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 love getting email from readers, which is good because ever since I announced my decision to return to Seville from the US, my inbox has been flooded with questions. Practically everyone seems to be contemplating a trip here at some point over the next year, and they are baffled by the entry requirements (a fast-moving target) and curious whether the city’s street life has returned to its usual congenial roar (it has). It’s clear 2022 is shaping up to be a boom year for the city, and for my email inbox.
Part of this upsurge in popularity is because “Spain Is Now the Safest EU Destination,” according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Our region, Andalucía, has vaccinated more than 80% of its residents, achieving herd immunity and “green status” (less than 50 Covid cases per 100,000 inhabitants). Sevillanos are matter-of-fact about observing all the appropriate public safety protocols, especially masking, while maintaining an attitude of cheerful normalcy. People are moving on with their lives.
I am constantly astonished to find myself in a city that feels so post-pandemic. Not post-Covid, of course; we all know that the virus is still stalking the planet, and we’d be fools not to take proper precautions. And there’s always the chance some hideous new variant could arise, throwing everything into chaos again. But as of this writing, Seville feels like an oasis of safety in an uncertain world. Is it any wonder so many people are contemplating a visit?
My friend Charles is always telling me to stop saying nice things about Seville on this blog because we don’t want too many tourists overrunning the city. I keep explaining to him that people are going to come anyway, and if anyone should be held accountable, it's the city's leaders. At the very same time I started this blog, they launched a multi-million euro campaign to attract visitors, and it’s been successful beyond their wildest dreams. And yet Charles is convinced it's all my doing.
I point out to him that I may play some small part in inspiring people to visit, but my real job is making sure they have fun when they get here.
Those who don’t do their research often show up expecting a European version of Mexico. These poor souls wander about, bewildered by the complete lack of spicy food and mariachi music, and confused when ordering a tortilla results in the arrival of a dense potato omelet instead of the flat bread used to make burritos. Others read the tourist literature and limit themselves to the cathedral, the Alcázar palace, and the corporate-owned restaurants and cookie-cutter souvenir shops nearby. My job is to open doors for my readers, so they know where to find the oddball stuff, like tiles that predict your matrimonial future, sites used in filming Game of Thrones, and the kind of backstreet food that makes you want to get up and dance with the cook.
On top of all that, now I’ve got tips about Covid safety to share: where you can dine outdoors, get tested before your flight home, and buy masks that are as safe as KN95s but come in fashionable patterns and colors because hey, we all need a break from black and while and surgical blue sometimes.
So I’ve decided to put together a short guide to the city at this unique moment in its history, helping people figure out travel logistics and entry requirements, navigate the recent changes in the local culture, and stay safe and comfortable in transit and throughout their visit. I’m taking a few weeks off from writing on this blog to organize my notes into something approaching coherent form, and when it’s ready I’ll post the guide online so my regular readers can download it for free and others can purchase it in Kindle or paperback form.
In the meantime, if you have any questions or topics you’d like to see covered in this little guidebook, please let me know. And for heaven’s sake, don’t tell Charles about any of this. The less he knows the better. Mum’s the word.
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When I mention my daily siestas to Americans, they often look at me sideways, obviously wondering if I’ve entered my dotage, never matured past the age of five, or deteriorated into a day-drinking couch potato during the pandemic.
Some sidle away in quiet alarm at this point, but the hardier souls ask, “You take a nap every afternoon? Really? But then how can you sleep at night?”
‘I sleep better at night when I take a siesta,” I explain. “I’m a more relaxed person. My days have a gentler rhythm. And it’s like having fourteen mornings a week!”
If they’re still unconvinced, I can now point out that Spain was just awarded the highest health grade on the planet in a sleep study comparing life expectancy, the Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index, and average sleep time. ”Bloomberg gave Spain the highest health grade: 93 percent (that's a solid A), while the U.S. came in 35th with a score of 73 (eek, that's a D...minus),“ reported Well + Good. You may be surprised to learn more snooze time doesn’t automatically earn a higher health grade. Spain averages a modest 7 hours and 10 minutes, while Mexico, despite a solid 9 hours nightly, has the lowest life expectancy of the 37 countries in the study.
