Culture and spanish language - January 2012

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Newsletter January 2012
Popular destinations in Spain

Typical Spanish

January sales and la cuesta de enero (uphill struggles)

In recent years (though long enough for our grandparents to remember it), the arrival of January has been marked by two major events: the start of the January sales and of the so called cuesta de enero (the month’s uphill struggle).

Both of them are directly linked to the state of our finances following Christmas: coming out of a period of consumerist and alimentary excesses, we are positively out of pocket. Our salaries at the start of the month are hardly enough, and the thought of reaching the end of January with any money at all is fanciful, at least; the problem looms larger when we think it follows a time of the year full of optimism, good wishes, and so on… In other words, just think of someone at the bottom of a really steep climb a few kilometres long and you will understand why they call it the cuesta de enero. We aren’t quite certain when the term first came to use, but it is absolutely spot on!

However long, these weeks of depression, prudence, scarcity and diets prompt all sorts of tricks to keep going. And we aren’t only talking about a family eating cabbage soup every day or keeping the remains of New Year’s Eve’s dinner in the freezer in order to prepare croquettes with them during the rest of the month. We are also referring to large commercial areas.

You might be forgiven to think that major Spanish department stores hardly make a penny during this month, but you would be wrong. They also accrue dividends after Christmas thanks to… the January sales!

Essentially, the January sales constitute a season during which major malls and department stores put their stock for sale with huge discounts. They usually start the week following Three Kings’ Day (in some places it even starts beforehand, on January 2) and they stretch all the way into March. The origin of these sales is not Spanish, but North American: the first January sales took place in New York, sometime in the 30s. The idea was to get rid of the Christmas stock, no matter what, in order to make room for the new collections, even if it meant reducing its price substantially and lowering the margins of profit made on each item.

January sales made it to Spain a decade later, by the hand of a couple of Asturian cousins who had emigrated to Cuba and taken note of the American tradition (we won’t mention the companies they ended up heading, because we all know which they are).

The experiment was successful and even smaller shops followed suit. These days, the January sales are a true social phenomenon: every year, hoards of people can be seen waiting in line to be the first ones in and fetch themselves the best items once the department stores open, to the point where sometimes two people start to fight over one piece of garment; every January, news broadcasters will devote some minutes to look into consumers’ rights; and some people even use part of their holidays in order to go shopping during these days.

Exacerbated consumerism or savings? The question is controversial but no one can argue that January sales, for all their good and bad sides, are not part of contemporary Spanish culture.

Featured City

St Anthony
St Anthony’s Day
Madrid (Día de San Antón) (St Anthony’s Day)

If you go out for a stroll in Madrid on January 17 and you happen to walk along the Calle Hortaleza, don’t be surprised when you come across a long line of people carrying all sorts of animals right in front of the parish of San Antón: they are pilgrims, awaiting the blessing for their pets. But, why on this specific day? According to hagiography (the study of the life of the saints) San Antón Abad (St Anthony, the Abbot) discovered divine love and wisdom through the observation of nature. Therefore, he started blessing animals and plants and, following his death, was named the protector of pets.

Although it would seem that the tradition is ancient, it actually originated relatively recently: it has only been around since 1943. From all corners of the city, and even farther away, pets and their owners arrive, ready to queue up in front of the parish for hours. Given that access to the church is not allowed to animals, the priest in charge of the parish comes to the threshold and gives his blessing, one by one, to the whole fauna before him, which can include anything from the standard cats and dogs, to birds, iguanas, snakes and even Vietnamese pigs.

Following the blessing, the owners are presented with a bun, similar to the pastry we will talk about further below, which, the story goes, is made with special ingredients that make it stay fresh for a long time. According to tradition, if you keep it with a coin or next to a wallet inside a drawer for about one year, good luck will come. We have been looking for information, but we have been unable to find what to do with the bun after that, although the done thing is unlikely to be to eat it.

