andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: spanish travel blog

A Word On… Spanish Stuff

Here’s a couple of what I’d plan to be sidebars in my book on Spain. As ever, be delighted to have any feedback!

A Brief History of Spanish Time

If you ever need a reminder that the Mediterranean peoples, including the Spanish, are the cradle of Western civilisation as we know it, come with me of a summer’s evening to any one of Spain’s regional cities and sit at a table in a café watching the world go by.

It might be 9 or 10 at night; it might be a Monday. If it is, the only difference might be the cafes are slightly less jam packed. Everyone’s eating and drinking like it’s going out of fashion. There’s still a significant amount of them smoking. They all look fantastic on it.

A satisfied customer at a Madrid cafe

What’s more, nobody’s drunk. Nobody. You might see drunks in Madrid or Barcelona, but they’re probably foreigners. Instead, in this regional city – let’s say Léon, for the sake of giving a recent example – there are all ages out and about, from immaculately-dressed elderly couples, to middle aged folks with their teenage kids, to younger mums with babies; the teenagers out on their own, by the way, are sitting at the next table, drinking coke politely, checking out the opposite sex discreetly as they walk past, and not being any bother to anyone. If they are being a bother, they’re probably French.

And, although it’s ten at night, nobody looks like they’re in a hurry to go home. Indeed, some of them are still going in to eat their main meal of the day, inside the restaurant, in the air-conditioned salon comedor. For the rest of us, the atmosphere is relaxed, congenial, and unhurried. It is as if everyone has all the time in the world.

Now, if this seems to give an idealised portrait of the Spanish way of life, let me just say, ok. The health stats aside, the Spanish are as worried about their health and happiness as the rest of us: the telly adverts are as full of stuff about slimming, gym memberships and how to stop smoking as anywhere else; I saw an advert in Spain recently that claimed that the Spanish have the greatest amount of cosmetic surgery in Europe. But let me take you on that evening out (you’re buying, obviously) and you’d be forced to agree.

So what are they doing right? Can it really all be down to having a wee sleep in the middle of the day?

Well, the concept of siesta isn’t without its Spanish critics. My friend Rufino, for example, has a much more northern European approach to work, and wishes he could do without the midday break and be home at a reasonable time. As an abogado – a lawyer – he’s expected to be available for clients till around 8 at night, in the same way shops and other businesses stay open till that time. The Catalans, too, tend to dismiss siestas as a soft southern invention they don’t need to adhere to.

But, for the majority of Spanish people, time is still a much more fluid idea than for us northerners. They might rise early, particularly if they commute. However, going to breakfast in a café between 9 and 10, you’re quite likely still to see office workers and construction guys dawdling over a café con leche even then.

That may explain why, when British and American tummies are starting to rumble at one o’clock, the Spanish restaurants aren’t really filling up and you’ll have your choice of table. Almuerzo, the big middle of the day meal, often happens well past midday – at 2 or 3; it can be a family meal, or one with colleagues; but either way, many shops and businesses then close up for a couple of hours at least. Whether people have time to go home and get some kip may, again, depend on the size of the city, and its property prices. However, in general, most people seem to.

Things only really start to get going again around 6 or 7. By then, shops will open up again, the inevitable drilling of roads and buildings will recommence: and people will drift towards cafes and bars for a drink, unless they’re working. And stay there, meeting friends and family (most socialising happens outside the home in Spanish culture) until whenever it suits. And that could be the wee hours.

The good news is that the restaurant/café culture is a lot less rigid than it used to be. In most places, they’ll serve you a range of things from tapas, ranging up through racion-sized portions to the full bib-and-tucker three courses more or less at any time.

 

Tapas, Raciones, and all that sort of stuff

So most of you will know the story by now about tapas, right? That it originated in the deep south of Spain, where the waiter brought you your drink with a tapa (cover) on top, consisting of a bit of bread or something similar, to keep the flies off your drink.

Well, maybe. That story always seemed a bit hokey to me, particularly given the likelihood that, as soon as you took the bread off, the flies would dive right in if they were interested. Although, in my experience, insects are much more likely to settle on something solid like bread than they are to ever dive-bomb your glass of tinto de verano.

 

Madrileño tapas bar. Great street for tapas; for sleeping, not so much.

