Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My Second Dad

My father died twenty four years ago. He was fifty nine, much too young. My son was born about two weeks before he died. Dad never got to meet him. He never got to see him and my daughter, the older of my two children, grow up to become the successful young man and woman that they are today. He would have been very proud of them.

Being short a Dad, I adopted my father-in-law, Bob. It was nice to have a father figure. I think Bob knew that I needed it. I became comfortable calling him “Dad,” and he accepted my calling him that. It was nice to be able to use that term after losing my dad.

When I first met Bob, I was very intimidated by him. It was a perfect relationship for him to have with a guy about to marry his eldest child and daughter. I knew I had my work cut out for me if I were to ever gain his respect.

Twenty eight years later, there is no doubt in my mind that we respected each other. He gave me a hard time for being a University of Georgia Bulldog fan, which is my alma mater, since he was always a Georgia Tech fan. He would rib me about many things and I knew that as long as he was doing that, I was in his good graces. That and the big hugs and kisses he would give me as he got older were comforting indications of his love and respect for me.

I lost Bob, Dad last week. I was thirty two when my father, Pedro died. I knew Bob for over twenty-eight years. If you subtract very early formative years that many of us cannot recall, I actually knew him as long as I did my real dad. He didn’t “raise” me, but I learned much from him as a young man raising my own family and his grandchildren. He really didn’t say much, but he communicated an awful lot. He wasn’t perfect, but he had admirable qualities. He was very intelligent and would often surprise me and his children by interjecting something into a conversation revealing extraordinary knowledge. He didn’t do that as a way of showing off. Bob would never do that. If he said something, it was usually very relevant or funny. My wife believes that he would have made a great physician. As my daughter was going through medical school on her way to becoming a physician’s assistant, the two of them would become involved in depth discussing different aspects of the human body.

He was an excellent craftsman. After retiring, he would create furniture with such attention to detail that he would drive for miles simply to get the perfect wood materials and accessories. He and his wife had a beach house and his beach vacations often consisted of much of the time repairing, rebuilding, replacing and occasionally fishing.

The youngest of fourteen children (that’s right, fourteen), Bob grew up on a potato farm in Long Island. His parents were immigrants from Poland. As a nine year old, he would drive the truck (standard shift) during the harvests. There would be blocks added to the pedals so that he could reach them and see out over the dashboard. He once told a story of his foot slipping off of the clutch, making the truck lurch forward emptying his siblings riding on the back and the harvested potatoes onto the field. It was on that farm and in those fields that he developed the strength he carried, both physically and mentally. As the youngest of so many children, he probably grew up observing and taking things in, never really having much of a chance to say a lot anyway. So he was the “strong, silent type.” Though when he did speak, his voice boomed from his barrel chest.

He was a center for Miami University’s (Ohio) football team. Typical of centers, he didn’t bring a lot of attention to himself, he just got things done. He was the honor graduate at Ft Benning’s Officer Candidate School. He never told anyone that. His son discovered that fact while going through some of his old papers.

He probably knew he was sick before he died. We realized that we needed to hospitalize him only after his wife told us that he couldn’t walk anymore. He was admitted on a Tuesday. A little over a week later, he was gone. We shall all miss him. His grandchildren will miss his humor; his children will miss his strength and affection. I shall miss my second Dad.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Meat and Malbec

Buenos Aires has a very European appearance. It was interesting seeing the architecture and now that I have been to Madrid I can plainly see the similarities. There was a busy pace to the city, but restaurants were always full and the subways crowded. The subway system was hot and a bit more cramped than the system in Madrid. Still, it was somewhat easy to use and get around the city. BA is certainly cheaper than Spain and Europe. We took advantage of that and enjoyed the bountiful Malbec wines and the delicious beef. Most people know of the "gaucho," the Argentinian version of the American cowboy. As much as the USA is a beef eating country, Argentina is even more so. Couple a nice piece of beef with a delicious Malbec wine and you have the essence of Argentina. The Malbec grape was originally grown for use as something to blend other wines with, similar to Merlots. Just as Merlots have grown in popularity as a wine on their own, so have Malbecs. My wife and I enjoyed lots of it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Buenos Aires

