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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12/14/2021 05:19:16 pm
From one Brownie lover to another; the gift of Brownies ALWAYS brings joy!!!
12/14/2021 05:40:38 pm
I so agree, Karen: brownies are possible the most perfect food ever created. I usually use an orange flavored chocolate bar (the Lindt Intense Orange) for my chocolate chips, but what a brilliant idea to add flavored oil!! Will certainly be trying that! And I'm with you on the mix question, too; I no longer make them from scratch. Here in Seville the best we've got is Duncan Heinz from the American Store at premium prices. But so worth it for the joy they bring!
12/14/2021 05:32:12 pm
I love the "decorative" piece you sent to your brother. Very nice work. I'm debating about making some of the usual cookies, but guess I will press on and look forward to the coasting and enjoying next week. Thanks for keeping us all up to date.
12/14/2021 05:46:43 pm
Thanks for your kind words about the "decorative" work, Phyllis. It was a labor of love and helped me feel a bit more stable during those first turbulent months of the pandemic. As for the coasting part, I'm always trying to balance my desire to pack in more fun with the need to stop and smell the fresh pine scent of the tree, or maybe cookies baking, and rejoice in the moment. The holidays go by in a rush some years; I'm working to make sure I feel the pleasure of this coasting phase. I hope you do too!
12/14/2021 07:02:42 pm
Happy Christmas to you Karen and Rich. Have a wonderful time in Seville. Painter, writer and blogger, you're a talented woman.
12/15/2021 09:00:31 am
Happy Christmas to you, Joan, and thanks for your kind words. Here's to a New Year full of exciting writing projects for us both.
12/14/2021 07:40:38 pm
Karen you are one hell of an artist is there no end to your range of skills and artistry!? Miss you guys and have a wonderful holiday season whilst Jean and I mope around Mill Valley lonely and blue without you….sigh…
12/15/2021 09:03:31 am
Paul, I refuse to believe that you and Jean are moping; I've never met more energetic people in my life. But I agree, it's hard to be parted for so many months, and especially at the holidays. But look at it this way: think of all the things we'll have to celebrate when Rich and I return to CA. In the meantime, the merriest of holidays to you both, and best wishes for 2022!
12/14/2021 11:25:39 pm
Hi Karen! Lovely artwork! Such talent! I am curious about the brownies! Scratch? I imagine how delish! Looking forward to meeting you in person soon!
12/15/2021 09:07:50 am
Thanks for calling it artwork, Susan; I'm still smarting from the "decorative" designation. No, my brownies are no longer made from scratch. I did that for years when I first moved here, but now that I can find good quality mix, I'm letting others do the heavy lifting. I make them my own by adding extra chocolate chunks and M&Ms. I figure if chocolate is good, more chocolate is even better.
12/15/2021 05:09:20 am
I'm impressed that you have an oven in Sevilla! My experience was that they were like clothes dryers--i.e., rare. That doesn't mean that I didn't manage some kitchen destruction, though...your brownie story reminded me of a time when I let some eggs boil dry on the stove and only realized it when I wondered what those loud exploding noises were coming from the kitchen.
12/15/2021 09:13:15 am
I can imagine your sentiments when you heard the explosions from the kitchen, Elizabeth. I haven't done that, but before I bought an electric tea kettle with a shut-off switch, I burned up a lot of stovetop kettles. As for the oven, you're so right; they're practically unheard of in apartments here, as nobody bakes or roasts food, it's all stovetop. We bought an oven when we moved in, as Rich was not about to go through even one holiday season without cooking a turkey, and during the lockdown I baked all my own bread, so it's been a wonderful addition to our lives.
12/15/2021 06:51:13 am
Merry Christmas to you and Rich, Karen. I hope you have a wonderful holiday.
12/15/2021 09:57:08 am
Sherry, I hope you do find your way back to Seville one of these days, and in the meantime, I'm glad you're joining me via the blog posts and staying connected to this city. To me, Seville feels like a safe refuge in this turbulent world. Merry Christmas to you and yours, and a safe and sane 2022!
12/15/2021 11:34:15 am
Thank you. :)
12/15/2021 02:57:56 pm
Hang in there and happy holidays! May your Christmas be filled with cheer and not calamity!!
12/16/2021 05:59:12 pm
Thanks, and the same to you and yours, Jackie. Or as they say in your neck of the woods, Καλά Χριστούγεννα και ας ελπίσουμε ότι το 2022 θα είναι μια ασφαλέστερη και πιο υγιής χρονιά για όλους μας.
12/17/2021 01:33:39 am
Enjoyed the photos and painting, Karen. Your post always brings a smile to my face. Thanks for bringing Spain to us!
12/21/2021 05:16:16 pm
Thanks for joining me on the blog, Faye. And a special thanks for your kind words about the photos and painting, which are such fun to do. For me, the visuals make Seville really come alive. Happy everything to you and yours!
12/20/2021 06:55:06 am
A rollercoaster of emotions for me here. While I love movies that make me laugh and cry, I am not so sure I like your blog to do that. You know how I love your photos so they pulled me through. I am late on this as we were in NY for a family wedding last week. Vaccines with boosters? Who is fully vaccinated now? Going to the wedding or in October Portugal; you need to be Covid negative. Go to a Warriors game or restaurant in the Bay you need to prove you have been vaccinated. Then one week before my son in LA gets his booster, he gets Covid after a negative test and yes at 34 he was quite sick. Happiness to all for a better future and the holidays. PS the US is no longer a democracy but an anocracy.
12/21/2021 05:19:53 pm
Kitty, I am so sorry to hear about your son getting Covid, and that he was so sick with it. This crazy virus is so unpredictable! How is he doing now? On the road to recovery, I hope. As you say, what a rollercoaster of emotions for you and your family. My heart goes out to you all. Here's hoping for a safer and saner 2022, for you guys and all of us.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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