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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Heart-stopping, Part twee

"FEET, don't fail me now."

If my feet could express themselves emotionally, they would be not be too pleased with the amount of walking Brussels demands.

"It's the world's second-smallest continent," I snark at their whines. "You can handle this."

Their reply is cold, unfeeling.

But, when in Europe, the best sights and sites will be found by foot. Cathedrals in their holy splendor, museums with all of history spread before you, bistros and shops from which to sample delicacies. All of these are best accessed with those beautiful tools with which the Maker equipped our legs. And so, our tour of Brussels continues à pied.

Along the way:

The icy-cold glowers of imposing edifices stare us into submission.

Along the way:

Time gets told on in the most European fashion.

Along the way:

Those that walked these hallowed streets before us, wish us godspeed.

Each city beckons us with feelings and auras unique to that place. These are the strings that move the marionettes we politely dub "tourists"; all notions of autonomy are illusory.

Of course, walking, talking, and gawking take on added dimensions when the rest of the world is revolving 'round you, caught in its daily tracks and spheres of influence. The language barrier is only isolating us further.

However, the city is pleasant; at one point, we pass a cathedral, and I swear I hear music being piped through its sound system. I am disillusioned when we pass a man on a street corner, making glorious music, solely with the aid of his vocal chords.

No artificial recordings need apply.

We eventually stumble across the main part of town. The electric current that pulses through any city's downtown region is shocking us gently; gradually the amp's get turned up, and we are on fire. Soon enough, we find ourselves drinking in every ounce of culture which permeates the streets. We imbibe the rich nectar of the clothing shops; we slowly absorb the beautiful language; we eat well.

When in Belgium, eat a waffle. I don't think they let you leave without one.

Seafood and chocolate; seafood and chocolate. These two sellers alternate, leaving a zebra-striped appearance to the city. But we don't mind the monotony.

Satiated, we walk on.

Heart-stopping, Part één

The train ran its way toward us; try as it might, it never outpaces the dawn.

It's 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. The air of Northern France breathes quite well; the only hindrance to a beautiful breathing experience is the smoke. However, this is no matter, as the olfactory senses it stimulates will serve me well as a memory bank. I need to have my memory jogged. Especially of this morning, of this day...

Things begin to unfold as soon as the train screeches to a halt in front of us. We climb aboard the local; our bleary, caffeine-deprived eyes grant us membership on the 6:45 train to Lille, France's 2nd largest metropolitan region. From there, half-an-hour on the TGV, the high-speed line, will drop us off in the capital of Belgium.

The pristine, manicured landscape we pass looks in on us. We are being observed by the neat, rolling hills out-of-doors. What do they see? Not just the country-side of Northern France, but all the nations of Europe? Perhaps the continent views us as children who needed space to grow; thus we ran away from home some centuries ago. The terrain of Europe looks inside, and wonders at urban-sprawl, and houses made of fine wood, and trucks whose roars would shame the heartiest dragon. Our interiors make the out-of-doors hum with speculation and wonder...

Or, perhaps, that noise I hear is only the sound of train wheels slowing to a halt.

Out come the passengers, a vomit of hurry and focus; the only attributes people who ride public transportation possess. My friend and I amble along; he's been to Brussels before, but never in this part of the city. The feeling of discovery sets us on equal playing fields; only the advantage of speaking a local language, a talent my travelling companion possesses in spades, will get us from point A to point B.

The list of point B's is endless and enthralling:

  • An entire museum devoted to Magritte.
  • Many exhibits on the series Tintin
  • A giant replica of an atom
  • Chocolate!
Each and every venue promises excitement and vivid experiences.

Our tour of the Capital of the E.U. begins well-enough, with a visit to a  majestic tower. This particular ancient edifice we find ourselves enclosed in is old; very old. To prove its antiquity, a beautiful display of artifacts greets us:

These public time-capsules reach inside and pull into the centuries past. And then there were the stairs:

Magnificent marble altars! Practical and beautiful, as only Europe can produce. Onward, ever upward they climb. They reach into the skies of Belgium, inviting us to ascend Valhalla as the gods in Das Rheingold do. Invitations this long-standing are not to be snubbed.

And, when the view is from this point of reference, we would be most impolite to refuse.

For the Love of Language

Through a fortunate accident, a love of language was rekindled last year. In the search for one last humanities course to make a complement, I stumbled across Spanish 101. My experience with High School Spanish was a positive one; after four years, I was comprehending with ease. Now, a chance to refresh and further my studies had presented itself, and I ran through the open door with alacrity. A chance to experience a new culture, a new way of life...

A new set of words.

Words. They are what set us apart from all the other life-forms on the planet. They tear down, they build up. They can destroy a marriage, they can make peace between tribes. Everything began with a word, and all will find its terminus in a spoken breath.

On a recent trip to France, I had the good fortune to make a friend in the Cathedral town I was visiting. Oddly enough, he was cleaning the cathedral. We made fast friends, even though the words passing our lips were just vague husks of communication. Too wide a gap existed between us for any meaningful verbal exchanges, so we did the best pantomime we could, until our meanings struck home. Which happened one out of every five attempts to speak. This encounter gave me pause. Here is man, with the same general appearance: a bipedal creature with bilateral symmetry. Each human looks equivalent to all the others, with differences no greater than one's relative position to the equator. And yet, the lack of understanding of a common language will separate us instantaneously. With this experience a burning impetus, I endeavor, with the last two months of Summer, to learn as much as I can about two languages:

Spanish: This I have some background with, and I can already speak in the past and present indicative with some effort. I will work out of a workbook named "Destinos". This is a program which allows the learner to view a video series while practicing with grammar and vocabulary. The video series follows a telenovela, a soap opera which allows the student to experience the language through real life situations. I have found it very effective, more so than the textbooks used in High School.

French: To expose myself to basic French, I am using a Living Language course by Random House. This is a set of CD's with a textbook included. The grammar is very similar between Spanish and French; the grave gulf between the two is pronunciation. With the aid of the CD's, I hope to beat my mouth muscles into submission until the pleasant sounds of the French tongue come through with greater clarity.

So an adventure awaits. It is with no little trepidation that I broach the idea of learning two foreign languages simultaneously, but the slight fear is tempered with great joy. I'll never be perfect at the languages I seek to understand, but I will gain a greater appreciation for the heritages of two mover and shaker nations in the world community. And, I'll gain backstage access to the workings of language and its origin in the human mind. I hope to share my experiences with those across the keyboard who are also interested in learning another tongue. I am sure I am not the first to journal his thoughts while exploring a few foreign languages; this endeavor is to allow me to keep my thoughts corralled as I go through each lesson. It also serves as a useful conversation starter, as my vocabulary grows through a community of fellow lovers of learning.

So come along for the ride. I anticipate a post every other day, and I will be posting my general thoughts and natural blogs as well. Soak them up, offer criticism, mold me into a blogger which can express your thoughts as well as my own.

And, happy learning!
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