Culture,  Spain

A-Z of Spain Part 2

Hi there, Spain lovers! In Part 2 of this A-Z of Spain, find out about “doing the bridge”, enjoying “sobremesa”, and why it’s a paradise for kids and grannies alike. (In case you missed it, check out Part 1 here.)

M is for Menú del día.

Spaniards must pity Brits when learning that a typical UK lunch is a hurried sandwich, a packet of crisps and a chocolate bar (or fruit if you’re trying to be healthy). In short, a typical British meal deal:

Fun fact: I have NEVER seen a Spaniard eat a sandwich (or crisps, see O below) for lunch. A sandwich for lunch for a Spaniard would be much too sad. Mostly, sandwiches, or bocatas, seem to be eaten in the morning here. Perhaps that’s why there’s often cold omelette, or tortillla, inside. Bocatas can also make an appearance whenever there’s an office birthday, with a tasty mouthful of jamón iberico inside. In fact, my colleagues seem to prefer it to birthday cake. It’s rare to see packets of crisps here, or chocolate in single portion sizes, so the typical UK lunch would obviously not make the cut. And why would it? Spain’s normal two-to-three hour lunch breaks give you all the time in the world to enjoy a three-course, hot meal. Spain’s meal deal is the real deal.

El menú del día usually consists of a starter, main course, dessert and/or tea/coffee, with bread to accompany and a drink (usually a choice of water, wine, beer or a soft drink). All for the price of  8 to 15 euros – usually pretty good value. Even better is that many companies offer their staff Tickets Restaurants (prepaid cards with a daily or monthly food allowance). Nearly every eatery accepts these, and the vouchers encourage people to buy something substantial like, well, a menú del día. The scheme also encourages you to eat out with colleagues: there’s enough time and money to go out for a proper, sit-down meal. These meals can turn out to be dangerously boozy though, as some traditional places leave a bottle of wine on the table, and it’s up to you how much you drink. Plus, it takes superhumanwillpower to choose water when offered wine for the same price (or maybe that’s just the drunken Brit with bad alcohol habits in me speaking).

Don’t get me wrong, I am fond of a  good old British meal deal from time to time, but don’t you think this vegan spread looks appetising? Check out the Vegetalia restaurant in Barcelona’s Raval district.

N is for Niños

One of the great things about Spain (or not so great, depending on how much you like children) is that no matter the time, day or location, you can bet you’ll see lots of people with a kiddy-winkle in tow. Much to my initial shock, it’s not at all unusual to see niños in restaurants after 10pm on a school night, falling asleep at the table or running riot in playgrounds all the way to midnight. The late hours make sense, though, when you take Spain’s long days into consideration (more on that in part 1 of this A-Z). Many families can only manage to meet for dinner at 8 pm at the very earliest. 

Children here are also allowed to accompany adults nearly everywhere ― for instance, into bars. In the UK, you’re usually not allowed to take children into bars at all, and definitely not after 8 pm. Anyway, they’d normally have been fed, showered and put to bed by then. In Spain, in contrast, unless it’s a nightclub, you can pretty much take your kids to any bar or restaurant at any time and you won’t be frowned upon. In fact, children often seem welcome, and the infrastructure helps, too. Spain’s many town and city squares are lined with bars, and generally there’ll be a playground in the centre, or a wide-open space for kids to run around in within eyesight of their parents. Beach bars here also often have a play area or trampoline to keep los niños occupied. This setup means kids are entertained, and parents can have a more relaxing time. On top of that, there’s no need for a babysitter if you want to eat out or just have a drink with friends. 

O is for Olive oil-flavoured crisps

Olives are a culinary staple in Mediterranean countries, and rightly so. They’re delicious and loved by all ages here, and used in everything, even in crisps! Don’t get me wrong, olive-oil crisps are nice, but they make up about 90% of the crisp stock in Spanish supermarkets. The remaining 10% are called aperitivo and flavoured with, um, cockles. Not my favourite. And frankly, I find standard olive-oil flavoured crisps a wee bit boring. Okay Spain, we know you’re good at traditional food. Why not experiment with your crisp flavours? Cockles are all very well, but where’s your pickled onion, thai sweet chilli, marmite or prosecco and elderberry with little sparkly stars?

Honestly, which ones sound more exciting?

