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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Votre Billet, Monsieur?

Tasker Dunham remembers an embarrassing incident during a school trip to Belgium

I will never forget the French word for ticket as long as I live. It was clipped into my memory on the way home from Belgium in 1965.

I had been staying over Easter with a Belgian family on a school exchange visit. They had made sure I caught the right train at Charleroi, and I had waved them goodbye with feelings of both relief at no longer having to struggle in French all the time, and sadness because I had had a great time and would miss them. But having been there for two and a half weeks on my own, I was looking forward to seeing English people again.

My French had improved a lot, although not enough to be completely aware of all that was going on. Sometimes it seemed that things just happened without forewarning. We might be going out sightseeing, or into town, or to the cinema, or to visit someone. You rarely knew what each moment would bring. At the age of fifteen it seemed easiest to cultivate equanimity, a passive acceptance of it all. It was an attitude that served me well that morning.

I was to join the rest of my Yorkshire school party at Bruxelles-Midi. After less than thirty miles, or more properly I should say after forty five kilometres as it was a Belgian train, we reached Brussels and started to slow down. The train came to a stop. I anxiously peered out to read the station name. “No, not this one,” I decided. It said Brussel-Zuid. Everyone else got out, but I sat watching the bustling foreign platform, quietly waiting for the train to move on to the next stop. It was a big mistake.

The problem is that Belgium is a two-nation country. There are the Walloons who speak French and live mainly to the south of Brussels where I had been staying, and the Flemish or Belgian-Dutch speakers who live to the north. The two nations are suspicious of each other, and where they intersect, as in Brussels, signs are written in both languages to help minimise the antipathy. The station name, Brussel-Zuid, appeared to be Flemish for Brussels South, but I wanted Bruxelles-Midi, which I stupidly decided must mean Brussels Central. I should have known better. Just a rudimentary knowledge of the French language is sufficient to realise how very wrong this is. I must have left my French back in Charleroi in my eagerness to get home.

I knew something was not quite right as soon as the train started to move. The names on the station totems were alternately in Flemish and French, Flemish and French, Brussel-Zuid and Bruxelles-Midi, Brussel-Zuid and Bruxelles-Midi. With helpless, nervous, horror, I realised they were the same station. The names switched in time with the clickety-click of the wheels as the train picked up speed. Not only do the two kinds of Belgians disagree about which language they speak, they cannot even decide what this particular station should be called. It’s even worse than the problems we English have in Wales! 

‘Midi’ is of course French for ‘mid-day’. It is one of the first words you learn, as in après-midi, meaning afternoon. Because the sun is in the south at noon, the French-speaking Belgians in their wisdom call the southern station Bruxelles-Midi. Where else would you find such logic? I have never understood why Europeans are allowed to retain eccentricities like this, yet we, in preparation for entry into the Common Market as it used to be called, gave up our shillings and pence, and then our pounds and ounces. We should have kept them. They caused us no difficulty at all, but they were perfect for confusing the French.

I was now on the express train to Antwerp. Not only that, but the train now seemed to contain only Flemish speaking people who I perceived unlikely to be helpful towards someone attempting to speak in French.

I caught the attention of a smartly dressed but kindly-looking young woman sitting opposite me. With an awkward and badly modulated “Excusez-moi, Madamoiselle”, which silenced the whole carriage, I asked anxiously in French whether the station we had just left was Bruxelles-Midi. Fortunately, she answered in a French accent I was able to follow. As the train shot through another station without stopping she confirmed that it was.

“Ce que je fais maintenant?” (What do I do now?), I asked with resignation.

“Descendre ici” (Get off here) she said. It was a considerable relief to be told there was another stop before Antwerp, at Brussel-Noord (Bruxelles-Nord or Brussels North).

I left the train. This was a much quieter station. I sat on a seat with my luggage on the deserted platform, and before too long another train came in the opposite direction. I got on, sat down, and fiddled nervously with the ticket inside my trouser pocket. My sweaty-handed bending and turning quickly transformed it into an illegible, misshapen pulp. For all I knew, the train could have been going anywhere. I just hoped it was going back to Bruxelles-Midi and not straight to somewhere in Germany or France. As I said, if you were fifteen, on your own in Belgium in 1965, unable to understand much of what was going on, the only thing you could do was to adopt a position of passive acceptance. Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness’.

Inevitably, a ticket inspector came. He was wearing a smart dark uniform which gave him an intimidating authority that made me think of the Gestapo. I handed him the lump of papier-mâché that had once been my ticket. He screwed up his eyes as he examined it, then looked back at me, then back at the ticket, and then at me again, and with an air of complete disbelief said “Votre billet, Monsieur?” “Votre billet?”

“Billet” – it’s the French word for ticket.

I was lucky. He concluded he was dealing with a silly and frightened young English idiot and let me get off at Bruxelles-Midi. 

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