Saturday, March 31, 2012

It's a Small World After All...

I am continuously amazed at what a multi-cultural nation Luxembourg really is.  It's one thing to move to another country - you obviously assume that there will be differences between you and the locals, and that you will quickly be the minority or "foreigner" in this new land. However, it is quite another thing to realize that even among the "foreigners" it is not unusual to be in the minority. 

I started my INL French classes a few weeks ago and I am the only American in the class. It is really an interesting experience to be in a foreign language class and have the language you are learning be the only commonality among you and your classmates. Also, my classmates come from every imaginable background - Icelandic housewife, Dutch Au Pair, Libiyan refugee, Iranian girlfriend... - the list goes on. I love meeting new people and learning a little about their lives and experiences in Luxembourg, and I have to say - a beginner French class could not be a better opportunity.

Queen Beatrix of Holland
Our teacher is really wonderful when it comes to pushing us to speak the language. Each class begins with a "gymnastic" exercise - and no, we aren't talking about somersaults. We begin each class with a conversation with our neighbor based on a couple of questions she posts on the board. We started with the basics - what is your name, your age, your nationality, your job - and have progressed to such topics as what are the cultural differences between Luxembourg and your country when it comes to meeting new people. Needless to say - you learn quite a bit about your classmates, especially when you are often forced to refer to a dictionary to determine what someone just told you.The learning doesn't end in the classroom either. Rosa, our teacher, encouraged us to meet up with a few of our classmates after class to practice our speaking skills. I choose to have lunch with a couple of girls I have had the pleasure of getting to know - a Dutch Au Pair and a Greek student. We headed to the Center for a quick lunch, only to find out that the Dutch Queen (Queen Beatrix) was attending a lunch at the town hall. Many of the streets were roped off, but we did try to get close for a glimpse of the visiting royalty. Our efforts were fruitless, but I did enjoy a quick sandwich with my young friends (they are in their 20's and pretty much living the gypsy life. I believe they referred to it as "couch surfing".) As it so happens, on my way back to my car, Queen Beatrix and her entourage happened to drive by. So, I did get a very quick glance of Lux's special guest for the week.

This week was also a bit unusual since my son headed off for the Northern European swim championships. Unlike the U.S., where kids file into school buses on a Friday night and head up the highway for the local football or basketball game, kids at the International School here in Lux travel to other nearby countries to compete against other International schools. In the case of swimming, my son headed off on a chartered plane to Stravanger, Norway for the championship swim meet. Other meets he has attended were in Belgium (Antwerp and Brussels).  Interestingly, it is quite common that if an American child is selected for an out-of-town game/meet, the parents seem to make quite a bit of effort to go and watch the event, regardless of the travel time or time spent actually watching their child in action. Another interesting tidbit is that if a child is asked to participate in an out-of-town game or meet, he/she is usually housed by a local family. Our son had this experience in Antwerp, and I have to say that in the U.S. I would have struggled a bit on this practice, especially given that he is only 12 years old. In the U.S. it is a big deal if your child travels within the same state, and it is rarely (if ever) for the evening. Here, it is customary for your child to be asked to travel to a foreign  country and stay with a local family for the evening. Local customs are acknowledged as each child is expected to give his/her host family a small gift (chocolate, wine, etc.). In exchange, each child is expected to host a visiting athlete at their home should their school host a meet or game. I seriously doubt that I would have allowed my son to stay with a family on the other side of town (especially assuming that I don't know them), let alone another state or country. Long story short, the team had a wonderful time in Norway and the team did quite well in their events. The kids did stay in a hotel  (as opposed to a host family), keeping the coaches and chaperones quite busy!

