I love entertaining and over the years I’ve learned to cope with all sorts of potential disasters: blizzards, drunken guests (yes, Dan, I’m thinking of your three-martini-chugging experiment), being cornered by a friend’s heartbroken suitor who read me his terrible poetry for an hour, a feral cat tearing the hide off one guest’s lapdog and another's golden retriever... It’s a long list. But this is the first time I’ve ever had to worry about presiding over a super-spreader event, and I have to admit at first I was a bit nonplussed.
Weeks ago, when I sent out invitations to our annual December 25 lunch, I thought I was going the extra mile by requiring everyone to be fully vaxxed and alerting them to dress warmly as all the windows would be open for ventilation. At that time, Spain had recently been declared the safest travel destination in Europe and was viewed as the poster child for how to manage Covid with vaxxing, masking, and social distancing. Everyone was predicting a huge influx of tourists early in 2022; I even wrote a book about Seville’s New Normal to help visitors to get in on the fun. Did I jinx everything with that book? If so, sorry about that, folks!
As you may have heard, even Spain couldn’t hold out forever against the combination of Delta and Omicron. Our numbers kept creeping upwards, and on Friday, December 17, we crossed the line. With more than 500 cases per 100,000, we were officially in the high-risk category.
I remember staring at that announcement on the TV screen, wondering what to do. Should I cancel lunch on the 25th? Require guests to wear hazmat suits? Give everyone their turkey in doggie bags at the door?
I took some deep breaths, then performed a qigong exercise called Ten Dragons Running Through the Forest. You place all ten fingers on top of your head and shove them through your hair from front to back; repeat five times. It’s great for your chi and less drastic than actually tearing your hair out. As usual, I followed Ten Dragons Running Through the Forest with a few heartfelt exclamations of “Serenity now!” in the manner of George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld.
Once I’d used these time-honored spiritual exercises to restore my metaphysical equilibrium, I got to work researching the issue. Surely savvy epidemiologists had some suggestions for the holiday hostess who didn’t want to send her guests home with a potentially fatal disease?
Somewhat to my surprise, the experts did not advise cancelling holiday gatherings.
The main reason? After two years of high-stress pandemic living, we’re all shell-shocked and bumfuzzled (that's another way of saying discombobulated). Being with people we love is a great antidote, explains Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We need to balance that people really do need to be with their loved ones with appropriate risk-mitigation strategies.”
OK, but exactly how do we mitigate the risk? For a start, should we even consider traveling by air these days, as 47 million Americans will be doing this season?
Plane rides are the least of our worries, according to Katelyn Jetelina, author of Your Local Epidemiologist blog and mother of two very small daughters. “I’ve flown several times with the girls throughout the course of the pandemic and have never been necessarily concerned about the flight itself. The air filtration is great on planes, there’s mandatory masking, and flight attendants do a darn good job of enforcing it. (Thank you!) If this wasn’t the case, there’s no way I would fly with my girls.” Airports, Uber rides, and other aspects of travel can be more risky; you’ll want to take full precautions. And of course, be sure to familiarize yourself with terms and conditions in other countries you'll be visiting.
What about holiday gatherings? Like many other experts, Jetelina suggests that you make sure everyone at the party is fully vaxxed; if not, and the unprotected won’t agree to mask up indoors, she suggest you respectfully decline to attend. She also urges everyone to take a Covid test two days before the event and the morning of.
Hmmm, I thought when I read this. I’d already made sure all 17 of my guests had gotten their shots, but I hadn’t considered making self-testing part of the plan. When I wrote to everyone to suggest it, the response was instantaneous and enthusiastic. “Excellent plan! Thank you,” everyone said. Now it turns out there's been a run on test kits; two days ago they were readily available in every pharmacy, and now nobody has them, although rumors abound that shipments are coming in any day now. Maybe I should revisit the idea of hazmat suits.
Seville’s still a long way from going full hazmat, but we are all gearing up to comply with the latest protection measures. Andalucían officials announced we’re now required to show proof of vaccination to enter a restaurant or bar; this is easy for vaccinated locals, who all have an EU Digital Covid Certificate on their phone. Theoretically visitors and expats can obtain some version of this certificate, but when I click on the appropriate link on the Spanish government’s website, I just get a blank page and a spinny wheel. I’ll keep trying and let you know what I find out.
Not having that handy digital certificate, Rich and I had to fall back on our CDC Covid Vaccination Cards today when we had lunch at a café. The owner, who had just finished taping up a sign about the new regulation, eyed the cards askance, but eventually he decided they (and we) were legit. Whew!
