Faking French in Brussels


Our train pulled into the station early Sunday morning. It wasn’t until we stepped off of the train and onto the platform that we realized our mistake. Above our heads was a sign directing us towards exits and other trains. After a week in Germany we were feeling pretty confident in our elementary German skills. But this sign was in French, a language which we did not speak in the slightest.  It hadn’t crossed our minds that our last day of European vacation would be spent in a French-speaking city.

“What are we going to do?” Travis asked.

“I’m not sure, ” I answered. “Check into the hotel and figure it out.”

We exited the train station and walked directly across the Platz (Place?) into the lobby of our hotel where we conversed with our English-speaking front desk clerk. He unknowingly set some of our fears at ease. “Your passports, si vous plait” followed by a merci.

“See? We can totally do this,” I assured Travis in the elevator.

“Do what?”

“Fake it,” I said. “We’ll just fake French. We know enough.”

“We do?”

The short answer is that we did not. Waffles that I thought came with whipped cream showed up with ice cream. (For the record, I’m calling that a win.) Our quest for bubble wrap ended when we realized we would never be able to convey the concept of bubble wrap to the French-speaking concierge.

The little things were harder. Paying is difficult when you don’t understand the total, and that was any time anything cost more than €3. Directions are impossible, but irrelevant when you’ve got a GPS-enabled phone.

None of it mattered. We had what we needed, and people were friendly. Si vous plait and merci went far. A childhood memory of my parents teaching me to say Excusez-moi was suddenly useful.

Menus were secret messages that got decoded one guess at a time. Champignon? Fromage? Frites? I’m not fluent in French, but I’m fluent in food and that’s almost the same thing, I told myself. I discovered I knew the word for wine in far more languages than I realized. The lovely Belgians overlooked the horrible mispronunciation of every word that fell awkwardly out of our mouths. They graciously filled our request for beer, and chocolates, and fries.

Words didn’t keep us from loving Brussels. We didn’t need words to enjoy the quiet corner of a cafe and the warmth of a vanilla latte while gentle morning rain made gravity-induced designs on a chilly window.

You don’t need language to delight in the overflowing pots of technicolor flowers that hang from every lamp post, or the gorgeous architecture that surrounds you. That door with its beautifully carved wood will speak just as loudly to your eyes.
Without the context of language, we felt like explorers and the details felt more foreign. Store window displays became clues to the wares inside. This was clothing, that was a liquor store. Over there is where we can buy an umbrella. That giant statue of a Smurf on a mushroom? Obviously their god, we joke. (Or Smurfs are a Belgian-creation and cartoons are well-loved.)

And when we found that our stomachs were louder than the conversations around us, a smile on the waitress’s face was just as welcoming as any words could be. We were seated in a tiny restaurant where the dining room was connected directly to the kitchen. Not in the cool, open-kitchen “watch us cook and pay a bunch of money” way. It was more of a cozy house where your friend is cooking in the kitchen and you are sitting comfortably in the dining room, watching and waiting. There was casual conversation flowing between the kitchen and the dining room. Food was brought out, drinks were poured, and eager eyes waited for a reaction after the first bite. Delicious, of course, is a word and expression understood by all. Language on both sides of the table was broken, but ultimately unnecessary. Smiles and gestures said everything.

We stayed at the restaurant much later than anticipated, as more food and more drinks found their way to our table. We walked the few blocks back to the hotel with street lamps flooding the sidewalks. We were full and relaxed. Our language barrier didn’t feel like a barrier any longer. We had survived the day.

Merci beau coup, Brussels. Next time, we’ll bring our French.