The Thirty Days Of Christmas 9

Saturday should have been a day off from the festivities but I had to stock up for the weekend. Plus, by now, I was taking in so many calories a day that I kind of needed to keep going or else my body would begin to waiver for lack of nourishment. I picked up chicken, then some ingredients for a fabada, pork loin and some fish. Oh, yes, and some ground beef and potatoes for a cottage pie, which I erroneously called shepherd’s pie, but no one seemed to care.

     On the slightly healthier side, I grabbed a bag of clementines because I like them and because the guy in the fruit section said I should.


     “Because they’re good.”

     “They seem good to me every year.”

     “But especially good this year.”

      That was fine by me. I was such an easily persuaded man.

      If there is one kind of produce that’s available wide-scale in this country at this time of year, and costs a dime a dozen, its citrus fruit and, in particular, oranges, tangerines and clementines. Spanish oranges are universally famous, or at least they should be. If you don’t know this, now you do. They are traditionally grown in the eastern part of the country, in a region called Levante, which is a geographical strip of land along the Mediterranean coast. It gets its name from “levar” which means “to rise” and refers to the sun coming up – i.e. the East. The climate is mild and humid making it ideal for this genus of fruit.

      Tangerines are known as mandarinas in Spain, meaning different country disagree on their origin. In English we award Tangiers with the honor, while the Spanish attribute their existence to the Mandarin Chinese. Different cultures, same fruit. Tangerines are abundant at this time and sweet but generally have a thinner skin which is not always easy to peel. Clementines are a version of tangerine and its rind nearly breaks off from the fruit at the touch, and as a rule, is seedless. They are also genrally more succulent and cost a little more.

      Although not many people can say exactly why, this threesome is inextricably associated with the yuletide, especially in the department of stocking stuffing. Getting a large sock filled with goodies was once the extent of your treasures for the holidays, and a yearly mainstay was a piece of golden fruit. “Gold” here, seems to be the key mineral. One tradition has it that Saint Nicholas would bring golden balls and leave them in the stockings, and given the obvious lack of prime material to fulfill such a promise, people would substitute them with fruity orbs of a similar color…as a symbolic gesture, you see. There certainly may be some truth to that, but I can’t help thinking that the fact this fruit reaches the height of its harvest in November and December and was probably not widely available in northern European countries a long time ago, somehow made it a kind of delicacy back yonder in time. A symbol and a special treat all at once.

     Orange production is still big business here in Spain. This country comes in at around 6th in overall world production in terms of total kilos, and makes up half of all the 27 European nations produce together. The Spanish are also important consumers.
The United States, on the other hand, out-picks Spain by more than two to one, but is only 6th on the list of consumers.

      In the tangerine/clementine category, China blows away the competition, giving credence to the Spanish belief that the oriental nation really is the home of the fruit, with annual production of about 10 million metric tons. In 2012, it actually boxed 13,600,000. A metric ton equals 1,000 kilos, to give you an idea of the quantity we are talking about. Then, if you multiply it further by 2.2, you get the astronomical figure of about 29,920,000,000lbs of tangerines. Spain is runner up, but a distant second, I’ll have you know. Its output is around 1,800,000MT, which is a respectable volume all said and told. That partially explains why you find so many crates of Spanish clementines at the supermarkets in the U.S. at this time of year.

      I did my part of reducing the surplus population of citric fruit and picked up two kilos of clementines, as the guy at the grocery store suggested. The good thing about clementines is that they go down so easily. Before the day was out, my daughter and I had erased a kilo and a half. I wasn’t sure if this was healthy anymore.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 8

Oh, I forgot to mention that dinner went down well. They even treated us to some freshly sliced ham at the bar before we sat down.

       The first courses were a combination of classics and innovation. The Bonito con Pimientos Rojos translates into English as tuna fish and red peppers. But let’s get down to details. In Spanish, tuna fish is commonly called “atún” and is sold in the familiar flat cylindrical shaped cans. But bonito tuna is a different fish altogether. It is captured in the Bay of Biscay up off the northern coast of Spain. Its ventresca meat, which is the light, lean, delicate piece on the underside of the fish, is highly prized in this country and popular in salads. It goes especially well with the roasted red peppers that are also a mainstay in this country. They are also most typical of the north of Spain, in the Basque Country and Navarra. They are slowly roasted and pickled in jars. A newcomer to the product might find the slimy exterior a little off-putting, the flavor is terrific and it goes well with dozens of dishes.

