Posted in Family, Travel

Nous Sommes En Panne: The Tale of our Luxembourg Camper Van Crisis

English: Looking east across Echternach.
There are worse places to break down than Echternach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the middle of a little village on the German/Luxembourg border, our camper van’s exhaust pipe drops off (that’s our motorhome’s muffler to you, my American friends) and I gain another chance to prove to my daughter the value of speaking a foreign language.

It’s a blue-skied, sunny public holiday – Easter Monday – so I’m particular conscious that we’re disturbing the peace in this beautiful setting.

The locals are very forgiving. We chug noisily up a hilly street, emitting a sound so deafening that my husband and I have to shout to each other to converse. A large group of jovial chaps basking in the sunshine in their front garden raise their glasses to us, with a loud cheer. We smile and wave, heartened by their kindly reaction.

On reaching our planned destination for the night, the border town of Echternach – yet another Luxemburgish town separated from Germany by only a river – we call the English-speaking helpline of the European recovery service to which we belong. Soon, a tow truck from the town’s garage comes to our rescue, and a brace of mechanics disembarks.

In preparation, I’ve found a relevant double-page spread in our French pocket phrase book. It includes a diagram of a car, its important parts labelled in French. Actually, even in English translation it’s foreign territory to me. I don’t know my chassis from my carburettor. I’ve rehearsed in my head the conversation we will need to have, beginning “Nous sommes en panne”, which is rather stating the obvious.

At the Mercy of Mechanics

English: Arms of Echternach
Arms of Echternach – more sinister than its people (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The stout grey-haired man, clearly the senior of our dynamic duo, crawls underneath the van to inspect the damage that the rescue service described to him. After a few moments of shifting around on the car park’s gravel floor (ouch!), he emerges happy. Dusting himself down, he rattles off his diagnosis in Letzerburgesch to his blond companion. I have absolutely no idea what he’s said. We – and our bank account – are at his mercy.

The blond chap nods and turns to us to negotiate. To our intense relief, he speaks to us in flawless, fluent American English.

“Don’t worry, we will make it safe for you to get home,” he says cheerfully.

“We’ve felt bad making such a noise going through your little villages on a public holiday,” I confess.

He shrugs and smiles.

“People need to worry less about things like that.”

It turns out they can solve our problem quickly and easily. They assure us that the van is safe to drive and that their garage is not far away. We are to follow them and not to worry.

Lured into their Lair

The garage is indeed just a few streets distant, tucked unobtrusively between a row of houses. If it didn’t have a sign on the outside announcing its purpose, we’d have thought it was just another residential building. Its large workshop is as cunningly concealed as  a Bond villain’s lair inside a volcano.

Entering, we discover the place is so immaculate that you could eat your breakfast croissant off the floor. The distinctive smell of engine oil, characteristic of most garages, is strangely absent. How do they do it? I look round expecting to find a jumbo-sized Airwick, to no avail.

My husband is more concerned about the practicalities of the place than the aesthetics.

“Are you a Peugeot dealer?” he is asking. “Do you have a replacement part in stock?”

“We used to be, but not any more. Now we just do repairs.”

I immediately feel sorry for these pleasant people. What a shame to lose their dealership status. I hope they’re still able to make a decent living – and that our bill will not be inflated to compensate for lost business.

We’re invited to retreat to the immaculate waiting area, where we sit on smart leather seats beside a vast pile of upmarket glossy magazines. Opposite us, in a spacious and shining glass booth, a smartly dressed lady busily works on the accounts.

All of this scenario is the polar opposite of the garage we use at home, where the stench of oil saturates the air, and the waiting area is as cramped as it’s possible to be without qualifying for the Guinness Book of Records. Its flawless service and honest staff are what keep us loyal.

Back in Luxembourg, the pink-cheeked blond mechanic, clean as a newly-bathed baby, settles down contentedly on the other side of a counter that overlooks both the workshop and the waiting area. He has the leisure, it seems, for a chat about our travels. My husband remarks that the Mosel Valley, where we’ve just come from, was largely a camper van car park. (He’s exaggerating, as usual, but not by much.) Our spotless friend smiles.

“That’s how they make 90% of their money, from tourism,” he opines, with no trace of a grudge. “Only 10% from wine.”

