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.

 

 

Torrente, el brazo tonto de la ley

Years ago, while getting my PhD, I promised I would upload my writings for my courses. Well, I did not fully keep my promise… But I am going to fix it, little by little.

You see, I recently came across an unpublished article I wrote about one of my favorite films: Torrente, el brazo tonto de la ley. It is a disgusting film and I love it.

Torrente poster

As my habitual readers will know, my writings were not peer-reviewed, so they are fairly raw and rough. But do let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.

So there you have it, I hope you enjoy the article!

Click here: Torrente a XX Century Quixote

Oh, and here is the trailer (for the full 5 film package – although the article is only about the first film)

 

 

 

 

What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene ii)

Years ago my brother Theo in London sent me some links to a famous butcher in Dorset called Balson, which happens to be the oldest business in England. No, I do not have any relation to the Balson family of Dorset. There is also an American author called Balson, and a few other Balsons around. Nope, no relation.

One of the hobbies my father picked up when he retired was genealogy. He set out to investigate his family’s origins, and he took it quite seriously. He took a course at the prestigious Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CSIC) and he proudly displayed his diploma and class picture on his home office wall.

He traveled around Spain visiting churches to gather data from birth, death and wedding certificates. He even went to Salt Lake City in Utah to research the Mormon genealogy vault / database where billions of family histories are stored – they denied him access. He still managed to research his family into the mid 18th Century before losing track. Not bad. His main findings were that the family originated in rural Lerida,

the area between Barcelona and Zaragoza. The original first name was Anton, which through the generations became Antonio – my grandad’s and uncle’s name. The family moved to Zaragoza by the 1800s and to Madrid by the early 20th Century, where my grandad settled and created a family.

So long story short: No butchers, no authors, but still an awesome family heritage.