COLUMN: Lost in Translation
Small talk in Spain is much like anywhere else. The weather, sport, food and politics tend to dominate most conversations overheard in the street or a bar. One thing that always comes up regardless of which topic is being discussed (except perhaps the weather, but it can happen) is dinero, money, says Chris Cooper
How much this or that footballer earns, how much a politician has stolen, how much a good jamón Serrano or some percebes (barnacles) will cost at the market. Money, or lack of, is always on the tip of the tongue in any conversation and the depth of language used is surprising.
A Valencian friend and I met for a beer and he was wearing a new jacket. I complimented him on its fine quality and appearance. He thanked me and told me it had not been too expensive and had only cost him “ochenta pavos”. Somewhat taken aback by this strange transaction, I asked him about the logistics of paying for something with 80 turkeys. Did he need to hire a van? Were the turkeys alive, dead, fresh or frozen? Would it not have been easier to pay in cash, by card or a simple Bizum transfer? When he had finally stopped laughing at me, he explained that a pavo is a term for a euro used commonly in Spain and that it hadn’t really been much pasta (money) for such a high-quality garment.
Armed with some new vocabulary, I was stopped by a beggar who asked me if I could give him some pasta. Knowing not to give him a bag of dried spaghetti, I pulled out my wallet and produced a euro coin. “Solo quiero colores!” he exclaimed, “I only want colours”. Keen to help him out, I rushed to the stationers and bought a nice pack of crayons. Upon kindly delivering the crayons to the man, he called me every name under the sun and threw them back at me. Colores, I found out later, means notes rather than coins because they come in different colours.
Prior to 2001, Spain used pesetas. Nowadays different values are calculated using either pesetas or euros, depending on the amount and only among people who were of age when the euro was launched.
A bike will cost 400 euros whereas a house will cost 20 million pesetas. Somewhere there is a value whose true value can only be determined in pesetas to over 35-year-olds. Oddly, once that value gets too high, like how much a politician is accused of stealing, we go back to euros. Twenty million pesetas is often also called 20 kilos. One million pesetas in paper money was said to weigh a kilo. Don’t ask how much that is in pounds.
Sneaking by the same beggar another day, I overheard a woman tell him “No tengo ni una perra chica”, whilst fiddling about in her purse. A “bitch girl” (or “small bitch”, as some may translate it) is the old word for five cents of one peseta, which didn’t really have any value back then either. It’s a little like saying you have no cash on you or don’t have a penny. The old five cents of one peseta coin had a lion’s head on one side of the coin, but most people thought it looked like a dog. The ten cents of the one peseta coin was called a perra gorda or “fat bitch”. It doesn’t translate so well.
The success of TV show Narcos brought the expression plomo o plata (“lead or silver”) into common circulation, Latin American slang for cash. If anyone ever asks you this, it might be wise to move house. Rapidly. Without stopping to collect personal effects. You have seen Narcos, right?