Posted in Travel

Plopsaland – It’s Nicer Than It Sounds!

The next instalment about our half-term trip to France, Belgium and Luxembourg, focusing on the delightfully-named Belgian theme park Plopsaland

Entrance to Mayaland, part of Plopsaland
Getting ready for a bee’s eye view

“Plopsaland – it’s not just about toilets!”

As we tour this amusement park near the Belgian seaside town of De Panne, I’m trying to devise a slogan that will do it justice, unlike its name, which sounds less than alluring to the English speaker’s ear.

Sign in Flemish with French translation
Putting Flemish first

Plopsaland is defiantly Belgian. Its directional signs are all in Flemish, with a less prominent French translation. There is not a word of English in sight – but why should there be? The polyglots of Disneyland have given us English an inflated idea of the importance of our native tongue.

Model of Maya
Meet Maya

It seems Plopsaland doesn’t especially welcome the French speaker either. When I ask an attendant a question in French, he looks at me blankly, saying “Je ne parle pas Français”. A Belgian who doesn’t speak French? I didn’t know such a person existed.

To be fair, the pleasant young man on reception spoke perfect English. He apologised that only one of the park’s many zones was open, as it receives few visitors in February. Each zone is dedicated to a different Belgian cartoon, of which Maya is the only one I know, from an encounter during my teenage years in Germany, where she was known as Die Biene Maya  (Maya The Bee). I can still sing the theme tune. (I may not know Flemish, but I do speak fluent cartoon.) Fortunately, today’s open zone is Mayaland.

Giant strawberries overhead in Plopsaland
From a bee’s eye view

The entrance to Plopsaland is similar to Disneyland’s, a vast paved forecourt curving around you as if offering a welcoming embrace. Beyond the main gates lies Flanders’ equivalent to Disneyland’s Main Street, composed of eerily deserted Flemish merchants’ houses.

On the far side of the square is a heavily disguised industrial metal storage shed. It’s like a an aircraft hangar on acid, decked from floor to rafters with giant plants and flowers, scaled up to make us feel as if we are the same size as bees. Mushrooms dwarf the entrance, and just inside vast dusky strawberries hang tantalisingly above our heads. The hall is filled with flowers that have overdosed on plant food.

Waterlily boats in Plopsaland
By the light of the silvery moon

Laura’s eyes light up. She has spotted nestling among the floral forest seven or eight classic theme park rides, each with an added a dose of bee-appeal, and fit for children from toddler to 10 (Laura’s age).

Gordon and I take it in turns to accompany her on the rides. At The Dancing Tree, we sit in a massive hollowed log which swings, rocks and revolves in an arc. Strapped into waterlily boats, we weave a graceful figure-of-eight beneath three-metre bulrushes against the backdrop of a cloudless  midnight sky.  Harnessed into sturdy plastic seats, we ascend the Redwood of dandelion stems, reaching the ceiling, before plummeting, spinning, back to the floor.

Giant slide at Plopsaland
Please don’t change lanes

On Plopsaland’s answer to Disney’s Flying Dumbos, we soar aloft in flower cups, each huge bloom accompanied by a plump, smiling bee the size of a small dog. Now and again, we haul ourselves from one side of Mayaland to the other by way of a wood raft which is attached to a rope traversing the stream that divides the hall.

I climb the giant slide with trepidation. I still bear a scar on my wrist from too close an encounter with a Welsh helter-skelter a few years ago. At least this time I don’t inadvertently change lanes, as I did on the giant slide at Horseworld, when I became unexpectedly airborne half way through a steep drop.

The Dancing Log ride
Gordon and Laura take a spin on the log
Laura and giant grasshopper
Laura meets the giant grasshopper

Providing much-needed respite for the adults is a pleasant café, offering mass-produced Flemish dishes, from erstersoepe to flammekuche. The servings are on a scale with the flowers, and Laura is confronted there by the biggest crepe she has ever seen. Perhaps park policy is to provide extra ballast on the rides – or to plunge all the grown-ups into a post-prandial snooze, allowing the children longer to play undisturbed. While we’re dining, a seven foot grasshopper strolls around shaking small hands.

The advantage of visiting in February is that there are no queues, allowing us to ride non-stop all afternoon.

Giant dandelion ride
Enough to give any gardener nightmares: the giant dandelion ride

Finally, towards closing time, we pop into the shop to scoop up thew inevitable souvenirs: plastic play figures of Maya and friends for Laura and, in the absence of branded t-shirts,  for Laura’s younger cousin a small plastic lunch box featuring the name of the gnome after which we’ve discovered the place is named: Plop. Knowing his sense of humour, we are certain it will give him hours of pleasure.

As the gates are locked behind us, we stroll slowly out of the complex, lingering to take photos and storing the concepts in our memory for future recall. Laura and I lag considerably behind Gordon so are surprised when we get back to the van to discover he is not yet there. Then the penny drops.

“I bet I know where he is,” I tell Laura.

As I march her back to the toilet block at the entrance, we see Gordon emerging from the Gents.

