So the joke goes that at an Irish wedding reception, the master of ceremonies calls out, “Would all the married men please stand next to the one person who has made your life worth living?” And the bartender is nearly crushed to death.
Where would we be without bar jokes? In fact, where would we be without bars? Since Roman times, people have been gathering in public houses for companionship as well as food and drink. In countries that have a pub culture – the UK, Ireland, and Spain, for instance – your local can be a home away from home, a place for casual encounters with friends, families, kids, dogs, and strangers who may soon become amigos. It’s where you go to watch the World Cup, election results, and the Oscars, so you can cheer or groan together.
Despite what we’ve all seen on the old TV show Cheers, it’s unusual to find such bars in the USA. Maybe it’s our Puritan heritage or the lingering effects of Prohibition, but Americans tend to view bars as dens of iniquity, dark holes where you go to drown your sorrows with a jukebox playing old heartbreak songs in the background. You might attempt to pick up a random, inappropriate sexual partner there, but you’d never bring your family. Such places are what the nuns at school used to call “occasions of sin.” Whenever I begin a story, “I was having breakfast in this bar …” American friends tend to stare at me as if I’d just admitted to a long night of debauchery, when in fact I’m referring to sipping coffee at a sunny café-bar around the corner from my apartment in Seville.
Luckily, pub culture is alive and well in many parts of the world, and most especially in the UK and Ireland, where Rich and I have spent the last two weeks. Our B&B hosts have kindly steered us to various delightful locals for a pint and some convivial company. For those who (like me) weren’t raised in a pub culture, it takes a while to work out how to make the most of these opportunities. We’ve learned that your best bet is to sit at the bar, where it’s easier to interact with the staff and fellow patrons. If you're not a drinker, order a meal, a snack, or just a mineral water. Start by talking to the bartender; comment on the weather, local sports, or the TV news, or ask where locals go for live music. You’re likely to get helpful suggestions, and the conversation may spread up and down the bar.
Sevillanos are highly adept at this, as they start hanging out in bars while they’re still drinking milk from a baby bottle. I once watched a woman change her baby and pass the soiled diaper to the waiter, who whisked it away without batting an eye. Talk about family-friendly! Babies and toddlers are often scooped up by the bar staff and carried off into the kitchen – something that in the US would instantly launch an Amber Alert and end in a lawsuit, but in Spain is considered simple hospitality. Dogs are generally welcome, too. A few years ago, when some dogs we knew had a litter of “oops” puppies, their humans brought them to a neighborhood bar, set them on a blanket on the floor, and by last round all the puppies had found new homes.
Most bar visits don't (thank God!) end with you taking home a new puppy, but you may walk out with a lighter step – and a lighter heart – after a few hours of relaxing in congenial company. And isn't that worth the price of a round or two?
Do you live in a place with a good local? Any tips for newcomers or travelers arriving at a pub for the first time?
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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