Sunday, May 19, 2013

Chapter 21: Circling Off Course to Thionville

Last week was mostly wet, cold and miserable. If only we could share some of this incessant rain with our South Texas family and friends! Then, as if by design, the sun came out on Saturday and provided a beautiful start for the weekend, which, regrettably, would return to rain on Sunday.

On Friday, I started feeling sick with heavy congestion, headache and tightness of breath. At first, I really did not want to go anywhere; however, when it rains as much as it does here, I hate to waste a beautiful day, particularly on a weekend. So, Lawna and I drove to the base, gassed up the Honda with tax free fuel, bought some snacks and cough drops and set off up the autobahn for Luxembourg. Unfortunately, we never quite made our destination. We learned, instead, of the limitations of using GPS.

Since arriving in Germany, I have grown quite dependent on our Garmin GPS unit. I just program in the destination address and an assured female voice (I swear it's Judi Dench's) directs me turn-by-turn to the right place. We affectionately refer to the voice as "Kate," which is the name listed in the "tools" menu. We tell her "thank you" when she gets us out of a jam and scold her when she barks out a direction too late for me to follow appropriately. With our sons not here, Kate has become the third leg of our traveling family, the loss of which would make us collapse. She keeps us company on our trips and gets us safely to our destinations--usually.

The problem with relying solely on GPS is that you can't really tell where you are going like you can with a map. You follow vocal instructions but have no broader visual context. Also, like any map, GPS units can get out of date, although constant online updates minimize that problem. In well mapped areas, they really are pretty remarkable devices. Anyway, I think that from now on we will also carry traditional maps.

Our journey was proceeding swimmingly until we reached a roundabout (traffic circle) where Kate directed me one way, but a sign said that Luxembourg was another direction. I followed the sign. That set Kate on a course correction frenzy that had us driving in long circles through multiple roundabouts right along the French/Luxembourg border. We did pass into Luxembourg (the country) briefly, but soon found ourselves in France again. Imagine Judi Dench barking stern directions at you in a foreign country (Pay attention, James!). Eventually, we settled into a pretty straight northward route through the Mosel wine country, past lovely chateaux and lean Saturday bicyclists in their bright, form-fitting gear and helmets. We were pretty sure that we were getting near Luxembourg; we were obviously on the outskirts of a city. We were hungry, and, more importantly, both of us had to find a bathroom. We couldn't wait for Luxembourg; I pulled up to an Italian delicatessen.
Italian delicatessen

The owner, we later found out, was from Sicily, and he greeted us warmly--we were the only customers in his shop. I tried to talk to him with my very limited French. He spoke no German or English. In the heat of the moment, I simply could not recall the French word for bathroom. I said "WC". . .no comprehension. Then I imitated washing hands, and he understood. Lawna went in first. While she was busy, I said "Mange," and his blue eyes lit up.

"Mange?" he nodded excitedly.

"Oui, mange, sil vous plais."

"O.K." he made the A-OK sign with his hand, led me over to some tables in the back of his shop and motioned for me to sit. I sat until Lawna returned from  the bathroom, assured her that he was about to feed us, and hurried to the WC. Our host, draped the table with a paper tablecloth, set out two wine glasses and asked "Rose or rouge?" meaning, I assumed, a drier red. We went with rose, a medium sweet variety, and he ceremoniously uncorked the bottle and motioned for us to enjoy. What followed was a full three course meal, starting with a deli meat tray, soaked in oils, followed by delicious lasgna and gnocci and finished off with a flaky creme pastry and stout Italian coffee. Initially I wondered what all of this was going to cost, but decided to flow with it and just enjoy. I had taken a pretty good wad of euros. It turns out that I spent half of them there.