“I thought so,” I tell Laura. “He’d gone for a Plop.”

Plastic box with the Gnome Plop on the lid
We wonder what Laura’s cousin will keep in this box

Like to read my previous posts about our February trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands? Here you go! (Next instalment to follow soon)

Posted in Family, Travel

The Benefits of Speaking a Foreign Language

Luxembourg City road train
All aboard for a multi-lingual tour of Luxembourg

Our Easter motorhome trip across France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany provides the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to my daughter the importance of learning a foreign language. This is  something I’ve been keen to impress upon her ever since the British government rescinded the rule that made it compulsory to study French to the age of 16. 

Although I’m not fluent in any language other than English, I know enough French and German to communicate effectively in all the countries that we traverse this holiday. Even though many of their population will be far more proficient in my language than I am in theirs, I take pains to at open every conversation with a few words in one of the native tongues.

As always, the people I speak to are pleased to hear a tourist make an effort, no matter how feeble. When our camper van runs out of water on the Luxembourg border, I’m able to ask very politely at the nearest  campsite if we may fill up our tank there, even though we’re not stopping overnight, and I negotiate a reasonable rate. The gnaediges Frau in charge is devastated when the freezing temperature prevents her standpipe from cooperating, “because you took the trouble so ask me so nicely in German”.

When continuing cold weather in Trier saps the life out of the motorhome battery, I’m able to accost the nearest motorist in an appropriate manner to ask for a jump-start.

Understanding the  local road signs enables me to navigate effectively whenever roadworks stump the satnav. My husband is surprised when I explain that Einbahnstrasse means “one-way street”:  he’d thought it was just a very common road name. He’d also been wondering why so many signs from different towns directed us to the unmapped resort of Umleitung. “That’s German for ‘diversion’,” I tell him.

Porta Nigra in Trier, Germany
Husband and daughter dwarfed by the glory that was the Roman Empire

Even so, I’m happy to opt for the English language setting on the Luxembourg City tourist train commentary. It’s accessible in any one of eight languages at the touch of a button.

On the upper deck of the open-top tourist bus in Trier, plugging my complimentary earphones into the socket on the panel in front of my knees, I flick to Option 1 for English and instruct my daughter to do the same.

On the hour-long sightseeing drive, pleasant music plays during breaks in the heavily-accented commentary. We pass breathtakingly ancient attractions: a 2,000 year old Roman bridge, still strong enough to withstand 21st century motor traffic; an amphitheatre with such precisely planned acoustics that it’s possible from the back row to hear a match struck centre stage; a beautiful Roman bath-house whose high arching walls alternate layers of brick and stone simply for decorative effect.

In between the music and the commentary comes the odd practical, deadpan aside  that makes my husband and I laugh aloud:

“Please refrain from throwing anything off the top of the bus.”

What kind of tourist are they expecting? I look around for the Visigoths and Vandals that ransacked the Roman Empire, but there are none (or if there are any, they’re hiding).

Suddenly I realise my daughter did not laugh, despite this being the kind of comment that would appeal to her slapstick sense of humour. I ask her why she’s not amused.

“Well, I can’t really understand much of what the lady’s saying, because her accent is so strong,” she sighs. “All I’ve understood so far is ‘hop-on, hop-off bus’.”

I peer down at the socket for her headphones. It looks as if she’s got it set to the right channel: 1. When I borrow one of her earphones to double check, I realise what’s happened. I may not speak this language, but I know it when I hear it. She’s inadvertently tuned in to Channel 7, which looks very like Channel 1 from this angle.

“That’s Dutch!” I inform her.


Enlightenment spreads over her face and finally she starts to laugh.

“No wonder I couldn’t understand it.”

Fortunately, our hop-on, hop-off bus ticket allows us unlimited trips within 24 hours of purchase, so we go round again, this time with Laura tuned in to the English commentary. And she’s careful not to throw anything off the top of the bus.

Posted in Travel

Lost in France

Senlis - Office de tourisme
Office du Tourisme, Senlis – Image via Wikipedia

Every time I go to France, it is my ambition to be mistaken for a French woman.  This is not so much to do with my linguistic powers, but with the ability to appear effortlessly elegant.  I’m not sure why I feel this compulsion, given that I’m usually such a scruff, but feel it I do.  And I’m on holiday, so what the heck, I’ll self-indulge.

So I’ve planned my holiday wardrobe carefully, packing crisp, simple linen shifts (well,  the two that I possess, anyway).  A trilby serves as a sunhat – a regrettable necessity for my English fair skin.  (I don’t suppose that French women wear sunhats unless they have to).  Simple leather flats, just a couple of pieces of jewellery and a totebag complete the look for a stroll down to the market through the ancient cobbled streets of Senlis, half an hour north of Paris.

When I pause at the tourist office en route to ask whether there’s a swimming pool in the town, the helpful assistant, Raphaelle, asks me which country I come fro.  I experience a fillip of triumph that my accent is not immediately identifiable.  This gives me the confidence to decline her kind offer to converse in English.

