Source: Words I Never Thought I’d Say….
It wasn’t how we’d planned our last day in Vienna.
It had been an amazing week–3 days in Vienna, a train ride for a few fairy tale days in Salzburg, then the train back to Vienna for one last evening before our flight home. We’d seen the Spanish Riding School, Schonbrunn Palace, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Opera House, the Parliament building, the MuseumsQuartier, Stadtpark. As we learned about Jewish history, and Mozart, and listened to music (Mozart and Strauss, and Verdi, and Beethoven, and more), drank good beer, saw the history of Freud and the opulence of the Hofburgs, we compared the Vienna we grew up in (Vienna, West Virginia) with this “real” Vienna. Sure, our Vienna has a river, too–the Ohio River rather than the Danube. Our Vienna has a boys’ choir, too, thanks to Janet Blessing and the Smoot Boys’ Choir. Our Vienna has woods, but the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains rather than the Alps. In this Vienna, we hopped on and off, Ringstrassed, and wiener-schnitzel-ed more than we dreamed possible.
The last, and critical, item on our list included sampling the very best desserts of Vienna–the decadent sachertorte, a dense chocolate cake including a layer of apricot jam under the dark chocolate frosting, and strudel, the whirlpool of thin buttery pastry with fruit filling. We had chosen the best locations for the sweets, in the best places, to people watch before we left for the bus stop. Then we met Rose.
She was waiting, as were we, for the bus from the airport to the Zentrum. The pretty, older woman asked us, in German, what time the bus would arrive. With our stumbling and deer-in-the-headlights look, she quickly began to speak English, and we discussed the arrival of the bus, our nationality and hers, and the warm and sunny weather. She relayed that she had accompanied her son to the airport, that he had been in Vienna to comfort her on the 2nd anniversary of her husband’s death (that day), but was headed back to his home in Zurich. Her plan was to enjoy an ice cream treat before she went home alone to her apartment.
We sat with Rose on the bus as she told us about her home in Salzburg. We enjoyed conversations around music and books, loving and missing family. As we three left the bus at the designated spot, Mark and I thanked Rose for the chat and wished her comfort in her grief, telling her we would keep her in our prayers. She grabbed our hands and asked, “Won’t you please join me for some ice cream?” The answer took not a moment of review on our part, and we followed the woman across the trolley rails and down the block, arriving at Schwedenplatz, commandeering a table for three. She smiled proudly as we ate, and introduced herself as Rose, German by birth, resident of Switzerland for many years before moving to Vienna with her second husband, Leo. She talked about their yearly tradition of attending an opera, but twice having walked out at intermission as it was too progressive. She told us she was born in 1939, that her father died two weeks after he was conscripted to serve in World War II, that her family fled to Switzerland in order to survive. And after we talked and laughed, finished our ice cream and grabbed the bill, Rose bid us farewell in the traditional three-kiss Austrian fashion. This woman, kind and wise and beautiful, grabbed both my hands and looked in my eyes. “Take care to love your husband so well,” she said, then patted Mark once more on the arm and walked away.
We never did taste sachertorte or Austrian strudel, but we did have the most delightful sampling of human nature! I don’t believe in luck, or karma, or kismet–it’s no accident that we encountered Rose, who delighted and encouraged and taught us. It was on our itinerary–not the one we made–all the time.
We missed it.
My amateur astronomer, brilliant scientist husband would have been over the moon to see the eclipse that was a bigger news flash in the U.S. yesterday than Donald Trump’s latest social media post. Our kids messaged us at various stages of the path of the moon, in various stages of excitement and anticipation. My fluency in “nag” kicked in, as I reminded my adult children to beware the dangers of looking straight at the sun, to which my offspring replied, in less than stellar fashion, “Don’t worry, Mom. We used protection.” Even today, as my daughter posted her views of the eclipse on Facebook, tagging her dad and asking him to chime in, that celestial alignment drew us closer, despite the ocean between us, the miles between us, the years and differing stages of life between us.
