I'm helpless as a toddler as I struggle to buy subway tickets in Brussels. I have no words to use with the French-speaking clerk. What most often pops into my brain from my two years of high school French is mon petit chouchou – my little cauliflower. This will not help me.
I'm in Belgium with husband Kurt and young son Kai, so that Kurt can sample the world's best beers. During our travels in Italy and the Netherlands the week before, most people spoke English or we got by with my passable Italian. We soon discover that English-speakers aren't catered to in Brussels. The dominant languages are French and Dutch.
"Metro?" I say to the clerk. Three fingers to show I need three tickets. He talks at me in French. I understand nothing.
The sense of vulnerability sends me back through the decades. I'm five-years-old again, starting school in New Jersey with only Spanish on my lips. It's not like I came to Belgium totally Frenchless. For weeks before the trip, I listened to French language tapes in my car. I can say Merci (thank you), S'il vous plait (please), and Je ne peux pas parler français (I can't speak French). My lips stumble over the tricky pronunciation. I'm simply afraid to speak this language.
Kurt and Kai stand back, waiting for me to make something happen. I hand over a twenty euro note and we get the tickets. Nothing communicates like money. We ride the metro from the airport to our hotel.
Relief, the hotel clerk speaks English. We settle into our shabby room. No time to rest, off to taste beer. We walk among sumptuous public buildings, a cathedral, and EU offices guarded by men with assault riffles. I tense up and hustle us across the street to avoid passing the armed men.
"Why did you do that, mom?" says ten-year-old Kai. He's disappointed not to see the weapons up close.
Our linguistic misadventures continue at A la Becasse, a wood-paneled pub where Kurt hopes to order his first Belgian brew. The menu is in French. When the waiter reaches our table, French words spill out.
I try speaking Spanish to the waiter. Nada. Then, cautiously, "Parla Italiano?"
"Si, parlo Italiano!" Remarkable. I never dreamed my fledgling Italian would come to the rescue outside the borders of bella Italia. Unlike French, I've been joyfully studying Italian with a private tutor, flashcards, and grammar books.
I become Kurt's interpreter – transforming his order from English to Italian. Tall glasses of Cantillion Gueze and Orval Trappist Ale arrive. Then plates of cheese and bread. Satiated, we explore the Grand Place, the city's famous cobblestone square surrounded by castle-like buildings. Everywhere we look, the signs are in French and Dutch.
In Belgium, it doesn’t get dark in June until 10 p.m. All evening, people dance in the square, others settle down with picnics. Still others play board games as if the square were their living room.
A few evenings later, it's my Spanish I rely on at a French restaurant. Once again, we're confronted by an English-less waiter. Lucky for us, in addition to French, he speaks perfect español. I order croquettes, a salad, and coffee in my mother tongue.
Our language challenges continue on our final day in Belgium. We're on a sleek train sprinting through the lush countryside en route to Bruges. I'm keen to see the only Michelangelo statue outside of Italy – a graceful madonna and child that was stolen by the Nazis, but recovered. For Kai, there will be waffles, chocolate, and a canal boat tour. Kurt is in pursuit of – you guessed it – beer.
On the train, we settle into two pairs of seats facing each other. I sit next to an elderly Belgian man. He speaks only French. Yet, he's eager to connect with us. He's thrilled to learn that we are Americans, but the language barrier limits us. "Obama," he says and smiles broadly. Then, he names all the states he knows: Hawaii, Alaska, Texas.
When he rattles off in French, I say, "Je ne peux pas parler français." He smiles and insists, Oui, you do speak some français. During the hour-long ride, he keeps speaking French. He cuts out the puzzle section of the newspaper and hands it to Kai. A sweetheart, this man.
The train weaves through pastureland with grazing cows. From some dusty corner of my brain, I recall the word for cow. It must have been on some vocabulary list in French class 25 years ago. "Vache," I sputter, and point out the window.
The man's face lights up with delight. Maybe I'm not totally Frenchless in Brussels.