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.

 

Almodóvar

 

lasmejorespelculasdepedroalmodvar

I can’t believe that in 182 posts and almost ten years of writing this blog I have never dedicated a post to Pedro Almodóvar (although I have mentioned him a couple of times). Forgive me, and let me change that.

Pedro Almodóvar is indubitably Spain’s best know director. He has won two Oscars (I think that is double what any other Spanish artist has – but don’t believe me 100%), has had a handful of nominations, a bunch of Goyas (Spain’s Oscars), his breakout film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was made into a Broadway musical, etc. etc. But more important than his fame or awards is the quality of his films. You see, Almodóvar has an instantly recognizable way of telling a story -and what stories they are! I believe part of his success lies in how Baroque his narratives are, and how they key right into our psyche. Along the story, Almodóvar layers his personal punctuation marks: a colorful palette, a stylish, kitsch decor, perfect locations, and a cast he squeezes the best out of, some of them repeatedly, like Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas or Carmen Maura. In that respect he is a bit like Woody Allen -another one of my favorites- in that they really get the most out of the actors, and that, I believe, is the sign of a great director. Then there are his quirks: every movie has a signature song that marks it, his brother Agustín always gets a bit part, so you are always on the lookout for that. This, by the way, is something Hitchcock also did -insert himself in his movies, which I think is what inspired Almodóvar. Finally he sprinkles a touch of post modernism and surrealism here and there, just to keep the viewer on edge.

I do not have a single favorite Almodóvar film, I have a few. Both Volver and Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) stand out. Both of these are staples of my Advanced classes, as many of my students will testify. I just watched Almodóvar’s 21st film (which was what prompted me to write this) Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory). It is good, all his films are good, but not the best. So, although it received an Oscar nomination, it was not really up to snuff. I will not divulge any spoilers this time (you are welcome), only to say that it is, or at least it feels, autobiographical. 

Most of Almodóvar’s films take place in and around Madrid, with a few of exceptions. Todo sobre mi madre splits between Madrid and Barcelona, Volver, like the name implies takes us to a village in La Mancha not unlike the one Almodóvar is from, La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) takes place in the countryside of Toledo, Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces) takes a turn in the Canary Islands, and a few other exceptions. Madrid is part of the story, it becomes another character. This is something Woody Allen also does with New York, blending it into the narrative.

Also interesting is to see Almodóvar’s evolution as a filmmaker. His first film Pepi, Lucy, Bom y otras chicas del montón (Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom) coincides with the birth of La Movida which was an artistic/cultural reaction to 40 years of dictatorship. La Movida was a radical pendulum swing for Spain, it was an over the top celebration of freedom, and Almodóvar hits the note with a raw, sexual, low budget film that captures the Zeitgeist of the time. His current films on the other hand have the sleek look of the bottomless budget of a Hollywood darling.

If you are already an Almodóvar fan, tell me your favorite film of his -and why- in the comments. If you are a newbie grab one, any one, of his films and enjoy!

 

Tonxo Tours first birthday!

As we sit in our quarantine, as I sit at home, Tonxo Tours has quietly turned one year old! So it is only befitting that I write a quick report on our first year of existence – Although it already existed informally and for many of my friends and friend’s friends who had gotten a tour from me.

My first memories of giving tours was as a teenager living in London, whenever friends or families of my dad’s work came to town I was often asked to take them to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham palace. At that time I also took a lot of tours of museums, palaces, etc., so obviously that must have left some valuable residues. In university I started showing Madrid and Spain to my friends who came to visit. One friend showed up with English Rock groups who we would take out during their visits. A friend once showed up with the Monaco Olympic Sailing Team for me to show them around a bit! Then, living in New York and Boston I continued showing people around those cities. With experience and learning, every tour became better and better. Fast forward a couple of decades and many tours of Madrid, Barcelona, Boston and New York later, and I finally made Tonxo Tours a reality. As they say: turn your hobby into your work and you will not have to work again.

