Thoughts from a Belgian Holiday

Sometimes you suddenly find yourself in one of those moments when your whole life (or what you’ve experienced of it so far) blends into just one single moment, a snapshot of time that could have been taken in any year.

I’m sat enjoying a glass of Jupiler and a weinerschnitzel in the central entertainment and dining area of a Center Parcs holiday village in the North of Belgium.  I’m surrounded by a mixture of couples and families, and when I lean back, palm leaves tickle the back of my neck.  The interior of this whole building has been set-up to look like a tropical paradise, and it’s a great little place to come on holiday.  It always has been.

It’s a Saturday evening and timeless Euro-pop hits reverberate around the large, glass dome building in which myself and all of the other holiday-goers sit.  Right now, the Macarena is playing.  It gets to the bit where the lady laughs because she (nobody could ever quite make out what, despite valiantly straining to hear) to the boy who ‘was no good’ (in fact, she didn’t want him, nor could she even stand him, poor guy…).  At this precise moment I could just as easily be looking into the display of a classic digital Casio watch at a date that reads something like the 30th of July 1996, whilst my older sister walks ahead of me, urging me not to dawdle as we make our way out of the ‘Parc Plaza’ (as the glass dome is more formally known) following an early evening swim.  Los Del Rio’s Macarena was probably playing back then, too, only at that time it was a brand new, chart-topping hit that had swathes of people across the Continent attempting to master its dance routine.  That’s quite the contrast to the tune now associated with 1:30am and the musical downturn on a night out at some sticky-floored bar with purple walls in Lancashire, or drunk old men jigging around at wedding parties with the remains of a mushroom vol au vent stuck to the soles of their white leather loafers.  In 1996, the tune was an emblem of class.  Or so my memory serves…

Why is it so easy to envision this moment of the past with such detail?  We used to come here – to this very same place – as a family, every Summer from 1994-1999.  We visited again in 2004 and 2007.  My sister came here last Summer with her family, and this year I’m back again with my parents.  With the exception of a few recreational additions dotted around here and there the place hasn’t changed a bit in 22 years, and that’s a good thing.  Familiarity is such that I can still remember my way around the whole village.  Virtually the only thing that’s changed since our jaunts in the 1990’s, is that these days I’ll opt to while away the time by quietly sitting and writing whilst sipping on a Jupiler, rather than scavenge around the adventure playground and pester the parents for a Chupa-Chup.  Other than that, time may as well have stood still for a couple of decades.

A young waiter, with smooth skin and a hairstyle that looks as though he took along a picture of legendary children’s game ‘Kerplunk’ with him to the barbers, approaches my table.  The child inside of me – that has never quite gone away – imagines that he’s the sort of person that 10 year old me would have had a bit of a crush on.  10 year old Sophie would probably have walked through the Café very slowly each day in hope of catching sight of him, with my head and neck at the most peculiar angles if it meant I could increase my chances of doing so.  A swift glimpse would be sweet enough; but success at scoping out the moniker on the name-badge would be akin to a lottery win.  I’d send half a dozen postcards home to my school friends talking about “fittie waiter Jean-Luc” (and pronounce it, ‘Gene Luck’) as though he was some imperial being that I would one day end up marrying, even though we had never, and would never still, exchange any words.

For the 30-year old me, Jean-Luc’s (not his actual name) role within my holiday is much less of a romantic dream and more-so a formality.  I need Jean-Luc’s assistance in helping me settle the bill for my beer and schnitzel, a process which is straightforward enough back home, but becomes marginally more complex with a language barrier in place.  When it comes to foreign language, I would in no way consider myself to be an ignoramus, far from it.  I can speak basic French, basic German, basic Bahasa Indonesia… but barely a single word of Flemish, the native language of this part of Belgium.  Nonetheless, I would like to try.  Nothing annoys me more (well that’s not true, but figure of speech and all that jazz), than people who go abroad and don’t even try to accustom themselves to the local language.  As Jean-Luc approaches my table, I desperately rack my mind for any hint of what ‘Can I get the bill please?’ could possibly be in Flemish.  A number of foreign words and phrases learnt during school pass through the forefront of my mind in no logical arrangement – die Speisekarte, bitte!, je voudrais to pay, das schmeckt gut!, entschuldigang!, – but sadly, none of these is the one I’m looking for.  None of these are even Flemish, so when Jean-Luc eventually arrives at the table I’ve pretty much lost all chance of communicating with him in the way I would wish to.  Still determined to do so, I open my mouth and my brain does one final, last-minute rack of the limited foreign phrases within.  Consequently, something comes out:
There we have it.  That, my friends, is the shameful extent of where my modern language skills (or lack of them) has got me today – emitting a sound which when written phonetically is a word that doesn’t even exist – in any language – and which tapered off once I considered it probably more communicative to wave my debit card around in front of Jean-Luc.
“Follow me” he responded, and took me to the counter, where I settled the bill with no further issue beyond feeling completely hopeless at life.

The language barrier can be an enemy – as the example above indicates – but it can also be a friend.  Sometimes it’s bliss not to have any idea whatsoever of what the people around you are talking about.  There’s no danger of having an unpleasant commentary – which is usually enforced upon you – perforate the positive holiday vibes.  Yesterday we’d gone into a service station just north of Brussels, where a group of men were sat wolfing down plates of chicken and chips, a scene which I’d otherwise think nothing more of.  That was until we passed by their table as one of the party was regaling a story… “an’ ‘e (or ‘Annie’, I’m not quite sure) cayyyyme in and pisszhed all oahw-vah the floorrr”, he said, with a strong, Scouse accent.  Welcome to Belgium: a land of culinary excellence, enchanting forestry, and citizens who are incredibly polite and each own a bicycle with a basket on the front. The first noise you’ll hear is an especially vocal Liverpudlian who knows somebody with an unfortunate urinary habit, possibly the flame-haired little orphan of musical fame, Annie.

Another advantage of not knowing the language, is the amusement that can be sourced from looking over at other people, and imagining what they’re saying.  At the table in front of me as I ate my schnitzel, were a young-ish couple.  They were clearly having a romantic evening meal, their faces drawing ever closer together as they finished their drinks:

“What’s say, baby!  We’ve done dinner…wanna sleep together?”
“Hell yeah, sweet-cheeks”
“Great stuff.  Grab yer bright red waterproof Regatta jacket love, you’ve pulled”

In reality, the conversation was probably more like:

“Do you know what my favourite thing was about those chips?”
“That they came served in a paper cone?”
“… well, yes.  Yes that was my favourite thing about them.  *Short, awkward pause*.  Have I got any basil stuck between my teeth?”

Nonetheless, I preferred my own version, which was made all the more funnier when one of the two – the bearded male with the paunch – tripped over a randomly-placed child’s high chair as the pair got up to leave.  Inner snigger.

And speaking of leaving, it’s probably my turn.  The bill for my weinerschnitzel has thankfully been settled now, thanks to the help of my old pal Gene-Luck, and it’s time for me to snooze.  Nonetheless, this has been great fun.  An evening of writing, relaxing, and observing.  Bliss.

Song of the Day:  Ezra Furman – Anything Can Happen

This chap from Illinois is my current musical obsession.  If this ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ song doesn’t get you up and moving about, nothing will!



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