As for the day-to-day stuff, I am always fortunate to meet new people here in Lux. Many are through the Women's Club, while others may be through the school or my husband's work. Few are American, but it really makes for a much more interesting time. Even though the languages may vary and the customs or social habits may differ, it is reassuring to know that no matter the background, we are all going through this wonderful experience of learning a new country and it's culture.  The French is coming along and will certainly be put to the test this coming weekend as we host my husband's parents in Paris for Spring Break. Again, another surreal experience when traveling to Paris for a school break can be as commonplace as traveling to Austin. Not that I am complaining. :)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Leaping into Lent

During our stay in New Braunfels, an interesting conversation came up at dinner one night - Mardi Gras evening, to be exact. Joe's extended family is Catholic and the topic of lent came up. The boys were asked what they were going to give up for the Lenten season. Although we have not been the most consistent attenders at church, the boys were baptized in a Methodist church and our oldest was confirmed a few years ago. We haven't really looked for a church here in Lux, though I did take the boys to a service at the Anglican church near our house a few months back. In any case, we have not really practiced Lent in our house, but I thought it was a great discussion. Being typical adolescent boys, their ideas of "sacrifice" included such things as vegetables, playing video games between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m., exercising, ... you get the picture. What can I say? This is obviously an area in their young lives I need to spend some time on. So, I figured the best way to start was by example. I debated awhile on what I could reasonably sacrifice that could resonate with the kids. I also wanted to be reasonable since I figured nothing could possibly be worse than trying to provide an example, only to fail! I did a little self assessment and decided to give up pizza and pasta. Now, this may not seem like a big sacrifice to some, but living in Luxembourg, it actually is a really tough one to keep. There are an abundance of Italian restaurants and they tend to be the most affordable. Also, pizza and pasta happen to be the quick staple meals that I can throw together in a pinch. Well, no one else, including Joe, was game for my idea. So, technically I could still fix either for them, but at least for 40 days, I won't. The least I can do is minimize the temptation at home!

Anyway, since I decided to participate in this annual Christian ritual, I figured I might as well learn more about the religious customs here in Luxembourg. Besides, having missed the Buergbrennen (an event that I was actually very interested in seeing, but the timing just wasn't in the cards) I really wanted to learn more about the local customs. To start, the majority of the Luxembourg population is Catholic (by most recent estimates, about 87%), so many of the country's celebrated holidays are religious holidays recognized by the Roman Catholic church. Furthermore, many festivals hold some level of religious significance.

The Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday when many Christian attend church and receive the ashen cross on their foreheads, a symbol of repentance. The Buergbrennan, a celebration that centers around a huge bonfire, follows on the first Sunday following Ash Wednesday. This festival originated with pagan feasts that coincided with the spring solstice. Based on old traditions, the festival celebrated the end of winter. It began as a simple bonfire made of wood and straw, but over time a central pillar of tree branches (now days last year's Christmas trees are often used) and a cross were added. Now, I know what many people might be thinking - (trust me, most Americans I have spoken to who have witnessed this event have had the same thoughts!) the addition of the cross just hits a little too close to home - particularly for Southerners. I have read several blog posts that mention the eerie feeling folks have had when they have attended the event. However, if you just keep in mind the accurate symbolism and the fact that it is viewed as a Christian based ritual on the first Sunday of Lent, those other images of the American South quickly dissipate. One other interesting fact about this celebration is that the fire has traditionally been set by the last man (originally only men were allowed to celebrate at this event) or couple to wed. Needless to say, the local fire departments are also actively involved in this celebration!
Pretzels for Bretzelsonndeg

This being leap year, the second recognized celebration has an interesting "twist". Bretzelsonndeg, or Pretzel Sunday, is celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent, also known as Laetare Sunday. Traditionally, boys will give their girlfriends pretzels or pretzel-shaped cakes, with the size of the pretzel reflecting the size of his admiration. In return, a girl shows her interest by giving the boy a decorated egg on Easter, with the size of the egg also reflecting the size of her admiration. Now, since 2012 is a leap year, the tradition is reversed and girls give the boys pretzels - à la Sadie Hawkins style. I have quickly learned that every celebration here (at least, in Luxembourg) seems to involve some kind of pastry! Every grocery store, boulangerie, patiserie, etc. is now fully stocked with sweetened versions of this interesting tradition, in various sizes of course. I had also been wondering about the eggs since I just saw those at the local Del Haize grocery store this weekend. Well, I couldn't resist. I did buy a couple for the boys in the family (Joe assured me that he in fact did NOT need a large one to know how much I love him :) I couldn't help it - I am a sucker for new traditions and how could I possibly pass on one that involves pastries (thank goodness I didn't give those up for Lent!)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Parlez-vous français?

