Manuel Balsón, “El Jefe” (1934 – 2015)

Many personal obituaries start by mentioning a favorite memory, or a first memory they have of the departed. This, besides being personal, offers the opportunity for a funny or intimate story or anecdote. On the other hand, professional (read press) obituaries focus on the achievements of the departed.

For my father I am throwing out both styles and let’s see what we get. Part of the reason for this is that I do not have a specific memory, or a funny memory, or a first memory. Well, I have many and not one of them particularly sticks out. Nor do I have a list of achievements for him. He did not discover penicillin, nor the theory of relativity, nor did he invent the light bulb. But from humble beginnings he worked hard to bring up a family.

The secret of his success is due to the vision of his father (my grandfather) Antonio, who sent him to the British School in Madrid, meaning that my father was a rara avis: an English speaking Spaniard in the post civil war, Franco ruled Spain of the 50s.

A couple of times I have heard the cute remark about how the important thing on gravestones is the little dash that separates the birthdate from the date of death. Duh.

Something else to keep in mind is how we label and put people in their little boxes. Yes my dad devoted most of his life to international banking, in fact he was an important cog in the Spanish international banking scene of the seventies and eighties. But that is not all of who he was. Yes was a keen motorist and loved cars and motorsports. Yes he was a keen fan of Apple computers, especially given his age. Yes he managed to track his family back to the mid eighteenth Century, but that is not who he was either. He loved jazz – although later in life he got to appreciating classical music more, so every Christmas I would record for him, originally a cassette tape and eventually CDs and finally USB sticks. He loved to read the newspaper which he did every day without fail. That is another trait I learned from him. He loved food and wine and would equally enjoy a cheese sandwich on a park bench as a Michelin starred meal.

He was a brave and decisive man who at a young age went to London to learn about foreign exchange. He lived with my mother across the street from Ashburton Grove, home of Arsenal Football club, but that did not make him an Arsenal fan, if anything he was a Real Madrid fan. After learning about foreign exchange in London, he started an upwards trajectory that would not stop until his retirement in the late 80s.

In the 70s he was offered to start the New York office of the bank. Being the elegant visionary that he was, he opened shop in the iconic Seagram Building on Park Avenue. We all packed up and left Madrid, I was twelve. It was a bit traumatic but I would eventually get the hang of moving back and forth, and it would become a way of life. After three years in New York came five in London and then back to Madrid, by then I had started my own nomadic way of life, going to college in Boston and working in France and Switzerland during the summers.

But back to Manuel. He had that kind of knack to be in the right place at the right time and looking good while doing it. Of course it did not hurt that his brother-in-law – my uncle and godfather – was a renowned tailor that made him all his suits!  BTW that is where I get my suit wearing custom, in case you were wondering. The other side of that coin was that unfortunately my dad travelled constantly, so we did miss him at home.

As a teenager up I remember blasting all around Europe in the big old Bismark at 130 miles per hour with any excuse. Eventually I would even be allowed to drive – that was fun.

My father retired in the late 80s and started all kinds of hobbies: playing with computers, taking a genealogy course to track his family tree, but most importantly spending time with friends, travelling with them and basically hanging out with all sorts of people. Manuel made friends easily, from all walks of life: artists, Bohemians, noblemen and gypsies, doormen and executives, everybody. About this time he became a part of the Boina club. The boina is the Spanish version of the French beret. This “club” basically consists of a bunch of guys meeting at a great basque restaurant for dinner and appointing 2 new members: a male and a female boinero who had to make an induction speech. This group had a fantastic network of contacts so the list of members is basically a who´s who of Madrid: writers, artists journalists, politicians, professors, you name it, of course my dad with his love of cars was the unofficial chauffeur of the group, picking up and dropping off the new members, this way he always got to hang out with them one on one!

For years every morning he would walk around the Retiro Park in Madrid, and he would often meet people there. Some of them became close friends. He walked every day until he no longer had the strength to walk out the door. The twelve years that I lived in Madrid, I always loved living overlooking the park so I had the light and could run and walk. Many weekend mornings I would bump into my dad walking and I would walk with him. Those walks were very special.

Possibly his biggest project after retirement was installing and improving the sprinkler system at the country house in La Navata. In fact, more of a hobby, it might have been his summertime obsession. I joked with him that he was like Enea Silvio Carrega, the hydraulics obsessed uncle in Italo Calvino’s story Il barone rampante. Fixing the sprinklers, changing water pumps, pumping water from one well to the other, tweaking the irrigation software. For this project he would enlist Mohammed, our local gardener to dig a ditch here, uncover a pipe here, make a hole here and so on. You would wake up on a hot summer morning and see chubby Mohammed trudging around the garden following my father who would be wearing his immaculate Panama hat overseeing the watering situation.

My father was diagnosed with an advanced pancreatic cancer in 2012. Thanks to the phenomenal staff at the Hospital Clínico San Carlos and specifically to Dr. Sastre, who managed to sneak him into the last spot at a clinical trial for a new pancreatic cancer drug manufactured by Celgene. This was a massive and miraculous success that increased my father’s life from an average of 5 to 9 months to three and a half years. These have been a tough three and a half years for Manuel as he struggled with his illness. The last few days, my mom, terribly stressed from being basically the sole caregiver all this time, took advantage of the fact that I was home from North Carolina to take some days off in Mallorca with her grandchildren. So I spent my father´s last week alone with him. Despite the fact that it was a tough situation for us, we had a very nice last bonding experience. We did not talk much, as by then he was spending most of his time sleeping. I slept on a bed next to him, to help him at night.

