When French Fails

The other week I had a friend visiting me in Brussels, so we went downtown to find a bar that a housemate had recommended. And because I’m denser than a rock, I didn’t even realize I had lead us into the wrong bar until after we had made ourselves comfortable at a table. That said, we decided that we liked the bar and its atmosphere well enough to just stick around.

I went up to the bar and ordered our drinks in French, and when I fumbled over the word “margarita” (I always struggle with pronouncing words that are the same in French as they are in English), the bartender chuckled and asked if I was Australian. He told me, in English, that it was a good try and “very French.” I was left feeling confused, because wasn’t that the whole point?

As I was waiting for our drinks, an older man came up to me and asked me something in Dutch. I completely fished gaped, because I honestly can’t recall if there’s ever been a time when someone’s approached me with Dutch first in Brussels. He then said “You speak English?” We chatted for a bit in English, and when the bartender interrupted to ask me a question, I responded instinctually with a “oui!”

The man I was talked to frowned a little and waggled his finger at me “You know this is a Flemish bar, don’t you?”

And it was then that I noticed that all the signs on the walls and menus were written in English and not French, and that should have been a dead giveaway.

By political correctness, in a Flemish institution, or in Flanders itself, it’s considered much politer to speak English over French. And I’m not going to lie, when I realized it was a Flemish bar, I felt a little mortified at my mistake.

Although Brussels is by law a bilingual city, in practice, it’s a French speaking city. It’s illegal to run polls asking people what language they speak, but the general consensus is that Brussels has more French-speakers than Dutch speakers, but that the majority of the population lives in Flanders, the Dutch region of Belgium (where, confusingly enough, Brussels is located). So although French is the main language of Brussels, just outside the city is all Dutch-speaking.

French has never let me down in Brussels before this, but I took this experience as a “Hey! Don’t forget we exist too!” from the Dutch side of Brussels to keep me on my toes!


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