       The codfish was going to be the second round, another legendary ingredient, but that was canceled. Cod has always been a major product of the sea in Spanish and Portuguese cuisine. Traditionally the fish was cured through extreme salting and sent inland where it could be preserved for months. Then, when it came time for consumption, it was desalinated in cold fresh water, often several times, before use in a dish, thus avoiding a cardiac arrest. But that was neither here nor there, as we weren’t going to be having the dish. Instead, we were given several plates of broad beans. Broad beans are most commonly dried and later used or bean soups. I’ll get to that at a different time. But these were fresh and sautéed in a bit of olive oil and bits of ham to give it that unparalleled Spanish flavor.

        Then came the third round, which was pulpo, or octopus. That eight-legged (apparently they are arms) cephalopod which in places I grew up in would produce the kind of bodily reactions you wouldn’t like to appear at the dinner table is actually a delicacy in Spain. It took me a great deal of pre-action mental prepping and a large glass of water by my side before I could actually muster up the nerve to put one of those suckers in my mouth. Now I love it.
In its most widely known version pulpo is boiled (apparently after having been previously beaten soundly to soften it up, and then frozen), snipped up into tiny pieces and smothered in olive oil, paprika and chunky salt. It also comes in a vinaigrette form. But recently for some reason, chefs are preparing it on the grill and the results are a somewhat drier but savory version. Of course, this is octopus I am talking about, so not everyone will be able to relate to me.

         The main course was a classic choice: steak or hake. Hake is the main white fish in Spain and the kind you are most likely to encounter on Christmas dinner menu. And the steak, the entrecote, is also standard fare at these meals. Men usually pick the latter while women prefer the former. We were lucky and served a rib-eye. It took half an hour to finish mine. The hake was accompanied by gulas and shrimp. I don’t think I need to expound on the second ingredient, but the gulas have a story of their own to tell. They are essentially fake baby eels.

       Why anyone would want to eat a real baby eel let alone go to the extreme to ask for and digest a fake one needs a little explaining. Real young eels (called elvers, if you need to know) are known as angulas, and they are prized in Spain that a mere kilo (2.2 lbs.) will fetch as high as 1,000€. Restaurant portions usually weigh in at 125 grams, so a plate, albeit tiny one, of these slithery critters can go for something like $150.00. And that’s just tidbit. The main cause of the astronomic figures is, as usual, scarcity.

        So seeing that most people are unwilling to go to those lengths to dine, surimi has done for the consumer what mother nature could not: provide cheaply. They are generically known as “gulas” and the designers of the faux-eel have even bothered to insert two dots of squid ink as eyes. Everyone knows it’s not the same, but lightly cooked in a bit of olive oil, garlic and cayenne pepper, and you have a tasty treat for 5.00€ per 250 grams. That may sound more than reasonable, but 20€ for a kilo of processed pressed anonymous fish is still pretty steep.

       Anyway, that’s what you get these days at a Christmas dinner. We had no complaints. Plenty of laughs, which are always free.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 7

Christmas is a time that brings out a whole array of emotions, and there is certainly no small contingency which abhors the whole holiday experience. The Bah-Humbugs abound, if for any reason because much of the season can be challenged as a farce, a time for trivialities, a string of phony and affected celebrations that often mean little to people deep down. And that’s not to mention the deluge of… Yes, despite what everyone remembers about the tale, there was a hint of truth to much of Scrooge’s discourse about the hypocrisies of Christmas and a careful reading of the story makes that clear. The old git wasn’t that far off. The thing is Ebenezer overlooked the positive points to the day, which is a clear indicator that he never had a chance to live the Disney experience.

       Alas, if there is one sector in the Spanish workforce which welcomes navidad with open arms, it’s the taxi driver syndicate, one the most tightly knit guilds in the city. Cabbies in Madrid can often be friendly folk, especially if you can speak their language, because don’t count on many knowing English. That makes me realize that there is a niche in the ESL market there. I wonder if anyone has taken advantage of it. Anyway, I enjoy chatting with them on the way to wherever I go, not every does, I understand, but I have also discovered that taxi drivers are by nature extremely pessimistic human beings. There is, as a rule, nothing that satisfies them, and even less that makes them happy. It’s like being chauffeured around town by Archie Bunker. But Christmastime is a whole nother matter. Christmas dinners bring cheer, which in itself is brought on by a lot of drink, and that is what keeps people from getting behind the wheel. It’s not the worry about crashing your car into a lamp post or running over an unwary pedestrian that really gets them, it’s the road blocks, the ticket, license removal and shame that drive them to seek safety in a taxi. But whatever the reasons, as long as it keeps them off the road, it’s all right with me. Anyway, cabs are a hit on these dates especially on Friday, December 12th, one of the busiest nights of the year. Future diners line the street and eye each other suspiciously as they await a taxi. No one wants to be rude, but no one wants to be late either. It’s human nature on a street corner.

