Day 3 — In the Kitchen with Manoli and other small miracles

Day 3 — In the Kitchen with Manoli and other small miracles

“No tengo mucha historia.”

The utter humility represented by my host mother, Manoli Benito, is quite wonderful to behold. She speaks without a filter, referring to her past student charges as “mis niñas,” since most have been young women seeking a Spanish adventure. But, nothing she says feels condescending or judgmental. She is a woman of strong convictions, possessing a clear-eyed point of view that makes verbal sparring a delight. She’s hosted the granddaughter of Umberto Eco, as well as the children of Chicanos getting in touch with a rich cultural heritage. Few have ever squandered their time in her home. Most have remained in contact, even returning with their families in tow so they can meet her.

In many ways, she reminds me of Fräulein Schneider in the musical “Cabaret.” That character’s big song, “So What?” is a testament to a woman who has refused to bow down to reduced circumstances or a life less extraordinary.

“For the sun will rise
And the moon will set
And learn how to settle
For what you get.
It will all go on if we’re here or not
So who cares? So what?”

I should make clear that Manoli’s life is not one of reduced circumstances. She went from housewife to housemother, yes. And, true, she didn’t expect her life to be this way, either. Yet thanks to her association with hosting students, she’s been able to invest in her future by maintaining a key aspect of her past: her parents’ home. She’s put in quite a bit of money making that house into something comfortable, a sanctuary. Even her son built a pool. Now, every August, she shuts down and goes to her birth home with her whole tribe to enjoy its peace and calm. That’s enough for her. She may not be richer, but she has health and happiness. As she said with conviction, “What else could you want?”

I can’t even begin to transcribe some of the conversations that have graced her dining and kitchen table. I’m still pondering her calling two of Spain’s Oscar winning stars “imbeciles,” “idiotas” y “bordes.” Or the Italian student who said she had yet to meet any handsome men in Salamanca. Manoli just smiled when she recalled the grand arrival of said ragazza‘s BF: “Él era más feo que un dolor.” (He was uglier than any pain.) Or her opinion on the new queen Letizia, a divorcée with family ties to anarchists. While her past is considered rather scandalous, Queen Letty deserves some props for how she’s presented herself as a royal family member. But Manoli wanted to know what was up with the visible tension captured in photos and video when Queen Letty met the Pope? Could it be her inability to escape her atheist past? Or how about her not caring about fútbol, but knowing who are the hot players of the moment?

Trust me, I don’t think my fellow students are having similar conversations in their homes. In fact, I know some are already sneaking in food from outside because the meals are SO bad. It made me appreciate just how lucky I am in Casa Benito.

Manoli says she has little history, but I don’t agree. She has plenty of history, one that is only enhanced by an everchanging view of the world she receives with each group of students she boards. They’ve touched her in the same way she’s touched their lives. This mother of four, grandmother of two, has made a global mark on the world. How many of us can say we’ve done the same?

The idea as to what comprises history was very much on my mind when I toured Salamanca with my fellow students this afternoon. It was an education seeing how youth never fails in its enthusiasm to party away from home. The hangovers they carried were appropriately epic, but it also proved a catalyst for them to all bond with each other. Granted, two already had bandaged ankles. Another realized she’d lost her wallet minutes after the tour began. Yes, they are the Americans Abroad, don’t begrudge them a thing. Yet, no matter their state, they all were quite taken with the absolute beauty that is Salamanca.

This entire city is a living history, where stone streets reveal the small miracles and achievements of human beings seeking higher learning. One of the oldest universities in the world, it bears the marks of intellectuals and the oppressed, the rich and the poor, the devout and the sinner and everything else in between. Some of the architecture was designed to rise to the heavens as a gift to God. Yet hidden were telling clues of humor, like the frieze outside one cathedral featuring a frog sitting happily on a skull. Or the portal of another door that had a demon holding an ice cream cone because we know it is hot in Hell. Subtle gestures of rebellion? Perhaps. I thought the definition of “left” and “right” in politics could be found here. One building featured a facade that placed the perils of an amoral life on one side of the building, while the virtues of being good were displayed on the right side of the same building.

Imagine, in 1492, when Columbus landed in the New World, more than 8,000 students comprised the population of this remarkable campus. No one took notes; they could only listen to their lectures. There was little light in the classrooms. (In earlier times, they sat on the floor.) A final exam was conducted at the end of their five years of study.

