A Saint in a "Niche"


The colors of Spain in a Madrilène cafe.

debout (duh-boo) adverb
  upright; standing; out of bed

L'instinct, c'est l'âme à quatre pattes ; la pensée, c'est l'esprit debout.
Instinct is the soul on all fours; thought is the upright spirit.
--Victor Hugo

While the Spanish have a reputation for not lolling about in bed, you won't find them sitting much either. Standing is a national sport in Spain--at least in Madrid which is also known as the tapas capital of the world.

In Madrid, the citizens are debout partout or standing everywhere, hip-hugging the bar, elbows at the comptoir.* They crowd around tall outdoor tables along the cozy couloirs* or "travesías,"* and sometimes stand in transit; but mostly the Madrilènes* stand up for their cuisine, literally so.

If standing is the order of the day, on the menu you'll find tapas, those little bite-size appetizers that locals are fond of eating.  In Spain dinner is  eaten late, ten, eleven p.m. late, so tapas are the solution. You can eat your way across the city, going from tapas bar to tapas bar where the little savory snacks are from a few, to several, euros a pop and arrive to your late-night restaurant reservation with your blood sugar intact.

"Madrid is cozier than Barcelona," I tell Jean-Marc, in the immense Plaza Mayor. We were seated (I admit) beyond the portico, in front of yet another packed eatery. Beneath our table a small fan club had gathered at Jean-Marc's feet; the half-dozen chubby sparrows were all legs, I might add, evidence that Spanish birds don't sit either.
"Je ne sais pas," I don't know, my husband reflected, feeding his feathered admirers, before reasoning: "You mean that Barcelona is like Paris and Madrid is like Marseilles."
"Exactly!" I agreed, satisfied with the comparison.

Three tapas bars into our visit and we had sampled an array of specialties including "bocadillo de calamares" or fried squid, jamón ibérico,* cod croquettes, marinated anchovies or "boquerones," the creamy and piquant* manchego cheese, spicy hot champiñones,* and onions baked so slowly they melt down sweetly on the tongue.

The word tapas comes from the Spanish verb "tapar" (to cover) and some say tapas came about by utility: to keep flies from falling into the fruity wine. Once upon a time a small plate was placed over the drink "for cover" and, as the empty assiette* looked a little sad, an olive was added to brighten things up.

Others cite history. The story goes that someone, while serving King Alfonso XII, took care to cover the king's cup of sherry with a slice of ham so as to keep the dust out. When the king, his appetite now whetted, ordered another sherry, he added, coyly, "with the same cover".

I sort of like the barbaric quality of the second explanation--with the grub directly over the glass--eliminating the need for a middleman plate, and so I'll do as those upright Madrilènes would do, hips to the counter, elbows above. I'll stand by that theory.

References: le comptoir (m) = counter, bar; le couloir (m) = corridor; travesías = (Spanish for) passage; Madrilènes = citizens of Madrid; jamón ibérico = (Spanish for) dry cured ham; piquant(e) = sharp; champiñones = (Spanish for) mushrooms; une assiette (f) = plate, dish

::Audio Clip::
Listen to my nine-year-old, Jackie, recite today's quote in French: Download debout.wav
L'instinct, c'est l'âme à quatre pattes ; la pensée, c'est l'esprit debout.

Terms & Expressions:
être debout = to stand
se mettre debout / se tenir debout = to stand up
à dormir debout = farfetched
histoire à dormir debout = cock-and-bull story, unbelievable story
places debout seulement = standing room only
allons, debout! = come on, get up!
debout = get up!
un vent debout = head wind
mettre debout une affaire, un projet = to organize a business, project

Books & More:
Little Foods of the Mediterranean: 500 Fabulous Recipes for Antipasti, Tapas, Hors d'Oeuvres, Meze...

Rosetta Stone French (CD-ROM) -- "an award-winning method used by NASA and the Peace Corps"

Moleskin City Notebook : Madrid & In music: Madrid by Marc Antoine

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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety