A Christmas Tale

By Paul Read

It was the capital city of Spain under the Visigoths until it was moved to Madrid. Perhaps this explains why time has stayed still within its high, protective walls. It is, to say the least, unusual to find a city these days without traffic lights nor zebra crossings. A city that can only be entered by one of nine gates and in many places has staircases instead of streets. It is almost completely encircled by water, and each Christmas is covered by a fairy-tale blanket of snow. That winter we rented an ancient crumbling flat in a 350yr old house with a central well, tilting patio and hidden Arab baths in the basement. What else could we expect from Toledo, with its mixed population of civil servants, priests, Portuguese gypsies and foresteros ( outsiders).

Christmas approached and a huge pine tree went up in the central square. At its base, Council workers methodically constructed a biblical nativity scene. Sand piles had been placed at different points, presumably depicting a Middle East landscape, whilst several plaster animals including a badly painted infant had been deposited inside what appeared to be a dog kennel. The Toledans would spend many an hour in large family groups awing or yawning over the exhibition. Mysteriously, a nocturnal thief began to remove the plaster sheep.

As the first winter snowflakes fell, our flat proved somewhat chilly and fragile: the shower curtain rail fell out of the wall, and the ceiling leaked. The electrical wall sockets burnt out our English adapters; the television screen turned an unusual shade of green and could only receive a picture by turning the whole thing on its side. When the electric fire caught fire, our landlord – Cecilio the silversmith who lived on the floor - below would throw his hands in the air saying, " What do I know, I’m no electrician?" Perhaps plagued by his conscience, he turned up one icy afternoon with an electric fan heater that someone had dumped in the street. It was fitted with a non-adjustable thermostat set to switch itself off every 15 seconds and stay off for at least five minutes. "It's no good being too warm in the flat all winter - think of your heating costs," he reasoned.

On Xmas Eve we ate roast chestnuts and oranges in bed, watching a film by lying sideways , and felt very much in an alien country. The following morning we awoke cold but happy and celebrated the day with a "paseo" in the snow. We headed for the main square – a triangular affair called Zocodover, an Arabic word meaning market place. There we found a bar to sip a xmas "carajillo" and watch the marching soldiers of Toledo’s military garrison parade past on their way back to base within the ghostly Alcazar, perched on the highest point of the city like Frankenstein’s Castle. We strolled back to the nativity scene, attracted by the flickering bulbs that were short-circuiting in the snow and sleet. The baby Jesus was now gone, as were all the plaster animals, leaving behind just some piles of soggy sand looking more like a winter afternoon on the beach in Benidorm than Bethlehem. The Military garrison played a final blast on its brass instruments as it reached the gates of the Alcazar; and a small gathering of black frocked priests huddled together against the cathedral walls to watch. The pine tree bulbs flickered on and off for a moment and then went out. We shivered and headed back to the icy warmth of our flat. As we entered the patio, we found Cecilio roasting chestnuts over an open brazier. He had erected a small pine tree next to the sink, stolen that morning from the round-a-bout near the bus station. "Come and eat with us," he ordered as his wife poured us brandies in snow-capped glasses and his children played amongst plaster sheep. "To Toledo" we toasted. " To a city frozen in time".

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