Having established the pool’s whereabouts and opening hours and that it’s découverte (open air) – a welcome discovery on this hothouse of a day – I head down the hill to the market.  Carefully I choose the best strawberries in the most promising barquette , hoping I’m indistinguishable from the milling French housewives.  In my exchange with the stallholder, I take a different approach to my grandmother’s tried and trusted “speak English in a very loud voice”.  Instead, I speak French in a very loud voice.  I not only to sound more confident but feel more confident too.  To my delight, the old farmer running the stall treats me just the same as his other customers.

“I think I’m getting away with it,” I smile to myself.  Even so, I am filled with admiration for those war-time spies who successfully infiltrate a foreign country, passing themselves off as native.  Travelling as I am with my husband and his unique approach to the French language, recollections of the English policeman’s comical Franglais in “‘Allo, ‘Allo” are never far from my mind.

On my way back to the camper van, I browse the rails outside a couple of dress shops, now selling off their summer ranges at a discount.  I note contentedly that the most popular style is very similar to the dress I’m wearing.

In a little cloud of self-satisfaction, I potter back up the cobblestones.  I’m reaching the outskirts of the shopping area when a white Renault Clio pulls up alongside me.

“Madame, s’il vous plait?”

A pleasant looking Frenchman leans out of the window to peer up at me, enquiringly.

“Bonjour, monsieur,” I venture, loudly.

He fires off a rapid, complex query as to how to find a particular address in Senlis.  My smile disappears.  He might as well be asking directions to Mars.  I’m fooling no-one after all, not even myself.

“Desolee, monsieur,” I falter in a small, low voice.  “Je suis une étrangère.”

I am a stranger/foreigner.

He nods and waves in sympathy before driving on.  My confidence shattered, I take a wrong turn, lose my way, and for the next fifteen minutes, I am Lost In France.  When the camper van with its GB sticker eventually appears on the horizon, this tiny piece of home territory is a very welcome sight indeed.

Posted in Family, Travel

La Lingua Franca

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...
Image via Wikipedia

If my daughter ran the world, it would be a much simpler place.

“Why do people have different languages in other countries?” she asks as we drive past French roadside hoardings.

I explain that languages evolved before man developed the means or desire to travel abroad. Once we started travelling, I add,  we imported words from other languages. (I often worry whether my improved explanations are academically sound; I wonder how any parent can have the confidence to home-educate a child.)

I try to think of a few French words that migrated into English after the Norman Conquest.  Oh, “language” – that will be one of them (as in la langue Francaise) – and “conquest” (la conquete).  She doesn’t look convinced (or even convaincu).

Her skepticism is catching and I find myself looking out for bizarre examples of this alien lingo.  As we cycle round the city walls of Montreuil, I espy a poster advertising an event.  In large type, the name “BIGOT” stands out.  Riding shotgun after Laura, I don’t have time to check the details, but I am disappointed to realise that it can’t be a political poster.  It lacks the dreadful photo that seems indispensible in mainland European electioneering.

I’m always astonished that any politician is elected on the basis of these huge, insipid mugshots.  They’re usually posed against a bland studio backdrop, showing over-groomed and coiffed men and women smiling straight at the camera.  All the politicians look phoney.  This approach certainly wouldn’t work in Britain, where most MPs are elected in spite of their hairstyles rather than because of them.  I’m amazed that it works abroad.

Food advertising here seems to follow the same pattern.  We pass a giant poster displaying nothing but a tin of sweetcorn, the face of a woman looking vaguely startled, and the price.  It does not for a moment make me want to buy a tin of sweetcorn.  Yet presumably to the French shopper it is persuasive, as there are similar advertisements everywhere we go.

Driving in the camper van later that afternoon, we pass a shop under the name of “COFFIN”.  I’m not sure I’d want to take advantage of the sign inviting me to fill my house with its products – until I realise that it’s not an undertakers, but a furniture store.

Soon afterwards, our van’s cooking gas cylinder runs out.  Seeking a replacement, we spot one marked “MALICE” on the service station forecourt.  I do a double take.  Is this a special brand aimed at the terrorist market?  “Malice – le gaz ideal pour ceux qui preparent les bombes chez eux”?  Might be hard to get that one through customs on the way home.  (We settle instead for “Le Cube” – a square brand of cylinders, which seems rather a contradiction in terms).

Later, searching in one of the van’s cupboards for a spanner, I rediscover a handy translating gadget that Gordon has tucked away and forgotten about.  Laura is intrigued by the concept and he shows her how it works.  You input a word in one language and choose the language into which you’d like it translated.  Et voila!

But for Laura, two languages are not enough.  She inputs her own name in English, then translates it  into another language,  then translates the translation into a third language, and so on until she runs out of languages. Eventually it emerges in German as “Kopfsalat” – which I am pretty sure means “lettuce” (literally “head salad”).  We are all quite tickled by this Chinese Whispers effect, and she spends much of the rest of the day speaking aloud in a language she has made up all by herself.

And to think they say the English aren’t good at foreign languages…