Lots of factors influence Spain’s health grade, of course, including the famous Mediterranean diet. But I am convinced (based on completely random, unscientific, anecdotal evidence) that another key element is their relaxed attitude toward sleep. As far as I can tell, nobody here in Seville worries about how many hours of shut-eye they’re getting. In the US, we’re bombarded with articles such as the CDC’s “1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep” with the ominous subhead, “A good night’s sleep is critical for good health” and an opening sentence citing the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Yikes! One minute into the article and I’m already feeling doomed.
When I moved to Seville, I was staggered by everyone’s insouciant attitude toward sleep. Last night, for instance, dinner with friends lasted until 1:30 AM — on a weeknight. You get even less snooze time during the annual seven-day Feria de Abril (April Fair). For this giant party, more than a million people dress up and spend every night drinking and dancing until dawn. They then stagger homeward, stopping briefly to refuel at a churros and chocolate stand before navigating the stairs to their apartment and falling into bed. Two hours later, they’re up, gulping coffee, and stumbling off to work. And nobody seems concerned.
“It’s just a week,” they say with a shrug. “I’ll be fine.” And so they are. Although to be honest, I wouldn’t schedule elective surgery, car repair, or even a haircut that week. Not everyone will be operating at peak efficiency.
A few years ago, rocket scientists started putting the siesta under a microscope to see if it might prove useful in outer space. “NASA’s research showed that naps really can fully restore cognitive function at the same rate as a full night’s sleep,” reported Business Insider. “The space agency found that pilots who slept in the cockpit for 26 minutes showed alertness improvements up to 54% and job performance improvements by 34%.” Astronauts call this a NASA nap.
In business circles, the preferred term is power nap, to make it sound more grown-up, professional, and goal-oriented. Executive nappers like to point out how many success icons, such as Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and Albert Einstein, snoozed every afternoon. They’ll then cite the health benefits: siestas reduce the chance of a fatal heart attack by 37% and can reverse information overload and prevent burnout. It’s not difficult to do a cost-benefit analysis that favors siestas. Oops, sorry, I mean power naps.
And then there’s the coffee nap. I personally have not tried this, but apparently you begin your rest period by downing a latte or espresso, then immediately lie down to sleep or just relax for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, the caffeine molecules are fitting themselves into receptors in the brain that are normally occupied by a chemical called adenosine, which tends to build up during the day, making you sleepy. By around the 20-minute mark, stimulating caffeine molecules have replaced all the sleepy adenosine molecules, leaving you feeling bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and zippity doo dah. Proponents rave about the reinvigorating effects of this process, which has been dubbed the nappuccino.
Of course, it can be tough to find a suitable spot for a doze, especially if you’re traveling or working in a busy office. That’s why humanitarians in Barcelona, Spain created Nappuccino Corner, a café where, for the price of a modest lunch and a coffee, you get a free siesta in one of their individual resting pods. “They are not completely closed in order to prevent any claustrophobic feeling,” says the website, although I suspect it’s mostly to prevent any shenanigans from taking place inside.
With or without coffee, a siesta should only last about 20 minutes. That's because you want to stop before reaching deep REM sleep, which can leave you groggy afterwards. To avoid this, Einstein used to nap with a pencil loosely clasped in one hand, knowing that when he edged toward more profound slumber, the pencil would fall to the floor with a clatter and wake him. Even if you don't sleep but simply rest for 20 minutes, you get the benefits of a siesta. Afterwards, the Spanish advise reanimating yourself with a marienda (afternoon snack) of coffee and sweet pastry — essentially another breakfast — and why not?
“Napping gets a bad rap in our culture,” says Psychology Today. “There’s a stubborn perception that napping is a sign of laziness. In fact, it’s just the opposite.” The article explains how a siesta can increase alertness, improve concentration and accuracy, help you make better decisions, and enhance memory and learning.
Afternoon siestas not only improve your mental and physical wellbeing, they give you something pleasurable to look forward to every day. I begin by closing the shutters to create a cozy twilight, then stretch out on the couch; if it's cool enough, I wrap up in cozy blanket. I open my Kindle, read a few pages, then close my eyes, just for a moment … and wake up twenty minutes or so later, feeling deeply refreshed.
