Travel makes you stupid

When I woke up yesterday I could read and write, and ask questions and understand the answers. Today, not so much.

One of the pleasures of travel is practicing a foreign language, which I enjoyed greatly during our time in France. But now we’re in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, and I get to have a different adventure: attempting to communicate despite not speaking a word of the local lingo.

Admittedly, in this case I’m not that severely handicapped. Our generous hosts, Roelof and Lynne Ann, are a native speaker and longstanding inhabitant respectively; Kate has studied Dutch in the past; and between my knowledge of German and some previous exposure to Dutch I can puzzle out much of the signage and a little of the spoken language. But my ability to produce Flemish is essentially nil, so I’ve been doing a lot of smiling and nodding.

One thing I’ve discovered on this trip is that the techniques we learned from Rick Steves’ Europe through the Back Door thirty (!) years ago are no longer as useful as they were then, because so many transactions have been automated. Gesture, mime, and pointing don’t help at all when you’re trying to get something (money, bus tickets, gasoline, parking, tolls) from a machine with a schmancy audio-video interface. On the other hand, some of those machines now have instructions in English — in fact, a few of them switch to English immediately upon insertion of a US credit card. But the translation is often weak, and frequently includes bits of untranslated local language like rum-soaked raisins in the cake. It’s a mixed bag.

The bottom line, though, is that one of the big reasons I travel is to have different experiences and stretch my mind, and working in a culture where I don’t speak the language is a big part of that. So vive la difference! *

* I wanted to put that in Dutch, but I couldn’t figure out how. Which only goes to show.

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