My First Conversations In Spain – Travelling From Santander To Burgos

I think I was more than a little nervous on the first day actually in Spain. There were a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly this was the start of my longest ever motorbike trip and one where I would be riding on the opposite side of the road than I was used to.

Secondly, today was probably be the day where I’d first get to properly road test my Spanish.

No more practice conversations with my tutor. No more general chats in Spanish with my Australian based Chilean friend.

Now it would be for real.

Any Spanish I would use today would in some way shape or form practically contribute to the quality of my trip around Spain.

Avoidance of starvation, dehydration and getting hopelessly lost would all depend on my ability to communicate in Spanish.


No pressure then.

And so it was with a slight level of trephidation that I waited to disembark from the ferry and actually get going.

I got chatting to a married biker couple called Mark and Sam whilst hanging around waiting to get called down to the car deck where our bikes were parked.

When the conversation drifted on to the usual “where are you going” and “where are you from”, I had another reminder of just what a small world it is that we live in.

Ironically they were heading down to the same town as me for their first overnight stop (Burgos). Not only that, they lived in the same town that I grew up in!

Having established just how much common ground we had, we got talking about our relative abilities in Spanish. They shared they had done two terms of evening classes whilst I told them about the approach I had taken over the last few months.

I was pleased they seemed interested. Perhaps I might be able to help others get on the road to learning Spanish too by sharing how I have done it.

This trip will be the proving ground for how effective the approach has been.

But back to the ride….

As me and my newly made friends were both heading to the Burgos, we decided to ride south together.

That’s the beauty of being a biker. You join an informal “club” where it’s perfectly acceptable to strike up conversations with fellow bikers who might be complete strangers yet will speak to you as friends.

It’s not something you can experience until you have a bike and get out there on the road.

So we chatted for a while covering a range of subjects from bikes to travel, to learning languages and to our shared experiences of where I grew up.

Eventually we were called down to our deck where we packed up the bikes and made our way off the ferry. The first port of call was immigration for a passport check.

My First Experience Of Using Spanish For Real

Whilst waiting in the queue I got to apply my first bit of Spanish.

There was a large neon sign above the point of formal entry into Spain where the immigration officials were checking travel documentation.

All it said was “please have you passports ready for inspection” in Spanish.

Ok so it didn’t need complete fluency to be able to understand what it meant because even someone who hadn’t learning any Spanish could get that.

But that’s not the point.

It was another positive reference point to help remind me I am making progress.

Once we were through immigration, we were on the road and heading south to Burgos.

It took a couple of hours before I got to use my first bit of real Spanish with a live Spanish person.

After making a winding descent down the side of a large gorge we stopped at a petrol station/cafe-bar for a drink.

Whilst we were waiting to be served, I began mentally rehearsing what I would ask for.

It was going to be an orange juice so in my mind I began to play with some of the options.

“¿Tiene zumo de naranja?” – Do you have orange juice?

“Quiero beber un zumo de naranja” – I want to drink an orange juice

“¿Me gusta zumo de naranja – tiene?

Which one do you think I went for?

None of them!

I bottled it and went for a simple “Zumo de naranja”.

Well it worked because I was presented with a glass of orange looking liquid.

Job done!


There was no ice….


I’d have to ask for some.

Fortunately one of the many words I had committed to memory as part of developing my base vocabulary was the word for ice.

When I finally got the bar tenders attention again, I waved the glass of juice at him and confidently said “Hielo por favor”.

He responded with a question in Spanish which I didn’t understand. Not wanting to appear foolish in front of my new friends, I just nodded and responded with a strong and confident “Si”.

I think sometimes you just have to bluff your way through these things.

Well it impressed Sam anyway!

So that was my first proper use of Spanish. I know it wasn’t a deep and meaningful conversation about the meaning of life or the delicate state our planet finds itself in at the moment.

But it was communication in Spanish.

I was thirsty and needed a drink. I asked for and got a drink…. in Spanish.

From tiny acorns, mighty oaks doth grow…. or if you want that in broken, grammatically incorrect Spanish:

“De semilla pequeño, árboles grande cultiva”

Perhaps you could Google Translate that and see how close my attempt was!

So back to my ride down into Spain.

Stopping for a drink was the only opportunity to speak Spanish until I arrived at my hotel.

That was probably a good thing because my first experience albeit short, was positive.

Checking In And Making A Hash Of Ordering A Taxi

We continued our journey south and eventually arrived at our respective guest houses which were only a couple of miles from each other.

Having parked the bike I walked into the reception and found the owner of the guest house sat behind the desk at reception.

Now I had to be a little bit more sophisticated with my Spanish.

Here is what I said:

“¿Tiene una reservación para mi por esta noche?”

It sounded like it came out ok to me but the real indication was the response I got. He responded with “Si” and confirmed my name and asked for my passport. He then asked me what time I wanted breakfast – all in Spanish!

Yippee – thank you Michel Thomas! I was understood.

But now I had my first bit of performance anxiety.

I couldn’t remember how to say the time. I had only been looking at this a day or two ago and so got a bit frustrated with myself that I was struggling.