Do siestas really make you healthy, wealthy, and wise? Science says yes, but don’t take my word for it, or even Einstein’s. Try it for yourself. This will, of course, be easier if you work at home or live in Spain, where everything shuts down for the midday break. And no doubt your schedule is pretty full already. But hey, if Churchill could squeeze in naps while fighting off Hitler, maybe you can find twenty spare minutes in your schedule, too. Just be prepared for a few quizzical looks from friends, neighbors, and co-workers who have yet to discover the happy truth: taking a siesta is hitting the reset button on your day. And who doesn’t want to do that?
Now that I'm back home in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'm taking a fresh look at local culture and customs while discovering how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape.
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on Seville, travel to Europe, and where to find good eats and survival comforts.
“Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”
Charles Dudley Warner (often misattributed to his friend, Mark Twain)
Seville made worldwide headlines this week by announcing our city officials will be the first to name and categorize heat waves. Of course, I realize those of you who are reading this huddled in heavy sweaters by the fireplace with sleet lashing the window may have difficulty mustering much weather sympathy for southern Spain. But 100,000 people die of heat in Europe every summer, and Seville, the warmest city in continental Europe, has declared they’re hot as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. Starting in 2022, officials will rank the severity of extreme heat waves and assign them names, like hurricanes and tropical storms.
Naturally we’re all agog to learn what they’ll be called. Naming weather patterns goes back to ancient times when everyone tried to figure out what god to appease or saint to invoke. In the 19th century, a British meteorologist in Australia, Clement Wragge, kicked off modern storm naming by calling particularly nasty cyclones after government officials he disliked. Will our mayor do the same?
Maybe the mayor will choose women’s names, in the tradition launched by the US Air Force Hurricane Office in Miami back in the 1940s. I suspect those guys were settling a few scores of their own, although they claimed they just wanted to avoid confusion with the military’s masculine Alpha Bravo Charlie phonetic alphabet. By the 1970s, political pressure persuaded everyone to agree to divide the names equally between male and female.
Unfortunately the response is far from equal. “Researchers find that female-named hurricanes kill about twice as many people as similar male-named hurricanes because some people underestimate them,” reported The NY Times. “Americans expect male hurricanes to be violent and deadly, but they mistake female hurricanes as dainty or wimpish and don’t take adequate precautions.” Obviously they’re picking the wrong female names. Calling storms after the power-mad women in Game of Thrones or the wickeder Disney villainesses could add some much-needed badass to the warnings that monikers like Wendy or Sally just don’t convey.
Just how scary might Heat Wave Cruella be? Andalucía (as southern Spain is called) is subject to intense zones of high pressure known as “heat domes.” August’s heat dome caused temperatures in the town of Montoro, 110 miles east of here, to reach 117.3 F (47.38 C) — a national record. Experts say that kind of heat can make you weak and sick, drive you crazy, spark violence, and lead to an early grave, especially if you’re under the age of four or over sixty-five. Yikes!
Of course, scorching summers are nothing new in Andalucía. In the olden days, people protected themselves by giving their houses three-foot-thick walls, high ceilings, and tile floors. On seriously sweltering nights, families would bring bedding down to the riverbank for the marginally cooler air; if they still couldn’t sleep, they’d while away wakeful hours chatting with neighbors. Nowadays most people have air conditioning, and everyone has fans, but folks still seek water to cool down.
In summer, people siesta during the afternoon heat and emerge at dark, ready to eat, drink, and make merry. The city comes alive at night with outdoor concerts and movies, bars that stay open until dawn, and playgrounds full of children. Friends from the US protest, aghast, at seeing little kids on swings at midnight, but hey, they need to exercise at hours when they won't risk heatstroke.
I like early morning strolls, often through María Luisa Park. Friends and I stopped for coffee there one long ago summer, the year café owners began installing water sprayers on the underside of awnings to cool overheated customers with a gentle mist. It was a crisp morning but the staff couldn’t resist showing off their new toy, and suddenly freezing water was raining down on our heads. They seemed stunned by our cries to turn the thing off before hypothermia set in. Two hours later we'd have loved an impromptu shower in the rising heat. At the time, not so much.
