Family holiday in Chapel Hill

This year I had the privilege of ending my summer holiday by inviting my younger sister and her two oldest kids to spend a few days with me in Chapel Hill. It was fantastic! We all flew at the end of July into North Carolina only to find that the battery had died on old Helmut. So the next day, after a delicious breakfast at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe and jump starting the car, we headed out to Audi Cary where they lent us a wonderful Q5 for the day while they changed the battery!

We drove to Raleigh where we visited Ray Price Harley Davidson, with its great drag racing museum. Then we went to downtown where we visited the Museum of Natural Sciences and had lunch at the Museum of History.

During our ten days here we went to church, visited every corner of campus, the Basketball Museum, the Planetarium, the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, Wilson Library, the Ackland Museum, Hillsborough with its fantastic Matthew´s chocolates and Ayr Mount plantation, we even went to Duke (shhhh!!) and Durham.

They met some of my favorite people from Chapel Hill: my classmate, office mate, and little sister (in the absence of my real little sister) Alejandra who picked us up at the airport, Patrick my mailman, the folks at Ye Olde Waffle Shop, Missy Julian Fox, the folks at the Ronald McDonald House, Father Bill and Adam at church, the folks at Trader Joe’s, even the High Priest, Professor Frank Dominguez.

The culinary experience was just as awesome, we went to Five Guys, Suttons, Maple View farm for ice cream, Buns for their grilled salmon sandwich, Mellow Mushroom for Pizza, Top of the Hill, Akai Hana for sushi, and the highlight being North Carolina barbecue.

Other highlights were when we played soccer on one of the soccer fields, or when we set up the big screen digital projector home theater to watch Disney’s Alexander and Annie, volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill, visiting the Mall (and the outlet mall), Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target, and of course Walmart, which Jimmy loved.

We had a blast. My niece, infused by the entrepreneurial spirit of the land set up a table on the street to sell her hand-made bracelets. Unfortunately, living in a dead-end street in August meant that she did not have many costumers – although she did manage a couple of sales, the proceeds of which she donated to the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill!

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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

Summer Summary

Well, I have been so busy writing my thesis prospectus all summer that I have not had time to update this old blog! But the prospectus (the first draft at any rate) is now well on its way after my Thesis Director recommended some corrections today at the Daily Grind Café. But now back to my summer.

The month of June I was in Madrid going to the Biblioteca Nacional every day and getting some phenomenal research accomplished. Some highlights of June were: celebrating my father’s birthday, going to Alfredo’s new place (see previous post), going to Pedro Espina’s new restaurant Soy to say hi to my old friend and Spain’s best sushi chef, my old student Jacob’s visit to Madrid (see previous post), and pretty much every moment spent in the city enjoying the smells and sounds and tapas and sights.

In July I went with my family to our beloved Mediterranean island of Mallorca. As you can read in other year’s posts it is a great time. Very low-key: great breakfasts, beach, poolside lunch, siesta, workout, pool time, nice Mediterranean dinner, a lovely evening walk, and a drink and some reading for me, repeat. This year around my nieces and nephew were one year older, so more fun, and we had the World Cup to follow – despite Spain’s early departure we enjoyed all the underdog teams putting in great performances! Unfortunately we were only in Mallorca for a couple of weeks.

Back in the mainland we went straight to my parent’s house in the countryside (see previous posts about La Navata). If Mallorca is low-key, this is even more low-key, my routine here is a pre-breakfast swim to wake up, breakfast on the porch, walking to the village for bread, newspapers and to have my coffee in the old café, helping my niece and nephew with their Summer homework, (which this year included reading Le Petit Prince with my niece!), hanging out, lunch and siesta, punching out a page of my prospectus, working out, swimming, dinner and drinks, cigars and chatting – or reading, if nobody is around for conversation. The only routine breakers are driving my mom to the market, going to church on Sundays, and occasionally hanging out with old friends. One of these traditional outings is dinner at El Escorial with Paco Navarro. We walk around, eat, enjoy a coffee and then walk around some more. It is one of my favorite outings and one we have not missed in years!

