Hello. Goodbye. I love you.
The trinity of phrases you first learn in a new language. Not that it gives one any real handle on which to cling when the rest of the language comes flooding through, but there’s the hope that you’ll at least recognize the linguistic bookends. The last is usually thrown in to anchor the hope of a foreign love, possibly to entice the naive linguophile to visit the mother country and contribute to its economy. It unfortunately didn’t come up in the Rosetta Stone program for Mandarin that Mike and I were trying out, but given that we were having difficulty remembering “goodbye,” that was probably for the best. And besides, for me, “I love you,” never sounded right in any other language than English.
The reasons for this are many, but can be reduced to the fact that languages escape me. Always a bit of a dull child, despite the dreams of success as a fashion designer, as an adolescent I never had the imaginative capacity to dream of Europe. My mental Paris had only room for tall, cultured women with bright red lips and skinny cigarettes, capable of balancing on cobblestones in four-inch Loubutins. These women would be impossibly, casually stylish; a hungover French woman who hadn’t slept in 48 hours would have such je ne sais quoi, that I was unable to even entertain thoughts of a French romance. What could I possibly have to offer a French man who could tell the difference between a 2005 Chateux Lafleur and a 2000 Chateaux Cheval Blanc, from birth? A quirky “American-ness,” that would be misinterpreted as a strange mental disease? An inability to be coy and sophisticated that would bar me from the elite Parisian parties other than in the role of “cette bizzare fille”?
Ironically, despite years of studying the French language, my mother once pointed out that I probably had a natural aptitude for sign language, after witnessing an imitation of a sign language intrepreter on TV. She actually encouraged me to study it, possibly to get me to stop talking, but by then my resistance to languages, even those that required no speaking, had solidified.
Of course, at a point when the language-learning side of my brain [or whatever there used to be of it] had atrophied, I had chosen to take up not le triathlon, a uniquely American sport, but du velo. A sport that, even after [because of?] Lance’s seven-time victories, resisted translation into the English language. I always knew I should have learned Flemish, Dutch, Austrian German, or Luxenbourgish. How much simpler would it have been to rub shoulders with the likes of Bernhard Eisel, the Schlecks, or Tom Boonen? How much more at home would I have felt, sitting back avec du cafe, on Saturday and Sunday morning, had I had the foresight to master Flemish?
A lot more, that’s how much. Fussing over [read: screaming at while punching the refresh button repeatedly] a grainy, choppy live feed of Omloop and KBK this past weekend, with Flemish alternatively barking at and cooing out of my speakers, I felt more lost and confused than if I had landed in my adolescent vision of Paris. Except had I found myself in Paris, I wouldn’t have felt any incentive to breathe “je t’aime,” to a dark, handsome, stylish stranger. On the other hand, I really wanted to know what the hell was going on in Omloop.
Unfortunately, the words on the screen shared no semblance to English, save for the fact that Roman letters were being used. But Flemish announcers apparently have a sense that non-Flemish speaking fans exist, almost punching out the names of Langeveld [who I initially mistook as Lagerfeld], Flecha, and Boonen [although, to be fair, with the incredulity and slight confusion, the “Sutton” was a little hard to make out]. And as if guiding my entry into this world of pro cycling, sans l’Anglais, they even set it up Rosetta Stone style, teaching me the basics of cycling terms in Flemish. Dag. Kop van de wedstrijd. Achtervolger. Tot Ziens. Ik zie u graag.
I was never good with languages but maybe this language of cycling isn’t so foreign at all.