Hydration is, of course, essential in hot weather but at times this might prove trickier than you’d imagine. Some tavern keepers have a natural reluctance to give anything away for free, so if you ask for agua del grifo (tap water) it may take ages and multiple requests before it materializes. You may be told the city water is undrinkable and they’re legally required to sell you bottled water as a matter of public safety. Utter hogwash! Everyone drinks city water. I consulted an expat physician friend who has researched the subject, and he confirmed there is nothing whatsoever wrong with Seville’s agua del grifo.
I’ve been known to walk out of restaurants over this issue, because I’m opposed both to single-use plastics and to being conned. But I often find it simpler to order a small beer (una cerveza) or more specifically the beer on tap (una caña), which is usually about 8 ounces of liquid costing 1.20€ ($1.40). This will arrive instantaneously, icy cold, and (according to a study at Spain’s University of Granada ) more rehydrating than water. Apparently the undergrads in the study downed a brewski after working out in triple digit temperatures and found it more refreshing than H2O. The surprising part? Medical testing backed them up. Obviously more research is needed; I doubt they’ll have any difficulty getting volunteers. Fun fact: After I order a small beer, servers are usually quite willing to bring me tap water. I can only assume they’ve read the Granada study and want to make sure I have a viable rehydration protocol.
Will Seville city officials soon rate the severity of our heat waves by the number of cervezas it will take to stay hydrated? I can imagine future meteorologist around the world saying things like “Yep, this Cersei Lannister heat dome is a real ripsnorter, folks, at least 15 cañas!”
The UN warns temperatures will keep rising, but I can lay to rest any concerns that Seville is literally hot as Hell. The Book of Revelations 21:8 refers to “a fiery lake of burning sulfur,” so scientists researched the burning point of sulfur and announced Hell’s temperature is 444.6 C (832.3 F). I’m pretty sure Seville isn’t hitting that high any time soon. Whew!
In the nineteenth century, Charles Dudley Warner’s joke about nobody doing anything about the weather always raised a chuckle. Today that chuckle has a dark edge to it. We realize that we are collectively doing a lot that affects the weather — unfortunately, mostly making it worse. Seville officials will start naming and ranking heat waves to call attention to the dangers of our ever-hotter habitat in hopes we'll adapt appropriately. I am confident Sevillanos will find a way. I’ve discovered they’re as resilient and resourceful as the desert dwellers in the movie Dune. No doubt they’ll teach me plenty of useful survival tips, and yes, of course, I’ll pass them right along to you.
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I was startled to learn, when I first arrived in Seville years ago, that I was expected to kiss just about everybody on both cheeks. My landlady kissed me each time she collected the rent, my banker kissed me after we opened our account, and the flamenco singers in the dubious bar across the street kissed me whenever I dropped in to listen to the music.
After a few awkward fumbles, I learned it was always your right cheek to their right cheek, then you do the left cheeks, and that's it. You never kiss once (American-style) or three times (as in Egypt, Russia, Switzerland, Belgium, and parts of France), or do four or more, because honestly, who has the time? It’s tough enough to greet everybody you know with dos besos (two kisses) when you meet up at a chaotic bar or crowded party. If you miss anybody, it’s viewed as a hurtful slight that requires a lengthy and sincere apology, if not outright groveling. In ordinary times, you’re wise to kiss first and take names later.
Nowadays, of course, Spain’s dos besos tradition has been suspended for the duration. Most of my friends, both local and international, bump elbows and make jokes to get through the slight awkwardness we all feel at the change in ritual. Some die-hard Spanish pals simply dive in for the two kisses anyway; being fully vaxxed in a region with one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, I’m not too worried about this. But in general, I feel it's sensible that people are (mostly) holding off on closer physical contact for now.
Don’t worry, even without constant rounds of besos, our lips are keeping plenty busy. “I’ve never sold so much wine,” confided my friend Carlos, who runs the cozy bodega Botellas y Latas. “When people stay home, my orders go up and up.”
After a summer of providing comfort to those under Covid curfews, Seville's wine merchants began shifting into high gear to slake the thirst of a population celebrating the freedom from fear that comes with mass inoculation and herd immunity. Everyone wants to gather in the bars, restaurants, and streets to raise a glass together.