So, in the interests of research, I had a look at an article from the southern Spanish newspaper ABCdeSevilla, which offered a number of theories, alongside the insect repellent one:

  1. King Alfonso X ‘The Wise’ needed one or two glasses of wine a day for health reasons (nice one, royal doc!) and, to avoid the effects of alcohol, asked for a wee something food wise on the side;

 

  1. During the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, taverns noticed that, at putting out time, the patrons were, well, a bit drunk, and possibly somewhat hard to handle, so hit on the idea of giving them something to eat alongside their wine;

 

  1. It was a 19th century invention to keep the farm workers refreshed, by giving them a bit of nutrition as well as a drink while they worked (and with no need for them to stop working – take note, modern day office workers who moan about lunch at your desk);

 

  1. It was an early 20th century invention in Almería to keep the flavour of the sherry in, by covering the glass in a slice of ham.

 

Well, it doesn’t really matter. However, it is interesting that two at least of the theories centre around the idea that, by eating at the same time as drinking, you become less likely to end up falling down drunk after a few glasses of wine.

So what’s a tapa, and what’s a racion? In general, the second of these is a bigger portion, and you have to ask for it: tapas will, sometimes, come with your drink whether you ask for it or not, and if you haven’t asked for it, is included in the price of the drink.

Of course, generosity and complexity of free tapas in particular varies hugely. In Madrid or Barcelona, you’ll be lucky to get a bowl of crisps most times: in the smaller regional cities, however, you can sometimes just about eat for free.

The most generous tapas-you-didn’t-ask-for culture we’ve come across so far was in Léon, where a morning coffee produced a free slice of almond cake; and later drinks might be accompanied, unbidden, by a plateful of calamari, deep fried peppers, and other such delicacies, for no extra charge. And it’s not even as if the drinks cost as much as in Madrid!

Traditionally, many bars would specialise only in one or two tapas dishes, so that you would have a drink and their speciality, and then move on. Similarly, the glass size of the alcohol you were having was small, to reflect that you might be having a few drinks in different bar, and you weren’t actually setting out to get hammered.

Inevitably, commercialism has taken over a bit, so that each bar will serve you something for free, but also have a menu or carta de tapas so that you can stay in the same bar all night. If you’re not planning to get hammered and you’re drinking beer, ask for a caña, which is generally a small glassful of the house lager.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid. Traditionally the place for the first beer of the trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hitting the return key pushes the adverts down here. Petty, isn’t it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Encounter in Mérida: Fellow Travellers

Another extract from what may turn into a book on Spain…

The fact the quiet American had reached such a relatively obscure place as Mérida gave him, using my admittedly somewhat arbitrary points system, a double bonus for effort. That, and the way he kept claiming to be Brazilian.

We’ve actually met very few English-speaking folk on our travels. Of course, in the bigger cities – Madrid, Seville increasingly, and especially Barcelona; but not so much in the more out of the way places. Which is part of the point, of course.

The Roman Bridge at Mérida

The Americans, though. The Americans abroad are  – in general – more extroverted than us, shattering that icy Scots reserve as they include you into their evening, asking you to translate for them, joshing with the slightly stunned looking bar staff in high volume Spanglish, and generally being, oh, what’s that word there’s no positive equivalent for in Scots? Oh yes: confident.

Anyway, Don didn’t quite fit that stereotype. He was keeping himself to himself, and the only reason we got talking was because I offered a translation of something on the menu for him. However, he did then get to talking, he joined us at our table, and the next night we both happened to be in the same bar again.

That second night, the conversation – and the good local wine – was flowing. Don was extremely entertaining company, and Daughter and Heiress was of an age that I wasn’t too discomfited when he extolled to her the benefits of lysergic acid. I mean, it wasn’t like he offered us all a tab right there and then.

It was just – in the morning, thinking back – none of us could tell very much about what your man actually did in Brazil, for example, or why he went there in the first place. We got that he was divorced, that he knew his Iberian food and wine – especially the Portuguese variety – and was a fan of mind-expanding substances of the less than legal variety. But beyond that? Nada.

But then, being a stranger in a strange land can do that for you. If you want to give the impression that you’re a CIA agent operating under deep cover in Extramadura, then you can.

