Luxembourg is a foreign country

I attended a workshop last week at the Abbaye de Neumünster, which is in the Grund area of Luxembourg city. It’s a really lovely area, down in the Petrusse valley, and a short walk from my office.  It’s hard to capture in pictures just how cool it is to be down there, standing in front of a 17th century building, walking around the winding streets, looking up at a sheer cliff face, trying to imagine what it looked like back then.  grund4 grund3 grund1

grund2

For some reason, while riding the bus back up after the workshop (walking down is easy, but getting back up is quite a hike!), I was suddenly struck by how very foreign Luxembourg still feels to me, even after working there for almost two and a half years. I only ever really see the little stretch of streets between my office and the train station, and I only go to the city center occasionally (the last time was with my parents in September). So it’s easy to forget where I am most days, when working in a building built less than 20 years ago, surrounded by McDonald’s and Sephora.

Luxembourg in general still seems like a foreign country, despite going there every other week for the past seven years to get gas (my mother-in-law lives a kilometer from the border). The colorful houses, the supermarkets, the bus stops . . . I just can’t seem to get used to it. The roadsigns are even a little different. It’s very unsettling to live so close to a country, to work there every weekday, and yet still be surprised by the foreignness of it.

Maybe part of it is the language. Hearing Luxembourgish instead of French while pumping gas means I can’t chalk up the unusual architecture or funny street names to a regional difference, the way I can when visiting the rest of France. Once when I was lost, I could not find anyone who spoke French to help me. So not understanding/being understood certainly adds to the overall foreign experience.

To have such beautiful and historic sites so close by, yet to never have the time visit them, is one of the sad realities of living abroad long-term. Once warmer weather arrives, I’ll be able to explore more during my lunch breaks. And maybe for one of our date nights we can go out in the city center. My mother-in-law took a trip to the northern part of the country and said it was really gorgeous, so that would be nice for a weekend away. I don’t know if Luxembourg will ever stop feeling totally foreign, but hopefully seeing more of it will help (and maybe cracking open one of the many “learn Luxembourgish” books we have lying around . . .)

Museums and food in Amsterdam

Since we saved on the train to get there, we were able to visit more museums (and historic houses) and eat more food than we would have otherwise. We did lots of walking around and enjoyed a mostly sunny, if a bit windy, weekend.

Amsterdam 1

We visited the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum (below), the Anne Frank House, and the Royal Palace. I visited the Rembrandt House on my own. They were all between 9 and 15 euros, so over 100 euros just on museums. I looked at the different tourist cards, and none of them seemed to include all of the things we wanted to see, so it didn’t make sense to get one.  Also, I’ve never minded paying for museums, since I know firsthand the work that goes into keeping them up and running.

Rijksmuseum

We ate at the Pantry, Pieminister, d’Vijff Vlieghen (below), Pancakes!, Three Sister’s Pub, and various French fry/hot dog stands. The Pantry was our favorite I think, the only really traditional Dutch food we ate all weekend. D’Vijff Vlieghen was in an amazing 17th century building (actually, 5 buildings together), and while the soup and dessert were good, the main dish was way overpriced and not particularly good.

DvjiffVlieghen

What surprised me about Amsterdam:

-The seagulls! That was one of the first things we saw when coming out of the train station, all the seagulls flying around.

-SO many French people. I don’t know if it was just tourists though; there was a church that mentioned mass in French. It was the first weekend of the winter holidays in Paris and Bordeaux, so maybe that was part of it. Or maybe I just notice the French tourists more than others, since I’m so used to hearing the language everywhere.

-How small the buildings were on the inside. This is maybe a “duh” kind of comment, and I’ve gotten used to small in Europe. But this is a whole different scale and style of architecture than I’ve seen in my travels so far. Which is part of the fun of visiting new places!

-American candy in stores. I would have stocked up, but since I can find a few things in Luxembourg now, the hoarding tendencies are less intense.

Amsterdam 3

 

What didn’t surprise me (=what we knew we’d like and why we decided to visit in the first place):

-The gorgeous architecture. I prefer “homogenous” cities, where everything looks like it’s from the same period. Old or modern, it’s not like I prefer only medieval cities or something. But I don’t like when too many modern things are near older buildings, like in Rome or London. Paris and Florence (and Amsterdam) are more my kinds of cities.

-The bikes everywhere. This was actually noticeable in the train as we passed from Belgium into Maastricht. All of a sudden there were way more bikes on the road. However, this actually made walking around a little dangerous, since while the cars would stop for pedestrians, we were never sure if the bikes would or not (usually not!).

-The small, walkable size of the center and easy public transport system. Our hotel was off Rembrandtplein, and a 20 minute walk at most from the center and the sights to see there. We took the tram to the museums and Anne Frank House, since those were a bit farther. I like doing both in a new place, to try all different ways to see the city.

Amsterdam2

 

We never seem to have many pictures of us together when we travel, but this time we managed to get a few, some of the last of just the two of us sans bébé! It was a really great weekend together, exploring a new city that I’ll count among one of my favorites (so far!).

AmsterdamCollage

 

The Luxembourg Amsterdam train

Actually, the title should be “The Luxembourg Amsterdam trains” since it took us three trains to make the trip. There are quicker ways to get there, but they are more expensive, and we wanted to have a bigger budget for food and fun. So we decided to take advantage of a special rate that got us both there and back for only 172€. The shorter Thalys route would have been 379€ and really it’s only a half hour to an hour shorter. Flying is around 400€ and while the flight itself is only an hour, there’s the time to get to the airport, go through security, etc.

So this special rate seemed like a good deal, even if it meant a 6 hour trip, and changing trains twice. You have to go through Liège and Maastricht to get the special rate, but you can take any of the local trains, just not the Thalys. There seem to be trains every hour along each part of the route, so no stress about one being late and missing the connection. Also, we decided to leave a bit earlier than planned on Monday, and we didn’t need to change our tickets or anything, we just got on the 9:37 instead of the 11:37.

The trip from Luxembourg to Liège was a little over 2 hours, then a half hour train from Liège to Maastricht, then a 2.5 hour ride to Amsterdam. They all had pretty standard commuter-type comfort, however the train from Liège to Maastricht was super disgusting. I wonder if maybe the two countries can’t decide who is in charge of cleaning the trains . . .

But that was the only downside to going by train. I think for the price, and the flexibility, it’s worth it. Since we were both a little sick at the beginning of the trip, a long train ride gave us time to sleep and read and just chill out. The fact that our phones were roaming meant we weren’t on Facebook the entire trip, so it was a nice way to unplug a bit and get into vacation mode. Plus there was the scenery to enjoy: the “wild north” of Luxembourg, and the shift in architecture between Belgium and the Netherlands.

There was passport control on the train once we got into the Netherlands, but there wasn’t on the way back. I take the train so often for shorter trips within France, in addition to my daily train commute into Luxembourg, and I’m not used to taking my passport with me. I set about five alarms on my phone and wrote it down in three different places so I wouldn’t forget. So I’m glad someone actually checked it!

My next post will be more about all the fun stuff we were able to do, thanks to saving money on the train!

Off to Amsterdam . . .

. . . for a long weekend away!

We’re both fighting winter colds, but museums and restaurants are nice and warm. And we’re not about to cancel one of our last pre-bébé trips on account of a few sniffles.

We’ve been to the Amsterdam airport a bunch of times (omg love that airport), so it’ll be exciting to finally see the city!

Happy Valentine’s Day!