This is a late entry because we went on this trip last year. I have since started my blog, inspired by my trip to Madrid. When my wife and I decided to start taking advantage of her Spring Break by traveling to places we have always thought about, Buenos Aires was high on my list. I have never traveled farther south than Panama, having flown to the canal zone Air Force Base as a Navy pilot when I was assigned to Roosevelt Roads Naval Station Puerto Rico. Buenos Aires always held a mystique for me and it was a perfect spring break trip. No competition with spring break travelers, about the same time zone and an evening departure from ATL with an early am arrival.
After web searching for a place to stay and consulting with a fellow pilot who grew up in Buenos Aires (BA), we decided upon a B&B for the first part of the week and an apartment for the last part. It worked out great and we loved both places as they were in terrific locations, both in the Recoletta area of BA. The B&B, Tesorito Bed & Breakfast (Ecuador 1250 PB°D
Buenos Aires, Argentina (54 11) 5778 1039, is owned and operated by Fernanda and Ahmed, a lovely couple, whom we quickly befriended. The breakfasts were frech and filling, their warmth made you really feel welcome and they will give you good advice on where to go and how to get there. It is in an older building, but the rooms are large, spacious and tastefully decorated. I highly recommend it.

La Casa Benigna

Casa Benigna: arroz en patellaCasa Benigna: tortilla de calabacín y salmón marinado al eneldo


This evening I made reservations for dinner at La Casa Benigna. I had read of this place in a blog when I was researching paella recipes. I am new to paella cooking and wanted to learn as much as I could before actually trying to make one. I wanted to go to a good paella place in Madrid to sample authentic paella. The owner and chef, Norberto has actually devised his own pan, very different from the pans used for traditional paellas. His pans have a copper hew and are shallower than the traditional paellera. It is about as wide, but much shallower. It is very elegant looking and serves up delicious rice with some nice “soccarat,” or crusty “stuck on” rice at the bottom of the pan. The wide pan is brought out and placed upon a lazy susan in the center of the table. The waiter scrapes it up and serves you though eating right out of the pan with the provided wooden spoon is also allowed. Before the paella though, we were indulged in a delicious salad, a mushroom dish served with an egg gracing the top that would be blended into a soulful blend that bathed the palate in a wonderful texture and flavor. We were also served a “tortilla” or Spanish omelets with vegetables and thinly sliced grilled salmon. This was topped with an incredible sauce of pureed tomatoes and heavenly spices. This was all before the paella came out!

Our dessert was a trio of orange accented chocolate, fresh strawberry sorbet and a tenderly baked apple. We were totally surprised when the server drizzled balsamic vinegar onto the strawberry sorbet. It actually enhanced the flavor. We were even served an “après dessert,” in two tiny cups and saucers, even smaller than a demitasse cup. I thought that they may have come from a child’s play tea set, but were ceramic, filled with creamy, fudgy chocolate accompanied by two wafers and two small spoons. It didn’t take us long to figure out what we had to do to enjoy this wonderful surprise. I have not even mentioned the bread or Norberto’s own extra virgin olive oils to dip it in. His two brands are poured into small wine glasses and swirled so you can absorb the aroma and the distinctive “nose” of each one, much as you would a fine wine. One evoked a distinct tomato scent; it was the Sicilian olive oil. The other, a Spanish olive oil, had the aroma of herbs and flowers. The owner is a craftsman in all he does with his food, the interior, the ambiance. It was a very artistic presentation and delicious to partake both visually as well as gastronomically. You can search for La Casa Benigna, Madrid on google and find many references to it with reviews and more photos.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