Meanwhile, Spain remains committed to its strategy of mass vaccination. On Wednesday it started inoculating kids aged five to eleven, and officials just approved giving boosters to everyone over forty, with older adults first in line.
However as we’re all learning, the current vaccinations aren’t as effective against Omicron. Some estimates suggest two shots give you 33% protection against infection, and the booster brings it up to 75%. “Just about everyone should be prepared to get infected during this wave, even if you’ve been vaccinated,” says Ohio State University chief quality and patient safety officer Iahn Gonsenhauser. Yikes! He adds that being vaxxed and boosted should protect us from significant symptoms. Not for the first time, I thanked my lucky stars (and Rich’s research skills, which located a last-minute pop-up clinic) that we managed to get our boosters before leaving the US.
As you can imagine, the nearby shrine of San Pancracio, Seville’s beloved patron saint of health, is more popular than ever. Even scoffers like me find ourselves slipping him a few coins and asking him to please keep us safe — if only for another week or two. In these uncertain times, there's one thing we know for sure: the best way to get through these shortest, darkest days of the year is together, with laughter on our lips, a glass of wine in one hand and a brownie in the other. Which is why I’m going ahead with lunch on December 25th. And with luck, my guests will go home with nothing but wonderful memories and Tupperware stuffed with leftover turkey.
Sometimes playing it too safe can be dangerous!
I want to thank you all for joining me on the journey through these challenging times.
Have the merriest possible holidays; you've earned some fun times!
I suspect you'll be too busy playing with your new toys and recovering from hangovers to read much on the blog, so I won't post again until the first week of January.
See you in 2022!
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In the US, brownies are nothing remarkable, but one of the benefits of expat life is that if I show up with a fresh-made batch here in Seville, I am worshiped as a domestic goddess. My husband being a die-hard chocoholic, I always add — in lieu of chocolate chips, which are rare and of poor quality here — chunks of a dark chocolate candy bar, and this year I went all out and dotted the top with M&Ms. I was baking a batch of these glorious treats for a potluck on Friday when disaster struck.
I was pulling them out of the oven when it happened. The disposable aluminum pan, which apparently was not as strong as I'd hoped, suddenly collapsed, sending great gobs of half-molten chocolate all over my stove, the cupboards, the floor, and my new kitchen rug. It looked like a crime scene photo. I could just hear Barnaby from Midsomer Murders saying, “Judging by the spatter, the victim must have gone down fighting!”
Luckily I had all the ingredients on hand to produce another batch, so I didn’t have to show up empty handed to the first holiday party I’d attended in two years. “Everyone’s fully vaxxed,” my hostess assured me in advance. “And we’ll have all the windows open throughout the evening, so dress warmly.” Seville had been going through a cold snap — temperatures in the low 50s by day, low 40s by night. Yes, I realize those of you reading this with snow piling up outside the windows may not view that as arctic, but hey, that’s downright chilly with all the windows wide open. Everybody wore five layers of clothing, and as luck would have it, the temperature shot up into the 60s and we all sweltered.
But nobody cared. Because we were all intensely grateful for the comfort and joy of gathering with friends and even a few strangers as the year winds down. You could almost see visions of the 2020 holidays flitting through everyone’s mind.
I knew about half the guests at the party, and a month ago I’d have greeted each of them with kisses on both cheeks in the traditional Spanish manner. But now, with that pesky Omicron ushering in an official 6th wave of the pandemic, we are all being careful again.
Nowadays everyone’s more observant of the regulation requiring masking outdoors in crowded conditions. And Rich and I are once again avoiding dining inside restaurants unless we can sit by a wide-open door. This isn’t easy for me in December, the chilliest month in Seville, as I’m a total friolera, a Spanish term for someone extra sensitive to cold. But I’m getting quite used to dining out wearing three sweaters and a coat, and I’ve purchase a cheery green scarf that’s so massive people are referring to it as “Karen’s blanket.” Whatever it takes, folks!
Spain is urging caution but so far it has not closed its borders. Fully vaccinated travelers from all but the most worrying countries can still enter without a Covid test. While our neighbor Portugal has declared a “state of calamity,” Spain has not issued its equivalent “state of alarm,” which would pave the way to drastic steps like restrictions or lockdowns. Government leaders know such steps are bad for morale, business, and their chances of re-election.
