Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Luxembourg City, or, Crossing Three International Borders in 12 hours,

My alarm beeped me awake just in time to hear a flight bound for Budapest was going to be delayed. I was only a little stiff from a night on an airport bench and felt ready to finally get home. I had a breakfast of chocolate-dipped digestive biscuits and rode back to the Brussels Midi station to catch my ride to Cologne.

The train was a German ICE (high-speed rail) and I felt like I was safely back in Germany as soon as I saw the royal blue upholstery and “Mobil” magazines. We were flying across the Belgian country side, bound for Aachen, a German town on the border, when we had to stop. No explanation was offered. All we could do was stare out the window at the confused horses and sneaky barn cats who took a passing interest in our presence. We continued to wait. Then we backed up on the tracks and waited some more.
Eventually an announcement came over the intercom. There were electrical problems at the Aachen station. It would be a while longer. And it was. After an hour-and-a-half sitting on the tracks we slowly ran backwards to a tiny Belgian station that already had a massive Thalys (an independent French/Belgian/German company) train unloading its passengers. Lemming-like we followed each other around the station and waited by the curb for the buses the conductors promised were on their way. We waited for another half-hour.

Two city buses had been drummed up on a Sunday morning to rescue us. Each was packed with luggage and people (I should note my ICE was bound for the Frankfurt Airport so a lot of people were schlepping some pretty chunky bags) but everyone couldn’t pile on. Another half-hour and another bus pulled up.

We drove across the Belgian border and, 14 hours after I had hoped to do so, we crossed into Germany. I was finally free of Belgium's surprisingly tenacious grasp. Tired and frustrated, the passengers tried to sort out their connections at the Aachen station, debating if they would need a separate ticket to get to the next stop. I had my rail pass, so I just stepped onto the next regional train bound for Cologne. I’ve never been so happy to see the Cathedral pull into view.

I arrived in Cologne just in time for noon Mass. Before going to the service I remembered to check my options for getting to Bonn. In five minutes there was a train leaving for my home Bonn. That wouldn’t work. I wanted to get to Mass. Then I noticed its terminal destination: Luxembourg. My rail pass covered me for the day and it was good for Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, and Luxembourg. Only one left on the docket. I was going to Luxembourg. I think God will forgive me.

The problem was I really had no idea what there was to do in Luxembourg. I knew it is a small place and it has a lot of important European Union Buildings and…no that was about it. I also didn’t tear the Luxembourg pages from my guide book to bring with me so I was flying blind.

It took about three hours to get to Luxembourg so I had plenty of time to stare idly out the window, reflecting on the beautiful castles and vineyards that populate the Rhine river valley. I really did luck into living in one of the prettiest corners of Germany.
When the train finally pulled into the station I checked my escape routes as only someone who spent the previous night in an airport can. If I wanted to be home by midnight, I had to leave on the 6:30 train. That left three hours in Luxembourg. It’s small, right?

I stashed my bag in a locker (apparently Luxembourgers don’t worry about their homeland’s security like the British) and found the tourism office. They provided me a map of the city that had all the major sights numbered with pictures of them along the margins. Of course, there was no explanation of the importance of each sight. The map just proved they existed. Well, I wasn’t going to pay for a tour guide, so the map and context clues would do.
Luxembourg takes a lot of pride in its architectural diversity. A street lined with Art Nouveau buildings? Yes please.

I set out along Avenue de la Liberte. I felt pretty free. A street festival was underway with a carousel blasting “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood while seven-year-olds pretended to drive motorcycles and pick-up trucks into each other. Then the ground gave out.
One of the reasons Luxembourg has managed to remain neutral for decades is because it started life as a fortress. The city is perched on a plateau surrounded by rivers that carved deep chasms into the rock around town. Now you cross massive bridges to actually get into the oldest part of the town.
Far below the bridges are parks and entire villages that can only be reached via tight winding roads or Dr. Seuss-like staircases. I could have taken in the view for hours. But, I only had three.
I walked along the valley’s margin and spotted a soaring steeple. If there’s a massive church, I’ll check it out. It’s usually a free art and history museum coupled with a few meditative moments. The church was the Gothic Notre Dame (Luxembourg speaks a dialect of French).
It was renovated throughout the 20th century and didn’t have the ancient, dignified feel of most Gothic churches, so I spun out the front door towards the sounds of live music.