Women weren’t allowed, but Beatriz Galindo was bold enough to break through that barrier of sexism. She became the closest adviser to Queen Isabella. Or the story of Fray Luis de León,  who was jailed during the Inquisition for daring to translate religious texts from their deified Latin prose to the language of common people. He returned from prison five years later, went back to the classroom and picked up exactly where he left off.

But the moment that transfixed me? Seeing the fresco known as “El cielo de Salamanca.”


I was reminded of the small miracles we can create as a species. This painting has been in the world since the 15th century. It is housed in this dark cupola, illuminated by the most careful light. You can’t take photos, you can’t touch it, but you can stand under it and bask it all in just as students did 600 years ago. (And no, I didn’t take the photo in this post.)

To me, all acts of creation should be viewed as small miracles, particularly if done with humility and care. It is not about being recognized or praised. No. It’s about adding something to our collective narrative, one that is inspiring and telling about why we are passionate about being part of this world in the first place.

Earlier in the day, Manoli and I talked about cooking. Like many of us, memories can live in our sense of smell and taste. Nothing rivals my own mother’s cooking. Whenever I try to cook one of her dishes, it always lacks that X factor of Mom. But we learn to appreciate our versions in the end. Perhaps that is the moral of this entire experience. Don’t try to be that perfect recreation of something ideal. Be your own version of that ideal. Trust me, that recipe is destined to live on as others take it to heart. Therein lies our chance to create our own histories, itself a small miracle.

Monday, June 30 at Manoli’s house in Salamanca, Spain. 

Day 2 — Saludos desde Salamanca, hermanos y hermanas…

If you’ve never had jet lag, prepare for an experience on par with a fever dream. Details seem awfully out of focus, a particular challenge when you’re trying to share a journey in written form in an Instalife world. But, I can’t describe it any better than that right now as I approach 1 am in Salamanca.

Taking this journey at this stage of my life took guts. I recognize that. We are supposed to be settled into a certain type of productive life. I was supposed to be either married, extolling the virtues of being a parent and/or have reached a career peak of responsibility and financial gain by now.

That’s not what happened.

I never wanted to be the type that treats the mundane as being the ultimate Facebook status update. No, that’s not living to me. Ordinary tasks are just a part of life. I don’t want to be validated for simply getting through the routine of a day. That’s not being blessed. I wanted to find the extraordinary in the ordinariness of it all. In many ways I have done just that, but I also know I bought that 80s myth of having it all.  No, you can’t. You can have an item from column A or B, and egg rolls will definitely cost you more. Now matter the order, you will be forced to make a choice.

Who knew the Everest I thought I was scaling was just to the middle! Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret any road traveled. The degrees of selfishness with which I’ve lived my life have fluctuated wildly over the years. Now, I find myself penning a second act I never expected to create and it can’t be one derived from being selfish, either. I was so secure in my choice to pick career over everything. Tonight, I am embracing the fever dream of having a middle-aged adventure of rediscovery and reinvention in Salamanca, Spain.

As I sit in the home of the kind woman who has made quite a life caring for the international contingent of students that descend upon this beautiful town daily, I am reminded of a quote by St. Augustine:

The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.

It is interesting how that quote came my way. I took a moment to visit my dear friend Kimberlee Andrews in San Diego a few weeks ago. It was a piece of graphic art found in a design store. (Amazing how design stores are EVERYWHERE these days. We may be broke, but dammit, we will nest with style!) It was literally a sign and a sign of things to come.

I don’t want to rehash how I’ve seen the world because of my career. At times, it was as glossy as an issue of Travel & Leisure. Other times, it was as urgent and eye-opening as the documentaries presented for a week at the Laemmle’s. Yet, right now, I am sitting in a humble room with a single bed, a single light, a single desk and a single standing wardrobe holding the 54 lbs. of personal items I thought necessary for this trip. It is a single life being chronicled right now, but here’s the difference.

I’m fucking happy to live in it again.

I think too much. I talk too much. I know it. I’ve lived so long in my head, I’m getting rickets when I should be a high kicking Rockette. Haha.

Earlier tonight, I received an Email from my close friend, Dr. Norma Vega. Much of why this is happening is because of her encouragement. She’s also staked her own “view from a broad” this summer in Portugal and Spain. (This continent doesn’t seem so expansive knowing there are several people from home having similar journeys at the same time. It’s beyond comforting.)

