Tonxo Tours update

Here is a mysterious story for you…

If you follow my blog (thank you, I really appreciate it) you know I now have a deeply rewarding, full time job, which means that Tonxo Tours has become a bit of a side gig, which I can only indulge in during a few days at Christmas time and during Summer. I still love sharing my love for Spain, especially Madrid and its surroundings. I also get a kick out of promoting it. I love taking photos to put up on the Instagram (tonxotours) and I also love recording short videos explaining bits of Madrid which I also post to Insta and to the Tonxo Tours YouTube site. Here are a couple of my recent clips, and you can watch the rest here!

The videos are not great quality, in fact they are all home made with little to no edits, because I believe the story is what matters here, so unless you are a video snob, enjoy!

So, if you are in Spain for Christmas or Summer, hit me up and I would love to show you around!

Here is a quick one with a special guest: my niece!

Helping at church, on being an usher

One of the resources I leveraged years ago when I went through a rough crisis was going to church. While the church had always been there, I never really had a spiritual connection to it. Then I started going regularly, enjoying the time to recollect myself, the ceremony, the silences, begging for forgiveness, etc. and hopefully, if I was lucky a good lesson in the form of a sermon, these however are understandably rare.

The first church I went to during this crisis was St. Elizabeth in Milton, outside of Boston. I only went there for a couple of weeks and I spent most of the time (ok, all the time) crying. From there I went to Our Lady of Victories in Boston, which unfortunately has now closed. One day one of the Marist brothers who ran the church asked me to help during mass. I explained that I was not worthy of helping but they insisted. My first job was ringing the little altar bells before Consecration and Communion, then I started reading. Then I moved to North Carolina where I was warmly welcomed by the UNC Newman parish and Franciscan Brother Bill of whom I have written a lot about before here.

St. Ann’s in Naples was my home for a couple of years. Here in Madrid, I went to cute, tiny Our Lady of Lourdes for a while, and to the Jesuits for a few years, but my official parish and the one I have been going to for many years is San Fermín de los Navarros, which is basically across the street and where both my sisters got married. Like in Boston, the Pastor after seeing that I was a bit of a regular asked me to read, and I do so humbly and with pride.

Cut to the chase, after a few times at St. Marks in in Boynton Beach, I was approached by an usher and asked if I wanted to join their crew. I had never really thought about it, but I am happy to serve. The team is a fun, hodgepodge collection of characters, Christine who recruited me is, of course, the boss, the usher coordinator. I have to wear black pants, a white jacket, white shirt, and a tie. Yes, I look a waiter but since I am snob, I prefer to think I look like a sommelier. Since I did not have a white jacket, they lent me one… until I found a vintage one that I much preferred. The job is easy enough: be charming and welcome everyone as they come in, once mass has started guide the late comers to socially distanced seating, manage the Communion flow, at the end open the doors and say “goodbye”, then clean up bulletins left in the pews and put the collection in a bag. Easy peasy.

In conclusion, no job is too simple, too easy. Every honest job is honorable. I am happy to serve and to be useful.

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!

Tacos

Strangely enough, I rarely write about food, which happens to be one of my favorite things! Well, we’ll try to fix it…

As an old family member used to say: “I will eat anything that does not eat me first”, so I´ll eat pretty much anything – except maybe that Corsican cheese with the maggots (it does explain Napoleon being Corsican, though). At any rate, one of life’s simple pleasures is street food.

And what better example of street food than tacos? Of course, there is street food everywhere there are streets, so I remember fish and chips growing up in London, crêpes in France during my summer internships, hot dogs and pretzels in New York, churros in Madrid, Dholl Puri (curried yellow split-pea flatbreads) in Mauritius, etc. etc.

My first visit to Mexico was for work in 1993, and I can testify that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Many tacos later, in Naples I was blessed (a word I hate to use because we are all blessed, we just don’t see it or do not want to see it) to have Taquería San Julian. While not a stand, but a “real” -if humble- sit down joint, it made exceptional tacos. In fact I took my students there to order their lunch in Spanish as the oral component of their final exams!

Florida, unfortunately, does not have a rich heritage of street food. In fact, it does not have much heritage at all. The native Seminole population is limited to a handful of casinos, and until the late 18th C. nothing much happened here. What about fried alligator? A handful of “native” Floridians will shout. Well, when was the last time you saw a fried alligator stand on a street corner? Fortunately, enterprising Mexican immigrants have filled that vacuum with delicious tacos!

In a providential twist, there is a great taco trailer that parks -literally- around the corner from my house. So, guess where I end up when I am in a rush, or feeling lazy, or just craving tacos?

Although I have had tacos at Michelin starred restaurants (Punto MX in Madrid) and they were delicious (and expensive), tacos are meant to be eaten on the street (Florida does not really have sidewalks so one must eat in the car).

In conclusion: Thank God for tacos!

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.

 

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