A Day In The Life. . . of a Bar

It’s 9:30 a.m. Michael and I walk down a pedestrianized road lined with shops and bars. The street has been divided into a walking area and a dining area. Each bar distinguishes itself with different tables and chairs. Silver metal tables and black wicker chairs at one. White plastic tables and white plastic chairs at the next. Some have planters separating their patrons from the pedestrians. And, at this hour on a Tuesday, all of those chairs are filled. The women wear summer dresses and heels. The men wear collared shirts, dress pants and shiny shoes. They chat over glasses of . . . “Michael–do you see all the people drinking wine here?!” He follows my gaze. We don’t know what to make of this.

Some patrons have tiny ceramic or glass cups of coffee (I have never seen such a small cup anywhere in the US). Some have glasses of beer–I have heard non-alcoholic beer is popular here, so I assumed, being it was a workday, that’s what was filling the glasses. But wine? There was no mistaking the bulbous glasses. One table even had a bottle. Why are business people drinking at this hour of the morning?

Welcome to Spain.

We’re certainly not in Kansas anymore. Things are done a little bit differently here. . .


Michael loves to go out to a street-side table each morning for his coffee: café Americano with a side of people watching. But it’s hard for him to find any bar open at 7:30. And on a weekend? Good luck finding anything open before 9 am.

And these are not like US bars. Rarely is anyone there getting drunk. There is a daily cycle that goes something like this:

  • In the morning, construction workers, gray-haired retirees, and Michael can be found sipping their cafés. Most of them sit at 3′ by 3′ outdoor tables. Some sit inside the bar at identical tables.
  • By 9:30, you’ll see folks out for “almuerzo” — a mid-morning snack. Maybe some toast with olive oil and a tomato spread. More coffee, or even a beer, or wine. (Which is what Michael and I ran into earlier in this post, but we didn’t know it yet.) Inside, under the plastic countertop display case, you’ll see tortilla (like a fritatta with potatoes, sometimes with onions as well) and some tapas prepared and ready for someone to eat them. . . but I have yet to figure out when that is. We rarely see Spaniards eating anything at these streetside tables.
  • If you walk by that same place at 1:30, you’ll see a sandwich board telling you about the “menu del dia” — a three course meal (starter, entree, and dessert), usually including bread, coffee, wine, or all of the above for $10 or more.
  • Some of the bars close up in the later afternoon. Those that stay open will find their tables filled with people much of the late afternoon and evening just having an evening drink with friends. You will be hard pressed to find food other than some occasional olives on any table. Because only the bars catering to tourists are open for dinner before 8pm. And most Spanish folks don’t eat until 9.
  • And when they close up? The chairs and tables get stacked and pulled into the interior of the bar. A metal gate is pulled down. And if you walk down the street at 6am, you might not even know there was a business there at all.

And at 7:30 am, Michael comes by, trying to figure out why no one in this city seems to be up at this hour. . . He roams the streets for as much as a half-hour looking for an open place.

Noticeably absent from this morning ritual? Me. I would say I haven’t yet adjusted my sleep schedule, but maybe it’s Michael who is maladjusted at this point. I don’t wake until 8. If I decide to join Michael, it’s not until 8:30 at the earliest. By which time he has usually found an open bar. But sometimes not without some work.

“I set up my own table and chair,” he told me one morning.

“Huh? What are you talking about?”

“I got here this morning and the stacks of tables and chairs were outside, but not set up yet. So I grabbed a table off the stack. Then a chair. Then Tony came out and I ordered my coffee.”

“Was he upset?”

“Didn’t seem to be.”

Tony stops by a minute later. “Café con leche, por favor,” I say. “Y tostada con mantequilla y melocotón.” I could very well make my own toast with butter and peach jam at home. “But we’re in Spain,” Michael reminds me. We like having coffee and toast streetside among the natives. Watching the people go by. Sharing our plans for the day with each other.

We haven’t yet gotten into the habit of a glass of wine at 9:30 a.m. But we’ve only been in this country two months. We’ll get there.

Finishing up my café con leche and tostada

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