Monday, May 16, 2016

Once it was home - Luxembourg

I embarked upon this trip expecting to see things familiar. Seventeen years had passed since I last stepped foot in this part of the world, nearly the same amount of time that I had been alive the last time I was here.

Europe changes subtly, not like America where buildings are torn down soon after they are built and restaurants write closure into their business plans. Even a nearly seamless history of warfare (present period excepted) has not destroyed most of Europe's medieval past; seven hundred year old buildings are normal and no one would think to tear them down except the most heartless of businessmen.  I knew everything would look the same as it had seventeen years ago. I thought my memory would hold up, too.

But when we arrived, I remembered nothing of Brussels, nor of Antwerp, except the Brussels Nord train station and the clock tower of Antwerp. We didn't spend enough time in Brussels to look around thanks to our flight changes - I had never spent much time there that wasn't part of a school trip - and my Antwerp time had been a whirlwind back then, so I could chalk up my lack of memory to not having much to remember in the first place. I had entirely expected to see sites familiar on the train from Brussels to Luxembourg. Only the names of places remained part of my memory. Names without faces.

Many studies have been conducted proving the human memory to be false. My own experience seems to show that it can be rewritten. Or overwritten. Or erased completely. I'm not sure if it's all still there somewhere, buried under the layers of Beirut and Cairo and Amalfi and Barcelona and Athens and Istanbul and the myriads of other places I've been since I last left the low countries. The sights on the train ride were entirely new to me, though I had seen them before, back then in that other lifetime. I kept thinking back to a 2002 trip to San Diego, when I had a bizarre feeling of being in a place before, only to find out it had been our house when I was three or four years old. I expected a feeling like that, a memory jog, lost parts of my life that rise again to consciousness. I felt nothing. I started to wonder if my memories of the era were the result of looking at photos I had taken then, if they were not real at all.

The idea that it is not only normal, but necessary to "forget" things so our conscious mind has room for new impressions and ideas is widely accepted in the field of psychology. But, as Carl Jung wrote about time and time again, we don't "forget" things. They just get buried in our unconscious. He has written volumes about people recalling things based on symbols or senses that trigger memories in some of the strangest ways. Indeed, he discovered that Nietzsche had unwittingly plagiarized his entire book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, from a story Nietzsche and his sister had read as a child. Even the writing style was not his.

It wasn't until we got out of the train station when a real memory came back, rather than one from my photos. I wasn't even sure I was staring at the right city when we were pulling in, though logically I knew those spires had to be those which I had seen so many times before. I had no memory of the sight, or at least not one I could conjure. I had no memory of those train station platforms I had used countless times before, either. Worst of all, I had no real emotion, no feeling of homecoming, no sense of nostalgia. I don't know why I thought I was going to experience some kind of epiphany or spiritual event pulling into the station, but it didn't happen. Nothing did, not then. But we disembarked and stepped out of the train station, and a warm feeling of recognition arose, and a smile crept onto my face, something of an innocent kind of happiness. The city looked funny to me, but I definitely knew it as something I had seen before, a real memory. Suddenly, energy returned to me, for a little while, anyway. We checked into our hotel and immediately went out. I told Chris I would not be looking at maps because I wanted to try to remember.

More than an ordinary street to me
When you get out of the Luxembourg train station, there is a road to the city center and another coming from it (see pic above) that you must take to get downtown. The old city is a fortress, you see, with 700 foot walls - you have to access it by bridge. I knew you could go down either of those streets, so I chose the one to the right, thinking we'd walk by the building where our old Pub 13 used to be. It was on the other street and is now a bank. Strange how many times I had been there and how I had forgotten. (I realized it was on the other road nearly immediately, though.) When I reached the Grund (the valley below the fortress walls), it was familiar, but different. Not that anything had changed - I don't think it had - but with the familiarity came a sense of newness. I suppose that newness was me.

I found the elevator to the Grund by accident; Luxembourg is a small city and everything is close together, but I only had vague memories of the actual elevator I was looking at. I suppose something as mundane as an elevator is not something you reserve space for in your brain, but we had taken it enough times. It should have been a real memory. I felt somewhat frightened by the foreignness of it all.

But Chris and I weren't going to the Grund, not yet, so we continued on to the city center, stopping at the cathedral with the spires I had seen from the train. It occurred to me that I had never been inside, despite having been by it so many times. I started to think about all of the things I had missed back then, how the mere act of studying in Luxembourg had been a rebellion against prosaic Ohio, how I had never really been anywhere except a high school softball trip to Australia that had taught me that yes, you can go places. I didn't know how to see the world. Just being there was so different enough. I remember thinking at one point about how when you go to a new place, you first see the differences, then you see the similarities, then you are comfortable. I thought I had figured out the secret of the world. It's funny to me now because I've been to so many places and see things as they are and not how they are different from America. But I still see how different America is from them.