She asked for the details on this first day and I found myself having a hard time not vomiting it all up over this keyboard! I initially wanted to go on this whole tangent on how I wished people just took some pride in how they present themselves to the world when they travel, blah, blah, blah.

(I don’t want to see your Parmesan heels in swim slides, favorite sweat shorts or any other sign that you literally rolled out of bed to get to your flight. I mean, I did bust out a nice navy button shirt, cropped navy Gap jeans, navy/cream striped H&M plimsolls and this scarf from Zara for that element of pop. Yeah, I went for the effete and comfort, earning quite a few bemused stares from the Southies picking up their rough edged, hoodie sporting kin at Logan. So ends my Derek Blasberg moment.)

Instead, I’m gonna crib what I wrote to her in slightly wonky Spanish…

Treks are an essential aspect of life. We need to leave the comfort of a secure, safe journey to change roads once in a while. We should make an effort to take in as much of the human condition as we can, not stay tied to the devices that present such a small window of the world. It was interesting to see how many of the students I’ve joined on this trip were so worried they couldn’t Instagram or how they were glad that T-Mobile was their carrier. That got more interest than the fact we were on the road to Salamanca, Spain.

I fought the good fight once we left Barajas airport. Cue Aerosmith, I, too, didn’t want to miss a thing. Damn this jet lag. I slept nothing on the plane from Boston to Madrid, forcing a double feature of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Moulin Rouge.”

I kept my gaze out the window just to witness the pigeon that decided to make the bus windshield its final destination. I refused to think it was an omen, thank you. I spoke to everyone around me, trying to get a sense of who they were and what they wanted out of the month ahead. But, I kept coming back to a single thought: I’m really here.
Sure, some of the road felt like the trip to Palm Springs. Yet, every image of steers grazing, gas stations and sign posts leading to Valladolid, Segovia, Avila and Portugal was added proof I was here.
I wasn’t so sure about any of this when I arrived at Barajas at 630am. After a few hours of wondering, “Shit. What did I just do?,” I discovered  a student from West LA College that  was also a part of this group. We were both looking at every group passing through customs with the face of “Please be someone from my group!” She’d been in Madrid for two days alone and was relieved to meet a fellow student. I was fried, but her impulsive hug was restorative. I admired her courage.
When the whole group finally gathered, it was hard not to notice the youth and innocence of them all. Many had never left the confines of southern California. More, the group was comprised in large part by girls. Some spoke the language, while others would probably blanch at a Taco Bell menu. Still, I also met an older gentleman who has been forced to take disability. Like me, he’s a student at ELAC. Mexican-born, he has turned some tough events in his life to realize a dream: to become a writer. Or the young Cal Poly Student who was just laid off, who opted to extend his Spanish soujourn into a full European venture.
Then, I was in Salamanca.
God, it’s beautiful here. It has the Old World and the marks of the 21st century. It was then I realized the journey really began.
We all design our own lives. Mine is not finished yet, but I have more confidence in choosing  what layers will be added next. It was right to come here. When our group director, professor Josefina Culton, introduced me to my host, I felt event better. Manoli is a wonderful woman, cultivated, full of spirit and with passionate opinions. I think we’re going to get along just fine. I mean, how many people even THINK to make you paella on the first day? It’s funny, the biggest concern I had was that she’d be disappointed to see my Hemingway in transition self walk to her with the bag I paid $100 in overweight charges. But nope. We walked to the bus station together and chatted away like it was the normal thing in the world.
We sat around her kitchen table and TALKED. As for the content of said conversation, I won’t go into too much detail, but if I were Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, I’d watch out. Man, it’s like sitting at home with my mom and my cherished Tia Tayde from Mexico City. Someone is def watching over me.
I’m rambling and there is so much more I’m still trying to process.
Changing your narrative is not easy. But when you do it with integrity and humility, you will discover the best part of who you are hasn’t been lost at all.
To think, I came to Spain to be found again. And guess what, St. Augustine?  I’m not content to read just one page in a book. I’m gonna write my own damn book.
Sunday, June 29 from Manoli’s house in Salamanca, Spain.


Day 1 — MediaJor in the Sky

Day 1 — MediaJor in the Sky

And so it begins with a quote from a Russian writer. It’s true what Dostoyevsky states in “Crime and Punishment,” “Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”  Fear has played too large a role in my life in the last few years. I had become so at ease at bemoaning what was wrong, I completely lost sight of what was oh-so very right in my life.

