For many reasons, this chapter broke the narrative of The Crinkle Crankle Wall and I decided to remove it from the book, but I think it makes a great Christmas Special for my faithful readers. It describes our first Christmas in our new Andalusian cottage, or to be exact, the first Christmas in our neighbour’s house as our cottage was not really inhabitable at that time. I hope you enjoy it! Merry Christmas or Feliz Navidad to everyone from Sabina.
Cortijo Berruguilla, December 2022
We moved all the boxes of books out of the old bedroom and placed them under the patio. What was left in the room was the only piece of furniture that had originally occupied the bedroom: a giant, fake mahogany, three-door wardrobe. I had hated this specific piece of furniture from the first time I had set eyes on it and could not wait for the day when I would be able to smash it into bits and burn it. That fateful day for the wardrobe had finally arrived. I stood in the near-empty room, considering its demise when Robert entered.
‘What do you want to do with this wardrobe?’ he asked. ‘It won’t fit through the door.’
Evidently, this monstrosity of a wardrobe had been assembled in situ because none of the door openings to our cottage was big enough for it to fit through.
‘We could dismantle it and burn it,’ I suggested, as if I had just thought about this.
‘You don’t want to keep it?’
Why would I want to keep this portal to Satan’s lair in my house? I thought to myself. The wardrobe clearly belonged in a horror movie — the only thing missing inside was a blood-stained wedding dress and a yellowing veil.
‘Definitely not,’ I replied, and so we began to dismantle the doors. Soon the whole structure of the wardrobe was in manageable sections. We removed these, piece by piece, and put them on top of a pile of dry leaves we intended to burn.
‘We’ll have to burn it before Gabi stops by,’ Robert reminded me. ‘He’ll be upset if he sees that we’re burning his wardrobe.’
Old Gabi and his sister, Mercedes, would come by once a week to her tiny cottage opposite us. During these visits, they’d grow vegetables and look after the fruit trees. It was Gabi and Mercedes with whom we spent our first Christmas in Berruguilla.
It was December 2014, and we’d just had the new roof installed. As soon as the last tile had been placed on the roof, our Spanish builder and his helpers ran off to harvest their olives. Our chief builder, Dani, was already a month late picking his olives and was anxious to get started. We, on the other hand, were left to our own devices, plastering the stone walls, installing missing windows and doors, and converting bare brick walls into a home. We were so busy every day learning new trades from YouTube and completing a never-ending list of jobs that we didn’t even notice that Christmas had arrived.
I was busy waterproofing the terrace floor by painting it with a thick rubbery substance that was supposed to protect it from rainwater leaking into the walls of the house when I saw Gabi’s tiny figure on the driveway calling out our names. In rural Andalusia, since there are no doorbells at the gate or other means of informing the inhabitants of a house that a visitor is approaching, it’s customary to call out your imminent presence. The prerequisite hollering starts when the visitor is still on the road approaching the abode.
They begin with ¡Hola!, which is repeated several times. Once you cross the gate or step onto someone’s driveway, it’s good manners to cry out all the names of the inhabitants of the dwelling in all directions and with a great deal of enthusiasm and vigour, creating an ululation of friendly intent. Because many of the cortijos of Andalusia are built from dense rock, it’s unlikely anyone inside the cottage will be able to hear you, but there is no point arguing with savoir-vivre. Knocking on someone’s door like a maniac is really the last resort and is done only in case of utmost emergency; a severed limb or a knife in your stomach might excuse you from banging on a neighbour’s door. Otherwise, the well-mannered visitor should wait on the patio outside the cortijo and call out the name of the person they wish to speak to. If you receive no answer, you turn back and repeat the whole routine the next day.
Since Gabi had spotted me working on the terrace, there was no need for more yelling and calling Ḿarina — a name I was given by some of my older neighbours who insisted on calling me that instead of Sabina. I never corrected them. I’d been called Sabrina and Sandra many times before, and even Sybil once, all were name I did not particularly care for. Ḿarina, on the other hand, sounded like a nice girl — a wholesome and friendly type. Until my neighbours figured out my real name, I was happy to be Ḿarina. Gabi approached the house and only when he wished me ¡Feliz Navidad! did I realise that it was Christmas Eve.
