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!

 

 

 

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!

and, finally

There is nothing cuter than a little kid speaking French. Period.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Re-entry

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!

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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.

 

 

In the Market for Christmas!

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, and it has been since before Halloween! Here in Luxembourg, stores began holiday displays before All Saints Day–maybe because there’s no distracting Thanksgiving celebration in between–but probably because Christmas in Europe is beautiful and the traditions varied, and we’re doing our best to sample them all!

Christmas markets, Marché de Nöel, Weihnachtsmarkt, Christkindlmarkt are lovely little holiday villages that pop up in city centers and villages across Europe during Advent and sometimes beyond. Shoppers stroll about, clutching a glass or ceramic mug of glühwäin in one hand and mettwurscht in the other, the aroma of mulled wine and sausages wafting through the nippy air. Decorated wooden stalls display homemade goods and crafts, Christmas ornaments (some made locally and some, unfortunately, from China), breads, candied nuts, more sausages, chocolates, leather and wooden commodities, chestnuts roasting on an open fire (for real!),  and any form of drink. Christmas music plays–American Christmas tunes, played by brass band, sung by choir or soloists–people are humming along, laughing and talking, oohing and aahing . Mark and I have been to markets in Luxembourg City, Dudeldorf (a very sweet market in a tiny German village), and I’ve traveled in Germany to the markets in Mainz and Weisbaden with the American Women’s Club of Luxembourg. When visiting markets, wandering through the stalls with a warm beverage (you can keep the cup!), it is advisable to keep your bag zippered closed and avoid being jostled–not because of pick pockets, who certainly exist in any gathering–but because one could spill her spiced (and spiked!) eggnog in her fairly new purse. NOTE: Febreeze is not sold in Europe.

And those pretty little Christmas table decorations? The wooden, tiered scenes with the candles that make the blades on top  go around? Well, Saint Nicholas, since today is your day–I’d really like one of those German Christmas Pyramids in my huge stinky shoe. I’m might be a day late, but maybe Saint Mark, mon marie extrodinaire, could put a light under someone’s, well…

christmas-pyramid

There’s no doubt that Christmas in Europe is magical, whimsical, remarkable, but there’s no place like you-know-where for the holidays.

 

 

 

What doesn’t kill you: expat epiphanies

I’m not a weenie, a wuss, a weak-minded woman. I’ve survived – even thrived – in some fairly adverse circumstances. But, quite honestly, being an expat, a “trailing” spouse, a foreigner– can be precarious in the best of times. As the holiday season begins, as families consider going over the river and through the woods…well…for this expat, it’s all downhill from there!

I’m sure the weather here in Luxembourg (rain, rain, and more rain) doesn’t lift my spirits, nor did my husband’s extended-at-the-last-minute trip to the U.S. last week. Being alone in another country continent is plain odd. I’ve lived places in the past besides my home town, but it was with my husband AND children, so that when Mark traveled, I had the kids keeping me spinning, paired with the comfort of their “I know, Mom,” mantras. Then, as the kids (mostly) grew up and left us, I had the routine of my job, the camaraderie of coworkers, and the congregation of my church to keep time flying. Now the days are long, daylight is short, and my heart is a bit cold in relation to being away from my…relations.

Thanksgiving is drawing nigh. In the United States. There is no Thanksgiving holiday in Luxembourg, though a smattering of celebrations can be found. Here, turkeys must be ordered (and may not fit in the small ovens), canned pumpkin is nowhere in sight, and Thursday is just another day at the office (or home alone in the apartment)! There will be no kiddos stumbling downstairs and into the kitchen, no offspring sniffing the air and asking “what time are we eating?” There will be no Scattergories or Settlers of Catan or Macy’s parade while I prep and cook and watch the family fun. There is, however, a rehearsing of gratitude, a chorus of gratefulness. My dear husband and I have a strong, affectionate marriage–we enjoy each other’s company. We have four (our dear daughter-in-law makes 5!) children who are accomplished, kind, funny people. We have the cutest grandson in the world, who is learning integrity and compassion from his parents. I survived sepsis, the illnesses of and death of a parent and parent-in-law,  breast cancer, an exile to Georgia (the state), and vacuuming around dead people in a funeral home–our home–for over 2 years. We’ve (Mark is a willing and wise participant) stumbled through all this and more, regained our footing, and continued to wait on that “peace that transcends all understanding.”

This is a wonderful place to live, a once-in-a-lifetime-experience to garner. BUT it’s not easy–to live/work/drive/shop here, to be away from our kids and extended family, to work in an environment where English is spoken only when necessary, to have no friends (yet) who know us deeply and love us anyway. BUT again–we thank our God every time we remember you. In all our prayers for all of you, we always pray with joy. Thus says the Apostle Paul in Philippians. This Thanksgiving, I’m sticking with him.

 

 

Coffee Klatsch

Coffee. I miss meeting a friend in a coffee shop, warming my hands around a LARGE steaming mug of the aromatic, dark drink, chatting without end as the waitress brings the pot to “top off” my cup. I miss being asked, “Cream and sugar?” so I can respond, “No thanks, I take it black and bitter!” Last week, I had a wonderful conversation with a new friend over coffee for me, tea for her. The company was great, the cup was small–not even the width of my hand, and there were no refills, free or otherwise…

Like all of us, this beautiful beverage has a history, dark and bold. In the 16 century, a shepherd noticed his little goats bouncing off the Ethiopian plateau after eating the berries from a certain tree. The shepherd took those berries and reported his observations to a local monastery. The monks devised a brew from the beans and drank it to keep themselves from dozing during dusk devotions. The pep-producing beverage gained a reputation which spread quickly, along with the beans (www.ncausa.org). By the 17th century, coffee had spilled across Europe, replacing the usual breakfast drink of champions–wine or beer. Apparently, replacing the dawn draft with coffee invigorated workers, assisting their energy and effectiveness (according to the National Coffee Association of the USA). Hmpff…truly, critical thinking, powered by mocha, at its finest!