Here’s what we’ve gained: the undeniable knowledge that our kids are great adults, smart and kind, deep thinkers about the hard things in life, appreciative of the pleasures and challenges of living and loving. Even if they weren’t my flesh, I would want to be friends with them (though I’d give them a good warning before I dropped by so they could clean up first!). We’ve gained the world–friends from EVERYwhere, travel here and there, and a sprinkling of a new language. It doesn’t take the planets aligning, or whatever an eclipse is (sorry, honey!), for us to realize the opportunity we have here in Luxembourg is astronomical. The distance, the time, the heavenly occurrence…can’t take my sunshine away.
Music performed by my very sweet daughter!
Summertime, and the living is easy. And quiet. And deserted. The programs at churches and clubs are bare bones for the summer. There is no book club, or travel talk, or Bible study or small group, no French classes–no traffic–as everyone (and I mean the whole country) goes elsewhere on vacation. The American expats fly home to Alabama and Michigan and New York and Oklahoma and Seattle and Ohio and Texas for weeks on end, taking advantage of the completion of a school year. The EU expats travel to Italy and Ireland, to Provence and Poland, London and Latvia, the Netherlands or New York. The motorways are filled with campers and motor homes going everywhere but here.
For a week I sat here by myself, while Mark flew to the U.S. for work, still far FAR away from our kids. I did my best to stay busy, but I nearly had to break up with Netflix–it was so much easier to settle in with my favorite shows and actors and movies than to make myself join the rest of the remaining population of Luxembourg. The weekend was the hardest: despite the never-ending festivals in Luxembourg, the energy and activity of city centre, the evenings defeated me, so I called up my old friend Tom Hanks and the staff from Downton Abbey to keep me company.
Mr. Wonderful has returned, and the rest of Luxembourg is slowly trickling back. I’ve now experienced the sadness of losing three expat friends back to their homelands–just the nature of the beast here. And now is the advent of a new crop of expats, having spent a last summer wherever “home” is, squeezing out every last minute with family and friends, staying in temporary housing until the shipping container arrives, shopping for appliances with the correct plug and wattage, foraging in the grocery store for products that look familiar despite the two languages choices on the packaging being more than foreign. This summer, I’m the adviser, the info desk, and I’m anticipating the new friendships in the making.
The predicament here in this beautiful country, whether sultry summer, foggy fall, wet winter, or pretty printemps, is the coming and going of allies, fellow compatriots navigating not only the narrow roads but the wide cultural differences. I recognize that friendships exist in my life in seasons, for reasons–to teach me, to mature me–and I’m grateful for that instruction as well as the pleasure of rapport, no matter what the weather. But today? It’s Assumption Day in Luxembourg, and while this Protestant doesn’t understand why it’s a public holiday, my BEST friend is home from the office. It’s summertime and, at least today, the living is easy. Cheers!
Who likes to go to the gynecologist? Wave those stirruped feet in the air! Last week, this breast cancer survivor who, because of changed health insurance and fear of foreign francophone “female” physicians (but fondness for alliteration), FINALLY had a rendezvous with medicine. Making the appointment was simple…keeping it was challenging.
Rather than using the telephone to make my appointment, I decided, because of my anxiety in speaking French over the phone, to simply go in to the gynecology practice and make the appointment in person. I had checked my calendar first, practicing the days of the week (in French) and reminding myself of the reverse order of month and day in Europe. Those things, combined with the math involved in converting military time to “normal,” gave me the confidence to march through that door, up to the counter and say swiftly, “Anglais, s’il vous plait?” The receptionist was gracious, her English good, and I walked away with an appointment card for the next week. I had repeated, “Tuesday,” with the woman, cementing that day and the 16:00 time in my head.