It wasn't until near the end of that year in Luxembourg that I started appreciating the country of Luxembourg and learning how to see it. We visited other towns - Esch-sur-Alzette and Clervaux come to mind - and then I started wandering aimlessly around the city and learning how to look at it for how it was and to look at the people as just people rather than as foreigners. I was the foreigner, of course, but in my mind - in all of our minds, they were foreign to us. We were in a foreign country. When this "foreign" country stopped being foreign to me and I began to feel that I, too, lived there, if only for a little while, that was when the seeing began. We had always been so eager to see the rest of Europe that our weekends were usually spent traveling somewhere else. That was important, but so too, was learning about this small country we had called home for what still is the most important year in many of our lives. I can't imagine how different life would be for me had I not come here. I assume I got more out of the experience than many, given what I've done with it in life. This was the single most important year of my life and it always will be.

Chris liked Luxembourg

Chris and I went into the cathedral and found a mass of sorts going on, but we had arrived at some sort of religious week when there is a mass every hour and then they go to the festival and drink. (Catholicism is the best religion, despite its myriads of flaws.) The festival reminded me of Oktoberfest, with the beer halls and the sausages, as they had erected actual buildings with real plumbing and electricity for the two week duration of the festival.

This is quite odd. Looks almost Hindi. Would like to learn more about it.

Luxembourg Foreign Ministry

Statue of Grand Duchess Charlotte

Grand Ducal Palace

I love the Luxembourg crest

The festival


In need of a shower

Chris was not moving well so we had to walk at a slow pace and he didn't seem willing to wander much around the old town, plus we wanted to eat a bite, so I looked for the Place d'Armes where I remembered there were many restaurants with outside terraces to watch the people go by. We walked past the Grand Duke's palace where Henri lives (he was just a prince when I was here last) and wandered to where I thought Place d'Armes was, but we found a festival and not too many actual restaurants and I thought maybe Place d'Armes just looks smaller because the festival stands were blocking everything. We ended up eating some sausages with the divine Luxembourg mustard in one of the temporary buildings before wandering to the Grund while there was still daylight left, unaware that the actual Place d'Armes was a block away. (It still had the Chi Chi's.) I had a beer at Scot's, one of our old hangouts, and was delighted to discover it was exactly the same, except it had wifi and I could take a picture of it and post it instantly on something called Facebook. That's the biggest difference between then and now, the biggest difference in the world, really, and I'm still blown away by the thought of sending so much data, so much information, so much instant life that easily.

We were wiped out after that and went back to the hotel and slept more than we had all week despite what my heart wanted to do. I had an appointment in the morning at the chateau in Differdange, which did not differ at all except for the faculty and the wifi and the smartphones and the sunshine, which is something you don't seem to get a lot in Luxembourg. I want to say I had some real memories of the train to Differdange, but again only some of the names were the same. I remembered Rodange was the destination city but the route definitely wasn't the same, because aside from Bettembourg and Esch-sur-Alzette, I didn't remember the other cities. Where was Oberkorn? Didn't that used to be the stop before Differdange? Didn't we go through Petange? Dudeldange? Even in Bettembourg and Esch, there were so many new buildings that they seemed like new cities, although I remembered the train station in Bettembourg and the city streets of Esch. Real memories. And smiles. At this point my heart was about to explode. Happy.

When we were coming around the bend into Differdange, there was such a vagueness that I was not sure the factory and the hillside homes I saw were Differdange. I mean, I thought I remembered them, but I didn't remember them in the vivid memory part of my brain, and I wasn't even sure if there was any real memory at all, if it weren't me logically deducing Differdange from the time passed on the train. How do I know my brain is not different now? How do I know I haven't experienced physical changes that wiped out these images from my mind? I saw that same sight 100 times at least. How was the memory not more concrete? Maybe Jung was wrong. Maybe what we store in the unconscious sometimes just can't be recalled. Research shows that DNA can change, and DNA is nothing if not a memory card that can store far more data than any silicon chip we can manufacture. Scientists have already figured out how to store data on DNA. What if that data can be overwritten by experience?

I got off the train and the vagueness faded. The way to the chateau was etched in my mind. The street looked the same; most of the stores were the same. It was comforting to see that things had been left about exactly as they were. Inside the chateau was the same, too, aside from some new, bigger desks and large screens to accommodate the digital age. And smartphones. The students are assigned smartphones now, and they were all on them. I can't imagine how much they miss by being glued to their smartphones. Then again, I had to tell Chris to get off his damn phone dozens of times. I thought I'd end up throwing it in the Amstel River when we got to Amsterdam, or any river, really. But I also noticed that wherever we were, not every Belgian, Luxembourger, or Nederlander is glued to his screens like Americans are. It's nice. I think they should make the students leave their phones behind for a weekend and try to travel without them. Maybe half would get lost.

