One of the interesting things about living in Belgium is that we are exposed to different languages every day. Everything we buy has two or three languages on it: French, Dutch, and often German as well.
Our daily language is French. When we leave our house we’re in a world where very few people speak English. Consequently, our French is very good today. When we first came here we thought our French was pretty good but we quickly found out that what passes for ‘good’ in DC doesn’t work so well here. There are accents. There are idiomatic expressions. There’s all that vocabulary and advanced grammar that we didnt’ need in DC, like “if you had done what you promised we wouldn’t have this problem today”. Come to think of it, that would have come in handy in DC too. In any case when we first moved to Belgium we had a lot of language learning to do.
Some lessons came from professional teachers. Most came from innocent bystanders. Some of those work in my local supermarket. Shortly after I arrived here, I approached the manager with a can of chickpeas in my hand. I wanted to know if they were organic, and I hadn’t yet learned the word bio (which seems to be the western European word for organic). But I figured I could approach it logically and use the fancy English word with French pronunciation (it works surprisingly often!) I screwed up my nerve and in my very best and most polite French asked the poor man if there were any preservatifs in the can. He was stunned by my question. He got up on a veryvery high horse and wanted to know why I’d want to ask him that kind of question? What kind of place did I think that was? He also said a lot of other things that I didn’t really understand, but thankfully the words ‘get out’ and ‘never come back’ didn’t seem to be there. At first I thought it must be an organic supermarket and he was very proud of that fact. But even that wouldn’t really explain his reaction… I was perplexed until I went home and got out my trusty dictionary to discover that the word I wanted was conservateur and in French, a preservatif is a condom. Oh. Well. Now I know that there are no condoms in the chickpeas here. That’s a relief.
It’s not only in French that we made mistakes. I should say make mistakes, because we still do. On one of our early jaunts to explore our region we went to Aachen, which although it’s in Germany, is only about 25 km from here. We had no German at that point beyond Ich bin kein warmduscher (I am not a sissy). While this is kind of fun to say, it doesn’t get you very far. Not even to the tourist office, as it happens. But in the end we managed to find the tourist office and asked for all the tourist information in French so that we could practice, and we dutifully followed the tourist trail reading all about somebody they called by his German name: Karl der Grosse. We read that Karl der Grosse had founded the city in the late 700’s. All the history of Aachen seemed to be bound up with Karl der Grosse. We didn’t really know who he was, but decided that we could use logic to figure it out. In French, grosse means ‘fat’, so we thought he must have been fat…that didn’t really help much, but we continued to follow the tourist trail where we saw Fat Karl’s house (hmmm….he was rich) and Fat Karl’s cathedral (hmmm….he was holy) and Fat Karl’s crown (hmmm….he was royal). We were beginning to think that maybe we should know who he was when we finally stumbled on a statue of Fat Karl. You know what? HE WASN’T FAT AT ALL! However, he was veryvery tall. That’s when we realized that our French was no help in Germany. Grosse doesn’t mean ‘fat’. It means ‘tall’ and ‘big’ and ….’great’. That’s when I remembered having seen a statue somewhere with the name ‘Carolus Magnus’ on it. Oh, no. It wasn’t Fat Karl at all. It was Charlemagne.
When we travel now we make sure that all of our papers are in order and that we have a good dictionary with us. ‘Cause you never know.
I will admit, though, that I still think of Charlamagne as Fat Karl.