Saturday, January 1, 2011

Belgae, belgaeing, belgone! *

What fun! It was great to do this again. Learning a language is a great exploration. There is always a new perspective. While there were other things I wanted to read in Dutch, and one I was reading before starting this book, I had not thought of Belgium in 1933. I think that learning a language forces you to be more open. As I wrote in the last blog, books are marketed to facilitate judging them by their covers. It's harder to do that in another language. This is not a book I would have chosen on my own. Where Dutch is concerned, I have to be even more open than I do in other languages. Such material is hard to find in Southern California. I read whatever there is.

In some ways, this book was more challenging than De eeuw van mijn vader (My Father's Century). Kaas is fiction. Fiction assumes a lot of prior knowledge. There you are, suddenly in the author's world. By contrast, nonfiction assumes that you don't know. When I started this book, I knew it took place in the Depression. I did not know about the position of Flemish people in relation to Belgian Francophones and their fellow Dutch speakers across the border in the Netherlands. It was easy relating to Frans Laarmans, his hard work and his dreams of better things for himself and his family. Having started a business and worked on someone else's start-up, I can say that Willem Elsschot got the atmosphere of such things exactly right. The business world is a place where people go to reinvent themselves. It means membership in all sorts of clubs and artificial elites where everyone is glad to be there.

Linguistically, I made a lot of progress, but I tried too hard. I have kept listening to Dutch language media as I did before. I understand more, but I am not a fluent listener. Reading is much easier. Dutch syntax and verb conjugations are starting to sink in. I don't know every word, but I know what part of speech every word is. Still, reading in such a new language can be daunting. I agonized for a long time over Laarmans' name. After I was halfway through, I read over the inner cover flap for the first time. There it was.

Before starting this book, I had gotten about halfway through Bill Bryson's Het verloren continent (The Lost Continent), which I had read in the original. Because I was familiar with the book, I read straight through, as I would in English. Reading known material in another language helps you focus on language learning. Because I am a translator, I also noticed what choices were made in rendering Bryson's work into Dutch. I would not have converted the distances into kilometers. That was jarring.

As you learn a language, you develop some affinity for where it's spoken. Before I started, I found myself rooting for Belgium. The urge to visit came together with the need so many commercials have for parodies and my own background in advertising. There is an orthodoxy that says all vacations must have perfect weather. Belgium's current campaign to attract visitors is a disaster. I went to work and had a great time.

There were two commercials that never made it. I couldn't work them out, but one is worth mentioning. It featured a disappointed family at a ski resort. They would love to see beautiful scenery but are confronted with the mountain problem. Everywhere they look, mountains get in the way of what would otherwise be an expansive view. Long lines and high prices for bad quality ski resort food make their vacation worse. Both problems are solved when the family decides to go to Belgium. It's easier to see more of Belgium's flatter landscape. Belgian food is a major improvement.

From here, it's on to other books.

*The title of this post is a pun. It combines the Latin word for the Belgian people and what baseball announcers say during a home run. "It's going, going, gone!"