Saturday, April 27, 2013

LUXEMBOURG HIKING - NaturWanderPark delux

Vianden Castle
Just got back from spending three days hiking and dining with some European journalists and bloggers in Luxembourg’s Mullerthal and Ardennes regions. Absolutely beautifully breathtakingly stunning nice and fun! We were exploring a few of the trails in the new , a joint Deutschland-Luxembourg (de-lux, get it?) tourism project that offers hikes that loop through both countries, sometimes crossing the Our River to do so. 

Here’re some quick-hit impressions:

-The Mullerthal region (oft referred to as Little Switzerland; Petite Suisse Luxembourgeoise ) has some amazing hiking trails that meander through bizarrely sculpted sandstone rock formations. For you Northwest folks, much of them are exactly like the sandstone bluffs along Chuckanut Bay—except they’re in middle of the woods in a landlocked European country! Farther north, the Ardennes hills surrounding Vianden offer sweeping views down into the Our River valley and the patchwork of forests, fields and farmland on both the Luxembourg and German sides. 
Cool rock formations along the Mullerthal trail.

-Where I live in America, crossing the border from the U.S. into Canada can sometimes take an hour-and-a-half of waiting in line in your car, inhaling auto and truck exhaust, being forced to listen to krappy tunes coming from other cars, all culminating perhaps with a drug-sniffing dog rummaging through your car for drugs and/or illegal immigrants. So it’s refreshingly fun and freeing to cross back and forth between two countries as simply and easily as if you were taking the next step on your mindless saunter out to the kitchen to see if they were any croissants left over from breakfast. 

It’s sort of ironic to the think about too: the U.S. and Canada have been never been at odds militarily and yet to cross from one to the other requires such effort, preparation and a following of myriad rules and regulations. However, even though Luxembourg and Germany have a history of conflict (e.g., the Nazis occupied Luxembourg during World War II) crossing from one to the other couldn’t be easier. On my Mullerthal-Ardennes visit, sometimes all it took was walking across the bridge spanning the Our River; in other spots, the border is marked by a widely-spaced row of short, cement blocks. One could--and one did quite often--stand on one of these block so he could say that he was in two countries at once. 
My right arm is in Luxembourg, my left in Germany.
-Castles are my new bald eagle. What I mean is this—when I first moved from New Jersey to the Northwest, I couldn’t believe how common bald eagles were. I’d never seen one before, yet during salmon spawning it’s not uncommon in Washington State to see 30 eagles in a single tree. So I spent much of my first few years there in open-mouthed wonder. Similarly, I have no experience with castles.

“We don’t have castles in America,” I said during this trip to one of my new friends, a journalist from Germany. She appeared stunned.

So I spent much of these three days in gape-mouthed wonder, especially during our 90-minute explore of spectacular Le Château de Vianden. 
Inside the chapel at Vianden Castle.
-The Mullerthal and Vianden region would be AMAZING for trail running. (Though I hiked about 25 miles during my three-day visit, I didn’t get a chance to go running.) Lots of single- and double-track, mega-ups and mega-downs, stunning vistas, terrific signage to keep from getting lost, castles (CASTLES!), Europey-looking villages and more—can’t wait to get back up there and put running-shoe tread to trail!
Trail running the Mullerthal. 
-The Mullerthal and Vianden region is rollicking big-time fun for mountain biking. (See above, the only difference being that just before my hiking trip, I rode a 70K mountain bike randonnee in the Mullerthal and thus I’ve experienced its fat-tire goodness first-hand.)

-With smooth, curvy-swervey paved roads that go up, up, and up, and sometimes culminate with an ancient castle (A CASTLE!), I simply can’t wait to head up there on my road bike! (‘Cause there’re castles ‘n’ all.) 

-They have green woodpeckers in Luxembourg. (GREEN woodpeckers!) I didn’t actually see one, but I did see a picture of one in our guide Marco’s guidebook. We did see a den hole for a badger though. (Honey badger?)

-Beds in Luxembourg and Germany don’t seem to have top sheets.

