Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Custom and Practice

When I first started the  blog it was simple. The idea was to celebrate, or at least note, the diffferences between what I'd always considered to be everyday and what was now ordinary in a new country. So the fact that I ordered neither quantity nor type of beer - I just asked for a beer - gave me material for an entry. Everything from a fiesta to a supermarket visit was grist to the mill.

Nowadays it's different. I don't want to repeat the same entries over and over again and I'm, perhaps, no longer the best person to notice the differences - or so I thought. Strangely though in the last twenty four hours, a couple of tiny incidents have reminded me that I've still not quite caught on.

I do lots of English language exercises that revolve around food. In one drill I have the students do a bit of imaginary food shopping to mark vocabulary like savoury, packet, jar, seafood, game, poultry, herbs etc. They have to produce a meal from their list of savoury ingredients which come in jars and so on. A second is a variation on the TV show Come Dine With Me and there's another on preparing a romantic dinner. In all of them the end product is to produce a meal of starter, main course and pudding. I've always presumed that the minor confusions around starter and main course were simply linguistic ones. Yesterday though when we popped in to a restaurant for a meal something clicked. The eatery, on the outskirts of Fortuna, only had British clients. Maggie and I chose different starters from the set meal but we had the same main. I noticed that the menu, the list of food with prices, didn't use the Spanish equivalents of starter and main. Instead there was a list of first and second courses followed by the dessert. It wasn't something new to me but I suddenly realised that my interpretation wasn't quite right. The difference is subtle. Here we have two courses of equal weight rather than a lighter starter followed by a more substantial main course. If we were going to emulate that in Spain it would be much more usual to share the starters in the centre of the table. So there is an ever so slight difference between the structure of a standard three course "English" meal and a standard three course "Spanish" meal. Just enough of a difference to discombobulate my students.

Someone who works in the school that I work at in Cieza has been suggesting that we should get together. On Thursday he seemed determined to make it this weekend. He said that he thought he was free for Saturday "por la tarde", and he'd be in touch. When he didn't phone this morning I just presumed it was off. A couple of hours ago I noticed a message from him on my phone saying that he was sorry but things had changed and he wasn't free. When he said tarde to me I automatically translated it to my English idea of afternoon. Now, even to we Brits, afternoon is reltively flexible. It may, technically, be bounded by 6pm but I think the interplay between afternoon and evening is much more subtle than that - a combination of daylight, activity and time. It's similar in Spain except that tarde covers both afternoon and what would be relatively late evening for us. My pal's mental picture of having a drink in the "tarde"and mine were poles apart. It wasn't a translation error it was a cultural error.

I know that a couple of Spanish people read this blog from time to time. It's possible that they will dispute my reading of the situation. I would point them to Restaurante and Mesón. Several Spaniards have told me that there is an obvious difference. When pressed though they don't seem to find it so easy describing those differences to me. It all becomes a bit Cockburn's - one instinctively knows. In just in the same way I remember entertaining a couple of Spaniards in the UK who were perplexed as to why this was a pub and that was a bar or why this was a restaurant and that a café. I knew, indeed it was obvious, but I was unable to enumerate those differences in any logical way.

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