quality. A few blocks away is another such gem, the Museo Lázaro Galdiano. I re-visited it recently with my sister.

Hidden in plain sight, in the middle of busy Calle Serrano, better known for its shopping than for museums (although the Archeological museum is down the street). The museum in housed, as you might have guessed, in what used to be Lázaro Galdiano’s house. It is a big house, a huge house. In Spanish we call it a palacete, in English, you borrow the Italian word palazzo, at any rate, it is big. And it is full of wonderful art. From ancient Greek and Roman nick knacks to Goya and Velazquez paintings. Each gorgeous room is full of wonderful pieces: medieval art, paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco, Murillo, jewelry, weapons, ceramics, furniture, sculptures, etc. The house itself is a work of art, beautiful wooden floors, painted ceilings, central staircase, and gardens. It also has the obligatory gift shop, and a research library.

My sister Rocky and I were pleasantly surprised that here and there were pieces of modern, contemporary art. Call us old-fashioned, but in general, in contrast to the art surrounding it, the modern pieces did not measure up.

Finally, the museum publishes Goya, a serious art/academic magazine. Of course, my dear friend and Dissertation Director, Irene Gómez Castellano, has published an article in it.

While the lines at the Prado, the Thyssen, and the Reina Sofia are discouragingly long, you can generally just walk straight into the Lázaro Galdiano, and walk around at your own leasurely pace, and definitely get your money’s worth. When you finish, you are on glamorous Calle Serrano, and you can stroll to get a coffee or a meal!

On the importance of mentoring

The moment we learn a skill or acquire any knowledge or wisdom it is our responsibility to share it with those younger than us. Not doing so would be a selfish waste of that skill, knowledge or wisdom. I came about mentoring by the same circuitous and unknown to me way as most things happen in my life.

My college years were incredibly constructive: I wrote a column for the school newspaper, I had the classical music program at the radio station, I was president of the International Club, I was International Student representative to the Student Government, and my senior year I was appointed Student Government representative to the Board of Trustees. I sat next to a sweet old man, who by means of his mystical powers, realized I badly needed some guidance in my life. Thus, unbeknown to me I had my first mentor. Jere Dykema was a quiet, sweet and brilliant lawyer and investment manager in Boston. The fact that he was a trustee at Bentley means he was also well connected and probably rich. After graduation I did an internship at the Societe de Banques Suisses in Geneva, and in September of 1987 I moved to New York hoping to get a job in Wall Street at the same time as the financial markets took one of their biggest hits in history, Black Monday. Somehow Jere Dykema stayed in touch with me throughout – this was before personal computers and the interweb. After eight fruitless, should I say, jobless months in NY, Jere put me in touch with an acquaintance from his squash club in Boston. That acquaintance was Eyk Van Otterloo, and the rest, as they say, is history: he made the mistake of offering me a job, and I moved back to my beloved Boston, where I would regularly meet Jere Dykema for lunch. That is when I realized the importance of mentoring.

After a few years I moved back to Madrid to work for a stockbroker. We soon received a young college graduate from Atlanta on a one year internship. Sure we became good friends to this day, but more importantly I could help him get his professional “sea legs”. From that point on there was always someone I could help out. When I started my company in 1994, one of my biggest responsibilities, but also pleasures was training, coaching and mentoring my team, I loved it. Becoming a teacher in the US also meant automatically becoming a mentor. Advising students is a great way of putting my 20 plus years of business experience and my 50 (soon plus) years of life experience to good use.

In the photofinishing industry I was again lucky to find wonderful advisors. Although Renaud lived in Paris, he still helped and advised me, and made sure I was ok. I loved working with him and knowing that he always had my best interest in mind.

Back in the States, strangely enough, an old university professor became my mentor. Twenty years after teaching me, and having stayed in contact all these years, Prof. Nurick and his wife Diane became friends, advisors, mentors. I still remember conversations and advice they gave me. Being a Tar Heel himself, Aaron Nurick wrote a letter of recommendation for me to UNC, I don’t know what sort of lies he wrote, but it worked, they accepted me!

At UNC, other than with my students, I had a couple of great mentoring opportunities. We had the chance of guiding the graduate students that came into the department after us. My first year I had the best possible mentor. Grant Gearhart took me out on nice long bicycle rides where he patiently explained the ropes of graduate school to me. As expected we became close friends. Starting my second year it was my turn to help an incoming student. The Newman Church also had a mentoring program, so I also got involved with that. I was paired with Mauricio and Simdi, they were both great. We would meet for a meal, mostly sushi at Akai Hana, my favorite place in Chapel Hill (actually Carrboro). Mauri graduated and Simdi and I continued our tradition of meeting for great meals and chats.

Part of the beauty of mentoring is that there are as many different styles of mentoring, as there are mentors. Some mentors are so subtle you do not realize you have been mentored until after the fact. This was the case with Dean Minetti who was such a presence during my college years, but I did not understand how he had helped me out until much later. Other cases might be more obvious, which was the case with my father.