Having recently returned from California, where wine drinking is taken very seriously indeed, I needed some time to readjust to Seville’s casual attitude toward vino. Bartenders will ask if you want white (blanco) or red (tinto). Don’t worry if you get flustered and ask for rojo (red) as they’ll still get your drift, but tinto is the correct term. They’ll then ask if you want seco (dry) or dulce (sweet) or sometimes afrutado (fruity). And this is where I run into trouble. What I actually like is a full-bodied, buttery white with a complex flavor and a long finish. I have embarrassed myself and numerous waiters attempting to obtain something — anything — along these lines in Seville. They always listen politely until I run out of words, and then they say, making a massive effort to appease the mad foreigner, “Así que … semi-seco?” (So … somewhat dry?)
I have learned through diligent trial and error to specify Rueda verdejo (Roo-AY-dah vare-DAY-ho). Verdejo is a full-bodied grape that originated in North Africa and arrived in Spain’s Rueda region in the 11th century, where it was developed into a dense, sherry-like wine. Then in the 1970s some brilliant, public-spirited winemakers from Rueda and France teamed up to create the fresher verdejo we know today. Whew! I can now order a drinkable blanco wherever I go.
The amount I don’t know about Spanish wines remains considerable. So the other day, when Rich and I happened upon DNS Gourmet, a wineshop with a tasting table, it occurred to us that maybe we should gather a few friends and learn more. María agreed to organize a private tasting with four wines accompanied by cheese and other nibbles she sold in the shop. We confirmed some friends were available and set a date for last Wednesday.
The evening was tremendous fun, although to be honest, I can't recall much of what I learned about Spanish wines. I’d forgotten that the subject has two levels: the simplistic Q&A you get from waiters, and the deluge of information you receive from real experts. And María was an expert; she’d actually crushed grapes with her bare feet, as people have done for 10,000 years, and showed us a video of herself churning great vats of fermenting grapes with what appeared to be a giant wooden spoon. She’d spent years studying the science of viticulture and art of winemaking. She absolutely knew her stuff.
María explained that during fermentation, yeast converts the grape’s natural sugar into alcohol; the more sugar the higher the alcoholic content. She then served us a young white called Cuestablanca, made from the Pedro Ximénez grape, usually found in dense, sweet sherries, yet somehow resulting in this dry wine. The second white, a Rueda verdejo called José Pariente, was more to my liking. She said it was good with chocolate, but then, isn’t everything?
Glass by glass, my notes got increasingly sketchy.
After Hado, a lovely red from the Rioja region, she brought out one final tinto and the real show-stopper: Pago de los Capellanes from Ribera del Duero. One of my friends, new to Seville and only now discovering the wines, took one sip and got that rapturous look on her face that always makes me think of Romeo’s famous line, “Did my heart love till now?” This is one of the few reds I know well, and it always earns that reaction.
By this point in the evening, my notes were worthless, illegible scrawls. But I can pass on some valuable wisdom: Spain has 138 wine regions but if you stick to the three Rs — Rueda, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero — it’s hard to go too far wrong.
In the Before Times, we’d have kissed María before departing, but now we just thanked her warmly and took off, carrying the leftover wine with us for future study. It’s in situations like these that I really miss the dos besos and their way of transforming a business relationship into something close to kinship.
Kissing, like wine, is designed to smooth the sharper edges of life. It lets us relax and feel connected. Of course, you can’t run around doing it just anywhere. Long before Covid, I found that my fellow Californians tend to look at me very oddly indeed if I kiss them the first time we meet. And that goes double in the UK.
Which is why I love the story of Winston Churchill preparing for an especially tricky meeting with French President Charles de Gaulle in 1942.
A diplomatic advisor urged the Prime Minister to treat de Gaulle with kid gloves, adding, “He will probably expect to kiss you on both cheeks.”
To which Churchill replied, “All right, all right. I’ll be good. I’ll be sweet. I‘ll kiss him on both cheeks — or all four if you’d prefer it.”
Luckily for all of us, the idea of kissing on all four cheeks has never really caught on. The dos besos tradition, however, is firmly entrenched in the Spanish psyche and will, I hope, become commonplace again soon. I can hardly wait.