And now, as Mark and I find ourselves in the heart of Europe, I’m missing my American-get-a-large-for-a-buck coffee from McDonald’s. Though I do love my java black, espresso is not my thing (there’s not enough in a shot for lingering). And poor Mark, who loves half and half in his brew…coffee with milk after breakfast is frowned upon, and we can’t find dairy which translates as the whitener Mark prefers. So we smile as we swill a cup o’ joe down to the last dune of sludge in the mug and ponder the differences in caffeine culture (that’s not what keeps us up at night!), drinking in the antioxidants and the European world around us.

 

 

 

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!

 

Punks and Apologies

We were excited for our long weekend in Barcelona. Mark and I researched what to see and do when we met up with family from the US in Spain. High on the list was the Picasso Museum, tapas and sangria, the Gaudi architecture, sangria and paella, the Mediterranean Sea, sangria and tapas, the Magic Fountain, paella and…well…Besides those anticipated highlights, I’d been told by two separate acquaintances of purse snatching in Barcelona–both had lost phones, money, credit cards, and passports–pickpockets have mastered their trades in the city. All advice pointed to keeping passports in the hotel safe and carry copies, wearing cross-body bags with all zippers zipped, putting wallets in front pockets while keeping your own hand in that pocket (minimizing room for an additional hand!). Beware, we were told, of busy intersections, distractions. and the biggest attractions.

Exploring with my dear cousin, Laura, and her husband was such a treat! We enjoyed each others’ company so much, and appreciated Craig’s fluent Spanish to help us along the tapas trail from the Picasso Museum to the Sagrada Familia. As our quartet approached the structure (still incomplete after 100 years!), we sang our “watch your pockets” chorus, checking the position of belongings, going into high alert mode. We walked around the funky, beautiful church, looking up and admiring both the modern and the gothic side, taking pictures, chatting about the history of Sagrada Familia and the architect who designed it.  As in many parts of the city, hawkers of trinkets spread their cheap (imported–not even handmade!) wares on a cloth on the sidewalk. As we talked, I noticed a young man setting up shop near us.

Moments later, I was snapped out of the conversation with a yelp (Mark called it a girly scream) as someone stomped on my foot, and I teetered as I was shoved, nearly losing my balance! My first instinct was to grab my purse and look around to alert my family–I was afraid this was an attempted theft. Yet, as I turned to speak, a policía passed in a blur, tackling the young man I saw running with his bundle of goods. We all looked at each other–our eyes huge–as Mark and Laura and Craig made sure I was in one piece. As the policía walked back toward us, holding the kiddo by the scruff of the neck, we tried to move out of the way to allow their passage. Instead, the officer walked right up to me, holding onto the boy, speaking to him in Spanish. Then the boy looked at me and spoke–I had no idea what the words were, but I knew he was saying he was sorry for hurting me. The surprise of that nearly rendered me speechless, as I muttered, “Thank you, I appreciate your apology.” As they walked away, Craig said the policeman said to the young man, “For 4 Euros you hurt this lady?”

I was not badly hurt–my foot remains a bit sore. At the time, a “bit” of sangria and tapas removed the pain and fear! We told and re-told the story, laughing, exaggerating, musing what consequences awaited the kid. The remnants of my surprise, however, are at the manner in which the police handled this situation. The conversation Craig relayed to us reminded me of a father speaking to his son, of a parent teaching a child to ask for forgiveness and to count the cost of his actions. The lesson for me is to remember who has forgiven me all and taught me to forgive in return. The example is deep, the practice endless–on both sides of forgiveness.

 

 

 

This little piggy

Convenience:  anything that saves or simplifies work, adds to one’s ease or comfort,etc., according to Dictionary.com.

From this definition, there are different categories of convenience–an electric mixer or having laundry facilities close by definitely saves work! I wanted to make chocolate mousse last week, but having only a whisk and flabby old arms…well, I made brownies instead. Having a vehicle to use definitely adds to our ease of getting out and about, that is, until we encounter minuscule parking spaces and the need to exit the car through the rear hatch because the doors won’t open wide enough for the body matching those arms! And how this hot-flashing woman longs for the comfort of air conditioning, or screens on the windows…

This weekend, Mark and I had planned to go to the grocery store on Saturday. Not a big deal, you may say. BUT!  Stores here are open until 6:00 some evenings, 8:00 others. We had a very full day Saturday video-chatting with family (it’s not convenient to do so during the week, due to the 6 hour time difference). We tidied up, chatted with one family member, then another, then another… and before we knew it–7:30 pm. No time for the grocery store! (We still had coffee, wine, and cheese, thank God!). Plan B: DelHaize closes at 1 pm on Sunday, swing by after church and buy the toilet paper and water and laundry detergent and milk and bread…Needless to say, whisk a loquacious pastor into the mix, and this little piggy did not get to market!

The good thing is, Mark and I are learning to plan ahead–for shopping, for dining, for traffic and filling up the gas tank. Our tummies are syncing with the restaurant timetables (no early bird dinners!). Our fridge compensates the small quantities in which foods are sold here. While I waffle (we’re very close to Belgium, you know) on the reasoning behind such a way of life here, it does remind me of a simpler life, of a better balance between work and leisure,  rushing and resting.  In the meantime? This little piggy’s running to DelHaize to get some roast beef!