-When you’re at a restaurant and you’re done eating, place your knife and fork on your plate at 4 o’clock otherwise the waiter thinks you’re still eating and won’t take your plate away. 

Burg Falkenstein, Germany

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Please enjoy some random bike photos with this story.
This is the first time I’ve lived in a city apartment in about 20 years and I have to say, I’m really enjoying it. I like not having a car and thus, not paying for gas, insurance, maintenance, registration tabs, etc. It’s fun relying on public transportation, my bike or walking to get around.
Granted, the rental management company (agence immobiliere) seems to be run by a band of chucklehead teens up to no good. We’ll call them up to let them know there’s a problem—“Our half-melted bathroom light fixture is still shooting sparks at us whenever we turn it on; are you going to send someone out to fix it like you told us six weeks ago?—and swear we hear snickering on the other end of the line.
“Oui, oui, Monsieur, someone will get right back to you,” they say, amid barely suppressed giggle fits.
Then nothing. No one ever comes out to fix anything.
I imagine we’re the subjects of some YouTube video in which unsuspecting tenants are shown being repeatedly lied to over the phone by pranking agence immobiliere employees whose goal it is to make the tenants snap.
But other than that, everything’s fine. And I love my new rituals. My morning walks down to the bakery on the corner for croissants and muffins. My thrice-weekly runs through the historic and beautiful Petrusse Valley, which is less than a kilometer away. Our easy jaunts into the city Centre where the pretty people hang out. Also, our son’s school is right across the street from our apartment. It’s all good.

In recent days, however, I’d become intrigued by what I soon termed the Mystery Sound. A sort-of repetitive rhythmic Whoomp-Whoomp-Whoomp, which at first I took to be the upstairs couple in the throes of horizontal passion. But the Whoomping  would go on for hours. And unless the guy was suffering one of the side effects I’ve heard about on the Viagra and Cialis commercials—no, not the sudden vision loss or ringing in the ears—that wasn’t likely.
Whoomp-Whoomp-Whoomp …
And then it would stop for a few hours.
And then start up again.
Whoomp-Whoomp-Whoomp …
After establishing that it wasn’t coming from anywhere inside our apartment, the next time the Whoomping started, I ventured out into the hallway and began listening outside our neighbors’ doorways. Perhaps a fellow tenant was using one of those Nordic Track indoor cross-country ski trainers? And given their multi-hour-long workouts, maybe he or she is a future Olympian. Perhaps one I could befriend and whom with gift me with tickets to next year’s Winter Games in Russia!
But, no, I heard nothing at either neighbor’s doorway.
I climbed the stairs to the floor above and the Whoomping got quieter. Aha! It’s coming from below. Now we’re getting somewhere. I sprinted down to the lobby but as soon as I got there, the Whoomping stopped. I’d have to wait to find the Whoomping source, but that was OK. I was creeping ever closer to discovering the source of the Mystery Sound.
The next day, as soon as the Whoomping started, I flew down to the lobby, where it sounded like two rhinoceroses were taking turns butting their giant horned heads against a wall down below. Opening the door to the dungeon-like basement, the sound was so loud I couldn’t help but wince with each Whoomp!
I soldiered on down the stairs, step-by-step, in a sort-of sideways, slightly crouched defensive position, fists clenched and forearms up should I need to shield my face from an attack. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, I followed the sound to an unmarked door from where the Whoomping sound was definitely emanating.
I was nervous. I was scared. With the loud Whoomping now throbbing in my head, I turned the knob, thrust open the door and leapt inside, grunting threateningly with great menace! But not too great of menace. Just in case there was someone inside the room and I needed my threatening grunt to be interpreted as just a loud cough.
My eyes darted all around the empty room, which appeared to be a catch-all storage, electrical, heating, utility-type space. Over in a corner, I found my great white whale, the source of all Whoomping: a techy-looking green cube stuck to the wall amid a jumble of pipes and wires. A small light flashed with each pulsating Whoomp! It was as if the green cube had come to life and was barking at me.
I ventured a closer look; printing on the cube read: Wasseraufbereitung. I whipped out my smartphone and Google-translated Wasseraufbereitung. I suspected it meant detonator. Or Time bomb. Or possibly C4 Explosive Cube!
Instead, the translator came back with … Water Treatment.
Oh. It’s some sort of water treatment thingy. I know Luxembourg has a funky water issue wherein everything gets coated with calcium or sandstone or something. And that you buy detergent and dishwashing soap with special de-scaling agents; the Wasseraufbereitung must deal with that.  It’s then that I notice a clear hose leading from the cube down to a box on the floor marked ‘Minerals.’ Ah.
But why the Whoomping, and the flashing lights? Common sense would dictate that I check with the agence immobilier. But I know that won’t get me anywhere.
‘Cept onto another YouTube prank video.