       As one of the last to arrive and noticing three other groups before me, I knew it would take a while, so I drifted off to a more remote nook where, to my great fortune, a cab with a green light lit up top indicating it was free passed. I jumped in and gave him directions and immediately brought up the matter of how tough it was to find an available taxi.

       “Yeap,” he said with reservations.

       “It’s good news for you taxi drivers.”

       “It’s not bad,” he admitted grudgingly. Extracting that sort of high spirits from a cabbie was nothing less than a miracle. I wanted to remind him that on December 31 he was going to be able to charge anyone who even sits in his car an extra 7€ and take you someplace. It’s the highest New Year’s supplement in the European Union, so they should have little to complain about. Plus, gas prices have plummeted.

       “Not bad for now,” he added. “But they’re the only two good weeks of the year. The rest are hell.”

       There you go! That’s what I like to hear.

The 30 Days of Christmas 6

With the Great Cena de Navidad somewhat under control, the day itself finally arrived. The menu was the following:

Chunky white tuna with roasted red peppers
Codfish scrambled eggs
Grilled Octopus

Main Course (to choose):
Hake with fake baby eel and shrimp

Medley of desserts
All drinks plus coffee and liqueurs included
Price: 30€

     Just what you would expect at this time of year. Your standard meal. The offer may have been a little heavy on the seafood for some, and I can’t imagine many American friends back home shouting, “Octopus! Awesome!” but it was a pretty decent lineup all the same. And 18 of us would gather that night to pass final judgment.

     But first we had to get through the mercadillo, an intense, frenetic, fast-paced bazaar in which about a 1,000 people descend upon the school playground and ravage yards and yards of secondhand articles. Because it’s only once a year, and because it lasts an hour and 45 minutes, and because most objects go for under 3€, the market within seconds of commencing turns into the kind of frenzy you witness when watching those documentaries in which a ham bone is dipped into a piranha infested Amazon only to be extracted flesh-free seconds later. I was glad to see how successful it was, disconcerted by pushing and shoving at times, but pleased to see the counters cleared in record time. And all, as usual, for the benefit of charity.

     To many people’s surprise, food was one of the few items which could not be sold there, for two reasons. One was that, in a rare showing of prohibition of temptations in life, serving children sugary sweets on school grounds was frowned upon. The second reason, in a rare showing of near American litigation paranoia, had to do with the concern that baked goods would somehow result in widespread food poisoning.

     Only exception was allowed for the chocolate con churros, which was served and provided for by the school kitchen’s catering service. Churros, as many now know, are the fried dough which has grown in the Unites States, especially at amusement parks and sports stadiums. That came through Latin America, but the origins seem to go back further to Spain, where they are still munched down daily, especially for breakfast, though you are also popular in cafeterías for the afternoon snack. The life span of these fritters is shorter than a fly’s. Within hours it degenerates into something chewy and limp. A victual you spit out seconds later thinking you have accidently tried to bite into a piece of cable. That is why, unless the place specializes in the product and is likely to have them fairly fresh all day long, you are best to order them before 11:00 a.m. or between, say 5:00 and 7:00p.m. Other than that, you’re at your own risk. Street stands are a different matter, as they are made fresh all the time. Your only concern should be the oil they use. But if you have ever eaten a hot dog in Midtown Manhattan and survived, you are immune.

     The chocolate does not refer to a bar of chocolate, but rather to a hot drink, and it too has its peculiarities in terms of consistency and timetable. To say that this is cocoa would do injustice to both cocoa as well as to the Spanish version itself. It is neither, and certainly a far cry from the beverage Swiss Miss would produce. It’s thick, often so viscose that it seems you are drinking a bowl of hot chocolate pudding and you sometimes have to ask for a spoon to scrape up the blobs of sweet chocolate stuck to the sides of the cup. The churros, which in Madrid are made into the shapes of ribbons. You pull them apart like wishbones and then dip them into the drink.

