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Bilingual Blips


Being bilingual is a blessing, and sometimes a curse. While doctors of various specialties extoll the benefits of knowing two languages, while cultural specialists sing the praises of people who can communicate fluently linguistically and culturally in more than the native language, the reality of living bilingual has some very odd side effects.

First, let me clarify. By my own very strict definition of bilingual, even after more than half my life in Spain, I’m not bilingual and never will be. My accent is way too obvious, though I’ve begun to suspect that’s a subconscious way of maintaining my original Anglo identity. But aside from that (and an occasional grammatical error) I’m totally fluent, including slang, puns and political rants in my second language. Most other people would consider me bilingual so let’s use that term here.

Usually I can switch between languages with ease – especially when listening I sometimes don’t even realize what language is spoken, it just goes to the processing center in my brain without going through any “oh, turn Spanish on/off”. This is mostly useful, though sometimes a word of the wrong language will sneak into a sentence. *

But sometimes that language switch gets stuck. That’s most noticeable when interpreting, when after a while I inevitably speak Spanish to the Anglo and English to the Spaniards.
Then there’s the written language. Again, usually this goes smoothly, but there are times when I cannot understand the English translation and must read the Spanish – alas, that can happen in museums or tourism sights, where the English translation is not very good (sad but true). When reading these English translations, it helps me to think in Spanish.

Menus are another confusing place. My restaurant English is not very good, so I almost always read the Spanish. Anyway, there are some very badly translated menus – one of my favorite bloopers is “steak in spit” (meat on a skewer).

Then there’s fast food. I really should collect all the ways to write “sandwich” in Spanish: sanwis (purely phonetical), samwis (phonetical plus grammar rule about mutating n to m), sandwhich (know-it-all who knows w always followed by h), and variations on these three (sandwis, samwich and the like). And my bilingual brain is still baffled at times by “hay sandwiches” which I’ve often tried to read as English (dried-grass sandwiches for horses) instead of part English and part Spanish, announcing the availability of bread slices with something in between.

Which brings us to my new favorite, seen when dashing through Madrid’s Cuatro Caminos rotunda-square: Low Cost Come. Hmmmm. We are not in the red light district of Amsterdam, and a second / third glance clarifies that we’re talking about food.

Translated, they’re talking about inexpensive food. Ungrammatical even in Spanish: using “low cost” like this seems to mean it describes the next word – but the noun is “comida”, not “come” which of course has a different meaning in English. One can only guess that small window space created a need to improvise – thus the command form “come” instead of the noun.

Better punctuation might help make this clear – or some indication that we are looking at two different languages. Anything else, in the situation, could lead to a bit of confusion, at least for anyone bilingual enough to notice the unusual combination of words.

And no, I do not have an especially dirty mind. Just a bilingual brain. Unless, of course, this is a supremely clever marketing strategy. Perhaps I should inquire?


*for a fun bilingual movie, look for Miguel y William (Michael and William), a 2007 romantic comedy about a fictitious meeting between contemporaneous writers Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare and their rivalry for a lovely lady. It’s partly in Spanish and partly in English, with subtitles in whichever language is not being spoken. Not to be considered Great Cinema, but it’s entertaining and has some great Spanish scenery.






Sandwich Story

Bocadillos and tortilla, courtesy of cafeteria Desiree*

Bocadillos and tortilla, courtesy of cafeteria Desiree*


Pan con pan, comida de tontos (bread with bread is food for idiots), but bread with something on top is a fast and filling meal in many countries of the world. Spain is no exception: the issue is how to navigate sandwich, bocata, montado and pulga to get what you want.

Here in España, what’s inside your sandwich depends at least partially on the sandwich style you choose. There seems to be a rough division between the classic Spanish sandwich styles (bocadillo, montado) and international or “modern” styles (sandwich, tosta). For example, Spanish classics like potato omelette, pork tenderloin and squid rings do not appear between slices of white loaf bread, only in bocadillos. Lettuce, asparagus and mayonnaise are rarely used in bocadillos but frequent in sandwiches, tostas and even pulgas. Tomato is more universal – frequent in sandwiches, not infrequent in bocadillos and montados; in Cataluña bocadillos are automatically served with tomato-rubbed bread (not sliced tomato) unless you specifically ask for plain bread.

So how to get your sandwich? Here’s a fast guide to some of Spain’s sandwich styles.

