The Thirty Days of Christmas 19

I knocked off my last bits of shopping satisfied I had ulfilled my duties as a generous human being, and comforted by the thought that if I hadn’t managed to find just the right thing for that special person in my life, I could always count on Plan B, which was the Feast of the Epiphany, the Three King’s Day, or just plain Reyes. You see, in the same fashion that Spain cheerfully incorporated both seasons in Christmas to suit its citizens’ needs to party for an extended period of time, so had two major gift-giving traditions merged. Well, that’s not exactly right because it suggests they became one, when in fact both were adopted but kept as separate events. First comes Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, or what have you, then a dozen days later, the Three Kings come plodding through to do their thing.

     The intrusion of the former into Spanish tradition irks more than one conservative Spaniard, but it has been certainly embraced by the retail sector which sees not one, but two opportunities, to cash in on our fears of getting it all wrong when it comes to sliding that present over to a loved one. It’s a terribly stressful way to wrap up the year, and a no less tense manner to kick off the next. Our paranoia and neuroses are the wind that blow life into the burning desire to not screw up. One might say that the good thing is that you always get a second chance to make up for the mess you’ve made, but, alas, it is never that simple.

     Anyhow, I left behind the increasing mayhem of the Goya shopping district and headed over to where I was going to meet up with some friends from the gastronomic society for the annual Christmas aperitivo, one of the truly great moments of the season. An aperitivo is sort of like a pre-lunch drink and snack, or at least that was its original design, but just like the universe spiraled out of control once the Big Bang got things started, so can aperitivos develop into a full-blown meals themselves…on the spur of the moment. You can snack on a tiny dish of paella, pop an olive into your mouth and, before you know it, end up eating half a side of a pig. There is just no telling.

     Since we had no intention of making lunch that day in our homes, in this case, unabashed gobbling was part of the plan. The only factor hovering over us was where.

     Not very long ago, maybe ten years or so, by three o’clock in the afternoon, Madrid was by and large a much calmer city on Christmas Eve. Workers who had ended their workday early commuted home as quickly as possible, and you would have been hard-pressed to find a single store open, save maybe the Corte Inglés, and most bars, cafeterias and cervecerías were shut so tight you could have stored the family jewels in them. They sent a clear and unequivocal message: See you on the 26th. The streets showed little signs of life as if word that a wild animal roamed the streets in search of a victim. Except for individuals making hurried steps towards their flats for a little rest before the great celebrating started that evening.

     I remember back then there being just one bar just up the road from my place which is now one of those 100 Montaditos low-cost beer and tapas franchises. Though I am no fan of those places because it pains me to see standard establishments succumb to generic gastronomic offers, I have to admit they are cheap, and thus keep the college population drunk and happy for a dime. Anyway, on December 24th the atmosphere was electrifying and the joint packed. Oldies from classic rock blared out the speakers, people laughed louder, sang stronger and celebrated with greater intensity than your average day.

     Years went by and other establishments, aware that there was no need to close their doors so early given the fact there was a dire need by the clientele to hold one full-scale blowout before dinner. Nowadays, the Christmas Eve aperitivo is a recent phenomenon that has turned into a rage. The streets come alive at hours which were previously reserved for a more sedentary approach towards life. It’s called the siesta. Before you could let the pale winter sunlight slowly set and set up a game plan for the feasting ahead. Oh, that’s all gone now.

     It just may be that getting together with friends has become popular because it allows people to celebrate Christmas with the ones they want to be with before moving on with their families. Or what’s worse, their inlaws. And with any luck, they can get home a little inebriated and make it through the evening without any serious consequences.

      Regardless, we had been doing it for years because it was just plain fun.

      We reserved a table at a place just near Goya. It wasn’t my first choice; that had been the Italian restaurant with the beer taps in the middle of the tables. Something fun and family-oriented, you know. I had tried to make a booking there because just outside there was a small playground with a swing set and those springy animal things which children could bob back and forth for hours. It is remarkable how resilient they are when under such an intense workout. This was ideal for parents who wanted their own playground by a keg and at the same time mildly comply with their obligations as a parent. In fact, it is as close to paradise as a mother and father and more could come.

      That explained why, when I asked to reserve two tables for the 24th, the waiter began to laugh before I had finished the request. “Not a chance. The place has been booked since last Christmas.”

     That hardly seemed fair. It’s like the bully who stands by the video game and keeps dropping quarters in while you wait. “Got a problem?” Or the woman who keeps adding tasks on to the bank teller as they go. You feel like a victim.

