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!

 

 

 

 

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…

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!

 

 

 

 

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