In keeping with my pseudo new year's resolution, I recently enrolled in an intensive French class at the Institut National des Langues (INL) near the Glacis in Limpertsberg. There are quite a few class options for folks wanting to learn a new language - classes at the American Women's Club, Berlitz, Rosetta Stone, etc.  But, in reality, unless you use it, you really don't learn it. In my case, I have the desire, but unless I am continuously prodded to speak in French and to do my homework, I can go several days without making much of an attempt beyond my current vocabulary and stand-by phrases or questions. Therefore, when I heard about the immersion classes offered at the INL, I knew that I needed to give this option a shot.

When we were first considering our move to Luxembourg, there were a lot of folks who told us that you really don't need to know French (or German, or Luxembourgish) in order to get by. Though that may be true on one level (yes, a few short phrases and a talent in pantomime can get you through the day), it really does begin to wear on you. I do believe that an expat who is only expecting to be in the country for a short period of time (say, a year or two) could easily manage without learning French. However, I frequently hear stories about those short time commitments being extended several times. I am a firm believer that if you wish to live in a different country, you should take the time and make the effort to learn the language and the customs. Honestly, we expect the same as Americans when immigrants move to the U.S., so why should we be offended when others appreciate the same effort? So, knowing that our family is here for an indefinite period of time, I made it a priority to get a move on this goal.

Back in December I began checking out the INL website ( Well, this alone proved to be a teeny bit of a challenge since (at least at that time) once you got past the home page, the Google Translate application would not work. Therefore, I had to decipher what I could, and cut and paste the rest (page by page) into the Google translator. Needless to say, this did take a bit of effort, but I was finally able to understand the process.

First, I had to enroll as a student. This involved filling out the online application and waiting for the responding email that would request a 10 euro registration payment. Once the fee was received, I was informed that all current French classes (the language I choose on my application) were currently full. However, I was told that once the Spring classes came available, I would receive another email or SMS notifying me of when I could register for my interview. Unlike some classes, the INL requires you to take a placement exam that tests you on your listening, reading, writing and speaking skills in the language of your choice prior to registering for the class. This is to insure that you are placed according to your level. The INL does provide classes and tests that are recognized by the various countries that are used to determine your fluency in the language. These tests are often used by students and employees who wish to obtain employment that requires a definitive level of language competency.  Of course, not all students at the INL are looking for a scholarly level of fluency in any given language, but it is nice to know that they really are proficient in evaluating a student's level of fluency.

Early in January I did receive the anticipated email and registered for an interview time in mid-February. The day of the interview I arrived at the INL building with my required ID and registration letter. I was directed to a classroom down the hall where about 30 of us were ushered in and asked to take a seat. Again, all verbal communication from beginning to end was done in French. We were given a short written exam, followed by a listening test where we would listen to a short dialogue and were asked to mark the answer that pertained to the conversation. I quickly learned that this, indeed, was my weakness. I never did learn my scores on those two exams, but I am quite sure I clearly blew that listening one. French is one of those languages that is often spoken quickly and words are linked together when spoken. So, though I can read French pretty well, I really struggle to distinguish words when it is spoken any faster than how most folks would speak to a very young child... VERY sloooooowly.

However, if I thought the listening test was intimidating, that was nothing compared to what came next. After completing the two written exams, we were led to a series of classrooms where 3-5 students were escorted in to sit with an instructor for a short conversation. I was ushered into the second classroom where I was asked to sit next to an instructor who was already interviewing another student. I could tell that the instructor had asked her to describe herself - her name, where she was from, did she work, why she wanted to learn French, etc. I was all prepared with what I was going to say when I was asked by another instructor to move to her station. As luck would have it, her questions were different and her French was much faster. In any case, she determined my level as being the next level up from a true beginner (a pretty accurate assessment, I would have to admit), and showed me my choice of classes. After that humbling experience, I signed up for the class with the most weekly meetings - 4 days a week, 100 minutes per class. I swear, I can't remember the last time when I was that stressed out! I walked out feeling like I had just experienced the SATs all over again. I know - a bit dramatic. But, I hate feeling like I am being put on the spot and finding myself at a complete loss for words. Needless to say, that is not something that happens to me very often - being at a loss for words, that is.