     Some sources I have read mention that it is most commonly consumed at breakfast time, but that it is essentially false. People normally don’t go for a cup of heavy chocolate to start the day and prefer substituting it with coffee. The only time you do see that is if you’ve spent all night out at the discos and are looking for some substance before you hit the sack. Either that or are stopping by legendary chocolaterías like San Ginés. Once again, this is an afternoon fare, and something to tide you over until dinner, which won’t be happening for several hours.

     It should come as no surprise that consuming chocolate should be popular in Spain. After all, they have been doing it longer than any other European. They were the first to come across its powerful influence in Central and South America in the days they were busy they were conquering half of the continent.

     It is well known that back then, cacao beans were highly prized by the great native tribes and civilizations, so much so that they were even used as currency. Cocoa in its purest form is very bitter and when the Spanish came to their lands, what they encountered as was frothy acrimonious beverage served cold drink and made relatively palatable with chili peppers and other spices like vanilla. It also had some alcohol. It was said to have been an acquired taste. A highly acquired taste. Descriptions ranging from vile to nauseating, at best, but it certainly meant a lot to the locals. Spaniards who spent a long enough time in the region grew to liking it and around 1530, the first samples of hard chocolate were brought back to the fatherland where the story goes that it was a monk in the Monasterio de la Piedra, a beautiful residence outside of Zaragoza, where one monk softly suggested that a little bit of sugar be added to the block of chocolate paste the other monks were working on. To say the innovation was nothing less the ingenious and far-reaching is possibly an understatement. One of the world’s most popular foods was born on this soil and billions of human have been grateful to creator of the improvement ever since.

     Chocolate was practically exclusive to Spain throughout the 16th Century, but it eventually broadened in popularity, especially when other additions like milk made the product even more seductive. Ironically, the Spanish, despite these brilliant contributions, are no longer viewed as powerhouse producers of the fine chocolate, the way the Swiss and Belgians are. And the reasons are obvious. It’s pretty straightforward and drab compared to the elite. But the drink, that thick, creamy drink is often so delicious it seems hardly a creation from this world. And on a cold day when you have to rub your hands and kick the ground to keep warm, the kind of day we were having at the mercadillo, there is nothing better. Nothing.

30 Days of Christmas 5

The next couple of days were spent focusing on keeping my students focused, discussing with them the unparalleled joys of learning the first conditionals clause with “if”, cursing my way through endless report cards, putting the finishing touches on the Christmas charity market we ran every year and preparing for the next meal.

     The Christmas dinner. La cena de navidad. Which should not be confused with the feast you engage in on the 25th, that ends up being just another pause to fill up the tank.

      The Cena de Navidad is that oversized supper which is the result of an uncontrolled need to gather at this time. All personal circumstances are taken into consideration; and no exceptions are left out.

You have your:
• Company Dinner
• Workmates Dinner (sometimes separate from the former)
• High school classmates dinner
• College classmates dinner
• Cousins dinner
• Friends you met on your summer abroad dinner
• Karate club dinner
• Knitting club dinner
• Hiking group dinner
• Neighbors dinner
• The group of friends you play paddle tennis with dinner
• The group of friends you went on the Camino de Santiago with dinner
• The group of friends you meet when you walk your dog because they also walk their dogs dinner (canines may or may not be included in plan)
• The group of friends who are just a group of friends but you aren’t exactly sure why

        And this, of course does not include Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, which is strictly family.

      Naturally, one reaches a point at which one senses the dangers of such extended festivities can bring about, and hopes that some of the annual gatherings will somehow cease to be; but unfortunately there is always one member of the group who takes charge and insists that great traditions should not be forgotten! They do this at all cost.

      The clear victors here are the restaurants themselves, which rub their greedy hands together come December 1st and the first events. So popular and widespread has this custom become, that the popular places and the popular days are quickly snatched up a months in advance. I know of one joint whose tables for a Christmas Eve event are fully booked on the first of the year. Yes, that’s 358 days before.

