Category Archives: Belgium

Slightly less rubbish with languages

I think it’s fair to say that British people have a pretty poor reputation when it comes to speaking other people’s languages. It’s easy to blame the relatively poor language education in schools, but really it’s just an excuse: it’s easier to be lazy when everyone else speaks English.

Over the years I’ve made various efforts to learn other languages, to varying degrees of success. One of the most frustrating aspects of learning is the reaction I’ve often come across from natives when you’re trying to practice your skills, which turns out to be much harder than I ever imagined. There are four typical responses:

Ignore
This one’s most common with Germans. It’s clearly inefficient to speak slowly in German, when they can switch over to English and speak like a native (or in many cases, like my German lecturer at uni, better than a native, as she wasted no time in pointing out whenever we made grammatical errors in our own language). So that’s exactly what happens, normally with no acknowledgment you’ve even addressed them in German in the first place.

Mock
Only in France have I, on several occasions, been laughed at for my pathetic English attempts to get my tongue around their beautiful language. This is hardly a confidence booster, funnily enough.

Patronise
een Pilsje, alsjeblieft is hardly the most complicated sentence to learn. Or say for that matter. But try it in Holland and there’s a good chance someone will immediately say “Oh wow! You speak fantastic Dutch!” is both (a) a lie and (b) patronising. After this, they just switch to ignore mode and conduct the rest of the conversation in English.

Refuse to engage altogether
Best exemplified by the reaction to the woman behind the counter in Cordoba station, who just crossed her arms, and sat back in her chair once she realised my Spanish wasn’t up to a normal conversation. I suppose as she spoke no English either, the conversation was hardly likely to be all that fruitful, but just giving up was hardly going to get us anywhere.

I know ultimately that this is as much (if not more) my fault than theirs – if my language skills really were good enough, it would be easier to engage. Plus for busy shopkeepers or barstaff or waiters, it’s far quicker to speak English rather than waste time trying to understand someone mangle their conjugations. But whatever the reason, it makes the process a darn sight harder. Which is yet another reason why I loved Antwerp: I’d barely spoken a word of Dutch in years, but from the moment I uttered my first faltering sentence and was replied to in Dutch, without any mocking, patronising comments or even any remark, it boosted my confidence straight away. The pattern was the same for the rest of the weekend, and it was great. I know my limitations, and I was hardly able to have conversations about weighty issues, but actually getting the chance to practice meant I found my language skills coming back to me even after years with no practice.

Which in turn has boosted my confidence with my Spanish. With my course of lessons nearly done, I was getting slightly worried at the lack of progress I’ve been making, especially with my leaving date rapidly approaching. But this week I felt I had a real breakthrough. I had a double lesson (three hours) after work, which was exhausting, but well worth it. I’m starting getting the hang of all my verb conjugations now and am getting better at having an idea of which past tense to use when. Prepositions are still a bit of a nightmare, but I now feel like I can have the most basic conversations, and reckon I know enough to find my way round cities, public transports and restaurants to survive OK.

In the great scheme of things, I’m still barely a beginner, but it’s a start, and I feel like now I’ve got some of the basics right I’ll hopefully be able to make good use of a few weeks learning Spanish in Xela (Quetzaltenango) in Guatemala come May – this great post from Christine @ Almostfearless really keeps me inspired. I know there’s a lot of hard work to come, but I really want to use my time away to get my Spanish up to a point where I’ll no longer have to face being mocked, ignored, or patronised for being so rubbish.

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My own private world heritage site: the Plantin-Moretus museum

Now I’m not stupid enough to think that the list of World Heritage sites is flawless, or that it’s not skewed by national politics. But it is normally a pretty good guide to interesting places to see when visiting somewhere new (and I don’t think you can blame UNESCO for making potentially interesting sitesas dull as ditchwater by ruining them with compulsory snoozesome guided tours).

Book illustration by Rubens

Book illustration by Rubens

Despite that, I was a little underwhelmed by reading about Antwerp’s main one, the Plantin-Moretus museum. The prospect of visiting a small museum based in and on the subject of an old publishing house hardly generated the excitement I got from the thought of, say, climbing a Mayan temple in a jungle.

But thanks to a personal recommendation, we figured we might as well give it a go. Now I know I said that Antwerp was virtually empty of tourists; what I didn’t expect to find was there to be so few that we had one of the city’s most famous museums entirely to ourselves. And I mean *entirely*. It was like having a private visit. Just like the city as a whole, people are seriously missing out.

Central courtyard at the Plantin Moretus museum

Central courtyard at the Plantin Moretus museum

The museum is in a collection of 16th century buildings, surrounding a central courtyard, that housed a publishing house founded by Christophe Plantijn in 1576. The museum today houses all the artifacts of the old printing process, including the oldest surviving printing presses in the world and workshops where the presses were made.

The oldest printing presses in the world

The oldest printing presses in the world

As well as the print works, the building was also the home of the owners, and houses their hugely valuable library, many of which were printed on-site and on display in cabinets, including volumes illustrated by the city’s most famous son, Rubens (elsewhere in the house you can find various portraits of family members by him too), and the world’s first illustration of the potato.

