The kitchens are coming home to roost

When I was teaching English in Barcelona in the early 1990s, the most surprising challenge I found was overcoming the linguistic confusion of chicken and kitchen. When a beginner level student was asked in which room they would expect to find a fridge, they would typically respond, “The fridge is in the chicken.” Conversely, a lesson about food vocabulary would find students enthusiastically adding kitchen and chips to their menu.

I puzzled over this. It could not be simply explained by my students being bankers… for I also taught professionals in the fashion industry, the Barcelona transport management, and politicians. Everyone fell into the kitchen/chicken trap.

My solution was to add a new teaching aid to the array of objects in the Samsonite briefcase which I carried around Barcelona in my busy schedule. The rubber chicken.

I had come into possession of the rubber chicken in preparation for a fancy dress party in the Gothic quarter, and I wore it tied to the knotted cord of my Franciscan habit and went as a holy fool. That gave rise to an entirely separate story – which appeared on the John Peel BBC radio show some years later (and it is still referred to on a BBC web-page – but I won’t go there! Suffice to say, my possession of this rubber chicken led to its use in the English classroom as a perfectly natural development…

The methodology was simple. The rubber chicken spent most of its time in my case. A rubber chicken – when pressed flat, rolled up and tied neatly with string – takes up little space in a briefcase. If a student was caught confusing chicken and kitchen in my lesson, out would come the rubber chicken from my case! As I loosened the string, the chicken burst into life before the terrified student, who would receive a gentle slap on the head with it, in the style of Basil Fawlty reprimanding Manuel the waiter from Barcelona, in Fawlty Towers.

The chicken was equipped with a high-pitched internal squeaker and this added to the dramatic effect. For the rest of the English lesson the student had to sit with the rubber chicken on the desk in front of him. Unless, of course another student made the same mistake; but I don’t recall that ever happening, such was the powerful disincentive of the teaching aid.

The methodology needed later refinement, and the slap on the head with the chicken had to be abandoned after one employee complained to his line manager following a lesson I delivered in the smart teaching suite of the Deutsche Bank building in the Passeig de Gràcia. Even sans the comedy slap on the head with the yellow latex fowl, the terror and shame of having to sit with it on the desk in front of them was sufficient to deter most students from repeating this linguistic mistake. Eventually, most students avoided using either word in my lessons and perhaps never used these words ever again. I thought this small reduction in their English vocabulary was a worthwhile price in the wider goal of linguistic accuracy and considered my job done as a teacher.

There was one exception: a student (who I strongly suspect had Tourette syndrome) for whom it became an obsession to use the words chicken and kitchen inappropriately at every opportunity. For all I know, he is still wandering around the cafe tables under the arches of the Plaza Real, surprising customers as he snarls “Kitchen! Chicken!” while stamping menacingly on the cobbles. I would guess this could be quite lucrative, so perhaps one of my less obvious teaching success stories?

And, like many a former student, I expect you are wondering what is the point of this blog post?

Well, just imagine my delight this week as the latest enormous corruption scandal emerged in Madrid, implicating just about everybody at the top level of the Popular Party, including Mariano Rajoy the Prime Minister, who once came to our local village to launch his re-election campaign. At the centre of the scandal is the party’s use of the police for a spying operation on its own treasurer Luis Barcénas.

“Don’t blame us: we were in the chicken.”

This ultimate Spanish corruption story has all the usual elements of greed, incompetence, and traditional farce. But for me – as if it was not funny enough – what makes this the true Spanish version of Fawlty Towers is the high-comedy linguistic element which caps it all. The code name the corrupt politicians chose for their spying operation is now all over the national news headlines and the name will surely become the classic Spanish corruption case of all time.

The conspirators chose the code name Operation Kitchen. If only they had attended my English lessons and sat guiltily for a few minutes with the rubber chicken on the desk, they might have avoided all this greater national shame. For Spanish learners and corrupt politicians the words chicken and kitchen should always be avoided.

4 thoughts on “The kitchens are coming home to roost

  1. Chicken/kitchen? I suppose the “ch” is a difficult concept for the Spanish. Any more similar funnies? In the 1980s and 1990s I visited Barcelona at least four times a year as I represented the interests, in the UK, of four companies in that area. I always stayed at the Hostal Passeig de Gràcia that has now become a very smart four star hotel in that street. Such a shame that we did not know one another then. The manager of the Hostal gave up his room when I visited during the Olympics and Paralympics and I am still in touch with him and his wife – they now live near Gerona. On the few occasions that we have driven back to the UK, we have stopped in Barcelona and gone across the Diagonal from the Passeig de Gràcia into the real Barcelona where the real Catalan food predominates. Our favourite European city. Much of the city going down the Ramblas to the sea and the streets off it have been slightly gentrified and made tourist traps but the Gothic quarter still has its inimitable charm. For one or two “posh” meals, the Atico restaurant on the Ramblas opposite the Liceu is still there (or was two years ago.) We were in Barcelona when the terrible fire that gutted the Liceu took hold of that lovely building. Sympathetically restored but with a horrible modern carbunkle extension added. Sorry to bore you!

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  2. Yes, Frank, Barcelona was buzzing in 1991-92 and it would have been fun if our paths had crossed then. I had a small flat in the Barrio Gotico next to the church of Santa Maria del Mar. It was the time to earn money teaching English because everyone needed to get up to speed for the 1992 Olympics. I went there originally from an East London friary where I had been teaching English to refugees and the idea was partly to improve my skills teaching English as a foreign language, but I was also burnt out from several years doing mostly AIDS work and needed a break. After Barcelona I was back in a silent monastery near Worcester. Quite a contrast!

    In those days I could get from Barcelona to Calais hitch-hiking in Franciscan habit in about 12 hours. Sometimes I could cross the Channel free if I got a lift in a UK-bound car or lorry. Spanish fruit and veg trucks from Murcia were the best: a one-hitch ride could be done from a truck stop north of Barcelona all the way to Calais if you got talking to the right Spanish truck drivers!

    I know the restaurant you mention but I never ate there. In those days it was always the 800 or 900 peseta menu del dia for English teachers. We used to meet up and discuss English grammar on a Friday night at the Cafe Opera opposite the Liceu. That was the highlight of the week, believe it or not! (To this day I still wince when anyone says something like “a large amount of people”. Aaaarrrgh! it’s a countable noun!) We also swapped ideas for grammar lessons! What a great night out in the Ramblas, eh?


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