Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Final Arrival Home

The random photo album with some images of Luxembourg and this final sweep through Benelux.

Before we left for this short excursion, I contemplated the extra space in my massive Kelty backpack. The extra payload was necessary for hauling the tent, but it still had plenty of flapping fabric. I wondered aloud if there were any comforts that would make my backpack more shapely. Marty looked down at the air mattress he had spent the night on. “We could bring this.” Normally when I sleep in a tent I have a thin ¾ length Thermarest offering me minimal lumbar support. The mattress seemed excessive, but it might fit.

Cut to urban campsite in Brussels. After setting up my tent, which is starting to show its age and experience with bleached colors and exposed fibers, I unrolled the massive mattress and started stomping on the foot pump. The pump has a long, ribbed, plastic tube that connects to a valve on the mattress. As anyone who has spent some time at a carnival or amusement park where crinkled straws are sold will know, ridged plastic makes a piercing whistle whenever you blow air through it. With every pump, the tube screeched and I felt like every other camper had their eyes trained on the prissy American who needed his eight inch thick mattress for a good night’s sleep. With every whistle I wanted to explain “I’ve hiked the AT!” Weeeet! “I’ve slept on top of a scorpion!” Wheeet! “I’m a friggin’ geologist!”

But the next morning as the alarm started chirping, I felt like hauling and pumping the thing - and all the soreness and embarrassment this decision might have caused - was absolutely worth it. I was sleeping outside and more comfortably than I do on my low German-dorm-issued cot. The only problem was things had gotten a little damp. The night before I had rolled open a flap near our heads to let the interior breath a bit. During the night and early morning a slow, drenching rain had moved through as slow drenching rains are want to do in this part of the world. We had happily slept on while our jackets and daypacks soaked up the invasive drops.

The rain made for a messy escape, but we had everything rolled up in time to catch our train at the Gare de Luxembourg station in Brussels which was right next to the EU campus. The plaza in front of the parliament building is named for the other capital of the EU making for some confusing train schedules as we tried to figure out which way was up (“We need to get to Gare de Luxembourg in Luxembourg, is that the same as this Gare de Luxembourg?” “Why are you asking me as if I would have a clue?”). As we searched for the station I was able to bust out the one French phrase I command on an unsuspecting grocer, “Excusez-moi, où est la Gare de Luxembourg?” I received some hand waving in a left-ish direction. It was enough to get us to the train where we slowly chugged half the length of Belgium and Luxembourg in three hours.

Normally I wouldn’t mind a chance to sit and read or journal with new European scenery whizzing by the window, but we didn’t grab breakfast before leaving Brussels (we thought it might be at the station. Turns out the “Gare” is pretty dead on a Sunday morning.). We wouldn’t arrive in Luxembourg until 1PM and there were no food carts on our comically small train. So we grumbled audibly while our stomachs did likewise.

We had two missions in Luxembourg: Get food and find the Internet. Marty still hadn’t heard from his friend. Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out my evening, anticipating a call from Dr. Sander from the University of Bonn. After my “History of Creationism” talk the previous Tuesday he invited me to meet Don Lessem, a visiting American journalist-turned-dinosaur educator who makes it his life’s work to get the wider public interested in the past. We had vague plans of meeting for dinner Sunday night. As Marty searched for wireless access (a scarce commodity in these parts of Europe) I received a call to meet at the Institute at 6:30PM. That was about what I expected. What I didn’t foresee was a meager train schedule. I suppose Luxembourgers are just as reluctant as Belgians to leave the homeland. I would need to leave at 2:25 if I wanted to make it to dinner in time (key to the first impression). If I missed that, the next train bound for Germany would make me wait around 1.5 hours.

So, after a three-hour haul across Benelux, I only had an hour-and-a-half to explore before I needed to abandon Marty. We had to get moving. We crossed the soaring bridge to the Old Town and searched for a place with traditional Luxembourger fare, whatever that is. We found a trendy, but rustic restaurant with a potato dish that looked hearty and local. We sat down and a waiter, who suspiciously raised an eyebrow at our presence, laid out a tablecloth and presented the menus. We made our decisions and started glancing at the clock. Slowly we realized this wouldn’t work. Our preferred dishes would need to be baked. We only had an hour and hadn’t received our drinks. Time slipped away. Yeah, we had terrible luck with service and we just needed to take our stomachs into our own hands. So we got up. We also felt terrible.

What impression were we leaving of hassled Americans? We wanted to explain that we wanted to sit and savor good food, stretching our Sunday lunch into a three-hour excursion into the culinary offerings of Luxembourg. That there needed to be more trains looping through this part of the world. But we couldn’t explain. There was no one around to tell.

So, we moved on to a bakery recommended by Lonely Planet where soups and salads were the standard, quick bill-of-fare. We thought we would order at the counter and be filling our shrunken stomachs in ten minutes. Instead we found a seating area with knots of old women and couples lounging around Pottery Barn tables, savoring their coffee and not acting like they had a train to catch. We made our selections from the on-table menu. No one came for ten minutes. Cursed and hungry, we departed again doomed to roam barren Luxembourg for enternity. At least this time we were assured no one heard our accents and no national stereotypes were perpetuated by our actions.

We crossed the street and entered a kebab stand; the preferred first stop of most twenty-something males exploring Europe’s geography, but not its culinary variety. We had the thrill of ordering döner kebab in an ornate basket topped by delicious French fries (I will freely admit that I never expected Europeans to fully grasp the power of the fry. I’ve been proven wrong on multiple counts.). Filled with grease and mystery meat, we turned and power-walked back towards the train station (never a good second step after filling with said meat). With only a few minutes to spare I grabbed my luggage and hobble-jogged to my waiting train. Marty remained to try for contact one more time before leaving for Stuttgart and his final preparations before leaving for home this week.

Two weekends earlier, when I made a last-minute decision to visit Luxembourg, I consoled myself with this thought as I rolled out of town without walking through the diving chasms or lush gardens: I would be back soon with Marty and plenty of time to exhaust the micro-state of its riches. Well, the trains had other plans. At least I can say I’m intimately familiar with the route between the Old Town and the distant train station.

I got back to Bonn with just enough time to drop off my gear and hustle to Dr. Sander’s office. He was still discussing sauropod research with Mr. Lessem and I got to eavesdrop on the interview. I experienced the wonder these massive animals inspire one more time before hopping the Atlantic Ocean. Dinner was at a biergarten along the Rhine that I checked out back in October. The dogs and children romped and the barges chugged by while we discussed science education, how sauropods got their crazy necks, and the art of navigating Chinese regional politics. What more can you ask for from a good dinner?

And thus concluded my final European Continental excursion. As I type this I have about one more real week in Germany before I grab a flight to the island of Ireland and the arms of my Carolyn. The next few posts will deal with saying good-bye. Look forward to astute observations on German behavior, my living situation, and lists of things I will miss and things that I won’t. I bet you can just feel those curiosity juices percolating through your higher faculties.


The album one more time.

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