The title says it all really, so if you don’t fancy reading, you’re free to go make a cup of tea, or whatever you do when you’re not reading me. Yesterday, I told you how I’d had a cappuccino and blueberry muffin in Liège Guillemins train station (seemingly the only place with reliable and free WiFi). A few hours later I found myself in a similar situation, but things went a little differently.
I’d originally been in the train station waiting to get a train to Brussels Airport, to return to Ireland after a weekend holiday in Belgium (I’m writing this on the bus from Dublin Airport to Galway). I’ve written before about how linguistically interesting Belgium is. I got a taste of this on my journey to Brussels. I had to change trains in Louvain (or Leuven). Some of the platforms were closed for construction works, and the temporary platforms were difficult to find. Seeing me search for them, a kind Flemish woman told me where they were in Dutch. Now, my Dutch is nowhere even close to being good enough to have understood a native speaker in full flow talking about platforms and underpasses, so I immediately said, Pardon, mais vous parlez Français? She shook her head and said, No, but English? and the conversation proceeded from there in English.
Then when I got to the airport I had some time to wait (I always get to the airport super early to avoid missing flights, but I still mock those who queue to board an hour early). Fancying another coffee to perk myself up during my travels, I went to Starbuck’s (I don’t actually go there very often, or eat so many muffins, but I was on holiday). And of course I was ready to do it all again in French. I’d done fine just beforehand ordering a burger and Leffe at an airport bar (again, holiday: it was a big beer and all!). Approaching the café, I reminded myself though that in international airports, a lot of staff speak in English as standard, due to the variety of nationalities passing through. Airports are always weird non-national nowhere like that. Still though, Brussels being a Francophone city, everyone working there would speak French, and would use it with other French speakers. Perhaps they’d even take me for a Walloon, as the woman earlier had assumed I was Flemish! Still a little hungry (the burger was small and not very nice: the Leffe was reliably refreshing though), I decided to have a little something with my coffee. Looking at the offerings, I decided I wouldn’t mind another blueberry muffin.
So I confidently ordered in French again, but seeing my big Anglophone head the barista automatically answered in English, saying, OK, grande American, and which muffin?
Blueberry, I replied in English. He said, OK, and was it a mint tea?
I knew straight away what had happened. I’d said, Un grande American et un muffin aux myrtilles (sounds like meer-tea) s’il vous plait. But he’d assumed I’d ordered in English, and had therefore asked for a grande Americano and a muffin and a mint tea.
It was very deflating. You try to be culturally and linguistically sensitive, and prepare your ego for the massage it gets when you demonstrate to someone you have a basic competency. You try to be a good tourist! But then sometimes you realise that it’s just easier to be a purely monolingual English speaker, because that’s what people expect, and what they plan for. And what’s the point of trying to be respectful to people if you just end up annoying them and upsetting their plans? So for all I’ve said in the past about being a good tourist, if you find yourself in Brussels International Airport, just speak English: it’s easier for everyone in the long run. And it’s back to one coffee a day and only the occasional muffin for me again. But maybe I’ll order them in Irish…
(Oh, and yes, and that’s the cup from the grande Americano in question in the picture. Solid effort with the name, logical guess: B+)