Monthly Archives: September 2012

When is the Bathroom?

Last night I went to a jazz bar with a friend from Germany and her visiting boyfriend. This was technically my third time at this bar, although it didn’t feel like it: My Personal Francophone and I had gone to hear a local group the night I moved into my apartment and drunk a liquor called “Elixir d’Anvers”, as mysterious as the city because we had no idea what flavor it was (though it did taste vaguely of anise) or how much alcohol it contained. I had also come in this Monday evening, only to be driven away in five minutes by the Radiohead-shirt-wearing pianist playing strange Gothic melodies in the minor key, and the long-haired drummer whose main concern seemed to be making the cymbals emit a noise that was supposed to resemble, I think, a theremin, but mostly just sounded like screaming.

So I hoped this third encounter, if one may call it that, would be better. There was no live jazz band that evening, but Fats Domino sang “Blueberry Hill” on the speaker system, which was an encouraging sign, until my friend and I decided that we had to use the facilities.

Here I should explain that the vast majority of Belgians living in Antwerp, which is in Flanders, are, of course, Flemish. The reasons this is relevant are:

1. Namely, that the Flemish have a reputation, even among their fellow countrymen, for excellence in linguistics. Thus one can be reasonably certain that most Antwerp residents speak at least some English. In fact, from personal experience, they LOVE it. They don’t mind practicing their English one bit: they WANT you to help them make it better. (Though really, what native construction could be better than the phrase “You must have a lot of jet lag”? Charming.)

2. Completely disregarding No. 1, I had just started learning Flemish the previous week and wanted to practice.

My friend was lagging a little behind me, but I knew what to do. “Excuseer,” I said to the waiter, “wanneer is de W.C.?”

I waited for his answer, certain that the look on his face would be one of pleased surprise that I, too, spoke his language.

Instead, he raised his eyebrows, and the side of his mouth twitched, as if there was something to laugh about.

“Upstairs,” he said in English.

Confused by his reaction, but proud of my own initiative, I turned to my friend, who is from Bavaria but speaks excellent English and once did an exchange program in a Minnesota high school, and announced importantly,  “He says it’s upstairs.”

Ah, but pride goeth.

Today in Flemish class, we were assigned some pronunciation exercises by a visiting speech language pathologist, who confused me by asking if I was German, and then being surprised when I said I was American, and then telling me I use the French “R” rather than the Flemish or the Dutch. In one of these exercises, we had to ask who or where or how something was.

“Waar gaat Paolo economie studeren?” I think one of the sentences was.

My heart sank. Not because I didn’t know the answer, but because the answer was something like “Paolo goes to Belgium to study economics.” Which could only mean…

I  flipped back a few chapters to make sure I was on the right track. I found what I was looking for.

“Wanneer komt jij?” was another question we had had to read. The answer was, “Saturday morning.”

Those were the facts. Everything fell into place: my conceit, the hidden smirk on the waiter’s face, my pathetic attempts to learn a new language. I cringed.

Rest assured: arrogance is no way to overcome linguistic obstacles. For if you , like me, are in a foreign country and you ask, in that country’s language, “Excuse me, when is the bathroom?”, you will always get a knowing smirk and the answer, in English, “Upstairs.”

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Filed under Belgium 2012-2013

A Bruxelles/In Antwerpen

This past weekend I took the opportunity–translation classes not yet being in session, and my Flemish class going on an excursion I would have to pay for to a place I had already been–to go to Brussels, which is not so very far from Antwerp, and visit My Personal Francophone.

I say “took the opportunity”, but the truth is I would have had to find a way to make it possible, even if all the trains and buses were out of commission and there were no more taxis–because, as My Personal Francophone had personally and specifically asked me what I was doing on September 8, and had told me he had A Surprise For Me that evening, and had even, when I asked “Will I need to bring nice clothes for the surprise?”, replied “that might not be a bad idea,” and this time HE was asking ME to dress up–because all of these things were true, I decided that even if I had to hike out into the fields outside the city and kidnap a cow and ride into Brussels on it, I would get there, somehow.

“This surprise better be worth it,” I grumbled as I waited in line at the ticket counter behind some Spanish immigrants, a Flemish-speaking couple, and a slow-moving student to buy a train pass at the station. The clerk carefully reviewed my application, took out his stapler for the student discount papers, got ready to charge me for the pass…and then asked, “Where’s your photo?”

“Photo?” I stupidly asked. I knew I shouldn’t have ignored the Flemish pages of the railroad website…

Half an hour later I got back in line at the ticket counter, clutching my glossy sheet of passport-sized photos, taken at the photo booth only after I got change for my 20 by buying a few pieces of overpriced candy at the shop near the train tracks, hoping I would make it on time for the next train, and also that this would be the correct train and not take me past farms and fields and tiny towns with a church and two houses, like the wrong train I’d taken to come register for classes a week ago…

That evening, as we sat and drank the first of several beers with his friends, and Belgium overran Wales 2-0, and the bar dog came and jumped up on my lap, I thought maybe the trip had been worth it, after all.

The following morning, when My Personal Francophone came in and woke me by putting Tchaikovsky on the stereo and a fresh mug of hot coffee with a cookie next to me, I knew it had been worth it, even if the surprise I had to dress up for was a play in French, or a museum exhibit about bacon. I was absolutely confirmed in that discovery when he left the room briefly only to return with a tray of fresh-baked croissants from the corner bakery. “Le petit dejeuner au lit pour Madamoiselle!” he said cheerfully.

