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…

Talking Turkey

Lest I beat a dead turkey, I cannot let this Thanksgiving holiday pass without my inventory of gratitude. Because that list would unfurl like a roll of toilet paper, I’ll confine my obligation to five things I’m thankful for in dear little Luxembourg…

The weather 

As I look at the weather app on my phone and see days and days of 6°C, as compared to endless tundra of -9°C in motherland, this mother is grateful it’s cool enough to ward off hot flashes, yet balmy enough to keep those nose hairs from freezing! And how very humorous that a country with a distaste for air-conditioning also has a law against allowing the car to run on cold mornings simply for the purpose of defrosting the windshield!

The views

Maybe I’m just not over Europe, but there’s still a sense of awe when I look out my window. As I look past the dead (nearly) geraniums in the window boxes on my terrace and see the roof-line of the houses below, small billows of white from the chimneys, I fall in love with Luxembourg all over again.  I feel comfortable in the landscape here–the countryside reminds me of my native West Virginia until that moment of “Oh look! a castle!!”

The history

I’m mesmerized by World War II–the facts, the families affected, the fallout. I’m drawn to the resiliency of the people, the resolve to move on, the remembrance to honor. Whether it’s Gëlle Fra –the Golden Lady in Place de la Constitution, or Winston Churchill (in his own Place), or the American Military Cemetery in Hamm, tears of gratitude come for the sacrifices for freedom. And then, just as you’re out for a leisurely stroll, you discover this       marks pic

and the tears come yet again…

The wine

A picture is worth, well, you know!wine

The people

Over the years, we’ve had friends from many places in the world–Italy, Belgium, Argentina, South Africa, Germany–and friends who’ve lived many places in the world, either as missionaries or in private industry. We’ve always enjoyed those friendships, appreciated the differences in culture and traditions. But there’s nothing like now meeting those friends on their soil. The generosity (in word and deed) of my Dutch friends, the laughter and warmth of my Italian friends…the humor and encouragement of my French friends, the energy and sass of my Spanish friends…and the acceptance and love of my Luxembourgish friends, to name a few! I adore my friends from Poland and Ireland, and Romania and Uruguay and Finland and Scotland, and Canada and England and Slovakia and Germany…see what I mean? What a wonderful mix of personality and nationality, and I’m more than grateful this anonymous quote applies so well to my life in Luxembourg ♥ “A friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.”

 

Physician, heal…

I should’ve listened to my gut when I called to postpone my appointment and no one spoke English. Oh, wait–my gut was the reason for having this procedure, stopping my beloved reflux medicine for two weeks, giving up coffee and wine and anything that tasted good or was called “food.” I should’ve remembered having no paper gown to cover up my broad backside when I went to the gynecologist, no ugly cotton gown with a grandpa’s pajama print to cover me while waiting for my mammogram. That time, all I could muster to keep modesty tears from my eyes was my little sister’s joke: Did you know the bra was invented by a German? He called it the “Schtoppschemfromfloppshen!” (Please forgive me, my dear German friends, but it makes me laugh–every time!).

In the meantime, waiting for November 2, I did my research on WebMD and MayoClinic.com since it was difficult to translate the brochure sent by the Centre Hospitalier. From what I could decipher, sedation would be available for those who were anxious about the procedure. I’d had an endoscopy 30 years ago; I remember little about it, only that I had a bit of a sore throat the next day. When I Googled “what to expect during an endoscopy,” here’s a portion, the portion I clung to, of what I found:

Sedation. For most examinations with an endoscope, a sedative is provided. This increases the comfort of the individual undergoing the examination. The sedative, which is administered via an injection into the vein, produces relaxation and light sleep. There are usually few if any recollections of the procedure. Patients wake up within an hour, but the effects of the medicines are more prolonged, so it is not safe to drive until the next day (WebMD.com).