Then my sister asked me to go hang out with her and her kids in the North Shore of Spain while her husband stayed working in Madrid. I took the train – and the harbor taxi, and had a wonderful week with them. They stay in this old manor house in this cute old village and the only choices they have to make is which beach to go to and which restaurant to have lunch at! Paradise.

The last week I was in Spain I received a request from my Medieval Literature Professor to take a photo of a painting in the cathedral at Toledo. I jumped at the opportunity and I spent a wonderful day alone walking around the old imperial city. I had not been to “the Jerusalem of the West” (for the Jewish, Arab and Christian cultures that thrived in the city) in four years and it was wonderful to slip into the many churches and museums alone with no schedule. I had a nice lunch and a coffee overlooking the Tajo River. It was a very healing experience. I don’t think the photo Prof. Domínguez asked me for came out very well, but still, the excursion was worth it for me.

But by August 5 I was back in old Chapel Hill wrapping up my prospectus and settling down… And now I am back in school teaching two sections of intermediate Spanish 203 and happy to be in my quiet monastic life.

Dad's birthday lunch!

Dad’s birthday lunch!

Breakfast w Jimmy

Breakfast w Jimmy

Chiringuito Camp de Mar

Chiringuito Camp de Mar

20140629_211219 Camp de Mar

Always reading

Reading in Santander

Dinner at El Escorial OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

With the photographer's dog!

With the photographer’s dog!

Camp de Mar

Walking back from the beach

Walking back from the beach

Harbor taxi!

Harbor taxi!

Lunch?

Lunch?

at the Cinco calderas

at the Cinco calderas

Las cinco calderas

Las cinco calderas

Toledo Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

PhD year two, check.

Graham Memorial, a great place to read.

Graham Memorial, a great place to read.

Wilson Library Reading Room

Wilson Library Reading Room

On the porch

On the porch

Even in the Harley dealership

Even in the Harley dealership

Spring

Spring

 

Five Guys

Five Guys

And just like that my second year at UNC is finished. As with last year, the academic schedule is so demanding that I did not have time to blog. This semester has had one theme and one theme only. My PhD qualifying exams. Every week since last semester I read, and read, and read. Every week I met with my incredibly patient professors to go over the readings, chat, and be quizzed. Spring Break was dedicated to reading, Martin Luther King Day was dedicated to reading. Although I have been reading for this exam for over the last two years, the pace for the last three months was intense, I read non-stop January, February, March and halfway through April.

For the oral exam, you are in a conference room with your three professors sitting around you. The first, very pointed question about the prologue of the Libro del Buen Amor threw me off kilter. I bungled through it best I could and from there the exam became a bit more conversational between the four of us. At some points during the exam, the three professors would get into a discussion about this or that, and I must admit it was really exciting to see them spar at such a level, it was very inspiring. My exam was at noon, right after I taught my Spanish for Business class. I had time to eat a sandwich and to make espresso for myself – and to treat my committee to, which was nice. After being grilled for almost two hours – although it feels much longer, I passed my orals.

A week later, Holy Thursday in the afternoon, I received my written exam. In this exam each professor gives you two questions and you choose one question for each. Then you write, write, write for that afternoon and the next two days straight. It is grueling. Trying to coherently put on paper everything you have learnt over two years in sixty hours. Basically you eat, sleep and write and write and write.

Surprisingly and fortunately I passed both oral and written exams, with a rare High Pass on my Medieval written exam! The sense of depletion after the exams must be somewhat similar to post-partum depression. The shifting of gears, the changing of tempo, of lifestyle, is very peculiar as the pressure to read – although not entirely gone, not for at least two more years – is lifted and you have time to look around, smell the roses, watch a movie, take more time doing things that you have rushed over the last two years, like going to the gym, or even eating.

