Frenchless in Brussels

Summer 2015 

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 ItalianWe 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 rifflesI 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 españolI 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 

In Pursuit of Espresso

The first order of business after settling in at the Florence apartment where we would play house for a week was to find a "bar" that would serve up my daily espresso. The apartment was in sprawling Piazza del Carmine in the Oltrarno, the non-touristy side of the Arno River. Pre-Renaissance-era chapel? Check. Authentic Tuscan trattorias? Check. Sandstone- and blush-colored buildings? Check.

On my first neighborhood stroll, I found the bus stop, the fruit vendor, and Bar Le Nuvole (the clouds). The small café had the goods -- espresso, pastries, panini. In the afternoon, cocktails with complimentary brushetta and mini sandwiches were on offer. I did indulge in a few Spritz -- the quintessential Venetian drink of Prosecco and Aperol. For my ten-year-old son Kai, there was spremuta -- a foamy glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. 

As a coffee afficionado, I drink the magic elixir in all its variants, black, black with cream, Americanos, mochas, cortados on a trip to Spain, and of course, coffee-flavored gelato. All caffeine-delivery mechanisms please me. Or so I thought. On this trip, I discovered one that my taste buds rejected. More on that later.  

But when in Italy, I drink macchiatos - espresso with foamed milk. Each morning while my husband, Kurt, slept in and Kai played video games, I dashed over to Bar Le Nuvole and ordered a doppio macchiato and a cornetto. This ritual was the trailer for the Italian fantasy life I had been imagining for myself.    

Barista Lara whipped up my order while chatting with the other customers sipping their espresso from tiny cups. Everyone indulged in a cornetto too. These Italian pastries are shaped like croissants, but less buttery and with heavenly fillings. On Day 1, I ate the chocolate cream. Day 2, pastry cream. Then on Day 3, I discovered my true cornetto love - mora or blackberry marmalade. From that morning on, my day began with the tart-sweet taste of blackberries embraced by flaky pastry.  

The one cornetto I absolutely shunned was the one made from whole wheat flour. Italy is about indulgence, after all. At other bars, I even noticed gluten-free pastries and soy milkHealthy fads have no place in Italia. 

But back to coffee. As a sign of just how seriously the Italians take coffee, the high speed train we took from Venice to Florence had a café car with a sparkling espresso machine. For two euros, I had myself a flavorful macchiato in a paper cup while watching the corn fields in the afternoon light. What a civilized country! 

At the hotels where we stayed in the Veneto, there was no carafe of coffee at the breakfast buffet. Hell no, the wait staff arrived at my table and took my espresso order, making my doppio macchiato or cappuccino to order. It was served with a tiny spoon and sugar packet. 

My blissful fling with Le Nuvole came to an abrupt halt when I sauntered over on a Sunday morning and found it closed. I had to hoof it over to the next piazza -- dangerously close to the tourist-plagued neighborhood near the Ponte Vecchio -- to find an open bar. But finally, at Piazza Pescara, my Sunday morning was saved with a sublime mora cornetto and macchiato. In this particular café, I encountered one of those funky bathrooms with no toilets that first perplexed me a dozen years ago in San Gimignano. There was just a hole in the ground and grooved floor over which to squat. It was no easy feat to keep from peeing on my shoes, but at least I had found caffeine.  

The deprivation I felt on the fifteen-minute search for an open bar was akin to the frenzy I slipped into as we were about to land in Venice After a seven-hour flight, the stewardesses on Air Canada were unwilling to serve hot drinks due to some turbulence. Are you kidding me? I hadn't slept in nearly 24 hours. A few of us went begging to the back of the plane and were gingerly served mediocre coffee. The only consolation was that Venice was just minutes away.    

Back at Le Nuvole the next day, I asked a silly question. I noticed that they served caffe corretto, espresso with liqueur. Coffee that's been corrected, per the Italians. Being a coffee lover, I figured I should sample this drink too. So, I smiled and asked barista Lara in Italian when the beverage was typically drunk. A robust chuckle from a fellow patron who must have figured me for a lush.  

"In the afternoon -- definitely dopo pranzo (after lunch)," Lara said. "Unless it's a very chilly morning." 