    I had already crossed out the gastronomic club dinner out as something of the past. Next in line was the post Christmas-market dinner, which in theory included all the personnel from the school, but was voluntary, so the attendees usually numbered around 30. The idea started out as something far more modest in stature and breadth. Years back when we put away the final box of articles that were left over, and we went out for a few celebratory cañas. With the conclusion of each new edition, the numbers grew and so we decided to formalize the event, which included finding a place and a set menu, because there are two very important you need to know about going out for dinner on a Friday night in the middle of December:

     1) You’re not going to find a place with room for thirty
2) They aren’t going to let you sit down without agreeing to a set menu.

     Proof of this was that I didn’t start hunting for an eatery until late November and by then it was too late to pick my first choice, and so I settled for one where we been to two years before and which had committed the unforgivable sin of overcharging us. Days later we worked out the misunderstanding, and they offered to do it right again. I never took them up on their offer, but now I was willing to give them another chance. Not so for several of the usual crowd. Returning to the same restaurant triggered a debate of such extent that the plan nearly collapsed upon itself. Half the group decided to march off and organize their own dinner, making it clear to me that where they were going to dine was far more important than who they were going to dine with. Such is the meaningfulness of these gatherings at this time of joy, peace, and togetherness.

The 30 Days of Christmas 4

One reason we had chosen Tuesday as a night to go out was that there were no other available dates when we could pull it off and all make it. And even then it proved in vain in the end, as one had a trial the next day, not his own, but as a lawyer, and didn’t want to risk ending up in a disco at five in the morning shouting at a girl over the music that he was a lawyer and to go to court in a couple of hours. It was known to happen. It was known to happen.

      The other reason was that we figured that, if we went down to the center around Sol, it would be lively enough there to keep things entertaining, but not overwhelming the way the weekends can get. But somehow, we had either underestimated the effects of the crisis or overestimated the will of the people, because once outside, the streets seemed fatally quiet, with the only sorts hanging around being the sorts who seemed to hang around those joints every evening. They were the night watchmen of the crisis.

       There was a brief discussion about whether or not we should pursue the evening, or just let it run off, but except for two who bailed out due to professional commitments, the rest of us stayed on a little longer on account we were already there and because, what the hell, it was Christmas.

      We crossed the street to another legendary bar called Viva Madrid, known for its beautiful tiled exterior and fancy interior. On an ordinary night we would be hard pressed to come upon so much as a free stool, but the barren atmosphere that night made it easy for us to choose the best one. We were the only ones there. We ordered a round of mixed drinks, talked about our plans for the holidays and then departed as soon as we noticed the staff starting to close up.

      Sensing we weren’t going to run into even the slightest bit of excitement, we headed up to Calle Príncipe where we were assaulted by the P.R. people who desperately stuffed papers into our hands that guaranteed a free drink and other enticements: “The girls inside are shaven!”

        Really now. This sounded like Bankok. Why did I need to know that? Did that mean I was going to have to verify the fact? No, thanks.

      We walked down the street a little further, almost right in front of the classic Bar Las Cuevas de Sésamo, which has been serving sangria by the gallons for decades. We opted for an Irish pub called O’Neill’s instead, for no particular reason. All Irish pubs in Madrid have the same feel to me. We had the place to ourselves, but at least not under the threat of women who shave unknown parts of their bodies and are in a hurry to show where.

        We were out the door by 12.30 and home by 1:00. In most parts of the Western World, to conduct oneself like that on a Tuesday night would be considered an act of indecent recklessness perpetrated only by the most irresponsible of adult men; but for Madrid, it is technically seen as a sign of good behavior. A show of restraint and moderation when faced with such temptation.

        Years ago, when I was still a Spanish teenager at the age of 30, to say you were in bed before two in the morning entitled you to aver that you never actually went out the night before. But now that we were approaching half a century, that we could talk about life before mobile telephones and even the VCR, the truly classy thing to do was retire. After all, one of us had to address a major contract signing, another had a business trip to the Middle East, another had to wrap up his numbers for the year-end fiscal report, another needed to perform an operation, and I had to spend a few hours educating Spain’s future.

        Plus, the Christmas Season was still very early.

The 30 Days of Christmas 3

Given the endless selection of venues to choose from, you would think that finding a suitable one to dine in would have be an otherwise effortless act in a city so chock full of restaurants. But just like one of those five page menus that you find in a diner, where you don’t know where to begin, we became entangled in a mess of indecision. Finally, Javier took the initiative to put an end to it all and summoned us to La Trucha, a legendary Andalusian tavern right at the corner of the Santa Ana Plaza. Juan arrived first and told us that the restaurant was closed.

