Five things Spanish people say a lot (and what they really mean)

Captain Haddock's outbursts pale into comparison against Spanish swear words.

Captain Haddock’s outbursts are a lot less colourful than some Spanish expressions.

I’ve written about lots of fiestas lately – music, dancing, flamenca dresses and general Andalucian excess on all fronts, laughing in the face of austerity and denying the very existence of “la cosa“, as some prefer to refer to la crisis obliquely, thereby avoiding the ugly necessity of naming the beast.

Additionally, in an outrageous miscarriage of justice (the vote was clearly rigged) I didn’t make it to the final six of the BIBs mummy blogging awards, travel section – but many thanks to those who so kindly voted for me. For this reason, while I nurse my wounded pride, I will set aside the topics of family and travel for a few weeks.

So, as a change of tack, 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.

**Warning: offensive language content (or at least I think it is)**

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?

Blue skies mean the heat is on.

Blue skies mean the heat is on.

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?

Gazpacho andaluz - chilled tomato soup, as made to perfection by every Spaniard's mother. Credit: Harlan Harris, under Creative Commons licence.

Gazpacho andaluz – chilled tomato soup, as made to perfection by every Spaniard’s mother. Credit: Harlan Harris, under Creative Commons licence.

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.

"I've only had two beers." Yeah, right, and I'm Nigella Lawson.

“I’ve only had two beers.” Yeah, right, and I’m Nigella Lawson.

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.)

meat, jamon, ham, vegetarian

Who the f*** put jamon in my salmorejo?

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.

Have you heard any curious expressions or sayings that reveal something fascinating about Spanish society and culture? Tell me, I’d love to hear!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Weather

vejer de la frontera, weather, a word a week, weekly photo challenge, cadiz, costa de la luz, sunrise, misty, mist, morning,

vejer de la frontera, weather, a word a week, weekly photo challenge, cadiz, costa de la luz, sunrise, mist, misty morningOn this blog, as followers and regular readers (you lovely people, you) will know, I write about a range of subjects – living in Spain, speaking Spanish, travelling around Andalucia and Portugal. Sometimes I also do these photo posts, which are part of a series of themed offerings from a wonderful blogger who goes by the name of Skinny Wench.

Her photo theme this week is Weather. I’ve done Round and Glitter so far, which were fun, but this one opens up a whole spread of meteorological possibilities.  Here in Seville, it’s mostly sun, with a bit of morning mist, some rain, and the occasional hail shower or thunderstorm – there was a humdinger last Saturday, which knocked down palm trees and left huge metal-framed ad hoardings bent double by the wind.

For unusual weather in a spectacular setting, we have to venture further afield. These photos were taken on the Dia de Andalucia puente (Andalucia Day bank holiday, 28 February) a couple of years ago, in Vejer de la Frontera – a town just inland from the the Costa de la Luz here in Andalucia. One morning I woke up before the children, who were out cold from all the fresh air and exercise the previous day, and looked out of the window.

The valley below Vejer, which is a beautiful Moorish pueblo blanco wrapped around a green hill, was filled with milky white mist. The sky was the most incredible pinky-orange artfully streaked with clouds. The street lights were still on, and the town was silent. I tiptoed past the kids, slipped out onto the balcony, and started taking photos.

As the sun came up, the scene – light, shapes, colours – was constantly changing and I kept snapping. At one point, the mist glowed orange, illuminated like some religious painting. But the best, most thrilling aspect of those precious minutes was being above the fluffy white stuff – it felt like being up in the clouds.

vejer de la frontera, weather, a word a week, weekly photo challenge, cadiz, costa de la luz, sunrise, misty, mist, morning,


vejer de la frontera, weather, a word a week, weekly photo challenge, cadiz, costa de la luz, sunrise, misty, mist, morning,

Nine things I’ve learned while living in Spain



If you live here too, you may have experienced some of these quirks – and learned how to deal with them; and if you don’t – well, it’s a little insight into living in this intense, upside-down part of the world.

Some of these may be peculiar to Seville, in which case I’d love to hear what experiences other people have had in different cities around Spain.

1) Sales assistants are not there to help you (as if!)