As I am about to post this, I am happy to report that my new school, Seacrest Country Day School has a faculty mentoring program, and I am thrilled to have the awesome Patrick Duffy as my mentor.

I hope my help and guidance advice have been of some use to those I have shared them with over the years. I can’t wait to continue helping those younger than I.

Don Quijote, 400 anniversary of Cervantes’ death, and conference panel time management

April 23rd marked the 400 anniversary of Cervantes’ death. UNC had two great events to celebrate, and as a Cervantes and Quixote fan I am very happy and proud to have participated in both.

The 22nd Annual Carolina Conference for Romance Studies hosted the “I Am Quixote Festival” panel… and I was asked to be the chair! Needless to say, I was thrilled to be asked and I jumped at the opportunity.

Given the importance of this 400 anniversary the conference room was packed, and the panel was filmed. The panelists were Alexandra Veronica Combs from UNC-Wilmington who presented on “The Heroines of the Quixote who Challenged Narrative Structures”, our own Colleen McAlister, who presented on “Violence and Fame in the Quijote: Corporeal Manifestations of the Search for Identity”, and finally, University of Texas at San Antonio professor Santiago Daydí-Tolson, presenting on “The Contrasting Diets of Don Quixote and Sancho”. They were all awesome and great sports to boot. I must confess I was as proud as a schoolboy when my Dissertation Director, Irene, came to the event. In case things got out of hand, I picked up a copy of the Riquer edition of the Quijote.

One of the main responsibilities of a panel chair is keeping the panelists from exceeding the time limits. This is always a delicate matter that can – if the panelist ignores the time limits – result in awkward situations. The problem is that it is also difficult for the chair to elegantly interrupt the panelist to let them know that they are running long. Of course part of the problem with this is the culture of these events where the panelists just sit there and read their papers, it would be much more interesting and fun if they just talked about their research! But that is not something I am going to change regardless of how wildly popular my blog is. I thought long and hard about how I was going to deal with my panelists if they ran long. The solution came from football (soccer if you are American). I bought a yellow and a red piece of paper and cut them down to card size. The first warning when the panelist was approaching the time limit I would slide the yellow card under their noses, sorry, eyes. If they still kept going, We would pull the red card, just like in football!! Fortunately, or unfortunately my panelists stayed well within their allotted time and I didn’t have to use my revolutionary new technique.

The second event was a marathon reading of Don Quixote. For this event my whole class signed up to read (ok, I bribed them with a free class period – but it was well worth it – and they all read in Spanish, in front of an audience). You can see them all read on the attached video, my bit is at 5:08:50. For this event I sourced a real suit of armor from a great theater costume shop in Raleigh and wore bits and pieces as Don Quixote, it was a great way to promote the event and it was a lot fun. As luck would have it I read the hilarious bit where Sancho is tossed in a blanket at an inn while his master looks on from outside the inn’s wall. I was – as I always am – reminded of how funny, brilliant, clever and well written this book is, and how fresh it remains at 400 years old.

Now, if you have not done so already, go read Don Quixote, the first modern novel, it makes a great summer read, extra points if you read it in Spanish.

Don Quixote Marathon reading at UNC

The ultimate test of cerebral fitness*

It has been nine months since my last entry. In my defense, it has been a crazy year. I am at Miami International Airport and this is the first chance I have to write, it feels good.

You see, I was busy finishing and defending my doctoral dissertation, which was a very difficult but rewarding process.

As soon as classes started in the Fall I was having my twice weekly coffee with Irene, my director, to finish and fine tune each chapter. At the same time I was teaching two classes: Advanced Intermediate 204, a new class for me, and Intermediate 203, my “standard” class. Oh, and I had to write an academic article if I wanted to have any chance of applying for a university job. On top of all that I had to prepare my job search, but those items will have their own blog entries.

The work only got more intense in the spring. I was assigned an extra class from the regular Spring load of one section, this one teaching Advanced Spanish at the Gillings School of Public Health. I had to give up my volunteering shift at the Ronald McDonald House, as well as cutting down on the number of concerts and plays I went to (although I did not totally give that up).

April was when the proverbial rubber met the proverbial road. Finishing and editing my dissertation and going to job interviews. Spring Break was anything but break, driving to Charlotte and flying to Florida for job interviews.

But everything came to a head on April 8. That morning I spent two and a half hours locked up in a conference room with four of the professors on my committee, and Ana Rueda from the University of Kentucky looming over all of us, Skyping in on the massive screen, like a science fiction overlord, only much nicer and sweeter! I also had like ten spectators: old students, friends, including Mandey from Zog’s, my friendly librarians Teresa and Becky, and colleagues that came to give me moral support. Poor things, they had to endure my grilling session.

I passed. Walking out of the meeting, feeling exhilarated but exhausted and numb, I had a message on my phone. Seacrest Country Day School in Naples Florida – my top choice for work – had made me an offer while I was defending my dissertation. Coincidence? I think not.

