Words by Fraser Campbell.
Monday October 6th, 2014.
During my initial tenure at Betty Ford’s, I endeavored to memorise and practice several key bar related phrases to break myself into Spanish. Whenever someone ordered a bottle of beer for example, I would follow up with “Quieres un vaso?”, which translates as “Would you like a glass?”
That is of course, if you pronounce it properly.
The inherent pitfalls of self-administering a new language from Youtube and Spanish handbooks became all too apparent when I attempted conversing with the locals of Barcelona three or four nights per week, starting one year ago.
In Spain, the sound of the letters ‘b’ and ‘v’ at the start of the word melt together to form a ‘bvvvv.’ noise. For the first few months I had been pronouncing ‘vaso’ as ‘vayse-o’ (like the American pronunciation of ‘Vase’), as opposed to the actual pronunciation of ‘Vah-so’.
I had noticed over those first few months, several bewildered looks from customers when I asked that question. One day a gentleman whom I had just served a beer to along with “¿Quieres un vaso?”, gave me that same look of befuddlement and said “Why did you just ask me if I wanted a kiss with that?”
With the Spanish word for kiss being ‘beso’ (bvvase-o), you can see where the confusion occurred.
A similar faux pas occurred during the first month while explaining to some guests that we had sold out of chicken burgers. The Spanish word for ‘chicken’ is the same as the Italian word; ‘pollo’ (poh-yo). Whilst trying to construct the whole sentence in my head, I mispronounced ‘pollo’ and said ‘poh-ya’. With the whole table in fits of laughter, one of the customers who was semi-fluent in English told me I had just said; “Sorry guys, but we’re all out of penis burgers.”
As a bartender, your best tool is always going to be your chat. (Unless you are me, and you only know shite dad jokes.) When you can’t converse with the punters as you normally would, it’s akin to working behind a bar with one thousand cocktails on the menu and the only recipe you know is for a Cosmo.
In the beginning I wasn’t 100% certain if I was being spoken to in Catalan or Castalleno. Reverting to smiling, nodding and saying ‘Claro’ – ‘understood/clear’ was nine times out of ten, a winner.
Trying to deal with an irate customer always made for an interesting situation. I’m glad to say this has not happened too often as people tend to be extremely chilled out in BCN, as long as they get their money’s worth when you slide the glass over the bar.
I do remember one señora loca (crazy lady) in particular about six months back who claimed I had short-changed her, with the old; “But I gave you a fifty!” when it was very much a ten. I didn’t know how to cool her down with my limited Spanish and my frustration at not being able to communicate what I wanted to say didn’t help diffuse the situation. The whole scene ended up looking like a Charlie Chaplin sketch with me gesturing to the till and waving my arms like an injured seagull, with her running back and fourth to the bar like Benny Hill on speed.
The best comfort about Betty’s is that the majority of the customers speak at least basic English, with many being very fluent, the crew included. That being said, there were several moments where there were some classic communication problems with myself and some of my co-workers who spoke less English at the time, or were just slightly rusty.
For example at about 11.30pm one evening, one of my favourite work pals, Sandra, came out from the kitchen and proclaimed; “The chicken is closed!” From then on that became the official call when the burgers stopped sizzling. There definitely seems to be a correlation between Spanish/English mispronunciations and poultry.
I took it upon myself to start teaching Juan (one of our Argentinean chefs) English one shift whilst it was quiet. In return he started helping me out with Spanish phrases when I came into the kitchen. It became an enjoyable and entertaining ‘intercambio’ (Exchange). Eventually the lessons slowed down and all he really says in English now is; “What’s up, motherfucker?”
I’ll pass on one piece of valuable advice if you’re keen to learn Spanish (or possibly any other language) at any point; don’t bother learning phrases initially that you’re not going to use on daily basis. I tried using a language app when I first moved here, which gave me laughable phrases to learn such as “I have three cats and one elephant” or even relatively useful questions like “What time is the train coming?”
