Burgos To Ávila – Getting Lost, Ordering Food And A Random Conversation With A Spanish Biker

Today started well.

As I made my way to the breakfast room, I greeted two guys sat in the bar with a hearty “Buenos Dias”. It’s a slightly odd greeting if you look at the literal translation because I think it means “Great Days”. But I suppose every language has its own qwerks like that.

I breezed passed them both on the pretext that I had done enough to engage with them but wasn’t sure I was ready for a full on conversation in Spanish just yet. Perhaps bewilderment, miscommunication and and confusion shouldn’t be created on an empty stomach?

My First Spanish Breakfast Experience

Miguel showed me to my breakfast table. It had been carefully laid out with a blue and white chequered paper table cloth placed diagonally across a more permanent deep royal blue cloth.

It is always interesting acclimatising oneself to the breakfast protocols in other parts of the world. Breakfast is such an important part of the day to get you going. When you are at home, it gives you a sense of initial certainty that helps kick start the day. In another country you have to re-baseline what is “normal” before you can start to regain any sense of predictability.

Along with the usual cup, saucer, cutlery, side plate, knapkin and stuff to put on toast, there sat a large round white plate positioned in the corner of the table, On it were thinly sliced rectangles of a pale yellow cheese and pink cured ham.

I had forgotten last night to mention that I was a vegetarian. Although as I have discovered when travelling to Paris a few years ago, many continentals don’t see chicken or ham/bacon as meat!

Having seen the meat I was able say to Miguel “No como carne”.

At this early stage in my journey towards Spanish proficiency I still feel a bit uncomfortable that I am unable to qualify my requests and statements. It feels like I am being somewhat abrupt and perhaps even rude by only communicating in direct statements.

In this scenario, I would like to have put a bit of context on the situation rather than just come out with a short and somewhat terse phrase.

My italki.com teacher has told me that Spanish conversation is more direct than English, particularly in transactions like those in shops, bars and restaurants.

That maybe so, but It will still take sometime to get used to I think.

In Spanish speaking terms, breakfast was easy to manage. I was able to ask for toast (tostada), eggs (huevos) and have a brief exchange where I declined the coffee (cafe) and asked for green tea (té verde). Unfortunately it was builders tea or nothing. When it came with no milk (leche), I was able to ask for some of that too.

This was a conversation of pure functional transaction. Ok it might not have an exchange of views and opinions, but not every conversation I have in English does either.

Some Useful “Stock Phrases”

Useful words/phrases in these situations are “¿Tiene…?” which means “Do you have…?” when said with a rising intonation and “Quiero tener…” which means “I want to have…”

Pop the relevant noun on the end of either of those phrases, and Bob’s Your Uncle, you are expressing your desire for them.

So the more nouns you know, the greater the freedom you will have to ask for what you want. This is just one of the reasons why getting the most frequently used words under your belt is important at the very beginning.

Back to my breakfast conversation….

It felt comforting and even comfortable that I was able to engage with Miguel, understand what I was being asked and respond accordingly.

A small victory but a victory nonetheless.

Not Every Conversation Needs Lots of Words

Not every exchange in Spanish needs to be two way. In fact sometimes nothing is said by either party yet both have understood what each requires.

Later on I had an experience of literally no communication at all when I put some fuel into the bike before my next long leg of the journey.

I parked up next to a free pump. After dismounting, partially disrobing (remove helmet, gloves etc) I filled up. When I paid, all I had to do was hand over my credit card, acknowledge that I needed to pay for the only motorbike on the forecourt (I think it was my high-vis jacket that gave it away) and that was it.

So many of my most basic phrases are working well. They are functional and I am able to express what I need to. The only trouble is, I am finding it really difficult to understand much of what is said to me.

What Happened When I Got Lost

This really hit home when I thought I was lost on my way to Ávila. At a roundabout there were roads I wasn’t expecting from my pre-journey planning. So after circumnavigating the roundabout 3 times trying to get my bearings, I headed up to a nearby petrol station to get some help.