However I now realise that I had only read through the “how to” bit and had not created any flash cards to help me embed it into my memory.

It seemed so obvious at the time and I was convinced that I would be able to remember that…. though clearly not.

So to mask my inability to express times I paused pretending to think deeply about when the best time to have breakfast was. He must have thought I was a philosophical soul who cared deeply about the best time to take in morning sustenance…..

….or more likely he thought I was a blithering idiot who couldn’t make decisions!

And so I settled for the first reasonable number that came to mind – nueve. So I am having breakfast at 9….

He showed me to the room and pointed out the key. I then went and unpacked the bike.

I had arranged to meet my riding companions in Burgos so I suggested to them via text that I would arrange a taxi and then pick them up en route. All I needed to do was ask the hotel owner to sort out my transport.

I realised that in my fluster of using my fledgling Spanish I had not introduced myself or got to know his name. So before I tried to murder more of his language, I sought him out and introduced myself. I discovered that his name was Miguel (Michael in Spanish!).

So about the Taxi – Here’s what I said “Puedes me llamar un taxi a Burgos por favor”.

He asked what time “¿A que hora?”, so I said “siete”.

I then had to explain that I wanted the taxi to take me to where Mark and Sam were staying – a small village called Las Quintanillas about 5 miles away.

The only trouble was I couldn’t remember the precise pronunciation of the name. That resulted in a lot of confusing looks as I tried to explain.

I started out by going down the “tengo dos amigos en Las Q…..something or other”. Taxi aquí a Las Q. Luego taxi a Burgos”.

It got to be quite a confusing aural mess for me when he responded. So I really struggle to understand what is said to me.

What I am still unclear on is whether that is just a particular trait of my language (in)abilities, or whether that is only to be expected just a few months into learning a language.

I picked up the gist that he wanted to know whether I wanted a one way trip into the local town or a there and back return booking. Even now I am not sure whether I answered that correctly because once again, the Fluster Factor kicked in.

Fortunately Mark had texted me the name of his guest house and village and so I could show Miguel where to go.


That knocked my confidence a bit.

Chatting In Spanish With My Taxi Driver

So I went and got ready and turned up on time ready to depart. It seemed that Miguel was going to drive me in.

He gestured whether I should sit in the front or the back – I said “en el frente” and sat in the front. As I was with a Spanish chap the only thing was to do on the journey was speak Spanish with him…

…Or at least try.

So I resorted to the classic British topic and commented that I was warm “tengo calor”. We then got into a brief conversation about temperatures.

I mentioned in Santander it was 21 – the same as in the UK.

I think he asked me about my journey.

That’s the thing. I listen to what is said and only seem to be able to pick up the gist. I mentioned I had come from Santander on my bike but I couldn’t remember the word for “to travel”.

I asked “Como se dice la palabra por….” and then gesticulated driving saying “Santander a Burgos”. He came back with “Viajar” and it came flooding back then. This is a word I have used many times before and one that I should have known.

Then I remember him asking something about el barco (which is the word for ship so I assumes he meant the ferry.

We struggled a bit to keep a flowing dialogue going in Spanish. I asked him at one point whether he spoke English. He said “No” and then said something to the effect that his English was about as good as my Spanish!!!!

That’s feedback for you!!!!

As we were driving we passed lots of fields of golden wheat ready for harvesting. Some fields were already bare golden stubble having already had the crop cut and rolled up into those cylindrical bales.

He said that in April and May all this was green. I nodded and said what had become my default response when I really don’t understand what is being said to me – “Si”.

Looking ahead in the distance I could see there was a wind farm with lots of huge wind mills. I pointed them out and asked “como se dice…”.

He replied with a word that went in one ear and out of the other. Knowing that fan in Spanish is ventilador, I said “no ventilador?” He said “no” with something along the lines of “a ventilador was a small fan for inside the house” (in Spanish of course). He then repeated the word.

Again it went in one ear and out of the other.

[NOTE – When writing this I had to look it up on Google Translate and it is “el molino”].

This is a common problem for me because of my relatively weaker aural abilities.

I then remarked that I thought Spain was a beautiful country. But unfortunately I used “muy bien” instead of “muy bonito” – he corrected me. Uncertain that Spanish-Anglo relations had moved forward any further with my efforts, I decided then not to bring up the topic of Gibraltar!

And then we arrived at Mark and Sam’s guest house. They were waiting outside and as they got in I introduced them to each other – “Mi amigo Miguel – mi amigo Mark and mi amiga Sam.” I was quite proud of getting the right ending for amiga.

And then we headed to Burgos. Miguel asked where and suggested “el centro”. I nodded with stock answer number 1 – “si, El Centro”.

As we headed into to town, I thought I would show off my Spanish prowess to my new friends and asked Miguel “¿Puede me recomienda un restaurante?”

Well that kicked off some Spanish that included a few numbers that I assume were to gauge my price range. He mentioned something that sounded like the name of a restaurant so I had him repeat it – no point really – in one ear and out of the other!

