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.”