El Cocinillas


Friday night, our last night of our week long stay in Madrid, was the night we decided to "do the town," if you will. I'm certain that our idea of this is vastly different from what the majority of the Madrilenos in this area consider to be a night on the town. We definitely wanted to try out the restaurant I had discovered the evening before, so we set out to San Joaquin street. We came upon El Cocinillas. It was very busy and I thought we might not be able to get a table. I went in and spoke to the host, who I later discovered was the owner, Julian Lara. I also learned that he had only opened the restaurant a month ago. I asked about a table for two. He apologized and pointed to the chock-a-block tables full of people enjoying their evening meal. He was very busy. This was around 1045 pm. I was disappointed, but thanked him. I think he saw my disappointment and said, "come back in a half hour."
We felt confident now that we would be able to try out El Cocinillas now, so we walked to a nearby plaza, ordered some drinks and a tapa, sitting outside taking in the scene presented to us this Friday night in the packed plaza: roller skaters, roller bladers, venders, cyclists, partiers, children, parents, teens, young and old all out and about at 11 pm!
Thirty minutes later we were at the small bar at El Cocinillas waiting for a table for two to finish clearing enjoying a delicious Rioja wine. We were soon seated and spoke to Julian about what we should order. He recommended the mero, a fish. Though I speak Spanish, I am unfamiliar with many fish names and sometimes they vary from one Spanish speaking country to another. So I asked him what mero was. Julian speaks English well, but did not know what the English word for mero was. He asked the large party at a table next to us if they knew what the English word for mero was (I later found out that that table included his sister, who did a high school exchange in Louisville, KY and speaks perfect English. Though she did not know how to translate mero). Thus began a buzz of activity as Iphones and Blackberries were broken out, googling "mero."
"Grouper!" Mero is grouper! We love grouper. One of the people at the other table then asked my wife what grouper was. She promptly responded, "mero!" We all had a good laugh, the ice was broken and we quickly settled in as part of the El Cocinillas familia. I ordered the lamb, or cordero. After a fresh and tasty green salad, we were served. The grouper was served in a large bowl with an elliptical edge. The fillets of grouper were skewered with a slice of pumpkin and served on a bed of cous cous. It was as artistic a presentation as I have seen and absolutely delicious. My tender, boneless lamb slices came resting atop a pressed potato cake containing some of the delicious red pimientos so famous in Spain and topped with a sauce that was indescribably piquant. I asked Julian about it. He said it was a secret, but then describing it and basically telling me how it was made. Needless to say, I won't give away his secret, but it was amazing. We lingered over our dinner, taking the time to savor each bite. My wife and I swapped plates briefly, something we always do. After coffee and more conversation with our new friends surrounding our table, we ambled out of El Cocinillas at nearly one am.
It was a perfect last evening in Madrid for us. We agreed that this was, indeed a wonderful discovery for us. I would strongly encourage anyone visiting Madrid to go to El Cocinillas.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Happening Upon Things