‘My family from Ibiza is here,’ Gabi stood below on the patio while I was on the terrace above with a big brush in hand. ‘Come and meet them.’
I looked at the last corner of the floor that still needed painting and told him we’d be down to his cottage in twenty minutes or so. As he sauntered off, I spotted a small group of people chopping wood outside his sister’s cottage and assumed that they were preparing firewood for a barbecue. It occurred to me that neither Robert nor I had any festive clothes to wear. This was the case because our wardrobe was still in boxes in storage in Granada. All we had to wear were cheap jerseys bought at the Tuesday market in Alcalá la Real and a couple of good quality labourers’ pants from suministros, a type of rural hardware store that sells everything from rustic pots and pans to septic tanks. I inspected our attire for stains and holes and, satisfied that we would pass casual muster, we grabbed a couple of litre bottles of Alhambra beers from the fridge and went down to meet Gabi’s family.
On seeing us, Merce started to squeal enthusiastically and clasp her hands — it was her traditional way of greeting us. She summoned us to come inside the cottage. Merce’s cottage was tiny, and it wasn’t actually a cortijo, a farmhouse, but a nave, a somewhat inhabitable barn. I suspected that being a woman, Merce had inherited the barn while her brother got the main farmhouse; the land must have been equally divided because at least half of the hill behind Merce’s house belonged to her, and the other half was her brother’s. Over the years, Merce’s barn had been transformed into a summer house where she and her husband resided during the hot months. There were also several dilapidated outbuildings on the property of different shapes, sizes, and materials that had once been used to house chickens, goats, rabbits, and dogs. Abandoned objects of various origins were strewn across the patio and the garden, discarded and with no apparent use.
It had only been three months since Merce’s husband of fifty years, Juan Carlos, had passed away. She was still very emotionally fragile and would often burst into tears in the middle of a conversation. Everything reminded her of her husband and made her sob in despair. We’d be standing in the field, and she’d see artichoke flowers and remember how Juan Carlos loved to eat artichoke. She’d lean on her gate and tell me that Juan Carlos was going to paint it. She’d see a pile of wood and be reminded of the many barbecues they’d had together in the tiny cottage. Wherever she looked, it brought back memories, and with memories came uncontrollable heartache. As Robert and I entered, I was glad to see that there were other people present who could gently console her in Spanish when she started to cry — after all, it was going to be her first Christmas without her husband.
Once inside, we were introduced to Gabi’s nephew, Rafa, his wife, Isabel, and their son, Miguel, a student at the University of Alicante. Also sitting at the table were Gabi’s two grandchildren, Maria and Enrique, whose beautiful Brazilian mother we had met a few times before. Leaning out from the tiny dining room, I peeked into Merce’s kitchen. It was evident from the limited space that the cottage had not really overcome the limitations of originally being a barn. The kitchen was long and narrow, and at the end, there was a door to what I assumed was a small bedroom. There was a dining table between the kitchen and the entrance door. Next to the main door, on a precarious wooden shelf, was a cathode-ray tube TV set. With Merce and Isabel in the kitchen preparing some tapas, and three men, three kids and myself in the dining room, there was nowhere to move. After brief introductions, Robert followed Rafa and Miguel outside to oversee the barbecue while I sat next to the kids. I was about to stretch my legs under the very thick tablecloth when Merce dashed from the kitchen and shouted something in a panic.
She lifted the edge of the tablecloth that draped to the floor and motioned for me to take a look underneath the table. There, in the middle of the floor, was a round metal container filled with hot coals. Should I have stretched my legs, I would have likely ended up with third-degree burns since the coals were bright orange and glowing. I might have kicked the brasero over, which would then have set the tablecloth on fire and, in turn, would have burnt down the cottage.
