I usually go for a quiet, often solitary walk in the Retiro around six in the evening. It is so peaceful at that time of day. The cars cruising around the perimeter of the park sound far away and harmless; the way they do after a fresh snowfall. Then, on the way home, I pop into a nearby church, which I never attend the rest of the year, just to see the nativity scene they have inside. A little time to myself to contemplate life, the year behind, the one ahead. The simple and silly things a person does from time to time.
Then it was time to get dressed and move on. My daughter and I got into my car, a 15-year-old Renault which has been on the verge of death for the past three months, but somehow resists its final calling. Actually, it has been flirting with the scrapyard ever since I had bought it two years before. What could I expect from a secondhand vehicle which was older than my teenage children? But it was my first purchased automobile in Spain and it showed. I can never remember the model, Megane something, I have my license plate number saved on my cell phone to remind me, I can’t even get the color right. Nondescript is hardly a descriptive word, but how else can I classify its tone. It changes depending on the time of day and the amount of sunlight available. And I don’t think it was done on purpose. The closest I can come up with is something like “tarnished bronze with hues of sulfur here and there around the fringes”. I kind of like its uniqueness, I just have trouble fitting all that on a form.
Every time I stick the key into the ignition a softly implore divine intervention, “just one more time”. There is always as three second pause as the engine turns and turns, but as a rule it always revs up. I breathe a sigh of relief and tell my daughter as I pat the dashboard,
“Don’t you just love this car!”
“Papi. I can’t feel my fingers.”
“That’s just the heat. It’ll come.”
It always does, but usually by the time I’ve reached my destination. Christmas Eve is a tricky time to travel because everyone in Madrid is in a hurry to get to wherever it is they have to stuff their faces, and parking can dreadfully at that time. This was because the general public would take advantage of the extremely lax about enforcing the laws for where you could leave your vehicle. On four-lane avenues people would simply create a new strip of parking spaces right smack down the center of the road. That was until the local authorities decided it was no longer permissible and informed the residents through a personalized message commonly known as the parking ticket. A few very fortunate souls even had their cars transferred to a large carpark in the center of town where they could retrieve it and get a 1-to-1 interview on how to improve circulation in the city. That was very expensive, but the city seemed to be non-elitist and allowed everyone who wanted to participate.
Luckily for us, the area around the Plaza de Castilla, which was the neighborhood where dinner was, was a fairly easy place to park in and we had had no problems. It was nearly nine, but I thought we were going to be the first to arrive. It turned out we had out-fashionably arrived after the entire crew. Mastering timing in Spain is so confounding. So, hardly had we walked in when it was time to sit down again. Scarcely four hours had gone by since our last meal.
Now you may think that too little time had gone by for me to be puckish again, but I had timed my training just right this year and my Christmas eating stamina was peaking just around the big day. Praise the Lord. That meant I was able to sustain prolonged periods of feasting with only short intervals for things like sleep before I went back to business. So, it was safe to say I was pretty close to starving by the time I took my seat.
The table was weighted down on each side with platters of cooked langostinos on one end and tiger langostinos on the other. In between, lay copious plates of jamón ibérico and cured lomo. Oh, and manchego cheese too. At each setting, a glass cup of shrimp cocktail. To help the merriment stay onward, a magnum of cava was produced, uncorked and its contents generously distributed. One of the brothers-in-law was Catalan and knew a thing or two about the sparkling wine, the most important being that it’s much better to drink at the beginning of the meal.
Then came the roasted lamb, one of the many classic Christmas Eve fares. Some people avoid it because they say the meat doesn’t digest well at night, but on occasion a person needs to make the necessary sacrifices for the sake of holiday cheer. The lamb was accompanied by mashed potatoes and salad, which was only added for psychological reasons. On a more serious notes, lettuce dressed with just a olive oil, vinegar and salt seasoning is the ideal complement for a heavy duty meat like lamb, and most restaurants where they serve it will offer the very same side dish. So it was welcome even though it didn’t pass the high-calorie intake test. I had seconds on everything just in case. The dinner was lively the way a good one should be, with plenty of talking and friendly banter.
Dessert arrived a little later in the form of sopa de almendras, a sweet and creamy almost pasty dish. Almost like a rice pudding, but with almonds. It’s very typical of Madrid at this time of year, and extremely tasty.
By the far the most devastating feature of meals is the arrival of the plate of sweets: turrones of all flavors and textures, candied fruit, polvorones, mantecados, marzipan and others. They are placed in front of you and left there to tempt for the remainder of the time. You can look at them, sneer at them, try to ignore their presence, but eventually you give in and grab one. And once you get started, there is no turning back. And since Spain’s after-dinner table talks, the sobremesa, can last for another two hours, the hording can turn ugly.
The only chance to get out of the problem is by getting up and dancing, another Spanish family favorite. I’m not talking about one of those arm-in-arm circle dances as if Zorba had just joined us, but rather good old-fashioned boogieing. Yes, while other people piously enter churches for midnight mass, others are doing the bump to James Brown. Grannies, young kids, aunts, even uncles, shake their booty to the early hours of the night. For a second I thought this would be a burdon on the neighbors below until I realized that they were probably doing the same…a kind of trickle down effect. Essentially the whole building was potentially rocking. The grooving might aid in getting the blood circulating, and it certainly is fun, but hardly puts a dent in the calorie intake.
The young adults would later go out and probably not be back until Santa Claus has left.
An hour or two later, we all help to restore order to the home and then my daughter and I headed back. The Renault coughed once or twice while starting up, clearly bothered that I was disturbing it at that late hour, clearly bothered I was disturbing it at all. The streets were active but it was a good time to park in my zone, as there were now plenty of free spaces. Plus, it being Christmas the meter officers would be taking the day off…God bless them.