This is an adapted version of a post which first appeared on Scribbler in Seville.
In this post I’m looking at Spanish expressions which have caught my attention over the years. As a writer, translator, sometime English teacher and language graduate, I am always fascinated by the use of castellano – I think stretching that part of my brain was one of the main reasons I moved abroad in the first place.
From embarrassing mistakes, to unusual words, I am constantly intrigued by how my my bilingual kids mix their languages; pondering, quizzing, driving my semi-literate husband mad – “What does this word mean? How is its meaning different from that one? Which of them is stronger/ruder/more typically Andaluz?”
After living here in Spain for nearly ten years, and in Spanish-speaking countries for a year longer than that, I’m increasingly aware of subtleties and subtexts in what those around me are saying. I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any stretch, but I’m slowly adding to my stock of colloquial phrases that I might tentatively try out for the first time, to be greeted by peals of laughter from friends and family, and delighted, gently piss-taking cries of “Que andaluza estas hecha, Feeee-onn-a!”
So here goes, with my five chosen Spanish expressions, which reveal telling points about Spanish society and culture. When I’ve blogged about such topics before, it’s drawn quite a response, so I await with interest to see what people make of this list.
1) “Me cago en la leche/en dios/en tu puta madre/en la madre que te pario/en todos tus muertos” (I shit on the milk/on god/on your whore of a mother/on the mother who bore you/on all your ancestors)
Palabrotas (swear words; literally, big ugly words – thanks to my linguistic consultant Mary for that one!) are used freely and without conscience by both sexes and all ages here in Spain. I remember a friend being horrified to hear her boyfriend’s sweet, lovable old granny swearing like a brickie at lunch one Sunday. Similarly, it’s shocking when such oaths come out of little kids’ mouths (not my own, I hasten to add – that would almost be enough to justify mild corporal punishment. Almost). Especially with the graphic nature of the language used.
Remember that Spain is still a Catholic country, where mothers are held sacred – both the Virgin, and one’s own. The force of the third oath in my list, and the contradiction with this hallowed matriarchal status, is illogical and deeply disturbing. Yes, yes, I know these expressions have lost all their force now, or at least it’s been massively diluted, through over-use. Noone actually thinks about what they’re saying when the words come out of their mouths. But I still wince when I hear it – especially in the years since I myself have “pario“. What an old prude, eh?
2) “Que calor!/Que frio!” (It’s so hot! It’s so cold!)
Spain is a land of extremes – that’s one of the things I love about it. Everything is black or white – the opposing emotions of grief and joy, as expressed in that most Andalucian of art forms, flamenco. The full-on all-night partying at the Feria, in the midst of the worst financial situation Spain has ever experienced. As the saying goes(can you tell I love sayings?), they don’t do things by halves.
The same is true for the weather – in November, as soon as the temperature drops below 10 degrees, it’s all “Ay! Que frio!”, and on with the Boots. Andaluces, I have two words for you: British winter. I am usually colder inside my house than out, so my discomfort stems more from substandard Spanish building (our “old” house is 30 years young), than from sub-zero exterior temperatures.
In April, as the skies clear to their gorgeous rich blue, the sun regains its full force, and you bare your arms for the first time in months (yes, non-Spain dwellers, we do wear more than one layer for part of the year), people cry in anguish, wiping their brows, “Pero que calor hace!” as if they’ve just arrived from Siberia and are totally unaccustomed to sweating at 9.30 in the morning. Not as if they’re Andaluces who have lived here all their lives, as most have.
Noone (except me) ever says “Que buena temperatura!” – what a lovely temperature! God, I’m so English, aren’t I?
3) “Mi madre hace el mejor gazpacho del mundo” (My mother makes the world’s best gazpacho)
If I had a euro for every time I’d heard this, it would be me bailing Sr Rajoy out, instead of Sra Merkel. Gazpacho is a mainstay in the summer months, with every Spanish señora worth her garlic keeping a container of the red stuff in her fridge at all times during the hot summer months, ready to provide her extended family (ie, me) with a refreshing shot of cold liquidized veggies (Andaluzes generally drink gazpacho from a glass, rather than a bowl.)
This chilled soup of tomatoes, cucumber, onion, pepper, garlic, bread, and that essential, ubiquitous Andalucian product, olive oil, is as andaluz as its gets – all typical seasonal ingredients which everyone grows in their huerta. In the mid-20th century, many Andalucians lived off the land as they had no other option, so it’s a classic subsistence dish. It’s so easy, even a lazy and reluctant cook like me can make it. There are various camps – (sherry) vinegar or not, bread makes it salmorejo (no – salmorejo only has tomatoes, not the rest of the salad box). But whatever her recipe, each person’s mum has the superlative blend.
4) “Solo he tomado dos o tres cervezas/No he bebido nada” (I’ve only had two or three beers/I haven’t drunk anything)
There are two issues here: first, in Andalucia, beer is not considered alcohol. It’s a soft drink. It does not affect your ability to drive in any way at all, and you can put away as much as you like before getting behind the wheel of your car and driving your merry way home. So not drinking alcohol (“no he bebido nada”) does not equal not drinking beer, if you’ll excuse the double negative.
The second is the Andaluz tendency to either under- or over-exaggurate. As agreed with friends also married to Spanish men, “I’ve only had two beers”, the customary protest as your nappy-sensitized nose detects a whiff of cerveza on your mysteriously-late-arriving-home-husband, actually means about five or six. Under intense questioning, they admit to four, which pushes the genuine tally up to eight; and six – well, that’s a full-on drinking sesion.
(Caveat: I’m not saying that all Andalucian men do this, obviously. But there are plenty who do.)
5) “Pero jamon no es carne” (But jamon isn’t meat)
As any vegetarian who has been presented with a salad delicately sprinkled with little chunks of cured pig will know, jamon iberico is not considered within the earthly realms of meat in Spain (and even less so here, where we’re pig-snuffling distance from the Sierra de Huelva), and therefore is not described as such. Its provenance is more celestial, and it cannot be qualified or categorized alongside mere mortal iberico (prime pork) products such as salchichon or chorizo. It is, quite simply, on a higher plane, and an unquestionably essential element of life. And, it seems, of salads, soups, and other dishes described on menus as being “vegetarian”. The fact that we might not want it doesn’t seem to occur to them – why on earth wouldn’t we?
(My carnivorous friends wax lyrical about its tender texture and sweet, nutty flavour, plus its super-healthy oleic acid content.)
When you tell Spanish people you’re a vegetarian, you have to spell it out, very carefully and precisely, that this means you don’t eat chicken or jamon either. “WHAT?” they exclaim. “You don’t eat JAMON? You mean you’ve never even TRIED it?” The outrage is palpable – you’re clearly causing offence by disrespecting their hallowed ham. It’s like telling an English person you don’t like football, or the Queen. The look of bemused astonishment, the head scratching. How can this be possible? Yes, sir, I do not eat ham. I do not like it (Sam I am). The moral of the story is: vegetarians, if you don’t want jamon – on any of your dishes – be sure to tell your waiter firmly: “sin jamon, por favor”.
So there you have it – another over-generalised view from a foreigner who calls Spain their home. It’s a frustrating country in many ways, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Please remember, before you tap out an outraged reply, that I AM ENGLISH and my tongue is firmly IN MY CHEEK. If you don’t know what that means, look it up.