Sex & Relationships

How Love and Sex Between Two People With a Language Barrier Can Go From Sublime to Mortifying

I learned that you don’t really need to know the language to communicate with men.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

We were back at his apartment after a long night of partying in my Madrid barrio, La Latina. On his couch, kissing sloppily, with our arms reaching and grabbing at body parts in the dark, I got my hands down to his belt buckle and undid it with a ferocious appetite. He exhaled a long drawn out “siiiiiiiii.” I flicked the button to his pants open and pulled down his zipper with what I thought was surprising dexterity, considering just how many vinos blancos I had.

Then thinking I was the embodiment of sexuality itself, I slowly made my way up to his ear. Breathing heavily, I placed my lips up to his lobe as I felt a shiver run through his body. Then in my best Spanish and with all the confidence in the world, I said: “Mmmm … I want to suck your chicken.”

You see in Spanish, the words for chicken and dick are extremely similar. I guess it makes a certain amount of sense: what is a chicken but a cock by any other name? In Spanish penis is polla,chicken is pollo. And you have no idea how many times I’ve ordered a dick sandwich. These are just some of the issues you run into when you are screwing/dating/in a relationship with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you. On the other hand, lovemaking with a language barrier can also be a beautiful thing.

I moved to Madrid, Spain in 2010 right after college. The U.S. was in a recession and I had a degree in anthropology and political science. I figured I'd rather live in a different country working at a job I was overeducated for than in the States working such a job. So some friends and I got our TEFL certificates, packed our bags and set out to be English teachers in Madrid.

I hardly spoke a word of Spanish when I arrived. My high school Spanish was long forgotten, and I took Russian, a language I was already fluent in, as my required language in college for an easy A. The first month or so in Madrid was stressful. My friends and I tried to maneuver around the city, asking for directions to job interviews in bastardized Spanish and lots of hand gestures. We eventually landed our first jobs and got a shithole apartment with no windows in La Latina. 

We ventured out of our tiny servant-quarters flat early Sunday afternoon, and there it was, one of the most beautiful sights these eyes have ever seen. The streets were overflowing with people, the courtyard across the way was filled to the brim. Sundays were the day that El Rastro took place, an enormous outdoor bazaar in the city center. After everyone finished up their shopping, they headed to La Latina for an afternoon of fun and debauchery. Everyone was drinking, rolling spliffs, laughing, kissing, dancing, and fighting. And there were men, hot men, I mean super-hotmen everywhere.

I was 22 at the time and most of my sexual experiences up to that point were with the skinny earthy liberal patchouli-reeking weenies I met in college. They had nothing on these fine-looking matadors, and I was a raging bull seeing red. This day was to be the dawn of my sexual awakening.

On any given day you would find us gringas drinking wine on a terrazaat the top of the Cava Baja, a street lined with bars and restaurants in the La Latina barrio. We quickly learned that you don’t really need the language to communicate with men. Body language was enough, and Spaniards are a very physically animated people.

Ignacio was one of my first Spanish lovers who didn’t speak a word of English. I met him at my favorite hangout, Lamiak.I saw him out of the corner of my eye because he had been staring at me intently from the second I walked in. He came up to me and the usual broken banter began. “Si, soy de Estados Unidos. Soy una profesora de Ingles.” That’s pretty much all I knew how to say then. It really didn’t matter, because talking was not the point of the conversation. My girlfriends had already paired off with their own Spaniards and after a few glasses of wine, Ignacio and I were kissing and out the door.

The first time I made love to a foreigner was incredibly exciting. I felt like I was caught up in a steamy Antonio Banderas movie. He was gorgeous with long curly hair and deep dark eyes. Part of the allure of making love with a foreigner is obviously the language itself, Spanish is incredibly sexy, especially when it’s being whispered into your ear by a dark handsome stranger as he is undoing your bra. For the most part, I had no idea what Ignacio was saying to me while we were having sex, but my god, I loved it. It was amazing … until it was over. That’s when the language barrier made me want to scratch my skin off.

He didn’t seem to fully understand that I didn’t understand a word he was saying. Perhaps he thought I was just being coy and pretending I didn’t know Spanish. He started going on and on, pointing at things around his room. I laid there, trying to read his face so I knew whether I should say “si”or “no,” or just smile awkwardly. He eventually got that I wasn’t getting it, and we lay there in silence. He seemed totally okay with it, but the neurotic Russian Jew in me was squirming with anxiety.

I had more of these types of encounters in the months following Ignacio. My Spanish improved and I picked up the language of sex pretty quickly. Now when these men would hiss something in Spanish at me during the act, I would fire back with my own sexy retort. ‘Si, follame cabron! Mas! Mas!” Yes, I had learned how to say “fuck me” before I knew how to properly say, “How do I get to the metro?”

