Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lost in Luxembourg

I've been back from a short trip to Luxembourg for a couple of days now, but it's taken me a while to recover enough to write about it. I've been wearing my baggiest pants, hiking socks, and some highly unfashionable sandals while I recuperate, looking so hideous that I don't want to venture outside for fear of being deported. I'm tired. I'm bloated. My feet are destroyed.

Our mission was twofold: To meet up with my friend and fellow fan Alex – who now lives in Germany with her husband Thomas – so we can go see the very first stop of Depeche Mode's "Tour of the Universe"... And to drink beer. We were successful on both counts.

While in my hardcore-fan-for-whom-nothing-is-ever-good-enough, the concert was fairly decent (I was hoping for better for Alannah's first!) and just to be at the first show of the tour at a smaller venue was a distinct pleasure. Tickets had sold out in mere seconds, so we knew we were among the privileged few at Luxembourg's Rockhal.

In this same venue, home to Luxembourg's biggest concerts, the beers - as in big drafts in pint cups - were only 2 euro each. I'll say it again: Pints of real (i.e. Luxembourgish pilsner, not Bud or Miller) beer for only 2 euro.

Luxembourg, being a world financial capital, is one of the most affluent places on Earth. Yet we found that - like at the Rockhal - everything is cheap. Not just beer.

With it being Octave, the Luxembourgish Catholic period observed after Easter, the Place Guillaume II was turned into a special fair, with stands featuring everything from cotton candy to nougat to carnival games. And, of course, plentiful beer and food on the cheap.

One thing we've missed since moving to France is street food. As much as people may mention kebabs and crêpes, there really is no street food in Paris. Occasionally, you can buy a grilled ear of corn from a Pakistani immigrant roasting it over a can full of charcoal in a shopping cart – and believe me, it's some seriously sublime stuff – but in general, you're unlikely to see Parisians munching on the street.

Scratch that for Luxembourg. Even at 10:30 in the morning, it wasn't unusual to see a local tucking into a giant sausage sandwich and several beers. Personally, I opted for the speck/lard sammich to go with my brews.

We also sampled grompere kichelcher (potato pancakes, German style) with apfelmüs, Luxringer (barbecued bratwurst), Currywurst, and anything else they'd hand us for just a few euro coins at the stands.

Vegetables seemed to be few and far in between, so in order to stay regular, we figured we'd try the uniquely Luxembourgish specialty of gezwickelte beer. This is an unfiltered brew available exclusively at Mousel's Cantine, downhill from Luxembourg City in the Clausen/Grund area, and well worth the hike. I complemented our waiter on the simple but remarkably delicious, smooth beer (I was expecting something more hoppy, tangy, or even gritty) and he proudly boasted that this is the only place you can get it - because they make it out back. (The big Mousel brewery itself has long moved to another city.)

After putting down litres of the stuff (4 euro a Stein, not bad), we thought it might be a good idea to find our way back toward our hotel and get some dinner before Alex and Thomas arrived in the evening.

Easier said than done.

Much of Luxembourg is – thanks to the Pétrusse river cutting a winding swath through it – hilly and zig-zaggy. There are very few straight lines from one place to another. So although we had followed our waiter's instructions to get back, we wound up somewhere in an ancient neighborhood in the Grund, without much of an idea where we really were. Not a big deal, considering the area is really quite charming and cute.

"Hey, there's a bar!" Alannah said, noticing the skulls in the window of the Aula Cafe. "Let's go inside," I replied.

And that's how we ended up having a liquid dinner.

We'd intended to have a quick beer and a pee-break and make our way to a restaurant for our first proper meal, but the Bofferdings went down too smoothly and the bartender and locals were too friendly. We ended up camping out for several hours, downing the aforementioned beers, as well as house specialties of honey and banana liqueurs. They even put on a ton of Depeche Mode on the sound system when they found out we were in town for the show. Class all the way.

Finally peeling ourselves off the barstools, we again took directions and made our way toward what we thought was the center of town. Somehow we ended up walking alongside what seemed like a highway. Night had fallen, and I went into a service station to ask for directions. They seemed a bit taken aback that we were on foot, telling me we had to go two kilometers in the direction from which we'd just come. Shit!

That one wrong turn cost us our intended dinner. We'd made it to the restaurant just as they'd decided to stop serving, the smell of steak and what had to be the best garlic sauce ever wafting through the air. I grumbled all the way back to the Gare part of town. At least the timing was right and we were able to meet up with our friends who'd just gotten in from Germany.

Luxembourg, despite speaking French and having a lot in common with France, does not keep French dining hours. So our only choice for dinner was... McDonald's. This isn't so awful, as I have this weird quirk about wanting to try the Golden Arches in every country I visit. (Verdict: Nothing to write home about.) But also because this was the same McDonald's that Alannah had come to on her very first trip to Europe. In fact, at this McDonald's, oh so many years ago, she had eaten her very first meal in Europe.

I'm still laughing at her about that.

But I shouldn't. I fully understand. After all, she could've arrived after 9-freakin-P.M.

