Just Speak English in Brussels Airport

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+)

27 thoughts on “Just Speak English in Brussels Airport

  1. You are Irish, I assume. You have an Irish-sounding name and you live in Ireland. 🙂 Out of interest, how good is your Gaelic/Irse?

    I’ve been to Dublin twice, and on both occasions, American tourists have stopped me and asked for directions. They’ve then given me funny looks and then remarked, “Hey, you’re ENGLISH!” I guess they just assume if you’re a redhead in Eire, you must be Irish… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Correctly assumed 😊. My Gaelic is pretty good, a little less fluent than when I finished school as I don’t get to practise much, but I’m still confident speaking and can understand it.

      I can imagine how tourists might assume a redhead in Dublin is Irish: I might do the same! At least they didn’t think you were a leprechaun 😁.


      • No, I do not look like a leprachaun. I do not carry a pig under my arm, either. Stereotyping…

        Actually when I was in Edinburgh about 20+ years ago, I did get stopped by two redheaded guys, who spoke to me in Scots Gaelic. Turned out they thought I was one of them. I guess I disappointed them…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Wow, it’s one thing to assume you were Scottish because of the red hair, but I’m surprised they assumed you spoke Scots Gaelic, as so few speak it. Even in Ireland where more people speak Gaelic, I never assume anyone can as there’s still so few of us who can speak competently, thanks to the terrible way it’s taught.

          Liked by 1 person

          • One of the stats I remember about Northern Ireland/The North/The Six Counties, etc, was that there are/were more native speakers of Vietnamese there than of Irish Gaelic in the Province.

            Nowadays, I’m guessing there are more native speakers of Polish than of Irish in Ireland.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I definitely think so, and there are probably more Spanish, French, and Italian speakers too. Officially the census states 37% of people can speak Irish, but that consists mainly of people thinking, “I did in school for years, and I recognise some words, so yeah, I speak Irish,” when they can barely string a sentence together. In reality, only about 1% of the population use it as their daily language, and the percentage of people who can speak it fluently but don’t use it as their main language would still be well under 10%.


              • This is quite interesting stuff. For years I’ve had an interest in minority languages. Eg Basque: does it have an sibling languages, or even cousin languages? Why do languages die out, eg Cornish? And how do they fade away? What is the critical mass of a language in terms of numbers of native speakers?

                In particular, I am interested in the Sorbian language, a West Slavonic language, which is a sister language of Polish. I think there are less than 70 000 native-speakers in the bottom left-hand corner of the old East Germany. I am wondering to what extent the language is endangered. Compare it with the Welsh language, which is going strong, unlike some of the other Celtic languages.

                RIP, Cornish. 😦

                Liked by 1 person

                • I’m really curious about how Welsh is taught and promoted, because it seems to be used and regarded much more than other Celtic languages. It’d be a real shame to lose Cornish though.

                  I’m really intrigued by Basque, it seems like such an outlier compared to everything around it.


                  • Re: Welsh, I guess there was always a critical mass. Also, the Welsh like singing, and they have traditionally been chapel-goers. Music and faith: two drivers behind keeping a language alive.

                    Cornish: last speaker died in about 1907, ISTR.

                    Basque: I think it was believed its nearest neighbour was Georgian. Even that is not certain.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • I think Welsh is lucky not to be too caught up with ideology. In Ireland it’s hard to separate Gaelic from nationalism, and that puts off a lot of the younger generation who’ve moved on from the past.


                    • I think you are right. In The North/Northern Ireland/The Six Counties/”The Sex Kighnties” (with Belfast accent), Gaelic language is heavily linked by the Unionist/Loyalist/Protestant community with Nationalism/Republicanism/Roman Catholicism, in part because Gerry Adams and his buddies insist on using Irse names such as Sinn Fein, An Phoblacht, Ard Fheis, etc, whereas t’other side doesn’t bother, using English as a way to emphasise their Britishness and being part of the Union (so much part of the Union, that there is no abortion of gay marriage in the Province – but that’s another story, aye, so it is now). 🙂

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • That’s why there’s such a sticking point over the proposed Irish-language Bill, with the DUP insisting it recognise Ulster Scots (which is more a dialect of English, but that’s also another story!), even though I don’t think either party rely give a damn about either language.


                    • It’s nothing to do with languages. Frankly, that part of the world has higher priorities than spending money on such uber-minority languages, so it has nigh. 😉

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • The DUP will probably buy a million rubber balls, just to hear the sound of “Boyne! Boyne! Boyne! Boing!” all over the shop.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • The Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley came home to find dried flowers scented with perfumes on his mantelpiece. He was fuming,

                      “I will not allow pot-pourri here!” he exclaimed.

                      Enjoy this clip of a younger Robbie Coltrane…

                      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s still nice that you speak a second language and you use it while abroad! My French is very basic (rudimentary, at best), yet I still use it when in France. Sometimes it works; sometimes, people look at me funny.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Niall! I love travel stories!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hahaha… laughing out loud here… in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium 😀 You know… my French is so much worse than my English even though it should be the other way around!

    My dad has got ginger hair (oh well, he’s got white hair now, but he used to be ginger!) and when we were on holiday in Austria, Germany,… he was always greeted in English!! Because apparantly when you’re a ginger you must be Scottish or Irish…

    Liked by 2 people

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