Tuesday, January 17, 2012

January in Luxembourg Part I

Ollie's cake
So, after a pretty uneventful New Years, January is turning out to be a little crazy as I try to jam in as many things on my 'To-do-before-leaving-lux' list as possible.

I spent the first week of January working on a birthday cake for Ollie's second birthday. I made him a train cake, and it took me a bit of planning, three trips to two different supermarkets, several hours spent making three separate cakes, and then a whole afternoon to decorate them. The finished cake was pretty cool though, so now I'm trying to work out what I can make to top it for Pepi's fourth birthday next month.

That Friday I headed out for a day trip with Josh, my American friend. He hasn't seen much of Luxembourg beyond the city, so we drove through the Bambesch forest behind my place, through Diekirch and Ettelbruck, up to Vianden on the German border. Our detour through the McDonalds' drivethru for coffee was entertaining, I don't think Josh's american english is easy for people here to understand, so I ended up leaning over ordering in German, and we received two very black, very sugarless coffees at the end.

Ceiling inside Vianden Castle
I had been to Vianden in September, but we didn't really stick around for long. It has the most beautiful and biggest castle in Luxembourg, home of the Counts of Vianden, whose descendents eventually ended up as part of the Dutch Royal Family. It dates back to the 11th century, got trashed over time, was inhabited by Victor Hugo in the 1870s, and was the last place in Luxembourg to be liberated from the Germans after WWII. The castle has been undergoing restoration ever since the 1970s. This time, Josh and I actually went inside the castle and had a look around. The guy selling tickets was funny, he complained that the total was smaller than they usually allow for a credit card sale, allowed it anyway, and then spent ages complaining about it. This seems to be on par for Luxembourgish customer service, they will normally help you, but they will make sure you know they're not happy about it! The castle is pretty cool, but it seemed like we were missing out on some vital information like a map, so we spent a lot of time wandering around trying to work out what things were. Information panels that were only in French and German provided me with a good chance to show off by translating them making shit up for Josh. You can go right down to the foundations of the castle which is kind of cool. We finished off the afternoon having a few beers in a pub out there.

Josh and I went out clubbing on Saturday night, so having a house full of guests and excited kids on Ollie's birthday the next day was interesting. The cake went down well, and Ollie was a real cutie all day - he's just grown tall enough to reach the door handles and has worked out to open them, but mine is a little bit too high, so that afternoon he pushed his little chair underneath it, climbed up and opened the door, and then came and sat on my bed just chilling out with me for quite awhile. We've just begun toilet training him, which has been very cute as well - he's so proud of himself!

Devnull at Rocas
This last weekend has been kind of crazy, Jacquie was away so I spent Saturday helping Rogier with the kids and made a last-minute decision to go skiing the following day, so I ran around like crazy for a couple of hours trying to organize everything for that, tidy the house up a bit and cook dinner for them before I headed off to Josh's to cook dinner for us there. Alex and Steve's band, Devnull, had their first gig that night at Rocas, so we went there. I'd sworn I would be home by midnight but the drinks were free and the night seemed young (and someone thought it would be funny to lock me in the backstage room) and I didn't end up home until 2.30am.

Driving down to La Bresse skifield in France
7am the next morning I was up early to go skiing with Josh. I was not feeling fantastic and Pepi coming downstairs to hang out with me while I was getting ready didn't help, he has just suddenly gotten into the 'but why?' phase and kept asking for an anatomy lesson while I was running around like a hungover headless chicken trying to sort myself out. Eventually I tumbled out of the door into Josh's car, and we were off to Le Brasse, the biggest skifield in North-East France (so still pretty small, bout the same size as Rauris was). It's about two and a half hours drive from Luxembourg, further South than Strasbourg, and Le Brasse is actually only 20km from Le Markstein where I went skiing one day last year.

Me rocking the aviators on the lift with Josh
Rogier had been kind enough to lend me all of his gear, his boots fit my freaky size 45 feet perfectly, although his skis are a little long and heavy for me, and I definitely looked resplendent in his too-big beige colored jacket, oversized mittens and some random aviator sunnies I found in the cupboard! Visibility was a major issue for me all day, so I might invest in some goggles this year, they seem to be the only thing I can never manage to borrow or hire. It took me a hour or so to get really comfortable again, but by the end of the day I think I'd improved marginally on where I was at last year, and the only fall I had was tripping over and whacking my head in the carpark! I really need another day or so this season if I really want to improve my skills, rather than just maintain them.