As the uncharacteristically sunny Belgian morning poured in through the windows, I wondered what, exactly, in this life, I had done to be so lucky. I’ve asked myself that a lot over these past–has it really already been two weeks!–and when I go up onto the illegal rooftop terrace of my apartment and study my Flemish and look over the city rooftops this evening, I’ll ask myself that again.

But that’s this evening. I asked myself the same question twice on Saturday, once when awakened by Tchaikovsky and speculoos, and once more when standing in front of the very large surprise that evening, which was neither a play in French nor a museum exhibit about bacon.

The Theatre de la Monnaie, in the center of downtown Brussels, whose ornately columned façade dates to the 19th century (young, for something European!), and whose concert halls have housed many recitals and performances, including the Vivaldi we were there to hear  and see a troupe of musicians/actors/dancers play and perform.

“Do you like it?” My Personal Francophone asked, looking at me somewhat worriedly as I gaped at the brilliant paintings and gold scrolling on the ceiling of the theater.

“Wow,” I said, the vertigo of it all taking my breath away.  “Just…wow.” Below us the performers started to tune their instruments, the acoustics of the great hall carrying the smallest sound of the strings to our ears. I thought, here I am in Brussels, in a beautiful theater that has been filled with who knows what great works and who knows how many generations of audiences…if anyone had told me, two years ago in Salamanca, that I would be here now, I would never have believed them.

And I didn’t even have to ride into the city on a cow.

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Ring a ling a ling

I am sitting at my desk, breakfasting on a waffle in my very own apartment in a very foreign city, and I’m taking the time to interrupt my breakfast because…my coffee pot decided to stop working mid-mug. It simply stopped pouring water over the grounds, and, when I poked it, made sounds like a tiny crow. So, while I am desperately hoping for it to resume its normal brewing activities, because the five-hour Flemish class starts today at 10 AM and I admit I am going to need the caffeine to get me through it, a little about this new place…

My Personal Francophone and his mother took me here from Brussels on Saturday morning; it’s about 30 minutes’ drive, if one knows where one is going (which we did not). On this journey between Belgian metropolises, we passed cows.

My apartment is in this really old house, tall and narrow like many Belgian homes, with narrow spiral stairs. There is a rainbow mosaic of a dragon out front, and a T-Rex action figure over the inside entryway. Some misguided artist painted a very abstract velociraptor just past the T-Rex. Hence its name, Jurassic House, and my room…the Triceratops room.

I don’t have much right now. Some clothes, a few books, a few post cards. I scooped my coffee out of the bag with a thimble this morning–the big Carrefour was closed yesterday. (This room is HUGE and high-ceilinged, so as one of my room mates put it, “You have a big room for not a lot of stuff.”.)

But here are some cool things Antwerp has, that, I am sorry to say, I have not yet seen in Brussels (and all of them were in MY neighborhood!):

  1. A dwarf riding a bicycle
  2. A homeless man who uses a black and white bunny to attract people instead of a dog
  3. A hair salon that gives haircuts to people who stop outside on their bikes

And my personal favorite:

4.  The man My Personal Francophone and I saw on Saturday evening after a few beers (but we are still not making     this up!!!) whose bike bell wasn’t working, so he chanted “Ring a ling a ling. Beep.” as he rode off into the distance.

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PLEASE DO NOT EAT YOUR WAFFLES IN FRONT OF THE WINDOW

I know what I said–I’m long overdue for the tale of my last trip to Belgium, as well as My Personal Francophone’s second trip to the United States, but both of those things might remain untold on this blog, because what is going on now is SO MUCH COOLER IT IS NOT EVEN FUNNY. HOW IS THIS MY LIFE.

Out of all the jobs I applied for, and all the graduate programs, I would never have expected this. Through the generosity of friends and family, as well as a lot of fry scooping, framing, and child chasing this past summer, and with a healthy dose of Pure Dumb Luck, I have found myself living in Antwerp, Belgium, in a large (!) apartment right near the middle of everything, and five short minutes from Lessius University College, where I will be studying for a Master’s in Specialized Translation from 2012 to 2013.

I arrived last Tuesday morning, with three bulging suitcases and an equally distended carry-on shoulder bag, at an ungodly early hour, squinting in the fluorescent light of the immense international Brussels Airport, to find My Very Excited Personal Francophone practically breaking his neck trying to see me stagger out of the baggage claim.

We promptly went to his charming yellow house and had waffles and chocolate.

We also toured some of the art nouveau architecture in Brussels, including the Comic Book Museum, a Socialist-Press-Turned-Museum, and the North Passage, lined with bookstores and chocolate shops.

“Wow,” I said, as I craned my neck up toward the Hotel de Ville in the Grand Place. “I’m back!”

“Yes,” he said, or maybe I only think he said, because what I remember is the huge smile on his face that would have made it hard for him to talk. “you’re here.”

On the window of a lace shop near the Grand Place, we saw a sign that proclaimed to all and sundry, but perhaps most particularly to the people lined up at the waffle shop next to it “PLEASE DO NOT EAT YOUR WAFFLES IN FRONT OF THE WINDOW.”

I covertly snapped a photo of an Asian woman who was doing just that, enjoying her whipped-cream covered waffles in front of the doilies and baptismal gowns.

Ah, Belgium. It’s good to be back.

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