Sprakeloos in België

Yesterday started with a great adventure: I went to the grocery store. Nothing terribly remarkable in that, do you say? Well, there were some things on the shelves that I don’t usually see—little waffle cakes and giant jars of Nutella—but, okay, otherwise most everything was just as I am used to it at home. There were sections for produce and baked goods and aisles of yoghurts and cookies, shampoos and teas. There were not as many varieties of herbal teas as I had hoped, but there were more than enough different kinds of yoghurt, including several varieties of my favorite—Greek. I even found the shampoo brand I was looking for.

So what, you will ask, was the adventure? Was it the packaging? The brands? The arrangement of the items on the aisles? Ah, but as you know, I am a well-travelled bear, fresh off the train from England. I know how to navigate unfamiliar store layouts. The few times I went grocery shopping in London, I was able to find everything I wanted relatively easily. And indeed, even yesterday, I left the store with most everything that I had been looking for. The difference was, in London, I could ask for help. Here, in Antwerp, I couldn’t.

It was a curious sensation. There I was with a grocery bag my sister-in-law had lent me, for all intents and purposes, just like any local shopper. Perhaps I looked a little lost as I wandered from aisle to aisle trying to figure out where everything was kept, but I did not notice the other shoppers paying me any particular mind. And yet, when I came to the check-out and the young woman at the till asked me (I inferred) whether I had a discount card (I did, again thanks to my sister-in-law), all I could do was smile, shrug, guess at what she had said, and offer her the card. Which, of course, worked, and I left the store with all of my purchases and walked back across the street to my hotel, thinking hard.

I am not used to not having the words that I need. Words are, in a very real sense, my profession. They are the tools of my craft, the one thing that I best know how to use. Even in the grocery store, ironically enough, while I could not speak, I still had some use of words. Although I cannot speak Dutch other than to save my life (“Help!,” helpfully enough, is the same in Dutch as in English), I can read German and French, so I could puzzle out most, albeit not all, of the packaging. Which in itself was something of a lesson: how do you tell the difference between butter and butter substitute (something that tripped me up even in London) when everything comes in a tub with lots of health labels and you can’t tell from the picture (flowers and cows) what is inside?

If only I had been able to ask!

The interesting thing is that, if the butter had come in sticks rather than tubs, I wouldn’t have really needed to ask for help in the first place. Indeed, I wouldn’t have needed words at all if none of the food had been in commercial packaging: the bananas looked just like the bananas at home, and I don’t need words to identify a bread roll. Nor, in the end, did I really need any words even at the till. After all, I figured out what the cashier was asking me without understanding one word that she said. This being a commercial transaction, it was helpful that I knew how to read the numerals on the cash register and so offer the correct payment, but even if the Dutch used a wholly different numeric system, I would still know that I needed at this point (standing at the till after my items had been checked through) to pay, so I would most likely have offered what I thought was an appropriate amount of euros, hoping, of course, that the cashier was honest and would give me the correct change.

What then do we need words for? Well, I did feel a bit rude not feeling able to exchange the usual pleasantries at the check-out, but then, even at home, being a somewhat introverted bear, I do not tend to talk much to the cashiers. And, after all, as I reassured myself yesterday, a smile is a smile, whether in Antwerp or Chicago. Being polite is as much about facial expression as it is about the words that one uses. I need not let my anxiety about not being able to speak translate itself into actual rudeness. Words, then, are important for social interaction, but not, in fact, absolutely necessary, at least in the here and now. If I want something and can smile and point, well, the likelihood is that I am going to be able to make myself understood and to understand what it is my interlocutor wants me to do.