After returning from our day trip to Toledo, we rested in the apartment after a long day of walking up and down the hills and cobblestone roads of that ancient town. I started to get hungry and decided to go out in the Chueca neighborhood and search for a "take out" place that is not McDonald's (there are a many of these around Madrid, and the world for that matter. In my travels, I usually avoid them as I do in the USA).
The Cafe y Te restaurant downstairs was closed as it was after ten pm (2200 in European and military time). So I would go searching and wandering, leaving my wife to her book. This is something that I love to do in a new place. Exploring new places and discovering new things. As I stepped outside into the cool crisp evening, there was a festive mood and lots of people, mostly younger moving about and chattering, laughing, shopping and generally enjoying the evening. I headed up Fuencarral street towards the Tribunal Metro station, looking at the various cafes and bars that were open to see if there was anything I could grab to take back to the apartment. Eschewing the colmado, or type of convenience store, usually owned by Chinese Spaniards, I proceeded towards "our" bakery we had discovered earlier in the week on the off chance that it would still be open. It wasn't, but as I walked up the side street, Calle San Joaquin, I couldn't help but notice a small restaurant that was tastefully decorated and abuzz with activity. I stopped to read the menu and took notice of some of the plates the diners by the window were enjoying. I quickly decided that tomorrow night, our last night here, we would try this lovely place out.
I ended up going to an Italian take out place that was packed with the evenings revelers getting their munchies. I chose an "Italiano" sandwich and a big, fat, cannoli. There was a sign on the cooler window proclaiming that the cannoli was made famous in "The Godfather" ("leave the gun, take the cannolies"). My wife later would accuse me of trying to hide it when I got back to the apartment so I could enjoy it all myself....but there is no truth to this. The sandwich AND the cannoli were delicious and did the trick. The place is owned by a Sicilian who obviously does very well from what I could see at least that evening.
So the next day, Friday after a leisurely morning, coffee and pastry, we took a tour of the northern, more modern part of Madrid. This also included some of the more exclusive neighborhoods and foreign embassies, including the USA's. Traffic was thick and the going slow, but we enjoyed our tour atop our open air tour bus. We ended up near the Paza Del Sol, which was packed. We shopped in the Corte Inglese, the largest department store in Madrid, with locations all over the city. We purchased some small gifts and walked up the pedestrian walkway towards the Gran Via station amid a cacophony of music emanating from groups of street musicians, a string quartet here and a jazzy eclectic and raucous group of eleven. This band was cookin'! Five saxophones (one tenor), two stand up basses, three accordions and one guitar. They drew a crowd, including us and you couldn't help but toe tap and smile as they let loose with big band, jazz and contemporary sounds. We were happy to donate a few Euros to there hat!
We continued up to Gran Via and were soon back at the apartment, resting up for our ten pm departure to start our "night on the town" on our last day in Madrid.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Impressions of Madrid

It seems as if I have been trying my whole life to get to Spain. I dreamed of coming here as a child and as an officer in the Navy, I was always trying to get orders to Spain. It never happened until now. My wife and I decided to spend her Spring break from school, where she works as a middle school counselor, in Madrid. I schedule my vacations to coincide with that week. As an airline employee, specifically a pilot, I get to take advantage of “space available travel” whenever I can. Spring break is typically a tough time to do it, unless you choose to go where most spring breakers are not going. Last year for spring break, we went to Buenos Aires and loved it, easily taking advantage of “space available” and spending a wonderful week in that lovely South American city. I will write about that in a later post.

This year, we decided that Madrid should be our spring break destination, since seats were available and the “breakers” were not going to Europe. There were seats available and returning looked very good. Finally, I would get to see Spain, or at least the Madrid area. Both of our children had already traveled to and spent time in Spain, once in high school, on an exchange that was coordinated by the Spanish department. They lived with a family in Toledo, the family of the young man we had hosted earlier that year. Then, in their college years, both of them went on separate occasions to live in Valencia for extended periods of time. I had often wished that I could have joined them, I was a bit jealous, but work and finances were preventing the travel at that time.

Easter Sunday

Now it was our turn. We landed on Easter morning, a bright, crisp spring day. After being herded from our Boeing 767 through narrow corridors like cattle being lead to corrals (or slaughter) up and down stairs, through a series of switchbacks until we were finally emptied into a larger area (baggage claim) then finally outside. Our ride to the apartment we had rented for the week was uneventful driving down mostly empty streets. Madrid had not awakened yet and we saw no one on the streets. It was the last day of “Semana Santa", or Holy week, which is a week of holidays for the Spaniards. The city was clean, swept and appeared to be ready to get back to the business of being Madrid after a week of many closed shops and stores.

We arrived at our apartment, located on Calle Fuencarral in a district that has been re-vitalized in recent years, mostly by the gay community of Madrid. We learned that this area was popular with gays only after we decided upon renting it. We surmised that the area would be safe, clean and stylish if we applied all of the stereo types. The apartment is on the top floor of a building that overlooks a small square and has a large balcony that really appealed to us after viewing it on the internet. We thought it would be a great place to enjoy a morning cup of coffee as we watched the city awaken beneath us. I am sitting outside on it now enjoying a coffee as I write. The sounds emanating from below tell the story of Madrilenos beginning their day much later in the than most of us in the States. The city is busy, but not hectic. People move about, but not in a rush. They stroll, rather than walk. They casually notice rather than observe. They always seem to find time for a sit in the park or at a sidewalk café table to enjoy a coffee and a pastry.

