Monday, August 25, 2014

If we had blogs in 1999: Trains and homecomings...Luxembourg

The latest installment of my 1999 journal from the Transatlantic Seminar on the European Union takes us back to Luxembourg. It felt like a homecoming. This portion of the trip was different for Brad and I, having spent the 1997-1998 year at the Miami University Dolibois European Center in Luxembourg. The other students on the seminar had no connection to the tiny country and didn't pay it much attention. Having lived there, though, we gleefully visited our old bars, restaurants, and grocery stores, and we even led the students to those places we had loved.

As usual, all spelling, grammatical, and factual errors have been preserved, and today's comments are in red italics.

Begin journal entry

Any animosity I had felt during the week disipated with the thoughts of going home to Lux. Brad & I had been overwhelmed with excitement when we had thought we'd go through Lux from Paris to Prague, earlier in the trip but we were in the Frankfurt cars and not the Lux cars, and we were a bit disappointed then. The train leaving Paris pulled cars to Lux and Frankfurt but split them somewhere in France. Metz, maybe. Speaking of Metz, it was merely 45 minutes from Differdange, where I had lived, but I never got there. Strange to think about. But now, we actually were going there. We'd take that same Rhine route as we had before, cutting through Koblenz, Trier, setting sights on Wasserbillig, and then, in all its splendor, the fortress city itself. This is still my favorite train ride of all the routes in Europe. Someday I want to bike that route, as there are bike paths all along the rivers. I'll never forget the sight of so many old castles standing on the hilltops overlooking the Rhine and Mosel. This is wine country, too, white wine, mostly, with Riesling being the top product, if I'm not mistaken.

Adam and Tim were on the same overnight train as Brad and I, but they were getting off earlier, somewhere in Germany. The train was crowded - we had to sit in seats - but I got more sleep that night than ever on an overnight. We had to change that morning in Koln, and I freaked because I thought for a minute we had to change in Frankfurt, but it doesn't matter. It was the first time I'd ever seen Koln, a train's window view like a snapshot. I always remember trains' window views, for some reason. So we get on another train bound for Trier. I could feel the excitement rushing through my veins. In a few hours we'd be in Trier! So close to home, it was like a dream. Would I really sit in the dreary Trier station on this freezing day? This was late May, early June, mind you. The whole train ride had left me in a Siberian trance, and the outside air wasn't any warmer. But who cares? I'm really going to Lux. I dozed a little on the way to Trier while listening to the new Francis Cabrel CD I had purchased in Paris. Which, in this moment of nostalgia, I am listening to again. Cabrel is a great artist - I have several of his albums. I purchased his latest one (at the time) at the Beirut Virgin Megastore. Maybe he's the reason my French isn't as bad as it probably should be after years of disuse. How those songs matched the emotion exerted in this homecoming! I felt a tear at my eye, a tear of utter Joy that trickled down my face like the rain that falls on Lux most days. Rain that is bearable, rain that is breatheable. The train pulled into Trier and left us with a wait to attend to. What a stupid sentence, unless I was playing with the French word for "to wait," which is "attendre." I'm not sure I was that clever back then. What biting cold! And no Deutschemarks left to purchase liquid warmth or nourishment from the station's concessions. Time was beating us, beating our bones, but finally it was time to embark upon the last leg of the day's journey. First Wasserbillig, the first city after crossing the border into Luxembourg from Germany, after traversing the Moselle (or Mosel, in Andreaspeak German), through the luscious green of the rolling hills of the countryside, through pastures of sunny mustard fields, right into the station which had been a third home to us over a year before. Third? I'm guessing Miami U. was second, and parents' house was first? Just as I had suspected, the thrill of seeing the large "LUXEMBOURG" overwhelmed my senses, bringing tears of remembrance as I stepped onto the well-worn platform. It was a sense of homecoming new to me, and never again will it be repeated. This isn't true. Years later when I had moved on to the Middle East and had been assigned to Beirut, I felt that way every time I flew back. I'm at a point now - a year and a half from my last trip to Beirut - where the longing to be there has faded. I took all of my vacations - at least parts of them - to Lebanon over the last few years, but I find myself no longer pining to go, just as my longing for Luxembourg faded years ago. How sad. Truth be told, though, I bet I'd feel a sort of homecoming if I did return to Luxembourg, which I do hope to do in the near future, if I can just think of a reason to go.