As he speaks, my eye is caught by flashing lights in the service area underneath our van. Someone is wielding a welding iron.

Keeping Good Company

Soldiers of the US 125th Infantry crossing fro...
Echternach in 1918 – about the time the Rolls-Royce was being built .Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is then that I spot the only other vehicle in the garage: a vast, ancient black Rolls Royce, bonnet (hood) raised and engine stripped back as if modelling for the diagram in my phrase book. It is stunningly beautiful. My jaw drops.

The blond one follows my gaze and smiles proudly.

“We are rebuilding it, piece by piece, for a customer,” he explains. “There are only eight of that model left in the world. It is worth 500,000 Euros.”

That’s approximately 50 times the value of our camper van.

“Does it belong to a museum?” I venture.

He shakes his head.

“Private owner.”

“There’s a lot of money in Luxembourg,” I murmur.

“I am from the Netherlands,” he replies, hinting that he was lured here by the money.

Immediately and unselfconsciously, he demonstrates his countrymen’s famous facility for languages by addressing the welder, now standing in the doorway, in rapid Letzerburgesch.

“All done!” he translates for us, looking pleased. “We have welded a sleeve around the muffler. Not only will it get you safely home, it will last a long time. No need to replace it when you get there.”

My husband produces his wallet, looking nervous.

“How much?”

The blond one consults his colleague in Letzerburgesch.

“Do you need a receipt?” he breaks off to ask us in English.

“No.”

“In that case, 40 Euros.”

My husband goes to pull out a credit card but I detect a flinch on the part of our blue-eyed friend.

“For cash?” I offer, suppressing a knowing grin.

“Yes, please!”

Aha, so there is a common factor with our scruffy English garages after all.

We drive on our way, oh so quietly, thanking fate for bringing us to a Luxemburger garage where our modest needs may be subsidised by a local millionaire.

English: Orangery in Echternach, Luxembourg
Affluence in Echternach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For other reasons why we learned to love Luxembourg, read these recent posts: 

Luxembourg’s Crowning Glory: Its Own Language

Spotless in Luxembourg

Posted in Travel

Luxembourg’s Crowning Glory: Its Own Language

Statue of Nike in Luxembourg City
Luxembourg City’s Golden Lady: Nike, goddess of victory

There is something especially charming about a European state that can peacefully retain its national identity despite a tiny population (c. 520,000) and shared borders with the massive presence of France and Germany. (Sorry, Belgium, you don’t quite count as massive in my book.) Even better when it has managed to retain an active national language that is used nowhere else in the world. Yes, Luxembourg, I’m looking at you.

Everywhere we go on our Easter tour of Luxembourg, we are surrounded by Letzerburgesch.  The country’s national motto is “Mir Woelle Bleiwe Wat Mir Sin” (“We want to remain what we are”).

But with no prior knowledge of this ancient tongue, I don’t immediately recognise just how widely it is used. On entering a shop from whose doorway can be seen the border with Germany, I assume that when the proprietor greets me with something that sounds like “Morgen” (German for “Morning”) with the “g” missing, he’s using a relaxed version of German. Only when I consult my trusty Rough Guide do I realise that what he actually said was “Moien” – Letzerburgesch for “Hello”.

Spoiled for Choix

French, it seems, is Luxembourg’s official language for government business, and both French and German are widely spoken, interchangeably. But when local people meet and chat to each other in the street or in shops, they use their own historic dialect.

In our first day or two in Luxembourg, I’m not sure which language to use. I know enough French and German to get around, but I’m not sure which will be perceived as more courteous. I don’t want to appear rude to any of these courteous, pleasant people. I tend to favour French, unless actually in Germany, (a) because I’m better at it and (b) because I’ve found it less likely to cause offence.

Forked Tongue

I’m sorry if that statement offends any German speakers, but this attitude stems from an unfortunate incident when I was travelling alone, many years ago, on a Greek bus from Lefkas to Athens. I knew a little bit of Greek, but when the Greek bus driver asked me whether I was going all the way to Athens, I accidentally got my languages mixed up. Instead of replying “Ne!” (Greek for yes), I said “Ja!” (the German). I spent the rest of the eight hour journey trying to look English, while receiving hostile stares from my fellow passengers, all of them Greek, who clearly still hadn’t forgotten the German war-time occupation of the Ionian islands.