Sandwich: In a cafeteria or restaurant this is usually made with toasted white loaf bread, and usually with hot filling (grilled ham and cheese, bacon) except for vegetarian options or chicken, also with toasted bread but usually cold. This is a casual sit-down meal, usually eaten with a knife and fork, though it’s no longer odd to eat as finger food. Some places like Rodilla and Vienna Capellanes chains do cold sandwiches to go, often made with a mayo-based sandwich spread and sometimes with other kinds of loaf bread. Trivia: the phonetic or half-English spellings can be confusing: samwis, sanwhis, sandwish are all logical spellings in Spanish. And don’t forget bi-lingual slips: hay sandwiches means “there are sandwiches”, not sandwiches made of hay.

Bocadillo: A hearty sandwich on baguette bread. The bread is usually cold though what’s inside might be hot (sausage, pork tenderloin, fried squid rings). Finger food, easy to eat while standing at the bar or perched on a stool. Trivia: the slang word for bocadillo is bocata, usually indicating a larger-than-usual size. Oddest bocadillo filling ever seen: patatas bravas (fried potato chunks with hot sauce).

Montado, montadito: Usually but not always open face, a slice of cold baguette bread with something on top. Frequent for lomo (pork tenderloin). Montadito is the smaller version.

Tosta: Almost always open face, baguette bread or slice from a big round loaf, grilled so bread is at least warm if not toasted and what’s on top is warmed up.

Pulga: Small bocadillo, usually cold, often on softer dinner roll instead of a miniature baguette. Trivia: pulga means flea in Spanish, and the dinner rolls often used for these sandwiches are called medianoches (midnights).

And a few with-bread concoctions that are not quite sandwiches:

Empanada, empanadilla: Originally from Galicia in northwest Spain, Spanish empanadas are not the same as the Latin American version. This is kind of a cold, covered pizza with a tomato-onion filling with tuna fish or sausage; in Galicia there are many other kinds of filling. There are two kinds of crust, one a flaky pastry, and the other a hearty though not too-thick bread. Empanadas are big and often sold by slice or weight, empanadillas are individual portions. Good for takeaway, easy to eat on the street, good party food and an easy option for a light dinner.

Pincho: If you’d rather pass on the pan (bread) you can still get a fast and light meal: just go for a pincho, something with a bit of bread on the side. Most frequently seen for tortilla expañola (potato omelette), sausage or pincho moruno (skewer of meat).


*Desiree, Cafeteria in Tres Cantos (calle del Viento 7, near the train station).  Friendliest people and best coffee in town! Excellent tomato toast for breakfast (insider tip: get “media”, the full size is too big for a normal person).  Good carry-out, too.  Why go to Tres Cantos if you don’t live or work there? It’s the beginning / end for some excellent hikes, and one of the stops on the yearly 100 kilometers in 24 hours challenge



Por San Blas las cigüeñas verás, y si lo las vieres, año de nieves.
(Around San Blas day – Feb 3 – you’ll see the storks, and if you don’t it will be a snowy year. Did you notice the subjunctive of “ver”?)


One of many Spanish sayings about the weather, many of them true. This one tells us about the storks coming back from southern latitudes: they’re among the first to fly south, and among the first to return, so they’re a sign of spring, like robins in other parts of the world. But this saying tells us even more: if you don’t see the storks the winter will continue. So maybe we can also consider them groundhogs?

The trick is: many Spanish storks do not migrate. They stay all winter in warmish places like western Spain and even in Madrid. (you can see them in the Casa de Campo). So before you jump up and down when you spot a stork early in February, be sure it isn’t a permanent resident, or a stork on a Mission with a pink or blue bundle in its beak.

Stork trivia: they return to the same nest year after year. The nests are huge and can cause structural damage to church belltowers – but since storks are protected towns cannot just remove the nests. The solution? Reinforce the church towers, often by building metal baskets so the nests rest on the baskets and not on the roof itself. You can sometimes see the metal baskets in fields or by the edge of reservoirs, like in Manzanares el Real near Madrid, or even on lighting fixtures, like by the zoo in Madrid’s Casa de Campo park.

After that sidetrack, back to weather sayings: En febrero el perro busca la sombra. (In February dogs look for shade. This is good to practice your r and rr.) Another sign of spring: dogs lying in the shade because the sun is too hot. Yes, there is usually a week or two of gorgeous weather in Feruary, but don’t be fooled. Winter is not over yet.


Starting in the middle of the story, a bit of history: After the Muslim invasion of 711, medieval Iberia was divided into Christian and Islamic territories. At first, the Christians only had a bit of northwest Iberia, but soon started the Reconquista (Reconquest) to win back the peninsula from the Muslims. That took almost 700 years, until Granada was taken in 1492.

At first glance, the Reconquista looks like a religious conflict, but in fact it was more about power and economics than religion. We might also ask ourselves about reconquering territory after so many years; perhaps the Muslims were as Iberian or almost as Iberian as the Christians after all that time? Today some historians call the Reconquista an extended civil war between different cultural groups.