La Bresse, France
La Bresse is ok, much bigger than Markstein and I think about the same size as Rauris, but the snow isn't great this year and several of the runs were closed due to a lack of snow (not that that stopped us going down them!). I think learning at Rauris really shaped my skiing preferences, I prefer really long runs so that I don't have to get on and off the damn lifts all the time, and I prefer pistes that have sharp curves and drops in them like Rauris did, rather than straight and flat slopes that are only really good for speed like La Bresse has. I should be more sensible with my time and money, but I'm dying to go again this season, so I might see if I can head down that way again, although I'd be keen to check out a different skifield. The region is quite pretty though, its more hilly rather than alpine, and apart from a strong wind at the top the weather was perfect so the snow covered trees were really beautiful glistening in the sun.

Pepi "take a photo of the plane on my shirt!"
I've now only got about seven more weeks left in Luxembourg, and it's starting to scare me a little, as there is still quite a bit I would like to see and do before I leave. On the other hand though, I'm ready to get to Amsterdam, as I'm eager to discover somewhere new and have a change of scenery and lifestyle. Like I've said before, Luxembourg is a hard country to settle down in. Because there is such a large expat community of people who are always coming and going here, Luxembourgers tend to stick to themselves and the expats tend to keep their friendships pretty superficial. I was at an Internations event (for the expat business community) one night and when I told people I was moving to Amsterdam, everyone said it was a good move. Luxembourgers don't have the best reputation among many of the expats I've met here, one said to me that night 'Luxembourgers are like Dementors, they're all gloomy and depressing and if you get to close, they suck the life out of you'. I posted the quote on Facebook and got a pretty angry reply from a Luxembourger, which didn't really do much to prove that they have a sense of humor. On the other hand though, many expats here are so negative about the people and the country that they're hard to be around too! But anyway, seven more weeks...

More photos from this month are here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bring on 2012

I left New Zealand in late 2010, and I find it hard to believe a whole year has passed over here!

Amsterdam, photo taken in August
As I hinted at recently, more change is on the cards for me as the family I'm nannying for pack up and move to Amsterdam at the beginning of March. I took my time deciding whether or not to go with them, but in the end I've decided that I've seen and done most of Luxembourg and the surrounding countryside, and five months living in Amsterdam will give me the chance to explore a country I don't know so well.

I'm not one for New Years resolutions, I'm more for gradual change than making big declarations, and I don't think New Years has as much relevancy for making changes in my life as a new school semester or a new job is, but a Stuff.co.nz article asking 50 NZers what they were hopeful for in 2012 got me thinking about what I would like to get out of the year ahead.

I am hopeful that this year I really will learn to live within my means and get my finances into better shape. Anyone who knows me will know that I don't have many skills in the money department, and ever since I blew all my savings while trying to make Spain work out, I've been struggling to get my head back above water. I can but hope...not even two weeks into January, and my budget for this month is already a disaster!

Amsterdam, photo taken in August
I hope that I really make progress in learning German, and pick up a little more french and dutch. I came to Europe to learn a third language, but after a year here, I'm failing miserably! I have some basics in all three, but I couldn't have a conversation in any! The frustrating thing is I'm really really passionate about learning German, but I missed out on a german course last semester, and now I'm waiting for my bosses to sort out how things are going to work with the move.

I am optimistic that Amsterdam will be a positive move for me. Again, I've thrown all of my plans to the wind in leaving Luxembourg before my year is up, but Im viewing it as a chance to discover another corner of Europe. I've kind of seen and done most of Luxembourg and the surrounding countries, whereas I haven't spent much time in the Netherlands and it being so small and with cheap public transport, I should be able to travel around a lot, and hopefully even make it over to Hamburg or part of northern Germany. I'm also hoping that a change in location will see me settle down, make friends and feel at home in a way that I haven't in Luxembourg. I love Luxembourg, but its hard to live here as the Luxembourgers really stick to themselves, and the foreigners living here are all on short-term contracts, meaning its hard to make good friends with people and as soon as you do, they leave anyway.