This first year has been the expected mix of wins and frustrations. I must admit the wins and the rewards have far outweighed the frustrations. I was lucky to start off right away finding a couple of sources of business: a couple of Internet platforms and a local transport company whose customers ask for tours. I created a homemade website and logo with my trademark bow tie, and I was in business. In my first year I have shown Madrid to over 200 people. My most popular tour has been Old Madrid, I have shown the Prado Museum a few times, the Royal Palace, a handful of other museums, and I have also gone out of town to El Escorial, La Granja and Segovia. I developed a game to play when children come on the tour. I have used the same game adding activities as a university orientation team-building game which I did with my uni, the European School of Economics. I did a tour with a woman in a wheelchair (she had broken her foot doing the Camino de Santiago), I have done tours in minivans and buses with 50 people,  one customer with a chain of pastry shops in Belgium wanted to see the pastry shops in old Madrid, that was fun-and tasty! I have done tours in Spanish, English and French, and I have even done a couple of tours in Italian, which, with only one semester of training, was tough (see the video below for proof). The experience has been so much fun and so rewarding!

Unfortunately due to the Covid-19 I have had to cancel a handful of tours I had booked.

And I have learnt. What a learning curve! Like many things, being a tour guide involves psychology, salesmanship and, of course, knowing your stuff. I cannot wait for many more tours and many more years!

Please spread the word! My favorite and best marketing tool is word of mouth!!

Feel free to share my web www.tonxotours.com and Instagram and Facebook tonxotours

 

Jojo Rabbit

As I write this the planet is in lockdown due to the Coronavirus – Covid 19 pandemic. So, since I am stuck at home, how about some blogging?

One good thing about being back in a big city like Madrid is the ease of going to the cinema. One can walk or easily take public transport to the many movie theaters. Recently (pre-pandemic obvs) I went to see JoJo Rabbit.

Spain has an outstanding film dubbing industry. All movies are very well dubbed. Fortunately, there is always the option of seeing non-Spanish language films in the original language with subtitles, these are called Versión Original. Whenever possible I go to the cinemas that only show VO films.

Without any spoilers, JoJo Rabbit is a film about Third Reich Germany as seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who happens to have a very special secret friend: Adolf Hitler. This film does not fit into any category, it feels like an indie, it is a comedy, a drama, a coming of age, a war movie, etc. Labels do not do this film justice. To give you an idea of the eccentricity of the film, it ends with Bowie’s “Heroes” juxtaposed with this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke (The Book of Hours (I, 59):

“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

I’m sure that some might read “Third Reich”, “Adolf Hitler”, “comedy” and automatically call the PC Patrol, just like they did with Borat. But you might miss the point that humor is an excellent tool to open eyes and hearts.

A couple of technical bits about the film: the only “star” is JoJo’s mom, Rosie, Scarlett Johansson. The film is directed by Kiwi Taika Waititi, who was inspired by Christine Leunens’s book Caging Skies which his mom recommended. By the way, Waititi does the role of Hitler -as seen through a ten-year-old boy, and it is hilarious!

As my followers know, I am a big fan of Wes Anderson and Woody Allen, and this film has a bit of both, it is colorful, insightful, and funny.

I could go on and on, but here is the trailer and now go out and see the film. You can thank me in the comments section!!

‘Love is the strongest thing in the world.’ – Rosie

Tonxo Tours

 

 

 

Well, I guess the first thing I must do is apologize to my followers for a very long silence. Soon you will know the reason. As you might know, about a year a ago I returned home to Spain after many – thirteen to be precise – years in the US. With a clean slate, I decided to start a business that had been on the back burner for years: I have become a personal tour guide, creating bespoke tours of Spain under the name Tonxo Tours.

Showing people Spain is my life calling. I am passionate about sharing my culture, history, language. After showing Spain to all sorts of folks for years, I have decided to start Tonxo Tours and make my joie de vivre available to all! I have been toying with this idea since the late 90s, so it is about time to get going, don’t you think?

Most tour companies boast about their team of specialists, well, I am that specialist. I have been giving tours of Madrid and of Spain since my twenties. I have worked with British rock bands, schools and universities, foundations, executives from all over the world, even the Monaco Olympic Sailing Team, I would love to show you around!

After twenty odd years in the business world and thirteen teaching in high schools and universities in the US, it is time for me to do what I do best, which is to share my passion for Spain.

