5 Tips from a Rookie Traveler

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I thought it would be glamorous, this traveling from the U.S. to Europe, and back, and forth, and back, etc. My dear husband has been flying all over the United States and Europe for 30 years or more–when our four kids were young, I envied the time he got to spend in airports and on airplanes–no grubby little fingers slipping under the bathroom door, no bedtime baths and stories, no tantrums and time-outs. I would grumble to myself (or out loud) about his freedom to sit and read without interruption, or watch a movie that didn’t involve a purple dinosaur or blue dog or screeching monster. Mr. Wonderful had delicious dinners and conversations with colleagues while I ate discarded grilled cheese crusts or chicken nuggets and scolded my kiddos for laughing at each others’ bodily emissions. Little did I know…

Here’s what this frequent flyer has learned in the last few years:

1. Flights to Newark, NJ are NEVER on time and can, in fact, result in a winter break vacay at the terminal rather than Ireland (right, Maggie??), or a 36 hour trip to to Brussels.

2. You may have studied the flight’s seating chart and chosen a row with an empty seat between you and the body sleeping against the window, but just when the doors are about to close, a giant will appear in the aisle, nod his head at you with a “that’s me” and a goofy grin.  In an effort to protect personal space for both parties, you lean into the aisle, accepting the bruises from the food and beverage cart hitting your shoulder twice every hour as you reach for yet another plastic cup of white wine.

3. If you’ve been upgraded to first class on one segment of your journey, you’ll most likely be seated next to the toilet on another, with the expectation that you’re the crapper crackerjack, the water-closet warden, complete with a vacancy report and instructions for opening the door. On this segment, you’ve exchanged that coffee in a china cup for a white whine in a plastic cup (after you’ve handed over your plastic for payment).

4. Do not be fooled into thinking you’re almost home just because boarding has been announced for the last leg of your trip. You will inevitably be directed to a bus where you’ll wait 20 minutes or more for other passengers. When the latecomers arrive and the bus driver takes his seat and closes the doors to head  to the small aircraft, the bus won’t start. You’ll wait 10 more minutes so you can disembark from this bus to climb into another for the jaunt to the plane, which actually might be halfway from Frankfurt to Luxembourg.

and…

5. Living with one foot on each side of the ocean isn’t easy, but I’ll take the scrappy dinners and my bedtime routine, and I’ll appreciate those times for expeditions and adventure. Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home(s).

                          “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”                                                                                                                            -Henry Miller

 

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

 

Cooking up Conversation

I’m sifting through recipes, some handwritten, some typed, some with my editing marks. There are instructions for Kisir (Turkey), Cod Mousse and Chicken in a Pan and Cantucci (Italy), Chicken Tarragon Cake and Apple Pie (France), Orange Cake (Azerbaijan), Tart of Sintra (Portugal), and Lomo Saltado (Peru). I’m looking at the recipes with a smile, thinking of the women who contributed them…

english conversation

It’s a highlight of my week. I meet women and promote talking–about families, about cooking, about holidays and vacations (which apparently can be the same thing), about books and movies, about personality bonuses and blemishes. Because I can talk at length and listen fairly well,  it’s my privilege to facilitate the English Conversation group along with my British sidekick, Paula, at the American Women’s Club of Luxembourg.

know how hard it is to learn a new language, especially now that I live in a land of trident tongues spewing French and German and Luxembourgish. It’s encouraging to me to see these women screwing their courage to the sticking point as they speak, write and read in a language that’s foreign to them, without familiar vocabulary and grammar, without ordinary spelling and cadence. We’ve read about professions, then discussed our favorite jobs and those we were glad to see end. One woman spoke of a tutoring job she had when we was young, of a student who was “both lazy and stupid, a bad combination!” We’ve read about travel, then cited our best and worst vacations. When one member suggested her most disappointing holiday experience was in Rome, another chimed in (with a bit of an Italian accent)  “that’s not possible!”

And now our project is sharing our favorite recipes in writing for an international cookbook for the American Women’s Club. I’m learning so very much and tasting amazing food. I now know what a knob of butter is, that pearl is a type of sugar, that apple pie is delicious not only with coffee or tea but also with Champagne! I’ve grasped that to the tooth is the translation of al dente and can be used for food other than just pasta. Then there’s the realization that cantucci is not just any biscotti: this delightfully crunchy biscuit with almonds is served at the end of a meal, not with espresso but with vin santo, a dessert wine. How could I not have known about cantucci all my life? I’ve smiled as I remember that unlike French and Italian and Portuguese and many other languages, English grammar doesn’t assign gender to nouns, so  phrases like, “make the chicken into strings not before having hit him with the meat tenderizer,” or “add the sugar to the butter and beat him until he’s fluffy,” make me laugh as I think fondly of these dear women.

Though our course in English conversation may be suspended for a summer break, ideas are simmering for meaty chats in the fall. For now, here’s hoping the promises of tutoring in cantucci and meeting for  chats and coffees is, like all good pasta,  al dente.  Buon appetito!

 

 

 

 

Not just any restaurant review

 

It’s time to come to grips with reality–I’m waaaay past the point of using the excuse “I just moved here” to explain my lack of cooking–or attempting to cook–or even grocery shopping for that matter. The fact is, when I’m murmuring, “oh my gosh, it’s getting late! What will I make for dinner?” I know what I’ll make for dinner…RESERVATIONS. Whether having dinner with Mr. Wonderful or a lingering lunch with a dear friend, our neighborhood pizzeria has become our kitchen away from home, and it’s growing on us…like a truffle.

