The official definition and explanation of the origin of the tertulia is that like minded people would get together in the casino or local bar and have quite intelligent conversation related to literature and poetry over delicious coffee.
The tertulia would take place and still does take place at about 4pm or after lunch. In Spain casino does not mean the same as in Las Vegas. The casino in a Spanish town is essentially a rather traditional place for coffee which also serves alcoholic drinks and sometimes snacks or pastries.
To a certain extent this artistic intellectual origin may well be true. Spanish people love conversation and delight in human company. In fact you get television programmes from time to time in Spain based upon the idea of a tertulia with invited guests.
But not all such gatherings are intellectual based; they may simply be a group of friends who like to meet at a certain time and place on a regular basis.
We remember meeting with our classmates in our university years in a coffee bar, sometimes to discuss the lecture or class work and sometimes just to have a social life. The usual Spanish phrase to organise such a meeting is: “¿quedamos para el café?”, which could be translated into English as: “shall we meet for coffee?” or “let’s meet for coffee” with the emphasis being on the meeting rather than the beverage.
It has been suggested that traditionally men did not like to clear the table or do the washing up after lunch and there is often an idea that the bar will serve better coffee than you could make at home.
Put those two things together and with the acquiescence of traditional Spanish housewives it is not difficult to see how the tradition has grown.
“Freedom of speech”, which can be translated into Spanish as “libertad de expresión”, is important to Spanish people. During the dictatorship (la dictadura) meetings of more than 2 people who were not of the same family were prohibited and persecuted.
What it meant was that if a group of middle aged men known locally to be pro dictatorship were to meet regularly in the casino to no doubt discuss how great the Generalissimo was then the police would take no action but a group of agricultural or industrial workers or university students would be presumed to be anti Franco and any such meeting could be severely repressed.
Some people say that this may have been a contributing factor to bars hanging a television set in the corner and having it on at all times showing either bullfighting (corridas de toros) or flamenco or football. Certainly the regulars would have liked it but it could also have worked as a cover. If, or more to the point, when the police came to the bar men could say they were innocently watching television.
The popular Spanish television series “Cuéntame cómo pasó” re-enacts a little scene that went something like this:
The men are standing at the bar criticising a politician saying such things as he is no good and needs to be removed, etc, the police walk in and overhear and ask:
“You say what?” “¿Qué dices?”
To which the men replied: “This football player, useless, can’t score a goal or stop a goal, he should be removed.”
A free translation could be: “Nada, este futbolista, que es inútil y ni mete gol ni lo para, deberían quitarlo de en medio.”
However, it is not everyone who prefers the tertulia. Another essential part of Spanish home life is the sobremesa. This is a family conversation around the table after lunch. At the weekend it is not rare for a family lunch to include 8 people or more.
La sobremesa is an essential part of Spanish family life because since in Spain lunch is the main meal of the day it is the time when all the family can be together and they can talk about anything at all.
A typical Spanish family will be two parents and 3 or 4 children (although the number of children tends to be smaller nowadays). Grandparents usually come to live with their own children after the death of a spouse so you may well have one or more grandparent at lunch. So it is not strange to find “la abuela” or “el abuelo” living with the family. If parents have unmarried relatives or relatives with no children they will often be present, this may often be an auntie affectionaly called “la tita” and if there are adolescent chidren in the famnily then inviting a boyfriend or girlfriend to lunch is fairly frequent.
The numbers soon add up so conversation flows quite freely.
There is no agenda for chat over the table; anything can come up. It could be the career aims of the younger members, latest family news as there is always something going on in the extended Spanish family! Someone is getting married or is not getting married after all or is pregnant. As the Spanish family is so extended it is not difficult to see how there is no shortage of subjects and lots of gossip oportunities available.
Nowadays in Spain any number of people can meet anywhere to chat about anything and they do. Although people may put the world to rights, translated as “arreglar el mundo”, no one is trying to split the atom which could be translated into Spanish as either “descubrir la pólvora” (discover gunpowder) or “descubrir América” (discover the Americas). People just want the company of other people and in any Spanish town or village you will see groups of people having coffee after lunch and taking a short while just to enjoy life, which in Spanish is “disfrutar de la vida”: a very common phrase and one which indeed reflects the Spanish attitude to life.