04 Luxembourg I

Luxembourg Oct 15th thru 20th

Luxembourg, population 500K, is nestled strategically between France, Germany and Belgium, with Holland a bit farther to the North

We are recuperating and nursing our jet lag at the Huberty family manse in Bertrange, which is a close suburb of Luxembourg City.

The house sits on a leafy patch next to a large cultivated field owned by a local farmer who has been a hold-out against the relentless gentrification that now completely surrounds it, a happy circumstance for the family Huberty, since it preserves a lovely view towards the North.  Rumor has it that a short distance to the west a European Union School for the children of the civil servants of the EU is to built, which will add a cosmopolitan flavor to the neighborhood and, at the same time, not unhappily, provide a significant boost to the value of the nearby land.

Alice reacquaints herself with her hometown

It’s not surprising that such a school would arise here.  Although we think of Brussels as the capital of the European Community because it houses the President’s Office and the Cabinet, many of the executive and administrative branches of the European government are located in Luxembourg.

The Huberty house sits astride “La Route D’Arlon”, (the route to Arlon, Belgium) which was the very road that Patton’s Third army, headquartered in Luxembourg after the Normandy Invasion (in which they did not participate, much to Patton’s displeasure) traveled as they rushed to relieve the surrounded and freezing troops at Bastogne, 50 miles away in the heart of the magnificent Ardennes Forest.  (You know, Battle of the Bulge and all that…).

There was a time when this Huberty house accommodated two parents and eleven children.

You read that correctly:  Alice has ten brothers and sisters.

In order of appearance, they are:

Only 8 of the eventual 11 children are depticted here-- there were three more to come. Alice is the one, lower left, with the bow in her hair, looking for trouble...

Gaby
Henri
Norbert
Andre
Geneviève
Alice
Béa
Théo
Marguerite
Pascal
Yannick
.

.
The family lost Norbert in the late ‘70’s.  An avid race car driver, he had just competed in a long, multi-day rally in the South of France and was returning home to Luxembourg, his navigator doing the driving, Norbert asleep probably, exhausted after the grueling contest.    A slight rain, a large truck, some lost traction and a skid.    The navigator escaped without a scratch; Norbert didn’t make it.

The extraordinary Huberty family, legend in Luxembourg, remained the Huberty family, in almost all respects, and remains so still, and you’d hardly even know, except that everything, everything changed from that day and no matter how many happy marriages and joyous births occur, and even though life continues for everyone, and the intensity and complexity of all these individual lives adds day by day more pages of memories and events and journeys taken and amassed, despite all these things that would be expected to dilute or at least blunt the intensity of that awful event, to reduce at least a little bit its fierce, biting power to affect the emotional tapestry of this robust family, the events of that day and the crushing, unimaginable loss remains, like the pentimento of a previously painted image, done over with the thick oils of  a newer landscape, but seeping and shadowing its way from underneath, it remains a pivot point from which everything is measured as being either before or after.  Rarely spoken of, neither hidden, but there, always there, no matter what, no matter what…

And yet when the clan gathers, in this case in celebration of sister Geneviève’s 60th birthday and, secondarily, the rare presence of Alice (and me, tertiarily) in Bertrange, there are babies and laughter and food beyond imagining, great and comfortable familiarity and even joy.  Remember:  All the siblings have spouses and most have children (all, in fact, except Alice and Théo the Younger) and now many of the children have children and, of course, their spouses, too, and what it all adds up to, from an outsider’s point of view (me) is an ever-expanding crowd of intersecting relationships that are utterly impossible to keep track of or fully commit to memory.  You will be thinking I am kidding when I say that prior to our marriage I created a “Huberty Family Organization Chart” so that I could get some sense of the roster, some quick way of figuring out who is who and how they relate to each other, literally, but, no, I am not kidding.