I did manage to squeeze in some great concerts: Wynton Marsalis, the Israel Philharmonic, the North Carolina Symphony, András Schiff played Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Yefim Bronfman’s Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2, The English Concert Orchestra played Handel’s Theodora, The Carolina Ballet performed the obligatory Nutcracker, I saw Shakespeare’s Tempest, Mary Zimmerman’s hilarious Metamorphoses – both with a pool cut out in the proscenium!, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and it’s sequel Buoso’s Ghost by Michael Ching both performed by UNC Opera, all the UNC Baroque ensemble’s recitals. With the UNC Gearhead Club I went to see a Porsche exhibit at the Raleigh Museum of Art, that was fun.

The gearheads

The gearheads

20140125_135234

With my limited graduate student budget I only managed to discover a couple of new restaurants: a sushi place in Raleigh, an Indian place and Al’s Burger Joint, both in Chapel Hill. Another highlight was when my course coordinator gave me tickets for the Greek Festival in Raleigh, great food!

Other than those occasional outings my life was limited to working, the library, the gym, church, and the supermarket.

That is about it for my academic year. I received half a Summer Research Grant in order to do some research in Spain, so I will spend some time in musty Spanish libraries…

Here is the visible part of my work this year: the reading list

bibliografia firmada

 

Three semesters down. (5 to go, but who is counting?)

Walking to class on a Fall morning

Walking to class on a Fall morning

I love my morning walk to class

I love my morning walk to class

I was so busy I only went to 1 game (and 2 of the players were my students!)

I was so busy I only went to 1 game (and 2 of the players were my students!)

Two of my favorite guys Ramses and Ronald!

Two of my favorite guys Ramses and Ronald!

my usual view

my usual view

The old well

Delicate Christmas decorations on a frat house!

Delicate Christmas decorations on a frat house!

After another grueling, and hectic semester at UNC I can finally update my blog! I had not expected my third semester to be so crazy, but things got busy right from the start. I taught two classes: Intermediate Spanish, which I had already taught three times, so that was not a problem, and Spanish for Business which was my first time but it was a high performance class, I loved teaching that class. The students were sharp as tacks, fun and had excellent Spanish! Although I technically did not have to take any classes, I chose to take a Medieval Spanish literature class with the amazing Prof. Dominguez, what a blast! I am so happy I have taken three classes with Dominguez, I have learnt so much. What kept me on my toes all semester was getting my reading list approved for my Ph.D. exam. What I thought was going to be a one week deal turned out to take the full semester. The way it works is I have to prepare a list of books (and scholarly articles) with both primary, source readings and secondary, critique and theory for each of the three topics I have decided to study. My three reading “tutors” that are going to examine me pushed me hard to have the best list possible. In the process I learnt a lot about what and how I had to prepare. Although my list was not finally approved until December, that did not stop me from continuing reading and reading material that either had already been approved or that I knew would be on the list. I am happy to say that the semester is over and I am writing this from the boarding lounge at Philadelphia airport as I await my flight home to Madrid where I will spend ten short days visiting my family.

What have I been reading you ask? Well, besides material for the Medieval lit class, I have been reading 18th Century Spanish satire and colonial satire, all the while keeping in mind the Medieval cornerstones being laid… All good stuff, fascinating, and I love connecting the dots and being able to ask deeper questions and figure them out. It all reminds me of a summer night on the Greek Islands a long time ago when I asked my dear friend George Dangas why he was studying medicine. His answer “in order to be a student forever” is now my guiding light and what a pleasure it is to be a student again. To lose the “know it all” attitude that is needed in the business world where I spent all my previous life. To be open and vulnerable to learning is very rewarding as you are allowing all these waves – in the form of books, conversations and classes to wash up on your shore daily.

Reading Lists – and the exam that follows…

Reading is hard work, you just can't see it!

Reading is hard work, you just can’t see it!