My tutor from italki.com had taught me how to say “I’m lost” (“Estoy perdido”). So I dutifully recited that phrase to the young girl behind the desk. I followed up with “Voy a….” and then pointed to my destination on the map.

I could have tried to say the name of the town but when you are feeling lost, that added anxiety meant my brain wanted to keep things as simple as possible.

She then said the name of my destination.

In my mind, it bore absolutely no resemblance to the place name I had just pointed to.

I was heading for San Esteban de Gomaz. This is a small village with a long name. The sort of name that should occupy quite a bit of air time compared to something like Cadiz or Madrid.

But when she said it she took less time than I would take to say Burgos.

It was that fast. Like a machine gun with the trigger stuck on automatic.

In my mind there was absolutely no correlation between what she just said and what was written on my map.

I assumed she could read and what she had said was where I wanted to go. So I gave her a knowing nod followed up by an emphatic “Si” hoping she wouldn’t notice my bewilderment!

I think I got away with it because she pointed back to the nearby roundabout and said “la segunda salida” with a wave of her hand which I knew to mean the second exit.

The universally useful combination of sign language and a few words of the local language.

She then rattled something else off that I didn’t understand so I gave her one of those sage like nod of the heads and brief chuckle as though I completely understood.

It is quite easy to feel deflated and demoralised in situations like this.

Even after putting all that effort in to learn vocabulary and start putting it together with some grammar, it still feels like I am never going to master it.

However I have to keep reminding myself of my expectations and what I am trying to achieve.

I want to be able to be understand and be understood in Spanish around my current “survival” activities. It is about trying to communicate and exist in another language within a certain context.

And so far….

That is what has happened.

Despite My Struggles, Progess Is Being Made

As I write this I am sat at a table in front of a cafe in a square just outside the walls of the old part of Ávila. It is Wednesday and I have been in Spain since Monday afternoon.

I have been able to find my way around, check in and check out of two hotels, order food and drinks numerous times and even recover from getting lost….

All in Spanish.

As someone who has been through an extensive academic education and as someone who has an almost stifling attention to detail, of course I want things to be perfect.

I like the idea of being fluent.

Or perhaps the reality is, I really like the idea of not feeling uncomfortable or insecure in a foreign country. There is something quite isolating about being abroad and not being able to understand what is going on.

Not being able to influence your presence in another country without resorting to English is something that doesn’t seem right.

So it does come back round to wanting to be even more proficient in Spanish than I am now.

I think that will always be the case and perhaps I just need to accept effective communication as my goal – get the job done.

Back to my ride.

Ordering Vegetarian Food In Spanish

So my next job on today’s journey was to get fed and watered after a long stint riding in hot weather.

I stopped in a small town en route, found a place to park the bike and wandered over to a small cafe bar opposite the square where I had parked.

As I walked up the two steps to the door, I gave a hearty “Buenas tardes” to the old boy sat at s small table nursing an espresso.

There were only a couple of people at the bar so I was served straight away. When the lady behind the bar came over I asked for some water and an orange juice in Spanish.

I think this is going to become my standard drink for this trip. Seeing I was hot and sweaty in my bike kit, she also asked if I wanted the water cold (“¿Fría?”) which I obviously did. I felt very happy that I had understood what she meant.

Of course it is only an exchange of a few words, but every little success helps add to the growing pot of confidence. The more of these I can get, the more I am likely to keep going.

As she handed me the drink I said “¿tienne comida sin carne, soy vegetariano?” (Do you have any food without meat I’m vegetarian?).

She looked to a colleague and they both started talking about fish and salad. At least those were the two words I recognised amongst the rat-a-tat dialogue they shared. They then involved me in the conversation and I understood.

“¿Pescado? Si. ¿Ensalada? Si”

Between the three of us we had established that I was going to have some fish and a salad.


As the waitress went off, her colleague asked “De donde eres?”

