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.