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




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


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


At last an update!

Well, I wanted to update the blog during Thanksgiving but was so busy with work, the turkey came and went without me blogging, blah.

You see, this is my first chance to update my blog this term. This has been because it has been a crazy semester. By a scheduling error I was made to take 4 courses instead of the standard 3. This has made life more difficult than it had to be, or should be for my first semester.

Medieval Spanish was fantastic! Professor Frank Dominguez is the Man, he waltzes into class and lectures, rather chats nonstop for 75 minutes on Medieval anything, but of course mostly literature. He knows everything, he literally wrote the book on Medieval Spanish literature. He is open to questions and he knows the answer. Even when we go off topic he continues to know everything. During office hours he is always available and incredibly helpful and humble. I am really enjoying this class. Dominguez early on saw how I was always looking for the evolution into the Renaissance at every point, and now we joke about it in class at any opportunity.

In Old Spanish we are learning about how Spanish evolved and how it went to America and then how it evolved in America. We do research and a different group presents on their research every week.

I also took Film Theory, which had very little to do with a Romance Language course.

Italian is fantastic, unfortunately with my other classes I do not have the time to devote to memorizing all the details that learning a new language entail. The class is mostly undergrads and the professor Katie-Nicole is great, so I look forward to the class although I wish I had time to prepare more. I have great classmates: Stjepan is a smart and funny Croatian American from Long Island and Maddie is a brilliant and hilarious Musicology PhD candidate.

All this leaves me with literally no time. The first week of school I went to a women’s soccer game and after I felt so guilty about wasting time that I have not returned to any more games because I have to be studying. Basically I have about 500 pages of reading per week, plus presentations and writing.

Chapel Hill is wonderful. It is a quaint little town, but thanks to the university it is a thriving quaint little town. I have a little routine and I love it. I can go hide in the museum if I want and just stare at the Goya prints or any other great painting. Or I can go to the botanical garden. There are good coffee and sweets, necessities for anyplace I live. There are many places to read and study, of course, I can’t tell you where they are.

There is an excellent, friendly dive bar to soak, the Zog, where the team: Mandey, Jedd and James take care of me and we can talk about silliness, or Borges or music or whatever.

I can and do walk to church every Sunday, and after mass I cross the street to the Carolina Inn for a cup of coffee and to read.

I can walk anywhere and I do. The cinema is $4.00, although I have only been to see Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, when it came out in the summer.

My life is very monotonous and I love it! I study and work out, little else. My colleagues are great but they are much younger so I do not hang out with them a lot. I like my little life.

In summary, I cannot wait for next semester where I hope to have a little bit more time to enjoy, to reflect and digest what I am doing. It looks like I will be taking Women in the Golden Age, XVIII Century Peninsular novel and a directed study with Frank Dominguez on narrative in the middle ages, pre-Golden Age!

So it is now time to morph this blog into a more academic place to reflect what I am doing, so I will post some of my work in case anybody needs help falling asleep. I will post stuff as I handed it in – this will give the reader a realistic, raw quality of reading.

The countdown hits single digits (almost)

Slowly things fall into place. Finishing up at BB&N was bittersweet. The kids where amazing, we had farewell parties in all my classes and a great end of season dinner for the boys Varsity Tennis team. The nuts and bolts of closing up my life in Boston went smoothly enough. I know I am going to miss old Boston, but after a total of thirteen years there, I needed to move on.

Driving a 17 ft. truck with a two axle trailer with the car on it was a different story. Nobody had given me specific instructions on how to maneuver such a beast. So off I drove confidently in the rain through Connecticut. At a gas station somewhere in Upstate New York I got my trailer driving lesson: I thought I had cleared the pump when I felt a slight nudge on the rig. Surely enough I had cut the corner a bit close and the trailer had gotten caught on the pump. Nothing broken, no problem. I proceeded to maneuver myself into quite a tangle, the trailer facing Canada and the truck facing Mexico (you get the picture). Somewhere in that mess I snapped the pump handle off of the pump! I finally spotted the huge gas tank delivery truck parked on the far edge of the station and I walked in the rain to beg the driver for help. After analyzing the situation, he gave me the lesson I had wanted all along! It took a while to extricate myself from the mess but eventually got out with only the car slightly less scratched than my ego. The station manager was fine with the broken handle. I slept in New Jersey and safely made it to North Carolina the next day.

After unpacking at Friendly lane on a Friday I flew to Spain for the summer holidays with my family. I hung out in Madrid, went to my nieces baptism, went to the beautiful Mediterranean island of Mallorca and at my family’s house in the village of La Navata outside Madrid.

So this is what I have worked three years for, this is when the proverbial manure hits the fan, this is when the action starts. I can’t wait for orientation on the 13th and for classes to start on the 21st.  I’m taking Medieval literature, old Spanish grammar, film in culture and Italian for beginners – like in the movie. On the flip side, I still don’t know what I will be teaching.