But by the end of our Luxembourg adventures, the answer is clear. The most courteous thing to do is to go as close to native as I can, and use the only two words of Letzerburgesch that I’ve grasped: “Moien” for “hello” and “Adi” for “goodbye”. Respect where it’s due. Well, mastering any language begins with a single word.

Adi!

English: The great flag in Luxembourg city szl...
Flying the flag for Luxembourg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other recent posts about our trip to Luxembourg:

The Benefits of Speaking a Foreign Language

Spotless In Luxembourg 

Coming soon: “Nous Sommes En Panne!” – camper van breakdown, Luxembourg style!

Posted in Family, Travel

The Benefits of Speaking a Foreign Language

Luxembourg City road train
All aboard for a multi-lingual tour of Luxembourg

Our Easter motorhome trip across France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany provides the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to my daughter the importance of learning a foreign language. This is  something I’ve been keen to impress upon her ever since the British government rescinded the rule that made it compulsory to study French to the age of 16. 

Although I’m not fluent in any language other than English, I know enough French and German to communicate effectively in all the countries that we traverse this holiday. Even though many of their population will be far more proficient in my language than I am in theirs, I take pains to at open every conversation with a few words in one of the native tongues.

As always, the people I speak to are pleased to hear a tourist make an effort, no matter how feeble. When our camper van runs out of water on the Luxembourg border, I’m able to ask very politely at the nearest  campsite if we may fill up our tank there, even though we’re not stopping overnight, and I negotiate a reasonable rate. The gnaediges Frau in charge is devastated when the freezing temperature prevents her standpipe from cooperating, “because you took the trouble so ask me so nicely in German”.

When continuing cold weather in Trier saps the life out of the motorhome battery, I’m able to accost the nearest motorist in an appropriate manner to ask for a jump-start.

Understanding the  local road signs enables me to navigate effectively whenever roadworks stump the satnav. My husband is surprised when I explain that Einbahnstrasse means “one-way street”:  he’d thought it was just a very common road name. He’d also been wondering why so many signs from different towns directed us to the unmapped resort of Umleitung. “That’s German for ‘diversion’,” I tell him.

Porta Nigra in Trier, Germany
Husband and daughter dwarfed by the glory that was the Roman Empire

Even so, I’m happy to opt for the English language setting on the Luxembourg City tourist train commentary. It’s accessible in any one of eight languages at the touch of a button.

On the upper deck of the open-top tourist bus in Trier, plugging my complimentary earphones into the socket on the panel in front of my knees, I flick to Option 1 for English and instruct my daughter to do the same.

On the hour-long sightseeing drive, pleasant music plays during breaks in the heavily-accented commentary. We pass breathtakingly ancient attractions: a 2,000 year old Roman bridge, still strong enough to withstand 21st century motor traffic; an amphitheatre with such precisely planned acoustics that it’s possible from the back row to hear a match struck centre stage; a beautiful Roman bath-house whose high arching walls alternate layers of brick and stone simply for decorative effect.

In between the music and the commentary comes the odd practical, deadpan aside  that makes my husband and I laugh aloud:

“Please refrain from throwing anything off the top of the bus.”

What kind of tourist are they expecting? I look around for the Visigoths and Vandals that ransacked the Roman Empire, but there are none (or if there are any, they’re hiding).

Suddenly I realise my daughter did not laugh, despite this being the kind of comment that would appeal to her slapstick sense of humour. I ask her why she’s not amused.

“Well, I can’t really understand much of what the lady’s saying, because her accent is so strong,” she sighs. “All I’ve understood so far is ‘hop-on, hop-off bus’.”

I peer down at the socket for her headphones. It looks as if she’s got it set to the right channel: 1. When I borrow one of her earphones to double check, I realise what’s happened. I may not speak this language, but I know it when I hear it. She’s inadvertently tuned in to Channel 7, which looks very like Channel 1 from this angle.

“That’s Dutch!” I inform her.

“OHHHH!”

Enlightenment spreads over her face and finally she starts to laugh.

“No wonder I couldn’t understand it.”

Fortunately, our hop-on, hop-off bus ticket allows us unlimited trips within 24 hours of purchase, so we go round again, this time with Laura tuned in to the English commentary. And she’s careful not to throw anything off the top of the bus.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel

Spotless in Luxembourg

All of our friends who have already been to Luxembourg warn us before we set off that it’s an expensive country. Expensive, exclusive and smart.

Luxembourg park with huge number of litter bins
No excuse for litter in this Luxembourg City park

The minute we cross the border from Belgium, we’re inclined to agree. The place exudes affluence, order and solvency. There is not a speck of litter to be found, and in one park we pass through, in the centre of the country’s capital, Luxembourg City, we understand why: there are more litter bins than people.

The good burghers roaming the designer streers are all immaculately dressed. Leathers and furs protect them from the biting continental cold. Their children are well behaved and well marshalled. Even the dogs are in neat overcoats.

Luxembourg City road train
You’re never too old for a trip on a tourist road train

After a scenic trip through the city centre on the tourist road train, the driver effortlessly negotiating hairpin bends on the precipitous route down to the bottom of the gorge and back again, we stop at a public toilet on one of the main squares. It is as immaculate as a manufacturing “clean room”.

Driving through the City’s outskirts en route to the Moselle Valley, I’m struck by the quiet luxury of the substantial houses. Expensive children’s play equipment is in every garden, smart cars on every drive. These Luxembourgeois know how to spend their money.

Luxembourg = Luxury

Next day, we stop for a couple of hours at Remich, a pleasant, spacious resort on the banks of the Moselle. As we park in one of the many immaculate free car parks, it occurs to me that the parking spaces are designed to accommodate very large cars. For once, our camper van does not protrude beyond the white lines. Affluence is assumed here: everyone is expected to drive a big car.

But we are not affluent, and as we cannot run to Luxembourg restaurant prices, today’s lunch is frites from a Friture van, parked discreetly in a corner of the car park. I translate Friture  loosely for my daughter as a “chippery”. As I wait to be served by pleasant chefs, I notice how spotless their van is. One chef is carefully slipping a knife into a pork cutlet to make sure it’s properly cooked. I’m impressed: no risk of food poisoning here.

Child’s Play, Luxembourg Style

Laura takes a turn on the carousel
Wondering whether the ostrich will go faster than the horses

Along the riverbank are dotted tasteful, shiny new entertainments for children: playparks, mini-golf, go-karts, a traditional carousel.

The carousel’s music is not the usual brash hurdy-gurdy kind, but tinkling classics played on a silvery glockenspiel: Tschaikovsky, Handel and Bach. Laura takes a spin on an ostrich to the sound of Mozart.

Border Order

German border sign
Over to Germany…

Strolling on through the town, we realise that if we walk across the nearest bridge, we’ll be in Germany: the Moselle serves as the national border. As Laura has never been to Germany, she’s keen to go, so we set off. At the apex of this gently sloping bridge are two signs featuring the flag of the European Union (a circle of yellow stars on a royal blue background), each with the name of the country you are entering at its centre. Laura hops incessantly from one nation to the other, so that when we get home she’ll be able to say she’s visited each country lots of times.

Spot the Difference

Luxembourg border on bridge over Moselle
… and back to Luxembourg (again)

After the obligatory photos, we continue to the other side. I’m not expecting it to seem much different, so I’m startled to find a grubby, litter-strewn parking area bearing a strident yellow “Parking Verboten” sign amid piles of rubbish. Just beyond, giving dubious new life to the now redundant border control huts, are down-at-heel businesses, half-heartedly plying  downmarket trades: a bar, a kebab house (spelling “kebab” in two different ways on its signage, indicating an indecisive or illiterate proprietor) and, inexplicably, a shop full of garden gnomes. I wonder if they’re illegal in Luxembourg for making smart gardens look downmarket, hence their sale on the borderline. Perhaps after nightfall there’ll be a surge of Luxembourgeois making a dash for them, under cover of the dark.

As we stroll back across the water to Luxembourg, I notice that only the German side of the bridge bears graffiti. Even the abundant swans on the river are favouring the Luxembourg bank.

Alles in Ordnung?

German car park across Luxembourg border
“Parking verboten” in this, er, parking lot

I am perplexed. My memory of Germany, where I lived for four years as a teenager, is of Order with a capital O – well, Ordnung, to be precise. I cannot reconcile this bleak, shabby no-parking parking lot with that recollection.