P is for Puente

“¿Haces puente este finde?” ― Literally: ‘Are you doing the bridge this weekend?’. More precisely translated: “Are you taking an extra day or two between the public holiday and the weekend to have more days off?”. In contrast to the UK, where nearly all public holidays are celebrated on a Monday, Spain celebrates holidays on the same date every year regardless of what weekday they fall on. I used to find this insanely annoying. Who wants a day off on a Wednesday or Thursday? Well, these days are actually rather handy, because if the holiday falls on, let’s say, a Tuesday, you could take the Monday off, making a little puente, or bridge, between the weekend and the holiday. Result: four consecutive free days. Play your cards right, and you can get several days off and dip only a little bit into your holiday allowance. For example, the 6th and 8th of December are national holidays here. If they fall on a Monday and Wednesday, you could bridge the gap by taking the Tuesday off. That makes five consecutive days off, at the cost of one holiday day. Ingenious, ey?

Q is for queuing (or lack thereof)

Let’s just say Spain has a very special way to ‘queue’. Ready more in my blog post Queuing in Spain: How to do it Right.

R is for Room temperature water

I was bemused when I first arrived in Spain and was asked if I wanted my water ‘frío’ or ‘natural’. What did they mean did I want cold or natural water? Surely it should be both?! Did ‘natural’ mean still, perhaps? But why were these options mutually exclusive?

It turned out that ‘natural’ refers to the temperature. They were actually asking if I wanted cold or room-temperature water. This was a mind-blowing moment for me. Who would want to drink luke-warm water? Plenty of Spaniards, it turns out. This took a long while to sink in. People would actually choose water that hadn’t been chilled? The apparent reason behind such a baffling choice is that many people here believe cold drinks can actually give you a cold and upset your digestion.This may well be true, but I have yet to fall ill from an ice-cold cerveza (see under C).

S is for Sobremesa

Literally, “over the table”, but used for the time at the end of a meal when all the food has been eaten but you linger to socialise with friends and family, maybe over another drink, a coffee, a cigarette… This can last for hours and is usually longest on Sundays, but you can enjoy it on weekdays and at business lunches, too. Sobremesa no doubt exists in other countries, but to my knowledge, Spanish is the only language to have a specific word for it, a reflection of just how important it is here.  

In the UK, you usually leave the table once you’ve eaten the food, especially in a restaurant where the waiter will usually bring the bill as soon as you’re done eating, making you feel like it’s time to leave. So when I first moved to Spain, I thought the waiting staff were terribly inattentive, as they would never ask you if you wanted the bill. No, they just didn’t want to be rude, they were leaving me ample sobremesa time.

Now I’m a real proponent of the idea. Firstly, it gives you plenty of time to digest a hearty meal, instead of springing into action and giving yourself indigestion. Secondly, it’s a great opportunity to spend more time with family. Lastly, it’s a treat to know you can have the table for pretty much as long as you like, and won’t be rushed to make room for the next customer. Viva la sobremesa!

T is for Tipping (or lack thereof)

I’m always asked by visitors how much they’re expected to tip. My answer is always, “none”. No, Spaniards aren’t stingy, apart from the Catalans (I joke), it’s just that tipping isn’t customary in Spain. Spanish waiting staff are bemused (and also love it) when American visitors leave up to 20%. Almost unheard of in Spain.

For those who want to tip anyway, some general guidelines:

  • In bars or cafés where all you’ve had is drinks, no-one expects you to tip. 
  • If you’ve ordered food and you really want to, you could round up the change to the nearest euro, or leave up to a euro in change. The same is true for taxi drivers. But really, nobody will be offended if you don’t tip. 
  • If you are in a more formal restaurant in a large group and the service was excellent, you might want to leave anywhere from 5 to 10%. 
  • Be aware that some restaurants include service in the bill, so do check before tipping. 
  • Keep in mind that you usually can’t tip servers via card payment – it would go directly to the owner – so make sure you leave cash, instead.

So, don’t tip unless you really want to and you feel you’ve been well looked after. Of course, a tip is always appreciated, so go ahead if you fancy it!

