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Monday, 1 March 2021

New Month Old Post - Votre Billet Monsieur?

(First posted 27th August, 2014)

“Billet?” “Votre billet, Monsier?” I will never forget the French word “billet” for as long as I live.

I had been staying with a Belgian family on a school exchange visit. They had put me on the right train at Charleroi and I had waved goodbye with feelings of relief and sadness: relief at no longer having to struggle in French and sadness because I had had a great time and would miss them. Having been there on my own for two and a half weeks, I was looking forward to being with English speakers again.

My French had improved enormously, although not enough to be entirely aware of what was going on. Sometimes things just happened without forewarning, such as 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 simplest to cultivate an attitude of passive acceptance. It served me well that morning.

I was to join the rest of my school party at Bruxelles-Midi. After less than thirty miles, or should I say forty five kilometres because it was a Belgian train, the train reached Brussels and started to slow down. It came to a stop. I peered out anxiously to read the station name. “No, not this one,” I decided. It was Brussel-Zuid. Everyone else got out. I sat watching the bustling foreign platform, quietly waiting for the train to move on. 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. I wanted Bruxelles-Midi, which I decided must mean Brussels Central. I should have known better. Just rudimentary knowledge of French 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 right as soon as the train started to move. The names on the station totems flashed alternately in Flemish and French, Flemish and French, Brussel-Zuid and Bruxelles-Midi, Brussel-Zuid and Bruxelles-Midi. With helpless 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.

‘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 (Brussels Mid-Day). Where else would you find such logic? How come they were allowed to keep such eccentricities when we had to give up our shillings, pence, pounds, ounces, pints, gallons, feet and inches? They used to be perfect for bamboozling the French and Germans.

I was on the express train going north to Antwerp. Not only that, but all the other passengers now seemed to be Flemish speakers who might be unhelpful 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 stopped the conversation throughout 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 vais faire maintenant?” (What am I going to do now?), I asked with resignation.

“Descend 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 with my luggage on the deserted platform. Before too long a train came in the opposite direction. I got on, sat down, and fiddled sweaty-handed with the ticket inside my trouser pocket. It quickly became 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 dressed in 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 an anxious young English idiot and let me get off at Bruxelles-Midi.


39 comments:

  1. What a great tale. As an adult you may panic but you know you will be able to sort it out someway but as a fifteen year old boy in a foreign country with limited language skills, well!!!
    We changed from a train from Amsterdam to Paris at Brussels Midi to Eurostar and while I have heard of Brussels Zuid, I had no idea it is also Brussels Midi.

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    1. I wonder if the main name they use now is Midi because of Eurostar. Otherwise, from Dutch speaking Amsterdam, I would have thought it would be Zuid.

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  2. I could feel my stress levels rising just reading this post! I kept thinking it all must be Ok you are here to write this. How incredible you managed so well. I doubt I would have done at the same age, but then I failed my French O Level!

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    1. It wasn't so much a case of managing well as just accepting fate. I failed my French O level the first time, despite all the time I spent in Belgium - I went the following two years as well.

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  3. Get you entirely - had similar experience in Brussels only 3 or 4 years ago - coming in on train from Antwerp to join Eurostar. It didn't help that even in these days when all the local speak English, no one else on the train seemed to understand either why we were all told to exit the train a few stops before destination and left to work out how to got to that station with confusing names.

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    1. Perhaps it's a new visitor experience. Lost in Belgium. I did it first.

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  4. This reminded me of a friend who queued for hours to take the lift up the Empire State building in New York, all the while fiddling with his ticket. By the time he reached the lift, the ticket was pulp and he was turned away. He never went back.

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  5. What a wonderful story. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers.

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    1. I wouldn't have been surprised if I had been taken away and shot.

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  6. Brussels station is a law unto itself. It has some good underground bars though.

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    1. And you can go in them at the age of 15 - well you would have been able to in 1965. Maybe that explains things. I was still pissed.

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  7. Sacre bleu...quelle expérience!

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  8. At least you still have Miles in Blighty. Cars drive on the left in Ireland but the road speeds are in Kilometres.

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    1. Yes but as Rachel recently said, everything comes down to money. The government would have had to pay for changing all the road signs whereas with weights and measures it was businesses. Same reason we still drive on the left.