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Manuel died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of July 3 on his bed, surrounded by his family, like Don Quijote or Rodrigo Manrique.

My Madrid (continued)

Madrid, like most cities, has a cadre of writers that have historically portrayed it. From Quevedo, to Moratín, to Pérez Galdós or Unamuno. I understand them well. I have often said – and I’m sure I’m not being original here – that cities are like people, with their quirks and ugly bits. Madrid never disappoints. In fact, I would say that just walking around the city is one of my favorite pastimes. And I always discover something new.

These last few years when I come to visit I like to spend most of my time with my parents, so I do not get out much. They – like the rest of us – are not getting any younger. But when my childhood friend Jaime, who is in the art restoration business calls to say he has access to the top of the Alfonso XII monument in the Retiro Park in Madrid, you go.

It was a clear, brisk winter morning in Madrid, the highest capital in Europe at about 646 meters (2,119 feet) above sea level. I walked down the Castellana, the main boulevard, the backbone of Madrid to the park. When I got to the monument, miraculously, there was no one there, extremely rare, as it is normally filled with tourists, romantic couples, Cannabis salesmen, etc. it would soon fill up, even with a professional photo shoot of a rather pretty model, as they tend to be.

This amazing sculptural set was made of a very soft stone that is literally falling apart. Some colleagues of my friend Jaime have been charged with researching how to restore it. When Jaime showed up we climbed up and up, a dark metal staircase to the very top, just under the statue of King Alfonso XII who reigned Spain from 1874 to 1885. There are some small windows as you stand under the bronze base of the statue, you can actually see the wickets that hold the king’s horse’s legs! Since they say a picture is worth a thousand words here are some photos to save me some writing.

After this amazing experience Jaime and I walked across the park to the nearby Prado museum for a coffee. Jaime did part of his training there, so he is obviously very familiar with it. I had not been there in five years, so going back was a very cathartic experience for me. At one point Jaime stood staring at Tiziano’s huge portrait of Carlos V on horseback. When I pressed Jaime to tell me what he was so profoundly looking at, he laconically replied “Hmmm, it looks like there might be some humidity damage on that corner.” Occupational hazards of hanging out with an art restoration expert! So we had a lovely coffee catching up, walked a bit around the museum and walked around the city. I must say, a morning does not get much better than that. Gracias Jaime.

My Madrid

Defensor del pueblo

Defensor del pueblo

La unión y el fenix

La unión y el fenix

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Angel caido

Angel caido

Café en el retiro

Café en el retiro

Castellana

Castellana

20140101_194322 20140101_202347 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith all the reading I have to do I only took ten days to visit my family in Madrid this Winter Break. I was happily busy with my parents, sisters, nieces and nephew, but a couple of times I managed to sneak out and walk around my Madrid, absorbing every sight, smell, sound and feeling. I love this city. While every city is unique in its personality and character, Madrid seems even more unique. This might be due to the fact that for centuries Madrid, although the capital of Spain since around 1561 was extremely isolated. It is not only the highest capital in Europe (667 m, 2,188 ft. above sea level), it is also terrifically well protected, surrounded as it is by mountains. It is also in the middle of nowhere. No harbor, no navigable river, sitting in the middle of a massive plateau. Unless you needed to visit the king, you really had no reason to go to Madrid. The name Castille does not come in vain. Of course it has Arab influences, and every type of cultural imprint since the Middle Ages, most notably the French influence of the Bourbon dynasty starting in 1713. So Madrid is a village in La Mancha, never mind the more or less 6 million inhabitants. But it is my home town.

But, what is a city but a collection of people at any given moment? Madrid is where you can find Medieval feudal noblemen (and their wannabes) – “Hello? We are in the 21st Century!” You want to shout as you shake them by their tweed lapels, to tattooed hipsters brewing their own beer and roasting their own coffee. You can find ladies dressed in couture next to punks who think we are still in the 80s. From Ferraris to ancient Seat 600s. From Arab inspired chickpea “cocido” stew to frozen yogurt, from blistering heat to snow and ice, Babies and old relics walking side by side, in the summer months this happens into well entered the night. It is these contrasts that make me love Madrid. In winter you can still find old ladies selling roasted chestnuts next to glossy shop windows, or a Chinese owned convenience store selling “bocadillos de chorizo” late, late at night.

Although most morning were devoted to walks with my dad, one morning I took my niece and nephew to the Retiro park where María roller skated while Jimmy skateboarded. It was chilly and we stopped for Cola-Cao – the Spanish brand of hot cocoa – and coffee in one of the bars around the park, it was a blast!

And the neighborhoods. I chat with my coffee shop owner (Felix) with my newspaper kiosk owner (Yague), with my cigar expert (José), with concierges, with the lottery sales lady, with shopkeepers I have known since I was a boy, with neighbors, with the bank employees, even the local cops.

A heartbreaking aspect of these visits is that I do not have enough time to visit everyone I would like to see. It is a delicate knit of family time, friend time, and some me time. I was lucky to visit with some friends and family, to walk around a bit and to catch a couple of interesting art exhibits near my parents’ home.

Although my visit to Madrid was short this time, I still had time to refresh and renew my love for this city I love so much.