After defending I thought things would slow down, wrong again. I still had to do edits on my dissertation, dress up as Don Quixote for a marathon reading celebrating the 400th anniversary of his death, chair a panel at our Carolina Conference on Romance Studies, teach and wrap up my four years in Carolina. My mom and my little sister came for my hooding ceremony and we had a blast. After that I moved to Florida and had only enough time to dump my boxes before heading back to Spain for my nephew’s First Communion, which explains why I am sitting at the airport now.

*with thanks to Murray Head from his song One Night in Bangkok

PROSPECTUS (and its defense)

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

What have I learnt in my PhD so far?

You might ask: All this talk of PhD blah, blah, blah is very nice, but what have you really learnt in two years of school?

Academically I have learnt about Medieval Spanish Literature, about medieval authors distancing themselves and their work from the divine works. In Spain the Libro de buen amor is key in playing with the divine and the more human aspects of life. I have learnt about colonial authors like Juan del Valle y Caviedes or Mateo Rosas de Oquendo, even Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz criticizing the Spanish abuses in Latin America using satire. And I have learnt about the massive changes that came along in the 18th Century and how books were agents and mirrors of this change. I have learnt about the evolution of literature, how so much of our literature is basically founded on ancient Greek and Roman literature (and to a lesser extent to Middle Eastern and Asian / Indian literature). I have learnt to connect many dots in literature, but I still have so, so much to learn, which is another thing I have learnt!

Ha, not bad for eight lines! Let me know if you want to know more I will be happy to oblige and bore you for hours!

On other levels I have learnt to be more discerning and critical in my reading, to read more “between the lines”, to interpret, to be more critical of my reading. This is very enriching.

I am in awe of my professors: Irene Gómez Castellano, Frank Domínguez and Rosa Perelmuter, their knowledge of their fields, the breadth of their knowledge, their generosity with their knowledge and time. I have been blessed to work with them and I hope someday to be a little bit like them.

Overall I have spent over two years of my life preparing for this exam, reading every moment that I have been able to: during breaks in concerts and plays, during breakfast, lunch and dinner, at the Harley Davidson dealership, at my bar Zog’s, in every library and corner of the university, at the Carolina Inn after Sunday mass, at the Ackland Museum (after the Carolina Inn), on my porch – smoking cigars, at Five Guys eating a burger, at my coffee shop (the Daily Grind at the Student Stores, expensive and slow, but a superior cup of coffee and the staff is great!) etc., etc., etc. Passing these exams is the highlight of my career so far.

Keep Calm and Read

Keep Calm and Read

Graham Memorial

Graham Memorial


Carolina Inn

Carolina Inn

Harley dealership

Harley dealership

Wilson Library

Wilson Library




Some Coffee Shop

Some Coffee Shop

Five Guys

Five Guys



Year one Ph.D.: Check

Well, that wraps up the first year of my Ph.D. program and of my course work. Now I “only” have to read until my eyes bleed for my exams next Spring. This semester was overall much better than the Winter term. I took three courses: Early Modern Spanish Women Writers, with Rosa Perelmuter – a luminary in the field, and an Independent Study on Medieval Narratives with the iconic Prof. Domínguez. For my third course I took 18th Century Spanish Lit. with Irene Gómez-Castellano – and it has changed my life. Not only did I learn about the Enlightenment (something that had been in the back of my mind since I read Voltaire’s Candide at the American School in London, and then reread often) and the Romantics, but I discovered Padre Isla, a fairly unknown Jesuit writer who wrote the “best seller” of the 18th Century: Fray Gerundio de Campazas. I also taught two sections of Spanish 203, an intermediate level class. I loved it! I had great kids and we had a great time, including the cockroach that climbed up a girl’s dress. Pobre Raquel!
The end of the term was extremely stressful. One is normally 100% occupied with schoolwork during the year, so having to take two exams, write three twenty page essays, give and correct about forty exams, plus all the end of the year wrap up stuff was beyond hectic. For a week I did not work out or shave! I hope that the first year of the Ph.D. program is the baptism by fire test, that it is the hardest to juggle all the work, because the end was no fun.
But it is over and with very positive results. Most importantly my dissertation seems to be coming into focus, writing about Padre Isla. My secondary/complementary writing list will be about Medieval satire with Prof, Domínguez and my Transatlantic list will be Colonial lit. with Rosa Perelmuter. This means that I have to come up with six reading lists. A primary reading list of twenty books for each list and about thirty secondary/theoretical lists for each topic. Total: give or take 150 books that I have to learn by next Spring to pass my exams, Gadzooks! Yikes!
Taking only three classes, I had time to volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill on Monday nights, and I worked at the Clinical Skills Center at the UNC Hospitals

teaching medical students Spanish. Both of these side ventures are a lot of fun and very rewarding and very much needed to clear my head and do something else for a while that is not just studying.
Conclusion: Overall it has been an incredible year and I have learnt much more than I ever expected or hoped. I’ve met some very interesting people, discovered a new town, been more culturally active than I expected, forged some nice relationships and I am slowly rebuilding my life. I’m very happy to be doing this, I love UNC and Chapel Hill.