As you can imagine, the decision to stay open to visitors is receiving strong support from the hospitality industry, which has invested heavily in attracting tourists and is now tearing its collective hair out at yet another setback. Talk about a state of calamity! In Seville alone there are somewhere around 32 new hotels, 200 pre-existing hotels, and 5,000 Airbnbs. The number of visitors, soaring in pre-pandemic years, has taken a nosedive. In the first nine months of this year, Spain had about 20 million tourists compared to nearly 70 million in the same period of 2019. Tourism minister Reyes Maroto optimistically predicted a late surge of 10 million visitors in the last three months of 2021, but by now it’s pretty clear the chance of that happening are (as the saying goes) slim to none, and Slim just left town.
Judging by the travel plans of my expat friends (a completely random, statistically insignificant sampling) people are not cancelling trips to their home country this month. Those of us who have chosen to stay in Seville take comfort from the fact this area has one of the lowest Covid rates in Europe and that no matter what else is going on in the world, this is one of the jolliest places to spend the holidays.
This was the second year the holiday lights were switched on without fanfare, to avoid attracting an opening-night crowd, but they are now twinkling merrily all over the city. There are Nativity scenes and festive trees everywhere, including some goofy variations on the usual themes.
People are doing plenty of shopping, but it hasn’t yet reached fever pitch, as here the big celebration doesn’t happen until the Three Kings arrive with gifts on January 6. The major shopping streets have an atmosphere of cheerful bustle during the week and on Saturdays are jammed, or as they say here, como sardinas en lata (like sardines in a can).
Although I don’t mail many packages these days, I did have to send one gift back to the US, and frankly, I was dreading it. The gift was one of my own paintings, and I knew from experience that customs officials here view all artwork with deep suspicion, certain each one is a thinly disguised attempt to smuggle out an old master. The previous time I'd tried to mail some of my paintings to the US, the mailing service I’d used ran into a morass of customs paperwork and eventually thew up its hands in confusion and gave me back the artwork, although not the whopping fee I’d paid them. Not that I’m bitter.
By sheer good luck, Rich remembered a DSL office had opened on Calle Alvarez Quintero, and there we discovered David, the agent in charge and possibly most efficient person in Seville. He produced a mailing tube and the pile of appropriate forms. “We must call it ‘decorative’ instead of ‘art,’” he explained. “Not art?” I exclaimed, affronted. “Or you can pay infinitely more,” he said. “Yeah, right, " I agreed. "Decorative it is.”
The final run-up to December 25 is my favorite part of the holidays. The heavy lifting is done: holiday letters sent, shopping (mostly) completed, shipping dispatched, the tree up and decorated. It’s time to relax and enjoy the fizz of excitement, the sparkle of lights, and the relief of having made it through another tumultuous year. Nobody knows what lies ahead; some good times for sure, and no doubt some shocks and setbacks too. But as the Spanish say, “Si te caes siete veces, levántate ocho,” if you fall down seven times, get up eight. Or as I say, when things go awry, make another batch of brownies.
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“Maybe the universe is telling you something,” my friend Enrique said yesterday, when I had poured out the sorry tale of last week’s stuttering book launch, plagued by bizarre tech glitches that temporarily prevented some people from downloading free subscriber copies or signing up to receive updates on my blog.
“But wait, there’s more,” I said, accepting another splash of verdejo in my wine glass. “Now Amazon Spain is refusing to send me copies of the paperback version of my book.”
“Apparently my book has a ‘limited purchase quantity.’ The first day I tried to order six copies, and they told me I could only order three. I did, and they came in today. When I went back later and tried to order more, it said ‘We’ve changed your purchase quantity to the maximum permitted.’ And that number was zero.”
Enrique, who runs one of the most successful publishing companies in Spain, was as flabbergasted by this turn of events as I’d been. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. It could be a paper shortage. I know Amazon uses massive rolls of paper.” He flung his arms wide to indicate the gargantuan roll size. “Maybe they just can’t get them now.” These days, Amazon and other publishers, including Enrique’s Lantia, take advantage of print-on-demand technology that lets you upload a file, hit a button, and produce a printed and bound paperback book in seven minutes. It’s little short of miraculous. If you can get the paper.
Fortunately, many of my readers have written to tell me they’ve successfully ordered the paperback in the US and the UK, where Amazon isn't suffering from the same supply issues, and there’s no problem getting the Kindle version. In fact, sales of Seville’s New Normal: Insider Tips for Visitors 2022 have been brisk enough that it hit #1 on Amazon in new travel books about Spain & Portugal. So it’s officially a bestseller already. Thanks for that, everybody!
For me, the mindboggling annoyance of attempting to navigate Amazon Spain’s purchasing system was just the warm-up for researching today’s update on what it takes to visit Spain right now. I’d planned to include just a brief paragraph outlining the latest information, but fact-finding proved far more slippery than I’d expected.
