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Life, it is a giddy thing. Yesterday, I was in Amsterdam, where Dutch is spoken. Today, I am in Brussels, where Dutch appears on some shop billboards, and is the third language after Arabic. Yesterday, I was walking down the Zeedijk, where the first language was English. Today, I’m in Chaussée de Mons, where the first language is Arabic. Yesterday, I had entirely too much free internet. Today… I also have entirely too much free internet (though at a tenth the speed), because the instructions on how to password lock your wireless connection are in English, so someone in every apartment block in continental Europe fails to.
Yesterday, I was in the five star splendor of the Radisson Amsterdam, Oude Zidje. Because my main criterion when I booked my own accommodation was that I hadn’t been paid for a couple of months, today I’m in the Hotel Scandinavia, Anderlecht, which has… can you have negative stars? No, no, it’s not that bad. It’s 2 ½ stars. (Well, it’s 2 ½ star bad.) And I’d scarcely want to add to the merriment of the reviews; but no, it’s a 2 ½ star hotel, as long as you can do expectation management, you’re fine.
The fact I had to lock my room on the inside, and I was handed a remote control as I checked in, helped manage expectations quickly.
But Anderlecht is an interesting change from the whitebread (and slightly stoned) tenor of Amsterdam Centrum. For starters, I’m back to being bamboozled trying to interact in French, rather than the clipped but impeccable English of the Dutch. (Well, almost impeccable: “Welcome in Amsterdam”.) For seconds, the street architecture in Anderlecht is reminiscent of Greece to me: run down 19th century, vertical and in your face at the sidewalk, faded beige but with a vague recollection of Rome. And of course, it’s not very whitebread; the Arab maisons de café are more reminiscent of traditional Greek coffeehouses than are the Rastafarian temples of Amsterdam Centrum. The demographics posed me an added challenge as I went out for a bite to eat last night.
The night scene of Anderlecht is dotted with restaurations, snack bars—some open, and all selling shawarmas; one Congolese restaurant proper; one patisserie that also looked very familiar (baklavas and biscuits), but was closing down; a grimy corner shop; a couple of shops filled with phone booths (wow—I thought mobile phones had done away with those); and some neighbourhood pubs that did not look tourist-friendly. Had I gone the other direction in the Chaussée de Mons, I would have found a quite acceptable couple of Egyptian restaurants. I didn’t, so when I happened across my first resto, I decided that, yes, local colour is all very well, but I did not come halfway across the world to eat a souvlaki, and (perusing the Congolese menu) that I was not feeling quite up to le crocodile either.
Five minutes later, as I realised that a shiny whitebread Gordon Ramsay chain restaurant was not going to spring up in the middle of Anderlecht, I ducked into a shawarma joint after all, ducked past the bored patrons (“Salaaaaam…”) waiting for their takeaway, and ordered:
ME: … [baguette, baguette, sandwich]… [Ah, I recognise something.] Le pitta, please graciously.
SHAWARMA GUY: Euh.
ME: *puts une boite de Pepsi Max on the counter*
SHAWARMA GUY: *ignores me*
SHAWARMA GUY: *wraps up other patrons’ baguettes. With fries wedged in them.* [This too is familiar to me: it’s what Greeks do with their souvlakis. Would you like some starch with your starch?]
SHAWARMA GUY: *waves pitta at me*
ME: [Ah, he realises I am not fully conversant with the languages of either Voltaire or Avicenna.] Yuss.
SHAWARMA GUY: *drops some more fries into a funnel thingy, and nonchalantly munches on a couple*
SHAWARMA GUY: Wotsaucedyerwant?
ME: … explease me?
SHAWARMA GUY: What sauce do you want?
ME: … Ah. What sauce it is that you are having.
SHAWARMA GUY: *mpf* *gestures at the bottles at the window* American, Chilli, Tabouli…
ME: Le tchillie.
SHAWARMA GUY: Tahini…
ME: Le tchillie.
SHAWARMA GUY: Zneurghalili…
Me: Yes, him.
SHAWARMA GUY: *Spreads pitta with non-tchillie*
SHAWARMA GUY: *Starts adding a little coleslaw to the pita*
SHAWARMA GUY: How are you?
ME: *realises that Ça va also means “is that ok?”* Yuss.
SHAWARMA GUY: *Dumps generous allotment of fries into pitta.* Arglé Euro Barlgé cents.
ME: *Hands over €10, coz didn’t the sign say €6?
SHAWARMA GUY: *Hands back the €5 note, coz the sign did not say €6 for the pitta.*
ME: شكراًَ. *I knew watching Bond films would come in handy one day*. Good eveningment.
SHAWARMA GUY: Right.
You know, the starch with your starch is surprisingly comfort-food-ish. Not a bad bite, at the end of it.
I did use that remote control they handed me at the desk. Cool doco on Flemish TV on the fall of Ceauşescu. Nice to realise that, you know, I can almost follow Dutch. Just as well, because my Romanian is even worse. And I finally happened across that short-lived spin-off of Law and Order with Bebe Neuwirth in it. Comment s’apelle en anglais? Trial By Jury. I know I should be over the whole dubbing of American shows thing, but Fred Thompson speaking in French—in a non-presidentially high voice—was mildly amusing to me.
OK, I’ll go check out, have breakfast, and possibly get beaten up by Anderlecht Football Club supporters for maligning their fair burg. I’ll probably blog backwards in time and try and make at least some sense of the photos I took in Amsterdam Sunday morning. Not that they made sense at the time.
Oh, and I haven’t made my quota of snide ignorant comments about Belgian linguistic politics. Yes, will have to address that. I need to see more bilingual signs to raise my ire.
@pne: I think I experienced it in Athens, but won’t swear to it. It was certainly unknown to me in Crete in 1981.
@Anonymous: my comment was deliberately ignorant (and I of course could only make my deliberately ignorant comments on the basis of visibility)—but thanks for the correction! This study ( http://www.brusselsstudies.be/PDF/NL_51_BruS13NL.pdf ) has Dutch way above Arabic and Spanish—but English recently overtaking Dutch, which in itself tells you a lot.
According to a recent study by the Vrij Universiteit Brussel (VUB), the top 5 languages spoken in Brussels are:
Contrary to what most people think, being the most visible minority in Brussels doesn’t make you the most represented one.
fries wedged in them.* [This too is familiar to me: it’s what Greeks do with their souvlakis.
This is a typically northern Greek thing, isn’t it? At any rate, I remember they used to do that in Thessaloniki but not in Athens. (Unless you specifically asked them to, in which case they might but tended to look at you strangely.)