Tarragona in March is chilly. Luckily, the day was bright and the sun glittered on the turquoise water. The Roman ruins dotted across town look over the coast, and a few locals took in the early spring sunshine in fragrant parks next to the amphitheater or on the breezy beach. Hungry from traipsing around the empty stone ruins, we ventured into the town, down a rough-and-tumble road, stopping at the first deli-café hybrid we stumbled across–
A hole in the wall, with a menu written only outside and featuring hamburgers, platos, sandwiches. The three of us ordered bocadillos with jamón. The friendly café owner had kind eyes, and the place was empty save one other person sipping café con leche and reading the paper. He brought out our bocadillos, spread with tangy tomato sauce on crispy baguettes. Jenny had ordered a café con leche, delicious with the baguette. It was too late in the day for caffeine, but I was trying to pin down a craving.
“How much would a cup of milk cost?” I asked in meager Spanish. The owner smiled— “Don’t worry. Un regalo.” A present. In that tiny café in Tarragona, Spain, I enjoyed warm, creamy milk with my bocadillo.
Arguably it was just a cup of milk. What about the regalo made it so special?
Regalo—faithful Google says it comes from the old French word for “galer” or “to make merry, to amuse, to rejoice” Etymologically speaking, a regalo is at its heart something that makes us happy. Our English word “gallant” comes from the same root, apt when the verb became the adjective for “bold or amusing one.”
In English, the word “gift” or “present” implies a special occasion. It tastes like frosting and ice cream, sounds like the crinkle of wrapping paper on a snowy morning. Gifts are surprises from those that care about you, or maybe quid pro quo for the invitation. Gifts happen sparingly, so sparingly that I was euphoric when my mind automatically translated the café owner’s “regalo”—it was my lucky day!
An English speaker would have used some sort of idiom—like “on the house”—to describe the free milk. Perhaps Spanish speakers see the word “regalo” as the same, and my English-wired brain perceives the use of that particular word as something special merely because of the way that standard English-Spanish dictionaries translate it. Maybe I’m ascribing English nuances to Spanish words.
But wouldn’t it be a nice thought if “regalo” is used because of its special connotations? That is, we can find small regalos in everyday life, things that we don’t have to wait once or twice a year for, that can make us incontrovertibly happy? We don’t have to spend a lot of money or take a lot of time to give a regalo that will brighten someone’s day. If a shop owner with kind eyes can, in a single moment, simply hand a complete stranger (and tourist, to boot) a cup of milk as a regalo, what’s to stop any of us from giving simple regalos away?
Regalos don’t have to be complex, or beautiful. They can be simple and spontaneous, bringing nothing but happiness to the receiver.