Sunday, February 27, 2011

Luxuriating in Luxembourg

I meant to finish this post Friday night, but I got off track, talking, as usual. Of course I was torn between my faithful readers and the fascinating, multi-lingual conversation that broke out among my bunkmates around midnight. We had six countries crammed into three bunk beds—Ecuador, Peru, Italy, Brazil, Spain and America—and spent hours talking everything from anacondas in the Amazon to the teachers’ strike in Turin.

It’s Sunday afternoon, and though I’m well into Belgium now, I wanted to get back to Luxembourg.  It really is a sweet little country that deserves its own post.

I had always been curious about Luxembourg--which is basically what drew me there in the first place—but apparently I wasn't curious enough.  Before my arrival, I hadn't bothered to learn one thing about the country.  All I knew is that Luxembourg is one of two small countries in western Europe beginning with the letter “L,” the other being Lichtenstein.  But beyond that, I couldn’t tell you the language spoken, the currency used, whether Luxembourg has a president, a prime minister, a king, a queen, or what.  

They must like America, I figured, when the bus deposited me on the city’s main thoroughfare, named after John Fitzgerald Kennedy, all written out like that.  I had no idea why Luxembourg City would name its major street after an American president, and tucked that more trivial question away for later.  Instead I concerned myself with picking up the more basic facts to get me going.  

I struck off to the city center and learned, through various signs and a series of short conversations, that Luxembourgers (or is it Luxembourgians?) typically speak French, the official language, but once can also encounter German, Portuguese and, important for me, English, to varying degrees.  In Luxembourg you buy things with the Euro and, as I discovered to my chagrin, it takes an awful lot of them to buy things that are generally cheap elsewhere.  My first breakfast cost around 9 €, or almost $12.  I put half in a plastic bag and stretched it into lunch because, well, that’s what you must do in order not to blow your backpacker’s budget in expensive little Luxembourg.

I also noticed that, at 7:15 a.m., the modern, glass buildings surrounding me already had the lights on and people inside sitting at their desks and cubicles.  Perhaps Luxembourgers prefer to rise early and work hard, but I had a different idea for my time there.  I intended to do a little luxuriating before beginning a long stint in a Bulgarian monastery the following week.  I was thinking a pedicure, or maybe sushi?

Of course that was before I learned that Luxembourg is the Land of Exorbitance.  An average spa pedicure there cost upwards of 70 €.  And you can’t even touch a piece of salmon for less than 7 €.  Along the way someone told me that Luxembourg is the richest country in the world, and that’s when I realized that my idea to luxuriate in Luxembourg was perhaps not the brightest one.

But I didn’t give up my quest to indulge altogether.  I settled on treating myself to a movie out at the Cine Utopolis in Auchon, back on JFK Avenue.  A film in Luxembourg City will set you back 8.50 €; not outrageous when you consider a regular ticket in the ArcLight Cinerama in Los Angeles can cost upwards of $14.  I checked the listings and learned that I had two extremely attractive Best-Actor nominees from which to choose—James Franco in 127 Hours or Jeff Bridges in True Grit.  It was hard to settle on one, so I thought the best way to choose--in the spirit of luxuriating--would be to pick the bigger eye-candy of the two.  The call was close, at least in my mind, but in the end I went with James Franco.

What a huge mistake on my part.  I won’t spoil the movie here (in case you missed the true story in the news), but suffice it to say that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to lay eyes on James Franco again without conjuring certain images that would make turn my stomach.  This of course is a big problem considering he’s hosting the Academy Awards tonight, and that’s a show that I never miss.

It’s even sadder when I consider that it was James Franco who helped me through a bad bout of homesickness in Russia. (Did you know he’s part Russian?)  His now-famous face was plastered on billboards throughout Moscow, and for some reason it comforted me to see him during my walks down cold, lonely streets. I even took a picture so I could remember. Now I think I’m going to have to erase it.

I learned some more stuff about Luxembourg during my time there. The streets are clean and tidy, the place is teeming with banks, and the people could be movie stars themselves, insofar as looks are concerned.  Not only that, but Luxembourgers are extraordinarily polite and helpful, and not at all hostile to Americans in the way other French-speaking people can sometimes be.  And, though I didn't actually try it, I gathered that Luxembourg is the kind of place where you can stick your thumb out for a ride and not end up dead in someone’s trunk.

Thankfully there was no need to hitchhike in Luxembourg City because it has what can easily be described as one of the most organized and well run bus systems in the world.  The stops have electrical signs that tell you exactly which bus is coming and when, and without fail, the buses are on time.  A 1.50 € ticket will get you two hours worth of ride.  That is pricey compared to the 20 cents I'd gotten used to paying, but I learned that, if used strategically, one ticket can buy you some cheap sightseeing around town.  Often I would hop a bus—any bus, like the number 13 going to “Kirchberg,” for example—get out and explore for a bit, and then hop another until my two hours were up and it was time to return to the city center.  If there is one place where it is important to get your money's worth, it's Luxembourg.

In the end, I managed to luxuriate in Luxembourg with one of the biggest indulgences imaginable in the life of a backpacker. When it was time to catch my train to Bruges, I was faced with a steep, uphill walk to the nearest bus stop and a change of buses before I would reach the station.  But for 3 €--or twice the amount of the public bus ticket--I could be shuttled from door-to-door in the hostel’s van.  I splurged and took the shuttle against all my penny-pinching instincts.

It was glorious.  I boarded the van right outside the hostel door and, ten minutes later, the driver let me out directly in front of the train station.  So, in the end, I did in fact experience the height of luxury in Luxembourg.  But I never did figure out that Kennedy thing.