That was a pity, I thought. I could understand a code. There were codes in some of the boys’ books I had read, codes where one thing stood for another thing according to a system and if you learned the system you knew exactly what was intended. A code was simple. If only French was a code, French would be simple. I was ready to accept that one word could be exchanged for another in a straightforward and fair transaction. The idea that the code did not really work, word for word, sentence for sentence, seemed to undermine the whole project and raise questions I could not answer.
Perhaps I had to accept that as my mother had warned, no one would understand me.
The reason why I was sent to live in Brussels with Elsie and Gerard was not specified, apart from the possibility that I might finally learn some French, although even then I thought this seemed to be a justification after the fact. There was an overlap of dates, the Belgian school terms being longer than mine so I would be able to attend school in Brussels with Matthew and Laura after the long summer holiday had ended but before my term had begun. But this was also something of an excuse – in fact I stayed well after my own school term had started, and I missed a large chunk of English schooling which I never seemed to make up. No doubt my parents had their own reasons for sending me into exile.
Whatever these reasons were, I did not care. Belgium was already a new world of textures, and unfamiliar aromas, and human variations that held me spellbound. I loved Belgium. I loved Brussels. I loved numero dix-sept Avenue de Septembre.
But I never did learn much French. I learned a few phrases and ready-made sentences that I still use to this day. I learned a French accent – accents are easy for me, requiring an ear but no study, no effort, no possibility of failure. At the Brussels primary school I attended with Matthew and Laura I got by largely without language.
This was easy. In the first place I wasn’t expected to contribute much, because I was an alien element introduced without explanation or justification. Therefore, it seemed, I did not have to justify myself. In the second place the style of teaching in Belgian schools did not encourage interaction. Teachers spoke. Students listened. If you did not understand what was going on, nobody would notice. If a student did answer, or volunteer a contribution, the standard teaching response was to invite the student up to the front of the class and make merciless fun of them. Unsurprisingly, debate was limited. Disruptive behaviour was unknown.
I picked up words and fragmentary phrases. Tartine – the jam sandwich that Elsie would make for our walk down to school. Encore – when you wanted the same thing again. Encore une fois, s’il vous plait. Je vais – I am going, followed by an infinitive verb, such as I am going to learn French. A phrase I used frequently, a promise I delivered on never. And there was my favourite French proper name, recognised and voiced by everyone who lived in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert: Le Shopping Centre. Le Shopping Centre was indeed a centre of the life of Woluwe, a place where the great world came to show itself, and where Woluwe showed itself to the world. This particular summer there was a futuristic exhibition in the car park of Le Shopping Centre, including a circular pod-like house the size of a large caravan and with the look of a spaceship. Matthew and I would always go and sit in the pod on the sci-fi chairs while we planned our assault on Le Shopping Centre, each of us armed with ten Belgian francs.