The celebration, however, does not end here. Following the blessing of the relevant pets, a solemn parade, known as the vueltas de San Antón, is organised on the streets of old Madrid on the afternoon of the feast day of the saint, where both the blessed and their owners take part. Dog support units from local and national police departments, as well as guide dogs from the Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles (National Organisation of Spanish Blind People) and even the Asociación de Amigos del Burro (Association of Friends of the Donkey) all take part in the parade. Curiously, some say it is one of the most disciplined processions organised in the city.

Thus ends this simple but meaningful celebration, well worth watching: a full day devoted to those who, in the words of Lord Byron, have ‘all the virtues of Man without his Vices’.

Famous Person

John of Austria
John of Austria
John of Austria

Every culture has a heroic figure, a warrior, general or admiral, whose story has been turned into a legend linked to the most glorious times of a given country: Napoleon in France, Garibaldi in Italy, Zhukov in Russia, Alexander the Great in Greece, Lord Nelson in England, Patton I the United States…

… And in Spain we have John of Austria, son to Charles V, brother to Philip II, and victor in what Cervantes called ‘the greatest occasion ever witnessed by the ages’ (the battle of Lepanto).

The funny thing is that John of Austria was not born in Spain, but in Germany, specifically in Regensburg. The year of his birth, however, is less clear, with some historians claiming it was 1545 and others pointing at 1547. What is clear, nevertheless, is that he was the fruit of Charles V’s affair (he was a widower at the time) with Barbara Blomberg, a beautiful singer, daughter to a Bavarian bourgeois family.

Needless to say, marriages between people from different social status were well outside the norm at the time, although affairs were less frowned upon. The issue was solved in a slightly convoluted fashion, although everyone seems to have come out it relatively happy, and the scandal was, actually, avoided: Charles V remained the ‘custodian’ of the child, while Barbara married Jerôme Pyramus Kegel, the new Spanish representative in Brussels and John’s tutor during his early years. Upon Jerôme’s death, Barbara was awarded a lifelong pension from the emperor, Charles V.

He spent little time with his mother. In 1551, the infant John arrived in Leganés (Madrid) with Francisco Massy and Ana de Medina, a courtesan couple who would take care of him during his earliest childhood. In 1554, his care was entrusted to Luis de Quijada and Magdalena Ulloa, a noble couple that took him to Valladolid. During all this time, John never met his father. Two more years would go by, in fact, before Charles V, having abdicated, asked Luis de Quijada to move to Yuste (where the king lived, now in retirement) to be near his collaborators and, by the by, also be near his son.

Charles amended his will that same year, recognising John as his offspring, and asking his heir to the throne, Philip II, to register him as a member of the royal family.

John of Austria
John of Austria

As a privileged young man of the time, he completed his education in the University of Alcalá de Henares. His intended place in the establishment was within the church, but his character was far more inclined towards a military career. Having told his brother, by now King Philip II (Charles V had already passed away, in 1558), he was put at the helm of a squadron, in the thick of the plight against Berber pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. We don’t know whether it is true, as some claim, that the new king did this hoping that John would suffer a comprehensive defeat that would send him back on the tracks of the Church. Either way, John accrued success after success and ended up becoming the top brass in the Spanish army (we remind you that back then Spain was in charge of half the world, so he must have done something right).

His time would come in 1571, in the famous ‘Battle of Lepanto’. Commanding a heterogeneous fleet (with Spanish, Venetian and Papal ships) and following an encounter that lacked nothing in temerity, he destroyed the Turkish fleet. Politically, it was a great victory; but personally, it ultimately caused a major rift with his brother: Philip II, prudent as he was, did not believe in his brother’s aspirations to spread Spanish power along the Mediterranean Sea, nor was he particularly pleased with his illegitimate brother’s decision to demand from his soldiers to be addressed as ‘Your Highness’.

Perhaps as a means to curtail his advance, the clever Philip decided to send his brother to Flanders to act as Governor and end the revolt of the followers of the Prince of Orange. As the Governor of the Netherlands, and in charge of the famous Tercios de Flandes (the army of Flanders), he scored a few victories and attained a reputation as a capable leader, but he was unable to subdue the people of the country in their efforts to become independent.

