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Friday, October 12, 2007

Bars, et cetera

Bars, et cetera

Spain has more bars per capita than any other country in the world, with something like six bars per thousand inhabitants—three times more than the United Kingdom and four times more than Germany. If you have walked more than a half a block without encountering a bar, check the map because you probably aren’t in Spain. Bars are one of the most popular of the privately owned businesses in the country and everybody seems to be in the business. Six bars for every thousand Spaniards seems like an underestimate, at least in my neighborhood where the ratio seems closer to one bar for every five people, including children.

Speaking of children, the drinking age in Spain is 18, unless the bar has a sign that says it won’t serve anyone under 16, in which case the legal age there is 16. I’m not sure but I don’t think that they have an official age at which people can drink in a bar; it is up to the bar owner and the young people to decide for themselves. Absolutely anyone can buy alcohol in stores. I have seen ten year old kids buying wine at the grocery store, presumably for the folks. You will never see anyone checking identification and you also won’t see kids getting drunk in a bar. At least I never have, and I have spent quite a bit of time in these Spanish institutions. Kids aren’t about to screw up too badly in bars because there is a good chance that their parents or neighbors will be hanging out in the same place. Kids here learn how to behave when they go out by direct example. In America we keep kids away from bars and booze until they become of age and then we expect them to know how to act in and around these new influences.

This isn’t to say that there are no problems with kids drinking in Spain, but it isn’t something you hear a lot about unless it involves a traffic accident. It seems that they give kids the benefit of the doubt and let them make their own decisions about alcohol. As big a role as alcohol plays in the lives of the Spanish, there isn’t a lot of abuse in any age group. I think this is true in all Mediterranean cultures.

Just as with cafes in France, it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of bars in the quotidian life of the Spanish. Whether it is called a bar, a restaurant, a cervezería, a bodega, a tasca, a bocatería, a cafetería, a taberna, or a half dozen other things, the function it serves will generally be the same. The purpose a bar serves here in Spain is a pretty tall order, something that might explain all of the different names they use. You see a lot of bars in Spain that can’t decide on just one of these name designations so they use two or three of them on their displays.

Starting at the beginning of the day they function as a coffee shop, at mid-morning they host the coffee break of the office workers, then comes the before-lunch coffee or beer, followed by the lunch crowd, followed by after-lunch coffee or cocktail, after-work meetings with friends, before-dinner drinks, dinner, after-dinner coffee and cognac, and then some places even morph into something of a night club. Even with all of that coffee I’m worn out.

There is a rather comforting sameness to bars in Spain; most of them look pretty much like all of the others. Elegant ceramic tiles cover the floors and walls, and the bar top is usually stainless steel. There is a glass covered cooler on top of the bar which displays the food selections. In many parts of Spain a small appetizer, or tapa is served with every drink that you order. This custom isn’t very common in the Valencia Community or in Catalonia; not that bars in these two regions lack a variety of good things to eat. All Spaniards, even the Catalonians and the Valencianos, have the same instincts when they have a drink and in the tapa-free region of Valencia, customers will ask for algo para picar, something to nibble on.
Beer and wine are the most popular drinks served in bars, besides coffee. Coming in at first place as the most ordered beverage is the caña, of a small draft beer. Cañas usually hold about 8-10 ounces. A doble, or double caña, is just that. Beers are also served in bottles, either in a 1/3 liter bottle or a 1/5 referred to as a tercio and quinto, respectively. Wine is also a popular beverage, more so in Castilla and Andalusia than in Valencia where I live. Vino tinto, or red wine is often served chilled during the hot summer months. This practice is also common in southern France where the summer days are scorching and where they don’t produce a lot of white wine, the wine traditionally served chilled. If it has to do with wine, and they do it in France, I think that it is an acceptable practice.

It’s nice to know that you can file “going out to a bar” as an educational experience. If you are a foreigner living in Spain and trying to learn the language, bars provide an easy way to practice what you know. Besides talking with the staff and customers, you can read one of the newspapers lying around on top of the bar. When I first arrived in the country I remember looking up every unfamiliar word in the newspaper headlines. I thought that if a word was in a headline, this means that it must be important. Why bother putting a word in large, bold print if it isn’t worth knowing? I don’t know if this makes any sense but you have to start somewhere when learning a new language. No matter where you look, there are going to be a lot of words you don’t know, so you may as well start somewhere.

Every bar has a slot machine, at least one. I sometimes hear the cartoonish noises from the slot machines when I am lying in bed at night, or I’ll have one of the catchy tunes stuck in my head as I walk around town. The slot machine music doesn’t quite have the chart-topper quality as say, the theme song to Ms Pac Man, but they can be excruciatingly annoying in their own way. I’ve never been a gambler and have never invested a single coin in one of these things, although I have often thought about paying other people not to play them when I am trying to read. The slot machine sound effects are almost as bothersome as the unmuffled whine of a moped or the constant yapping of a small dog—two other noise hazards ever-present in Spain. I suppose that if I started playing the slots I’d stop complaining about them. Then I’d just have to figure out what to do with the yappy dogs and the mopeds.

To be continued…

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