Brad and I pranced through the station, marvelling at its new monitors overhead, but the rest of the station, save for the departure/arrival board, was the same. It stunk of cigarette smoke and beggars, though the guy who designed the red bridge was not there. It was said that one of the homeless guys who lived in the train station was the architect of Luxembourg's most famous modern bridge. In hindsight, that probably wasn't true. I immediately wondered if he were dead. What a sad and inglorious sight he had been, forcing people to realize it could happen to anyone. Success is no guarentee. Sadness remembered, but quickly forgotten as we headed over to Hotel Carlton. Cheap hotel across from the train station. It was the same, except they took credit cards now. Good thing, because later in the evening I would have to call my mom to ask for money. I was flat broke, and still fuming at that Abby incident. She wouldn't stay at budget hotels so I paid three times as much as I wanted for a hotel in Krakow. The room was decent. It could have been shit but it wouldn't have mattered; we were in Lux. I could have been awake for days, but I wouldn't have slept. Uh, yeah, that's what "awake" means. WTF? We unloaded our stuff and headed to Differdange. No outsider will ever understand what it felt like to go through Bettembourg, Berchem, [large space to list the cities whose order I had already forgotten at that time] Oberkorn, and finally, Differdange, to get off at the same stop as we had done so many times before, to walk down that street, up through the playground, up the steps, past the broken gate, around to the front, up through the courtyard, to the door of the chateau, pressing [password] to open it, through it, and entering into a world which had served as a real life fantasy for those of us who had chosen to grasp it. We ran through its corridors, looking for changes - an extra row of computers, a new photograph collage in the lobby, a rearrangement of couches in the cave, extra mailboxes, and the worst, new names under those boxes. This was our chateau - life did not contrive that word does not mean what I thought it meant then, obviously in our absence of it. In it we were the kings and queens and court and servants and jesters. Rosemary an influential professor who'd undergone chemo was the court wizard. She was there - she'd just gotten there the day before. Brad and I saw her without her hair, and we said we'd try to get together with her and Matt Osborne, but that never worked. We talked to Claudine and Madame Dumont, & I talked to the new housing coordinator about the Dupays. The Dupays had been my host family. They weren't providing adequate breakfast to us, though we paid them to. This was more of a cultural misunderstanding, as Americans eat big breakfasts and Europeans do not, although part of the problem was the non working stove on our floor that they swore worked, so we couldn't cook it ourselves. Same old problems, except Julia had a kidney transplant. I was afraid to go visit, and I turned back after walking halfway up the road. The house was in my favorite state - no car parked in front. What Joy and unease at the sight of the house, still looking the same as it did when I had resided in it. As if a house could change drastically in a year. Thrill, thrill, I am in Differdange, I am walking the same streets, staring at the same buildings, eating at San Marino for lunch, first waiting in Parc de Gerlache for it to open, going to Match and stocking up on wine and Brad stocked up on Leffe. Leffe was not something you could get in the United States at the time, or at least not in Ohio. It was just before the uber-monopolies were created, with Anheuser-Busch InBev buying up most of the world's big brews, at least the ones that Heineken and Diageo didn't get. Everybody looked at us and half smiled! Luxembourgers smiling at American kids - what is this world coming to? Luxembourgers - and Europeans in general - on the surface come across as cold to us smiley, howdy doody Americans. The reality is that us "friendly" Americans are often unfriendly once the artificial layers come off, while Europeans - especially those from the northwestern countries - are often generous to a fault, once you get to know them and earn their trust. It took me awhile to learn that, that first impressions should not be your only impression.

Yeah, these are actually scanned film photos from around the Grand Ducal Palace

We lugged that stuff to San Marino and back to the city, dropping it off at Hotel Carlton before going to the centre and walking around the area. I'd never seen the statue of the muses, nor had I been by Yesterday's, now a pub of yesterday. I'd never seen the actual true entrance to the grund, so that was a great medival experience. It was a lovely day capped by an evening at Pub 13. Marie bartender/manager remembered us. She'd had her baby, and I was glad she was back. Earlier in the day Brad had stolen a Leffe poster from one of the walls. It was a riot. I drank grande mousels and it was like drinking from the fountain of my own youth. Really? Less than two months after graduating from university, I'm looking back on my "youth?" A lovely day indeed. The only thing wrong was the absense of the people who had made Lux what it was. At least Brad was there.

