My first 3 days in Spain, I was determined to prove that I knew some Spanish. But lo, it was Book Spanish, mostly theoretical in nature and not so useful in the field. I conjugated my face off, tossing off all the subjunctive mood I could muster. I thought I was being extra-polite (and clever) when I stuttered, to pilgrim-weary bartenders, “Good day! How are you this day, Sir? Please might you to have bringded me a coffee alone please? I am thank you so very much!”
Really, this did not make me seem smart. It made me seem annoying. I first grasped this in a strange little bar in Zubiri. The wall-eyed barman glared at me angrily when I opened with, “¿Cómo está Usted?” Get to the point, his searing, bidirectional stare seemed to say. Who cares how I am doing?
I learned this lesson again in a wonderful chocolate shop in Pamplona, packed armpit to armpit with hypoglycemic Navarrans. When it was my turn to shout an order to the saleswoman, she shifted her eyes to me and said, ¡Dime! (the familiar form of “Tell me!) There was no time for niceties. “Give me those things of chocolate!” I managed. Imperative, no subjunctive. Moments later, I was strolling La Calle Estafeta, cramming things of chocolate into my mouth. And I didn’t even get the evil eye.
After that, I learned to do things more Spanishly: State your order without all the time-consuming subjunctive pleasantries. A simple “Buenos días! Café con leche, por favor” will suffice. Or if you want to get a little fancy, “¿Me pone un café con leche?”
Niceties & Other Useful Phrases
*gracias—thank you (*See the bottom of this post for “How to pronounce c and z in Castillian Spanish.)
para llevar—to go
And now, the most fundamental vocabulary you will need to get fed, watered, and caffeinated in the early a.m. on your Camino.
Don’t expect to find many big English egg-and-bacon breakfasts, especially in the small towns of Navarra, Castilla y León, and Galicia. So what? What they might lack in variety, they make up for in consistency. What I love about northern Spain is that no matter how small the town, there is almost always a bar, which generally operates as a café first thing in the morning, a tapas and sandwich place until siesta, and a wine/beer/tapas bar thereafter. Most serve some kind of dinner at night, although that may not begin until pretty late, by U.S. dinnertime expectations. (More on Spanish dinner culture in another post.)
When you take your first (and second) breakfast breaks, don’t bemoan what you can’t have. What you can have is some kind of pastry (some mediocre and prepackaged, others homemade and fabulous), nice Spanish bread (the crusty kind, baked nearby), toasted and served with butter and jam or honey, fresh orange juice (but not always), and a fantastic espresso drink of your choice (always). Sometimes, you might find ham, cheese, or chorizo sandwiches or Spanish tortillas on offer. And in many towns, you may opt to pop into a bakery (panadería) on the way out of town, where you can snag a hot, fresh pastry or baguette for the road.
Usually, you’ll spend less than 5€—and often, far less than that, as you can see in the menu to the right (at a café in Galicia).
In big cities like Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, and León, you can get most any kind of breakfast you want. And if you decide to stay in a nice hotel or parador on occasion, you may find yourself breakfasting quite sumptuously.
Here’s an overview of the basic vocabulary you’ll want:
bocadillo—sandwich on a baguette
churros con chocolate—long, fried sugary doughnuts with hot chocolate (more common in parts further south)
Ask for your tostada with (“con”):
**tomate y aceite OR pan tumaca—toast (sometimes rubbed with garlic) and topped with pureed tomato, olive oil, and salt. If this is available, EAT IT RIGHT AWAY.
(**note: As pointed out in the comments below, you can make this yourself in an albergue—our Mad Andalusian Chef friend did, and he even took over the kitchen in an Ages café once to make it for us. Try it at home: Cut a tomato in half, grate the fleshy part into a bowl, mix in some chopped garlic, salt, and olive oil, and spoon it over Spanish-style toast.¡Delicioso!)
tortilla de patata—a delicious eggy/potato-y frittata thing that bears no relationship to its Mexican namesake; unofficially, the official tapa of Spain. Sometimes available for breakfast.
tortilla francesa—an omelette
chorizo—pork sausage seasoned with paprika (usually cured, sometimes fresh)
jamón serrano—dry-cured ham, sliced thin (More on this in another food installment.)
un botellín de agua—a small bottle of water
una botella de agua—a big bottle of water
café americano—espresso coffee with hot water, similar to brewed coffee
café bombon—decadent espresso with sweetened condensed milk
café cortado—espresso with a little milk
café con leche—espresso with scalded milk; the unofficial official morning beverage of peregrinos
café solo—plain espresso
café descafeinado—decaf coffee
té OR infusiones—tea
zumo de naranja—orange juice. If it says “natural,” it’s freshly squeezed—often, before your eyes in a machine behind the bar. (*note: To those who studied Latin American Spanish: Asking for “jugo” in Spain will get you nowhere.)
Now, spit it out—How to order tea with sugar, without annoying the bartender:
“¿Me pone un té con azúcar?” or simply “un té con azúcar, por favor.” (If he’s busy, maybe don’t ask him how he is doing.)
Why do Spaniards have a lisp?
Haha! They don’t. In some dark corner of the Internet, a bunch of linguists and historians are still arguing over the origins of the Spanish “ceceo” (the practice of pronouncing C and Z like “th” instead of “S”). There’s a lisping Spanish king story floating around, but the nonexistent-lisping king camp seems to have won the argument. Nobody really cares. All you need to know is this: “Gracias” sounds like “GRATH-ee-ahs” I know. It’s crazy hard. But if you try saying it 12 times, you’ll have it.
note: Native Spanish speakers, I still have a lot to learn. If I missed anything or got something wrong, please set me straight in the comments section below.
Coming Soon: Second Breakfast / Snacktime / Tapas & Pintxos
You may also enjoy:
El Camino de Santiago: The Things We Carried: Pack list with photos
3 Lifehacks for Peregrinos on the Camino de Santiago: Whittling down your pack list and staying dry(ish) on your Camino
A Pilgrim’s Progress — On The Way, a 5’3″ woman’s gotta learn to be big sometimes, especially when her Big Strong Man feels small. (Nashville Scene)