As time went on my Spanish kept getting better, and I became less neurotic about the miscommunications. Spaniards are much more carefree when it comes to social interaction. They are not nearly as anxious and uncomfortable as Americans are, and they are much more forward. When I moved back to the States I was disappointed to see that I was not getting approached nearly as much as I did in the bars of Madrid. Spanish men do not fear rejection as much as American men seem to. In fact, they take it as a challenge.

Eventually the novelty wore off. Toward the end of my second year in Madrid, I began a relationship with a Spaniard who would eventually become my first serious boyfriend and the first man I lived with. Juan was my neighbor. I had forgot my keys one day so I rang the rest of the building to let me in the front door and there he was. Juan hardly spoke English. He invited me in for coffee and the rest was history.

The third year I began my masters in journalism along with my best friend at an English University in Madrid. Juan and I had already exchanged our “Te quieros” at that point. Much of the relationship consisted of watching movies with either Spanish or English subtitles, which greatly improved my comprehension. We still had to break out the dictionary when we were really trying to get a point across, which in the end was more trouble than the point was actually worth.

When my master’s program ended, I decided to stay in Spain to see if it would be possible to create a life for myself in this country I felt had become a second home. I moved in with Juan and our little domestic life began. Things were going great for a little while, and then I started to feel incredibly alone.

When I still had my friends there with me, I always had an outlet to express myself fully. I couldn’t go on a long-winded rants with Juan because I would have to stop, conjugate and think about the words I was using. If I mispronounced a word in Spanish, he would quickly correct me and roll his eyes. It came to the point where I preferred not saying anything than putting in the effort to express myself only to be misunderstood.

By then, I didn’t have any friends of my own. After my master’s program my classmates scattered back to their corners of the globe. I just had Juan’s friends. They were nice, beyond nice. They were artistic, creative and smart. And I liked them and they tried to make me feel like one of them. But they weren’t my friends. There were times where we would all be sitting on a terrace, drinking and talking, and I would stay quiet. I didn’t always get what they were talking about. Their Spanish colloquialisms flew over my head and I didn’t know the local legends they were referring to. I had embarrassed myself consistently in front of them. Laughing when something wasn’t funny, or responding with the completely incorrect answer.

I missed my American culture and nuances. Spaniards are not nearly as sarcastic as liberal Jews from the northeast, like myself. My jokes came off as mean or inappropriate. I had no one to talk about the latest episode of “Arrested Development” with. Hardly anybody could understand the comedic genius of Richard Pryor and no one shared my love for horrible American reality TV. I started calling home more often, talking with my friends, and Juan grew resentful. He said I never laughed with him the way that I did with my friends. I could feel his disapproving gaze as I spoke with them for hours on the phone, trying to fill this void I felt while I was living with him.

I absolutely love Spanish culture. I fell in love with flamenco music, with Paco de Lucia and Camaron de la Isla. I still think to this day that Spain is the most beautiful country I have ever laid eyes on. Juan and I traveled all over the country, from the lush green mountains of Asturias in the north to the bright-white desert cliffs of Almeria on the Mediterranean Sea. I love Spanish people and the richness of their language. I eventually learned the slang and would try my best to speak like a Madrileño,but I knew deep down that I would never really belong, and I wasn’t sure if that was what I actually wanted.

By the fourth year, Spain was in its own horrible recession. Unemployment was at 25 percent, and if young Spaniards couldn’t land a job, there wasn’t much chance for an American journalist without official paperwork to find work. Madrid lost its vigor. The streets of La Latina were no longer filled with people enjoying themselves and praising life every weekend. A gloominess set in and I knew I had to go back home. I missed my family, my friends, my way of expressing myself. It was an incredible adventure but it had come to an end.

The day Juan dropped me off at the airport, with my bags stuffed with the memories of my Spanish life over the past four years, was one of the saddest days I’ll ever experience. We cried and said “Te quiero” and that we would see each other again soon. In the back of our minds, we knew it was probably the last time we would ever look into each other’s faces.

It’s been almost two years since I moved back to the States. Now living in New York City, I still perk up and get excited every time I hear Spanish (which is everywhere in New York). Despite how much I miss Madrid at times, I don’t regret leaving. Some people can move to a new country and despite the language and cultural difference, they can make a life for themselves. That’s exactly what my parents did when we left the Soviet Union in 1991. But they had to leave. There was no future there, and despite the people they left behind, there was little remorse or feelings of patriotism. It’s not that I feel particularly patriotic to the United States, but I feel loyal towards how its culture helped shaped who I am. I’m attached to how my friends laugh when I make a joke, or to how I can freely and openly communicate without hesitation.

And it doesn't hurt that I can order a chicken sandwich without blushing. 

Katia Kleyman is an NYC-based journalist. She writes about sex, culture (of the pop and non-pop variety), history, and movies. Follow her on Twitter @kleyman_katia and visit her website