So I would wait til later in the day. That afternoon, we were in the walled city of Lucca, resting after a stroll on the 40-foot high wall that protected the residents from the Florentines in the 15th century. Caffe corretto was on the menu. Aha, here's my chance. The waitress asked if I preferred it with grappa or sambuca. A moment of indecision. I went with the grappa - a liqueur made by fermenting grape skins.  

The espresso spiked with grappa arrived in a tiny clear glass, and let me tell you that no amount of sugar could make that concoction drinkable, not to me and not to Kurt. I caught the waitresses' attention and ordered a cappuccino instead. Mistake corrected! 

So, I found where to draw the line with my coffee obsession -- foam, milk, sugar, chocolate: you all are welcomed in my cup. Alcohol, stay far away.

Feasting like a Florentine

One right, two lefts, one right, then two more lefts. These are the directions the clerk gives me in Italian when we are done marveling at Michelangelo's David and ready for lunch. We are in pursuit of Trattoria Mario in Central Florence. It serves authentic Tuscan meals in a humble cavernous dining room that's easy to miss among flashier tourist-oriented restaurants. 

We are fortunate to arrive just as they're opening. My husband, Kurt, ten-year-old Kai, and I are seated at a table with an elderly Italian man. The place is so popular that it's communal dining to get as many patrons fed as possible. A pair of young American men is matched with two women about their age.  

There's a mix of tourists and locals. The tourists are the ones photographing their bisteccas alla Fiorentina before devouring them. This hefty T-bone steak is grilled and at two to three pounds, robust enough to feed a carload of soccer players.  

No menus are distributed. We must read the list of dishes taped onto the wall with crudely-translated English phrases. I am already acquainted with some typical Tuscan dishes, so I know right away that I want to try the ribollita soup and panzanella salad. Kai opts for spaghetti alla Bolognese. Kurt, enduring a gluten-free diet, nevertheless steals bites from us when he's finished his roast beef.    

I sample the bread, but it's bland and lacking salt. Oh, well, more room for the ribollita - a thick bean, bread and vegetable soup. Over the next few days around Florence, we are served basket upon basket of this tasteless bread and I'm perplexed. At an eclectic restaurant a few nights later, I overhear the waiter explain this mystery: in the Middle Ages, salt was heavily taxed, so Tuscan bakers made bread without it. Even as the tax situation changed, the foolish tradition continued. Which left me pining for the heavenly focaccia made by Dena at the Italian bakery near my house in Ventura. 

Our luncheon companion speaks no English, so it's a ripe opportunity to practice my Italian. Years of classes, flashcards, and lessons from a private tutor are finally paying off! The fellow lives near the Ponte Vecchio, he tells me. So of course, I ask him if he had to endure the devastating flood of the Arno River in 1966. "Si, si," he tells me as he proceeds to eat an entire bowl of ribolitta, a steak, some salt-less bread, and a side of roasted potatoes. I don't get many details, owing to his appetite  

This man, Mr. Ponte Vecchio, let's call him, is a regular at Trattoria Mario and he is teased mercilessly by the tall blonde waiter. The word "stronzo" is flung between them. Turd! I had just learned this word from an unorthodox phrase book called Wicked Italian for the Traveler. Also among its pages: Vada via che sa di aglio -- Buzz off, garlic breath. 

When I'm in line for the bathroom - occupied by Mr. Ponte Vecchio - the waiter berates the old fella, telling him to go home to use the "bagno". Then, he pulls his ear playfully. "Maleducato," I say to the waiter. Such bad manners! What's the point of learning Italian, if you can't join in the fun? 

Back in the dining room, I ask for the bill. All of the sudden, a plate crashes onto the floor in the kitchen. The wait staff and the locals applaud. At our table, we smile at each other. All those right turns and left turns have not only led us to great Tuscan food, but to a place where the Italian love for life and merriment is alive and well. 

The Spectacularly Multi-lingual Europeans

Traveling with some foreign vocabulary has ample rewards. It’s priceless to understand the gondoliers in a cafe in Venice giving each other back rubs, but clarifying for the teasing barista, “Solo amici,” -- just friends! How rich to understand the graffiti scrawled across a bank in Granada, Spain: Ladrones - (Thieves.)

Letting Loose In Jamaica

For me, there is no more exhilarating an experience than being suspended in a warm sea with sparkling visibility. In this weightless realm, voices and terrestrial sounds vanish while other senses are intensified.