We overlook the city from our balcony and in the background there is a large Spanish flag flying from atop a building in the distance. There are no “skyscrapers” as in many large cities, at least not in this section. The heights of the buildings are fairly uniform with nothing really obtrusive. Much of the architecture is influenced by the French style, mainly because of the Bourbon ancestry of the most recent royals, who were French. The history of Spain is an amalgam of invaders and what we Americans would call carpetbaggers, or leaders from outside of the country. This does not mean that they did not love their newly adopted country, just that they brought a profound influence upon it. You can still hear the Arabic influence in the Castilian language of the Moors who occupied much of Spain for almost 500 years. Many Spanish words are of Arabic origin.

I actually speak Spanish pretty well, having grown up around it in my home. Both of my parents were Puerto Rican. Trying to understand a Spaniard with my Puerto Rican background and American upbringing can be challenging. I am able to express myself and make myself understood, but understanding a Spaniard takes a trained ear, something my ear is not trained to do very well yet.

Madrid is a beautiful city. It is impressive to see and exciting to be in. I feel very comfortable in it and getting around is extraordinarily easy. The Metro is safe, simple and extensive. Last night we were running late for our dinner reservations and had planned to take the metro, but opted for a taxi instead so as not to miss our reservations at a renowned paella restaurant. The taxi ride was easy and safe, the taxi itself clean and the driver courteous, taking us to La Casa de Benigna (see separate post) for our late (as is customary) dinner at 9:30 pm. After our dinner, we definitely needed a postprandial stroll as we were both very stuffed. Dinner was amazing (more on that later). We found the nearby metro stop, got on for one Euro each and after one transfer; we were soon at our stop on Gran Via, very close to our apartment. It was less than 20 minutes on clean, quiet subway cars.

I have lived in southern Italy. I was assigned in the Naples area in the early nineties by the U.S. Navy. Naples was at that time (I've not been back since) very chaotic. Everyone was in a hurry to get somewhere and upon arriving at their destination, do absolutely nothing. There was no real sense of order or regulation. Even so, I felt very comfortable with the locals and when I would meet them, they would say that I was not “Americano,” that I was different from the typical American. Then I would tell them of my Puerto Rican heritage and that seemed to explain everything to them. We had lots of fun together, my Neapolitan friends and I, going to restaurants, driving around in the chaos and having them over to my bungalow for dinner and drinks. Getting around southern Italy was often an adventure unto itself. Nothing seemed to run on time or very efficiently. It wasn’t as clean and neat as is much of what I have seen of Madrid. The metro is timely and orderly. There is a sense of order.


Today we went to the nearby Mercado, or market we learned of from Ramiro who manages our apartment rental. It is a collection of different kiosks or small stores that sold everything from fresh meats, fruits and vegetables, cured meats and cheeses, bread, wines and liquors and other sundries. Each merchant we approached was so friendly and eager to help us. The cured meats and cheese merchant eagerly gave us samples of the cheeses we were interested in. We bought several items with the vision of sitting on the balcony of our apartment and enjoying a simple dinner at “home” of cured meats, cheeses, fruits, bread and wine. We found a spice kiosk and purchased some Bomba Calasparra rice, which I use to make paellas and some saffron. Buying these items here is certainly much cheaper than ordering them over the internet or at our local grocery store. We bought some capers to serve with the smoked salmon we got and an herbed salt. The spice merchant, Jesus, gave us a gift of orange marmalade (I believe because we spent quite a bit with him), he was very friendly as were all of the merchants we encountered. My wife saw a scarf she really liked and we purchased that from the merchant who turned out to be an Argentine who has lived in Spain for thirty years. He too gave us a gift after our purchase, allowing her to select two handkerchiefs. The market was a really fun experience. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting as it really exposes you to the culture and the people are so friendly and helpful. It is also a great way to get a nice, simple dinner that you can enjoy on the road or where ever you are staying. It is a delicious introduction to the Spanish palate.