Terrified by the near-miss, I sat up prim and proper next to little Maria, who was about six and her little brother, who was ten and concentrated on keeping my legs to myself. The idea of a brasero — a round metal container filled with glowing coals to keep your legs warm — is a simple one. Many traditional tables have a special elevated shelf underneath the table to hold the brasero unit from off the floor. As you sit at the table, the thick tablecloth rests on your legs and keeps the heat trapped underneath the table. In this way, you can sit for hours eating tapas, drinking wine, and playing cards. I could imagine farmers of a bygone era whiling away cold winter nights in this way. The only design flaw of the brasero is that it’s extremely hazardous, especially if copious amounts of wine, or even worse, whiskey or brandy, are consumed. It’s a ticking time bomb set right by your feet.
Well aware of the peril, I was determined not to move my feet for the rest of the afternoon. I could hear Merce and Isabel in the kitchen, but as there was no more space in the kitchen for another adult, I resigned myself to talking to the kids. This was fine by me since my Spanish was about the same level as six-year-old Maria’s. And what a great conversationalist she was. She pointed to a patterned flower on the tablecloth and said:
‘Es rojo,’ which translates to It’s red.
I didn’t need a special invitation to continue this topic. I was pretty well-versed in Spanish colours.
‘Eso es verde,’ This one is green, I pointed out an embroidered leaf on the table cloth.
‘Si, red y green,’ Maria reiterated in a mix of Spanish and English. This was a positive turn in our confabulation since I could now take the reins and lead our little tête-à-tête.
‘Y eso?’ I pointed at Minnie Mouse’s dress on Maria’s T-shirt.
‘Es rosa,’ she replied and, after a moment’s hesitation, added in English, ‘Pink.’
‘¡Muy bien!’ I complimented her exquisite knowledge of the name of the colours in two languages. We went like this until we ran out of colours and fabrics. While Maria and I had a great time conversing, I could see a look of horror on her older brother’s face. He obviously did not want anything to do with this dotty foreign lady who appeared to have an IQ of a chipmunk. He was immensely relieved to see his mum enter the room and start placing plates of cold meats and cheese on the table.
It’s always a pleasure to watch Andalusian children eat the food that is placed in front of them. Unlike many Northern and Central European kids with whom I have had the unenviable pleasure of sharing a table in the past and listening to their family members take turns in trying to convince their offspring to take a bite to eat, the descendants of Andalusian farmers hardly ever make a fuss about a casual lump of fat floating in the middle of a bean stew, an empanada filled with spinach, or the rubbery texture of the sausage casing. I thought it must fill the older generation with happiness to see their descendants actually enjoy eating food. Both Merce and Gabi were born after the Spanish civil war and grew up in the late nineteen-forties during los Años de Hambre; literally ‘the Years of Hunger’. This was a decade when an estimated two hundred thousand Spaniards died of starvation. As the kids tucked into the cheese and meat with gusto, the door opened, and Robert and the other men entered. They had successfully lit the barbecue fire for the main course.
Many visitors to Andalusia are surprised when dining in a local restaurant, referred to as mesón rural, that they don’t receive any vegetables with their meat dish. The tradition of meat and two veg does not exist here. The thing about a festive lunch is that it consists of several dishes and follows a set order. If you decide to order just one entrée from the main course menu, it’s likely that the puzzled waiter will serve you a plate of food with so much negative on it that the dish itself could be served in a Michelin-star restaurant, not a rural eatery. To enjoy a complete meal, you need to order a minimum of three to four courses. Our Christmas Eve lunch followed the same pattern. We started with bread and Andalusian chorizo and salchichón, accompanied by thickly cut goat and sheep cheese. Rafa opened some small beers and passed them around.
While we ate, Isabel and her husband, who both spoke English, regaled us with stories about their life in Ibiza. It was strange to meet real people from the island which had a reputation for drunken rave parties. I’d always thought of it as some dreadful purgatory where you spend your daytime in a holiday resort recovering from a hangover. At night, you saunter through the streets, trying not to stumble over drunken English youths carpeting Ibiza’s pavements. But Isabel was portraying a very different picture — one with olive and almond trees, not very different from where we were at that moment. This was all very interesting, and we showered her with questions about her home island. It was also a great relief for both of us to speak English at the table since I wasn’t sure we would have been able to sustain a meaningful conversation in Spanish at a Christmas lunch that lasted more than two hours, no matter how enjoyable it was.
