Vale: The Four Letter Word With All of the Answers
It’s a dog, it’s a plane, it’s…
Pronounced Vah-Lay, emphasis on the first syllable.
We all need a little more “vale” in our lives, and I’ll tell you why. After a recent stop in the coastal city of A Coruña, Spain “vale” is my new favorite word. What does it mean? To be honest I have absolutely no idea. I first heard this four-letter nugget of a word, when I ordered a coffee with my broken Spanish, at the perfectly quaint Grand Cru Café. (If you value good coffee with a backdrop of strong hipster décor, all at a super affordable price, go here. You’re welcome.) Anywho, allow me to entertain you with my poor Spanish! This’ll be fun!
Me: “Es posible un latte con menos leche?” (is it possible a latte with less milk?)
I was gunning for a flat white, but that far exceeds my seven years of Spanish studies. Didn’t want to accidentally describe myself, a flat white girl, and be the butt of a terrible joke…
Hip Barista: “Vale” said with a positive-sounding tone, so I assumed we were somewhere in the neighborhood of making a flat white happen. Bueno!
Ok, so at this point, I was thinking “vale” meant “no problem” or something along the lines of “sure!” After all, it was the first time I’d ever heard this interesting word, and suddenly it was making my coffee possible, so to be honest, I was an instant fan. But then the hip barista just. kept. saying. it.
Somebody asked where the bathroom was. A point and a “vale.”
An eager customer gestured to a piece of artisan carrot cake. “vale.”
Are there seats outside? “vale.”
"Excuse me, DOES THIS WORD MEAN ANYTHING?"
To me, the pale redhead in the corner drinking a funny, less-milk latte, this was hysterical. As I (attempted) to eavesdrop on the Spanish conversations around me, I quickly noticed all of them were peppered with “vale.” And what struck me most, was this word always seemed to have a pleasant tone associated with it. In between silent, amused giggles, I tried to come up with an English equivalent of “vale” and I drew a blank. The only English words that frequently litter conversations, in my 27-year experience of being a chatterbox, are “like” and “um” and somehow, I don’t think “um” is an adequate answer for “Where is the bathroom?”
As the day progressed, I kept running through my mental thesaurus, searching for my “vale.” Nothing.
In the afternoon, I went for a run along A Coruña’s beautifully maintained pedestrian path, which outlines the city and caresses the sea, where groups of teenagers were congregating, post-school, exchanging gossip, small flirtations, and dozens of “vales.” This word is seriously everywhere. It’s like a disease freckling the residents of Spain. But like, a cute disease…
(At this point, I noted it’s also a word used by the youngsters, and in a seemingly cool way. Got it. “Vale” is hip.)
So why, you may be asking, have I become so obsessed with this silly, nothing word? Perhaps it’s motivated by a feeling of being left out. I’m not fluent in Spanish, but I can get by. And in my seven years of studying, not once did a teacher mention the word “vale.” I accept that I don’t understand many complicated Spanish words, but if this relaxed, four-letter word accounts for half of the vocabulary of the people in Galicia (the region of Spain containing A Coruña), I’d like to use it in conversations during my brief stay.
But that requires knowing what it means.
So like every other query in life, I looked to the internet for guidance, and most of all, answers. Turns out I’m not the only person confused by the word “vale.” And the kind Spaniards trying to help us foreigners understand this mysterious word all have, you guessed it, different answers!
The word apparently stems from valer, which means, “to have value.” So the original use of “vale” is true to its roots, and means something along the lines of “that’s valid.” From my understanding, this is meaning numero uno of “vale.” It must’ve sounded pleasing, and rolled off the tongue nicely, as it quickly evolved and took on a few additional meanings. Or at least, that’s what the internet tells me…
Meaning numero dos has only two letters, and was one of my first guesses. “Ok” is frequently described as an English alternative to “vale.” Though in my opinion, “ok” doesn’t hold the same inherently positive tone as its Spanish counterpart.
By far my favorite meaning of “vale” I discovered, is “friend or dude.” Ok, so now this word is basically like the Jamaican token phrase “yah man,” as far as I’m concerned.
To recap, the word “vale” now means “Valid,” “Ok” and “Friend/Dude/Yah Man” and I still have no idea how to properly use it. Great.
But maybe that’s the point.
Because you can study a language for years, or completely absorb yourself in a Lonely Planet Guide to a specific city, but it’s a one-dimensional lesson. Phrases like “vale” or “yah man” add a spice to the cultural experience of seeing a new place. You have to go there, and live in the moments of “vale” and “yah man” and “genau" (German).
I once took German lessons with a girl who always insisted on having a direct English translation for the words and phrases we were learning. Every time she was given an answer she loudly exclaimed, “that doesn’t make any sense!” And you know why it doesn’t? Because it’s not English. And people in other countries don’t structure their sentences to be appealing to tourists. Shocking, I know.
To me, this is the appeal of traveling. This is why my heartbeat quickens with the thrill of a new place. Because in these confused moments of curiosity, I don’t care about the economic success of the country I call home, or what language I grew up speaking. I want to know more about where I am, in that exact moment. And that’s something that can only be answered by exploring more cafes, wandering more side streets, and talking to more locals. So in fact, as hard as the internet may try to define the word “vale” I think it can’t be summed up with letters, but rather experiences. And this is exactly why we all need a little more “vale” in our lives. Because when we experience the confused bliss of being the foreigner in the corner, drinking a less-milk latte, it’s not only the caffeine that perks us up. It’s our souls, eagerly absorbing the energy of the unknown.
Something tells me I’ll never quite understand “vale” and that’s perfectly fine with me. Something also tells me I’ll attempt to use it, butcher it completely, and have a nice laugh with some Spaniards. Even better.
Cheers to these token phrases everywhere around the world, capturing the curiosity of visitors, and perpetuating the infectious disease known as the “travel bug.”
(My goodness, I hope they never find a vaccination or a cure…)
So, let’s meet in Spain, where we can litter our conversations with this chameleon word, drink cheap artisanal coffees, and breathe in the fresh, sea air?