If you have the temerity to walk into a shop and interrupt the dependiente (shop assistant)’s in-depth conversation with her colleague about the new boots/haircut/boyfriend she’s got her eye on, don’t expect a welcoming smile. At best: a scathing glare. At worst: you’ll be ignored. Similarly, if you’re bold enough to ask them for assistance – availability of item in different size/colour – you’ll be met with a bald “No!” – As in, “No, I don’t know if we have it”, “No, I’m not going to look”, and “No, I don’t care if I’m being unhelpful. You interrupted Carmen telling me about her hot date last night. Now get out of my face, guiri.” One well-known department store (the clue is in the photo) is especially notorious for the baaad-assed attitude of its sales ladies.

What not to say: “So, what did you really want to be? Before you became a sales assistant?”

2) Read it and weep (and then call to complain)

Scour your bank transactions (they send you a little slip for each individual one here, rather than a monthly statement like in the UK – an environmental crime by any standards) for strange, inexplicable transactions or fees. Banks often trying to slip charges in unnoticed, relying on people not reading those little stashes of paper carefully. If you query such a fee, it will often be refunded immediately and without argument. The same goes for phone bills – you can be unwittingly signed up, and charged, for premium services which add tens of euros to your monthly bill. Call and they’ll cancel them, no problem. However with traffic fines, it’s a different story – they can be taken out of your bank account without your permission or even knowledge (embargar la cuenta), and it is virtually impossible to get them refunded. In short: watch all bills like a hawk, and if in doubt, call and query.

What not to say: “You’re doing this on purpose because I’m foreign and therefore rich, stupid and fair game, aren’t you?”

3) Thank you kindly

Social etiquette is very different here – don’t expect notes of thanks for presents or parties, or even replies to invitations. I’ve hosted barbeques where I’ve been expecting anything from 10 to 25 people –  an interesting catering challenge. And when I invited 25 school friends to my son’s fifth birthday, with an RSVP and phone number underlined, how many mothers do you think replied? One – and she’s German. If I do get a note/email/phone call to thank afterwards, I am overwhelmed with delight. (My own efficiency in sending thank yous to family back in the UK has become correspondingly sloppy.)

What not to say: “Oh, sorry, you didn’t reply, so I assumed you weren’t coming.”

Credit: Alan Cleaver under Creative Commons licence

Credit: Alan Cleaver/Flickr under Creative Commons licence

4) Be fashionably late

Don’t turn up on time when meeting people socially – you’ll be standing around for at least half an hour. The Andalucian idea of time is, to put it politely, elastic. And once you’ve been here for a while, you’ll know that if you’re meeting your girlfriends for tapas at 9pm, don’t even think about arriving until after 9.30pm, or you’ll be nursing a glass of wine on your tod and trying to avoid eye contact with the opposite sex (or not, depending). In case your friends are even later than anticipated, a book or smartphone will keep you from looking conspicuously stood-up (or just sad and desperate).

What not to say: “But we said 9pm! You’re half an hour late!”

5) Run that by me again

Don’t be surprised if people sneer at you with a contemptuous expression when you try to communicate in their language (“¿QUE?”) – such rudeness is, sadly, normal. I still haven’t got used to it. Now I’m not saying my Spanish is perfect, and my accent is not great either, but their inability to comprehend me is more down to their lack of effort in trying to do so, than in my poor command of the local language.

What not to say: “I’m sorry my Spanish is so bad, it must be terrible for you trying to understand me.”

6) Mama rules in la cocina. End of story

Don’t be shocked if, when eating in a family home, the mother doesn’t sit down at the table and eat her meal with you. She will make sure everyone else has their food, before eating herself. Extraordinary but true. The first time I ate at my suegra’s house, I got up after I’d finished, to take my plate into the kitchen. She looked at me and said, “I’ll do that,” in such a way that I realised I’d crossed a boundary, and so I didn’t make the same mistake again. And you certainly don’t offer to help with the cooking, which is taken as an insult about her abilities in the kitchen. And never, ever imply, even in jest, that a Spanish woman’s culinary skills are anything other than exemplary. Every Spanish man says his mother’s gazpacho is the best ever – don’t even bother arguing, it’s not worth it – it’s his sacred place.

What not to say: “Is it me, or is this a bit overdone?”

(Unfortunately us non-Spanish don’t get anything as snazzy as the electronic DNI – just a scruffy piece of paper.)