Next week Tuesday arrived, and we were in the midst of that hateful heat wave–90 degrees for several days in a row. I did my chores and errands early, knowing I’d like to shower off the evidence of said heat wave before my appointment. All nice and fresh, bolstered with courage, I kept my appointment, only to have the receptionist tell me my appointment was the next day. Sigh…Tuesday had been lost in translation…Wednesday, I did my morning chores and errands, rushed home to shower off the heat wave before my appointment, and while toweling off, answer a call from the doctor’s office: she’s not in today, would I please come same time tomorrow. Thursday (still 90 degrees), I keep my morning obligations, do my chores, run my errands, and rush home to freshen up in the shower before my appointment. I arrive two minutes early, thinking there will be much paperwork to fill out since this is my first time at the doctor, but there is no paperwork, no peeing in a cup, no prior histories, just “please take a seat.”
When I’m called back to see the doctor (I only had to wait about 15 minutes), she asks me some questions about my medical history. When she asks me how tall I am in centimeters, I grin and say, “Yikes–I don’t know. We don’t use the metric system in the United States.” She looks at me sternly, asking if I have a calculator. I do indeed make that calculation on my iPhone (but okay, really I just Googled “how many centimeters is 5 foot 8 inches”). The doctor typed in the information I gave her. Next question: how much do you weigh in kilograms? Now, I’ve always been sensitive about my weight, always ashamed of being chubby. Her answer to my Googled number in kilograms was, “wow, that’s a lot.” The doctor then, in her less than warm and fuzzy bedside manner, asked, “Why haven’t you gotten your mammogram on time now that you’re in this country where you can get any medical test done and it’s paid for?” At that point, my eyes are tearing up as I relay to her that I have terrible global insurance, not my host country’s social security assurance. She nods gruffly, then escorts me to the examining room, where I undressed behind a small screen. My only comments about the exam are:
- There is no paper drape given for modesty
- The examining “chair” is much for comfortable than the table in the U.S.
- An internal ultrasound is routine
- No blood pressure was taken, no listening to the heart, no breast exam
In the end (no pun intended!), this all-business doctor actually had a tender heart. As I was leaving, she patted me on the arm as she assured me I would get the tests I needed and I could contact her if I needed any further information or help getting my mammogram and MRI. I paid for my visit, and made my appointment for next year–on a Tuesday, I’m sure!
MYTH #1: Air conditioning is not necessary in Europe. Today the apartment is in full “cave” mode–the outside electric shutters are down all the way, the windows are closed. It’s an almost-blistering 30 degrees outside. Celius. For those of us who have difficulty calculating 1.8 times the temperature Celsius plus 32, it’s 86 degrees, and the sun is beating down on the southern exposure terrace with the huge windows and beautiful views I can’t even see right now. In order to keep my cool, which is nearing depletion, I return to the apartment after my walk, let my eyes adjust to the darkness, and pray for relief from my compulsion about (not) using artificial lumination during daylight hours. This is day 3 of heat, with 3 more warmer days to come. And it’s only June.
When we were asked over a year ago by my husband’s company to provide a list of items we would like in our Luxembourg home, air conditioning was not at the top of the list, but it was more than halfway up (reminding me how grateful I am for the elevator!). The person who had requested the list scoffed in her French accent, “We don’t have air conditioning in Europe–we don’t need it.” Guess what, Valerie? When the estrogen runs screaming from your body faster than the cool air from your apartment and you have your own personal tropical climate raging with vasomotor instability (translation: HOT FLASH), the ability to cool the air is more than a luxury–just ask my husband!
MYTH #2: Ice in beverages is unusual in Europe. That much is true, however, when you’re hot and thirsty and desperate after a marathon through IKEA, you can claim ignorance on your premier trip through the McDonald’s drive-thru, requesting “trop de glace dans un grande Coke Zero.” You think you’ve excelled at using a foreign language until the voice over the speaker says, in static-laden English, “you want ice cream in your Coke????”
MYTH #3: There is no speed limit on the autobahn. Not true. That’s all I’m saying.
MYTH #4: All stores are closed on Sunday. That’s not true at all! The mini convenience stores attached to petrol stations are open on Sunday. In fact, you can fill your tank with diesel, purchase a delicious sandwich on a baguette, and buy hard liquor and a bouquet of flowers for your mom!
