The bittersweet taste of a Spanish sugar-bag motto

Our Spanish vocabulary got better as the holiday wore on. We also got more and more depressed

"HERE'S ONE I don't understand," said Sally. "`Si te molesta que te mientan, no preguntes.' What on earth does that mean? Something about being molested?"

There were four of us, us two and Nick and Sally, sitting at a bar in the small Spanish village where we were all staying with our children earlier this month. There were two bars in the village, both nice. The other one, the old bar, had a pool table and dark recesses and no expatriates. This one, the new bar, had expats, but it also had good food and a fabulous view of the mountains. Above all, it had little sachets of sugar with wise sayings on the back. In Spanish. Whenever the conversation palled, we could give ourselves Spanish lessons by tackling the writing on another bag of sugar.

Some of them were quite easy. "Los mejores pilotes estn en tierra." "The best pilots are on land." Meaning, I suppose, that it's easier to tell people how to fly a plane than actually do it. Or steer a boat, of course. Or be an armchair critic. Or, the biggest fish is the one that got away. Or does it mean that the best pilots are retired pilots...? Still, you can sort of see what it means, even if you can't explain it. "Los mejores pilotes estn en tierra." Very good. Remember that. May come in useful.

Another fairly easy one was "Cuando la pobreza entra por la puerta, el amor salta por la ventana." In other words, "When poverty comes in through the door, loves flies out through the window."

"That's a bit cynical," said my wife. "I think love can draw people together, even when they're lacking material comforts. Love can survive total loss of money."

I wish she wouldn't say things like that. It may be true, but it sounds so foreboding.

"Yes, but what about this `Si te molesta que te mientan, no preguntes'?" said Sally. "It says that it's a proverbio estadounidense, whatever that is."

We worked out that a proverbio estadounidense is an American proverb, estadounidense clearly being the adjective from Estados Unidos. (Which means, by the way, that Spanish has triumphantly solved the problem that English has always failed to solve, ie to evolve a word meaning "someone from the US". ) Then we worked out that this UnitedStately proverb meant something like: "If it disturbs you that people lie to you, then do not put questions to them."

"Meaning...?" said Sally.

"Ask me no questions, and I'll tell you no lies," said Nick.

Yes, that must be right. It sounded grander in Spanish, but snappier in English. Or American.

"Here's a quote from the painter Gustave Courbet," I said, fishing another packet of sugar out of the pot. `Cuando mis amigos son tuertos, los miro de perfil.' `When my friends are something or other, I look at them in profile.' What does tuerto mean?"

A dictionary was brought. We looked up "tuerto". It means "one-eyed". "When my friends are one-eyed, I look at them in profile." Hmmm. "I like to overlook my friends' faults", in other words? Well, yes, maybe. But at least we'd learnt the Spanish word for "one-eyed". Might be useful. If we were talking about Marlon Brando's films, for instance. Like One- Eyed Jacks. If we knew what the Spanish for "jacks" was...

"This one's a bit gloomy," said Sally. `El viejo tiene la muerte ante sus ojos, el joven a su espalda.' The old man stares death in the face, the young man feels it right behind him."

In fact, they were all a bit gloomy deep down. If love wasn't flying out of the window, or one-eyed friends flocking round, or people asking no questions to get no lies, then other equally wounding things were happening. There was a quote from Ivan Illich, for instance, to the effect that "Todos miden su exito por el fracaso de los dems", or, I think, "We all measure our own success by the failure of others." There was a saying from Napoleon, "Es ms facil enganar, que desenganar", meaning that it is easier to pull the wool over someone else's eyes than to stop kidding yourself, though the original French was maybe more graceful.

"How about this one?" said Sally. `Siempre es ms noble enganarse alguna vez que desconfiar siempre.'"

"I think it means," I said, "that it's better to be taken for a ride now and then than go through life distrusting everything and everyone."

We had several evenings like this. Our Spanish vocabulary got a lot better as the holiday wore on. On the other hand, we got more and more depressed. Finally, one night, we decamped to the old bar. They had no view of the mountains there, but they kept their sugar loose in a big pot on the table, and that was all that really mattered.

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