I recently got a message from a friend who, after browsing through this site, said ‘I never realised that you hated Belgium so much.’ The message upset me because I had no intention of creating a negative image in my scribblings. In fact, I love Belgium. I would have left a long time ago if I truly hated it. It’s always difficult to keep travel writing entertaining and positive at the same time because the most interesting anecdotes tend to be of hardships, shocks and conflicts. Today, as I wandered around the local park enjoying the sun, I started looking for something positive and interesting.
My idea came when I followed a stream of people heading into the King’s palace. I assume they were going to see the greenhouse, which is only open for two weeks each year. I’m not sure that’s where they were going because I saw a mass of people queued up outside one of the buildings and decided I didn’t want to waste the day in a crowd. I ducked under the rope to join the people who were leaving. A policeman called out and motioned me back to the side I’d come from. As I approached him, I began to form a French sentence that said I wanted to leave, not to be forced into a three-hour tour.
‘Parlez vous francais?’ he asked. ‘Nederland? English?’
Here, I realised, was my story. How many policemen in Australia would speak a second language, let alone a third? How many shopkeepers? How many bus drivers? Here, it’s commonplace. The problem is finding someone to practise French with, because everyone speaks better English than I do French. There are tensions between the two main parts of Belgium – and I’ll probably get around to writing about them later – but it hardly effects me. Most people I know speak French, Dutch and English, and some speak up to eight languages. With that sort of repetoire, you’d never be lost for words.
I’d always considered Australia to be multicultural, but I’m sure the only Australians who speak two languages fluently are those who were born outside or have foreign parents. Consider this a call to all Australians to make the effort to learn another language. We can understand our immigrant neighbours and give them a much better welcome if we speak even a few words of their mother tongue.
I’m coming back to Australia in September and I know that walking down the street, I’ll miss hearing ‘bonjour,’ ‘goede dag,’ ‘hola,’ ‘guten tag,’ and ‘yia sou,’ just as much as I miss hearing ‘g’day,’ now.