Do however learn how key letters and syllables are pronounced. Spending enough time listening to customers chatting and asking questions, helped me along in this respect.
After every shift I’d write down three or four phrases or questions that I didn’t know such as “do you want ice with that?” or “get out of the way please, I need to get into the cupboard.” The next day I’d track down the translations and learn several new ones before every shift during the thirty minute walk to the bar.
As everything I needed to work in the bar related to ordering and prices, it made it much easier when going to shops, cafes and restaurants which are daily and weekly occurrences. Let’s face it, 95% of learning anything new is just relentless practice.
Whenever someone approached the bar and said something I hadn’t heard yet, such as “¿dónde puedo comprar cigarrillos?” (Where can I buy cigarettes?), it was usually a case of listening out for a key word and pointing to one of the adjacent shops, while saying “ahi” (there.) Then eventually “tres puertas mas abajo en la tienda de kebab.” –> “Three doors down in the kebab shop.”
My saving grace through this learning curve has definitely been my work pals and many of the Betty’s customers, who aren’t afraid to pull me up when my tongue slips up. So thank you Dave, Jo, Carles, Sandra, Adriano, Rodriguo, Juan, Jess and the regular rascals.
Without further ado, I’d like to pass on some useful questions & phrases (below) that you can use in the bar if you visit Mexico, South America or when you drop into Betty Ford’s for a couple of chupitos. Just bear in mind there are subtle accent and pronunciation changes depending on where you are.
It goes without saying that I encourage you bartenders to take advantage of working somewhere that is not one of the major English speaking cities that you would normally be drawn to. Go somewhere where can dip your tongue into an unfamiliar language for a year or more. In the long term, the opportunities as a bartender, brand ambassador or within other hospitality roles around the globe will grow to be boundless.
The GBE Spanglish Mini-Guide for Bars
Bartender to guest
Que quieres tomar? – What would you like to drink?
Que te pongo? – What can I get for you? (For more than one person is Que os pongo?)
Quieres la carta para comer y bebidas? – Would you like the food and drink menu?
Que bebe? – What do you drink?
Que sabores le gustar? – What flavours do you like?
Quieres hielo? – Would you like ice? – (hielo is pronounced like ‘yellow’.)
Quieres algo mas? – Would you like anything else?
Quieres otro? – Would you like another?
Quieres un vaso? – Would you like a glass?
Quieres un beso? – Would you like a kiss?
Chupito? – Shot?
Guest to bartender
Tienes un menu/carta de cocteles? – Do you have a cocktail menu (the most important question, after all.)
Me puedes dar un Old Fashioned, pero no muy dulce. – I’d like an Old Fashioned, but not too sweet.
Esa coctel estaba muy bueno, quiero otro por favor. – This cocktail was very good, I would like another please.
Que zumos tienes? – What juices do you have? (words with a ‘z’ at the start have a ‘th’ pronunciation in Spain. In South America, it would be pronounced like ‘sumo.’)
Que cervesas tienes? – What beers do you have? (a ‘c’ before an ‘i’ or an ‘e’ is always pronounced as a ‘s’ sound. – ser-vay-sa.)
Cuanto cuesta? – How much is that?
Me cobras con tarjeta? – Can I pay with card?
Dónde está el baño? – Where is the toilet?
Tienes algo para picar? – Do you have any bar snacks?
Quiero un whisky sin hielo, por favor? – I’d like a whisky without ice, please.
Mas/Menos hielo por favor – More/Less ice please.
Tienes un jarra de propinas? – Do you have a tip jar? (Jarra is pronounced ‘harra’.)
Tienes una mesa para cuatro? – Do you have a table for four?
A qué hora cierra? – What time do you close?
Me puedes cargar mi movil por favor? – Can you charge my phone please?
Tres chuptios de tequila por favor. – Three shots of tequila please.
Me gustaria la Michelada muy picante. – I would like a Michelada, very spicy.
Saying Excuse Me
Disculpe/Disculpeme – To get attention from a bartender/waiter
Con Permiso – To get past someone
Perdone – If you bump into someone