Amsterdam, photo taken in August
I am also hopeful that I can evade immigration officials until I apply for a visa for Germany, and hopeful that Germany grants me one without any problems! I'm not going to make any wishes about what will happen once I'm inside Germany - I've learnt enough making plans while on an OE to do that now!

And finally, I am hopeful that I really make the most out of every opportunity that living in Europe in 2012 has to offer me. After my first three months of traveling around, I'm finding that now I tend to return to the same locations rather than discovering new ones. I can put this down party to wanting to catch up with my closest friends, and I guess that being able to do so easily is in fact one of the things that living in Europe has to offer, but also to me just not having the money or time to travel very far from where I'm based here in Western Europe. I would love to head over towards Eastern Europe, and also up to Scandinavia, so if I can sort out my finances a bit better, hopefully I can achieve one or the other by the end of the year.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Top ten ways you know you've been living in Europe for too long

1. Cold salami and cheese on toast seems like a perfectly normal breakfast option, and you can't even remember what decent coffee taste like.

2. You don't mind going clubbing in jeans, a sweater and flat shoes, but photos of what you were wearing on Courtney Place a year ago make you cringe.

3. Rather than crossing a border being a huge deal, requiring planning, a plane flight, research to ensure you're not going to have visa problems, and numerous checks to make sure you're passport is valid and on you, border crossings are now meaningless and happen accidentally (like when you make a wrong turn in the car) or for random tasks (like to go clubbing or to go to a cheaper supermarket).

4. You've worked out how to scam the train ticket collector, stopped paying for bus tickets, and no longer feel weird jumping off the bus without saying 'thank you' to the driver.

5. You know what gewürztraminer, roquefort and foie gras are, and wine is now something that you sip slowly with food, making sure you've got the right wine to match your meal, rather than something you buy a cardboard cask on to get drunk off the week before payday.

6. You know enough basics to not only be able to order drinks in six languages, but to be able to ask them to hold the ice and give you a straw too.

7. You've stopped converting euros into dollars, accepted 4euros ($8ND) as a reasonable price for a latte, and give tips without thinking about it.

8. Your previous understanding of public toilets has now been replaced by the image of the Burger King logo.

9. You no longer see the need to wait patiently in queues, instead partaking in the crowd-control-needed mobs at the supermarket checkout and pushing bratty french kids out of the way when need be.

10. You haven't seen the sea since your summer holiday in Italy six months ago, you probably won't for another six months, and that isn't weird at all!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Years - ending the year in Luxembourg

Christmas Market in Luxembourg Ville
I sit writing this at 11pm, at home alone with the kids and already a bottle of champagne down since they went to bed three hours ago. Christmas and New Years have kind of been a non-event for me this year, but I will get to that after I recap what's been going on in November and December, with links to the other blogs posts I've written about events along the way.

Me and Pepi on the train
After visiting Liege, London and the south of Luxembourg, the second half of November was pretty uneventful really. I managed to make it over to Saarbrucken in Germany to visit the Christmas market, and then the last Tuesday of November I had a 'Big Day Out' with Pepi. He'd visited the train station with me and Rogier when I collected my ticket to Strasbourg, and wanted to go on the train so bad that I promised him I would take him the following week.

Pepi on the playground in Noertzange
So on Tuesday when Ollie had gone for his nap we took off, taking the bus to the station and then the train to...who knows where! Despite trying to plan everything carefully, we pretty much just got on and got off at a stop where I could see a playground within walking distance! Pep didn't mind, he was quite excited about being on the train, we could have stayed on there for much longer than we did but I (correctly) thought that we were pretty close to hitting the French border. We ended up in Noertzange, population less-than 1000, resident ice-cream shops less than 1! After watching some diggers and 'Bob the Builders' at work by the tiny station, we walked down to the playground and I chased him around for awhile. By this stage he was getting quite anxious about missing Mama, so I tried to distract him with icecream, which turned into a huge fail as there isn't a single shop selling icecream in Noertzange. So, back on the train we went, and then it was onto a bus, then onto another bus after the first one crashed with a car (he didn't notice a thing!) and finally we reached the city, where the Luxembourg Christmas Market was in full tilt. A ride on the merry-go-round and miniature train later, we brought a scoop of icecream and finally took the bus home, where I collapsed exhausted - he had fun, but hauling a four-year old around in a push-chair and dragging that thing on and off the train and over the overpass is hard work!