     So we needed another place and my friend Javier voted for a restaurant where they had gone before and which had an upstairs which could be closed off to the rest of the public, making its use exclusive to our interests. This included a rather large contingency of children under the age of seven. In fact, there were eight between 2 and 6, a veritable platoon of TMDs – Tots of Mass Destruction. While the enclosed area may have seemed like a good way of maintaining a controlled climate during the event, it would have all the more effective if the walls were lined with thick padding instead of about a hundred bottles of wine. In fact, those shiny glass containers were the first they went for and within minutes we had four bottles, former bottles that is, on the floor and red liquid flowing in all directions as if the Mob had just paid a visit. In a way, they had. They just couldn’t tie their shoes yet.

       After the initial debacle, we were able to settle down and enjoy the yuletide atmosphere. We were served several bottles of cava while we stood, toasted and exchanged light conversation. Then we got down to business.

       First came three tortilla españolas, so wide they could have served as manhole covers, slices of cheese that came on platters by the dozens, the full pans of eggs mixed with potatoes, peppers and chorizo, three bowls of steamed onion-stuffed black pudding, and three plates of sliced steak with fries and green peppers. The last were so good, we ordered another three. To keep us from choking, we ordered four bottles of Ribera, to go with the other four on the floor, a couple of desserts to be shared and a round of coffees. That was it.

      We didn’t want to go overboard. After all, dinner was the main meal of that day…and was just five hours away.

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.

Spanish Meals Phase 4: Lunch…finally

Our fourth encounter with food is known as lunch.  Lunch back where I am from refers to a rather light meal whose purpose it is to tide you over until the evening when you have dinner.  In Spain, it means addressing the main meal of the day.  And it is not to be taken lightly.  In Spain they sure don’t.  Here’s something for you to consider: the Spanish word for “food” is “comida”.  The word for “lunch” is “LA comida”. 

      On its simplest level, lunch is traditionally a three-course adventure, be it at home or in a restaurant.  You have a starter, an entrée and some dessert.  At home some people may have a little wine they way you’d expect to in a Mediterranean country, but most people stick to plain water, which, if you are in Madrid, comes straight from the faucet. 

       Tap water in this city is excellent.  Many foreigners from other countries take this bit of information with enormous skepticism, especially from back home.  Heck I know Americans who don’t even drink their own tap water let alone put their bowels at the mercy of someone else’s.  They regard any water from beyond their borders to be a potion so packed with pernicious vermin that it could floor a hippo with just a sip.  And I can’t say they are entirely off base.  In the case of an extended stay in places like Mexico, the question isn’t whether or not, but when and how bad.  I don’t state this from hearsay.  I have lived it firsthand.  No one goes unscathed.  No one. 

       But Madrid is a different matter.  The climate is so dry you’d think it would please you only if you were dark green, thick-skinned and thorny, but the water comes from the mountains just north of the capital and is of extraordinary quality, which is why it is recommendable to order a pitcher of water instead of the bottled kind; it’s cheaper and probably healthier. 

      To wrap up the meal, fruit is often the first choice in the household.  That surprised me at first because I used to eat fruit as a child about once every time the New York Mets won the pennant.  Remember I grew up in the 1970s before the health food craze began to kick in.  I certainly never drank water and fruit at a meal in my hometown.  It is possible they didn’t even exist back then.  It was more like kegs of milk and barrels of cookies, which probably explains why my host family took a step back in shock when I first entered their apartment and also why I dropped about 15lbs in the first two months I was here.  But that has to do with the everyday diet and I’ll tell you more about the kinds of food you eat here on another occasion.  Suffice it to know that you can eat a square meal almost every day.

         At a restaurant, most Spaniards like to choose a menu del día, or the menu of the day, for of you who are not enlightened in the art of knowing Spanish.  The advantageous here is that it is usually the freshest dishes of the day.  Either that or the rehashed dishes from other days.  Another advantage is that it is generally a good value.  Restaurants vary in quality and price, but the going rate in Madrid ranges from about 9-15 euros, and the meal includes a first course, a second course, dessert, drink and sometimes, but not always, coffee.  Wine can be an entire of bottle of table wine and a bottle of sweetened carbonated water called gaseosa.  Don’t be shocked.  Table wine often costs less than a bottle of Coke…but that’s another issue.  Tough to beat.  One thing to bear in mind about menus is that they are normally only offered during the week, sometimes on Saturdays and less often on Sundays. 

          Lunch on the day of the Lord can be a religious experience where diners feel that it’s time to let their hair down and indulge in food in a way they normally wouldn’t on ordinary days.  It becomes your sole aim to make the feast as pleasurable as possible.  And with a full-scale siesta awaiting you just around the corner, the chances of success increase tenfold.