Why they had dinner in the afternoon and ate (yes, ate) tea in the evening in London, how the Parisian Montmartre became a bohemian quarter thanks to a soup

 

London

By Anastasia Denisova

Londoners come to the Hyde Park Christmas market, known as Wonderland, for two reasons: small children and love for disco. Young citizens, who love everything noisy and glittery, enjoy simple amusement rides, ask for a lollipop and politely shake Santa’s mitten. As for disco, this is for the crowd at least in its thirties. Among the expected stands with hot sweet wine for £5 there is a “Bavarian Village”,  which is the extravaganza of shameless kitsch. Performers of venerable age in tight leathers and their girlfriends with colorful braids dance and sing to the hits of the 80s and 90s. You will hear "Barbie Girl" by Aqua, and "How Much Is The Fish?" by Scooter. Jumping to this music is sheer madness and, let’s put it this way, a yoga alternative for those who are better relaxed by Eurotrash. Of course, the participants of the dance restore their forces with the help of plump sausages, swilling them down with frothing Bavarian beer.

A more refined attraction can be found at one of the London skating rinks (the most picturesque is by the Natural History Museum). There is so little place there, though, that the guests virtually rub off one another. An endearing sight is the toddlers who, hugging the plastic-penguin-lookalike props, manage to scamper to and fro across the ice in spite of the crowds.

What is the Londoners’ cue for separating the pre-holiday mood from the everyday routine? In the morning, they never fail to complain: “Just imagine, it’s Christmas again! Could it be that a whole year has passed?” After that they switch on the heat for half an hour, consume some porridge and drink some tea. Home heating is expensive, and, so as not to drown under the bills, it is only switched on for a couple of hours every day, when the hosts are at home. Before lunch, in the office people discuss who is going where for the holidays. In most cases, everyone goes to their ancestral homes. Even if in the course of the other 364 days the relatives do not communicate, it is obligatory to take a ticket home during the Christmas armistice. Then the lunch time comes: the endless poetry of choosing a sandwich. The holiday version, by the way, is turkey with cranberry jam between two slices of bread. This treat is feverishly expected in office environment for the whole year, even though, as a rule, after the tasting session it disappoints, and this feeling almost —  but not quite —  holds until the next December.

On the eve of the office parties the ladies, of course, go shopping for dresses. The main shopping street —  Oxford Street —  is decorated with sparkling golden balls which illuminate the path of shopaholics like planets, like satellites of the trade. Wise Stoics, though, restrain themselves until December 26, when all prices, as if slashed by a magic wand, are reduced by half. Wearisome discount weeks follow, marked by crowds in supermarkets and the most meaningless purchases of the year.

To retreat from all that towards calm and quiet can be helped by the Nordic festival, which was last year held at the Royal Festival Hall near the Waterloo underground station. A one-hour tour dedicated to the legendary Swedish pop group ABBA included a review of costumes, posters, guitars and singing along the inevitable hit —  "Happy New Year".

Holidays in London can be a tiring epic, if you follow the classic route. But as soon as you abandon the customary itineraries or even invent your own (as absurd as you like), the true London spirit will descend upon you. The city which gave the world more than one subculture respects those who create new paths. Even if they derive from Bavarian-style disco and lead towards Swedish pop culture. Heating is expensive these days; the economical way to heat up is to dance.

 

Seville

By Yelena Zelinskaya

One should visit Seville in the spring. Once back at home, you can forget everything —  the maze of streets in the Jewish quarter of Juderia, and the mighty Moorish tower Giralda, tightly linked to the Catholic cathedral Santa Maria de la Sede, and shiny horses in elegant harness (one of them will take you from Plaza del Triunfo to Plaza de España) —  yes, you will forget everything, but the inebriating aroma of orange trees in flower will never fade away from your memory completely; this smell fills the city, joining the fragrances of jasmine and roses. The Moorish spirit, which cannot be eradicated by centuries of Catholicism, is spilled in the air like an expensive and exotic perfume. Halt your carriage by a small café on the bank of the Guadalquivir, order some churros and enjoy the sumptuous Maria Luisa Park —  the cypresses, the tender oleanders, the clusters of acacia. Dip the slender dough fingers into hot chocolate and imbibe this divine aroma.

