An American nun goes to Nederlands class

Lace led me to Bruges, but learning Nederlands/Flemish (the local language) may keep me in Bruges. I blithely arrived for a month-long stay four years ago thinking my reasonably proficient French was all I needed. In the convent, my French was welcomed and even applauded as I was an American who spoke something besides English! The Béguinage is international and over the years has welcomed ‘prospective sisters’ from Scotland, France, Switzerland, and Martinique to name a few countries, and of course Belgium. The language of the convent for many years was French but Sisters, as did the Béguines before them, commonly learned other languages and switched between them in daily convent life. This is still true! The Béguinage still welcomes novices from around the world to a vocation of continual daily prayer and praise to God and language is not a problem! Since the 1980s the language of the daily offices has been Nederlands for five offices and Latin for Vespers and Compline. So I was fine in the convent…..

belgian pastriesTo my complete surprise Bruges was Flemish speaking, so to buy the occasional pastry and the obligatory postcards I was a TOURIST. Flemish is a dialect of Dutch and the history of language here in Belgium is worthy of many books by others more qualified than I. There are two sections of Belgium: Flanders, Flemish speaking, bordering the North Sea; and Wallonia, French speaking, bordering France and Germany. God made it very clear to me that as long as I spoke only English I would stay a tourist in town. How to remedy this situation? Learn Nederlands!

That sounds easy enough. In the United States, you find a class, sign up, pay your money, and begin your studies. It is not that simple in Belgium. Here, a willingness to both submit to and learn from other cultures and countries comes in very handy. I needed to be interviewed. Many new to Belgium are obligated by their visa or refugee status to take language and initiation classes. I was not…. So why did I want to take Nederlands class? Here being a nun in a country with a centuries-old Catholic heritage helped the simplicity of my response to be believed. “I want to be able to buy my bread in the store.” An intelligence test was next on the list, which was mercifully waived when it was discovered I had indeed been to University and I was a lifelong teacher! The next question was, how much Flemish did I already know? That amounted to nothing…but I could repeat the Hail Mary and the Our Father from daily rote memory at convent daily offices. This I proceeded proudly to do. The interviewer turned all shades of red and I suspected my accent was frightening and possibly even offensive, but no…. He mumbled that he had not heard these since grade school and was somewhat aghast that I had a Flemish accent! Well I tried respectfully to respond, “As I sit next to seven Sisters for seven services a day, that is to be expected I guess.” So…I was in; I could go to class IF I could keep up!

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