MYTH #5: All European beers are delicious. Aw geez–that one’s true!
MYTH #6: Europeans don’t like Americans. I am so grateful that’s (generally) not true! The easiest, quickest, most honest relationships I’ve formed in the past almost year have been with my Dutch, French, German, Scottish, Luxembourgish, Irish, Romanian, Polish and Norwegian friends and classmates. Our cultural differences lend texture to my world, causing me to accept as well as give grace, spurring me to learn as well as educate. Here in this place, in this country, these are the kinds of relationships I covet, lest I tuck away in this dark apartment rather than experience the refreshing breeze of interaction before me.
Oh, Pat! I have been thinking about you and praying for you so much lately. You’ve been on my heart. Have you become accustomed to your return to 24/7 shopping and English being spoken? I’m sure it’s quite an adjustment after all your years of living in Zurich, then Luxembourg.
First things first! Your crockpot makes me feel like I can cook again–no small feat in this country, being unable to read labels and find ingredients! Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to adopt your slow cooker. It’s so wonderful to come back after French class in the evening and smell ready soup or roast or chicken. The aromas make our apartment feel more like “home.”
Yes, we’re still learning that darned language–finishing the second course level. Mark remains incredibly determined, but I’m ready to throw in the serviette. I’m ready for a little more relaxation–Monday and Wednesday evenings are anything but!
Speaking of relaxation, I don’t have much of that compared to when we first arrived. You can probably comment on the syndrome of the trailing spouse who, looking for things to fill the time while her husband is at work and/or traveling, over commits to (good) things in order to feel useful and productive. I’m almost happy the programs will be coming to a holiday soon–I’m tired!
I’ve taken on the English Conversation group at AWCL–I was tapped for this as the current leader is returning to the U.K. Though it’s apparently preferred that a British person speaking proper English facilitates the group, someone fancied my lack of accent (they haven’t heard my trying-to-be-funny-West-Virginia accent) and my friendly, patient manner. Thank goodness they didn’t contact the Lockhart children or my husband for references! The group of women involved are a sweet, fun bunch; the nearly 18 expats are Italian or Spanish or Chilean, or Ukrainian or French, and who knows what else! I’ve said many times, “I didn’t move to a foreign country to be friends with just Americans!” These women are gregarious and accepting and work so very hard to improve their English. It’s a joy to spend time with them–and you know how I love correcting grammar!
I’m also serving lunch to the refugees at the Croix Rouge. I enjoy seeing them at lunch very much, but it’s not convenient for me to get there! If Mark has the car at work for the day, I can walk to the center, but then also stand on my feet for over 2 hours and walk home 35 minutes…yikes! I just haven’t quite figured out the bus route, despite the fancy schmancy app on my phone. I’m ashamed to be complaining about getting to the refugees…imagine their voyages to make it to a safe place…
I lead a Bible study for women on Monday mornings. It’s the way I need to start my week, to ensure my heart is in the right place, because we all know what’s down in the well is what comes up in the bucket! Mark and I also attend a small group from church on Tuesday evenings with wonderful people from all over the world. Once in a while, we spend the Sunday morning service either helping in the nursery with the wee ones, or before service starts, we greet those who come to church.
I sit at the welcome desk at AWCL for three hours on Thursday’s. (I get so see your friend Pauline when she comes to scrapbook. She’s a lovely person!). Answering the phone or being a smiling face for someone new to Luxembourg–I think I’m equipped for that =)
We’ve had a couple visitors and look forward to having more! It means so much to have someone here, seeing where we live, how we live, that some parts are wonderful and others are quite tricky. It’s fun to “show off” this country and the people and the beauty. I know folks think it’s a grand adventure to live here–and it is–but it’s not easy. I’ll stop there, lest I complain about silly things that don’t really matter!