Why has it taken so long you might ask? My life has been marked by a peripatetic lifestyle, moving to New York when I was ten and then to London, Boston, Paris, Bordeaux, Geneva, Lausanne, Chapel Hill, Naples Fl., and so forth to over eleven cities. Cities became my friends. I loved discovering what made each one unique ̶-how they got their personality. I spent my time in museums, cafés, theaters, concerts, operas, ballets, all of which unavoidably infused me with a love for the arts. Sharing my love and knowledge of cities and their cultures soon became a venue to express myself. As a teenager I gave tours of Madrid and London to friends and family, something I continue to do and enjoy, which has led me to create Tonxo Tours. My experience and passion radiate on the street: Explaining Spanish history, architecture, food, music, sometimes all of them at the same time!!

When I started thinking about setting up a tour company I was aware of the tremendous competition in the market. Just in Madrid you can jump on a sightseeing bus and casually check out the city while chomping on some churros, you can take a Segway tour, there are a bunch of tapas tours, there are free tours, you can get a tour on a tuk tuk, a golf cart, an antique car, even in a pink Rolls Royce! In contrast to that, my philosophy is simple: a no gimmick, quality driven, discreet – yet fun – bespoke tour that will cater to what you want to experience, see, taste and hear, not the other way around.

I can arrange exquisite lodgings, extraordinary experiences, delicious food and drink,

with only one purpose: creating unforgettable memories.

But why would anyone choose Tonxo Tours? you might ask. Here’s a few more reasons:

  1. I am a native, a local, born and bred here, but with the advantage that I have lived abroad many years. I have dual citizenship USA / Spain, offering me a perspective unattainable to most.
  2. Passion: I love sharing my culture, my history, my food, my architecture, art, music, dance, etc. This drives me.
  3. Experience: I have been doing this for years with friends, colleagues, schools, universities, foundations, etc. From 1994 to 2004 I had my own company (but that is a different story) which took me to every city and town in Spain at least a couple of times a year, more for the big cities. So I really know Spain like the back of my hand.
  4. DNA: My grandad worked for the British and American embassies, often times driving dignitaries around – he even got a medal from from Queen Elisabeth (but that’s a different story). My dad was restless. We would go on excursions every time he got bored – which was often – He was also a Spanish history buff which rubbed off on me, so I have been reading Spanish history and literature since I was a youth, which eventually led me to get a PhD in Spanish literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (again, different story).

I received my undergraduate degree in business. I specialized in management, the human part; what motivates people? What makes them tick? I used these skills in my first jobs in finance, photography and management before using them to run my own business for ten years, importing and selling industrial machinery in Spain and consulting for European companies wanting to expand into Latin America. I moved back to the US, where I started teaching in 2005, and although I was making a fraction of the money I used to make, I felt much happier and more fulfilled. In the meantime I got a Master’s and then a PhD in Spanish Literature from UNC. Returning home to Spain allows me to indulge in my true vocation. I am able to apply my many skills developed and honed over the years. So don’t over think it, contact me and I’ll be happy to show you around!

Let me know when you are going to be in Spain and what you want to do and see. I will personally take care of you, if you just want to spend a few hours walking around old Madrid or if you want to spend two weeks exploring Spain, I will be happy to set it all up.

If you want to know more about me, you can read check out this blog about my random thoughts, travels, and whathaveyous.  You can check out my website tonxotours.com and/or my Instagram: tonxotours

Return to culture (at last)

One of the massive pluses of living in a major world capital is the amazing cultural offering one has access to. I really needed this cultural stimulation. The problem with the word culture is that it has been made to sound elitist, refined, distant from the people, the stuff Frazier and Niles Crane did, but in truth it is just beauty, beauty created by man – and woman of course! The least important bit is if we call it culture, art, or whatever.