I said I was from England so I apologised for my accent (thanks again to my tutor for that!). She then told me that the accent was not a problem as she had lived in Australia for 2 years where the accent was a problem.

All of this was in Spanish.

This learning language stuff was starting to work. I was feeling good about this now.

The food and drink came over and I had a hearty meal in this small provincial cafe bar. I went and asked for and paid la cuenta. Then it was back on the bike and I was off again.

Here’s Why I Know It Is Working

Perhaps the highlight conversation of today for me was my second stop an hour or so later. It was hot and my backside was starting to feel the effects of accumulation of nearly 700km on the bike over 3 days. I needed to stop.

So I pulled into a petrol station on the edge of a small village and bought an ice cream and a bottle of chilled water. A few yards away, there was another biker sat on the wall in the shade.

It looked like I wasn’t the only one seeking respite from a long journey.

I could see from his number plate that he was Spanish. There is a strong bond between bikers whatever country you are in, even if you don’t know them. The bike is a great unifying force between complete strangers.

It doesn’t matter what you do or where you are from, the fact that you ride a bike is all that is necessary to connect and bond with complete strangers.

So I went over and said hello and introduced myself.

And we got chatting. I discovered his name was Cesar, a Catalan heading back to Salamanca to be with his family. We talked about my journey and where I was from. We discussed the weather, we talked about what sports we liked. The conversation even drifted onto the difference between a nautical mile and a land based mile.

All of this in Spanish. Ok my Spanish was a broken form of poorly pronounced, grammatically incorrect stream of vocabulary. But it was an exchange of Spanish where communication and understanding was achieved.

I discovered what he did for a living and explained my career history. He explained the different languages spoken in Spain. I asked him to say something in Spanish and then repeat it in Catalan. I could not understand either nor could I tell them apart.

But the exchange helped me appreciate another layer to the culture of this fabulous country. He even raised the subject of Gibraltar…. I don’t know where to go with that one in English let alone in Spanish!

We chatted for about 20 minutes and it was all done in Spanish. I realised with this encounter that the effort I am putting in is paying off.

Ok there were things I didn’t understand and there were things I wanted to say but couldn’t. But this was one of the most rewarding parts of my trip so far.

And then it was back on the bike.

I had about another hour’s ride to Ávila and it felt even better for the conversation and connection I had with Cesar.

What Happened When I Got Lost (Again)

But as I discovered, learning Spanish and using it is a roller coaster of a ride.

In Ávila I got hopelessly lost and despite my pre-journey planning and preparations the phrase “the map is not the territory” was VERY relevant. Now I could have stopped and asked for directions. I didn’t for two reasons:

1. I am a man and that’s not what we do…. wherever we are in the world
2. My confidence in my knowledge of directional related vocabulary was low after my earlier experience.

Thank heavens for the iPhone, 3G and Google Maps!

I eventually found and then checked in at the hotel without any problems and got directions from the owner into town. This conversation is hardly one to shout about because I understood every word of the complex directions he gave.

How so given that I have already said my confidence in directions in Spanish was low at this point?

Well Augustine the guest house owner, took out a free tourist map of the town and drew on it as he explained where we were and where to go from there. It’s very difficult not to understand something that clear whatever the language!

It is all about communication.

The Last Spanish Conversation Of The Day

My last Spanish language encounter was with my waitress at a small cafe tucked away in the back streets of Ávila. I managed to order my usual drinks – I think I have “zumo de Naranja and agua sin gas” weighed off now. Not sure what will happen if ever I want anything else to drink.

When the complimentary tapas came, it had meat in so I rolled out another stock phrase “no como carne, soy vegetariano”. She was great and said something about cheese so I nodded and out came something predominantly green between bits of pastry. It tasted very nice.

I tried to order some more food later and had to point at the menu for a fish dish I did not recognize. She said no, blurted something rapid in Spanish that I didn’t understand and then brought me a bigger piece of my tapas… all for free!

So the end of another day surviving in Spanish.

Though I think in at least one conversation today, my Spanish thrived.

More tomorrow.

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