I walked into one of the main squares of Luxembourg City where the town was celebrating Latin Day. Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and Cuba had booths set up with freebies and beverages from each country. The stage was being prepared for the next act and mariachi music filled the silence. When I think of celebrating Hispanic heritage I naively imagine a lot of color and dancing with some spicy food and beautiful people. None of these things seemed to be present. There were a few Brazilian soccer jerseys and people were sipping the caipirinhas, a South American rum cocktail. But that was about it. No tango. No salsa. I’m going to the park.
On the site of a fortress from the middle ages sits a beautifully groomed English park where I heard weird combinations of French and German being tossed through the air along with Frisbees. When I got through all the greenery, I decided to see the rest of the European Union. In Frankfurt I had seen the EU’s Central Bank, and in Brussels I saw the Commission and one of the Parliament Buildings. Might as well complete the collection (except Strasbourg, still need to see the Parliament in Strasbourg).
I crossed John F. Kennedy Bridge towards the campus which was originally home to the European Coal and Steel Community, the proto-EU which was established by Western Germany, Italy, France, and the Benelux countries after WWII as a supranational trade organization that would hopefully prevent WWIII. The buildings are showing their age.

Tarnished windows framed in ugly steel and concrete populate the plateau. My impression of the place wasn’t improved by the poor signage and an ambiguous map. Was this the Secretariat of the Parliament or the Court of Justice? Was it just an unsightly building ripe for destruction? Could it be all of the above?

As I grumbled about modern architecture, I took a moment to reflect on the symbolic meaning of these buildings. Nearly sixty years ago, Europe decided it was done beating itself up. People transcended their national biases and worked to build a peaceable community through economic obligations to each other. The EU continues to grow, but has reached the critical point of deciding on a constitution. How much sovereignty should countries be allowed? Should people be Germans first then Europeans or vice versa? It’s big stuff, and it’s fascinating to watch millions weigh in on the role they think government should play in their lives. Then I stopped reflecting. It was time to eat.

I had worked my way into a far corner of the city that lacked restaurants. What the “Eurocrats” do when they need to get a bite after work is beyond me. I pivoted and walked back through town. Because it was early on a Sunday night, most people seemed to be out for drinks. I was still feeling very poor and Luxembourg is a pretty expensive place, so I kept walking past swanky bars and swankier cafés.

Newer additions to the EU campus landscape. On the left is the Philharmonic where they probably play Beethoven's 9th, the EU anthem, on a regular basis. On the right are the towers of the European Conference center. Not sure who convenes there.

I eventually found myself back at the street festival with the carousel. This time it was blasting a country version of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” Nothing makes me think of good times with the family quite like Madonna. I ordered a Luxembourger sausage – it tasted just like a German sausage – and a beer. My hope was to try the local brew. Again, it would probably taste very familiar, but I wanted to find out. When I got to an empty picnic table I read the label and found out I was sipping Portuguese beer. So much for exotic local fare.

Festivals offer the lone traveler a feast of people-watching opportunities and I tried to take full advantage of my solo status: An exhausted father and his exhausting four-year-old son sat down nearby. They each had a sausage for dinner. As dad dug into his meal, the boy tried to do likewise. The mayo-slathered bun shot the wurst through his tiny fists and onto the gravel. Dad looked like he was on the point of collapse. The boy tried to eat the sausage off the ground while dad shuffled back up to the counter to get another. I watched anxiously as the boy got ready for another bite. Would the meat slip-and-slide its way to the floor again? Fortunately dad intervened at the last minute, breaking the wurst into bite-sized pieces. This scene concluded, I could leave Luxembourg behind.

As the sun set over the Rhine, I finally pulled into Bonn, nearly 24 hours later than I had originally intended. It had been an exhausting trip, the kind that seems impossibly long, the kind where you make a reference to the events of yesterday as if they occurred a week previously. But, as I stood at the Bonn Central Tram Station, I felt like I had never left. Except now I was packing digestive biscuits.

The next day I was back in the office, scrutinizing little fossil claws and feeling like I had just left this routine for a weekend. Regardless of how much time had passed, after all that exploring, it felt good to be home.


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