As we head off up the Moselle, intending to cross the border once again at Trier, where the river drops the final le to become the Mosel, I wonder what other surprises might lay in store…

More musings about our trans-border travels will follow shortly – click the “Follow” button on the right to make sure you don’t miss them!

Other recent posts about our Easter tour of Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany: 

Just when we thought it was safe to go back into la piscine

When in Belgium, drink as the Belgians do (Oxo)

Why Belgium is being rebuilt

Close Encounters of the Belgian Kind

Posted in Travel

Health and Safety, Belgian Style (National Trust, It Ain’t)

English: Dinant, Belgium.
We climbed 411 steps to the Dinant Citadel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we potter south through Belgium in our camper van, en route to Luxembourg, I am astonished at this otherwise civilised nation’s apparent disregard for basic health and safety rules.

They’re not quite as lax as those in Greece, where I’ve seen a lump of jagged concrete serve as a landing pad at the bottom of a children’s slide,  but they still come as a surprise, considering we’re all meant to be part of the same European community, with high standards for such things. We see many perilous features that an English tourist attraction would never get away with.

A Dangerous Climb

Perilous staircase in Bouillon Castle
I hope they’ve got good accident insurance

To reach the Citadel that overlooks the riverside town of Dinant, many of the 411 steps that we climb are badly worn and slippery with water or ice. On the way back down, I try not to look below me, because we are protected from a precipitous drop only by a single, slim railing.

The next day, we besiege the castle at the tranquil riverside town of Bouillon, an intriguing maze of a place with a warren of different-shaped chambers, cellars and halls linked by numerous, ancient, spiral stone staircases. As in Dinant, many of the treads are worn and wet. Yet mostly there is no handrail to save the less than sure-footed visitor (e.g. me) from a tumble. The few handrails that do exist are mostly pitted with rust. Duct tape has been used half-heartedly to repair places in which the rust has worn right through.

Most of the rooms are damp underfoot, many are scattered with puddles. Often, we look up to find icicles or stalactites hanging perilously above us. Raised paths atop the castle walls lure the visitor to enjoy the view, but only feeble, low-slung barriers stop them taking an accidental  step to certain death. Only eagle-eyed visitors will notice a single faded, low-profile sign reminding them that it’s not a good idea to sit on the walls, but that’s as far as the official warnings go.

A Cellar Full of Danger

Bouillon (122)
This passage would need a whole page to itself in a risk assessment form  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walking through the cellars, we have at most five feet clearance of headroom. There is nothing to alert taller people to watch their heads. While my four-feet-seven daughter skips carefree ahead of me, I stumble forward, hunchbacked, wondering how many cases of concussion the castle has to treat each year.

Along the way, my daughter gleefully collects icicles. We break them off from low arches, and she brandishes them as weapons against  cut-out figures of crusaders dotted about the main hall.

I need no reminding that this castle is not managed by the  National Trust,  I think to myself, as I cling to a flimsy  wooden handrail while descending shaky wooden steps. The National Trust would never be guilty of such lassitude. It wouldn’t dare.

A Safe Perspective

But then we reach a room that casts a whole new light on our tour. It is the torture chamber. Displayed above a rack are helpful, thorough directions on its use. It’s the most detailed sign we have seen so far.  Evenly spaced along its bed are five spiked spools, designed to pierce the victim’s flesh many times over, just in case it’s not tortuous enough to be stretched by his hands and feet, with the tension maintained by a granite weight the size of a millstone.

There’s no photo here because I couldn’t bear to look at it for long enough to take a picture. Besides, my daughter had already danced off into the distance with her icicle, refusing to look, just as she’d shielded her eyes from the guillotine cheerfully displayed at Dinant, alongside a mini guillotine designed to chop off hands, rather than heads (torture-lite, I suppose you’d call it).

Suddenly, my 21st century attitude to health and safety seems ridiculously cautious. Taking this torture chamber as Belgium’s baseline for danger, losing my foothold on a stone staircase would be very small beer indeed. I continue my tour without complaint.

If you’d like to read more about our trip through Belgium, these are the other posts I’ve put up so far (more to follow shortly):

Just when we thought it was safe to go back into la piscine

When in Belgium, drink as the Belgians do (Oxo)

Why Belgium is being rebuilt

Close Encounters of the Belgian Kind

(More to follow shortly – click the “Follow” button on the right  to make sure you don’t miss an episode!)