We first visited Our Restaurant just days after we arrived in Luxembourg. We were sans reservations, and were greeted by a flustered waiter who was a little less than welcoming and not at all charmed by our Tarzan French with a West Virginia accent. Generally, we can elicit smiles from the most distracted serveurs, but not this time. We ordered wine, vin rouge et vin blanc, which we repeated in French as well as English. The waiter brought two glasses of red wine, and was quite perturbed when we corrected him. As we dined, we watched customers come and go, some were greeted with the Luxembourg kiss(es), some with a handshake–we’d been greeted with shifty eyes, a nervous twitch, and a final resignation that they’re-not-leaving-so-they-might-as-well-be-seated attitude.  Being the types who wade in and ignore the more subtle nuances of European etiquette, we smiled and assumed the best, taking a smallish table near the window. The meal was delightful, the experience really was quite enjoyable as the hustle and bustle of locals filled the space.

It was inevitable that we return to Our Restaurant as, the schedule of our French classes, paired with the phrase “fully booked” from other restaurants and the rumble of hunger steered us in that direction. The restaurant is quite conveniently located just a few blocks from our apartment. Of course, it requires a nearly vertical trek home after filling our filling our stomachs, but who’s complaining? (Okay…I do…all the way up the hill…EVERY TIME). Our habit was (French class est fini) to walk from class in the city centre to Our Restaurant, arriving around 8pm, before the dinner rush on Monday and Wednesday evenings. We watch the maître d’ greet the patrons with a flourish, pour the wine with added kisses, and typically bellow at or frantically gesture for Pasquale–the somewhat detached and (maybe) confused waiter from our first visit. We see many of the same satisfied and animated diners, eat our same favorite delicious dinners,  and enjoy the brasserie drama.

And now…we are greeted at the door with the Luxembourg salute–three kisses beginning on the left side (unlike the two-kiss Italian welcome beginning on the right cheek–more later about greetings gone awry!), we can coax a smile from grumpy Pasquale, we receive a complimentary lemoncello at the end of the evening. When introducing our friends to Our Restaurant, they are welcomed as generously as we. On such an occasion, I asked the maitre d’ to take a photo of us, so he cheerfully took my phone to snap of this (not so flattering) photo instead of a pic of our group!

We’ve been scolded for using the wrong fork for our sea bass Valentine dinner (here we go with the big fish stories again!), and we’ve taught Pasquale the meaning of the word “fancy” and that we don’t wear it well. He is always happy to help with menu suggestions, to talk us into ordering the delicious and artsy pane cotta for dessert, always pouring the extra glass of wine for my dear friend and me at lunch (we pay for it, of course!). Now we feel a part of the neighborhood, like we’ve found “our place,” like we’ve reconciled our clumsy attempts of integrating with the elegance of Europe. Our neighborhood pizzeria has definitely become Our Restaurant, with the staff our quirky and loveable members of the family. Because, after all…96c19661e11912aac44401e72aaa34b5

 

The Best People

The Crown, S2:E4 “Beryl”

TONY: You’ve probably never been on a bus, have you?

PRINCESS MARGARET: (puffs on her cigarette) No.

TONY: Pity. You really do meet the best people.

I don’t mind riding the bus. When the temperature is crisp and precipitation is less than predictable, it’s worth a good hair day to check the schedule, validate that ticket on my phone, and hop on the number 28 to some of my familiar, if not favorite, places.

I’d had a wonderful morning with some friends and needed to scurry to the grocery store to grab a few (ha!) things for upcoming festivities at our apartment. The bus would be another 5 minutes and since I was most likely the oldest person waiting, I parked my tired boo-hiney (West Virginian for buttocks) on the not-so-clean wooden bench to await my extra long limo. A woman, most likely near my age, joined me on the seat then began speaking to me en francais.

“J’aime tes chaussures.” I smiled, and immediately told her, in French, that I spoke only a little of the language. She was not deterred from pursuing conversation, so I tried in my best bad French to tell her I walk a lot in these shoes, because I couldn’t remember the French word for “comfortable” (which is, of course, confortable— almost the same word with a French accent!!). She spoke a bit of English, I spoke a bit of French, as she told me her sister had a bad foot and footwear like mine would be good for her. (Was that a compliment? I hadn’t thought of my sandals as orthopaedic).

My bus arrived, and it was, of course, her bus, too. I boarded and sat against the window, and as she approached I realized she was going to sit with me, so I patted the seat and smiled at her. She introduced herself: Marianne had lived in Luxembourg for a very long time, though she was originally from Cameroon. Her skin was beautiful brown, as she pointed to her hand and said her children were the same color, though her husband is Luxembourgish. We talked about how Luxembourg is a country of peace and the people are nice. We chatted about window shopping at La Belle Etoile and cooking. She swore the prepared chicken wings at that Cactus were better than any other Cactus store in the country. She told me her husband is a good man, and asked if I had a good man, too. When I answered, she smiled broadly and we both nodded.

As we parted ways, she squeezed my hand, and I told her I hoped to see her again.

It was no random occurrence, the encounter with Marianne, in my heart or in my mind. In this place, so foreign and far from home, I’m finding a human touch, a smile, a word goes a long way in making me feel like I belong or matter or make a difference.

Have you been on a bus in Luxembourg? You really do meet the best people…

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. 

travel-plan

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.

Giant Blue Container Ship and Small Red Tugboat

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!

cremant

 

 

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.