The Churros Place

Small steps and tasty treats in a new city.

Even in my head, I call it the churros place because, right now, churrería is just too damn hard to say, what with the rolled double-r followed so closely by another r, which I am not sure is rolled or not. I can get it all out, haltingly, but I know it sounds terrible, which is a common state for me these days: Spanish people can’t make out what I’m saying, and I am probably using the wrong words anyway, even if they did understand me. Which they don’t.

So it’s “the churros place.” And for a while, I didn’t think it was still open. The thing about being in another country is that you don’t know the details of how stuff works, or if it works, or when. So you see that the churros place never seems to be open, and you wonder if maybe one day it will be. Or maybe it’s closed for good. And the thing about southern Europe, at least in my experience, is that the relationship between Google Maps and on-the-ground reality is considerably more tenuous than I am used to.

But one day recently, I looked down the street and saw a line in front of the churros place. It was open! I wasn’t fully ready, yet, to go in there and be The Guy Who Doesn’t Speak Spanish or Know How the Churros Place works, so I just did a walk-by.

And what I saw was both exciting and mildly terrifying: at the head of the line was a tiny little shop, with two guys working in it. One was making churros, one was selling churros. And there was a handwritten menu on the glass, behind which lay the churros. There was only room for one person in there at a time, which means that being The Guy ordering was like being The Guy in a one-chair barbershop with other guys waiting. You’re basically on stage, except with an audience of other churro lovers, and the busy gentlemen working there, waiting for you to figure your shit out.

Language, customs, solitude, inexperience, an audience …. The churros place was looking like a challenge. But I wanted the churros, and I needed the challenge. So that night I fell back on one of my favorite new mantras, which in this case went, “If I can move myself to Madrid, I can damn sure get my ass into that … churrería.”

The next morning, I got in line, hoping no one would speak to me. Whenever a new person walked up and had that “about to ask about the churros place” look about them, I stared at my phone. And I wished the menu was online (ha!) or at least visible from offstage, so I could study it ahead of time.

I knew I would get my churros and almost certainly not piss anybody off, but I was nervous, which is where the old man and the dog proved helpful. The old man got his churros and headed down the street, with his dog hopping along beside, and all of us watching and smiling. And then the old man stopped, and the dog stood on its hind legs with its front legs curled up, and the old man bent over, and the dog froze, and the old man reached into the paper packet with the churros, tore off a little chunk, and popped it into the dog’s mouth. The dog’s tail went double speed, we all giggled, and I decided it was going to be okay at the churros place.

¡Buen perro!

I noticed that above the door it said Desde (since) 1895. That’s a lot of churros and wagging tails.

As my turn approached, I tried to look ahead to the menu, which seemed to have a lot going on despite what appeared to be nothing inside the shop except two guys, one counter, and a bunch of churros. The menu said churros, of course, but it said other things, like something of churros, and churros something else, and stuff that wasn’t even churros, and it also said café con leche, which is a go-to for me, even though sometimes they ask a follow-up question when I order, which I assume is how I want my milk, but I can’t work it all out, and baristas are always in a hurry – anyway, I would not be ordering café con leche today.

The guy in front of me got his churros and hit the street. I noticed there were four stalks sticking out of his paper packet, and I was pretty sure he had paid two Euros. I walked in. The churros guy looked up at me. We both said hola and buenos días. I glanced at the menu, felt a slight panic, then just pointed at the swirl of churro on the counter and said “Dos, por favor.”

He said something. I didn’t get it. I said “Si, gracias” anyway. He chopped off two chunks of churro, wrapped them in paper, handed it to me, and said “un Euro.” I put a Euro in his greasy hand, pushed out another gracias, and hit the street. Mission accomplished, and I didn’t even hold anybody up!

I walked back to my apartment, made coffee, and ate my churros at my little table. They were perfect: crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, and warm. A little plain, though; I am used to cinnamon, and I didn’t see anything about chocolate when I was on stage.

When I went back for Stage 2 of Operation Churro, I grabbed a photo of the menu so I could study it at home. That’s when I saw the chocolate – silly me! I also learned a word: porra, which translates as club or baton – or stalk, as I had seen there.

At Stage 3, the dream was realized. I got dos porras con chocolate (2.80 Euros), went back to where I had un termo de café waiting, then sat in my window, watched the people walk by on the street below, and dunked fresh churros into chocolate – a sweet moment at the end of a learning process in my new city.