The story goes that this failure ended up ruining his spirit, although he likely fell ill to typhus, which he might have caught during an offensive. Be that as it may, Don Juan de Austria died in the vicinity of Namur, aged 30 or 31. With the passing of the man, a new legend was born.

Still today, his grave can be visited in the Monastery of El Escorial (near Madrid): his tomb is unmistakable: a handsome young man in an armour seems to sleep with his sword over his chest; at his feet, a small lion looks at us with a calm but ferocious look. A true depiction of the life of a man, loved by some and hated by others, but without whom we would be unable to conceive a highly important period in the history of our country.

Spanish Recipe

St Anthony buns
St Anthony buns
Panecillos de San Antón (St Anthony buns)

We spoke about the Feast Day of St Anthony earlier on, and about the peculiar, and seemingly eternal, buns linked to him. Let us take a closer look at their history and their recipe.

Apparently, St Anthony himself used to eat an earlier version of this sweet: a dry bread of sorts that helped him to overcome both hunger and the temptation of gluttony for months. His recipe was so special that, as well as highly nutritious, he could make them keep for a long time. Something along the lines of the lembas in The Lord of the Rings, let’s say.

Its production remained a total secret due to the care of the followers of the saint, who took it to the parish of St Anthony in Madrid. Only the higher echelons of the church could eat the breads, but on the Feast Day of the saint the rest of the people could buy them in some bakeries. But only on the condition that the recipe was returned to the parish the following day. Needless to say, the authorities made certain that no one had copied it.

If there is already a certain air of mystery surrounding this bun, another characteristic helps to make it even more enigmatic and legendary. We are talking about its decoration: carved in the shape of a cross similar to the one used by crusaders. The explanation is simple, since the adornment represents the ensign of the Knights Hospitallers, founders of the hospitals that treated those who were poisoned after eating food contaminated with fungi, a sickness known as ergotism, which previously was also called ‘St Anthony’s fever’.

We have mentioned already that according to tradition, this bun is a lucky charm that must be kept for a full year next to your wallet. Still today, many people follow this tradition, although most of us just eat it, like any other cake.

Needless to say, the recipe is now public domain: flour, sugar, oil, eggs, lemon and milk. Any bakery can produce their own panecillos de San Antón, although we still harbour one doubt: was the recipe really this simple? All this secrecy for a cake anyone can bake if they have an oven? Some say the real recipe is different, and therefore the panecillo is truly something else… with secret properties.

As the Spanish saying goes: ‘if there is no bread, cakes are just as good’. So we will be happy with the buns they sell in bakeries and pastry shops, which are probably nicer than the exclusive and enigmatic original, anyway.

Popular Saying

‘Con nieve en enero, no hay año fulero’ (snow in January always bodes well).

One of the biggest problems we have when we try to explain Spanish sayings is that they are meant to rhyme, in order to make them easy to remember. We say ‘problems’ because often the rhymed word is not terribly common.

That is the case with the word fulero, which means ‘false, or of little use’. Hence, for the better understanding of the saying, we could say it is, ‘Con nieve en enero, no hay año inútil’, or ‘snow in January always bodes well’. A cousin of sorts of another saying: ‘Año de nieves, año de bienes’ (‘a year full of snow is a year full of goods’).

But, what has snow got to do with good luck? We must consider that a great number of these Spanish sayings have an agricultural origin and they are sentences that condense a great amount of experience, something along the lines of stock cubes of knowledge. When there is snow in the mountains, rivers grow as the temperatures rise and make it melt, which leads to better irrigation and a more abundant and better harvest. Which, in turn, means more profit.

The link between snow and good crops was likely figured out straight away. It probably required a few years of the kind of simple but shrewd observation that characterises people from the countryside (and which, sadly, many of us lack). The facts observed were turned into a proverb, such that the lesson could be passed from generation to generation.

