On bicycles and cycling

For as long as I can remember I have been riding bicycles. I can count having had over ten bicycles through my life, some of which got a lot of miles on them, a couple of them were stolen from my front door!

But I do not want to bore you with my history of bicycles and bicycle riding, of riding around Switzerland as a teenager, of riding in different countries, and so on. I just want to motivate you to get on a bike and ride! Pedal as hard as you can, feel the wind in your face, you are creating that speed, it is all you!

Although some people obsess over their rides, I have to agree with the once great Lance Armstrong and say that

“It’s not about the bike.”

Lance Armstrong

In fact, I still ride an Orbea mountain bike I bought in 1990 (it’s the one on the photo). Just get out there and ride.

Not only are bicycles fun to ride, but they are also very practical. I used to ride to work in Boston and Madrid, long, long before it became the hipster thing to do. I still ride to chores around the village in the Summer. Unfortunately, I have not gotten around to getting a bicycle in Florida. One of these days…

So, if you do not have a bicycle get one, there are great used ones on Craigslist or Wallapop, then get going!

PS: The Camino: For the record, I am against doing the Camino de Santiago on a bike. This might be difficult to understand, but on a bicycle, you are going too fast to focus on your journey, on the spirituality of what you are doing, you are mostly focusing on not cracking your head open and on staying on your bike. I see folks on amazing electric bicycles and what they are really doing is a great excursion on the path of the Camino, but they are not doing the Camino. I do respect folks on vintage bikes or on plain vanilla bikes, not the hi-tech stuff!!

If life were a city…it would be Madrid

Madrid is home (neo-mudejar background)

This is not my sentence; it belongs to the Madrid Tourism Board (or whatever it is called). A dear friend, old college classmate, and travel consultant extraordinaire Jen Donati passed it along after she met with the aforementioned Madrid Tourism Board recently in NYC.

The video as you can see is a bit cheesy, it uses all the current topics and techniques that end up making it a totally unremarkable video: a cute font, quickly changing shots (we have so much to show you, so little time! and we want this to be a dynamic video), a multigenerational and inclusive cast (perfect), hip and trendy folks in hip and trendy restaurants, hotels, and streets, a catchy American song in the background, even some hints of humor, ha-ha!

So, despite the video having everything required to be the perfect promotional video, it does not pull at your heartstrings, it does not really want to make me pack my bags and jump on the first flight to Madrid. Why? What is it lacking? Passion. This was a clip obviously made by committee.

“Wait” you will ask, “who cares about a promo video for a city?” Well, I do. I do because it is my city, because I am a tour guide there when I am home (check out my website), because I am passionate about cities, especially Madrid.

By contrast here is a remarkably similar clip to promote the 2017 Festival Flamenco Madrid. The music and the dance accomplish everything the other clip could not. Even being a minute longer (which could be a handicap in our ADD, Tik Tok world), the clip grabs you and does not let go. The settings, streets, plazas, venues are the same, but he music and movement are the key here, even, I am willing to venture, with a fraction of the budget.

At the end of the day, what have you got? Well, in my case an urge to go walk around my city that I miss so much.

An Enlightenment dream

The Enlightenment arrived late to Spain; we loved the Baroque so much we stuck with it longer than we should have. After many efforts by many folks like Benito Jerónimo Feijóo, my man Francisco de Isla, and many others, king Carlos III finally changed all that.

One of the worries that had nagged Spanish monarchs since 1492 was that only a fraction of the gold and silver that arrived from the Americas actually made it to Madrid. Sevilla was the main drop off point, so a lot of the wealth stayed there (either legally or less legally). The solution? Build a canal from Sevilla to Madrid so more of the riches could make it to the capital.

In 1781 the plan was made: build a massive dam to feed a canal that would connect the 500 km (300 miles) from Madrid to Sevilla.

The dam was started, but as usual in Spain all sorts of problems arose; there was not enough labor, so soldiers were brought in who were replaced with prisoners… then there were financing issues… the 90 mt (300ft) dam was about halfway done, when a massive storm in 1799 wreaked tremendous damage. So, they just gave up on the whole thing and forgot about it.

Well, this unfinished abandoned dam, la presa del Gasco is actually 8 km (5 miles) from my mom’s country home as the crow flies, and I finally had a chance to go with my friend Jaime and his brother Jose Mari. The walk, following the never used canal is easy, and once you turn a corner, and you see this behemoth, you are filled with awe at what was the most impressive hydraulic project in 18th C. Europe.

After walking around and checking it out in complete awe, we went to a restored part of the canal nearby where we had another little walk along the canal.

The sheer size of this construction, the perfect fit of the rocks, the ambitious plan, it is all baffling.

As usual in Spain, the local authorities do not want to declare this a heritage site, a protected historical site, a park, nothing, because of building and construction licensing possibilities, i.e.: money and corruption. Disgusting.