Classes began the week after Carnival break, so I am now one week into the class. I have to say, it has already been quite the experience. We have a lovely French teacher who is very dynamic and eager to teach. She spent the first few classes trying to get an idea of what folks really wanted to get out of the class. It didn't take long to figure out that everyone wanted the exact same thing I was looking for - the ability to communicate more effectively with others. Although all classes require you to parrot what is written in the text book and may solicit an impromptu conversation on a given topic, this class focuses almost entirely on developing listening and speaking skills. All books (except for your handy dictionary) are used only for homework. Class time focuses on Q&A time with your classroom neighbor, talking to your neighbor (en français, bien sur) about a given topic, listening to recorded conversations and then working with your neighbor to see what the two of you managed to understand, and, finally, reading dialogue with your neighbor to work on the definitions and pronunciation of the words. I will be honest - I often feel like I am in grade school again and have woken up several mornings with butterflies in my stomach, totally freaked out at having to engage in what I know must be a rather butchered form of French. To add to this uneasiness, I have quickly determined that I am the only American in the classroom and only one of maybe 3 or 4 students that speak English. (I am 98% sure that I am the only person whose native language is English.) The students are from every country imaginable - India, Spain, Vietnam, the Netherlands, Iran, Iraq, etc. It really is an amazingly diverse classroom, both in nationalities and age.

I have no idea how long it will be before I am truly comfortable conversing in a new language. I do really hope to get a handle on French sometime in the next couple of years so that perhaps I can start tackling either German or Luxembourgish. Though I hope I am not THIS bad, I just thought I would share this video with you. I have to admit - I have "faked it" on occasions. As much I would like to believe it, I am quite sure I have yet to fool anyone :)

...Come back to Texas

Sunset in New Braunfels
The irony has never been lost on me that every time we have moved away from Texas, we have always returned. Like some kind of surreal boomerang, we have never stayed in Texas for longer than 3 or 4 years, but regardless of where we ventured to next, we always found ourselves back in the Lone Star State. Now, this is not some cyber-hint that we are moving back (we are very happy here in Lux Land and do not foresee a move on the near horizon). It is just one of those nostalgic kind of days where I can't help but reflect on this strange little detail about our somewhat nomadic lives.

Being the wife of a consultant has meant that I have always been flexible on where the wind (i.e., the next project) could blow us. Add to that the fact that both of us wanted to extend our education to include graduate school, it seems we have never been able to settle down in any one place for very long. Well... except Virginia. When Joe told me that we would be leaving Texas for the third time to what was once the capital of the Confederacy - honestly, I was not thrilled with the notion. I didn't know much about the place, so I quickly headed out to the bookstore to purchase a travel guide, just to see what we had gotten ourselves into. Chapter 1 highlights - Top Ten Civil War Sites to Visit. I have to admit, I think I cried when I read that. Fast forward nine years and I often find myself just as homesick for Virginia as I am for Texas. My kids basically grew up there, they still have their friends there, and they probably think of Virginia much the way I think of Texas - as home.

In 2005, just two years after we moved to Virginia, a band from Texas called Bowling for Soup (ironically, from Denton County where we had just moved from) put out a song called "Ohio (Come Back to Texas)." Now, I have never lived in Ohio (though I have visited a couple of times), but most of the song is actually about Texas. I remember listening to it in my car, always wondering when we would be heading back there next. I missed the Mexican food, the football, the Bluebell ice cream, and the beautiful Texas sunsets. I even made a couple of long road trips during our time in Virginia - just me and the boys - just so that they could get an idea of what it was about the state that I missed so much. I'm not sure if they ever really understood, but I do think that in their short year there they did develop a fondness, of sorts, for the sprawling land and warm weather (and, at least for my oldest, an appreciation for Texas sports.)

