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.

 

 

 

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!

 

 

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.

Dining Out, or the 200 Euro Fish

“Wow…wow…”  Mark says, every time he looks at a menu in a restaurant (whether here or in the States). He does not refer to the amazing menu, les risottos or pâtes, viandes ou piosson. No, my dear husband makes a commentary on the pricing of the menu–whether dollar or Euro–it seems he cannot hold his tongue regarding the cost of satisfying that same tongue with delicious cuisine.

In April, after we’d signed a lease contract for an apartment here in Luxembourg, Mark suggested we have a celebratory dinner. He made reservations at a restaurant on Place d’Armes at the still-too-early-for-Europe hour of 19.30 (7:30pm–military time is not for me)! Though the company paid for our meals while on this trip, Mark and I decided we would, from our own funds, pay for a special bottle of wine to accompany the meal, a bottle of Sancerre Blanc, which is definitely more pricey than the Barefoot or Dark Horse brand of wines we typically drink. We dressed up a bit and arrived at the restaurant at the appointed time. After the requisite “wow,” and pouring over the menu, we decided on a lovely fish soup as a starter. Wait staff attended us well, placing the napkin in our laps, allowing us choice of the bread they would then place on our plates, keeping our water glasses and wine glasses full. I made my request for Blue Stone Crab for dinner. The waitress looked at Mark as he said, “I’d like the Sea Bass,” which was listed on the menu for 12.90€. Mark had chosen the least expensive item on the menu. The waitress exclaimed, “oh, Monsieur, it is enough for two!” I saw my blue stone crab crawling away as Mark looked at me, eyebrows raised. I agreed to have fish as well.

The wait staff presented the uncooked, whole fish to us for our approval. We looked at each other, smiled, then nodded our agreement. Mark and I continued to delight in the attention of the staff, and the owner, as we relaxed in the restaurant. As if on schedule, the cooked, whole, salt-crusted fish is ceremoniously revealed to us, then filleted in our presence, and served. The sea bass was good, though I still had a yearning for crab! We lingered over the fish, then crème brûlée and café. It was a wonderful evening. When we eventually requested the check, Mark perused it, did a double-take, read it again, then called the wait staff over with a menu. It was explained to us that the Chilean Sea Bass we had ordered was indeed 12.90 Euro–per 100 g. The dead fish we’d been shown pre-meal weighed 1 kilo! I’m not incredibly proficient in math or the metric system, but I was astute enough to realize that fish had cost us 122.90 Euro–over one hundred fifty American dollars, not to mention the wine, starter, dessert and coffee.

Needless to say, we did not submit that meal to the expense account–we paid it all from our own pocket! Needless to say, we learned a lesson about reading the menu–look for the small print! Needless to say, we felt foolish, country bumpkin-ish. Since then? We’re not crabby.  We’re not perched on a high horse. We laugh, just for the halibut!

 

 

 

Salt and Light

Hidden away in a drawer in my kitchen is a stack of user manuals for all the appliances in the apartment–those that came with the apartment, and those for the devices we’ve since purchased. The pile is 22 cm high (that’s about 8 1/2 inches for us metric illiterates!) because they contain at least 10 languages each. Wading through those pages, hoping/praying the very next page will contain English words, is a gamble. Then, just when you think you’re on the road to using that dishwasher, you see the words, “BEFORE FIRST USE: FILL THE SALT CONTAINER.”

I love salt. I fill my salt shaker often– I sprinkle salt on my eggs, my vegetables, my potatoes…all before taking my prescription for high blood pressure. But in my DISHWASHER? A (hopefully) new friend commented the other day, “On moving here, I felt like every competency I’d ever had disappeared.” She expressed just how I’ve been feeling–cooking, cleaning, shopping, talking, driving–everything I’d done well less than 2 months ago is now a lesson in humility. Determining what kind of salt, where to buy it, where to stick it (I know where I’d like to stick it, Mr. Engineer who designed this dishwasher!) and how often is just as tricky for me weighing and labeling my produce at DelHaize, determining how vigorously Mark and I pursue interaction at church, and practicing a phone call to a restaurant asking “reservation pour deux, s’il vous plait.”

So now what? Will we let the language paralyze us as we navigate life here in Luxembourg or will we gear up on  practicing with Duo Lingo–after all, I am 5 percent fluent in French! Will we stay in our cozy apartment and ignore the culture around us, or will we have a 200 Euro fish dinner and get stuck in a parking garage (really–more on that later).  Nope, my next challenge is finding microwave popcorn I can fix in my newest appliance. The good thing is, I can season it generously with salt!