Or one could come to Seville in the summer. The unbearable midday heat will exile you to have a siesta in the cool hotel patio. Listening to the regular gurgling of the marble fountain, you will drink icy beer with thinly cut squid rings; and in the evening, in quiet twilight, you will slip outside and immerse yourself in nightlife, full of innuendo and discovery. The café on the square will not have any spare places, but you will follow the path through the low white arches and, hearing the call of the guitar, walk to the small tavern, where on the tight spot of the scene the red whirlwind of flamenco would suddenly light up. The swarthy dancer – bailaora – will flash her black eyes, tap the low heel, abruptly wave the polka-dotted skirt, and then the rhythm, music, singing, dance and your disheveled feelings will all join in one. And then, enchanted, you will move along the crooked lanes of the Santa Cruz quarter into the warm balmy night, walking, like a true-blue Sevillian, from one bar to another, asking for Andalusian wine only and tapas (no less than five in a set) with gigantic green olives, chorizo sausages or champignons.

Everyone, though, loves to come to Seville in the fall; it is already cool enough in the street, so it is high time for a museum walk. For the knowledgeable there is  the Museum of Fine Arts or the majestic royal palace, Alcazar, the best place to study the Mudejar style born on the borderline between the Moorish and Spanish. For the thrill seekers there is the Corrida Museum. The old round arena, arch-shaped galleries for spectators, the swish of the red cloak, the spade, yellow sand flying from under the heavy bulls’ hooves… This is very romantic, though far not to everyone’s taste. By the way, after attending the corrida (the season begins in the spring and ends in the fall) or simply after the tour of the biggest arena in the world it is absolutely necessary to go to the nearest restaurant and order the famous Andalusian dish —  stewed bull tails in wine and tomato sauce. And a bottle of sherry.

As for me, I love Seville in the winter. The queues to Alcazar are shorter than usual, while the streets are strewn with fallen ripe oranges. Yes, there is a fairytale country in this world, where puddles of orange juice form on paving stones. Oranges in baskets, oranges in buckets, in the parks, squares and patios. You sit down to have a cup of coffee, then you raise your head – and you see the sky decorated with oranges.

They say those bright orange fruit were brought to Seville by crusaders. They say they used them to cure hangover, indigestion and fear. The Moors who had owned the city for centuries used to surround their luxurious gardens with orange trees — that is the origin of the fashion for internal courtyards in every house in Seville. Do not stretch your hand to grab the fiery ball: its taste is bitter-sweet. But any tavern will serve you a salad of cod soaked in onions and oranges, and after Christmas, everywhere they would be happy to offer you a fish orange soup. There is probably no one in the world who does not know the taste of Seville oranges — everyone has tasted, at least once, the famous orange marmalade. It is made in England from Sevillian oranges only, because their peel preserves the unique taste and aroma. They say that Queen Elizabeth II never has her five o’clock tea without this fragrant marmalade.

But what about Christmas? This is a fairy tale, a childhood dream. Oranges, lighted by the New Year garlands, turn into sparkling Christmas tree balls. The King will congratulate you with the New Year on television. The sunny square will be suddenly covered in ice, and sharp-nosed penguins will invite you to skate. The main Christmas tree downtown will be artificial, but happiness will be real. Burning your fingers, pull the chestnuts out of a paper bag — they are offered from hot skillets everywhere; walk across Plaza de la Encarnación or the park La Alameda de Hercules among the holiday abundance of wines, magical decorations, Christmas tree toys and sweets. The mountains of marzipan are covered by sugar powder as if by snow; there are also baskets of honey turron, gingerbread biscuits, pestiños made with lemon rind and brandy, tender croutons soaked in milk with cinnamon…

And, as if there weren’t enough magic, a caravan enters the glittering city. Swaying on the camels’ backs, with the retinue, music, and gift-laden carts, slowly, strewing the crowd with candy, the three Biblical magi move along the streets —  Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar. On this day it is necessary to taste the Roscón de Reyes, the Christmas tart which looks like a giant bagel decorated with candied fruits like a crown with jewels. In every Roscón there is a bean, and luck will grace anyone who grabs that piece. On second thoughts, though, luck has graced you already, if you are in Seville.