     “Closed as in Tuesday closed?”

      “Closed as in ‘we ain’t never gonna open again.’”

      The poor old Trucha. I couldn’t imagine that place ever succumbing to the weight of the Gran Crisis. Everyone needed an occasional caña and fried boquerones. You would think it would never give in. But maybe it wasn’t just the recession that turned it into a piece of Madrid’s history. Maybe the chain restaurant craze which has stormed the center of the city also served to hammer the final nail in the coffin. It’s ironic. For a city which is enjoying a major eatery resurgence of its downtown, so many of the classic cervecerías and restaurants which gave the area its particular flavor for decades have become afterthoughts. They are joining the swelling club of haunts that now only drift in our collective memories.

     But that was of little importance to us at the time, since we needed to find somewhere to see to it our stomachs were well treated. Luckily, the answer wasn’t far off. Just down the street was another classic, the Lacón, a mesón that flaunted an uncannily cheesy 1960s interior design, a décor that made it so loveable.

      Just where did it get its name from? Did it mean “Laconic” and represent a kind of end-of-the-line joint for society’s outcast? Hardly. Lacón is another word for Spanish boiled pork shoulder ham. Essentially it has a look and feel of ham, the ham we all are familiar with, but from a different part of the body. It is not the famous “jamón” which has made this land so famous around the world. At least to those who buy it. Let me clarify because the ham situation in this country has never been an easy one to follow.

       Let’s start with the sliced ham most people easily recognize in the supermarket. In Spain that’s known as “jamón de York”, or York ham, named after the English city from where it’s reputed to come. Since there is nothing particularly special about that meat other than that it goes great for sandwiches, let’s get to the real macho version of ham… “el jamón”. And when I say, “jamón”, I mean “JAMÓN”. This dried cured ham is the source of such pride in this country that essentially you can raise the issue of stellar cuisine from around the world and still find someone with their hand up to say, “Yeah, yeah. But there’s nothing like a good Jamón de Jabugo.” This will always be followed by a “Here, here!” from the crowd.

      This dry-cured version is generically called “jamón serrano”, but over the years, that has become a term of derision, since it suggests a low-end sample of the meat. The reason jamón serrano is looked upon with condescendence is because it comes from the standard common pig, as opposed to the more highly-prized Black Iberian swine. The quality of the Jamón Serrano can range from chewy and insipid to a flavor which is more than acceptable; some can be downright delicious, and often costs a fraction of the price.

       Nowadays, it has become fashionable to offer and order jamón ibérico, which has become the new standard of excellence. In fact, just about anything with the gastronomic hashtag of “ibérico” represents superior quality, and often times it is, but it also entails hiking the price twofold and more. Jamón ibérico is aged longer and the animals are often given special feed. Jamón de bellota, for example, indicates that the pig was been stuffed with acorns before being slaughtered, bled, cleaned and dipped in a vat of chunky salt for several weeks. This special diet is supposed to add a nutty flavor to the pork, and usually does. The meat is darker, greasier and very tender. It takes a special bendable knife to

      Top-of-the-line hams from the southwest use names like “Cinco Jotas” (5 J’s) – which I think refers to a ranking system where the more “j’s” you get, the better the piece is. Something like the stars for a hotel or a Michelin recognized restaurant. They refer to hams which come from 100% purebred Iberian pigs. The stand for “Jamón-jamón-jamón-jamón-jamón”. I mean a real ham. It’s great marketing.

       So where does lacón come into the picture? It’s hard to say; it’s hard to tell. To me, lacón is just ham on a bone, but it’s officially a lightly dried pork shoulder that is later boiled and served, often with potatoes, olive oil and paprika. How does that sound for appetizing? It’s typically prepared in Spain’s Northwest region of Galicia, but you can find it all over the place.

      The Lacón, the restaurant, has that center-of-Madrid musty feel to it. A restaurant “de toda la vida”, as they would say here. The walls are covered with plaster and drably painted. We never got past the bar, and had all our food and drink served to us there; the way we like it. They had three tapas to choose from for every round: seafood soup, battered chicken kabobs, and paella.

      Then we moved on to greater aspirations. Padrón green peppers and fries. After we added two dishes grilled vegetables, a plate of sepia calamari fried in olive oil, garlic and parsely, carrillada (which is tender cow’s cheek), two pound-and-a-half steaks with fries, clams, and, of course, the lacón. All was washed up with beer and wine and a liqueur. The Christmas season had begun.