This is one excursion worth doing before the whole valley is filled with gaudy houses.

Peering into the void

La casa de Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca

Federico García Lorca is Spain’s greatest 20th C playwright (his poetry is also right up there). He is arguably one of the best in his business, period.

La casa de Bernarda Alba is the play I have read and seen the most. Teaching in Boston, every year I would drive my advanced students to New York city to see Repertorio Español‘s production. I have even seen a version done by illiterate Roma women, I also saw a bilingual production by UNC students while I taught and studied there.

The Teatro Español is the oldest running theatre in Europe (since 1583, 439 years ago!), so imagine my surprise when I found out that I was going to be in Madrid during a run of La Casa de Bernarda Alba! I wasted no time in buying tickets and inviting my girlfriend and my eldest niece.

The theatre is right downtown, in the middle of the aptly named Letras neighborhood (Barrio de las letras) because Cervantes and Lope de Vega and others lived there. My niece and I rode a rental scooter there and we met Celia at the theatre.

The presentation was top notch, possibly the best I’ve seen. But, like other times, the director took some liberties with the text, for example cutting out the maid and beggar woman characters, or cutting out dialogue, which I find insulting to the text and the author, grrr. The setting was very minimalist, basically the patio of Bernarda’s house.

After the play we went to dinner to my grandad’s favorite bar, the Viva Madrid, around the corner from the theatre.

It was a great evening, the show was amazing, and we all had a great time!

What is your favorite play? Tell us in the comments section.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a conference

One of the great benefits of being in Madrid for my Summer break is being able to attend all sorts of events that are difficult to find in South Florida.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a great series of conferences on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the brilliant Mexican Baroque writer (and musician, architect, scientist, and cook!), whom I studied a bit for my PhD at UNC.

The conference was hosted at the great Fundación Juan March (which I have already mentioned here) and the speaker was Esperanza López Parada, professor of Latin American literature at the Complutense University in Madrid.

The first lecture was on Sor Juana’s time, her life, and her writings in general. It is always interesting to learn new facts and perspectives on someone you have studied.

The second lecture focused on the poem Primero Sueño, and it included actor Beatriz Arguello reading the poem. The commentary and the reading were masterfully interwoven, making for an extremely rewarding experience!

López Parada cited my UNC professor (and PhD Committee Member Rosa Perelmuter, which was very moving for me). We even chatted a bit after the conference, which was a nice little plus.

Here is a video López Parada showed us of the adaptation into song of one of Sor Juana’s most famous poems: Hombres necios.

Thinking of the Camino

As the Summer approaches and I get closer to walking the Camino again, my excitement increases with every passing day. So what was my surprise during my Christmas break that the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid had an exhibit about the Camino!

I went with my old student Hikaru from Japan. The exhibit was very extensive with lots of photos, artifacts from musical instruments to books, including the first ever travel guide, the Codex Calixtinus!

One of my many surprises came when I saw a book about the Camino from my father’s teacher Walter Starkie. My dad had always spoken about Starkie’s scholarship with the Roma folks in Spain, but he never mentioned his passion for the Camino.

All in all it was a beautiful exhibit and now I am even more fired up for my pilgrimage this Summer, as I attempt the Camino Primitivo, the first pilgrimage done by King Alfonso II from Oviedo to Santiago…

You should have a side gig. Tonxo Tours as a (paying) hobby

Years ago, I read an article by the great psychiatrist (who in 1981, New York City Mayor Edward Koch appointed Director of psychiatric and prison health services of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, the largest public general hospital system in the United States.*) Dr. Luis Rojas Marcos. At any rate, Rojas Marcos mentioned that in order to have a healthy, stable life you needed three equal pillars, briefly: a loving relationship, an enriching job, and a hobby that had nothing to do with the other two pillars.

Today I am going to focus on that third pillar, your hobby. In my case one of my hobbies is the tour company I set up years ago when I was trying to make ends meet in Spain. Fortunately, now I do have that enriching, enjoyable job, but I never stopped doing tours when I came to Spain. It is something I love doing: sharing my passion for the history, culture, food, etc. of Madrid.

As much as I love the countryside and the outdoors, I must confess I am a city boy. I have always been fascinated by the energy generated by cities. Some of my fondest memories are of walking around cities. Add to that the fact that I have been blessed to live in many different cities (Madrid, New York, London, Boston, Paris, Lausanne, Geneva, etc.) and you get a bit of a city geek.

Of course, it is quite different seeing a job from the outside to being on the inside. We all have an idea of what a certain job is like, only to realize that the day to day of that work is vastly different.

This is what happened to me during my first year as a tour guide. Yes, there is the excitement of meeting and working with different people every time and with sharing your passion for the city. The rest is very much like any old job. There is a lot of psychology and salesmanship involved in getting visitors on board with your tour. There is also a small percentage of customers that are not satisfied and nothing you do is going to make them change their minds.

