Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pick a language ....Any Language!!

I wrote a blog yesterday about the Belgian dinner party I attended on my last night in Belgium.

For those of you who didn't read that post, it was a wonderful lengthy dinner party with friendship, fine cuisine and drinks galore. It was at the house of Filip and Domonique, friends of Beverly Jo (whom I was staying with and whom I performed with while in Belgium).

Well I won't rehash the parts of the party which I have already written about. I'll instead focus on a different part of the scene. Filip and Domonique have a son. Their son is around the same age as my niece, Lauren or oldest nephew, Emory. I believe he was 11 years old (give or take a little). As I know how unfun being one of the only kids (or the only kid in his case) at a party can be, I'd take a pause and see how he was doing every so often.

Upon arriving in Brussels I was aware that the people spoke French and most everyone knew at least an elementary amount of English. I knew people there spoke Flemish but I thought perhaps that was an older language that wasn't used much. I found out that wasn't the case. Flemish is still used prevelantly.

Here's how it works, kids are sent to either a Flemish school (predominantly in Northern Belgium) or a French school. I believe they learn a little English regardless of whether they are in Flemish or French school. I'm sure they all also learn some English from the American pop culture that seeps in TV , Movies, Books, advertisements , etc.

Anytime I find myself in a society like that (meaning a society where a majority of the people speaks 3 languages) I'm so impressed. The Belgian people at this party, for instance, were effortlessly flipping from French to English without batting an eye. I was understanding 75-80% of their French (my French listening comprehension is much higher than my French speaking ability) and obviously all of their English. I sat there all night as spectator of (and every so often a participant in) a sort of linguistic tennis match. I was loving it.

Well my lack of total comprehension limited my interjections into conversations a little. It put me at the level of say........an 11 year old at a adult party.

So the 11 year old sat beside me and studied me like I was a spider in a terrarium.

Unlike the adults at the party , he was not fluent in English. It only took a few sentences to realize he knew very little English. That was fine I thought. I speak enough broken French that we can carry on small conversations.


After speaking French a little and seeing the look on his face I realized....the kid obviously went to Flemish school. he speaks Flemish not French.

This presented an issue because I speak absolutely zero Flemish. I can't fake my way through it as I have been doing with French. We had a language wall. This child of 11 spoke infinitely more English than I did Flemish but it still wasn't enough.

It was at this point I noticed a deck of playing cards on the table right in front of me.

As I said above, I have a niece and two nephews which I adore. Through my years on the road , I've always tried to bring them cool gifts from wherever I've been or learn new things I can show them upon my returns.

One of the "skills" I've picked up this way is magic. I'm not David Blane or Chris Angel. I have no desire to be. I truly just wanted to learn 1 trick that was cool enough to make my niece and nephews think I was cool. Well, I succeeded.....kinda. I came home after perfecting 1 solitary trick. I showed them. Their jaws dropped. Uncle Eric was the coolest.......for 10 seconds.

Then came the statement I was unprepared for , "do another one! Please please please!".

Uh Oh! How did I not see that coming? I'm not sure. But there I was. A one trick pony. I had shown them my only trick.

Well I vowed to not let that happen again. I also vowed to them I'd have more magic every time I came home. So for a year or so I'd painstakingly learn new magic tricks on every road trip. (note to all aspiring magicians: late night at a bar is a great place to practice tricks. Very drunk people are extremely susceptible to sleight of hand). Anyway, I'd work up new tricks, then bring them home to show my niece and nephews.

It's silly but it was a fun tradition.

Well, back to the Belgian dinner party.

I was there without a language in common with the kid. But I had a deck of cards. And he was 11.

I did a few fancy shuffles and noticed he was intently paying attention. So I went for a trick I was sure I could pull off fairly simply first. It was a simple , pick a card , look at it, put it back. I shuffle and the card jumps to the top of the deck type thing.

It worked to perfection. He was shocked. And just like the kids I had initially learned the tricks for, this kid wanted more more more.

I pulled out a few more complex tricks. The kid was mezmorized!

With this as the ice breaker, we became friends.

We were still at the big dinner table with everyone else but the adults were talking about politics and all sorts of subjects too deep and complex for either of us to jump into. He because of his lack of age and me because of my lack of complex language.

After a couple more magic tricks, he runs and grabs his Dad's iPad. He shows me some cool apps, then asks for another trick. We go back and forth like that for a while. Finally I decide he would be a great person to teach me beginner's Flemish (also I was running out of tricks). So for the next hour or so we would take turns pointing at some object and naming it. I'd say "clock". He'd say "gluck?"(I'm positive I spelled that wrong). Then we would go on to another common household object.

It only took a few of these to realize Flemish and English are very very similar. Of course I know they would be somewhat similar due to their common Germanic origins, but they are more similar than I anticipated.

My language lesson was fun.

I'm not sure I can say anything in Flemish that I learned that night other than "Donku Vell" (Thank you much). But that's not the point. The point is that, I made a friend (albeit an 11 year old) and I learned about another culture because I found something we could relate to. We didn't focus on our differences. We focused on our similarities.

I got back into a more light conversation with the adults and the evening continued on with lovely food and drink. But my interaction with that bright, charismatic child was great.

The instant I got back to Alabama I went and hugged my niece's and nephews' necks. I hugged them because I adore them and I had missed them. But I also had a greater appreciation for them.

By me learning silly magic tricks to entertain them they had indirectly given me tools to connect with people on the other side of the world. They had made me a better person just by being. That's a beautiful thing.

1 comment:

  1. Geez, man. I knew you were a talented musician and math geek, but I never knew you were such an engaging writer--and an amateur linguist to boot! I wish we'd had more opportunities to hang out before you went and got all famous.