Now, then, how could we, stemming from worldly cities, derive any profit from this saying? No amount of snow will prompt our bosses to give us a pay rise or make us any happier, even though snow always carries a poetic element that sparkles optimism. Is it because it reminds us of the happy days when we used to make snowmen, or because in our subconscious the white blanket remains a symbol of all-embracing purity that makes everything better? We might not need to go beyond the obvious: if it snows in the winter it seems like everything is taking place appropriately, in the right order and in perfect harmony.


Curious names given to coins (from the duro to the lero)

There’s a song by the Beatles that says that the best things in life are free, but, even then, all we want is money. Spaniards are no exception, despite the bohemian flair we like to carry about us. Proof of this is the tremendous amount of names we have linked to notes and coins. Some of them stem from the time when we had a currency of our own (the peseta); others are more recent. Here’s a number of them, which you will inevitably end up hearing while you are in Spain:

Cara y cruz (heads and tails): It refers to the front and the back of a coin. The ‘heads’ part is simple, given that one of the faces of the coins has the profile of the king carved into it (in previous times it wasn’t the king but other ‘heads of state’). As for tails (cruz), it stems from the symbol of the Spanish Empire, a cross, which was carved onto the other side of the coins.

Duro: The end of the peseta also put an end to this term, which was used to designate the five-peseta coin, as well as the value of any other coin multiple of five (hence, a 25-peseta coin was simply ‘five duros’ and the 100-peseta coin was ’20 duros’). The name originally comes from another coin whose value was of 20 reales, known as peso duro (‘strong weight’) due to its good quality and longevity. Those 20 reales were the equivalent to five pesetas. Thus, when five-peseta coins were minted, they were immediately referred to as monedas de a duro, or ‘coins worth one duro’. (We thank the greengrocer around the corner for clearing up for us the value in reales of five pesetas and for putting us on the right track).

Lerele: Vulgar term used for the euro. Lerele has a very folkloric sound, very flamenco, very ‘Spanish’ (the very thing that is lacking in the cold and correct ‘euro’) and, at the same time, it is strangely similar to the name of the single European currency. It also feeds from the old saying ‘mucho lirili y poco lerele’, which amounted to something along the lines of ‘much cry and little wool’ and which, with the adoption of the new currency has been turned into something similar to ‘tell me what you boast about and I’ll tell you what you lack’.

Lero: You are likely to hear this expression in ‘old school’ bars or shops. Lero is an unofficial way to call the euro. It is a modification from the vulgar term leuro, which was used to parody the way old people pronounced the name of the single currency, with which they had great difficulties when it first came to the market. Others, however, say that the name came from French providers, who came to Spain to carry out business and pronounced the name of the new currency in their language (l’euro).

Machacantes: It is a relatively vague term. Presently it refers to the larger notes, but it the past it also used to be an alternative name for the duro coins. As for it being machacante (‘crushing’), the allusion could refer to the size of the coin, or to the substantial value of the note in question.

Marvedí: It’s the name of a medieval coin in Spain. Some people still use it to refer to old pesetas (you know, trying to look clever and making it clear that pesetas are a thing of the past).


Parné: It is used to refer to money in general, not a specific amount or a given coin. It is said the term is out of favour but you can still hear plenty of people using it, although it would be among the 50+ crowd. Some say the term has a Gipsy origin, putting forward as proof a couplet from the classic flamenco song ‘María de la O’, which reads ‘damn parné, the one to blame for you leaving the Gypsy man who you once loved’. Seemingly, tales of love for financial gain simply refuse to die.

Pavos: The case of pavos and coins is a funny one. Many American movies and TV series (especially in the crime genre) feature a character who calls dollars pavos. By extension, we have appropriated this expression to refer, first to 100-peseta coins, and later to one euro. The funny thing is that no one in the States calls dollars ‘turkeys’ (pavos). They call them ‘bucks’, which in Spanish is a ciervo. Pavo is an old, colloquial name for the five-peseta coin – an unusual case of regeneration of a term.