We finally arrived at “el centro”, parked up and he let us out. He told us about the main square and which streets to go down to find places to eat – “la primera calle”. I understood that.

And then we were left on our own.

Ordering Food And Drink And Upsetting The Locals!

We strolled around looking for somewhere to eat. Sam was very hungry as we had not eaten lunch during the day at all. Whilst looking for a Tapas Bar, we eventually found a bar with a free table outside.

The waitress came over and so I asked if she served tapas (“Tiene tapas”) to which the answer was no. I then asked “Tiene comida”(do you have food) and the answer wasn’t also no.

So we ordered drinks.

When it came time to pay I went in to the bar because we couldn’t grab the girl’s attention. I said to the bar staff – “¿puedo pagar por favor? (Can I pay please?).

The waitress who served us came over, checked her notes and punched some numbers into the till. It came to 7.50.

She strained a little and said in English “seven fifty”. I responded with “Si, siete cincuenta”.

In hindsight, I think I missed a trick there. I realise now I was probably a little short with her and perhaps even rude because she had spoken in English and hadn’t acknowledged my attempts in Spanish.

But she was just like me but on the other side of the coin. She had probably mustered up a bit of courage to try to connect with me in my language. She certainly had to think about what to say and so was probably a beginner like me.

I should have taken the time to chat with her about learning to speak English. I didn’t, much to my regret now.

There was a perfect opportunity to have given her a bit of practice and compliment her on what she was saying. I think all language learners could do with a bit of encouragement from time to time.

I made a mental note to approach situations like that differently next time.

Later on I had a similar experience ordering food in the restaurant though I suspect their intent was slightly different.

Having finally found a restaurant I asked for a table for 3. This was a new phrase for me to use in Spanish and so I was quite proud of myself when I said “Una mesa para tres”.

When the waiter took our order, I mumbled in Spanish about not eating meat and asked whether the Paella del Mar (sea food paella) had meat in it. For some reason, perhaps performance anxiety again, I struggled with that question.

He responded in English.

Why would he do that?

Is it because my Spanish is so bad that he took pity on me and responded in English?

Perhaps he sensed an opportunity to practice his own English.

His demeanour was slightly different to the girl in the cafe earlier on. She was genuinely having a go at speaking in another language. With the waiter, I sensed an impatience with his arrogance.

Well I suppose not every encounter is going to be positive!

Finding My Way Back To My Guest House…And Other Adventures!

And so after finishing our meals it was time to find a taxi and head back to our guest houses.

That presented the next problem…. where do we find a taxi?

After having mixed results with using Spanish during the day, I felt quite self conscious about asking someone where to find one.

The easiest thing would have been to walk up to someone and in a questioning tone simply say “¿Taxi?”. Accompanying it with one of those shoulder shrugs that indicates doubt and uncertainty would have definitely helped I’m sure.

That would be the easy bit. Well it would be if I could get myself out of the mental rehearsal of all of the “lining up” words that I might use in English… “please can you tell me where I can find a…” etc.

Not knowing how to say that got in the way of me saying anything!

I suppose I was also more than just a bit concerned about what the answer might be and whether I would understand it.

It was the end of a long day and I was tired…. that’s my excuse anyway.

By complete fluke we eventually found a taxi rank. We showed the driver where we wanted to go by showing him the adddress on our phones.

First stop was Mark and Sam’s guest house. Having dropped them off and said our good byes, I tried to tell the taxi driver the name of my village.

It was called Isar… which is what I thought I said but clearly my pronunciation was not good.

After trading my variations of the name of village with his quizzical looks it eventually clicked where I wanted him to take me.

It is amazing how a simple adjustment in the stress on a word can render it particularly useless as a form of communication.

Frustratingly I knew where he had to go. I could give him directions but I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say.

I wanted to tell him to go back to the N-120 turn right and follow the road. But I didn’t have the vocabulary to do so.

Even on the way he tried to turn off before we had to so I had to say “no” rather loudly and emphatically. That’s a universal word that has clear meaning when shouted loud enough.

We found the right turning and eventually got to the guest house. As we approached I mentally rehearsed “para aquí” which means “stop here”.

However, when I said it he said “¿Uh?”.

I repeated it and then he repeated it back once he understood. However it sounded very different to my version of those two words.

And so it was after a very long day of riding, stumbling and fumbling through Spanish and spending time with my new biker buddies that I walked into my guest house.

When I walked through the bar, Miguel was standing their drying a glass with an old tea towel. He asked using sign language if I had eaten. I said yes. He asked where. I said “no se el nombre”.

So then I went to bed.

The Lessons Of My First Day In Spain

I learnt a few things today.

Travelling with English speaking companions makes you lazy and takes you out of “Spanish” mode.

There were plenty of opportunities for me to practice my Spanish with people if I had just asked them. I am sure Miguel would have been more than happy to chat with me. I could ask him to slow down. I could even get him to write other stuff down too.

The work I have done so far has given me an excellent grounding to make myself understood in Spanish….

….But there is still a lot more I can do to improve what Iearn and how I practice with people.

I won’t get it right every time and it won’t always be easy.

However I feel I am on the right path.

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