Seasons in Luxembourg

It’s the leaving season. In the past few days, two of my dearest friends left Luxembourg, and in days to come, two more sweet women, as well as others I’ve been privileged to know, will depart with their families. If they return someday, it will be as tourists, guests, “friends who are visiting,” not as fellow expats navigating this adorable little country. It’s the heart-wrenching leaving season…my least favorite season of all…

My phone has been pinging so often, with questions to a group chat like, “Who needs a hand blender?” or “Mint extract, anyone?” or “I’ve got bottles of toilet cleaner–who wants ’em?” As those departing prepare to return to a country using 110 voltage or a different plug, and their packers have given them lists of forbidden items in the shipping container, they’re desperately clearing their homes while clinging to friendships. You see, living in an unfamiliar country or language or culture is a catalyst for relationships, as piloting through unknown waters together fastens people  in a bond held strong by experiences recounted or fear of the unknown. Butchering the language with someone is so much more enjoyable than floundering alone, d’accord? How comforting it is to laugh about the lack of online registering and the lunch hour closures of government offices when trying to renew that ever-expiring resident card? And then there are the lingering lunches on the terrace…

We don’t forget or replace our friendships “back home.” In fact, many of the people I love spending time with here in Luxembourg remind me of someone in New York. The candor and humor, the laughter and conversation, the compassion and service…I can draw lines to match Luxembourg friends to New York friends (or West Virginia family), regardless of language or nationality or accents or looks. The phrase “having the best of both worlds” takes on a whole, friendly new meaning.

family

And now,  as expats move back to their home countries or next assignments in order to be settled before the school year begins, friends and family arrive here for visits, a lovely reminder that the longevity of friendship has little to do with location, but much to do with the heart and desire. The leaving season is upon us, and though it tugs at my tear ducts,  a lifelong alliance with the leave-ER is a sweet memento of life in Lux.

Best-Friend-Symbol

 

Back in the Saddle Again!

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!

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,

Diana

 

Let’s Be Frank

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!

 

 

 

Absence Makes the Heart Grow…

We’ve been “home,” back in the U.S. for a visit, for 5 weeks now. The reunion with our kids was sweet, the holidays with them poignant and hilarious. Visiting with my mother and extended family was precious. Lunch dates, dinner dates, coffee dates (finally a huge, refilled cup of coffee!), breakfast dates, shopping dates–time with friends was so very special–recharging us, refreshing us as we caught up on lives and families and jobs–and the weight we’d lost when in Luxembourg! Stretchy pants have never been so appealing!

So now we prepare to go home…to a home in Luxembourg, while we’re home in New York, after we made a trip home to West Virginia. Have I betrayed my home where the kids grew up, the home where I grew up, by saying maybe I’m ready to “go home” to  a tiny routine in a tiny apartment in a tiny country in Europe? How on earth do we balance life here with life there? How can we be so very grateful for the decades long friendships we have here, along with our beloved family, yet yearn for the months long friendships we’ve formed in Luxembourg?

What is home? Where is home? My permanent address, my habitat, my sense of belonging are some components in the home construction. Author Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in Smithsonian Magazine (May 2012)  that home is a way of “organizing space in our minds.” If there’s no place like home, and home is where the heart is, and a house is not a home, and a home is built of love and dreams, and you can feel “at home” yet not be home…I’m wrestling with the organization of that space in my racing mind and my fickle heart.

But here’s what I do know: my home is with my dear husband, my French study buddy, my fellow adventurer, my best friend. We’ve made a home together in a trailer in West Virginia, funeral parlor in New York, a neighborhood in rural Georgia–why not an apartment in Luxembourg City? While we’ve been home, I’ve enjoyed my 24-hour Wegmans and Walmart, large and plentiful parking spaces, hearing English all around, and toting my monstrous dollar coffee from McDonald’s. I’ve cherished the time spent with family and friends.

Yet, we’re anticipating a return to cultural cacophony and feeling at home as we navigate the hurdles in our home across the sea–continuing to learn another language and the public transport system, continuing to forge friendships and connections, continuing to explore the history and beauty of another continent.  My heart is in this transition back to Europe, and yep…it’s true…home is where the heart is.

 

 

Round and About

I’m writing this as I sit on a…wait for it, because it was 10 minutes late…a bus! I’m on my way to meet some ladies for a cinema matinee. My hope was that an American movie would provide for me the inspiration and motivation I needed to hop on the bus. Returning home to our almost cozy apartment will give me the guts to get back on! As I waited for the bus, a pretty, older woman who was also waiting asked me a question, in French, of course. I understood! I was able to tell her, in French, that this would be my premiere bus ride, that indeed, but number deux cent vingt deux  was en retard; we had a short dialogue all in French. We communicated, and just like that, one of the cultural limitations here was conquered (or at least encountered without my stammering “Je suis Americaine,” and running away). A second chain of culture was bent when I stepped up on the bus. These two little things truly bolstered my confidence and my courage.

