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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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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