7) Copy copy copy, check check check

If you’re going to any government office – Social Security, Registry, Hacienda (tax office) – triple-check you have all essential documents before leaving, such as ID (DNI, passport, birth certificate), Certificado de Empadronamiento (recent). Similarly, whenever applying for any job/school/nursery/course/benefit take at least five photocopies of all essential documents (the originals will be signed in blue, so you know which they are). And a book. And a bottle of water. You’ll be waiting in the queue for a while. Also, when collecting an official document, read it carefully before you sign it, to make sure the essential information is correct. A friend had her baby’s birth certificate filled out with her husband’s two surnames, rather than his first one, then her own. So her baby’s name is legally wrong. This short film about someone visiting the Seguridad Social office to register as autonoma (freelance) is very funny. An exagguration of all the paperwork needed, perhaps, but you get the point. (Thanks to Ben for giving me the link, as I couldn’t find it.)

What not to say: “Oops, I forgot to bring a copy. Why don’t you take the original?”

Credit: Black Country Museum/Flickr under Creative Commons licence

Credit: Black Country Museums/Flickr under Creative Commons licence

During the eight years I’ve lived here in Spain, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been jaw-droppingly astonished at the unfathomably strange behaviour of people here in various everyday situations.

8) Pull on your red… boots, baby

In Spain, as soon as November arrives, there’s a little-known piece of legislation which dictates that all Spanish women must discard their shoes and put on boots. Long, short, flat, high-heeled – every female will have her legs encased in leather for the next four months. Even if it’s sunny and 20 degrees. No, it’s winter, therefore it’s “cold” (er, no it’s not), and therefore I wear my boots. That is all.

What not to say: “Don’t your feet get a bit sweaty in this heat?”

9) Don’t be a litter lout – even if they are

Dropping litter is a national sport in Spain. Watch any person – child, middle-aged or elderly – eating in the street, and I’ll bet you my local rubbish container they drop the wrapper on the ground. Not sneakily or with any shame, just straight-out. No bad conscience, because such behaviour is not ill-thought-of here – they’re used to dropping pistachio shells and those teeny weeny napkins on the floor of tapas bars. Litter bins are just for decoration.

What not to say: (Pointing to rubbish bin) “Ever seen one of those? Know what it’s for?”

Are there any aspects of Spanish customs which you find particularly strange, annoying or hard to understand? Tell me!

Morning glory

Every morning, when I’m driving the kids to school, we see a flock of birds wheeling around in the sky just above the spot where we park the car.

On sunny mornings, which is more often that not, the sun catches the underside of their wings, which glow rosy with the early sun.

It is such a beautiful sight to make your heart lift, even when you’re grumpy because one or both of the kids wouldn’t get up/get dressed/eat their breakfast/get in the car etc.

I’ve been meaning to take some photos of them – proper ones, with my good camera – for ages, but this morning after I was walking back to the car, I thought, “Sod it”, as you do, and stood there looking like an eejit, snapping away with my mobile phone.

The other parents who passed me, on the way back from school as well, looked at me as if I was barking mad. But then, I’m used to that around here.

The birds come round plenty of times, so I had ample opportunity, but still the photos didn’t come out brilliantly. However they should give you some idea of this wonderful vision.

I don’t know what kind of birds they are, or why they fly like this – looking for food or water, perhaps – but I love seeing them. They’re a good start to the day. What sights make you happy in the morning?

Cadiz Beach life

Some beach near Chipiona, with a corral - the lazy way to catch a seafood dinner.

The hot weather has arrived. And what do kids love to do best in the summer? Go to the beach. And who am I to deny them their dearest wish? Better than sitting at home sweating and wanting to kill each other, that’s for sure. With so many great beaches within easy reach of Seville, it seems rude not to.

So the last two Sundays (budget doesn’t stretch to nights away these days) we have put the parasols (yes, we have two), UV tent, enough suncream for my son’s entire infant school class, and sunsuits for the three of us (two kids and me, their father is light mahogany coloured already), and headed off towards Cadiz for some beach action. Normally, we’d go to Mazagon, as it’s so much closer, but with El Rocio happening, that direction was best avoided.

It’s a pleasant drive, along the carretera nacional (more direct than the autopista, and free) past rolling hills planted with everything from sunflowers to onions. You go past the town of Las Cabezas de San Juan, where apparently the Moors cut off the heads of all the inhabitants about 800 years ago (propaganda perhaps?). How ghoulish. You also pass windmills, which I love. And near to the coast, there are some beautiful old bodegas.

Nothing like a field of flaming yellow sunflowers to make a drive less boring.