Over time, as mere names have become individuals to me, people I have come to know and to like enormously, keeping it all straight has become easier.  But still, I solicit at least some small congratulations for grasping details that include, but are not limited to such things as a sister named Gaby and a sister-in-law named Gaby.  A brother named Pascal and a sister-in-law named Pascale.  A brother, Yannick, and a niece, Annick.  A brother-in-law named Roman, and an (ex) spouse of a niece named Ramon.  A sister named Marguerite and a mother named Marguerite.  A brother Théo and a father, Théo.  This is just the beginning, but you get the idea.

____________________________________

Speaking of father Théo…

Théo Huberty, a Man in Full

The family Patriarch, beloved and deservedly so.  A simple, straightforward man, an accountant by trade, made extraordinary by sheer force of quiet character.  His passion, before the war was, of all things, the Boy Scouts, and on a “Jamboree” in Holland he met the woman who became his wife and my wife’s mother, Dutch by birth, who would produce and rear a brood of children in ways that, from everything I’ve heard, accomplished what to many might seem an impossible task, which was to find ways to make each and every one of them feel special and secure and profoundly loved and safe in a way that only the safety of a family unit can accomplish:  All eleven children, equally and completely.

She would be besieged by a particularly mean-spirited cancer that appeared out of nowhere and took her in the early 90’s, too fast and too soon to be integrated smoothly into the unutterably changed family dynamic,  and despite, certainly, the intellectual understanding we all have that, well, no one lives  forever, including those we love the most, okay, sure, yes, we know, but then… nevertheless, it was emotionally quite impossible, quite unacceptable, thank you very much, this just can’t possibly be.

But it was, and Théo lived on, visiting her grave each Sunday, for many years, until the Saturday evening, just a few years ago, robust still, that, after the Mass at St. Michel that he attended without fail for decades, and after, undoubtedly a prayer for the wife whose absence he could never really adjust to, and after enjoying the litergy delivered in French, and just after trundling to the bus depot as he did, too, each Saturday, and sitting on the same bench to wait patiently that he sat on each Saturday, he quietly passed away at the age of 89 and was buried next to the women he had met and fallen so completely in love with those many decades before, at a Boy Scout Jamboree, before, even, anyone had heard the term “Nazi”.

The American Cemetary in Luxembourg

At least once a month, and certainly on July 4th and most definitely on September 11th, he would visit the American Cemetery in Luxembourg.  There was a reason for that.    Luxembourg was occupied during the war, four long years of darkness and dread and bullying.  Everyone in Luxembourg speaks Luxembourgish, and also French and German, but during the war, French was forbidden. You could not name a child any name that was not of German origin or German sounding, and existing names had to be Germanized in school and on any official document, so, for example, Alice’s brother Henri, a baby at the time, became Heinrich.

May 10, 1940, German occupiers march into Luxembourg

During the early part of the occupation, things weren’t too bad because the Germans had an agenda very different from what it was elsewhere that caused them to put their best foot forward (albeit a jackbooted one), something of a smiley face towards  the Luxembourgers.  Why?  Because they wanted the Luxembourgers to voluntarily, and, in keeping with the titanic German arrogance of the time, enthusiastically, choose to “come home” (as the Germans saw it) to their natural heritage as, indeed, Germans.

As background, Luxembourg, a tiny country, lies nestled between and bordered by France, Germany and Belgium.  Everyone (at least back then) spoke Luxembourgish (yes, a language in and of itself which, to an American ear, sounds a bit like Dutch, and is, in fact, a bit like Dutch, but very different and very unique in and of itself, as any Luxembourger will quickly tell you) and also French, fluently, and German, fluently.

