Of course I had taken some French classes in school. For four years. My teacher was a stiff woman with goldfish eyes. In all those years, I had never seen her smile; not once.
When I was in Drachten, the reality was Frisian and Dutch. In that order. When I was studying in Groningen later on, it was all in English. Until this day, I am still glad it was that way. The only flipside was that my French had drastically faded when my professional return to Brussels became reality. But there are no flies on a Frisian. I quickly enrolled for an intensive French course in Nice, during the summer holidays, with people my age from all over Europe. Well… I now know all small café’s and bars in Nice, know how to French kiss, eat socca, but my French…
There I was again, back in Brussels. My father drove and we rented a trailer again. The Rollebeekstraat was a predestined dream coming true. When I was a little boy, my brother and I had strolled through this picturesque little street while spending the weekend in Brussels. Apparently, at that time I said “this is where I want to live when I grow up.” Right on the high-class Zavel. With my dream job in my pocket, I moved in right at that spot, on the first floor just above a lingerie shop. When we had unloaded the van, my father drove back to Friesland. I was back on my own in the French-speaking city. The party could finally start and what a party it would become.
I soon met Frank, a flamboyant compatriot. He lived right around the corner, in Rue Lebeau. Frank drove a hot yellow BMW convertible and his business was Belgian telephone sex. At that time, it was still big business. Thousands of men got off on hot voices of girls who supplied them with fresh cassette tapes. I sometimes walked into his office and was surprised how ugly his call girls were. Fortunately, there was no video, otherwise he would not have made a penny.
Above his call centre, there was an apartment, which was rented out to a Dr Edwin de Roy van Zuydewijn. The Edwin (a few years later, he married a Dutch princess and was considered a lunatic gold-digger leading to lots of spicy gossip news). Frank knew everyone and organised wild parties at his place. If you were out of luck you would crawl back home at the end of the evening. However, most people were just knocked out and simply stayed or crawled to another place. There, the girls and boys were a lot more handsome.
He introduced me to Brussels. His favourite hangout pub was Chez Richard, across the street from my apartment. “This is The Pub,” he said. “This will be your pub; I will make sure you will feel at home here.” On Friday nights, after work, “The Chez” was chock-a-bloc. “All regulars,” Frank said. The only language that was spoken was French. “Bonsoir Frank, salut Hugues”. The bartender passionately kissed his Dutch client on the cheek. Apart from improving my French, I also had to get used to kissing men. Frank introduced me and said: “Hugues, je te présente Wytze, un compatriote qui vient de déménager dans notre quartier, juste en face.” The bartender kissed me as well. Yikes.
“Bienvenue Whitsky” said the garçon, “Bienvenue chez Richard!”. I immediately apologized for my appalling French, but Hugues thought nothing of it. In broken, but very charming Dutch he said: “A frind of Frank is a frind fram oll and you will learnk. Ze most important is zat you feel chez soi and zat you get to know ze clientele.”
Hugues would introduce me to the other regulars. I became one of them. This was a breakthrough, a kind of warm bath in a new living room. I asked him in my rough French what I should say. He said: “Simply say ‘Nice to Meet You’. Say: ‘Bonsoir, je m’appelle Wytze; comment tu avales?’”. That sounded pleasant. Nice to meet you, I am Wytze, how are you? The routine was the same every time, Hugues would introduce me, I would kiss them and roll out my newly learned sentence. “Je m’appelle Wytze, comment tu avales?”
The responses were overwhelming. Better yet, the whole bar was roaring with laughter. What was going on? I asked Frank, who, with a smile, explained that “avaler” means to swallow. I had gone through my little ‘Chez Richard’ baptism moment. Looking at it from a positive point of view: everyone knew who I was. Even now, sixteen years later, when I am there having a beer, I hear people say: “Ça va mon ami, tu avales?”
Nevertheless, the higher goal was met, Whitsky had his hangout in Brussels.