Anyone who knows me, even slightly, will testify that Christmas is without a doubt my favourite time of year (to one friend, I am known as “Sarah Christmas”). The Christmas I love is a nostalgic, traditional British one: Midnight Mass with my family, frosty dark village lanes, twinkling lights on real Christmas trees, mulled wine and mince pies in front of a roaring fire, friends drunkenly dancing arm in arm in the pub to classic Christmas tunes…
All the twee, obvious images we associate with Christmas are what makes it special to me and I am not ashamed to admit that I wholeheartedly embrace them all. This will be our second Christmas away from home and so the festive nostalgia is reaching new heights. I have realised that all of the things that I miss about this time of year are more about the people than the things themselves. The Christmas tree and endless strings of lights makes me think fondly of my dad and the extremely serious trip that we usually take every year to pick the perfect tree. Mince pies – in fact anything food related – makes me think of my mum and her spectacular baking skills which come into their own at Christmas. The cheesy Christmas songs mean so much more when I am surrounded by amazing girlfriends who indulge my childish Christmas glee.
This realisation has made me promise myself to make the absolute most of future Christmas celebrations with those people when we are back in the UK. For this Christmas however, we aren’t sure yet what the festive season in Medellín will hold for us. As I write this (listening to Christmas music of course!) we don’t have any special plans. Up to now however, our time in Medellín has highlighted that when your family and friends are a long way away, what better way to deal with the pain of missing them than by embracing new people and being grateful when they have generously shared their time and traditions with us.
We’ve been welcomed into so many different homes and lives in the last six weeks. We had hoped that we would manage to put down some roots and make some connections in Medellín; our expectations have, as always, been exceeded. In true Colombian style, doors have been opened, room has been made at the family table, we’ve been showered with invitations, love, laughter and affection.
It’s been overwhelming at times and has made me ache more than ever to see my family and friends at home, but of course I am also truly thankful and humbled by the warmth and friendship we’ve been offered here. Wherever we spend Christmas this year, I don’t doubt we’ll be soaking up the hospitality and affection of our new friends and surrogate families in Medellín, whilst remembering the traditions and love of our wonderful family and friends at home too.
The first family we were welcomed into in Medellín was Carlos and Balti. A connection through a friend of a friend (thanks Emma and Sarah!) led to us staying with Carlos and his three year old son Balti for over two weeks.
Shy at first, Balti eventually warmed to us, particularly to James and their favourite pass times included balloon football, apartment tag and pulling silly faces.
Carlos recently reached a landmark birthday and although we had since moved out, he invited us back to his place to help him celebrate. He insisted on cooking and as he's a very talented chef, we had no intention of arguing. Scrumptious lasagne followed by decadent tiramisu...thanks Carlos!
Through an informal language exchange, I met Ana Paulina. Aside from sharing conversations in Spanish and English, we had some cultural exchanges too; James and I encouraged Ana back onto her bike for the first time in years....
...while Ana encouraged James and I to join her and her family for delicious Antioquian food and to help decorate their Christmas tree.
We owe an enormous thank you to Jorge and his girlfriend Dorancy (aka "La Flaca") for introducing us to an extended family of friends, cyclists and opportunities. Jorge was our first point of contact in Medellín and without him, we certainly wouldn't have got to know the city and its wonderful inhabitants half as well. Our culinary introduction to Medellín came in the form of the gut busting Bandeja Paisa - the Antioquian equivalent to the "Full English".
We arrived in Medellín in time for Halloween so Jorge and Dorancy invited us to a mass cycle ride...in fancy dress...
...and so we joined Medellín's tight knit family of cyclists. Around 2000 people in fancy dress and on bikes took to the streets of Medellín's Moravia neighbourhood. Handing out sweets to the kids and generally causing chaos, it was great to be a part of something so big and exciting.
Jorge has made sure we take in the essential experiences of Medellín too; we rode the breathtaking cable car above the city for amazing views and on to pretty Parque Arví, a nature reserve just outside of Medellín.
Through Jorge, we had a chance meeting with one of his friends, Pacho. It didn't take long to discover a shared interest in bikes, coffee and of course food....
...and before you could say "hospitable", we were invited to Pacho's finca for the weekend.
On arrival, we made ourselves comfortable along with their six dogs...
...and Don Raul. Pacho's dad is quite possibly the funniest, sweetest 82 year old I have ever met.
Pacho lovingly introduced us to some of his beautiful orchids (this one is called orquidea zapato de dama or lady's shoe)...
...before we got down to business. We were invited to help with a family tradition of making "mazamorra", an indigenous drink made from maize. First Raul and Pacho have to agree on the best way to grind the maize in a traditional 'pilón'...
...then James is allowed to help - all under the watchful eye of Don Raul of course.
Cata, Pacho's partner, also gets to work. Preparing the enormous pan that will hold the mazamorra, she has to rub it all over with soap to stop the outside from burning when it's placed on the woodfired stove.
Pacho carefully sorts the grains of maize by hand...
...and after another grinding in the pilón, the maize is washed and added to water. It's placed carefully over the outdoor fire for more than two hours.
Not even a torrential downpour that lasts all afternoon can distrct Pacho from his dedication to getting the traditional mazamorra just right.
With Don Raul's experience, he has the right to oversee the whole process from the dry patio, shouting encouragement and advice.
More maize on day two and we're enlisted to help strip the kernels off the cobs of corn in preparation for making arepas - a thick maize tortilla, usually topped with butter and soft cheese.
There's more grinding to be done and this time it falls to Pacho's sister-in-law Lina to be shown the ropes by Don Raul.
The folks of Antioquia are known as "men of maize" - they just can't get enough of corn. So, true to their name, more corn is put on the bbq to grill and Pacho oversees the cooking while the rest of us chat on the patio after a long muddy walk with the dogs.
The labour of Lina's love, a delicious "arepa de chócolo" cooks gently on the bbq.
After our maize feast, we retreat into the cosy finca, learning Colombian jokes and soaking up the banter of Don Raul, Pacho and the rest of the family.
Back in the city, we should mention our own home in Medellín. Our temporary family consists of Nora our landlady, her 18 year old French poodle Pookie, the slightly rotund but adorable labrador Carola...
...and the oh-so-cool Agatha the cat.
The dinner invites kept on coming, this time with Harold and Lina. A delicious combination of roast pork, good chat and too much tequila. We couldn't help but admire a novel take on the traditional Christmas tree...
...and of course the classic nativity - handmade by Lina's mum, it takes pride of place in the living room. Merry Christmas to all of our family and friends...at home...in Medellín...and to all those we've met along the road in the last eighteen months.