This post was written in response to a reader who said she's heading back to Spain soon and was worried about the kissing custom in these Covid times. I explained to her that most people avoid the customary dos besos. If anyone doesn't, she can always throw an elbow in their direction.
I've been back in Seville a month now, and every day I learn more about how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and re-defined life in this sociable, foodie city.
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The idea that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” was invented by 19th century cereal manufacturers, most probably John Harvey Kellogg, a religious zealot who believed eating breakfast cereal would make Americans strong enough to stop thinking about sex. (It didn’t. Go figure.) The Spanish, who have no such Puritan goals, enjoy their version of breakfast so much they indulge in it twice every morning, with great enthusiasm.
At home, Sevillanos typically start the day with a first desayuno of coffee and toast topped with olive oil and ham or butter and jam. They then head to their workplace and put in an hour or two of labor, after which they’ll refresh themselves with a midmorning break at a nearby café, enjoying another round of coffee and toast to fortify themselves until lunch.
To accommodate the second-breakfast habit, the city has café-bars on practically every block. Some are grand, an increasing number are corporate efforts, and the hipsters outdo one another in providing quirky environments, flat whites, and wifi workspaces. But the mainstay continues to be modest little neighborhood places you wouldn’t look at twice in the US. To American eyes, inexpensive furnishings suggest substandard coffee and cheap food, but that’s not the case in Seville.
The other morning we tried the Bar Algabeño, tucked between the Feria Market and the 15th century palace of the Guzmanes of La Algaba (now municipal offices and a museum). We found the Algabeño’s coffee and toast delicious, and the back alley location (which in the US would be another red flag) makes it a great place to watch locals going about their day.
The Catunambu, on the bustling shopping street Calle Sierpes, couldn't be more visible, yet many Americans bypass it for the nearby Starbucks. So you’ll mostly find Spaniards at the Catunambu, taking a leisurely second breakfast to restore themselves after the rigors of a shopping spree. In the photo below, the individual in the big orange hat is almost certainly a foreigner, as local women never wear hats in town unless dressed to the nines for a fancy wedding, and Sevillano guys, if they wear hats at all, stick to Panamas.
So what’s everybody ordering for their second breakfast?
The choices may be simple, but to get it right requires a fair amount of vocabulary. In Seville, you always order your drink first. The classic is café con leche, half espresso and half steamed milk. Too much milk? Try a cortado, a shot of espresso with half as much milk. Need even more of an eye-opener? Ask for a café solo, a straight shot of espresso. Prefer something lower octane? Café Americano is plain black coffee, and leche manchada (literally “stained milk”) is half an inch of espresso and plenty of milk.
I’ve never seen low-fat milk here, but hipster and tourist coffee houses may offer milk alternatives. However, no one will understand a request for “leche de soya” (soy milk), “leche de avena” (oat milk), or the like because everyone knows milk is produced by lactating mammals, not plants. The barrista will be dumfounded by your ignorance but too polite to say so. Ask for bebida de soya (soy drink) or bebida de avena (oat drink) instead.
It’s even more complicated if, like me, you happen to like tea with milk, which is unheard of here. Ask for té con leche (tea with milk) and you’ll be served a glass of steamed milk with a tea bag in it. If you ask for té con leche aparte (tea with milk apart or on the side) they’ll bring you tea but not the milk, assuming you’ll drink that later in the meal or want it left in the kitchen for esoteric reasons known only to mad foreigners. Té con leche aparte para añadir (tea with milk apart to add in) should do the trick, although you may have to repeat it several times to be understood. You can see why I gave up and switched to café con leche.
As for food, toast is such a given you don’t even have to say tostada; you simply order a media (half a small baguette) or entera (entire baguette) and name your toppings. The most common are jamón (thin slivers of Spanish ham), tomate (tomato) which can be ordered with or without the ham, and mantequilla y mermelada (butter and jam). If you want heartier or more familiar fare, such as eggs, avocado toast, or corn flakes, you may find them in places that cater to out-of-town visitors, but you won’t see a lot of Sevillanos eating them. I once made pancakes for a Spanish house party, and they all looked aghast, took one courtesy bite, and went back to their tostadas with sighs of relief.
