Wednesday, April 2, 2014

B is for Brussels

“Bonjour,” I said turning my gaze from the beautiful buildings to the waiter standing over me.
“Bonjour mademoiselle,” he replied sliding a menu before me.
 “Je prend un gateau chocolat.”
“Excellent.”
“Une bière.
“Excellent.”
“Et Jean-Claude Van Damme.”


Ah, Brussels! It’s not Amsterdam, in fact it isn’t even in the Netherlands but in Belgium, one of the Low Countries. Brussels brings to mind chocolate, beer and old buildings. It also makes me think of Brussels’ native son, Jean-Claude Van Damme—the “Muscles of Brussels”.

When you’re in Brussels you have to eat chocolate, drink beer, visit its treasure trove of 400 year-old buildings and see Jean-Claude Van Damme. Preferably all at the same time. And the spot to partake in these gastronomical, historical and pop culture pleasures is the Grand Place. Located in the heart of the city, this square dating back to the Middle Ages, is lined with buildings tipped in gold leaf and adorned with golden statues. Originally the houses lining this square were built as the headquarters for the guilds—such as the bread makers, beer makers, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. Today these buildings house museums, banks, chocolate shops, restaurants and cafes, which makes this the-place-to-be for chocolate, beer, old buildings (and potential) Van Damme sightings.

While living in Brussels I made a habit of going to this square for this double-double whammy extravaganza. Sitting outside at a cafe with a view of these grand old buildings I would eat countless Neuhaus chocolates and drink 436 different types of Belgian beer. (I went there a lot.) And although I always had my eye out for  J-CVD, I never did see the Muscles of Brussels.

Which meant I had to find a new cafe game. I did of course and called it the “Language Lip Pucker”. 

Before I explain the rules, first some background: Brussels is the capital city of the country of Belgium which lies between The Netherlands, France and Germany. The northern half of Belgium speaks Flemish (a form of Dutch), the southern part speaks French and along the border with Germany, a small group speaks German. As the capital city of two major and very different language groups, Brussels became an officially bilingual city speaking both Flemish and French. This means that street signs, buildings and menus are all written in both Flemish and French. Even the Grand Place has two names: In Flemish it’s called De Grote Markt, while in French it’s called La Grand’ Place.

In addition, Brussels is also the the capital city of the European Union, which has its own government buildings and the European Parliament in Brussels. As the lingua franca of the western world, English is widely spoken in EU offices and throughout Brussels. This means that when you go for drinks at the Grand Place, the local cafe or bowling alley you can order in English. Pretty much. 

This all boils down to the fact that in Brussels you can speak in three different languages and most people will understand you—pretty much.

With so many languages spoken in a city the size of four football fields, the protocol is for the customer to speak first—in Flemish, French or English. And depending on which language the customer speaks in—Flemish, French or English—the waiter, worker or employee must respond in the same language.

Now to my “Language Lip Pucker” game, which is the prefect cafe game to play in Brussels. First, I go to a cafe and address the waiter in English, which according to protocol means he must respond in English. 

When he returns to take my order, I speak to him in French—this language switch-a-roo throws him for a loop because in his mind he had pegged me as a dumb American. But now! He sees I’m a dumb person speaking French! I got him! Then he switches to French to say: “Bon, excellent, oui,” then off he goes to the kitchen to complain of the bilingual person at table 8.

When he delivers my meal and/or drink, I continue in French. Which is all charming, ha-ha, formidable! But wait for it. When I’m finished and want the check, I call him over and ask for it in Flemish. At this point his face is directed at me and I get so see the lips of his mouth press together and push out in a big fish-lips pucker. He doesn’t want to kiss me. Au contraire! Instead this Belgian waiter is thinking and perhaps a bit confused by me because the fish-lip pucker is what all Belgians do when they are thinking or confused. 

What exactly is he thinking?: “This person speaks English and French but is even dumber in Flemish!”

But all of that is worth it to see the “Lip Pucker”, which only switching languages can cause. Don’t knock the game before you try it! Besides, there is no other city in Western Europe where you can play this cafe game. So the next time you’re in Brussels use your English, French and Flemish and have some language fun. It’s the next best thing to seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme on the Grand Place—pretty much.