One of the benefits of college is the opportunity to befriend people you would never otherwise meet and visit them in places you would never otherwise go. Due to the whims of dorm and roommate roulette I was fortunate to make acquaintances who invited me to travel with them to exotic locations like Columbus, Georgia… Boca Raton, Florida… and Waterloo, Belgium.
Sing it with me now, “One of those things is not like the other; one of those things just does not belong!”
It never, ever, ever occurred to me that a. Belgium was an actual place and b. I could actually go there. I began college having never once set foot on a plane, so any travel, much less international travel, was not something I imagined doing. And Belgium, though undeniably blessed with chocolate and waffles, does not make the top of most “Must-See in Europe!” lists. However, my roommate’s father worked for IBM and became one of the rare few who could say, “I’ve Been Moved!” to La Hulpe, Belgium. One summer, Kate made the trip to see her parents, and invited me to visit her while she was visiting them. It was too choice an opportunity to pass up.
I know it is hard to imagine, but this trip took place before the advent of the internet or the dumbest of cellphones. Whatever I was to learn about Belgium in terms of pre-trip prep would come from a book (remember those?) at the library (or those?). Kate was very good at writing informative letters (!) about the places I was to visit, the last one of which I read in the car on the way to the airport. The most memorable point from her correspondence: “Don’t worry about the security guards monitoring the gates as you exit your flight. They will have machine guns, but it’s no big deal.”
[Aside: In case there are any other travel newbs out there, I’m not sure I would recommend that your first plane trip, ever, be nine hours long. Or that you go on it by yourself, with no one to hold your hand when you experience turbulence for the first time, or while you are worrying about the probable existence of armed guards at your intended destination.]
Anyway, one of the things that I assumed would make travel in Belgium relatively easy was that Kate’s family lived in the French-speaking part of the country – and I had started studying French in sixth grade. At the time of the trip I had just completed my second quarter of college French, so I was the most fluent I would ever be. I would surely have no trouble at all communicating there!
It turns out that “the most fluent I would ever be” and “actually fluent” are two very different states. States with wide deserts between them. And barbed wire fences. And security guards armed with machine guns, about which you had better well worry. Because as it turns out, a slightly below average student with poor study habits, relentless perfectionism, and near-crippling self-consciousness is not especially well-equipped to successfully speak a romance language in a foreign country.
But I couldn’t not speak French like a normal person. You know, by just not speaking it. Instead, I memorized a relatively complicated phrase, “I’m sorry, I do not speak French.” Why rely on pointing and smiling, or the English 80% of the country understood, when you can utterly confuse many tram operators, salespeople, and wait staff by saying “I’m sorry, I do not speak French” – in perfectly accented French?
It was a lovely trip overall, and other than receiving a less than ideal hair cut due to my inability to communicate with a Belgian stylist, I was able to get my point across when I needed to. I pointed and smiled my way through Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany – even on our side trip to France (they speak French there!) (though I didn’t speak French there).
Flash forward a few decades, and the unthinkable has happened yet again – I had an opportunity to return to Belgium, the country I still can’t believe I’ve been to in the first place. Those decades have taken a decided toll on my “fluency.” Some of the cities I visit this time are smaller and not as tourist-oriented. I figured the people I would interact with in smaller cities were less likely to speak English, a hunch that proved true. And in the eastern town of Spa, an unlikely turn of events found my mother and me in a restaurant without an English menu or an English-speaking waiter or waitress. But instead of nervously trotting out my French phrase for “I don’t speak French” I… read the menu, understood most of it, and ordered a delightful three-course meal. We had an hors d’oeuvre of crusty baguette avec d’huile piquant, shared two tasty entrées, and split a fabulous crème brûlée for dessert. We enjoyed every bite!
And while each one probably cost an unspeakable amount of money in tuition, I am happy to say that for the first time, I enjoyed every word.