Some years ago, when I did a post about Spanish breakfasts, my long-time reader Vera wrote in to ask why I didn’t mention churros and chocolate, and I had to agree this was a serious oversight on my part. To my brother Mike, a devout chocaholic, this is undeniably Seville's breakfast of champions. You start with churros — sizzling fried tubes of dough — which you proceed to dunk in hot chocolate as dense as pudding. I know, right? Possibly the most decadent breakfast ever invented and naturally a huge favorite with the Sevillanos. It’s mostly a Sunday indulgence but is occasional used to reanimarse (reanimate yourself) en route home from a party at six in the morning or eaten as your marienda, the post-siesta snack that’s essentially a third breakfast.
“Rich,” I said, “we have to go out for churros and chocolate. It’s research.”
“I am willing to make the sacrifice,” he said. “For your readers.”
The article 5 Places for the Best Churros in Seville named El Pilar numero uno, and as this is a favorite of ours, Rich and I headed there directly. Unfortunately we arrived during the second breakfast rush, and every outdoor seat was taken. As we hovered uncertainly on the outer edges of the small crowd, an older gentleman rose slowly to his feet and said, “Please, take my table. I insist.” He picked up his half-finished coffee and headed indoors, our fulsome thanks ringing in his ears.
The churros and chocolate were first rate: hot, dense, and fortifying to the physique. The bill came to 5.60€ ($6.47), and when Rich handed the waitress a 5 euro bill and a euro’s worth of change, she counted the money and exclaimed, “Sir, you have overpaid me!” And tried to give back the 40 centimos. You have to love a place with that kind of attitude.
For Sevillanos and others who love the city, desayuno is one of life’s great treats and once a day simply isn't enough. Most of us have a regular café where we no longer have to order our second breakfast; the camarero automatically places our favorite configuration of coffee and toast on the bar, perhaps nudging a bottle of olive oil in our direction so we can drench our toast even further. I can only imagine how John Harvey Kellogg is turning in his grave at the very idea of all that pleasure packed into a morning meal. But hey, it works for me.
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As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape. But don't worry: not even Covid could dampen the city's appetite for good food.
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on Seville, travel to Europe, and where to find good eats and survival comforts.
Coming home after a long absence is like Christmas. I run around for days exclaiming over clothes and crockery and books that seem to have come into my possession by magic. When did I buy red boots? What’s this yellow bowl doing in my cupboard? Have I read this Agatha Christie? But this time, what really stopped me in my tracks was a near-empty glass jar labeled “whole wheat flour.”
Suddenly I was back in the early days of pandemic lockdown, baking constantly so Rich wouldn’t risk his life running out for fresh bread, watching my supply of whole wheat flour dwindle as shortages set in throughout Seville. Looking at that jar, I was swept with a powerful feeling of gratitude that those times were in the rear view mirror. Every morning for a week I gazed at that jar, thanking my lucky stars and the research scientists who developed the Covid vaccines. And on the eighth day, I tossed away that handful of old flour, collected my husband, and went out to lunch.
One of my happiest recent discoveries was that Seville has not lost its appetite for good eats in convivial social settings.
Modest café-bars still offer a solid bedrock of classic fare, often prepared by someone’s abuela (grandmother) using her abuela’s recipes for such classics as solomillo al whiskey (pork loin in whiskey sauce), colo de toro (stewed bull’s tail), and carrilladas (pig cheeks). When I first arrived in Seville, I was a vegetarian, and somehow I survived for a couple of years on espinacas con garbonzos (spinach with chickpeas) and pisto (vegetable stew). Then I came to my senses, decided my plant-based diet was more of a guideline than a rule, and devoted myself to enjoying everything on the menu.
Around eight years ago, innovations began sneaking in: sprigs of fresh herbs beside the solomillo, a bed of arugula under the pig cheeks, chopped chives in the tortilla de España (potato omelet). I worried that the abuelas’ abuelas were spinning in their graves. Pretty soon the old tile-walled café-bars were rubbing shoulders with sleek new restaurants offering wildly innovative menus and amusing napkins, often with presentations involving smoke-filled domes or shrimp shavings that appeared to be fluttering in the bowl.
