Just before I left my job at Cornell to move to Belgium, I attended a workshop that was designed for international graduate students. I thought it might be interesting because they were talking about idioms, figurative language and specific cultural expressions and how to navigate them in the United States. It made me realize how much language there is that does not fit into the formal language you would learn in a class. I am nowhere near comprehending Flemish idioms yet, but there was something the teacher said in that workshop that really struck a chord with me as I was about to embark on this adventure. She said that children pick up language easily for several reasons, including that they are comfortable with ambiguity. It doesn’t scare them or embarrass them if they make a mistake, and they are kind of used to not really knowing what is going on all the time anyway. It made we think of when we came to visit Belgium before deciding to move. We asked our son, then 3, if he understood what people were saying to him there and he said no, but in a very carefree way. And I asked “do you understand what people say to you in Ithaca?” and he said not always. Truth is, kids don’t always know what is going on, but they just go with the flow, they don’t worry about messing up or what is coming next (unless it is ice cream of course).
I made a mental note to myself that I needed to try this idea of being comfortable with ambiguity in Belgium. It will be years before I understand the language well enough to feel comfortable but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the experience. Sometimes when I am in a public place, I try to listen and pick up words and figure out what people could possibly be saying. But more often than not, I enjoy not understanding what people are saying, I don’t hear annoying conversations people are having on the tram or street because I can’t understand them! I imagine that the two people next to me are discussing the art of Matisse but really, they are probably talking about the way their dog likes to bark at the mailman. There is a certain freedom in it.
There are times when this attitude does not work so well- like when there is an announcement on the tram and everyone gets off but I have no idea why or if I will be able to get home. Or when the cashier has to ask me 4 times before I understand she wants to know if I want a bag. And there are times when I hear fun words and pick them up and use them because they make me smile, like when I bought some garden clogs and saw they were called “tuinklompen.” Everytime I put them on, I say to my son,” I am putting on my tuinklompen” and we both laugh. And of course, we enjoy saying goodbye, Tot ziens!