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.”

 

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!

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.

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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