Or will I? Yesterday afternoon, these questions returned when my son and I visited the C.B.B.D or Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinnée in Brussels, a.k.a. the Museum of Comic Strip Art. I thought that he would enjoy seeing the pictures from some of the original books that we’ve read (mainly only Asterix and Tintin, of course, because so little of the rich tradition of Belgian comic book art is available in English), but when the woman at the desk told us (in English) that she did not have any more guide booklets in English, my son was quite upset. I reassured him that I could translate the French labels for him, but as we did not have a great deal of time at the museum, at least that day, could he not simply study the images and learn what he could from them? Apparently—to judge from his reaction—not. What to me, with my knowledge of French and therefore ability to catch the sense of most of the boards, seemed self-evident, for example, in the display showing the way in which a comic strip is produced, was to him simply mystifying. The pictures of themselves were not enough.

Not that this was, in the end, any great surprise to me. Over the years, I have collected comic books in a number of languages, including Tintin and Lucky Luke in Greek, which despite the pictures are still, if one is in the early stages of learning a language, fairly difficult to read. One can make a guess at what the pictures mean, but other than in, let us say, the more visually charged genres (erotica, for example, or horror), it is relatively easy to get a completely inaccurate impression of what a story is about by looking only at the pictures, particularly if the pictures are in tension with the words. Intention, motivation, suspicion, hopes: all are more or less impossible to infer simply from the images, even when the images are as magnificently detailed as in this book that I bought yesterday because, well, I liked the pictures. But do I know why the man is sneaking in the window or what he seems so concerned about that he would surprise the fat man in the bed?*

Okay, so it is fairly obvious that the fat man has been having his wicked way with the two women, but does he know the man who has invaded his bedroom? Is the invader a good guy or a villain? And so forth.

What about the words in this book? Are they necessary or do they simply get in the way of the image? (Click photo to enlarge if you want to be able to read the text.)**

How necessary are words to prayer? I suppose it rather depends on what we think prayer is about. Let’s just say that I have heard and read any number of discussions of books such as these that seem to take the words for granted and focus only on the pictures. As if the pictures were all that there was to devotion—or prayer. But then, again, the pictures, as in the comic book, are part of the prayer. The mistake is assuming that we can understand either without the other, much as I could not decide which package contained butter, and which not.

*Jacques Martin and Jean Pleyers, De Lelie en het Monster (Casterman, 1986), p. 24.
**British Library, MS Egerton 1151, fol. 7, opening for Matins for the Office of the Virgin Mary.***
***By the by, if you do click the photo and look at the Latin, notice that the text uses certain abbreviations: e.g. in line seven, starting with "Gloria," the symbol that looks like a numeral 7 is actually an "et" (i.e. "and"), while the words written "spui sco" actually mean "spiritui sancto" (i.e. "Holy Spirit"). As my son pointed out when I showed him this page, "They had txtn in the Middle Ages!"

[P.S. August 24, 2008: Now that I've been here a few days, I realize I probably could have asked for help in the grocery store and got it. Belgians are so language conscious that most of them speak more than two, and many speak English. But I still feel self-conscious assuming that I can ask for help without first apologizing for not knowing Dutch. My compromise has been to ask first whether I may speak English, which seems to help smooth the interaction on both sides.]


  1. I would not have thought you liked comics..
    Lots of blogs I read are Chicagoian and one wise financial person. Must be something special in the waters of Chicago.
    Take care....

  2. txtn, comic strip art--maybe it's all the Gothic revival architecture in Chicago. It puts us in tune with the wisdom of the ages! As a thought. :)

  3. I'll look that up. but never been to chicago but would like to go sometime.

  4. I hate a cell phone though. you can keep txtn... like today i bought a fill-up card...i like the pay as i go. Well i scratched the back of the card and spent over a half hour trying to load the minutes..well after two customer service calls where one was disconnected and the second had to call the fastcard company and reference the number....well i didnt get ALL the silver stuff. i left a SLIVER over the last number mistaking it for a 5...was a 3..sort of beside the point though.

    Anyhow it that i like the way you write. Episcopalian, very much into the church. Just that it was a surprise in a made me smile sort of way that you like comics..at least the art.

    what i'm trying to get at is that my writing sucks and i enjoy how you can clearly lay down a thought and it makes me happy that you respond.


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