Oh, yes, I recall the dreamy sleep from sedation (if only I’d had it during my children’s teenage years). I knew then, without a doubt, I would be sure to ask for sedation, maybe even some in a TO-GO bag! There was my homework before the procedure: learning how to ask, in French, for sedation without seeming like a weak American. After all, I’d labored with and delivered four children without even a Tylenol! Surely I’d earned to right to a little calm and “light sleep” while a doctor rammed a hose with a camera down my throat all the way to, well, who-knows-where…

Now, here I am, a few days on the other side of the procedure. I did ask for sedation, but I was more than wide awake and a little anxious during the endoscopy. I don’t believe what they put in my vein would even earn the label “Sedation Light,” but more like “Sedation Zero.” There are definitely lessons for me in this experience:

  1. Don’t always trust that the smile and murmuring in French is understanding.
  2. Be prepared to wait an hour past the appointment time.
  3. Appreciate the smiles and kindness of the medical staff.
  4. Just ask for drugs: I have since remembered French for “I want to go to sleep.”

The truth is that the cultural differences between Luxembourg and the United States were magnified in this experience–the U.S. medical approach values patient comfort for these kind of procedures. The truth is, I was made to feel like a weak person by asking for sedation instead of just putting up with the discomfort for 15 minutes or more. The truth is, I wanted to be a good patient and trusted the medical professionals to take care of me. The truth is, I do feel a bit violated about the whole thing, and hope it never happens this way to anyone else who prefers otherwise. But, the truth is, I’m a pretty tough cookie and I endured a very uncomfortable situation–I’ll live!

Home Again, Home Again

A week ago, we said our goodbyes, gave lingering hugs, dried teary eyes. It’s a 16 hour trip, door to door. If only there were a gradual transition from one country  continent to another, a way to ease into the cultural differences, the language differences, the housing differences, the people differences, THE STORE HOUR differences…oh wait, there is a transition…the airport. Having just wasted $5.99 seeing 47 Meters Down, a film about stupidity and diving with sharks, I see the similarity between the decompression stops a low-depth diver must use to prevent getting “the bends” to the time in the airport during our long journeys,  allowing us to adjust from one home to another.

The airport is a time warp.  From the moment I present my passport to the not-so-friendly TSA agent until the destination airport is facing my ample backside, time takes on a speed of its own. The date no longer matters, hours seem sooooo much longer than 60 minutes when the layover is expanded. But when those connections are tight, the minutes aren’t long enough, despite shuttles, moving sidewalks, race walking, and/or praying. 

Store hours are deceiving. One of the hard things about returning to Luxembourg is adjusting to the limitation of store hours, grocery and otherwise. In the airport, though stores are open 24/7, none of them near the gates have items anyone begs to purchase. How many neck pillows, magazines, and packages of gum do you need???

Airport people are a culture of their own. This time, we were the ones coughing and sneezing and sniffing (compliments of the grandson and great-nephew we loved on). We saw the rolled eyes, the grimaces, the recoil, but we were too Nyquilled up to care, until Mr. Wonderful broke his tooth on a cough drop… lacking compassion in my cold med stupor, I ignored his soliloquy on the what-if’s and if-only’s and son-of-a-guns, using all my willpower to keep from rolling a stinky young kid with a scroungy backpack off the 4 seats he was occupying so could take a nap. And those fellow travelers who love to talk, to anybody, and for those business people who participate in (loud) conference calls? The congestion in my ears was a gift!

Man-sleeping-in-airport-terminal

Now we’ve said our hellos, settled into schedules, and filled the fridge. I jumped right back on that bus to the grocery store, parallel parked for an appointment, accelerated to 140 km/h (sh!) on the motorway. When we’re here in our cozy apartment, our visits to our other “home” are dreamlike. But no matter where we are, we’re engaged, we’re busy, we’re involved, and we’re exhausted. So here’s the deal, Luxembourg–we’re back, and we’re ALL IN!

 

 

 

 

My Sunshine

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.

We’ve missed a lot. We’ve missed the funeral of a beloved cousin, a beloved aunt. We’ve missed the funerals of some very old, dear friends. We’ve missed the celebrations of retirements and graduations. The opportunities that slipped through my fingers…spending more time with my grandson, shopping with my daughter and daughter-in-law as we sip Starbucks and solve the social ills of the world, cooking with one son who recently loves my recipes, listening (in the same room) to a son who composes, watching a son who passionately builds retro projects…loving them all, up close.

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. 

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

 

 

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!