For a start, it used to be helpful to Google “Spanish Embassy in the US — Going to Spain — Entry Requirements” but that site has now expunged nearly all mention of Covid, directing those inquiries to the Ministry of the Interior page, which never mentions Covid, and to a Health Ministry page that comes up blank. The Embassy’s home page has a link to Covid FAQs that contains no questions (let alone answers), just a suggestion that you consult your local consulate. If you click on the consulate link, you suddenly find yourself on Travel Safe, the official Spain tourism website. I'm almost getting the impression that Spain’s national government is hoping to distance itself from its Covid policies. Anybody else find that worrying at all?
According to Travel Safe, step one is filling out the health control form no more than 48 hours in advance to obtain a QR code attesting to your Covid status. (Oddly, there’s a separate form if you are arriving by ferry, but let’s assume for now you’re traveling by air or land.) Step two says that to determine the entry requirements, you have to find out if your country is designated low-risk or high risk. To find out your country’s status, there’s a handy link. That link takes you to (drumroll, please) another blank page.
So much for the official sources. Luckily I found Travelling to Spain During Covid-19: Here’s What You Need to Know by SchengenVisaInfo. This cleared up the question of which nations are currently designated as high-risk and low-risk (or, to put it in seasonal parlance, the naughty and nice list). Sadly, both the US and the UK are high-risk, so citizens of those countries (and many others) must provide proof of vaccination to enter Spain. The good news: Spain doesn’t require an up-your-nose Covid test in addition to the vaccine. The bad news: if you’re unvaccinated, you aren’t going to be visiting Spain any time soon.
No doubt there are scofflaws already trying to figure out how to circumvent these rules, possibly via private airstrips in the dark of night. Which may account for the rather startling news story I just saw about dogs being taught to pilot airplanes. Yes, you read that right. A UK reality TV show has taught Shadow, a rescue dog on the verge of being put down, how to steer an airplane. And for those of you who might be worrying about in-flight safety, let me reassure you that Shadow was kept on his leash every minute.
Sit. Stay. Steer. Good dog, Shadow!
In other news, some parts of Spain (but not Seville) now require Covid documentation to enter public places such as bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. The rules vary by region (check regional requirements here); most commonly, locals must present an EU Digital Covid Certificate, aka Covid passport, issued to EU citizens through the public health system. The rules are a bit fuzzier for visitors; most likely they’ll accept your printed USA Covid vaccination card or similar documentation. But before you pre-pay for a pricy event, such as a concert or Michelin-star restaurant meal, check the policy of the region and, if possible, the venue.
Here in Seville, the approach is much more relaxed. Covid passports aren’t required anywhere, although the government will soon make them compulsory when visiting people in hospitals and care homes. With almost 90% of eligible residents vaxxed, everyone correctly assumes I’ve had the good sense to get my shots, including my vacuna de refuerzo (booster).
“Experts attribute Spain’s vaccine success, in part, to its widely trusted public health system, which spearheaded the effort,” says the NY Times. “Politicians also played a big role, taking their doses with fanfare early on and avoiding politicized debate about the vaccine. Spaniards, for the most part, followed the health guidance of their leaders when it came to vaccines, masks and other precautions.” Salvador Illa, who oversaw the first year of Spain’s pandemic response, explains, “As far as vaccines go, in Spain there’s just a wide consensus among citizens — they follow the recommendations of the scientists.”
Wow. Confidence in the public health system. Leaders avoiding controversy. Trust in science. What a country! It’s comforting to know that if (Heaven forbid) Omicron or some other variant should require another vaccine, my neighbors will cheerfully line up, fully masked and two meters apart, to get it.
Maybe Enrique’s right and the universe is sending me a message. If only I could figure out what it might be! However, with so many problem-solving, brain-boosting challenges filling my days, it’s just possible my mental acuity will sharpen fast enough to let me figure it out before I go completely bonkers.
Thanks to all of you who wrote to me saying how much you enjoyed Seville's New Normal. If you bought the book, I'd be grateful if you would leave a review on Amazon; this will boost the book's visibility, making it easier for others to find. Unfortunately Amazon ignores reviews that aren't associated with a verified purchase.
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Actually, what I’m feeling is whew!
I loved writing Seville’s New Normal: Insider Tips for Visitors 2022. It started out as a purely practical guide, a way to answer the questions that were constantly arriving in my email inbox: How has Seville changed over the past two years? Is it safe? Is it fun? Can I even get into Spain?
With two million people a year visiting Seville, it was clear I could not reply to each and every one individually. So I thought, “Why not corral all my info into a short guidebook?”
