Do you speak Belgian? (Part 1)
Ever since Tim Roux first travelled on the endless miles of Zaventem moving walkways, he has been wondering about the Belgians...
I don’t claim to understand a lot about Belgium’s history. Indeed I don’t think it has even had much of one of its own – it was always part of somebody else’s. Voracious predatory powers like France / Burgundy, Spain and Austria came here and plundered the people’s wealth (at one time, Antwerpen was the centre of world trade and Flanders was famous for its rich textile industry).
Germany dropped in for a short chat a couple of times too.
The process of economic attrition started to be reversed by Leopold II who went off and sucked the Congo dry in the name of European civilization (is there any other kind?) and of his own good fortune. However, the big influx of wealth has happened since the establishment of the European Union. I assume that the Eurocrats were the first to discover Belgium as an international dining club, riding in on their gravy trains and mapping Brussels’ hotels, bars, restaurants, meeting places and other cultural hot spots. They were followed by a wave of pioneer corporate prospectors tracking down persistent and optimistic rumours of the potential for an El Dorado of European markets, returning home laden with fresh cream chocolates to be stored in the fridge and beer presentation four-packs with promotional glasses.
I first arrived in Belgium as part of a later corporate wave obsessed with running comparative culture classes and encouraging you to play commercial doctors and nurses with foreign colleagues – you show me yours, I’ll show you mine, and we’ll see if they look the same, no need to be too open and honest, you just have to appear to show some kind of willing.
The two-day comparative culture course I attended, run by a charming Dutchman, covered all the major traits and stereotypes of every nationality in Europe except of Belgium – too complicated, too small (assume it to be a composite of the Netherlands and France). So we had the story of Little Dutch Willi who did not speak until he was seven. Then one day, after the family had worried itself sick for many years, he suddenly declared “This soup is cold!”
“Little Willi, you can speak!” the family exclaimed with one voice. “Why haven’t you spoken before?”
“There was nothing wrong before.”
We were also slipped the secret of the French scientific acid test – “It may work in practice, but does it work in theory?” - and we were told that most Brits were renowned for not having discovered sex yet but that those who had were reputedly gay. That threw us Brits; we thought it was the Greeks who were the gay ones, the trendy buggers.
The ‘German Question’ caused a few problems, even forty years after the end of the Second World War. There was something we weren’t meant to be mentioning and we all knew compulsively what it was. The only problem was what else there was to say. Basil Fawlty’s strident command of “don’t mention the war” silently permeated the entire agenda like a black hole every other thought got sucked into. The German contingent, in the meantime, worried that the information pack accompanying the course was insufficiently detailed to be of use to anyone.
My first experience of Belgium was of landing in what appeared to be the outskirts of Gent and walking down a very long line of ‘rolling carpets’ until I reached the passport checking booths in Zaventem. There would often be a delay there as two immigration officers processed a couple of plane loads of people, but this was as nothing compared with the wait for your baggage which sometimes proved to be in vain. Then it was out to the taxi rank where there was either a long queue of people and no taxis, or a long queue of taxis but no people, and or a long queue of both orchestrated by frenzied men with whistles and staccato gesticulations trying to speed things along.
As best I knew in those days, Belgium was a francophone country. I could see from the many large advertisements lining the walkways in the airport that the big brands waved their European virility at passing executives in English, and I sort of knew that a few druidic types spoke a local equivalent of Gaelic while wearing long beards and anachronistic bucolic attire. The posters told me that three people in South-Eastern Belgium spoke German, but when I finally got into that taxi I would always religiously ask to go to Diegem in French.
This simple request had a satisfyingly galvanising effect on each occasion. There was an explosion in the front, much swearing in a language I did not understand and a hammering of the steering wheel for several minutes, followed by tears. If only I had known to have addressed the guy in Nederlands, or it could have been the fact that he had been queuing up for a fare for two and a half hours only to be obliged to drop his unwanted client ten minutes down the road from the airport. It was an uncomfortable situation for both of us – so uncomfortable that I didn’t dare give the guy a tip. If only he had broken down again and explained how tragically short the journey had been and that as a consequence he would starve and his wife would have to eat the children. I was on corporate expenses. I could have given him any inflated amount of tip that he had asked for. He would just have had to have asked for it in French or English.
Anyway, nowadays, living here, I am much wiser about the linguistic environment of Belgium. I know that Belgians themselves can spot a kilometre away whether another Belgian is friend or foe and address him accordingly but, for foreigners, it is best to at least start out in English. I also know not to mix the languages.
A while back I created a mail shot for some machines I sell. Not knowing whether any specific potential customer would speak French or Nederlands, I wrote a French version of the sales patter and then machine-translated the original English into Nederlands (I’m too cheap and mean to hire a real translator in warm blood), positioning the Nederlands version on the page first. Within minutes of hand-delivering the advertisements, having run the gauntlet of Ja / Nee to publicity on the letter boxes, I had an irate doctor on the phone. Did I really expect to sell any machines when I included French in my letter to him? Worse, the machine translator had undoubtedly converted my English into Nederlands in a heavy French accent.
In the Tervuren Stadzaal there is (or was) a notice saying “No French spoken here” in Nederlands. In the Tervuren Container Park I approached one of the workers there in French. “Tttttttt,” he said. “You can speak Nederlands here, or English, but absolutely not French.” I went back a month later and watched the same guy speaking to a Belgian friend in French for twenty-five minutes. In the Tervuren post office they used to refuse to speak any language other than Nederlands under any circumstances until the post lady there was voted the most unhelpful person in the known universe by parents at the British School of Brussels. On my last visit she was even willing to speak Chinese.
Strange fruit are these.
Tim has a wife and two children, and has lived in Belgium since 2006 running Mud Valley which is an online strategy consultancy. Tim has published ten books (nine novels and a brand marketing guide).
His latest novel is ‘The Blue Food Revolution’ which borrows a classic Belgian brochure format to present two back-to-back interlinked novellas set in almost every country in the world, real or imaginary, except Belgium. He has thought of translating one novella into French and the other into Nederlands but he hasn’t got round to it yet.
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