vendredi 2 avril 2010

Trip to Brussels

TL;DR: I went to Belgium and spoke French but I'll start studying Dutch again soon.

We went to Belgium last weekend. It was pretty fun. Since this blog is supposed to be about languages, I'm not going to talk about the city itself. However, Brussels is bilingual French/Dutch, and I had a number of language-related experiences and some other thoughts I wanted to get down.

First, Brussels is a bilingual city. Stuff for 'locals' is written in both languages, with the odd smattering of English because it's cool. The stuff for tourists, on the other hand, seemed to be equally in English / French / Dutch / German. Restaurant menus were either in both languages or all 4, depending on how touristy the place was. The staff at the touristy places probably had a good amount of those 4 languages too. The train conductor on the way back announced all the stops in all 4 languages. In the elevator at the Atomium, there staffer rattled off a little spiel about the speed and height and such in 4 languages the was timed perfectly to finish when the elevator arrived at the top. Coming from Canada where official things and packaging are bilingual it was nice to see it here too, although strange for it to not be EN/FR as I'm used to.

Obviously, in a town filled with tourists it's not surprising to hear lots of different languages. I'm still a bit used to Canada where the vast majority of visitors are other Canadians or Americans, where even in tourist destinations the language you hear around you is English. In Brussels, it was French, and Dutch, and English, and German, and Spanish. We sat next to a couple in a restaurant who were talking in Italian and ordered in French. It's seems so natural, and totally unlike North America's sea of English.

We spoke French to everybody. Hotel, Restaurants, chocolate shops. I stumbled once in a restaurant when my brain totally blanked on a word, but I found it and continued fine. It was nice to speak French and feel competent at a foreign language.

Speaking French in Brussels felt different than speaking it in Montreal. In Montreal, it always felt a little forced and there was always the possibility that the other person would switch to English at the first mistake. It's rare, then, that I speak French to somebody and _don't_ have English as a fall back (since again most of the francophones I know speak English better than I speak French). Feeling that _I'm_ the one making the stretch I found speaking French with anglophones particularly difficult, although the course I took last spring 'cured' me of that.

There were two strange linguistic experiences, though. The first, at the BD museum (very cool, btw) the guy at the admissions desk basically kept speaking English to us even though we were speaking French to him and kept offering us binders with translations of the exhibits. Maybe I should give him the benefit of the doubt and ordering two adult tickets wasn't enough for me to appear comfortable in French. The other weird thing was on the metro system trying to get to the Atomium. We asked a guy for directions, and he responded in French, and then gave us the same directions again in English. That there was at least a bit more conversation that he should have been able to pick up on, but again maybe he's just used to English speakers nodding and saying "oui" and not actually understanding.

One last amusing French anecdote to report. We were sitting in a cafe and the table next to us (speaking French) there was one person talking about how hungry he was and how what he should do is do as the Quebecois do and have a poutine, and then described it to his companions. I couldn't pass up that opportunity, so I had to say something. Interjecting something into that conversion, though, I stumbled again and felt _really_ nervous as I sputtered out my "sorry for overhearing but .." Same weird performance anxiety.

Finally, it was nice to be able to buy some French books. Not a lot of French books here in Amsterdam. I almost bought the French translation of "Godel, Escher, Bach" but decided I should at least get through the English one first. (Not wanting to spend €55 helped too.) I did find a translation of Umberto Eco's "Experiences in Translation" book I was talking about previously. Turns out the book was originally published in Italian rendering all of my hemming-and-hawing pretty much moot. (According to the introduction, the basic ideas were first presented in English in two lecture series, but that the _book_ was written in Italian.)

Anyways, that's it for the the language stuff. Next blog update will be about my studies. I goofed off and didn't do any Dutch during March. April I'm starting again with my studies.

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