Tuning Up - Winter 2014

Night Train to Gijón

The fried-pepper sandwiches were oily and delicious, and the Spanish lesson was even more memorable

By Clellan Coe | December 6, 2013
Petey Dammit/Flickr
Petey Dammit/Flickr


The first Spanish saying I learned was the hardest to master. The grammar confused me, and I was always getting the word order wrong and finding myself corrected. Maybe that’s why I ended up remembering it better than other, simpler sayings. I even remember, 25 years later, the first time I ventured to use it. I was with my boyfriend, Fran, on a train from Madrid, where we had met and were living. We were going to Gijón, his hometown, and I would see where he was from and stay in the home he had grown up in. I was a little nervous.

We took the night train, an option no longer available. It was old, clanky, and slow, and stopped in every big and little town on the way. Confusingly, it was called an express, and we took it because it was cheap. A corridor ran along one side of the train, and on the other side behind sliding doors were the compartments, six to a car, with facing bench seats. We sat up all night, dozing or watching through the windows. I can remember the eerie look of the dimly lit and nearly deserted stations and the flutter of life as an attendant appeared from a building to unload the mail sacks. A few passengers got on or off before the conductor on the platform tooted his whistle and the train began to move again. But I have no specific memory of the stations, except for one, in Ávila, more than an hour into the trip, where the train sat on the tracks long past its scheduled departure.

After a while Fran and I left our compartment to find out what was up. We were in no hurry, and the delay was a bit of fun, something to wonder about as we strolled down the corridor to the end of the car. There the conductor told us it would be a while yet before the train resumed its run. Long enough to get something to eat in the station bar? Fran asked, and the conductor told us to go ahead, but not to linger.

So we hopped off and stepped across the platform into the bar. It was after 11, which in Spain is not late at all. The bar had some locals in it—you knew they were regulars by the tone of their talk with the barman—and a few travelers, too. We looked at the list of tapas, and saw to our delight that sure enough, at this plain, unadorned bar with the same square tables, the same metal and Formica chairs you found in any small bar, there was our favorite sandwich of fried green peppers.

It’s been years now since I’ve had a fried-pepper sandwich. It seems to be a specialty not of any region but of a type of bar, small and unassuming and dim inside. The bar that serves fried green peppers in a sandwich might also have a saltshaker and saucer of paprika next to a bowl of hardboiled eggs on the counter for you to help yourself to. Besides being the right sort of food—simple, cheap, tasty—fried green peppers are messy to make, and it’s nice when it happens in someone else’s kitchen. We ordered two sandwiches to go and two beers for while we waited. Within five minutes we had our sandwiches wrapped up in napkins and tinfoil and were sprinting for the train, where the conductor stood ready to give the signal.

Our knapsacks flopped against our backs as we ran for the closest car and jumped for the iron grille step. There, in the space at the end of that car, we took out our sandwiches and sank our teeth into them. Oily, salty, delicious. It was lucky for us the train had been delayed.

I turned to Fran and, wiping oil from my mouth, said, “No hay mal que por bien no venga.” It means there is no bad that doesn’t bring some good.

Only I didn’t say that, but instead transposed the que and the por, guided by my ear telling me por and que go together in that order, por first and then que. And they usually do: por qué is why, porque is because, el porqué is the motive, and por que is for which. But not in this saying.

We were standing near the door that led to the next car. I remember the metal plates above the couplings there jouncing and sliding, right beyond the door. It was noisy and pleasant. Our compartment was two cars away, our destination waiting at the end of the night. Had we missed our train, we would have gotten there one way or another, sooner or later, and Fran, who had wrapped up his sandwich after that first bite, was at his relaxed best, leaning balanced against the wall, with one leg crossed over the other, a feat in the swaying train.

He’d lit a cigarette, and tilted his head back to exhale. He was very slim then, and wore a pair of pale pinkish beige Levis and a loose, brown-checked sweater. I was wearing for the first time a pair of red jeans my mother had given me and a red- and cream-striped sweatshirt.

Fran blew out a column of smoke. Then corrected me, as he would keep doing until I got that saying down. It’s hard to believe how much trouble those words gave me, but back then I spoke almost no Spanish. Understanding any sentence was like predicting the flow of a stream if you didn’t know about gravity. It was all splash and noise.

No hay mal que por bien no venga,” he said.

“That’s what I meant.”

In our compartment later, I asked again how it made sense to say que por instead of por que, and he said it made sense because that’s how it was.

“But what does it actually mean?”

He knew I knew the sense of the saying, so he said it meant what it meant. He pointed at my shirt. Looking down, I saw a big splotch of greenish oil.

I loved that sweatshirt. It looked so sporty with the red pants it had taken me a year to work up to actually wearing.

No hay bien que por mal no venga,” I said, frowning at the spot, and if there’s no saying to that effect, perhaps it’s because people need no reminder.

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