We slept in the next morning. After all, we had been on an overnighter the night before, a detail forgotten in the midst of our homecoming. Hotel Carlton smelled of paint as there was an attempt to disguise its age. We were going to do laundry at the chateau, but that didn't work out, so Brad found a laundry mat and did it while I walked through the grund. The greatest city park stands beneath the bridges of Luxembourg. Only I wouldn't want to be there at night. I'd have loved to ride a bike through it. Anyway, I walked through it, past the minature golf, until I came to the flag pole. Well, I was hundreds of feet below it and had to scale the wall to get to it. Ok, not really, but I did have to climb a bunch of stairs to the top. Then I got this idea that I was going to go to Pub 13 to work on homework, only when I started to walk back, a downpour came upon me, and I had to stand under a busstop shelter until it quit. Only it never quit, so I just started walking and was drenched. I stopped in Pizza Hut to get out of the rain. I wasn't hungry but I couldn't just sit there, so I order a personal pizza. They stuck me in a corner in the back. I don't know if that was supposed to be a statement to me or what. As soon as I ordered, the rain stopped. I thought about just leaving, but that'd be the American thing to do. Anyway, it was kind of awkward, and I was glad when I left. I gathered my work back at Hotel Carlton, then went back to Pizza Hut/Pub 13. Then I noticed they were having a Mexican soiree or something to that effect and the sign said you needed to make reservations. I debated about whether to go in or not, and I ended up going back to the hotel saying I forgot something. I told Brad about the soiree. We both went up there and it was fine. I actually got some work done. Mostly post cards. Drinking Mousel again. After a couple of hours, American Miami kids started coming in. It was, no wait, that was the next day. This day we talked to Marie. She gave Brad a Pub 13 glass. It was nice. We were going to go out that night, got dressed and got to the centre, then decided not to go. I had a bit of a buzz from the Mousel. Or was it Pina Coladas. We just went back to the hotel and awaited the seminar the next day.

That's when we discovered that the Big Chicken had moved to across from the gare. The Big Chicken had been in the red light district and was open late after the pubs had closed, so we'd been there on more than one occasion. Our hotel was a few doors down. Excellent place. Great breakfast buffet. My roommate was Melissa. She flooded our room with the shower. I thought she was Jen because their last names both start with Flan and I only saw the last name on our guestcard and I was dreading it because Jen smoked in the room even if you asked her not to. But it was Melissa and it was fine because she was never there. That's where I left my alarm clock. 5pm came too soon, and once again we were listening (or not) to Mason. The only interesting thing I learned was that the hotel had been Eisenhower's headquarters during the Battle of the Bulge. Everything else had been crammed down our throats by MUDEC staff, the fortress city, the Charles IV Prague-Lux connection (except I forget which number it was), etc. But then we ate dinner and went to Scott's and Brad and I were arguing. He sure was a jerk at this time; I don't know what his problem was. This night started late because we had to keep waiting for people. But we finally go there and walked down the hill instead of the elevator. The city sat on top of very high fortress walls; the Grund was the valley below, and you could take an elevator to get to the bottom. I drank Guinness for the first time on the trip because it was Lux and that's what I did then. My rules for sticking to culture did not apply in Lux - that's why I ate Pizza Hut. Everyone left except Brad, Eva, Michelle, and I, then just Michelle and I then we went home and I was pretty toasted by now. Then I slept. Then I awoke wishing I had slept more. Oh, dinner on Sunday had been at Bella Napoli with a bunch of Mason's friends, including Dumonts. It was all pretty uninteresting but we had wine and since no one was leaving, Bailey's. That was before Scott's. But then Monday arrived and with it came our trip to the European Investment Bank. Just the word "bank" should be enough to imply how that seminar was. But we did get coffee and cookies halfway through, which made it all bearable. Plus we were going to be having lunch at the chateau, MUDEC - yes, I had gone to school in a castle and we got to ride an Emile Weber bus. What a glorious trip to the chateau, once again. Lunch was a typical lunch, bread, all the chocolate milk was gone, stringy fries, and Lucy had cooked it all. I went around the place like I knew everything about it, like it was my home and I had a bunch of guests. I walked around the now passable pathway outside. We had been the first class in the chateau at Differdange. Before then, MUDEC had been located in Luxembourg City. They had not yet renovated the grounds when we were there in 1997. It was a beautiful walk on a beautiful day. I wanted to replace all of these students with people who belonged, and to replace Brad with the old B. Miller. I saw Dr. Hey and her husband Dr. Strange. Oh, to sit down with that tray of unhealthy food as I had day after day so many times before! The seminar students mostly wasted their food, but I had been used to the slop so many other times that I did not mind it at all. It ranks as one of my favorite meals of all times, not because the food was good, but because I was eating in the chateau once again.

