I boarded a train in Amsterdam for an all day trip to Luxembourg, a country that seemed like the younger and forgotten sibling of its surrounding European nations. When I mentioned that I would be visiting, many of my friends asked me what was there to see. I would shrug and say, “I don’t know. I’ve never been there!” They would usually say, “Nobody ever goes there, they just pass through on their way to someplace else.” This made me even more excited to see it.
I had a connecting train in Brussels from Amsterdam, and on the first leg of the trip the seats were assigned. The man who sat next to me was tall and friendly with chiseled features. He sat down next to me just as I was putting my backpack in the overhead shelf, and quickly introduced himself. I immediately wondered if his seat was really assigned to be right next to mine, since there were a lot of open seats on the train but I always enjoyed conversations on trains so I let it go. The man asked me where I was from (most times people think I’m European or Canadian–rarely do people assume that I am American, I’m still not entirely sure why this is). He seemed surprised when I told him I was from the US, and said that he was from Morocco, but had been living in Amsterdam for almost twenty years. He said he had visited one summer and loved it so much that he moved there, not realizing how cold the winters can be! I told him that people often do the same with Seattle. They visit during the unbelievably beautiful summers and then feel deflated during the endless rain of the winter.
The man told me that he was a social worker in Amsterdam, and I asked him a lot of questions about the city–a city that I found hard to really connect with as it seemed very gritty and rough. He nodded and said that there was a lot of homelessness and organized crime, both of which centered primarily on the heavy drug culture and drug trade. He said that the drug culture has become a tourist activity that draws people from all over the world, and the real heart of the city has been overshadowed. Despite government programs for addiction and mental health, many people still struggle with homelessness in Amsterdam as it is a very expensive place to live. He said Rotterdam was also a heavy drug trade city, and I laughed because I was planning to stop there on my way back. He said there were a lot of undercover police officers in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, which kept crime relatively quiet. He said, “If tourists thought it was not safe to come here, they wouldn’t, so we must keep up the good image.” That made me smile.
Just before we reached Brussels, the stranger asked if I could abandon my plans and join him instead for the weekend. I smiled and shook my head. He offered to take me to a Moroccan restaurant in Amsterdam on my way back through. I smiled and accepted, knowing–as with all promises made while traveling–that it was said more out of politeness than true intent. When I got off in Brussels, he helped me with my backpack and we shared a brief embrace and nod with each other. We wished each other good travels. I waved as I got off the train, and I never did see him again.
The train from Brussels to Luxembourg City only had handful of people onboard. A man sitting across the aisle from me had a faint map of red veins across his cheeks. He kept a small bottle of whiskey in his coat pocket and every few minutes, he would look around and take a sip then turn quickly to appear interested in something outside the window. He kept up this habit until the train stopped at a small town in the middle of Belgium. He rose to get off the train and he turned to me to acknowledge our shared secret. I thought for a moment he may offer me a sip from his bottle, but instead he faced me straight on and smiled widely. His pink gums were naked with no teeth. As he stood there with his wide monkey grin, he reached into his other coat pocket and slid in first his top teeth plate, and then his bottom. He kept smiling as he wiped the drool with the back of his hand. It was odd and a little creepy but I laughed, which made him smile even bigger. He nodded and waved as he got off the train, walking quickly and completely without swagger in the opposite direction. I immediately doubted that he had ever existed.
The train pulled into Luxembourg City, and I walked through the old train station. I came out to daylight and realized that the station was in the middle of town.
I kept going up a hill to my hotel. When I checked in, the front desk worker asked if I was traveling alone. I smiled big and said, “Yes!” He must have been half my age but said he had taken off six months to drive across Australia a couple of years ago. I told him I wasn’t quite so lucky as to have that much time, but I went whenever I could for as long as I had. He nodded and said, “Right on!”
The next morning, found breakfast at a bakery with sculpted fruit tarts. It was a stark reminder that life is filled with hard choices.
I ventured off toward the Old City, which I realized was sectioned off by bridges and stone walls. The Old City is encircled by the Petrusse and Alzette Rivers, the Saure River runs right through the city. This design was intentional, as building the city on a hill surrounded by rivers provided strategic military advantages and protection from invasion.
I wandered around the Casemates de Bock, which is a system of underground military fortification tunnels built in 1745. The tunnels were all connected by several narrow spiral staircases, all made from stone. The floor was very uneven and I stumbled several times, imagining what it must have been like to have run through the tunnels with a rifle in hand.
Most of the Old City could be seen from within the tunnels of the Casemates, as well as the rivers surrounding the city.
I came to find out that the one building that stood out from across town was the Luxembourg Bank Museum. It reminded me of buildings I had seen in Canada.
Along the way, I passed by the Notre Dame Cathedral. I am always drawn to sacred places, no matter where I am. I am always impressed with the detail of architecture and the sheer enormity of the work that has gone into creating these beautiful places. It intrigues me that throughout history people have always made a priority of building sacred places. These places were not about food, shelter, or clothing, but rather were places for satisfying emotional and spiritual needs. We are social animals and we need places where we can come together in communities to share in the awe of this planet where we find ourselves, to feel gratitude for our experiences, and to comfort each other when we feel alone or afraid. When I pause at these churches or other holy places, I feel connected to all of those who have set foot in the same place. I enjoy that connection–trivial and magnificent at the same time.
I often light candles, sometimes with thoughts of someone specific in mind and sometimes merely for grace to all of us who wander. I have stood next to many people who have also come to light candles in the churches, and we share the moments of holding a moment together in prayer or meditation. Sometimes we share tears or embrace, sometimes we merely nod and walk away. But there is always a connection and respect in those moments of vulnerability.
On this day, I didn’t light a candle but I did stand before the many candles already lit in the dark cavernous vestibule of the cathedral. A tall, twenty-something young man walked solemnly up to the candles and lit one, tears streaming down his dark face. He was wearing an old Chicago Bulls basketball jersey, something that seemed oddly out of place in this cathedral in Luxembourg. I hadn’t seen any Americans yet that day. He backed up from his lit candle without turning around, and stood next to me. Neither of us spoke. Then he wiped his nose with a quick pass of the back of his hand and whispered almost with apology, “My mom died.” I stood for a few minutes in silence and then squeezed his arm. “Mine, too.” I said. Then I turned and walked away.
Another vestibule also had candles burning. The white light seemed joyous and hopeful against the dark winter outside.
From the Old City, I walked further into the downtown business district. I wandered around the flower shops and offices. I stopped to listen to a blackbird sitting on a tree branch who seemed excited to tell me about his day. I seem to find blackbirds everywhere I go, or they find me. I like to stop and listen to them, they are very chatty.
I passed by a couple of playful statutes in the park. I wasn’t entirely sure what the messages were, but I love seeing giant outdoor sculptures. I once took a welding class in order to learn how to create giant yard art, but I only made a small metal flower that sadly fell apart during my last move.
I stopped short when I reached a shop called, “Chocolate House.” I didn’t have to think twice about that one, I went right in and realized that chocolate is taken very seriously here. I felt right at home. Apparently, 50% of the chocolate in the world is consumed by Europeans, while Americans only consume a mere 30%. And the European chocolate was far richer and fuller flavored than the waxier American counterpart. I didn’t know it yet, but I was just beginning my chocolate adventure on this trip.