That sounds pretty violent, but for many years medieval Iberia (not yet Spain) was a truly multicultural society, with religious freedom for everyone, and a lot of mutual respect. Spanish has a fabulous word for that: convivencia , which I like to call “with-living” (con=with, vivir= to live): that’s a lot better than just tolerance, where my way is the right way, but I let you do your thing because I’m a good person.

Convivencia meant that the three major monotheistic religious (Jewish, Muslim, Christian) got along pretty well, each with their customs, but all respecting the other groups. There were some rules, of course: Christians in Islamic Iberia had religious freedom, but might not be able to build new places of worship, might not have access to the best jobs, might pay higher taxes and of course, should not blaspheme against Islam. Similar policies would have been in place in Christian Iberia; Jewish people lived in both territories, also with some limitations.

Convivencia worked pretty well for quite a long time – but it eventually did fall apart. Still, it’s fascinating to think about that getting-along and wonder if there is any way to make it happen again. (want to know more about convivencia? There are two good medieval history books on reading list, see Books link in navigation bar).

The M-Words: Within that multicultural society, different cultural groups had different names, the most frequently used names all starting with the letter “M”. I’m not enough of a linguist to know if there is a hidden reason for that, but nothing obvious jumped out at me when looking up the etymology of these words in the Spanish Royal Academy dictionary.    Here’s a summary of the different cultural groups in medieval Iberia.

Mudéjar, from Arabic word mudaÿÿan (or mudaggan), meaning domesicated or under domination. This word is for Muslims living in Christian areas as the reconquista moved south. Mostly humble social classes – farmers, builders, textile workers – probably because the skilled and wealthy moved to Muslim areas after their towns / cities were taken over by Christians. Mudéjar is also an architectural style, using Islamic-style arches and decoration in civil architectural and even Christian churches.

Moriscos, from Spanish word moros (Moorish), meaning someone who converted from Islam to Christianity. This word covers voluntary conversions but also and more importantly forced conversions after the Catholic Monarchs’ conversion edict in 1502. In Aragon and Valencia regions this group was quite numerous, and also called saracenos.

Mozárabe, from Arabic Word musta´rab, meaning influenced by Arabic language / culture. This word is for Christians living in Islamic áreas; Christians living in Christian Iberia tended to regard Mozárabe Christians as too Arabized to be true Christians. The Mozárabe Christians used the older Christian religious rites even after the rest of Spain changed to the Roman rites in the 11th century – those earlier rites are still practiced today in a few places, among them the Mozárabe chapel in Toledo’s Cathedra. Mozárabe is also an architectural style, using Islamic-style architecture for churches, though most of the churches in this style are in northern Spain, built by Christians who had had lived under Islam but left those areas Christian kingdoms.

Marrano, from old Spanish and also Arabic muharram, meaning declared anathema, forbidden. This word is for Jews converted to Christianity, mostly under the Catholic Monarchs’ convert or leave edict of 1492. Another word for the same cultural group: conversos (converted). The word marrano also means pig in Spanish, an unfortunate linguistic coincidence (if not intended nastiness) for a group that might have continued to shun pork, in spite of their conversion to Christianity.

Muladí, from old Spanish and also Arabic muwalladín, meaning born of a non-Arabic mother. This word is for Christians who converted to Islam. Most of these conversions were voluntary, as the Muslim rulers respected the right to religious freedom even to the end of their power in medieval Iberia. Christians may have converted to enjoy better social situation, more access to administrative jobs, better tax situation, etc. This word was also used for children of mixed-religion couples – even today the similar word muwalladin is used for these children.

Source for lots (but not all) this post: Spanish Royal Academy dictionary If you like language this is a great website!

Food Slang 101

FOOD  – and food-related expressions. Food seems to pop up in slang and popular expressions more than any other group of words. Here is some slang using food words:

Pasta:     Pasta like macaroni and spaghetti and slang word for money

Pavo:      Turkey and slang word for the euro-coin. A “pavo” used to be a 100 peseta coin, using it for the euro-coin is inflationas a euro is something like 166 pesetas.

Chorizo:   sausage and a petty thief – or not so petty, also used for businesspeople and politicians caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

Partirse un piñon:     Share a pine nut, used to say people are close, more often in business or politically than personally. Most usual construction: Esos dos están a partirse un piñon.

Berza:   kale  and someone or something that is tedious and not-too-intelligent, or drunken spree

Buenas migas:     good crumbs, another way to say people are close, though this one can be friendship as well business. Most usual construction: Esos dos hacen buenas migas.

Seta: wild mushroom and mountaineer slang for the top flap of a backpack, usually with a small storage pouch.