Their eyes widened as I tried to explain ‘salted caramel’. A flavour that has long been popular in the UK but is only just arriving in Spain (and being received with a fair degree of scepticism). Lorenzo is a man of few words, and his eyes locked onto mine as I described that touch of salt that cuts through the sweetness. He said nothing, but wagged a finger disapprovingly towards the chocolate petals flavoured with salted caramel that I was offering.
It was an evening we had doubted would happen. In every country, plans for Christmas were made, scrubbed, remade, amended, and in many cases abandoned. Here in Andalucía we had waited on tenterhooks for the rules. Decisions were down to each regional government. National guidance to the regions was that households should all celebrate separately, with the allowable addition of “allegados” (close, or ‘intimate’ friends). Andalucía leaked in advance that they wanted to drop the word, as being too vague and unenforceable. So just a family household, then. OK, fair enough, we need to do the right thing. That would leave me, like many others, alone (although next door, Isabel said she had looked over the rear terrace and she reckoned we could get me up a ladder and over the back wall!).
It’s fair to say that Lorenzo is a traditionalist. The idea that each of his vast tribe of children and grandchildren would not be around his table this Christmas Eve must be deeply painful. But they’ve been sensible. The many households of his clan that normally gather together had debated, argued, cried, and finally agreed. Each in their own homes. Just for this year, it would not be a normal Nochebuena. Not like the one I described a few years ago: https://tamaraessexspanishblog.wordpress.com/2016/01/06/156-just-being-there/
So we waited for the publication of the rules. One morning as we sat cosily together, knees tucked beneath the thick ground-level tablecloth and the brasero under the table warming our legs, Rafaela repeated her invitation for la Nochebuena, and I reminded her that Andalucía still hadn’t announced whether they would include “los allegados”, the close friends. She looked confused for a moment, and said firmly to me “Pero tú no eres allegada” (you’re not a close friend). Ouch! But before I could gulp or respond, she went on: “Eres familia” (you’re family). And then I did gulp. This lovely woman, with the biggest family I’ve ever known, matches it with the biggest heart, that always has room for one more.
And then the rules came out, and yes, it would be legal, without stretching any interpretations. Maximum two households, made up of family and, yes, close friends. Safe, too, as we were so often together, apart from in the very tightest of lockdowns back in March, April and May. And we knew that the rules wouldn’t change. After all, what government would announce its rules, let everyone make their plans, and then change the rules five days before Christmas??? (Yes, I know – irony alert!)
But in the end it’s not the rules that matter. We’re “allowed” groups of six in bars or restaurants. I’ve had coffees with only one friend at a time, maximum two, and always outside. I’ve had lunches with one friend, maximum two, and outside every time except once, but even then the tables were about three metres apart. An invitation for Christmas Day was turned down as I knew that there were already two households involved. Life has shrunk, inevitably. Invitations are refused, opportunities missed. But there will be others. Elsewhere, though, different choices are made. Ninety percent of my social media reflects my own experience, but there are pockets where people fly abroad, travel on the underground, have big group lunches, attend concerts, crowd into each other’s houses. And then ten days later the app bleeps. A random (but entirely inevitable) infection releases an equally infectious ripple of fear far and wide. In Spain as in England the medics are clearer than the politicians. Just because something is allowed, doesn’t mean it is sensible.
So finally we made it safely (and sensibly) through to Christmas Eve and our small group gathered next door. The traditional mountain of delicious seafood filled the table, the singers on the telly provided background music, the King made his speech, and a video-chat involving all the other households in Lorenzo’s enormous family put a huge smile on his face. Puddings were brought and somehow squeezed in, and then I passed round the salted caramel chocolate petals. Rafaela and Isabel gave them a try, first declaring that that you really couldn’t taste the salt, and then suddenly on the final swallow reacting – yes, there was the taste, at the back of the tongue! And they liked them. With a bit of encouragement Lorenzo was persuaded to try one, albeit with a frown. I waited expectantly, and then received half a smile, and a nod. And a few moments later this quiet patriarch, while the massed ranks of his family shouted and waved from the telephone screen, reached over for a second salted caramel chocolate petal. One point to the foreigner, on this strangest of Christmas Eves.
© Tamara Essex 2020 http://www.twocampos.com