I thought I would share a story with you about how tourism sometimes works in Europe when spoken language fails.
I pulled into my apartment garage, not far from Grand-Place in the old part of Brussels. The fuel gage registered an eighth of a tank. Okay, low but safe enough. In the morning, I was only going to Waterloo, about 10 miles (16 KM) away so I thought I would wait to fill up until I reached the battlefield.
When I cranked the engine at 9:00 a.m., I noticed the gas fairies had syphoned off a sixteenth to make my trip a little more interesting. Fine, Waterloo beat Napoleon but it wasn’t going to beat me. I set off on the ring road at 80 KPH but soon I was going 60, then 40, then 20. I ran out of gas in the woods somewhere in the Sonian Forest. Crap!
I used the roadside phone system to call for help. Within the hour, a small Yugo cut in front of me and almost tipped because of a set of wrecker lights on its roof. He backed up close to my bumper. We got out.
Under the stress, I suddenly forgot every word of French I had learned so here’s how the conversation went.
“Do you speak English?” I asked.
“Nooooo, parlez-vous français?”
“Nooooo. ¿Hablas español?”
“Nooooo, Heeft u Vlaamse spreken?” (Flemish, if you’re keeping score)
“Nooooo, sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
“Nooooo, parli Italiano?” The grizzly little man dropped the last of his cigarette and kicked it under his car.
“Nooooo, Você fala Português?”
“Nooooo, czy znasz polski?”
“Ah, no.” I panicked. “Gas? Petrol? Putt-putt juice? Alcohol? Anything that might burn? A match? I’ll pull a tree down and stuff that in the tank.”
We stared at each other. The man shrugged and turned to leave. I grabbed his arm and pulled him around to the gas tank lid. I tapped on the tiny door.
“Oui, je vous remercie! Essence sans plomb?” YES, thank you! You crazy bastard.
Using sign and written language, we started to make progress. He explained to me he represented the European version of our AAA. I had to buy a membership before he could give me unleaded gas. The cost of the membership was about $300 USD; it was good for three years AND it was transferable. I was due to cycle home in two months and I didn’t know anyone in Belgium who could speak this man’s language, so that wouldn’t work.
I offered him $50 (1500 Belgium francs) for a litter of unleaded. Man, he just couldn’t do it. But he was able to give me all of the leaded gas I could use, for free. He showed me 7 five gallon military gas cans in the back seat of the Yugo but he warned it would burn up the engine within 30 kilometers. Great.
There was one more thing he could do for me. He could tow me to a gas station, no charge. Without waiting for a response, the man reached into his trunk and retrieved a rope. After tying one end to the Yugo, he walked to my front bumper and secured the other end.
“What are you doing?” I asked in baffled sign language.
“It’s alright, if you get too close to me just slam on your brakes. But don’t ride the brakes!” He acted out the scene.
The AAA man started the Yugo, turned on his flashing lights and pulled me over the rise in the road to a gas station about 50 yards down the hill.