The 30 Days of Christmas 2

There are over 22,000 bars and restaurants in Madrid, something like one for every 350 citizens. That may not sound like a very impressive figure, but when compared to what the densest food-faring cities in the world, it sweeps them all away. The entire country of Spain is home to some 200,000 bars, and tack on another 75,000 if you want to include all the establishments which cater to the hungry. By bar, I should note, I’m not necessarily talking about a dark seedy joint with a pool table and a lot of Schlitz. Except for the late-night discos and bares de copas, most establishments also serve food, some of which can be highly elaborate. And kids are welcome too. You have coffee at a bar. You have coke at a bar. You have tapas at a bar. It’s where the Spanish go to socialize.

     When recent reports cited the hostelry sector as being particularly hard hit by the crisis, with thousands of places taking a dive annually, that seemed to make sense. After all, with the Great Recession of 2007 pushing the country nearly to the brink of a major bailout, it appeared only natural that one of the first sectors to feel the pinch of reduced budgets would be the eateries around the city. 25% unemployment, at least that was the official number. Who was going to waste their precious euros on unnecessary expenses?

     Despite the grim numbers splashed around the media, from a very non-scientific standpoint, that of pure ocular observation, recent activity would suggest otherwise. Take Calle Narváez, for instance. The large and active street has seen its commercial activity leveled by the recession, with a dozen shops, from florists to shoe stores posting “closed for good” signs on their windows. Instead of becoming vacant and unfillable retail units destined to represent the disparaging economic turmoil afflicting the country, within two weeks a restaurant or Chinese manicure center takes its place, which leads to an amusing conclusion. As jobs disappear and money fades, Spaniards find comfort and refuge in painting their nails and drinking and cheap food.

     If anything, the Spanish have been ingeniously malleable in the face of financial disaster. While no one quite reached a consensus on an official level, all of us have quietly agreed that no one was going to forego their beloved tapas. So, you can do without office supplies and decent furniture, but not a tortilla de patata. The eateries, in turn, finally decided to lower prices to what they should have been years ago, when people had money and were willing to pay anything at any cost. In the center, everything has turned into one giant food pavilion, based on the very premise that people will always have a need for food. So, statistics can say all they want; but those people ought to get outside and into the streets from time to time.

The 30 Days of Christmas – Gluttony in Times of Need

The Puente de Diciembre is a time for planning. Planning everything you have to do for the next five weeks, and survive.

     Got my long-distance Christmas cards out a week before for the first time in years. I did that right after throwing last year’s cards which I just happened upon underneath a pile of books and realized I had never sent out.

       Presents are on the way. I haven’t bought one, but they are on the way.

      But what I’m really concerned about is making sure I have all of my Christmas meals in order before they start, which is tomorrow. The take up a large part of any Madrid resident’s social life and budget, and now that everyone pretends the crisis is over for some reason, spirits are high. Unemployment is dipping below 25% (don’t worry, it never was that high to begin with, especially if remove the 18-25 year-old labor force, which never worked that much anyway) and word from abroad is that everyone is slowly pulling out of hole. The government is even going to return 25% of the 7.2% of my salary it took away from all teachers two years ago. Without interest, of course.
That’s why it is especially important to sort things out eating-wise. Here’s what I have line up so far:
Dec. 9 – Dinner with my gastronomic club
Dec. 12 – Dinner with other teachers
Dec. 16 – Dinner with the school teachers from the language school
Dec. 19 – Lunch with the entire school
Dec. 20 – Christmas party with the gastronomic club
Dec. 21 – Christmas dinner with friends
Dec. 24 – Christmas aperitivo with the gastronomic club
Dec. 24 – Christmas Eve dinner with my Spanish family
Dec. 25 – Christmas Day lunch with my other half’s family
Dec. 31 – New Year’s Eve Dinner with the other half’s family, if I behaved myself the first time.
Jan 1 – New Year’s Day lunch with my Spanish family, if I have behaved myself at Christmas
Jan 5 – Three Kings (The Twelfth Night) cocktail party
Jan 5 – Three Kings (The Twelfth Night) dinner
Jan 6 – Three Kings Day lunch
* Any last-minute celebrations have yet to appear on the agenda.