cookie scrabble in my french class
I began December with a trip down to Strasbourg in France to see Hauke, but again, the first couple of weeks of the month were pretty quiet. I baked a cake with the kids, dismally failed an end of year French test (as did the rest of the class, and we can all continue, so not too concerned!) and then celebrated Christmas with my french class two weeks running. The french teacher isn't really a professional french teacher but an economist doing it in his spare time, so I think throwing two parties with us was much more fun than planning two more lessons. The first time, we celebrated 'Belgian Christmas' heaps of different Belgian sweets and a kind of scrabble, making french words with cookie letters. The following week we joined with the advanced class, and everyone had to bring something from their country. My pavlova looked like a cowpat both in size and colour, so I made a last minute dash to the supermarket and doled out marmite on bread instead - and yes, I did notice a few people spitting it out into their napkins!

Josh drinking Gluhwine at the Lux Ville market
December saw me meet Josh, an american accountant who has recently moved out here, and we've become good mates. He's introduced me to egg-nog, and led to me heading out to the Christmas market for Gluhwine and to Liquid for Jazz and Blues night a fair few times this month. Through a friend from the Dominican Republic/Spain, I've also met a big group of latinos, mostly Mexicans, who are living here and all party at the local spanish bar. I don't know how I didn't know that they were here until now, but I've since spent several tequila-fuelled nights dancing salsa with them until the early hours of the morning.

Band at the Christmas Market in Differdange
After developing a compulsion to collect Gluhwine mugs from every Christmas market I go to (these things are hideous and too small for a decent coffee, no idea what I will do with them back in NZ! Gluhwine party anyone?), I jumped at the chance to visit Differdange, a town of about 10 000 close to Esch-Sur-Alzette and Dudelange in the South of Luxembourg with a mate Markus from Austria and his greek neighbour. Turns out Dudelange or it's Christmas Market isn't all that interesting, but I scored a bizarre mug with a old guy sitting on a bench smoking on it, watched Markus do a couple of rounds of a fake ski slope, and had a bit of a day out.

Letting Pepi play with my makeup
The end of December saw snow fall a couple of times, but nothing compared to what I expected. Last year there was about a metre on the ground here and in Germany, but this year it didn't stick around for longer than a day, the snowfields within a couple of hours of here are still closed, and the weather forecast for tomorrow predicts 11degrees. Watching Ollie play in his first snowfall was a highlight of the month, as has him learning how to say my name. He can't quite do the whole 'Claire' thing yet, so I'm now known as 'Car', ever since I woke up one morning to him banging on the door wanting me to come and play, shouting 'Carrr, carr, carr' over and over. He sounds a bit like a crow really, but it's so cute, and it gives me such a warm fuzzy feeling to know that I mean enough to him for him to learn my name pretty early on in his vocabulary.

I headed back over to Trier in Germany for an afternoon, to pick up a few things in the shops and check out what I'd heard was a great Christmas market, but again I was kind of disappointed. I think once you've seen one Christmas market here in Europe, you've seen them all, and especially after being at the really pretty market of Gottingen with Hauke and all of his friends, others kind of fall flat.

Lena and I drinking peket at the Christmas Market
I also went back to Liege just for an afternoon, to sort out some visa issues. As of late December, my Spanish working holiday visa has expired, and I am kind of an illegal immigrant. I'm exploiting a loophole that allows New Zealanders to have three months in each of a long list of European countries, rather than restricting us to three months in the whole of Schengen like most foreigners are, but this is kind of tricky considering your passport never gets stamped to say when you arrive or leave each of the countries. Normally you can bluff you're way through this kind of thing, but because I want to apply for another European visa at some stage I don't want to risk any issues further down the line. So, I went to Belgium to ask for a piece of paper saying that I had arrived there.

