On Sex Toys and Linguistics in Belgium
Recently, moving from couch to couch, I pondered the nature of cognitive linguistics: the field of study that proposes that how we think is determined by the language we think in. Generally, the discipline proposes that grammar and structure and the like shape our thoughts, but what of morphemes and diphthongs and vowels and sounds and rhythms? Do they also shape how we shape the world around us?
I think so. Belgium, where almost everything is defined by the linguistic split between French and Flemish, is my evidence. The stereotype of the more sensitive, artistic French-speaking Walloon contrasted with the earthy, industrious Flemish (Dutch)-speaking Flanders resident is easiest understood in the ways those nationalities use words to describe the world they interact with.
Like the world of sex toys.
There was a small kiosk selling a veritable Lucky Charms-grade assortment of pleasure tools in the Brussels train station. White vibrators! Black dildos! Pink cock rings! Their descriptors in respective Belgian tongues (as it were) seemed to flesh out (as it were) the Walloon/Flemish approach to sexual satisfaction. One electric blue double-barreled plastic variant of the shocker was labeled, in French, something like ‘Cœur de la passion’; its Flemish variant was along the lines of ‘Vagenschtuffer.’
Sensual, slow butterfly kisses versus the admirable efficiency of a one word love device. What hath Europe wrought? I thought. Was this strange little mish-mash of culture clash scrawled on the side of a twin-attack dildo in the EU capital an allegory for the difficulties of trying to create one society out of many languages, which is the grand variable in the EU equation? Was the identity of the New Europe contained within this lovestick masquerading as peace sign?
On another note: Bank of America customers, beware in Benelux. I had supreme difficulty getting money out of Belgian and Netherlands ATMs. The difference between these nations? The niceness the Belgians express when you come to them with said issues. I never could figure out why my debit card was denied at every cash point in both countries, but where the Dutch would frown and tap their feet impatiently as I struggled with the vagaries of the world financial system, the Belgians were always lovely and understanding. If they and their bank employees could offer no helpful advice, they always had a smile ready for me.
Occasional inefficiency counteracted by acts of warm welcome were the gist of my Belgian experience. When I boarded what I thought was an Amsterdam-bound train in Brussels, I felt sure I had been directed to the correct platform by the friendly man in the ticket counter. And as a matter of fact, I had been at the right platform. But I had boarded the wrong train, a fact I realized as I stared at the pretty town of Waterloo – the same Waterloo, I realized with a start, which gave the name to the battle that ended Napoleon’s imperial ambitions.
Isn’t that awesome, by the way? If you’re a history nerd like me, there’s nothing quite like reading a name, assigning an importance to it, visualizing it and imagining it and then, whilst staring out a train window at a crosshatch of green fields and brick townhouses with mansard roofs, realizing the name assigned to the loci within the geographic space of the universe you are inhabiting right now is the same one to which you have assigned so much of your mind’s creative faculty constructing in the past.
This moment of supreme travel romance is always a bit blunted when a stout, improbably female Gimli-esque train conductor frowns at your ticket and does not speak English.
Through a combination of pidgin French and sorrowful looks, I was told the train I boarded was in fact the previous train on the timetable, which had arrived late at the same time, on the same platform, as my train to Amsterdam. I began to freak, imagining myself being hauled off the train bodily by the powerful figure of squat rail authority in front of me. But she smiled. Her appearance shifted from angry hausfrau to concerned-if-Butch auntie. She printed out a slip of paper from her little ticker machine that gave me permission to return to Brussels (now about 30 minutes away) and board the next Amsterdam-bound train at no additional cost.
Bless you, Belgium. John F. Kennedy once called Washington DC as a city of ‘Southern efficiency and Northern charm’; that clever little descriptor could be applied to Belgium and Brussels; just replace ‘Southern’ with French and ‘Northern’ with Dutch. Although it’s not entirely fair, either. I’ve often found American Southerners possessed of the best work ethic in the country, while Northerners can project a fierce, protective friendship that’s highly endearing.
If little things in Belgium – stubborn ATMs, late trains, ambiguously described sex toys – seemed cocked up (as it were – last time I use that!), these little stumbles were offset by patient folks in a bank line, kind train conductors and the fascinating linguistic possibilities of sex toy verbiage. I eventually did board the right train to Amsterdam and chugged off on the next train, an express train as it happily turned out, that pushed hard into the wetlands of the Low Countries.
I lied. As it were.
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