It’s been a privilege and such a blessing to us to see our children flourishing in our absence. They’ve all had great success at work or school this year, and they seem to have grown closer as siblings. That part–that huge distance–still hurts my heart and brings a lump to my throat. I can’t fix it, so I pray it changes me for good.
I believe people are in our lives for seasons–to teach us, to love us, to encourage us, to challenge us. You, Pat, were the most welcoming person to me when we arrived. I’m so grateful to know you and won’t forget you, as I try to follow your sweet example.
Take care and keep posting beautiful photos of Alaska!
Hugs to you,
I am concerned about my husband. He spends hours upon hours in front of the computer on sites I deem to be unhealthy for him. He is drawn, fascinated, obsessed, speaking unspeakable words and sentences to his computer, unspeakable by virtue of the fact IT’S A FOREIGN LANGUAGE, to the cyber people of Duo Lingo.
Yes, we walk to our French class every Monday and Wednesday evening, spending one hour and 15 minutes with our comrades from Greece and Poland and Romania and Norway, who are not nearly as desperate to learn French as my husband, but to whom the accent and conjugations tend to come more easily. Our French teacher is patient and encouraging yet challenging–in our comprehension, both spoken and written, and our expression. Unlike Mark, I have no dream of being fluent in French. I simply want to be able to converse in what my expat friend Pat called, “Tarzan French–” a simple subject and verb, whether the right conjugation or not, would please me. Mark, ever the scientist, calculates the hours he’s spent and will need to spend in order to participate in a complicated discussion in the language that’s so beautiful when someone else speaks it.
When we were in the U.S. for the holidays, I discovered a book by William Alexander titled Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me and Nearly Broke My Heart. It’s the memoir of a 57 year old man struggling to learn the language, and his wife, a natural francophone, which frustrates the author. I presented the book to my husband, desperately hoping it might transform his dream into a more pragmatic goal, but I fear the opposite has occurred.
So this morning, as I’m enjoying reading the last of The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the peace of a rainy Saturday morning, that reverie is punctuated by a man’s voice, my husband’s voice, saying “êtes vous franc?” over and over, faster, slower, with a lilt, then finally yelling the phrase with an aside of “this is driving me crazy,” as the Duo Lingo gods refused to accept his offering of the phrase as correct. (It’s truly driving me crazy, too). Mark calls me into his study, sure he will prove there’s a technical issue with the microphone when he asks me to repeat the question. “Êtes vous franc?” I say. “Ding,” says Duo Lingo. “You’re kidding,” says my dear husband. Hmmm….usually in our case, life imitating art refers to a cartoon (think Spongebob Squarepants or Bob’s Burgers), but Mr. Alexander’s life definitely parallels our skewed life here in Luxembourg!
We’ve done lots of people watching in the past 6 months. We’ve watched diners and tourists, parents and lovers, business people and trailing spouses. Concocting tales about the public we observe is not only a fascinating pastime, but a helpful tool for us to frame our casual considerations and assimilate (or just pass the time). Here are some of the novelties we’ve experienced as expats:
Everyone in Europe wears a scarf. I’m thinking it’s not as much a fashion statement as a protection against the cool, damp air. Despite the fact that puffy jackets suddenly appear here when the temperature dips below 60° Fahrenheit (10° Celsius–doesn’t that number make you feel colder anyway?), I have yet to wear a winter coat this season, as the combination of a scarf tucked jauntily into my collar and hot flash keep me toasty–or downright sweaty–as I walk or bus about Luxembourg City.
Men carry purses. Okay, maybe they don’t really “carry” but wear them–cross body or on the shoulder–bigger, smaller–it seems purses for men make up about 50 percent of the luxury purse market. Hmmm….maybe I have seen as many men as women in the Gucci boutique in city centre as I drool outside the window. The bags don’t make the men look less masculine, just more European “and sensible,” said the woman digging her husband’s sunglasses and wallet from her formerly adequately-sized cross body reticule.
Girls on bikes are beautiful. They have good posture, long flowing hair, charming hats, and skirts that don’t get caught in the spokes or the chains. And they’re not sweaty as they peddle away with colorful flowers in their baskets–how do they bike and not be drippy???
