The Thirty Days of Christmas 20

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.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 18

If you ever wanted to do a study on just how human behavior buckles under the untold stress of shopping duress, I suggest you stop by the seafood section of the Corte Inglés Department Store supermarket at around 10:15 a.m. on Christmas Eve, and you should be able to gather a plethora of data to draw conclusions. If you can’t take the opportunity, I’ll sum it up for you: it’s ugly, and it dismisses any semblance of earthly dignity. But it’s sure as hell fun to watch.

     Especially since I never have anything to buy there, maybe an item or two for the table, but I can always scan them at the self-service cash registers because most shoppers at the Corte Inglés possess a natural aversion for cashiers they can casually talk to as they pay. They always happen to be women. It must be store policy.

     The lines build up outside the building minutes before the doors are opened, and once access to the building is legally permitted, a steady stream of humanity flows in and down the stairs to the grocery store which, the reader will surely like to know is one of the best in the city. There are scores of destinations in their minds, but the main hub centers on the aforementioned seafood section, where a queue that rivals those waiting to see 50 Shades of Grey piles up higher and higher by the second. From what I can tell, there are three major profiles: The father of the family who trails down to perform is one yearly duty because he believes he has an eye for picking the finest shellfish around and his wife, delighted that she doesn’t have to do it, encourages him eagerly by saying that she thinks he is right; the disgruntled husband who has no choice but to go if he wants to be allowed to sit at the dining table that evening; and the woman who would trust her husband in front of a stack of salmon lying on crushed ice if her life depended on it.

     What is it that the Spanish crave for? Oh, just about anything from the sea is fair game, but at this time of year, it’s the shrimp department that is the hardest hit. I say “shrimp” in a very generic way, mind you, because if there is one thing you learn about Spain the minute you take an interest in how much they enjoy eating, it’s these little crustaceans which often take center stage and which are known by handful of names. In America we call them all “shrimp” and when they are a little bigger, “jumbo shrimp”. In England, they do something similar, denoting them “prawns” and the large ones get the term “king prawns”, which is appropriate for a society which has been under a monarchy for a thousand years.

     The Spanish use a score of other names, much like the way they say the Eskimos employ God knows how many words for snow (the truth of this is a debate which rages to this day).

     When it came to crustaceans, it would appear that size is the factor. I was originally taught “camarón” because I guess in Latin America that’s what they say in general. In Spain they use that word, but it refers to tiny shrimp so small either you use them for flavor purposes or eat them whole, shell and all. Here are some others:

  • Quisquilla
  • Gamba arrocera
  • Gamba blanca común
  • Gambas de Huelva
  • Gambas de Garrucha
  • Gamba roja
  • Gambón
  • Langostino
  • Langostino tigre
  • Carabinero
  • Cigala

     I’m sure there are more. They are consumed massively on these dates. Most are purchased frozen at competitive prices, but there are those who want their shellfish to be as fresh as possible and as good as possible, and the Corte Inglés is just the place to satisfy both demands. If you are willing to put up with the two-hour wait.

      One thing that the unfamiliar reader should be aware of, especially if they live in North America, it’s that they aren’t sold peeled and clean and free of all signs of previously being alive. In Spain, this detail is overlooked and the burden of removing all the unwanted parts, like heads and tails, is left up to the consumer. I have become accustomed to this, but I still have issues with people who enjoy sucking the insides out of the shrimp’s head. After all these years, even I have my limits.