Cabinet & Rubens portraits

Cabinet & Rubens portraits

The interior of the house is fascinating too, with some of the walls bound with leather decorated with gold leaf, original tapestries, and more portraits. The courtyard itself contains a quiet little garden too.

Tapestry detail

Tapestry detail

Best of all, for a geography geek like me, was the room full of old globes and maps from what was described as the golden age of Flemish cartography (1540-1590 apparently), including an early edition of a pocket-sized edition of Mercator’s maps. I could have spent hours in there, and would have loved to have had the chance to go through those old atlases in more detail.

16th Century map of Holland

16th Century map of Holland

I suppose it’s always good to places with low expectations, but in this case it really paid off. It’s one of the most unusual and fascinating museums I’ve ever been to, and if you’re a book lover, a geography geek or just have any interest in history, I’d heartily recommend it.

Antwerp rules (but don’t tell anyone)

It feels like there must be some kind of conspiracy to keep tourists away from Antwerp: the official website is truly shocking, coverage in guidebooks is poor at best (normally tagged onto the end of guides to Brussels as a suggested daytrip), and Eurostar don’t appear to make any kind of effort to point out that tickets from London to Brussels also allow free onward travel to any station in Belgium (meaning that central Antwerp is less than three hours from central London, making it quicker to reach than pretty much any city you have to fly to, not to mention much greener). The only explanation I can think of is that the experience of being conquered by the Romans and the French, sacked by Vikings and the Spanish, blockaded by the Dutch and the English, and bombed by the Germans has left them slightly wary of outsiders.

Guild houses in the Grote Markt. Rebuilt after some early Spanish visitors burnt them down.

Guild houses in the Grote Markt. Rebuilt after some early Spanish visitors burnt them down.

The result of that lack of promotion was that when we arrived in Brussels on a Eurostar that was completely sold out (thanks to half term and Valentine’s day), a grand total of four passengers made their way to the Antwerp train. I presume the rest of them were staying in Brussels (or off to Bruges), and to them I say: your loss. Antwerp is miles better, and here’s why:

The Cathedral dominates the city

The Cathedral dominates the city

1) It’s almost the perfect place for a weekend break – there’s easily enough to do to keep you busy, but small enough to see everything on foot if you want. Easier still is to hire bikes, as the city is entirely flat, has cycle lanes everywhere, and hardly any traffic anyway.

Cycling round the city allows you to explore the crumbling, atmospheric quays. On the edge of town, the new port is still the second biggest in Europe, and goes on for miles.

Cycling round the city allows you to explore the crumbling, atmospheric quays. On the edge of town, the new port is still the second biggest in Europe, and goes on for miles.

2) It has loads of great architecture, ranging from the 16th century Onze Lieve Vrouwe Cathedral, with its beautiful spire, through the guildhouses in the Grote Markt (which to my mind is just as nice as the much more famous Grand Place in Brussels, except without the crowds), to crumbling warehouses and cranes on the quays along the banks of the Scheldt, and a great selection of art nouveau buildings too, including this rather mad one with a boat poking out of the side.

The 5 continents (aka t Bootje, the little boat)

The 5 continents (aka 't Bootje, the little boat)

3) I knew before I left that Antwerp was supposedly a stylish city (it appars to be compulsory for any travel article on the city to mention the Antwerp Six), but I was surprised at quite how obvious it was – the city is completely overrun with clothes shops, ranging from expensive designer brands to new designers and smaller, quirkier places; there are loads of shops selling loads of cool stuff for the home, and just looking at people in shops and restaurants you can just tell that people really make an effort.

4) The stylishness extends beyond the shopping – it has a great selection of bars and restaurants, although we missed out on most of the trendiest ones by not booking tables in advance (there may not be many tourists but the locals certainly seem to like eating out). No great loss though, as I’m a big fan of traditional Belgian cooking, and was able to find it at De Stoemppot, which serves all the traditional classics like waterzooi (fish stew), stoofvlees (beef stew) and sausages, all served with yummy stoemp (Belgian mash). They even serve the normally disgusting staple of Flemish & Dutch fast food, the croquette, which were far nicer than the normal version. While we’re on the subject of food – forget the Belgian cliche of having chips with mayo, on a cold day in February the only way to have them is with warm stoofvlees sauce (i.e. gravy). Mmmm.

Even the snacks are trendy

Even the snacks are trendy

5) The choice of places to stay is great too, and the way to go here is apartments: we stayed in Britselei 37, in an old townhouse on the edge of the centre, which was great (apart from the fact it was about 30% more expensive than planned thanks to the pound tanking in between booking and arriving). There are loads more in a similar vain, with way more character than the average hotel.

6) Last but not least, I may be a spectacularly lapsed catholic, but I do like to see a city with a fanatical devotion to the Virgin Mary. Not content with dedicating a cathedral to her (which you really can’t miss, as it dominates almost every view), they have an obession with seemingly building a statue of her on every street corner, some of which are hugely elaborate.

Theres no escaping our blessed lady

There's no escaping our blessed lady

All of which makes it feel all the more bizarre that the place was almost empty of tourists. On the way back to London, we stopped off for an hour in Brussels, and were confronted by hoards of them, and I realised that the lack of tourists is very much part of Antwerp’s charm. So maybe the tourist board are rubbish on purpose…