Pela: The most common and widespread nickname given to the peseta. Ironically, its origin is unknown. The term is still being used, although these days when we talk of pelas we refer to taxi drivers from Madrid.

Perra: Another way to refer to the peseta. This time we do know of the origin of the name: in 1870, the engraver, Luis Plañiol, was commissioned the image of a lion for the flip side of a 10-cent coin. Mr Plañiol might not have seen a lion before in his life, or maybe he had a bad day; whatever the case, the animal he created looked more like a dog than like the king of the jungle. Although the shape of the animal was improved in later production runs, people still called the coins perras (‘female dogs’). Some time later, the use of the term expanded, embracing the whole currency.

Peseta: We have spoken a lot about the currency that preceded the euro. But, why was it called peseta? There are various theories: some say it could come from the Catalan peça petita, which means small piece, given that the word peseta first appeared in coins minted in Catalonia; others say it comes from the word peso, and therefore it also refers to a small coin (pesito, meaning little peso); others believe the word has French origins, making it a deformation of piecette, simply meaning coins.

Plata: This is an Americanism, which is slowly gaining strength in Spain. The term plata is usually reserved to designate money, no matter the amount. In this sense, it could be argued that in some places this word has now taken the ‘niche’ previously occupied by words, such as perras and pelas, without sinking into the vulgarity of lero or lerele.

Rubia: Let us bring this section to an end with the most affectionate term. The rubia was the one-peseta coin known by our grandparents, our parents, and even some of us. It owes its name to its golden colour. Funny that the coins with the smallest value of all should have had a golden colour.

This time there weren’t so many words, but there was a lot of substance. Even if nowadays they aren’t all that valuable… Well… let’s just say we are facing verbal appreciation.

CancamusaMany people believe this is an invented word when they first hear it, maybe a part of an intricate riddle with no real meaning… and, in a way, those people are right, since, according to the dictionary of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española, cancamusa is ‘a tale or a fact used to distract someone in order to keep him from discovering the scam of which they will be victim’. In other words, you could argue this is a similar concept to that of a ‘smoke screen’. For instance: a friend tells us she needs to buy a plane ticket to visit her ill mother, who lives in a different city, when what she really wants is just to get a few days off at our expense.

Nevertheless, recently this word has adopted a different meaning that could be construed as ‘excessive or fictitious prevision taken by an expert in a given subject with the sole intention of reaffirming his reputation or attracting the attention of others in his direction’. Imagine a famous economist who, fearing a younger one might steal his show, or worse still, his business, claims that the whole financial system will go bust in the next two years and therefore advises us to take cash out all our money from the banks. He doesn’t say for our benefit, but just to be on the headlines. He will put forward documents and data that won’t be fake, but that will only give credit to the claims of the economist when interpreted in an opportunistic way. He is not concerned about bluffing, because once those two years have gone by, he will interpret the data once again, in a way that will make him look like he has been right all along.

Either way, we see how this ‘charming’ word has a very negative meaning and a sense that puts us on the alert. So, wherever you go, bear this word in mind. Spanish people are not especially prone to cancamusa, but as the saying goes, you’ll find all sorts of things in all sorts of places.

Social Media

Who doesn’t have an account in Facebook, twitter, Tuenti, foursquare, Google+…? Well, we are no exception. But, is there a quick and easy way to find us?

Yeah, we know all about the ‘search’ window and all that, but that can be a drag, given multiple results and similar usernames, and so on, so, we want to tell you that, if you want to find us, all you have to do is click on the bar of your browser (no matter which one you use) and write the address of our main site (, followed by a forward slash and then the social network of your choice. For instance

This address will take you automatically to our page on this network. Simple and very quick. Oh, and as trustworthy as this: if it takes you nowhere, then it means we simply don’t have an account in that network… or the network doesn’t exist!

As you well know, the 2.0 world is enormous. So we are trying to make it easier for you to find us among the crowd.

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