The road from the train

Yes, I went to a school in a castle

lunch time. food smelled the same.

I didn't feel a sense of nostalgia while in the chateau. I thought I would. I didn't miss it, or long for it, or wish I could do it again. The phrase "once in a lifetime" is oft overused, but that year truly was. We had to be the right age for it, because it took a lot of energy, from weekend travel, to tough classes, to balancing it all with nights of Mousel and Bofferding and sometimes Diekirch, and making friends and learning about new places and learning how to navigate cities and use public transportation while still trying to find your own identity and grow up, and plan for careers, too, and when I think about it I wonder how we were able to do it, though I guess most of the students only stayed a semester. My semester ended and I told them I wasn't leaving and stayed another and then returned for a six week seminar after graduation. Europe had gotten under my skin and it is there, still, and I just went back and already I am trying to figure out when I can go back. As long as I have the means to do so, I will take advantage of that.

The new housing coordinator is the daughter of a woman who had been at the school when I was there. She is excellent and I am grateful she had time for us. We had gotten there a bit later than expected because I forgot how long the train ride actually was from the city and because there is nothing in life that Chris is not late to. She showed us around the chateau and told us what was different which wasn't all that much, and she introduced us to the "new" MUDEC director who has been there seven years. Of all things, we ended up chatting about Nationals baseball. He went to his first baseball game in DC and fell in love with the game, and he goes to games when he makes trips to the US. He even showed us a Nats bear he has in his office. I have no doubt he is an excellent director, just as Dr. Stiller was. One pleasant surprise was learning that Dr. Haag is still teaching at the school. His classes were my favorite, despite the depressing subject matter - The Rise and Fall of Hitler opened my eyes to how World War II happened, and I can tell you that I haven't forgotten much from that class. I wonder if he still has that funny car.

More colorful than I remember

The road where I lived

shutters need some work

Parc Gerlache
Now here's a funny thing that made me think that my memories were truly gone - I went to show Chris the house where I lived near the chateau. I couldn't find it. I swore I knew its location and it just wasn't there. I walked quite a ways down the street looking for it and was losing my mind. I knew it was there. I knew it. But it wasn't. Turns out that they tore it down to build some apartments there, where my host brother has an apartment now.

After walking around Differdange a bit more and seeing that not much had change, a very comforting idea, we got a train to go to see yet another castle, the fourth of our trip. I will post pics of Vianden in the next post. We trained and bused there and back and then went to meet my host family for dinner in Luxembourg City.

leaving Differdange from the train window
That was something. I have been Facebook friends with my host brother for a while, so we coordinated a meeting place and time. Thing is, Olivier was 13 the last time I saw him. Unfortunately, my host mother passed several years ago, as she had been ill for some time. My host father, Robert remarried and he was bringing his wife. We were to meet at the "Golden Lady" statue, a WWI and WWII memorial, around which was part of the festival. Chris and I arrived earlier than we thought we would and waited for them to arrive. A man with sunglasses and a woman whom I had never seen came up to the monument. I looked at him. He looked at me. I looked at him. He looked at me. I looked away and he went away. It had been seventeen years, after all. We probably waited ten more minutes before I saw him again and took a step towards him. He took a step. Then we finally recognized each other. My first instinct was hug.

We had only small talk, of course, what you'd expect from 17 years of no contact. It wasn't for want of trying. We wrote some letters at the beginning, but losing touch is a sad part of life. Of course, I never forgot them, and I had always intended on a reunion, but it took me much longer to get back to Luxembourg than I could have known. I'm glad we saw Robert first, because I would never have recognized Olivier, who towered over all of us. We wandered around for a bit to look for a restaurant and stumbled upon one that specialized in "Luxembourgish cuisine." Imagine French and German cuisine combined and that's kind of what it is like. But that's kind of what the country is like. They've taken the best of both and combined them into something that is unique.

I thought before I got to Luxembourg I would title this post "A Sort of Homecoming" but I only discovered that you can't come home again, because what is home for you is only in your mind and your mind will mess that up if you give it time to do so. I think you might be able to relearn how to be home in the same place but it can never be the same as it was in your heart. But that place still exists, because when I looked back at the city as we headed to the train station to leave, I had to fight back some tears and for just that moment the past and the present were the same and I wondered if I would ever return to this place that has been so important to me.

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