The Language Barrier: Week One

Josh Bednash thought he had everything ready for his year in Madrid. He’d packed all the essentials: his toothbrush, football boots and favourite cap. Unfortunately, he couldn’t speak Spanish…

Before moving to Madrid I made two mistakes. Firstly, I decided that I didn’t need the comfort of University life on my travels, so chose to work in a small advertising company instead of joining my fellow students. Secondly, I can’t really speak Spanish.

I also came out to Madrid without anywhere to live.

I had opposed every sinew of English caution in my body on fairly good authority that each luxurious balcony terrace would have a sign hanging off it saying ‘Se Alquila’ or ‘To Rent’. And indeed it proved to be the case.

After a day or two of agreeing to everything any landlord told me as I was both ashamed of how rude I had been to interrupt their Friday afternoon, and because I understood very little of what they said, I stumbled across a small flat owned by the local barman Carlos. With a contract promptly written up on a piece of scrap paper by the rotund barman, the deal was done.

Carlos at work

Carlos at work

I liked it because it was small, quaint and simple. But mainly because I couldn’t be bothered to do any more walking and phoning in broken Spanish.

Two weeks later, small, quaint and simple have swiftly been by replaced by claustrophobic, broken and shit.

A day after starting a mini-fire and a storm of noxious gasses by simply turning on the kettle, the wooden shutter of my balcony window vanished. Trying to lift it up to get a better view of the beautiful Barclays bank opposite, I was too aggressive in my approach and the shutter had somehow flown up into the roof.

"Claustrophobic, broken and shit"

“Claustrophobic, broken and shit”

Carlos was not happy.

I’d rudely interrupted his tapas and cerveza to give him a problem he didn’t even know was humanly possible. When I showed him the invisible shutter, his perplexity was understandable. Since its instalment in 1847, the shutter had never, ever disappeared.


The disappearing shutter

As him and another man (I want to say builder, but I’m almost certain he was literally just another, equally perplexed man) ripped off the masking tape that seemed to be holding my whole room together and delved deep into the roof, I looked on.

Seemingly unconvinced that my chin-rubbing and hands-on-hipping was of much help, the other man asked me to get a ‘cuchilla’ from the kitchen. Carlos then shouted ‘cuchilla’ in my face too, so I was aware that this was fairly urgent.

I promptly scuttled off to the kitchen with exactly no plan of what I was going to do when I got there or what a cuchilla was.

My options were minimal and I certainly had no time to log onto and look up cuchilla, nor could I denounce my Spanishness and ask for clarification.


Scenic view

And so I narrowed it down. I was pretty sure a cuchilla was something you used to eat food with. But which one precisely was anyone’s guess. Cutlery has never really been something I have given great significance to learning in more than one language because, frankly, you don’t need it to eat a sandwich.

I had only one choice.

I opened the kitchen draw, dived in, and ran back to the two now very sweaty and very impatient Spaniards. I took a deep breath, and presented them a knife, fork and a spoon, alongside my please-sir-can-I-have-some-more innocent face.

The men looked at me. Disgusted. Carlos prised the knife from my shaking hands, sneered at the embarrassed spoon and fork, muttered something in Spanish and went back to work. It is going to be a long year.