Arriving in Seville again after 16 months away (months in which the entire world reconfigured itself) I braced myself for unwelcome changes in the city’s taverns, cafes and restaurants. Being selflessly devoted to keeping my readers informed, I decided it was my duty to check out as many as possible right away.
Yes, a few had closed and will be missed, but I was overjoyed to discover how many old-school eateries survived the recent upheavals. Bodeguita Romero (Calle Harinas, 10) is still serving their signature carrilladas, which Sevillano friends Isabel and Julio introduced me to years ago as the best slow-cooked pig cheeks in the city. Los Coloniales (Plaza Cristos de Burgos, 19) is still dishing up generous portions of solomillo al whiskey smothered in garlic and drenched with whiskey and olive oil. And Casa Morales (Calle García de Vinuesa, 11) is still full of visitors squealing at the sight of gulas, fake baby eels made of pressed fish (like “krab” in the US), a popular replacement for anguilas (real baby eels), a delicacy that’s become prohibitively expensive.
I wasn’t surprised that local customers would keep the traditional eateries alive, but what about the trendy new places, with higher prices and more exotic menus, which cater largely to foreign visitors?
You’ll be happy to know that most of my favorites are still around, including Contenedor (Calle San Louis, 50), the restaurant whose roast pork convinced me to become a carnivore again. It’s known for its slow cooking, relaxed atmosphere (they don’t allow bachelor parties or other rowdy groups), and some of the best food anywhere. I was longing to dine there again, but it’s always been strictly indoor seating, which I’m still avoiding. I could hardly contain my joy when friends told me Contenedor has added a handful of sidewalk tables.
Like many cities, Seville is allowing restaurants to set up outdoor dining wherever they can squeeze in a tabletop, and to build parklets in the street despite the chronic shortfall of parking spaces. Another of my go-to hotspots, Castizo (Calle Zaragoza, 6), has added two tiny tables by the front door, and we were lucky enough to get one of them for a recent lunch with a friend visiting from San Francisco.
“The food in this town is extraordinary,” John exclaimed. “I’ve never tasted anything like it.” Now, I often get remarks like that when I pass around a plate of gulas, but this was different; he made it clear he considered Seville’s cuisine a hot rival to anything back home.
We ate plenty of jamón (Spanish ham) while John was in town, and he wanted to take some along when he left. With some difficulty, Rich and I managed to persuade him it was impractical to smuggle a whole pig leg onboard an airplane, even in checked luggage. He decided instead on a vacuum pack of freshly sliced jamón, which is how practical locals tend to transport it. An American restauranteur once told me he used to import his jamón vacuum packed and hidden in the pages of a magazine, so officials didn’t see it and airport dogs couldn’t sniff it out; I have never personally put this to the test.
I took John to the market in Plaza Encarnacíon beneath the Setas (a hideous, mushroom-shaped monument to the egos of civic leaders) to buy some jamón Ibérico (the good stuff). Slicing jamón cannot be rushed; it is an art form requiring graceful cuts resulting in paper-thin slivers that melt in your mouth. I was glad to see this was another local food tradition that hadn’t changed one iota.
Jamón is the ultimate comfort food for many Spaniards and quite sustaining. A few slices on your breakfast toast can keep you going all day, if need be. A Spanish friend explained to me that one of the reasons meat features so prominently on local menus is that everyone here was raised on stories of the post-Civil War era called The Hunger, when nobody had enough to eat, especially here in Andalucía, the poorest part of Spain and one which stood against Franco. “At home you eat vegetables,” she said. “When you go out, you want something special.”
Sevillanos are experts at making do with less; with nothing on hand but a few tomatoes and vegetable scraps, they created the cold soup known as gazpacho. In a place that has known real hunger, every meal is cause for celebration, whether we’re feasting on roast pork or eating bread made with the last whole wheat flour we’ll see for months. Food is about comfort, nourishment, and pleasure, a time to lay down our responsibilities, our worries, and our phones so we can appreciate the gift of this small, perfect moment while it’s right in front of us.
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As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape. But don't worry: not even the pandemic could dampen the city's appetite for good food.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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