Luxembourg is a fortress city, "The Gibraltar of the North", started in the 900's, continually added to and improved by each successive invading army

Like nearby Alsace & Lorraine, Luxembourg has been overrun and conquered and occupied by one rapacious group after another, for centuries—many centuries.  It’s the reason it’s a “Fortress City”, built on a mountain and sequentially reinforced by conqueror after conqueror, as armies passed back and forth in search of the greater treasures beyond, but recognizing the strategic importance of this mountain bastion, pretty much in the middle of it all.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the Germans figured the Luxembourgers were, for all intents and purposes, really German, because, among other things, and after all, why wouldn’t an itty bitty country like Luxembourg want to be a part of a glorious Germanic empire, that is, again, part of it, rather than subjugated by it, which was the generous offer that was being made.    What’s not to like?    So, in 1941, during the “friendly” occupation, even while the Germans let the locals know in no uncertain terms who was running things, they organized a referendum to let the people of Luxembourg vote on whether they would like to simply be annexed into the great German family, and accrue all the attractive benefits that would quite obviously ensue.    The Germans, being Germans, probably wouldn’t have proffered such a seemingly democratic option if they had any thought that the vote would go in a direction other than the one they fully and confidently expected.

So it must have been something of a puzzlement when Luxembourgers voted against this kind and magnanimous German proposal.  In fact, it was when the votes were counted and fully 98% of Luxembourgers essentially told the Germans that they would like to stay exactly as they were, independent and proudly so—that things got ugly, and they did so immediately and for the duration.    Prior to the vote, Luxembourg men were given the opportunity to don the uniform of the Wehrmacht and take up arms for the Motherland.  (Virtually none did).  Now, any man between the ages of sixteen and forty-five was in grave danger of being shanghaied by the Nazi’s, put in a uniform, like it or not, and forced to the Eastern front to fight and, usually, die.

There are 23 kilometers of tunnels under the ancient fortress of Luxembourg City. The young men hid out in them from the Germans during the war

So Alice’s father, Théo, his older brother and younger brother, Willy, took to the tunnels, as did most of the young men of Luxembourg.    There are reputed to be 23 Kilometers (about 14 miles) of tunnels underneath the towering fortress city of Luxembourg (sometimes referred to as “The Gibraltar of the North”), some of them dating back to the original fortress whose construction began starting in the 900’s and continued with each successive invader (and there are too many to count) expanded both the fortress and its tunnels, eventually resulting in an underground labyrinth navigable only by those with extensive local knowledge, like Théo.

So they spent the war hiding out, doing damage to the German occupiers, at great danger, whenever the possibility arose, and all three of the brothers would have survived except for one instant of bad judgment and impetuousness on the part of the youngest.    Yes, Willy was hungry, very hungry, practically starving, as they all were, so he announced late one night that he was going to go up to the streets to cadge some bread, somehow, somewhere, who knows?  The other two brothers exercised the older brother’s age-old right of authority and forbade him to do so.  Period. They knew it was unspeakably dangerous and that the consequences of being caught were catastrophic.    Convinced that they had sufficiently corralled the risky impulses of their younger brother, they went to sleep, still cold and hungry but fortified by the grim determination to survive, however long it would take…

They never saw their youngest brother again.  After the war, they shared the common survivor’s hope that missing loved ones might have survived, some way, and might be making their way back home amidst the ruin and confusion, despite the desperation and despair—charged and renewed by the joy of liberation.  Yes, there was hope that possibly he survived, fervid attempts to find traces of him in records that had been scattered and destroyed, all done within the miasma of a Europe that was devastated and in chaos, and despite it all, despite every effort, nothing was ever found, not a thing.  In time, hope diminished; then it died out altogether, and it is assumed that, as feared, he was caught, sent to the Eastern Front and is buried somewhere along with the millions of other young men who had no interest in fighting the Germans’ battles, but who were cunningly put in the position where their choice was to do so—to fight for nothing more than their very lives–  or to be killed by an enemy enraged by the atrocities committed on their families and their homeland not by them, these conscripted unfortunates who wanted nothing other than to be somewhere else, but by the legions sent previously to wreak havoc and death and destruction and who who wore that same despised costume, because, in the end, that was enough.

September of 1944, the American troops arrive in Luxembourg. Liberation! La jour de la liberté!