Friday, April 12, 2013


The multiple-language skills of the people I’ve met here in Luxembourg have been mind-boggling. However, even they are not above picking the wrong word or word form now and then. (And please know that I am in no way criticizing; they are so far beyond me in linguistic dexterity that it’s embarrassing.) 

-My Luxembourgish mountain-biking friends use the word ‘funny’ for ‘fun.’ 

“There’re great trails above Hesperange,” they'll tell me. “They’re really cool, man. You’ll love it. They’re really funny.”

So for a moment I envision a trail strewn with jokes and pranks: banana peels to make us slip and fall, overturned buckets raining confetti down on our heads, a Monty Python-esque Ministry of Silly Riding demonstration, etc.—all to a Yackety Sax soundtrack.

-Last week, I visited the Luxembourg City tourist office to pick up a cycling map. I enjoyed a brief social banter with the woman behind the counter—not sure exactly which European country she was from—whose English was at least as good as mine. But when I left, she nodded her head good-bye and said, “So, Mister. Please.”

(Made me feel a little better for the countless times I’ve left some shop and said, “Bonjour.”) 

Here’s another language-based tidbit:

-During one of my first days here, I went to a pizza joint around the corner to order some dinner. The pizza maker was a skinny guy in his 30s who spoke Italian and a little French, but no English. Luckily though, a woman who works in the bakery down the street and whom I see almost every day, was there just hanging around. Thing is, while she’s French and also speaks German, she speaks no English. I speak a wee, tiny, miniscule bit of 7th-grade German and so with a lot of hand gestures, nodding and head shaking, we combined forces to translate my German to her French to the pizza maker’s Italian.

I began: “Pizza … gross (large), mit uh, … käse (cheese) … und pepperoni?” I’m stumped; I have no idea what the German word is for pepperoni, but I see salami on the menu.

“Salami. Zwei (two) salami- käse pizzas. Ein (one) gross, ein … uh, nicht so gross,” and motion with my hands to get my point across that I also want a medium.

This was transformed by the bakery woman into lots of pretty sounds (French) and by the pizza maker in Fellini movie-sounding Italian which he then barked at some kid who, until this point had been folding pizza boxes in the corner.

While an overhead TV played music videos, I waited for my pizzas. I attempted to make small talk with the bakery woman who was now seated reading a book. Let’s see, what German phrases do I know? “Jochen, bist du im garten?” (Jochen, are you in the garden?) Not really applicable here.

“Mein name ist Mike,” I say.

“Ah,” she says, somewhat humoring me. “Mein name ist (something that started with a ‘V’ but that I couldn’t understand even after asking her to repeat it three times.)

She went back to reading, but I didn’t want to give up; I find it fascinating to try to communicate with others in foreign languages I can’t understand.

“Ich schreibe,” I say. “Ich schreibe buchs. (I write books.)”

She held up the book she was reading and said something that I assume was, ‘Books like this?’ It was a girly-ish novel with a French title.

I said, guidebooks, and I acted out running, hiking and biking by making exaggerated walking and pedaling motions.

“Ahh, velo?“ she said.

“Yes—oui, velo,” I said, fairly unable to control my excitement at now having switched from German to French. Am I the shiz or what? (Suis-je le shiz ou quoi?)

