Letter from abroad: Belgium

Emily Dillistone considers linguistic anomalies in Francophone Belgium

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Before leaving to go abroad I encountered the standard panic of being that second year trying to piece together their unhelpfully vague ‘year off’.

After what was essentially an extended holiday, working in Barcelona for an Anglophone magazine, I found myself in Brussels, pursuing a translation internship with Myria, the Belgian Federal Migration Centre in an office that is one of the only genuinely bilingual workplaces.

Upon arrival, I was struck by Brussels’ distinctly European feel, with the gold starred flag seemingly omnipresent. Sign-posting is in two languages, although at international train stations notices are often written in four: Dutch, French, German, and English. Originally, I was keen to demonstrate to everybody I met that I was a Brit who could actually speak French. However, it turns out that the linguistic tensions in Belgium mean that speaking French to a Flemish person is very rude indeed. Fabulous.

Slowly learning about Belgian social conventions, I spent my first week kissing everyone I met on both cheeks. However, I soon realised that there was a reason people looked more than slightly bemused when I did this. Apparently, in Belgium, it’s only the one cheek.

From different supermarket products, to odd approaches to zebra crossings, to recycling-related fines, cultural differences strike me everyday. Yet, an even more noticeable contrast is the security. The city is still in shock from the attacks last year, and intimidating stern-faced army soldiers with guns line the metro stations and often patrol public spaces.

Additionally, I’ve made quite a few linguistic discoveries since arriving. I’ve learned a new phrase on my walk to work, for example, in the form of a café name: Ah! non peut-être, which (despite literally meaning ‘not perhaps’) means ‘of course’, of course.

Another bizarre turn of phrase, which I learned whilst ordering a drink at Café des Halles, was ‘s’il vous plaît’ being used to mean ‘here you go’ or ‘you’re welcome’ as a waitress handed over my change.

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On top of this, ‘baise’ is used very similarly to ‘bise’ to mean ‘a light kiss’, rather than ‘a fuck’, as the slang of France would have it. These things are useful to know.

Earlier this week an acquaintance said the following words to me: “The best thing about Brussels is the train to Paris”. Though the city does not boast the same Haussmann architecture of Paris or the terracotta roofs of Prague, these words are rather harsh. Brussels still has a rich cultural history, and it does make up for what it lacks aesthetically with politics. There are plenty of lectures and talks held every week; I have attended speeches on Brexit and feminism, which have proved entertaining, irrespective of the free Cava and nibbles.

I also had the opportunity to attend a conference led by the European Green Party, about rebuilding relations in the EU. It featured a talk by Raphaël Glucksmann, a French writer and film director, whom I approached afterwards for a quick chat that turned into a long political debate over a cigarette. I suspect Bordeaux, my next destination, will be less politically-oriented.

My year abroad so far has given me the opportunity to do many things for which I didn’t have time at Oxford. I can’t say for certain that Brussels feels like home just yet, but there is a certain familiarity to the place that has grown on me and overwritten past doubts.