No visit to Texas is complete without a trip to Whataburger
Well, unlike most folks in Europe, who venture off in droves to the various ski resorts in France, Germany, Austria or Switzerland for their Carnival break, the boys and I once again headed back to Texas. Although Galveston may be known for their Mardi Gras celebrations, we headed back to Central Texas for other reasons than parades and beads. We went to visit family and to shop. It was the first time that we had been back since moving to Luxembourg, so the boys and I were quite anxious to get through the 25 hours of flights, layovers and customs/security lines. I really can't explain how much we perked up during our five hour layover in Houston when my brother and his wife picked us up from Houston International and took us to the closest Whataburger! For those of you unfamiliar with this Texas fast food joint, they serve an addictive version of hamburgers, fries and milkshakes that I was literally brought up on (Corpus Christi has the honor of being the birthplace of the company, as well as the location of their headquarters for many years). Thus began our week of indulging on "American" food - donuts, chips and salsa, tamales, fried chicken, chicken fried steak, fried catfish, Big Red soda, hamburgers, BBQ - the list goes on. As for restaurants, we hit Cracker Barrel, Chick-fil-a, Rudy's BBQ, the Hard Rock Cafe, Clear Springs, and Church's. I guess you could say, we had been in withdrawal of what I would deem traditional Southern cooking (aka, fried food and carbs). After 2 or 3 days of indulging, my stomach had had enough and I made the switch to salads and cereal. I quickly learned that the warning I had heard about our first trip back was true - once you have had all of the preservative-free, organic or farm-to-table type European meals for awhile, American food can play havoc with you. You really do begin to lose a taste for the stuff! In any case, the boys loved it and I let them indulge to their hearts' content, knowing that the week would fly by and no real harm would be done.

As for the shopping, my husband's extended family lives in New Braunfels, a short 30 minutes from San Antonio. Thankfully, Joe has two female cousins who also like to shop. They were exceedingly patient as I plowed my way through North Star mall and the outlets in San Marcos. Clothes are expensive in Europe, especially many of the American brands we never think twice about. For example, a simple pair of Levi's for my sons costs about 98 euros a pair here - I can get them for a quarter of the cost in the States. I spent two straight days buying clothes and food products. I swear, I must have looked like I was getting ready for armageddon, rather than just a trip back overseas. We took two extra duffle bags back to Luxembourg, filled to the seams with clothes, food (Pop Tarts, Toll House chocolate chips, Lucky Charms and Life cereals, beef jerky, Wheat Thins, etc.), OTC medicine (Dayquil, Advil, etc.) cosmetics and books. Many of the items I can't find in Europe, while others are just too pricey for me to stomach. In any case, I was fortunate that everything fit in our luggage. I am sure the boys thought I was crazy. But, then again, they weren't thinking that when they were digging into the Pop Tarts before school on Monday.

As for the boys, their days of vacation were spent hanging out with their Gramps, fishing, watching sports, or playing video games with their cousins. We enjoyed the warm weather, the beautiful sunsets, and the family of deer that regularly wandered into the backyard right around dusk. It really was exactly what we needed for a winter break. Even though the trip was short, I did manage to have lunch with both of my brothers (I met up with my other brother on the layover back to Lux) and we were able to prepare my in-laws for their upcoming visit to Luxembourg in April. We even made a day trip into San Antonio to have lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe (my sons have an obsession with visiting them everywhere we go and collecting the pins and t-shirts) and even managed a quick trip to the Alamo - a Texas landmark I hadn't seen myself since the 7th grade.  

I will really miss seeing the bluebonnets this spring, but I do look forward to discovering what Lux has to offer. So far, it seems snow is still a possibility, but the temperatures are rising and the days are finally getting longer. We did miss Buergbrennen (the bonfire that is lit the first Sunday of Lent - a celebration signifying the end of winter), as it was the evening we returned to Lux.  However, it does seem that we can finally start saying our goodbyes to winter. There are times I still look around and can't believe we are actually in Europe - the quiet villages, the medieval ruins, the quaint architecture. Then, there are times when I am driving around the countryside and can honestly say that it reminds me a bit of Texas (the vast expanse of farmland) or Virginia (the rolling, wooded hills). Either way, I know in time Luxembourg will feel like home as well. I have even seen a few sunsets that could perhaps rival those in Texas. Well... maybe :)