I have been lucky to live in major cities where I became a cultural junkie: London (where it all started for me), Paris, Boston, New York, even Chapel Hill – a college town, but obviously with a thriving cultural scene. Unfortunately Naples only had a couple of cultural outlets (which I squeezed every last drop from), and in NJ I didn’t get a chance to explore although of course the heavy stuff was in NYC…

In the less than three months back in Madrid I have been lucky to experience:

  • A brilliant piano recital by local piano star Luis Fernández Pérez playing Händel, Scarlatti, Rameau, and Bach. For free at the Fundación Juan March.
  • A play/recital of Federico García Lorca’s poetry by stage icon Nuria Espert.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre’s eerily prescient play Nekrassov (1955) about the “fake news”.
  • A gorgeous version of The Nutcracker by the prestigious Compañía Nacional de Danza and the Teatro Real house orchestra!
  • Visits to the Sorolla museum, the Museo del Romanticismo, and a score of art exhibits including “Rediscovering the Mediterranean” at the Fundación Mapfre with paintings and sculptures from the XIX and early XX Centuries.
  • After fourteen years I again became a member of the Amigos del Prado, which allows me free entry to the Prado, avoiding the queues. I have, of course, already gone twice!
  • Seeing a couple of concerts in bars around town by chance.
  • Never mind being surrounded by amazing architecture.

Et cetera, et cetera, down to awesome street musicians and performers! And this is with limited time and money. The cultural menu is, in fact, overwhelming, but I am happy to nibble and enjoy!

Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.

Jawaharlal Nehru

 

San Silvestre Vallecana

The San Silvestre Vellecana race has been going every New Year’s eve since 1964 – that’s one year before I was born! I ran it in 2015 with my cousin and again a few days ago. It is not the oldest race, longest or anything like that, but it might be the funnest.

My story with the San Silvestre started with my grandfather who every evening of December 31 always said he was going to the race when in fact he was just going to the corner taverna for a drink or two. My dad continued the joke but he didn’t even go to the bar, he just said he was going to the San Silvestre only to go sit on the couch and watch TV. So when he passed in 2015 I committed to running it, simply so I could say I was going to the San Silvestre and actually run the stupid thing!! And I did, and it was great fun. My cousin Alex is a talented athlete so running it with him was fun and competitive at the same time.

Then I forgot about it until I started training again after my motorcycle accident in 2017 – when I promised myself I would run the San Silvestre again.

The recovery from the shattered pelvis was very slow and painful, but I slowly added the miles, finally running 10 kms in training at the Retiro Park when I got back to Madrid in the fall. I am happy with the results which, while not impressive, are ok. I ran a 1:06 with a 6:39 pace which put me in the middle of the pack finishing in position 20.872. Keep in mind that there were 42.000 of us, so there was a lot of traffic slowing things down. In fact as the crowd thinned I was able to speed up!

According to Wikipedia, this 10K race is based upon the Saint Silvester Road Race, a Brazilian race (held since 1925) which spawned numerous other New Year’s Eve races. It starts at the Real Madrid Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and finishes at the Rayo Vallecano Stadium, across town. Along the way it passes right by my mom’s house, so every year -even when I’m not racing, we take a walk to check it out. The Pro race held after us amateurs is a thing of beauty as those folks blister the streets in 26 odd minutes. Maybe next year…

Museo del Romanticismo

In past posts I have written about the Museo Sorolla and the Lázaro Galdiano, Two of my favorite museums in Madrid. Today’s turn is for the Museo del Romanticismo, another unknown jewel of the Madrid museum offerings.

Fortunately for us locals,  most tourists are pressed for time and just rush through the Prado and by Picasso’s Guernica at the Reina Sofia. They rarely venture any further to discover other really rewarding pearls of art and history, at most they will check out the Thyssen (major works of minor artists and minor works of major artists), thus completing what is known as the Art Triangle (all three museums are a stone’s throw from each other).

But beyond that trio, there are plenty of other, obviously much smaller, museums.

The Museo del Romanticismo is housed in an old XIX C. palazzo in a quiet neighbourhood, in a small street. No fireworks here. The fireworks are inside as the museum is chock-full of art, furniture and objets, even King Fernando VII’s toilet! (as one would expect, it is a very nice piece in wood and velvet, with the poop going to a key locked drawer – we don’t want anybody stealing royal poop!). But the real treasure is a huge Goya painting in the tiny chapel (oratorio). Other pieces include the gun journalist Larra used to kill himself, and much, much more. To finish the visit is the obligatory cute gift shop and an even cuter café with garden seating in good weather!

This year I had a chance to go with my nephew Jimmy. We had a nice stroll and got to see a temporary exhibition on Rafael Tegeo, possibly Spain’s favorite XIX C portrait painter.

Del Diego or everybody needs a Public house, a local.