Patxi at the old and used book fair at El Escorial

Patxi at the old and used book fair at El Escorial

Many of my followers have asked me about the reading lists for my Ph.D. and what is all the fuss about. So here is a brief description: I have finished my first year of the Ph.D. program where I had to take classes. This year, is devoted to preparing for my Ph.D. exam which should be in the Spring of ’14. The exam is based on three reading lists. My first list is XVIII Century Spanish satire, where I have to read about 20 or 30 books of primary reading and another 20 or 30 of theory and critical reading on the topic. My thesis director, the wonderful and extremely patient Prof. Irene Gómez Castellano will guide me with the reading. My secondary or complementary list is on Medieval Spanish satire with the same amount of reading. Prof. Domínguez, the generous and equally patient God of Medieval Spanish literature (seriously, he wrote the book on  it!) will help me with that.  And the final list has to be a transatlantic one. American lit. students have to study a Peninsular topic and vice versa, so I will be reading Colonial lit. with the extremely knowledgeable, razor-sharp but funny Prof. Perelmuter. The exam consists of a morning oral exam with the three reading tutors and a weekend written section with a question for each list. Passing that exam would make me All But Dissertation (ABD) and I have two years to research and write my dissertation.

So I have spent most of my summer (and my summer money) reading and finding books that will fit my reading list. I have toiled in used book stores around Spain breathing musty, old books. I have found some gems, and some that I could not afford, original prints and such. Many of the books I need have long  been out of print, and finding them is a bit of a hit or miss game. I found a handful of books a couple of days before departing Spain at the annual old and used book fair in El Escorial! By the end of the summer I had fifty-four books – enough that I had to fill a second suitcase, albeit a small one. All these are a bit less than a third of the books I need. If I add some books that I already have, I might have, at best, less than half of the material I need to read by April/May… will keep you posted. For now, it is time to get back to reading!

Why a Ph.D.? (Revisited)

After the first year of my doctorate program, and with a couple of weeks of distance to reflect and let it all sink in, it is time to come up with some road markers, some conclusions:

The program is everything I was expecting for and much, much more.

I have learnt so much, I have “discovered” Medieval and 18th C. Spanish Lit. – where have I been hiding for my whole life? Part of the secret to my discovery has been having Profs. Domínguez, and Gómez-Castellano as my teachers. They are the real deal: knowledgeable, patient, encouraging, understanding, I could not have wished for better role models.

My colleagues are also top, top shelf, both in the Masters and Ph.D. programs, in Spanish French and Italian: Sam, Ruben, Thomas, Anne, Emily, Miguel, Zully, Andrew, Rob, Sarah, Drew, Massi, K-N, Martina, Gloria, et cetera, et cetera.

The other side of the coin, my teaching experience has also been out of sight. I have taught three fantastic classes of Intermediate level Spanish language, 203. I have been very impressed with my students, a great, diverse, fun, brilliant mix. It has been a thrill teaching – even at 8:00 am. We had great discussions, games, learning moments, fun and end of the term breakfasts at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, where the students ordered their breakfasts in Spanish!

Beyond the in-house academic powerhouses, I have met people I never expected to meet: David Gies – Jedi Master of 18th Century Spanish Lit. (UVA) and Ana Rueda, the grande dame of 18th Century Spanish Lit. (UK) (who I even had the chance to pick up at the airport and have a drink before a lecture!). I also met novelist and journalist Rosa Montero and Spanish choreographer and ex-dancer Nacho Duato, not bad for a village. And speaking of dance, I saw The Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham and Marie Chouinard dance companies, the Monteverdi and Cleveland Orchestras, heard Verdi’s Aida, and over a dozen different takes on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, et cetera, et cetera.

Yes, the first semester was mayhem, and yes the last week of the Spring semester was Hell, but all in all,Magnolias Ale and Ruben Sunrise going to class Sunrise going to class a very positive experience.