 

Paris

By Daria Knyazeva

Rosy chunks of foie gras with fig chutney on crisp gingerbread toasts is a hors d’oeuvre as typical for the French Christmas table as it is odious for Christian morality. To obtain that delicacy — fatty duck liver — the bird is tortured for months on end. Countless documentaries and photo essays have been shot about the torture, but only the most anxious among the French — like my mother-in-law — have lost their appetite because of them.

There is a measure of sacral significance in that: the Gauls had been accepting Christianity so resentfully that they turned many preachers into martyrs (St. Denis of Paris, the saint with the chopped-off head, often found on church façades and frescoes, is a good example of their methods). Everything about that new religion was contrary to the code of honor of the freedom-loving ancient nation, which said out loud: be insatiable in food, love, alcohol and other joys. The ineradicable Gallic paganism makes itself known in the traditional Christmas dessert — a layered log of coffee, chocolate and vanilla ice cream, an echo of a Druid ritual when a whole tree trunk used to be burned for a long time to ensure a rich harvest. The trunk was supposed to smolder in the hearth for at least three days, better still, for twelve, and to manage the moody fire, the log had to be poured over with milk, honey or wine. Christianity has made attempts to reclaim the log, suggesting that it was, for instance, the crib of Christ, and the spraying symbolizes the gifts of the Magi, but agrarian workers remember quite well whom they are trying to pacify.

The Gauls resolutely failed to understand the idea of austerity, just like the undemocratic concentration of all power in the hands of one divinity. They could be lured into the new religion only by the idea of total absolution. Now, though, all of December is peppered with touching holidays of the saints: Nicholas is celebrated on the 6th, Lucia on the 13th, and the New Year’s eve meal is always called Saint Sylvester Dinner in restaurant menus.

St. Nicholas, the patron of children and travelers, better known in some other countries as Santa Claus, begins his month of Christmas celebrations. Brioche men called Mannele, shoes and socks full of candy, live and toy donkeys occupy locations around Gare de l’Est — from there, railroad lines lead to Alsace and Lorraine, French regions marked by a strong German influence.

If you suddenly come across a procession of girls in white clothes not far from the Eiffel Tower — girls that carry candles through a frosty night and sing tenderly — do not be afraid, this is not a hallucination, it is a remembrance ritual of St. Lucia. The patroness of those with poor vision, those who write, and also of the electricians (yes), this great martyr is especially revered in Scandinavia, and the Embassy of Sweden is in the Seventh Arrondissement, not far from the “iron lady”. Swedish diplomats organize a concert to honor Lucia (a female choir, organ, harp) in Notre Dame de Paris; all the crème de la crème —  everyone whose surname has a ‘de’ in it — come to hear it. Last season, the Swedish royal couple was present.

Well-behaved bourgeois go to work up an appetite before the chestnut, prunes and cedar nuts-stuffed turkey to the nearest church, where a mass is served on the night of 24/25 December. The time says it’s late, but in Paris it would be easy to mix up day and night: the mayor’s office spends an indecent amount of kilowatts for holiday lighting, and on Christmas eve, the city looks like a Jean-Michele Jarre show. The stars cannot be seen behind the garlands, Haussmann’s façades are transformed by spotlights into Impressionist pictures. Tourist companies send out special tours using two-story buses at that point — adding a comforter and a glass of hot drink for those who failed to secure a place in the warm cabin.

The name of the bishop Sylvester I, who had managed to leave the earthly domain on December 31, 335 AD, is now firmly associated with champagne, scallops, and Îles flottantes, a meringue dessert bathed in custard. The priest does not object, though — he was one of the first to have achieved canonization without the obligatory preceding torture, simply for his good service and for baptizing the emperor Constantine. He starts the new year in the hope that had become the leitmotif of his earthly life and deeds — the hope that religions would be finally able to make peace.

 

 

Published on: September 25, 2018