At bedtime, we both realized that - despite it having been only a year since leaving the US - we've already become French. Dinner before 10:00pm just seems sort of... abnormal.

The Agony of Da-Feet
I awoke early the next morning. Not because I was excited to see my favorite band at an exclusive show in a small-ish venue. But because of serious pain in my right foot. All the hiking, climbing, and generally being lost had taken its toll – I'd either strained or hyperextended my foot. And the steady diet of fat, nitrites, and beer probably didn't help.

So we made it the morning's goal to hit the farmer's market, to see if this country does actually consume anything that grows on plants that wasn't once a hop or barley.

After a nice sit-down petit déjeuner of coffee, croissants, and orange juice (4€ as opposed to 9€ in Paris), I painfully soldiered on to the market, which had been displaced farther away from the center of town because of the Octave fair.

It was sorely disappointing, with few stands and most of them selling the same stuff as you'd find at the more run-of-the-mill Parisian markets. Alannah did find, however, some treviso, a particular kind of radicchio she'd picked up and fell in love with in Italy last year.

The four of us marched back toward the old town to hit up the Octave fair once again for some munchies, loading up once again on sausage-type-goods. If you can't beat 'em...

As midday approached, we headed back toward the train station to make our way to Oberkorn, just a few stops past where the evening's concert would be. There's no reason for any person to go to Oberkorn unless A) you live there, or B) you're a Depeche Mode fan.

The band played their only other Luxembourg show there back in 1982 or so, and wound up naming a B-side after it - "Oberkorn (It's a Small Town)"

It is, indeed, a small town. The train station is maybe about 50 metres long, has no gates or fences or anything to keep you from just walking across the tracks to get to the other "platform" (read: sidewalk), and their claim to fame appears to be a community swimming pool that has a waterslide.

On the other hand, their gleaming, modern local buses put most public transit in the US to shame. (Not that it takes much.) And they have the most perfect pavements on the face of the Earth. No joke. I wonder how much beers cost here...

Our incredibly trivial, deadhead-like pilgrimage over and done with, we got back on the train to go to Rockhal. (Their tickets are good for all public transit in the country of Luxembourg on the day of shows. Sweet.) We were among the handful that had arrived insanely early to be the first ones in, wanting to be right up front, after all.

Unfortunately, I had to return to Luxembourg to put my photography gear away at the hotel (the No-Cameras rule applies only to SLRs, apparently) which meant coming back later with a bigger crowd to find the others and regain my position in line. This meant a lot of "Excuse me," "Pardonnez-moi," and other niceties while stepping on the toes of people who surely thought we were just trying to cut in line.

And that was the case - not because I wasn't polite, nor that I couldn't say in several languages that I'd been there earlier and was rejoining my friends... But because there was the (I hate to say typical, but that's how it is at these shows) Eastern European contingent who had indeed cut in line to go be at the front. In fact, one fine example of such post-Iron Curtain louts was right in front of Alex and Thomas, a gargantuan couple who had absolutely no consideration for anyone else.

As luck would have it, when we made our way to the front of the stage once the gates opened, so did these two jackholes, who despite being in a great spot right by us, had to make a show of trying to push even farther. (As though they could get through the one person and steel bars separating them and the stage.) Further into the evening, there were a few more denizens of countries-that-should-never-have-been-let-into-the-EU trying to shove and muscle their way to the front, earning a few elbows in the ribs from yours-truly.

I finally understood why so many European fans - despite the wide availability of general admission floor tickets - prefer to buy seats a bit off the floor. While the crowds here are generally incredibly polite and respectful of personal space, there are always a brutish few who try to take advantage of the politesse and forcefully jockey for better position. I noticed at a show in Paris - in a much similar situation - that Alannah and I were among the few who resisted and fought back.

Make your own WWII analogies.

The show itself was pretty good. It had its high highs (some decades-old songs being dusted off, Martin Gore giving the performance of a lifetime), its low lows ("Peace" is the worst live Depeche Mode song ever, Dave Gahan still tries too hard on stage, Peter Gordeno should simply be hanged until dead), and as-expected parts (can we drop certain "standards" from the setlist yet, guys?). But again, it was the privilege of being there, and taking Alannah to her first DM show, that made it worthwhile.

Despite the irritating dickhead quotient.

Best of all, despite continuing to be on my feet non-stop since early in the morning (and with exception for time spent on the train), my right foot did not fall off. In fact, by the night's end, I couldn't even feel my feet anymore.

This was our third train trip outside of the country since moving to France. But for me, at least, the trip home actually, really, truly felt like we were going home. Back to our city. To our neighborhood. To our apartment. Our little nest. Where we actually, honest to god think of when we say "our home."

The night before leaving on this trip, I booked us our tickets to go back to the US for vacation this summer.

And for the first time in ages, I'm not looking forward to it.

Don't get me wrong.

I want to see my friends. My family. My old colleagues.

I want to have a hoppy Seattle microbrew, California wine, and Crunchy Cheetos.

I want to see the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra Mountains, and the Puget Sound.

You know - all those things people vacationing on the West Coast get to do. Before going home.

Entire photo set at Flickr