Contorted by language, Belgium offers perplexing challenges for native and expat residents alike.
Commuting to Brussels on the E19 last week, I stopped at a motorway service station to buy my morning newspapers.
The motorway was in the Dutch-speaking province of Flemish Brabant.
So when one motorist in front of me started talking French to the cashier, he was immediately confronted with a very clear frown of disapproval.
One could sense him shrinking with embarrassment.
And in my hand – I suddenly and guiltily realised again – were two newspapers, the Dutch-language ‘De Standaard’ and the Francophone ‘Le Soir’; the best of the Belgian dailies.
Glad to be in the line served by a youngish woman in her early 20s rather than her late 40s female colleague with the disapproving looks, I still felt somewhat disconcerted.
But offering the cashier a good morning smile and a very casual (Flemish) ‘hallo’, I presented her with my two newspapers and was rewarded with a startled, bemused look.
No, this was not normal, even for the ‘younger’ (and more flexible?) generation. It seems that I should have stuck to one language: Dutch.
Bilingual safety of Brussels
In the bilingual safety of Brussels, however, I am offered no guaranteed succour as I am still unsure which language to use; French, Dutch or English.
While I am fluent in Dutch, my French is still terrible and I’m trying my best to improve.
So it is always rewarding when you a offered a more linguistically receptive welcome from shop assistants.
Reluctant to use Dutch, I often start a transaction in French and shop attendants quickly spot my hesitation and switch to English; this foreigner’s safety net and mother tongue.
When this happens, I walk away feeling unburdened and more optimistic about Belgium.
Confusion of language
But this confusion of language remains at the heart of the Belgian experience.
Take, for example, the nation’s future monarch. Is his name Prince Philippe or Prince Filip? The answer: it depends on which language you talk.
Yes, even the forever hoped-for unifying symbol of a divided nation must have two differently-spelled names. And let’s not get started on place names.
Aggravating perhaps, this country we call Belgium, but also undeniably fascinating.