This is what I’ve waited for, this is it.ImageImageImage

And the winner is….

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill!!!

I fell in love with the place, the people, the program the whole kit and caboodle.

Flashback to Friday, March 23 after attending a couple of very interesting panels at the Conference (“Medieval and Golden Age texts from inside the prison, the convent and the law” and about García Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York) we all drove to Professor Domínguez´s house for a party. Here in the warmth of his beautiful house, mingling and chatting with professors, graduate students, staff and conference participants the idea crystallized. I found a bunch of grad students in the den watching the final minutes of the Tar Heels beating Ohio and immediately found a spot on the floor and sat down with them. When the buzzer went off and we had won the game, time stopped, everything went silent in my head as people jumped and screamed around me, the ceiling opened and a blinding white light fell upon me and I knew I was going to get my PhD in Spanish Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (No I was not drinking, I had given it up for lent). The rest of the evening is a blur. All I remember is levitating and smiling a lot.

Saturday I still went to a couple of panels at the conference and continued doing homework. Talking to people and checking off all the boxes of the “to do” list in my head. I bumped into someone I had met the night before at the party, Professor Lucia Binotti. She was nice enough to take me to beautiful Caffe Driade, where we had a great coffee. Saturday night was the final banquet where I was received as “one of them” and I loved the company, the conversation and learning about the whole shebang. That was the icing on the cake, the cherry on top.

I came home, signed the papers, wrote a check for my deposit and the adventure begins.

Epilogue: to this day April 17, I have not heard from Georgetown, Emory, Tulane or U. Tennessee, their loss.

Note: Here is the photo album I promised… enjoy! 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Report from UNC Chapel Hill

I am loving University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, I am loving Chapel Hill. Yes it is a village, a vibrant village, but a village. This is probably the perfect environment for a PhD., enough activities to entertain but enough solitude for deep study.

I am meeting and talking with everyone I can. I am researching housing options, on campus or off? I am researching the academic bit, financial aid, the lay of the land, the quality of life, etc.

So far I have no complaints. I am drinking excellent coffee, eating great food – including the best gelato ever at Sugarland, great breakfast biscuits, etc.

It is right before Spring so everything you see is blooming: trees, flowers, bushes. Whites, yellows, purples, pinks suffuse every corner of the campus and the town, the air heavy and sweet.

Since I drove here I spared no luxury in my equipment, bringing with me my real camera (Olympus EP1). Unfortunately I forgot the connector cable to my computer, so none of the images will be posted until I get home…

Tomorrow is the first day of the Carolina Conference on Romance Literatures, I am excited to be a (minor) part of that.



Update and UNC Chapel Hill!

It is Monday March 19 and I have only heard from 4 out of 10 universities I applied for. This is the breakdown:

On February 2 I was accepted at UNC Chapel Hill! I read the email three times and could not believe / understand / comprehend that it was an acceptance letter.I had to ask my colleague and mentor Maggie Caso who sits next to me in the office to read the email to make sure it was what I thought it was. She read it and gave me the worlds biggest smile and hug. To say that I levitated for the rest of the day would be an understatement.

So far I have been rejected by Duke, U Maryland and UVA, their bad.

I had not applied to U Alabama yet when I got accepted to UNC. So although I loved the “vibe” there and my meeting with Prof. Ana Corbalán. I did not apply.

Georgetown, Emory, Tulane, U Texas Austin, Vandy and U Tenn. have not responded yet…

UNC hosts the Carolina Conference on Romance Literatures which they were kind enough to invite me to, and since it coincided with my Spring Break I decided to come.

Poor Rocinante is still in Winter storage and although it is getting warmer she will be there for a couple more weeks. Until I can pick her up and begin new adventures. Which means I drove in old Helmut, my trusty 2009 Audi A4 Station Wagon. First we went to visit Mark Miller in New York, who I had not seen since I rode back to Boston in August. We had the best mussels and dinner at B Café and breakfast this morning at the Popover Café. After dropping Mark off in his gallery I set off on my drive. Nine hours later I was finally in Chapel Hill. For the numbers oriented I did 525 miles at an average of 57mph and consuming only 30mpg average. (This data came from the on board computer, it was not manually calculated as I do with Rocinante). The drive was uneventful with bad traffic in the Washington DC area, only two rest stops (Maryland and Richmond VA). The drive brought back some memories from last Summer, but it is so boring in the car, isolated with climate control, music/radio/books on CD, entertaining but useless drive statistics, etc. I miss riding on Rocinante.

The week here promises to be exciting. Other than the conference I want to properly check out the campus, the town, look at housing options, talk to professors, and graduate students, and get a feel for the place.

I can’t wait for tomorrow!…

Helmut with the incomparable John Suh