Memorial to victims of the grenade/shooting attack in Liege
Given my experiences in Spain, I was pretty dubious that it would work, but I rocked on up at the Liege Town Hall with Lena to do the translating, and asked for a Declaration of Arrival, normally only given to those on a real long-term visa. She asked "do you have proof of how/when you arrived in Belgium?", "Do you have proof of a visa?", and "Do you have proof of address?", I answered no to all three, and apart from a scary moment when the fake address I gave her turned out to be an apartment building, she just shrugged her shoulders and gave me the paper anyway - totally unlike Spain! Now I see how Belgium managed to survive over a year with no government! So unless they realise I was never at that address and give my name to Interpol, I reckon I'm safe for another three months! Lena and I spent a little while at the Liege Christmas market, where I scored yet another mug but this time shunned Gluhwine in favour of Peket, a kind of hard alcohol made from distilled grain in Liege, and shared the sobering experience of walking past the broken bus shelters and huge memorial to the victims of a grenade and shooting attack in Liege just two days earlier.

Ollie as a fireman/pirate/princess/spartan
And finally, like I said, Christmas and New Years have kind of been non-events for me this year. Christmas in the Netherlands is celebrated quite differently. There, Sinterklaas, or Santa Claus, sails on a boat from Spain on December 5th (Why Spain? Because centuries ago, Spain was the End of the World) accompanied by Zwarten Pieten, or Black Peters, black men with bright red lips and feathers in their caps that help deliver the presents. Sinterklaas leaves children presents and cookies in their shoes after the 5th - along with various small things, he left Pep and Ollie a toy kitchen this year, very cool!

Princess Pepijn
The night before Rogier and the kids went to join Jacquie in the Netherlands for Christmas I gave them my present, a big box full of dress-up clothes. I'd been planning this for ages, but as usual things didn't go quite to plan, and I found it really hard finding articles to put in it - what I did find I collected in the UK, Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and mum posted me some from NZ! I also wanted to put it in a wooden chest and paint 'Dress-Up' or something on the side, but Ikea has been sold out of wooden boxes for months, so its in a temporary fabric box for now - as usual, the kids are playing with the box as much as with the present inside, so I doubt it will last long! My attempt to use the present as bribery for good behavior for the day failed dismally, with me hauling a kicking and screaming Pepi out of the doctors office at one point. I had to laugh at all of the mothers with placid babies sitting there glaring at me, I was thinking "just you wait, one day this will be you!". The kids seemed to have settled on 'Fireman Ollie' and 'Policeman Pepi' outfits, but initially they were both into the barbie high heels and girlie necklaces, was very cute!

Christmas Eve at Hardy's
So, they all headed off on Christmas Eve, the day when most Europeans actually celebrate, and I spent the day nursing a hangover and trying to sort myself out to head out for dinner. I had dinner with two strangers via couchsurfing, Hardy from Germany and Nicolas from Brazil. Hardy did a great job of hosting us, making salad followed buy wild pork and vegetables, and I made brownies with strawberries for dessert. It was another late night, followed by a 6am wakeup call to skype family back home, so I was struggling with the idea of heading out again on Christmas Day, but I made it to Markus' house for Christmas lunch, a big affair with ten of us, and a massive collaborative meal of lamb, beef, veges and salad, followed by a couple of different puddings and Austrian Christmas cookies. We represented about eight different countries, so it was quite an interesting day. Hardy and I attempted to go out that night, but there wasn't too much happening and we were both quite tired and called it a night around 2am, and then I rounded off my Christmas holiday by spending the next two days obsessively cleaning the house, even washing all of the kids' armchair covers and the inside of the fridge.

Christmas Day at Markus'
I'm not too upset about spending New Years working, New Years has never been my thing anyway, as I usually find it to be quite disappointing. Jacquie and Rogier went to Maastricht in the Netherlands this afternoon, so I spent the rest of the day with the boys, baking scones and building obstacle courses around the house. The went to bed without any problem, and somehow didn't wake during the tremendous noise of the fireworks half an hour ago (its now 1am!) although Pepi has been up since and is now waiting for me to come and sleep in the big bed with him. At least I'm not spending New Years alone...

So I hope everyone had a great Christmas and New Years in  whatever shape and form, and all the best for the year to come.

And greetings from Pepi..