Our regular fellow travellers in this book, however, are a slightly less mysterious bunch than Don – all except one, perhaps.

Ernest Hemingway, to start with the most famous, is really too famous to need much of an introduction. Novelist, bullfighting enthusiast, big game drinker and thinker, Papa H drove an ambulance for the Republicans in the Civil War. Much of his best work is set in Spain, and the way he renders the language in For Whom The Bell Tolls is a particular favourite for me.

He may pop up at various points, by way of Hemingway and Spain, by Edward F Stainton (University of Washington Press, 1989).

Giles Tremlett is the Guardian’s Madrid correspondent. Although his book, Ghosts of Spain, (Faber and Faber, 2006) bears the imprint of a series of articles woven into a theme they didn’t necessarily start out with, it’s still a brilliant introduction for anyone who, like me, wonders what it’s really like to live in Spain with the Spanish.

It’s particularly strong on the pacto del olvido, the collective act of forgetting that the Spanish entered into after Franco’s death, allowing the wounds of the Civil War forty years before to crust over without healing; and the political and other circumstances around the Atocha bombings in 2005.

Gertrude Bone is the change-up pitcher, though. A couple of years ago, my sister gave me a copy of a second hand book: Days in Old Spain. (MacMillan and Co, 1939). I’d never heard of Gertrude Bone, or her husband, Muirhead (later Sir Muirhead, don’tcha know) who provided the illustrations. But the introduction hooked me in, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, by the time the book was published, it was already a historical artefact. The result of travels throughout Spain in the late 1920s, it described a country on the cusp of change, if not yet in the shadow of war: ‘Disaffection to the Monarchy was everywhere audible, and an impatience of backwardness and old fashions manifest in all parts of the country.’

Second, unlike Laurie Lee, who covered Spain on foot in his classic As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, on the very eve of the Civil War, the Bones got about by train – much as we do.

One of the other reasons I came to like Gertrude so much was her modesty. The introduction stresses that the text was really only to supplement the hubby’s drawings – something rather belied by how good the writing is, as I’ll demonstrate presently. More than that, just how misleading it is to think of Gertrude as the wee wife jotting down some footnotes to the artist husband’s great work only becomes clear with a bit more research.

Gertrude Bone (1876 – 1962) was the daughter of a Wesleyan minister (who had previously been a blacksmith). Brought up in Glasgow (which may explain the modesty), she was the author of at least three other published books: Women of the Country, The Furrowed Earth, and Mr Paul.

And…

And then, at least so far as internet research goes, it all becomes a bit second-hand, as she gets a mention, not in her own right, but as wife of Sir Muirhead, and mother of Stephen Bone, who followed his Dad into the war artist business. The picture you’d get from the Internet, with father and son both meriting a Wikipedia entry but not her, would be that implied by Gertrude herself: the supportive wife and mother, playing second fiddle to the men of the house.

This is not the place for a feminist discourse on the innate bias towards DWEMs in cyberspace. But when you look at Gertrude’s published works, the reality is that she was the writer, and father and son illustrated her books.

More: in one of my internet searches, I turned up a page about a letter signed in 1913 by the ‘Manchester Suffragettes,’ amongst them that faithful wife and mother Gertrude, or ‘Mrs Muirhead Bone,’ as she’s quaintly termed.

To return to the subject of Spain, her book on it is very far from being a bit of hack work to accompany the illustrations. Mrs Bone has the eye of a true poet. Take, for example, this turn of phrase when writing about Andalucía: ‘Shadow is hoarded in the streets and in the churches, and where old men follow the shade for their rest as in England they follow the sunshine.’

Or this description of the Spanish character, allowing for it being the language of an Edwardian (are you even allowed to call Spanish people Spaniards now?): ‘The reserve of the Spaniard is never surly. He requires his own personal dignity, but he will invariably allow you yours. If he knows what will please you, and you are a well-behaved person, he will of his own accord open an entrance to the interests you seek in his country.’

That, to me, is a perfect way to describe the Spanish, and their kindness to strangers. English, Scottish or American: treat the locals with respect, give them their space, and they’ll go the extra mile for you every time.

Even if you want to claim you’re from Brazil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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