This time of year my thoughts always turn to Spain. From a notebook dated 2010:
At the bus station café in Malaga, the waiter is running a tight ship, persuading and cajoling all ditherers at the door to sit down at a table even before they have time to get their bearings. This way there is no dilly-dallying at the counter over the cheaper fare, but an orchestrated segue into the more serious part of the establishment.
Middle-aged with a small paunch, the waiter busies himself constantly - wiping tables, taking orders, clearing crockery, and directing with aplomb the not-so-sure hovering at the entrance. He stretches a friendly but authoritative hand to my shoulder, and I am clinched.
After taking my order for tortilla, he flourishes a paper tablecloth to cover the perfectly serviceable, perfectly wipeable melamine table to indicate that here, unlike those feebly ordering only a cup of coffee, is a customer who has squared up to the menu and is ready to dine. I sit prepared for his next move, perhaps to tie a napkin around my neck.
‘¿Cómo se llama en español?’ I ask, motioning to the tablecloth. I’ve forgotten what it’s called, but offer up the word napa, a ridiculous cheatling I’ve concocted from the French nappe.
He looks at me quizzically. ‘Es un mantel,’ he says. Then: ‘De donde es usted?’ Where are you from?
‘De Inglaterra,’ I answer.
He nods, slowly, sympathetically, in recognition of the misfortune it must be to hail from a land in which the art of covering café tables with paper tablecloths has all but disappeared.