As you do more and more tours the city shares more and more secrets. The night before a tour, you review the itinerary and your notes and books. Invariably, you learn something new that you can incorporate into the tour. It is a very enriching. I also enjoy questions and requests from the customers.

This Christmas break I had a chance to do a few tours. One with a French family group, another with my old university the European School of Economics where we combine a tour with orientation teambuilding activities, I also did a couple of Prado Museum tours, although big chunks of the museum where closed due to lack of staff due to Covid.

In conclusion, if you don’t already have one, you should find a hobby that you love, and if it leaves you some green, even better!!

ESE did a great Instagram video of the tour which you can see here:

*From his website https://luisrojasmarcos.com/biography/

Ad Reinhardt, the victory of minimalism

One of the wonderful things of being in Madrid is that many interesting places are walking distance from home. If they are a bit farther away, I can always jump on a rental scooter, on a little motorbike, or a bicycle, if it’s harsh weather I can take public transportation like buses or metro. In a worst-case scenario, I can rent a car per hours. My dinosaur Land Rover cannot be legally parked downtown.

Recently I walked to the Fundación Juan March, which I have talked about before in this blog to see a great exhibit on Ad Reinhardt, a groundbreaking abstract American painter. The exhibit was split into two distinct areas: an area of his paintings showing his evolution into the purest minimalism (see the photo of the red painting) where a monochromatic canvas has only the most subtle color variations, mesmerizing!

The other part covers Reinhardt’s career as an illustrator, teacher, activist, and designer.

He also coined some evident but necessary phrases like

Art is Art. Everything else is everything else

Ad Reindhardt

or

Art is too serious to be taken seriously

Ad Reindhardt

If you get a chance to see the exhibit in Madrid, go now. If Madrid is not an option go check out his paintings at the Museum Folkwang Essen, SFMOMA in San Francisco, and of course the New York MOMA and the Met.

Happy New Year! San Silvestre Vallecana, fitness and wellness

Happy New Year to all my wonderful readers and followers!

The San Silvestre was only ran by pros in 2020 due to Covid. This year the popular race was back on, and I ran it again!

For those of you who are new to my blog or to the San Silvestre, it is a 10 km race held on New Year’s Eve through all of downtown Madrid. It starts at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and ends at Rayo Vallecano Stadium. This was my fourth running, and I did my best time yet 1:02, not bad for an old man.

The race, at least the Popular race is a fun run with great atmosphere, plenty of costumes and jokes, and although this year there were far fewer runners and spectators, it was still fun.

The San Silvestre is usually my only competitive race of the year, I usually cannot be bothered to get up early for a race. But this one is in the evening, so I have no problem!

Running is only part of my fitness and wellness routine. I normally do strength training every other day and cardio on the other day. Cardio ideally is running -in Boynton Beach I am privileged enough to be able to actually run on the beach, as energy zapping as it is, and in Madrid I have the Retiro Park close enough to run there. If the weather does not allow or it is dark, I do static bike, or elliptical, or treadmill, or God-forbid Ergo machine (rowing).

But just as important as moving your body there are other, just as key factors to keep in mind: eating healthy, mindfulness / meditation, rest, and sleep. I try to keep all aspects of my wellbeing in balance and will continue to try to do so in 2022. You should as well! Let me know any questions in the comments below. Let’s get going in 2022!!

European School of Economics

The European School of Economics is a great little university. I had the privilege of teaching in their Madrid campus for two years from 2018 through 2020. Elio D’Anna, a visionary Italian founded the university with my kind of philosophy, that the student should actively own their learning process, which makes total sense, but it is not how most universities operate.

As I said, D’Anna is Italian, but the university is accredited in England, with campuses (campii?) in London, Milan, Rome, Florence, and Madrid. Students can rotate through the different cities during their studies.

Even more than the philosophy, I loved the small classes, which allowed me to tailor fit the program for my students. Most times, classes were small enough for us to meet at a local coffee shop. Outside of the sterile classroom walls, in a relaxed environment, students become more engaged and participative, and I would even wager better thinkers!

During my time there I taught all levels of Spanish. The students were actively interested in learning and inquisitive, they really engaged, which added to the immersion factor, meant that their Spanish really took off during their time in Madrid.

The school is really international, I had students from South Africa, Egypt, Botswana, all over Europe, Latin America, Japan, and of course local madrileños. The school has now moved to the quiet Retiro neighborhood, but when I taught there, it was in bustling Alonso Martinez Square!

For the beginning of my second year at ESE, I organized a tour/team building activity around Madrid. We organized different activities at the different stops of the tour. We all had a lot of fun and the students bonded and got to know each other!

Sure, a small university obviously has some drawbacks, but at the European School of Economics, the advantages far outweigh any other considerations, I loved my time there and would recommend it to anyone thinking of studying business in Europe!