Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Una cerveza, por favor

     So, you’ve decided that it’s finally time to make the trek across the Atlantic, and Spain is part of your destination. Yay! You’re in for a real treat—you’re finally going to get to use your high school Spanish! Perhaps it’s a bit rusty, but you’ve polished a few choice phrases, and one that you are looking forward to saying with gusto is “Una cerveza, por favor.” You’ll walk into a bar, look the waiter in the eye, and order your beer, feeling quite proud. There is a reason why you suffered through those long, boring worksheets filled with endless verb conjugations. And all those flashcards with strange words like “biblioteca”, well, they are all going to be worth something now.
     Perhaps you’ve even done a bit more studying and realized that the Spanish  people in Spain (as opposed to the Latin American Spanish speakers) only use the liquid “s” sound for words that actually contain  an “s” like “” and “Señor”, and that words that have a soft “c” or “z”, like “cerveza” are pronounced with a “th” sound. Perhaps it doesn’t immediately roll off your tongue, but you practice “Una thervetha, por favor” until you are no longer spitting as you pronounce it.
       The magical day arrives, jet lag is still slowing you down, but you are excited to use your phrase. You leave your bags in the hotel and begin to wander the streets of, say, Madrid, Barcelona, or maybe Santander, (which you read about in a wonderful novel that’s just been published!) You are a bit surprised and intrigued that there are so many bars around, seemingly on every corner, but you are pleased, nonetheless, that you will have ample opportunities to practice. It’s a nice, warm day, and a cool beer is just what you want. You enter the closest bar, find the waiter behind the counter, and your request rolls quite naturally off your tongue.
     The guy drapes the white towel he’s been using to wipe the counter over his left shoulder, gives a nod and asks, “¿Corto ó caña?”
      Damn! That wasn’t in the lesson! But, let’s see here, let’s not panic, “corto” means…oh yeah, it means “short”. And “caña”, well, that’s more of a stretch, but you were looking at quite a bit of vocabulary and from somewhere in the depths of your subconscious you manage to remember that it means “cane.” Okay, short or cane. Short or cane? Cane what? Cane sugar? Cane liquor? The Brazilians have cane liquor in their caipirinhas, don’t they? (Where the heck did that come from?) Well, better not take a chance with the cane. Short whatever would be safer.
     “Corto,” you say, after too long of a pause.
     “Vale,” he answers, which by now, after dealing with all the other Spaniards you’ve met since you landed, you know means “okay.”
     He gets out a small, juice-sized glass and fills it about two thirds full of beer. You’re a bit disappointed, but before you can protest, he follows up with another question, “¿Alguna tapa?”
     Ah! That’s easy. Everyone knows “tapas” are the little appetizers they serve. A nice little something would go well with your two sips of beer. You now begin to suspect that “caña” didn’t mean “cane” after all, but rather had something to do with the size of the beer, especially since the dude next to you walked in and, skipping the una cerveza por favor part entirely, jumped right to “una caña, por favor” and he got a glass of beer easily twice the size of yours.  That’s also when you look back and see that the patient waiter is still looking at you, eyebrows raised in expectation.
     You sheepishly nod. At least it’s not India, where, your colleague at work told you, an up and down nod means “no.” How difficult would that be, always inadvertently nodding no when you meant yes?
     “Pues, tenemos boquerones, croquetas, patatas bravas, pulpo a la gallega…”
     Greek, you think, this man isn’t speaking Spanish, he must be speaking Greek! You remember looking at the chapter with all the names of Spanish foods before you got on the plane. Arroz. Pan. Leche. Cerveza. Jamon. Paella. Manzana.  The words he’s spouting were most definitely not in any of your books! You get a bit frazzled and then notice that, bless his heart, the kind man is actually pointing to nice little plates of tapas arranged neatly behind a glass cover. You point to a yellow shaped wedge—kind of like a piece of pie, but you know that it’s not a slice of pie. He nods again, takes it from the counter and heats it for a few seconds in the microwave, then places a tiny fork in the middle of the wedge, leaving it standing like a flagpole in the middle of the yellow triangle, and adds a thick slice of crusty Spanish bread next to it.
     You take a small bite, hoping for the best, and are pleasantly surprised—an omelet, made with potatoes. It’s really quite nice. You arm yourself with courage and ask, “¿Qué es?” hoping the waiter will figure out what you mean.
     “Tortilla española,” he says, smiling. What a nice guy. You polish it off, swallow the second (and last) gulp of beer in your tiny cup, pay the waiter and leave. Then you walk into the bar across the street, still thirsty but now armed with new knowledge.
     “Una caña y una tapa de tortilla española,” you say confidently, and smile a little too broadly as the waiter hands you a large glass of beer and a delicious, steaming hot, appetizer. Now you’re happy! Isn’t Spain is a great place?!

Photo used with permission from, a very cool Spanish blog about beer: You can also find them on FaceBook at Cervecearte.