U is for Usted

There’s not only one word in Spanish for ‘you’, but five! Surprise! Just when you thought you were getting ahead with those language classes, Spanish throws you a curveball. Basically, what form of ‘you’ you use depends on formality, gender and how many people you’re addressing. Speaking to someone familiar, or to a child? Use tu. Speaking to an older person, teacher,  a stranger or someone you want to be polite to? Use usted. Speaking to a group of people? It’s vosotros if they’re male, and vosotras if female. It’s even vosotros if it’s 99 girls and one boy, because language is sexist. Speaking to more than one person, politely and with respect ? Use ustedes. Of course, in Hispanic Latin America you can throw all those rules out the window, and jump out yourself while you’re at it, because it’s totally different there. The polite forms of usted and ustedes are used about 90% of the time, even with friends. If you’re in Argentina, there’s a sixth word, vos. Have fun with that!

V is for Vermut

Vermouth is one of my favorite discoveries since moving to Spain. Having tried Martini Bianco as a teenager and not being impressed, I didn’t have high hopes for vermut. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this concoction of wine, water, alcohol, and botanical plants, with the optional addition of caramelised sugar. The vermut ritual was once reserved only for Sundays, but this sweet, bitter and spicy aperitif is now enjoying somewhat of a renaissance. It’s served in most bars and restaurants any day of the week. The most traditional way to drink it is in a small glass with ice, often with a slice of lemon or orange, but it can also be drunk in cocktails. Many bars also offer a siphon of soda water that you can add as you like. And of course it wouldn’t be an aperitif without light snacks. So make sure at la hora del vermut you enjoy it with olives, nuts, crisps or little fish.

Red vermut originally came from Italy, and the white from France. There’s more about the history of vermut in this interesting article: (in Spanish)

Vermut poster
“Vermut poster” by Alba Bordes is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

W is for Wine

Behind Italy and France, Spain is the world’s third-largest vino producer and grows over 400 varietals. And with over 4,000 wineries to visit, Spain is a wine lovers heaven. Discover more in my compilation of the Top 5 wineries in Barcelona.

X is for Xurros, Xocolata, Pintxos and any other word you would expect to be spelt with ‘ch’

In addition to Castilian Spanish (castellano), there are three other official languages: Catalan, Basque and Galician. When I arrived in Barcelona I thought it would be a good idea to do a beginner’s Catalan course. I did actually learn a lot, despite never being sure if I was hearing Catalan or Spanish. The Catalan ‘x’ is often pronounced as an English ‘ch’. ‘Churros’, ‘chocolate’ and ‘pinchos’ all start with ‘x’ in Catalan. Basque is also fond of ‘X’s: the same words in Basque are ‘txurroak’, ‘txokolatea’ and ‘pintxoak’. Yes, there’s always fun to be had in Spain.

Y is for Yaya and Yayo (Grandma and Grandad)

Grandparents are the unsung heroes of Spanish society. Grandparents here are the main caregivers, after parents. Surveys show that almost 60 percent of them look after grandchildren while the parents are at work, and due to Spain’s long working hours, yaya and yayo can spend more time with the children than the parents themselves. Fortunately, they’re appreciated for their work. In contrast to some Western countries, where grandparents are left to rot in an old people’s home and visited once a week if they’re lucky, Spanish grandparents seem much more integrated into families and society. It’s not uncommon to see multi-generational groups enjoying long meals or going shopping together, and they’re generally viewed as cherished family members rather than burdens. Yes, if I have to get old one day, I think I’d like to do it in Spain!

Spaniards have the highest life expectancy in Europe, and one of the highest in the world. What’s more, many old folks still seem to have a full social life – whether playing raucous rounds of backgammon in the street or meeting friends for a daily gossip and a café con leche at the local café.

Z is for Zara

I couldn’t end without mentioning the fast-fashion giant Zara. Most people don’t know it’s the flagship store of Inditex S.A., the biggest fashion group in the world. Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Oysho, Pull and Bear, Stradivarius and Uterqȕe are all its creations – entire high streets owe their clothes inventory to this Spanish corporate behemoth. And not only is Spain home to the world’s fashion giants, its thousands of smaller boutiques are well worth a visit, too, from stylish artisanally made leather shoes to Desigual’s trippy hippy creations. El paradiso for shopaholics!

Sending you sunshine and positivity from Barcelona!

As always I hope you enjoyed this blog post. Any suggestions for topics for future posts?

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