But then, as I set out to assemble the information in something approaching coherent form, it struck me that Seville isn’t just about facts, it’s about stories. There are ancient myths, medieval legends, modern superstitions, and tidbits of hot gossip about every nook and cranny of this city. It would shortchange the book if I didn’t include at least some of them, along with a few of my own zany expat exploits. The older stories beautifully define Seville’s legacy of lunacy, passed down through hundreds of generations to me . . . and now to you. I love these stories and believe some of them may even be mostly true.
For instance, if you’ve visited Seville, you may know the Alameda, an absurdly long plaza in the northern part of the city centro. But did you ever wonder why the two pillars at the southern end are off-center?
Having your city established by an actual god conveys certain bragging rights, and to make certain nobody missed this point, in 1574 Seville officials built a vast public garden — Europe’s first — and named it the Alameda de Hercules. For decoration they chose six Roman columns that had stood on the other side of town for 14 centuries. Hauling ancient, 30-foot stone columns in wooden wagons over unpaved streets through a busy city; what could possibly go wrong? Incredibly, two made it safely to the new garden before one managed to roll off and shatter spectacularly in the faces of horrified onlookers.
No doubt a few heads rolled — possibly literally — over that snafu, and suddenly no one wanted the job of pillar transporter. The two surviving columns, topped with statues of Hercules and Julius Cesar respectively, stand at the southern end of the Alameda, their off-center alignment reflecting space left for the third that never arrived. The other three columns are aging gracefully in the Calle Mármoles (Marbles Street), where they are likely to remain until the end of time.
I thought providing some of these tales would give you all a fuller picture of Seville’s landscape, past and present. In the end, what I’ve written is not a conventional guide listing monument visiting hours, railway timetables, and budget hotels; you can easily find all that online. And it’s not comprehensive; you won’t find the top ten of everything in every category. But you will learn where I go for the essentials of life: churros (fried dough), flamenco, that perfect dry martini, a good vantage point for photos of the Three Kings parade, emergency dentistry, pre-flight Covid tests, and the latest changes in Spain’s entry requirements.
It addresses these questions from my email inbox:
How have the last two years reshaped Seville?
When is the ideal time to visit?
How can I check Spain’s entry requirements?
Why do Sevillanos eat five meals a day?
What do locals do for fun?
What’s with all the oddball myths & legends?
People still take siestas? Do I have to?
What if I get sick?
Will I have reverse culture shock going home?
In the book I explain the most striking thing about Seville these days is how normal it seems. People mask up and get vaxxed without a fuss, and then go about their daily lives. With more than 85% of Andalucíans inoculated, this is quite possibly the safest destination in Europe. Of course, that could all change in the next five minutes due to this pesky Omicron variant or some other nasty surprise. Be sure to keep checking this blog for updates.
In the meantime, I’m hedging my bets. I frequently slip a few coins into the nearby shrine of San Pancracio, Seville's patron saint of health. Yes, of course I know it’s pure, medieval superstition. But hey, what harm could it do?
Seville's New Normal is fun and informative, and my goal is to make it accessible to all. I’ve priced the Kindle version at 99 cents. Even if you’re a subscriber, you might want to buy the Kindle edition because A) it’s a more convenient way to read, B) it boosts my Amazon ranking, and C) the higher that rank is, the more visible Amazon will make my book so more readers will find it. Of course, reviews help a lot, too. The paperback is also priced as low as possible ($4.99). I won’t make much on these sales, but if they make a dent in the number of emails in my inbox, I’m more than satisfied. I’ll be raising the price right after the holidays.
Want a free sample of the book? Click on the live preview button below.
I don’t mean to brag, but figuring out how to insert this live preview was just one of the many pieces of technology I’ve mastered this week. The technical side of publishing is not my strong suit, but I've soldiered on, spending countless hours burrowing into previously unknown recesses of my computer, Amazon’s author support pages, Kindle formatting, Microsoft Word, my web host, and the mailing platform. I have triumphed over approximately 43,697 technical glitches. The worst cropped up just after this post first went live: the mailing platform I use crashed, and several of the links I'd sent to subscribers, which were perfect when I sent them out, suddenly went wonky. Thanks to everyone who alerted me to the issues! Now, two days later, all appears to be working perfectly. Fingers crossed, knock wood.
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At this point I think, hope, and pray that all my tech glitches are resolved, and that my dozen rounds of proofreading have caught at least most of the worst typos.
So whew! The book is out! Tonight I will be picturing every one of you settling down in your favorite armchair, happily reading Seville’s New Normal and dreaming of your next visit to this wonderful, warm, zany city.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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