Yesterday, Mark suggested I drive him to work, since I had my (first) hair appointment and the need to have a document notarized. As we were making our way toward Mark’s office early yesterday morning, seeing the sign, “Belgique 8 min” amazed me all over again. When I drove to the other side of the city, I saw the sign pointing to Germany. And we’ve been to France a few times since we arrived. So there was something special to me about arranging my errand for the notary, since I had to go to the US Embassy. What I was expecting when I saw the American flag waving on the property behind the barriers was maybe a warm welcome, a bit of small talk, a little “where are you from?” and “how about Donald and Hillary?” As my bag was being searched and I was escorted by uniformed men who were not American, I realized the folly of my fantasy. However, kindness was indeed employed on both sides, and, for a large fee of 50 US dollars,  my document was notarized. In one day, I drove solo through the narrow, busy streets of the city, drove on the highway, went through many roundabouts, paid for parking in a lot and parking on the street, prayed (as my hair was processing) my car wouldn’t be towed due to an expired parking pass, and visited a tiny little bit of my country.

That was yesterday. Today? Good thing I got that conversation and bus thing going, because I’m going to have to do it all again next Friday–I was a week early for the movie!

 

 

The Wheels on the Bus

I’m in possession of a little card that’s burning a hole in my pocket. It’s not a credit card or a gift card, but is as good as cash–Euros, that is. The value of the card is not the factor causing my tight grip. Nope, my grip is activated by fear–fear of making a mistake, fear of getting lost, fear of appearing stupid when I don’t know how to use that little card and the system it represents.

It’s no secret that public transportation is prevalent, necessary, and encouraged in Europe. Roads are teeny tiny, parking is limited, fuel is expensive. We’re a one-car-family here in Luxembourg. My husband takes the car to work and I walk. I walk to the grocery store (1.1 kilometers away) and buy what I can carry home. I walk to the American Women’s Club of Luxembourg, or my friend Karen takes pity on me and picks me up on her way! Mark and I walk to our language classes near the City Centre, then walk to dinner in the City Centre, then walk home again (nearly 4.5 kilometers).

Walking has been good for me. The waistband of my pants is a little less painful, my skin is glowing (from sweat or hot flashes), and I’ve got a bit more zipadee in my doodah–whatever that means! Alas, the weather will soon be cooler and wet, and perhaps I’ll want to purchase more than I can carry for a distance. It’s time for the next big step, the one that gets me on the bus. I have a handy-dandy bus card, filled and ready for 10 trips–even more if trips are within a two hour window! I’ve studied the maps, memorized the stops, plotted my journeys. Yep–it’s time to screw my courage to the sticking point and hear the driver say “move on back,” en français, of course!

 

Watch your language!

Duolingo only goes so far. In French, I now know how to refer to a black cat, the red dress, and to identify men who are rich and calm. The bells and pings associated with correct responses on the app are incredibly rewarding, and when that bubble pops up saying I’m 15 percent fluent in French–oo la la! At that point, I’m positive I can have a meaningful conversation with all of French-speaking Luxembourg! And then…I’m in DelHaize in the checkout line with my little pull along basket instead of the bigger “chariot.” A friendly associate approaches me in the busy store, français flying, and I attempt to decipher her words, expression, and gestures. She doesn’t understand why I don’t understand, and just like that, we’re in a language stand-off. I’m defeated again, as the sweet cashier takes pity on me. That’s right…this has happened before…

Now my dear husband and I spend two evenings a week in a classroom. Our beginning French class includes students from Norway, Romania, Poland, Portugal, Germany, Russia, and Australia. Mark and I are the oldest in the class by 30 years, we’re the only Americans, the only ones who speak only one language. The teacher is young, kind and encouraging, speaking French alone all class, as she directs us to dialogue with each other. After four classes, our confidence is growing. Just last weekend, as Mark waited for me at IKEA, he phoned and made reservations at a restaurant–EN FRANÇAIS!! Last night as we were dining with friends and were introduced to the owner of the restaurant, he asked if I spoke French. I replied in my most practiced, “Je parle un peu de français.” His comic response, with his Luxembourgish accent was, “Sounds to me like you speak a little American!”

Truly, the people in Luxembourg have been warm and welcoming. The language barrier makes us more uncomfortable than it does them. Mark and I will most likely never be fluent in French, and we’re okay with that. We would appreciate, however, being able to skipper this European adventure in a more manageable way, without language blowing us off course!  In the meantime, I’ll be practicing…les robes sont rouges…la femme mange une pomme…and using Google Translate.