Watch your step–dog poo plagues the path. And by plague I mean it’s everywhere on the sidewalk and in parking lots! Here we are, in beautiful Europe…one of Mark’s colleagues told him, “Ah, I see you’ve made it to the civilized part of the world,” yet in this refined age, men are still Euro-peeing and leaving dog poop on the sidewalk! My heart rate would be a lot higher on my walks if I didn’t have to dodge feces missiles every meter…or maybe seeing that special litter is what elevates my pulse.
European drivers are mercurial. Stay a second too long when a traffic light turns green and someone at the wheel behind you will certainly lay on the horn–it’s not just a little tap–he or she must certainly be reclining on the horn. On the motorway, he sneaks up on you while you’re driving the permitted 120 kilometers per hour, flashing his lights until you can skirt the truck moving at a speed of only 100. Yet, when making a left-hand turn onto a busy street, that same someone would surely stop, not just slow down, to allow you to enter the road safely. It’s a conundrum….
The Dutch are very tall. I’m not a short woman…I’m taller than my sisters and my mother and my daughter and my husband’s sisters (and my husband), taller than most of my friends, but when Mark and I wen t to the Netherlands, I felt incredibly short. Our casual observation (and aching necks) are substantiated by the website liveandinvestoverseas.com, which states that, yes, the Netherlands is the tallest country in the world. In fact, the Dutch government recently promised to change building regulations to increase the height of doorways. I’ll wager that means the Dutch have bigger feet–this Sasquatch mama needs a new pair of shoes!
There is nothing cuter than a little kid speaking French. Period.
Aaaaand…we’re back. Back in a routine–work and language class and small groups and American Women’s Club and volunteering, meeting friends for movies and coffees and meals–in a different town, in a different country, on a different continent. Our dear pastor’s wife had emailed back in December, before we departed for our Christmas vacation, with these wise words: “coming back will be difficult…..hope you don’t mind me butting in to say that, but just would encourage you to have a re-entry plan…..as in several “fun” things scheduled within the first 2 weeks you are back cause it can be rough—re-entry….” I followed her advice. While my husband is busy with his career, I’ve been busy with the business of busy-ness!
Returning to expat life bears resemblance to a vacation of sorts. Here in our neat little apartment there are no offsprings’ socks on the floor, no dishes left by the sofa, no towels on the floor, no questioning, “What’s for dinner, Mom?”, no adorable grandson running circles around the kitchen. Despite my dear husband’s extra long work days and travel for business, life here does, indeed, mimic a break from the “real” world as we knew it–before our expat assignment. Yard work, painting, repairs, and snow shoveling are unessential tasks in our apartment.
I’ve loved returning to walking to reach a destination rather than for exercise, especially as my legs returned to chunky gams while we were “home” because I don’t (walk). As I prepared for an early schlep this morning in the fog, I checked the weather app on my phone, remembering Groundhog Day is February 2, when celebrity Punxsatawny Phil predicts the remaining length of winter by observing his shadow or lack thereof. (If only the future of a Presidency could be predicted in the same manner, but I digress)! The mild winter here in Luxembourg, with temperatures rarely below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, has been a respite from snow and ice and bitter winds, but we’ll look forward to the fog and rain vanishing when spring returns–6 weeks according to the calendar–and according to Phil…big surprise…I’ll look forward to a coiffure without the fog-and-drizzle-frizzies! Good hair days are a throw of the dice anyway, but throw in that Luxembourg umbrella and it’s all over but the cryin’…and straightenin’…
The gloom of the Luxembourg skies are not helpful for this mamma’s heart missing her kids and grandkid–their voices, their hugs, their laughter. We are incredibly grateful for technology that allows us to see them and chat and almost make the distance disappear. With a few special dates on the calendar and the hope of some visitors, family and friends, I’m singing the lyrics of Lee Adams with Tony Bennett: Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face…Spread sunshine all over the place, so put on a happy face!