We live in an era of so much choice, we’ve created a host of anxieties for ourselves. We worry about how we are perceived on so many levels. Obsess is probably a better word. Many of us spend hours about talking about ourselves, documenting ourselves, creating a picture perfect version of the lives we lead. Yet, there is little precious information revealed about ourselves beyond the surface. Where are you in this world? What do you want to contribute? Who do you want to be?

It is the American way to constantly talk about ourselves, a theme that rivals the goal of living an authentic life in an era where everything we surround ourselves with in this consumer-driven culture is anything BUT authentic. It is no wonder so many of us are losing direction. Worse, losing faith in ourselves and our ability to cope with the world we’ve built around us.

I was lost. My narrative had become one of self-loathing, delusion and disappointment. I didn’t have courage in reserve despite having a support system of family and friends that couldn’t be any more loving or caring. I didn’t want to listen. It was easier to just smile and “appear” to be okay. Through it all, my malaise was manifesting itself in the most obvious of ways. I ate my feelings and each binge was one more brick added to a fortress of my design, one that would shield me away from the things I didn’t want to deal with anymore. The weight of it all was crushing my self-esteem and, to be frank, my desire to want to be part of this world. I won’t elaborate on that reality. Suffice it to say, it scared me to even reach that level of emotional chaos.

So many of us are moving forward in such wonderful ways. New jobs, new partners, new families, new perspectives. At some point, any despair has to allow for the light provided by the new to illuminate the darker recesses we choose to inhabit. I became tired of where I was living in my head and heart. If my family and friends were frustrated, imagine what I was saying to myself! The time had come to take a new step and utter not much new words, but words of action and change. Ironically, those words were in Spanish.

Leaving my job and going to ELAC was a tentative step forward to a goal that was hazy at best. I didn’t have a clue as to where I was heading. I just knew it wasn’t towards the life I thought I had always wanted to live. Yet, going to that campus in Monterey Park lead me to a new appreciation of my Latino identity. Now it is taking me to Salamanca, Spain to feed a different kind of hunger. I want to binge on culture and language, to be with people and let that restore the fearlessness I’ve let dominate my psyche for too long.

It’s funny. “MediaJor” started off as a pun, but I think it has become a moniker of empowerment. It stands for something personal and real. It is not a brand. It is the voice with which I reveal the truth and humanity about the people we loathe and champion, about the media culture that we love and hate. But I see it evolving as does the narrative I now want to create.

We all have a place in this world. We all have the desire to live a life that is witnessed.  Who we choose to witness it, as well as the choices we make for ourselves on the life we choose lead, is a huge responsibility. It is so easy to take it for granted just as it is too easy to choose things based on the perceptions we’ve been taught to accept.

So, what is the point of this little endeavor? I will tell you. I’m a middle-aged exchange student heading to a university in Spain in search of more than just a month of studying language and great literature. I am realizing a dream of having a Great Adventure. Am I nervous? Hell yes! I am going to be staying with a host family that may or may not be surprised to see who the 46 year-old Mexican-American student will be staying in their home for the next 30 days. That alone warrants SOME sort of documentation. Yet, I suspect this entire experience will more than just about sipping a relaxing a cup of café con leche in the Plaza Mayor with a copy of Cervantes.

I have become quite weary about this social media age. The narcissism involved with this public journal is not lost on me. But with manifestos of insanity getting more play in our “If it bleeds, it leads,” media-controlled age, why not offer a statement of positive change? Why not shift the focus away from the circus designed to distract us to something substantial and real? That is the goal of these “confessions.”

Choose to read or not. I’m fine being the sole witness to this story. I want a record of the days to come because this is my way of ensuring a legacy. I may never have kids. I may never be famous. But I have always believed in the power of words more than pictures. To have a permanent written record of this moment in time is irresistible to me. I know I have problems with “letting go.” So, in having this blog, I can leave it all in a safe place, one I can visit whenever nostalgia strikes. Yet, it is absolutely about embracing and living in the now.

Still, I do hope you at least take a peek out of curiosity, maybe even offer a comment or two. Every journey becomes a bit more vivid when it’s a shared experience. I can’t promise that every entry will be a “page turner.” But, I can promise you the best is still to come.


Saturday, June 28, from American Airlines Flt. 222 to Boston for Madrid.