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  9. Ah, the joy of the Brussels train station. I ended up at Ghent on one of those mishaps. Actually had the same kind of issue on a train from London to Cambridge where I was supposed to switch to another train to a very small station in Suffolk where my oldest son lived at the time. On a Sunday. Never on a Sunday with British Rail...ought to be an advertising slogan. I was exhausted from an overnight flight from US. Got off train in Cambridge, checked the overhead screen for my connection and had just minutes to jump on the next train--the wrong train. I didn't have a mobile on me, but a lovely young man offered me the use of his mobile to call my son...who didn't have his phone turned on. I could only leave a message, not knowing when I would get to his station. Got off the train in Ely (lovely view of the cathedral) and then had a long wait for another train back to Cambridge--it being Sunday. Let's just say that it was took several hours before I eventually made it to the correct station and two more hours before my son showed up there to pick me up. Chagrined. Did I mention it was Mothering Sunday? Let's just say I wasn't feeling particularly motherly.

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    1. Thank you, I thought it was just me. I'm not alone. Don't ever have your blood pressure measured after an unfamiliar train journey.

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  10. Replies
    1. These things are always more enjoyable in the telling.

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  11. That trip left you with a wonderful story to tell! However, if it had been me I doubt that I would have handled it as well as you did! I'm so glad it worked out well for you in the end.

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    1. It was more a case of accepting fate rather than handling it, but yes, it's just an entertaining anecdote now.

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  12. I believe that Led Zeppelin had a number that just about sums up this horrible situation:-
    Communication breakdown, it's always the same
    Havin' a nervous breakdown, a-drive me insane

    At least you survived to tell the tale.

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  13. Phew! That was such a gripping read, I munched through my entire bowl of müsli!

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    1. What I forgot to include was worrying about what I'd do if, when I got back to Brussels, my school party had had to leave without me.

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  14. What a great story. I always thought "Bruxelles Midi" meant mid-Brussels, so I would have assumed the same as you. It seems so ridiculous that in a country as small as Belgium there should be competing linguistic factions. Can't we all just get along?!

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    1. They must do it on purpose to confuse English speakers - just like the Welsh.

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  15. Pleasure to read: reminded me of Richard Cobb's Promenades and Tony Judt's The Memory Chalet. Judt was the man for history and railway stations. Then there's WG Sebald's final masterpiece, Austerlitz.

    At this time of year I long to be in a cafe, anywhere in W. Europe:
    Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp, Utrecht, Strasbourg, Nimes, Avignon, Aix, Lyons, Turin, Florence, Siena, Rome, Venice, Bologna, Berlin, Munich, Basle, Geneva, Zurich ... A cafe breakfast in any of these cities and others.
    Haggerty

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    1. A Day in 1920s Paris, 1927. AI Enhanced Film.
      A Day in Roaring 20s Berlin/1927. AI Enhanced Film.
      Glamourdaze. YouTube.
      Haggerty

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    2. I'm sure Glasgow has as good cafes as any of those places. What about the Charles Rennie Mackintosh tea rooms?

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  16. After some time in limbo the Mackintosh Tea Rooms reopened in Sauchiehall Street. I looked through the ground-floor windows one sunny day, before the pandemic. A beautiful young woman was serving customers, dressed in a white shirt and tie, and a long apron.
    Once lockdown ends I must go in for morning coffee. I will feel like George Moore in Mayfair. I am reading Moore's Confessions of A Young Man, published in 1918. An unjustly forgotten writer.
    Haggerty

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    1. In January 2020 (seems like forever ago now), when visiting a Scottish friend, we had a late breakfast in the Mackintosh Sauchiehall Street tea room. As the only customers at the time, we were able to take multiple photographs of the various design elements (there are two floors-one is a low ceiling loft area). The breakfast was terrific, too. Hoping to get back over for another visit next year.

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  17. It's only when you live in a country that you realise that the language you'd learnt at school doesn't help one bit to order the installation of a septic tank, sort out woodworm, or discuss ploughing with a neighbour. I've still not had the opportunity to say 'My aunt's pen is on my uncle's desk'.

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    1. Mon ver du bois sent plus mauvais que votre fosse septique.

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  18. Oh Tasker - that was an adventure and I feel with you!
    To be fifteen, in a foreign country, alone and speaking French as a beginner - that must have been stress pure.
    But you reached your goal - "de bestemming" as the Durch would say - and that is what is important.
    And yes, you must have been very young - in my long life I found out that men very, very (very!) seldom ask how they can reach a special destination, silently and stubbornly they try to find their own way :-)

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    1. Sounds like you've got us all sussed out. I might ask now *before* the train left the station, but not then.

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  19. Well that was a read and a half. Quite gripping. You obviously were less anxious than I would have been (at that age - not now) and far more composed. I like happy endings!

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    1. I think it was more a case of being resigned to my fate. Now, probably like you, I'd think "What's the worst that can happen" and realise things were more inconvenient than serious.

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