     On a number of accounts, this was cause for worry, not the least being my health. But this was Christmas in Spain, and years of training had made me a hardened veteran. A new war was about to be waged.

Christmas 2014 – All’s Well That Ends Well

It’s pretty incredible just how quickly we put bad memories behind us.  When we want to.  When we can.

     Just yesterday I was on my way to meet up with some writers for a drink, because that is what you do with writers, because that is what writers do.  It was a fairly simple procedure in a non-complicated nook in the city, but in a generally lively part of town.  I like to walk just about everywhere I go in Madrid, because traveling any other way makes me think ill of mankind and wish ill things upon its members.  But I was supposed to meet up at 6:00p.m. and was walking out the door at 6:30 and that meant I needed to make an effort not to be too late.  I plotted out my plan and opted for the metro which meant going up one stop to Príncipe de Vergara, switching onto the Red Line, woefully called by contract the Vodafone Line 2, which takes you by the metro station, the Vodafone Sol.  Vodafone is making a concerted and expensive effort to remind me why I will never buy its products, if at all possible.

    Now, to provide you with some perspective, this weekend is known as the Puente de Diciembre, which is a two-holiday extravanganza which, depending on the year, can turn into a 5-day stretch of no work.  The days off are December 6, Constitution Day, which honors one of the least respected and defended documents in the land, and December 8 is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which most Americans confuse with a miraculous football catch from the 1970s.

     It’s also one of the busiest weekends in Madrid because hordes of Spaniards from around the country come to the capital to enjoy the bright and cheery yuletide atmosphere, something which had dimmed somewhat in recent years.  While this sounds like a terrific idea from a visitors standpoint, this excitement quickly wanes when they realize that some 200,000 people from all over have come up with the same idea.

      This would not bother me otherwise, I try to step away from the misfortune of foolish others at this time of year, were it not for the fact that when I need to get anywhere that comes within a two-mile radius of the heart of Madrid, life becomes unbearable.

      I had forgotten about this tiny point until I got off at the Príncipe de Vergara station and noticed that about three hundred other public transportation users planning on doing the same, as if it were 8:30 in the morning and we were on our way to work.  At other times of the year, moving around the city at that hour be a harm.  But we weren’t, and I found this terribly disturbing.

       I skipped to the front of the line the way people can in this city, feeling guiltless about my stealthy conduct and relieved to leave scores of people behind, reached the topped of the escalator and, to my shock, ran into an equally massive group of transiters of all ages racing towards us as if they were being pursued by a pride of lions.  We met in the center, like two tributaries, and turned down another corridor to form one gigantic river of people eager to get to the sea of holiday sightseers around the Plaza Mayor.  I came to the conclusion that not a single household in the city was being occupied.

      The only difference was, I had no intention of joining them, had no choice but to go along with them because my stop was beyond the Vodafone Sol, the only underground station whose name has been legally usurped by a telecommunications company, or any company come to think of it.  All I had to do was survive four stops and everything would be better.

       I reached the Line 4 platform and hoped to get on before the rest could catch up, but quite possibly some divine force was punshing me for being such a cheeky bastard because the train came, opened up for a few seconds, was so filled it admitted no passengers, closed its doors again and departed quietly.  The next was four minutes, and that was more than ample time for the rest of the travelers to reach the platform.  It felt like New Year’s Eve.

        I honestly considered calling it quits because I couldn’t imagine any of us finding the space to get on the next subway, nor was I in the mood for pushing my way on, the way they apparently do on those Japanese trains.  But that wat precisely what everyone else around me had in mind.  So, when the underground train pulled in and we could see the look of utter shock on the faces of the people inside, one thing was clear, it was every man for himself.

        In fact, there was more room inside.  It was just that no one wanted to give because they were afriad they might be unable to get off when it was their turn.  Five hundred people on the outside made them change their mind.  Miracle of all miracles, we did fit.   The train groaned all the way, but it finally pulled into Vodafone Sol, and 90% of the passengers alighted.  Upstairs, more of the same awaited them.

       The crisis was over.  I carried on for another four stations to San Bernardo, got off, walked a few blocks down Manuela de Malasaña street to a craft beer bar to have a drink with some writers, which is what you do when are with writers.  Which is what you do.  The crisis must be over.

          We agreed the crisis was not over but that Spaniards now believe it has, most likely out of necessity.  Then we talked about Cleveland and forgot about everything.