On my smartphone, I went to and showed her some of the books I’d written. She nodded her head as she scrolled through the site. When she was done, out of curiosity, I looked up the book that she was reading: “Cinquante nuances de Grey.” (50 Shades of Grey.)

No, I don’t write books like that.

Monday, April 08, 2013


Last week, we had a German electrician in to fix a bathroom light fixture that’d been melted away by the previous tenant. (Only took the agence immobiliere seven weeks to get someone out here but, I digress…) The electrician wasn’t brusque exactly, maybe just all-business. As in: get in, get the job done and get out. For about an hour he was in our bathroom banging away. From time to time, I heard his harsh German voice aggressively arguing with someone via his cellphone. (Or maybe he was just having a normal German conversation; it was hard to tell.) Once or twice I heard the word, ‘Kaput!’

Eventually, he emerged from the bathroom, toolbox in hand and, in very calm clear English, declared the job done. He had me sign some papers and turned to leave, but suddenly found himself in the mood to tell me about his various trips to America. 

“I was there before,” he says. “Lots of times. Florida. Uh, … Orlando. The place with all the parks.”

“Oh yeah, like Disney World?” I say.

“No, not Disney World. That’s for the little children,” he says. “I like the, uh … Harry Potter World! That was cool! They have this one ride—you feel just like you’re flying! Flying with Harry Potter—I loved that!” 

He also told me that he owned some kind of race car and that he once had it shipped over to Nashville. I thought he was going to detail some sort of racing he did there. (Rally car? NASCAR?) But instead, he was practically breathless with excitement as he told me how loud and powerful the sound system was in this race car. How he’d installed this and that, and how many decibels, watts, etc. that it pumped out. He never once said anything about racing or even driving the car. I nodded as if I understood perfectly, but I was thoroughly confused. 

Lastly, he told me about his upcoming trip to Las Vegas and Hawaii and Phoenix. (The mention of Phoenix often causes a knee-jerk reaction wherein I launch into the Ironman triathlon I once did there—see, I did it again!) 

“Phoenix wasn’t my choice,” he says. “I wanted to go to that place where they have the bridge. The big red bridge.”

Red bridge in Arizona? Maybe he means red rocks, I wonder.

“Sedona? Or the Grand Canyon?” I offer. 

“No, the big red bridge. In California, Francisco.”

“The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s it,” he says. “But the tour wasn’t going there. I go to the red bridge next time.”

Sounds like a plan.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013


Luxembourg is a tiny country. For you Bellinghamsters, from east to west Luxembourg is about as wide as the distance from Bellingham to Glacier; north-south it’s about from Bellingham to Everett. Yet, within that 999 square miles, they have three official languages—Luxembourgish, French and German. English is not an official one but most people here speak it, or at least “a lee-tel bit,” usually said while wincing and holding up a hand to show a small space between thumb and index finger. Go to an cash machine here  and you have five language options, the above four and Portuguese.  (There are some 60,000 Portuguese or people of Portuguese descent in Luxembourg, about 13 percent of the total population.)

Lots of people seem to think that Luxembourg is a city in another country. When we’d tell people we were moving here, many said, “That’s in Germany, right?” When my mother went to her local post office in Florida to mail me a letter, the woman behind the counter insisted that my mother include a country. Even though my mother had properly addressed the letter.
“Don’t blame me when it doesn’t get there,” the woman said.  

Luxembourg is a small country so it makes sense that its postal codes are short: an ‘L’, followed by four digits. (Ours is L-2128, for anyone who’d like to send us unsolicited checks.) Phone numbers are a different story. They seem to be six, seven, sometimes eight numbers. I’m never really sure. Timewise, Luxembourg goes by the 24-hour clock, which I’m pretty good at until I get to about 17:00, which takes me a moment to realize is 5, not 7 p.m.  I get better again when it gets to 22:00, which I know is 10 p.m. From there, I’m fine. 23.00 is the 11th hour, as it were. Datewise, though I’m still pretty screwed. The day and month are switched. So a day like today, April 3 (4/3/2013), is especially confusing because here it’s 3/4/2013. But wasn’t that last month, my brain keeps asking.