My kids laugh, but this whole language thing in Belgium had my mind spinning faster than the pinwheels on a balcony across from Café des Halles. It was at Café des Halles, by the way, that I saw a poster with Keith Haring figures—first Venice, now Brussels—his artwork dances through Europe.
Café des Halles, located at an 1882 market at Place Saint-Gery, has a delightful terrace and its menu is on a vinyl record, so unique that the following guilt-free message is found on each one: If you steal me, make us famous and post a picture on FB.
Belgium is one of those culturally divided countries, the northern portion is Flanders, where Dutch is the language of choice, and the south is Wallonia, where French is spoken. On the far east of Wallonia, there is a tiny section of the country where residents speak German, but that’s too much for me to deal with at this point—as are all the unofficial dialects. So much diversity in a country that is not much larger than the state of Maryland.
The city of Brussels(E)/Brussel(D)/Bruxelles(F) is the center of the European Union, so street signs are in both Dutch and French, making sign spotting and map reading twice as challenging. Marina and Richard spend their working days in Brussels, but Marina goes home to Ghent(E)/Gent(D)/Gand(F) in Flanders while Richard lives in French-speaking Charleroi (and, thanks to King Charles II of Spain, this city has been spelled “Charleroi” in English, French, and Dutch since 1666).
I needed to take two trains to get from one city to the other, which means Arrivals/Departures lists in the railway stations depends on geography. In Gent, the lists are headed with Aankomst and Vertrek while in Charleroi, the charts say Arrivee and Depart. Add to this mix that the translations of city names can differ dramatically, many times I didn’t know if I was going Oost or West, Nord or Sud.
Marina tells a story of when she was an au pair, a mere 18, waiting for a train somewhere in Flanders to go back to Liege. Trains kept coming, but they all listed their destination as Luik, and she had no idea Luik was the Dutch spelling of Liege.
Things got even more complicated with my rail pass. Before each trip, I had to list the day of the week, the departure city and the destination city. I figured if I was leaving from Flanders, I should list the day in Dutch. So, Woensdag was Wednesday. When I was leaving from Wallonia on a Saturday, I wrote Samedi. When I wasn’t sure, I made the day up, as in Mondag and Tuesdag.
What a long, long road language is. I have so much admiration for my kids and their friends to have navigated it so well.
Remember the 1969 comedy “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” about a busload of American tourists traveling through Europe? Maybe sticking to one form of transportation would have helped me get my bearings, but it wouldn’t have been as fun. At dinner one evening in Restaurant Matinee in Bruges, I went searching for the waitress to add a waffle to our dessert coffee order. I ended up talking to her reflection in the wall mirror, instead of the actual waitress. I caught myself about midway through the question—but so did Richard from the adjoining room. It will be a long time before I live that one down.
The next day, we were leaving Bruges and hoping we were headed for Ghent (we weren’t). I stopped to ask a couple for directions. Even though almost everyone speaks some English in Belgium, I always start out a conversation with: “Do you speak English?” before asking my follow up questions. Well, this time, the woman turned to me and said, “Dear, we are English.” I laughed and said I didn’t speak English, only American, and was very lost. She couldn’t help with directions but we had a pleasant conversation in our mother tongues.
While you might expect traveling to be confusing, surely I should be at home in the kitchen…well, not really.
I’ve grown, cooked with, and eaten herbs for more years than Koen has been alive, yet he taught me a simple trick for prepping herbs. He simply walks into the garden with an empty coffee cup, fills it with the herbs he wants to use, and returns to the kitchen. Then, he picks up a pair of scissors and just starts snipping back and forth in the cup. When he’s done, all of the chopped herbs are right there in the coffee cup, not spread out all over the cutting board like I would have done. Marina calls it, “The Belgian way.”
In Charleroi, as I was going to bed one night, Sabine told me she put oatmeal on the counter for my breakfast. I woke up the next morning and didn’t see the familiar Quaker Oats cardboard cylinder, so I rummaged around and found plain yogurt and Museli. Later during my stay, she asked why I never made any oatmeal.
“I couldn’t find it.”
Well, then she showed me a sack, similar to our bags of sugar, but much smaller—500g. It was chartreuse and red, with a Bio-Time (bio means organic) label. Below, was written Flocons d’Avoine,(F) and below that, Havermout(D). Next time I’m in Belgium, I must have a bowl of Belgian oatmeal, the Belgian way. Laurie Lynch
Sign Language: I love the large, green neon crosses in Belgium that indicate pharmacies. The pharmacies are called Apotheek, which is close enough to apothecary for me to understand. Unlike our CVS or Rite-Aide, which have turned into mini supermarket-perfume-and-whatnot stores, an Apotheek is simply there for what ails you, or makes you better.
I visited my first Apotheek early in my trip for citric acid to make a batch of Elder Blossom Cordial. Not only did the pharmacist have what I was looking for, measuring it into two plastic vials, but she knew why I wanted it. “Ah, it’s the season for elder blossoms.”
A day or so later, the blisters on my feet were pretty gross and painful. Marina introduced me to Compeed “blister plasters” that cushion and heal your blistered feet. Believe me, they work. The name “plaster” always bring a fond memory of Shauna King, our Northern Ireland summer visitor in the 1990s and early 2000s. Shauna always referred to Band-Aides as “plasters”.
Anyway, I was hooked on Compeed. After I went through Marina’s supply, I bought several packages, in a variety of sizes and shapes to fit individual blisters, and also found the plastic, teal-colored containers enchanting to Lais, who sucked on the rounded corners.
A Whisper from the 1600s: While in Belgium, Richard gave me a copy of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. I loved reading the tale Burton wove based on Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house on display at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Although the historic novel is set in Amsterdam, it could have just as easily been Ghent, and it touches social issues that are as pertinent in the 21st century as they were then. I highly recommend it.