While we were drinking beer and enjoying the tapas, Merce served us fish and seafood stew. As I discovered in years to come, most Andalusians have a soft spot for fish stews with beans. Cod, or bacalao, is the favourite fish to use in these concoctions. But they need to be eaten with care because it is not uncommon to find the odd fishbone in the stew. Because the consistency and colour of these stews are dense and milky, resembling what I imagine Americans call chowder, it’s not easy to spot a stray bone or scale. If you ask me for a recipe for one of those cod stews or soups, I’d say throw anything that you have in your pantry: onions, garlic, potatoes, beans, breadcrumbs or flour to thicken it and finish with lemon.
As soon as Isabel had collected the empty bowls from around the table, Rafa and Miguel went outside to grill the lamb chops. Unlike American or British chops, Andalusian meat is usually cut very thinly, so they only need a couple of minutes on the barbecue. Soon, Rafa was back with a plate of perfectly grilled lamb chops while Isabel passed around some ensalada rusa; Russian salad. It’s a Spanish version of a potato salad with carrots and peas. A better name for it would be a mayonnaise salad because the ratio of mayonnaise to the minutely cut vegetables is about one-to-one. Many restaurants in our area serve ensalda rusa as a tapa, but it’s also a favourite at large family gatherings, so most people buy it in large containers from any local supermarket.
Sitting in the tiny room squashed like sardines around a small table, we were made to feel more than welcome. Gabi and Merce were not compelled to invite us in — we wouldn’t have taken offence — but they generously had. Whilst we all sat down by the table and enjoyed the food, Merce remained on her feet. It was her nature to fuss about, so she constantly walked back and forth between the kitchen and the tiny dining room. Every half an hour or so, she appeared with a shovelful of hot coals. We all lifted the tablecloth from our knees to let her place more coals into the brasero. When the meal was over, it was time for some coffee, brandy, and an Andalusian Christmas delicacy, polvorones.
As soon as I saw Merce with the tray of polvorones, my heart sank. It had been a lovely meal thus far. The clue to my dislike of this special Christmas treat is in its very name — they taste like they sound, a handful of finely ground dust or polvo in Spanish. Inside their colourful wrappers, polvorones look deceitfully moist and attractive. In English, they might be called ‘almond shortbreads’. Every December, whole sections in the supermarket are filled with beautifully wrapped polvorones. Their attractive exterior is necessary to compensate for the interior texture. On the first bite, the powdery-dusty texture immediately sucks all the moisture from your mouth and throat, leaving you with a wet lump of thick paste stuck to your palate.
A polvorón is definitely a choking hazard and should never be consumed in solitude. If you’re in company, especially in the company of Spaniards who love polvorones, you will have to use all your mental energy to swallow one. Having a shot of brandy or some other digestivo nearby is advisable to help lubricate the polvorón’s pathway from your mouth down your throat. Under no circumstances should you attempt to eat a polvorón with no liquid ready at arm’s length. I knew all this because, a week earlier, our neighbour Maria had brought us a large Christmas selection of polvorones. Robert and I learned the hard way not to eat them without having a suitable lubricant on hand, and left most of the box untouched.
As soon as Robert spotted Merce offering up the tray of polvorones, he started to rub his stomach and pretend that he could not possibly eat any more food. He seemed to have a little more space for a second brandy, but God forbid should he make an effort to eat a polvorón. It would have been rude of both of us to reject the offering, so I selected a lemon-flavoured polvorón in the hope that it would be less anhydrous than the almond one that I had the week earlier. It wasn’t. It crumbled into a million tiny bits onto the wrapper in front of me. I picked at the crumbs for half an hour until it was gone.
When the lunch had come to an end, we were both loath to leave the warm cottage. Our own dwelling had a roof but no windows, so the living room temperature was around ten degrees Celsius. It was freezing and very uninviting.
If you enjoyed this missing chapter from The Crinkle Crankle Wall, keep on reading. Sabina Ostrowska’s books are available on kindle and as paperbacks. Books 1 and 2 are available in all amazon markets and other online bookshops. You can read them for free on Kindle Unlimited.