On our first outing, we went to a beach called La Jara. I’m not 100% sure if that was its name, as every tiny stretch of water where you can lay a towel seems to have a name around here, but that was the closest thing on the map . Anyway, it was near Chipiona – we could see the lighthouse – and it had an added attraction, which I find often lacking in straight, characterless, cliffless Spanish beaches (the Algarve wins out in that respect). It had corrales marinos, walled tidal pools with crabs, prawns, sole and countless other finned and suckered creatures. When the tide comes in, the animal are washed into the pools; and when it goes out again, they get stuck there, ready to be caught and taken off to a nearby restaurant kitchen for your delectation.

View from the corral back to the beach.

Not only did these make the beach look more interesting – plain sand-and-sea doesn’t really do it for me – it was also a perfect destination for a family expedition. The walls have a flat tops, and are made of limestone and piedra ostionera - stone with oysters stuck to it, which makes the surface rough. Great for not slipping, not so great for falling over on. But we had a wonderful walk, saw armies of crabs scuttling under rocks and into holes, to the children’s delight, and it reminded me of my beloved rock-pooling when I was a child. There were even some kids poking around in the rocks nearest the beach, buckets and nets in hand. Nothing like a small shelled beastie in a shallow bit of water to excite a wee one.

Scuttling sideways for cover – so much better than Spongebob.

Rock made of stones and oysters – sounds like something from a 1960s band.

This beach scored high on accessibility – very short walk from car park; availability of cold drinks – kiosk in said car park; and uncrowdedness – said car park was of very limited capacity – yoh! Now that’s my kind of beach -“Sorry, we’re full up, can’t let anyone else in at the moment. You’ll just have to wait until someone leaves.” What it didn’t have was a chiringuito - I’ve now learned my lesson and will be taking sandwiches in future.

Last Sunday, we decided to try another beach. This was very close to the first one, next to Sanlucar de Barrameda at the mouth of the Guadalquivir. Don’t ask me exactly where, as we approached it along endless narrow residential roads, between high walls and fences. This time we parked in a beachfront restaurant car park (crap food, tried to overcharge us, never again). I think it might have been a place called Bonanza, as that appeared on the map, and I liked the name.

Another beach – you can see the far side of the river – Doñana Park – in the distance. What you can’t see is the litter and dead fish.

This one scored well for its soft sand and shade – we huddled under some tall grass-type plant while the parasols arrived. However it had litter – possibly brought over by the tide from the El Rocio hordes, across the river in Doñana Park. Spain was recently awarded 511 Blue Flags for its beaches, more than any other European country (although does it have more too?). The 66 here in Andalucia include two very close to our previous week’s destination: Cruz del Mar-Las Canteras, and Camaron-La Laguna, both in Chipiona. But no, unsurprisingly, this one.

What you definitely don’t want to see at the beach: a jellyfish.

This beach also had some dead fish, and even a jellyfish. Again, the rockpooling options were there: when the tide went out, lots of rocks were uncovered and left jutting out of the sand. Lots of locals were hunting for camarones, tiny prawns, with fishing nets. Wearing ugly, chunky sports sandals, I was able to negotiate these, but only after cutting my foot in three places going barefoot out of sheer stubborness.

There was a wonderful seaside villa here, called Marbella, a 1920s building with little balconies which stuck out over the beach. I love decaying grandeur – all those old colonial towns like Pondicherry in India, and La Habana. It clearly hadn’t been used in a while, but it didn’t take much imagination to see glamorous people milling about in gorgeous frocks, sipping champagne and comparing yachts. Very F Scott Fitzgerald.

A house called Marbella – I’ll bet it’s seen a few crazy parties in its time.

If I win the lottery, I’ll buy…. this house, and drink cocktails on my balcony overlooking the sea.

Back down to earth, and that restaurant – so fabulously located, it has steps going down to the beach – had wonderful views and so much potential, and yet the food was worse than a school dinner. That is an unimaginable crime, on a coast that is crammed full of seafood – diminished in supply, but it’s still there. This week’s adventure was reaching the restaurant’s steps when the tide was in – you had to make a run for it before the waves got you. Running the gauntlet, if you like.

Great access, wonderful views, shame about the food. And not worth getting wet feet for, either.

At least the walk back was dry.

Always being a nosy cow (essential quality in a journalist, I was told many years ago), I enjoyed checking out the modern beachfront houses – not as marvellous as the F Scott Fitzgerald place, but not bad either. One had a Mexican flag – maybe La Reina del Sur lives there? Perfect spot for a bit of import-export. I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a place spitting distance from the soft sand, and I don’t think the kids would either, though I’d choose somewhere cleaner than this.