A few years ago, while living in Chapel Hill I wrote about my favorite bar in town, the mythical Zog’s with the equally mythical crew of Mandey, James and Rob. Today we travel to this side of the ocean to talk about my favorite watering hole in this town, which, while totally different from Zog’s on the outside, has very similar DNA.

I am talking about the mythical Del Diego, with the equally mythical crew of David and Fernando. While Zog’s was a dive – and proud of it, Del Diego is as sophisticated a joint as you are going to find: sleek and minimalist -late XX C. interesting minimalism, not XXI C. boring minimalist. So what do they have in common? An authentic connection with their customers, a genuine pride in their craft – cocktails, and a keen sense of humor!

Fernando Del Diego opened his eponymous bar in 1992 with his two sons, the aforementioned Fernando Jr. and David. I saw a brief writeup in the Iberia magazine during a flight and took note; it did not disappoint, serious cocktails in a friendly atmosphere within a cool setting. I loved it, and it soon became my favorite spot (as life has moved me around I have had to pick local joints (The Parkway Pub in Boston – OK, Revere), Zog’s in Chapel Hill, and The Parrot in Naples) but I always returned to Del Diego.

The cocktail scene in Madrid was led since the ’30s by Museo Chicote, where Hemingway, Ava Gardener and hip bullfighters and locals drank like thirsty camels. Years later,  right behind Chicote sprung Cock, some say it used to be Chicote’s back room, where Franco’s people quenched their thirst out of the limelight. From that school, Fernando set up his own joint making an interesting triangle – all three bars are on the same block!

Originally I did not have a set drink, the guys were always handy to make whatever I was in the mood for. For a while -before The Big Lebowski- I had a White Russian, but then I quickly set on their Manhattan. I rarely went in the warm summer months, so I did not have a set summer drink, the Manhattan being relatively heavy for warmer weather. That was until I recently discovered an old Spanish gin from the once British island of Menorca: Xoriguer. And now I am obsessed and can’t wait for Summer to have a thirst quenching Gin Gimlet!

Del Diego is an obligatory stop when I’m in the area, or I’m with friends, or showing folks around. They are always kind, and polite, and fun.

Don Fernando passed a few years ago, but his two boys are doing a great job keeping the joint rolling; I am really proud of them.

“I drink to make other people more interesting.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

 

 

Homecoming

And so, fourteen years after leaving Spain, I return home to my beloved Madrid. My exile is over. There are two main reasons to explain my homecoming: a personal and a professional:

The first is family. My mom is 85 years old and not getting any younger, health issues start popping up with more and more frequency, her hearing is diminishing. So I decided to be with her. She lives in a big old apartment downtown and it is wonderful to have breakfast with her, help her with the cleaning and maintenance of the apartment and hang out with her throughout the day. My sister lives nearby with her three great kids who are growing up so fast (13, 11 and 7). Last week I went to my nephew’s soccer game and it was marvelous to see him score two goals. My oldest niece and god-daughter is just starting her teenage years and I am happy to be here to support her. As for the little one, the other day she was dropped off at home with an eye infection that kept her away from school, so I took her with me for my coffee and errands and we had a blast!

Just like family there are friends, old friends, real friends, friends that I have missed, friends that listen, that help you, that make you laugh, friends that are not afraid to call you out. And last, but not least, as the great late Robin Williams as psychologist Sean says to Will (Matt Damon) in the awesome Good Will Hunting: “I gotta see about a girl.”

The second and also important reason is a professional one, a pedagogical one. Over the years I have gotten tired of the narrow American definition of success, and of teaching in schools that thrive and endorse this way of life implicitly and explicitly. I have been fortunate to teach at schools like Seacrest and Walnut Hill, where the emphasis was much more on the humanistic development of the child. Even “pressure cooker” schools like Buckingham Browne and Nichols in Boston had a solid notion of a quality of life not necessarily related to money or the rat race. I believe that everybody in a school, (and in any community for that matter) students and teachers, benefit from playing, from hanging out, from conversation. Maybe as I get older I value quiet, and time, I believe in the beauty of conversation, of enjoying a chat and a coffee. We have the scientific evidence that happiness is not based on your SAT scores.

So I grabbed my bag and came home.