His shop was nothing fancy, just a meat shop with bare walls and card tables for occasional in-shop dining, but his service was definitely five star. In fact, as we finished our delicious meal, he brought his cell phone to me and urged me to talk to his sister who was living in Florida. He wanted us to speak to a relative who understood English so that he could know more about us. I chatted with his sister, whose English was quite good, having lived in America for thirteen years. We talked about why we were in Germany and France, compared Texas and Florida climates, and generally learned about each other from out of the blue in this French community that we had never even planned to visit. Talk about random! For 50 euro, we enjoyed a wonderful, leisurely meal, excellent service and company and a long distance call to Florida! These are the finest moments in traveling!

Before we left, our host pumped my hand happily and thanked us for our visit, provided the bill which I happily paid, adding another bottle of his excellent rose to the sum total. From there we headed toward what we thought would be Luxembourg. The streets became busier and we traveled over a bridge, which spanned a river that I did not catch the name of (it was the Mosel), then found ourselves in a busy old-town section of a city with plenty of traffic circles buzzing around city monuments. We landed at our GPS destination, the Hall of Justice on Luxembourg Avenue. There was parking across the street along the river, so we left the Honda there and started walking through old town.

We walked around for a few hours along the historic facades which are mostly shops now. One rather inconspicuous entryway led into a full multi-storey shopping mall that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. By the time we exited its sleek, air-conditioned modernity, we were suddenly in the eighteenth century again. We drank some more coffee at a patisserie, but we were still too full for a pastry. Lawna bought some shoes.
Downtown wherever-it-was (Thionville)
European style cinema

What began to bother me, though, was that I was not seeing Luxembourg mentioned anywhere. I kept seeing the name Thionville. We walked into a French book shop, and I leafed through a section of local history about the Lorraine region and Thionville. The shop featured some interesting volumes about Thionville during the two world wars and Nazi occupation. Was it possible that we were not in Luxembourg yet, or was Thionville another name for the city?

Nevertheless, we had a great time wandering around wherever-it-was-we-were. We eventually wended our way back to the Honda, paid a few euro for the parking and took off. I told Lawna, "I don't think that was Luxembourg."

She asked me if I wanted to keep driving to get there. Since I was under the weather, I suggested that we just head on back. Luxembourg is only about an hour and a half from the Kaiserslautern area where we live, so we will have plenty of opportunity during our three years to visit it. Let's just head home! She agreed.

On the way back, though, we stopped at a picturesque village along the Mosel, Sierck-les-Bains, which is built around a medieval, fortified chateau, once the home of various dukes of Lorraine. We stopped off to look around, made a visit to the tourist center and then decided to tour the 11th century chateau. The castle would require some steep climbing, and I was feeling a bit short of breath from being sick; but I hate to waste a pretty day in rainy Europe, so I just took it more slowly than usual. We walked up the steep cobblestone street to the fortress and climbed the narrow stairs to inspect the parapets and towers. We saw the armory and even the torture chamber and tools of the trade. The top, of course, afforded a magnificent view of the Mosel meandering through the lush, green wine country. Despite my slight wheeziness, my previous bicycling had served me well, and we had a fun walking tour of the grounds. A group of three French students took our picture, and we took theirs.
Taken by some French students we met
Mosel from parapets of Sierck-les-Bains
11th century S&M
11th century boulevard

After that side trip, we took off down the road to return to Spesbach. Upon arriving, I checked on our travels on Google maps and, sure enough, we never did make it to Luxembourg. We passed through the country fleetingly until another roundabout had directed us back into France. We had browsed the shops and patisseries of Thionville, not Luxembourg, but had parked on Luxembourg Avenue. Thionville is a small city, (Luxembourg did seem smaller than I had envisioned it!) and is known for being a settlement area for concentration camp prisoners who were freed after the second world war. Many of the victims of the death camps were sent to Thionville for processing and to reunite them with their families and to try to return them to their homes, if their families and homes still existed. We probably never would have visited Thionville if we had not gotten lost. Thank you Kate! Next time, however, I will be more careful how I program our destination and make sure that Lawna has an old-school analog map on her lap while I drive.

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