The Muses, an old man on a house, and the flagpole
We didn't have enough time there, but we had to go to Deutsche Bank-Lux. Bank, again. That was the point where I couldn't stand Michelle any longer. The frantic "help me" in my notebook was a stress induced demonstration of her sitting next to me and driving me insane. When that torture was over, Brad, Eva, & I went to Auchen then to see "The Opposite of Sex" at Utopolis. It was a grand return, and they finally had buttered popcorn. Then we went to Pub 13 with a bunch of business students and some of the seminar students and Matt Osborne was there and we were buzzing like the swarm of bees that we were to the conservative town of Luxembourg. It was our last night in Lux. The next day would see us sleeping through a European Court of Justice session, then a session in the hotel on Tax Harmonization before departing by bus for Brussells, Europe's worst city. We took the route we had taken to begin Tony tour, a really boring highway with little scenery. I slept.

End journal entry

The flagpole up close, burnt down Pub Gerlache in Differdange (can't believe I didn't mention that anywhere in this entry), and view from the Grund on the rainy day

That's a lot of bar visits...but we were college students. I find it pretty incredible that we found regular hangouts in the first place and made them ours. Between Pub 13, Scott's, and Pub Gerlache (pictured burnt down above), Miami students brought a lot of revenue to them. Gerlache was so lucrative that the rumor is the owner burnt the place down himself to cash in on the much higher value of the place. Differdange was a sleepy town until 100 American students overran it when the school moved from the capital in 1997. Imagine the sudden spike in revenue being the closest and most welcoming bar to us students.

This was also about the midpoint of the seminar. We spent half a week in Luxembourg before moving on to Brussels and then to London. Going "home" was very welcome at the time. I mention in my comments above that I thought I'd never feel that sort of "homecoming" feeling again, and that my longing for Luxembourg has faded. I'm not sure it's completely absent. Luxembourg was where I came to life, of age, recognized that there was an entire world out there full of culture and history and knowledge and wonder, lost my naivety about the United States, realized the fairytale version of America did not match reality. We all would, if we lived on the outside for a time. We tend to have this idea that ours is the only way to live - the correct way. While Western Europe is not far off from our own way of life, it is different, especially when you've never been too far out of Southwest Ohio. You can't claim to love America if you've never left it, because you can't understand what America is unless you've seen it from the outside. Only then can you truly appreciate it, warts and all.

That's why Luxembourg was a sort of homecoming, not only because I had lived there or had experienced the best year of my young life there, but because it's where I had opened my eyes and saw the colors of the world for the first time.

Of course, Western Europe is hardly the right classroom for learning about "the rest of the world," especially in Luxembourg, which is the second or third richest country on the planet, depending who you ask. That lesson would come later, on the dusty streets of Cairo, in the poverty-stricken Akkar region of Lebanon and the violence-plagued neighborhoods of Tripoli, in the last vestiges of communism visible in Eastern Europe, in the Palestinian or Syrian refugee camps, on one of the mandatory electricity breaks of Beirut. And I've seen nothing in the grand scheme of things, having never been to Africa (Egypt excluded), South America, or further east in Asia than Jordan. That will all be rectified in due time.

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