We sat out on the balcony this evening and enjoyed our “Mercado” purchased simple dinner. We opened our bottle of Rioja, Muriel 2006 and I prepared our platter of juicy Spanish pears, grapes, creamy cheeses, breads, smoked salmon with capers (purchased from Jesus at the spice kiosk), avocado, tomato and sliced chorizo. The layout looked splendid as we dined al fresco on our balcony reveling in our wonderful time thus far in this magnificent city.


This morning instead of lolling about and enjoying a lazy morning in the typical Spanish fashion, we set out a bit earlier on the metro to the Atocha train station, where trains depart Madrid to the south. We were taking a side trip to Toledo, where our children had done an exchange during high school. Toledo is the capital of La Mancha, south of Madrid and was the northernmost stronghold of the Moors during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, Madrid came into existence as a fortress protecting the approach to Toledo. It was originally called by its arabic name, "Mayrit" which was later corrupted to Madrid. It is surrounded on three sides by the Tajo river and a fortified wall on the landside approach. It is rich in history and is a city that has the three major religions of the world, Islam, Christianity and Judaism represented in its architecture and culture. The three religious peoples coexisted peaceful for centuries in Toledo.

Taking the AVE trains (high speed) from the Atocha train station, we arrived at the Toledo station in a mere twenty minutes. It was another beautiful day and we could see the city as we approached it, its many spires of the cathedrals standing out on the heights. My wife and I are suckers for the double decker tour buses that we seem to find at our travel destinations. We took one in Buenos Aires last year and found one for Madrid on this trip which we took on the our first full day here. The top deck is open and allows for great viewing and photography. There is also an audio that you can listen via ear buds in your own language that describes the sights along the way. In Madrid, it is a good way to get a feel for the area and you can get on and off as you wish with an all day ticket. We saw one of these waiting outside of the train station in Toledo and for only 5 Euros each, we quickly jumped aboard and got the lay of the land. After basically circling the city, the tour bus dropped us off at the central plaza, Zocodover. We then purchased a city map and devised our own walking tour through its narrow medieval streets and along the river. This is the best way to really see Toledo. It was magnificent and impressive. We really got a work out walking up and down hilly, narrow roads, but it was well worth it. Toledo can be a tourist trap, but it is an amazing place. Known for its steel, shops abound with displays of knives, swords and armor. I have a ceremonial sword I used as a naval officer that was made in Toledo. Most military ceremonial swords of most of today’ armies and navies come from Toledo.

We wound up the day at cafe, sitting outside with a grand view of the Plaza Zocodover, where I ordered an individual seafood Paella and my wife a pizza margherita. We enjoyed the people watching on the plaza Zocodover and eventually boarded the bus back to the station for our return trip to Madrid. It was less than twenty minutes and we were quickly on our metro enroute to the Gran Via station near our apartment. I highly reccomend this side trip. As we walked back to the apartment that evening, the city was so alive and vibrant. It was Thursday night and the Madrilenos were out and about.

A Pilot's Travel Blog

My First Blog

Being in the airline business has its perks. Flying "space available is one of them." Being a twenty four, seven operation is not. After eleven years and working on many days that I would rather have been off, I am finally at a point where I can have a little bit of say over my schedule. We have celebrated Christmas on days other than Christmas, just so we could be together as a family. It is better than being at sea, which was the case when I was in the Navy, spending birthdays, anniversaries, Christmases, and even my son's birth at sea.

I decided to start a blog after a recent visit to Madrid. Somewhere I have been wanting to go for a long time. Being limited to flying in North America, any overseas trips I take have to be while I am off or on vacation. Madrid made such an impression on me that I started writing about it while I was there. Hence, my "impressions of Madrid." It will be my first official blog, though I will back track and write about my trip to Buenos Aires last spring, another major "check in the block," if you wish. So, if for no other reason than to indulge myself, here is for your enjoyment or rejection; "A Pilot's Travel Blog."