Luxembourg was liberated on September 11th, 1944 by American Forces, and that anniversary is celebrated every year, to this day.  Théo, like all Luxembourgers, propelled by a gratitude that only the grotesqueries of the prior years could spawn, rolled out the red carpet and began a tradition of gratitude that survives to this day.  Enduring friendships were forged between Luxembourgers and Americans, between Théo and soldiers from all parts of The United States that lasted until the day he died; he would visit them in the States, and they would come to Luxembourg to reminisce with him about those remarkable days.

Shortly after Alice and I were married, when we were visiting for the first extended time, Théo took me on a tour of the tunnels, to places the tourists are never allowed to go, where even many of the locals would get hopelessly lost.  It was clear that he knew every inch of them, never became disoriented, and while he pointed out this special place and that, he had a twinkle in his eye and I began to understand that the tunnels represented not only safety and hiding and survival—they represented victory; this is how they beat them; this is how they foiled the German determination to subjugate them, to turn them into doomed fodder for their rampaging bellicosity.  At least, two out of three of them survived and, considering the outcome for many others, that is, indeed a victory.

_______________________________________

I knew none of this when Alice and I decided to get married, and, afterwards, I was moved to learn from Alice that he was pleased when she married an American, the only one of her siblings to do so.  I was doubly surprised in the light of the stupidly maladroit way I started my relationship with him…

I had asked Alice to marry me and she had said, yes, but I told her that I would need to ask her father’s permission.

“You must be joking”, she posited.

“Certainly not; it’s the right thing to do.  I have to ask his permission.  Otherwise it would be dishonorable.”

“You’ve really got to be joking,” she repeated.  “How are you planning on doing this, in English?”

“Of course not; I’ll do it in French.”

“Last time I looked, you don’t speak French.”

“I had two years in high school; I can manage.  ‘Je m’appelle La Tour Eifel’…”    She looked at me as one might an odd little fish in an aquarium.  “This can’t possibly end well.”

Nevertheless, with what I took to be encouragement, she said, “Fine.  Be my guest.  Bon Chance.”

“Mock all you want. I’m doing this; it’s the right thing to do.”

I called him from my office in New York City, having practiced my script over and over.

His cheery voice, all the way in Luxembourg, encouraged me, so, with élan and determination, perhaps even some brio, I proceeded to ask him for his permission to marry…. his son.

I meant to say, “fille” (like “feel”, meaning daughter) but what I said was fils (like “feese”, meaning son.)    A  pause, a slight, stifled chuckle, and  then a string of chirping French that for the most part was unintelligible to me, and then, in English, “I vould be delighted to have you marry my daughter and, yes, you haf my permission, absolument….”

Did I realize right away my mistake?    No, of course not, that would have been too easy and would have minimized the pain.  What’s the karmic point of that?  No, it was only when I smugly told Alice how well it went and repeated to her the very script that I was proud to have executed so flawlessly, that she pointed out what I had done.    A pause.  A desperate search for something mitigating to say, some excuse, some explanation that might allow me to backtrack, to concoct some other story I could retail instead of this one.  None came to mind, so I just said, “Okay, je suis imbecile, ça va.

______________________________________

When I introduce Alice’s strapping young nephew, Lionel, a career military man, I like to say, “I’d like you to meet the entire Luxembourg army…”

The reality, of course, is that Luxembourg has a noble military presence, a very real and formidable army, and it quietly goes about the business of doing its share of the hard jobs around the world, for the most part unheralded, and even unnoticed, but pound-for-pound, man-for-man, they can and do stand shoulder to shoulder with any other soldiers on the planet.

But, like the country itself, its strength does not flow from grand geography or a large populace.  It flows from other things, and at some point we’ll talk about those things, but for now let’s just say that Lionel’s expertise—and it is considerable—is in the field of bomb diffusion (you’ve seen The Hurt Locker, no doubt) and he recently came home from a difficult tour of duty deploying his valuable skills in Lebanon.  A wife of Vietnamese heritage and a newborn will keep him in Luxembourg, for now, but he is ready, willing and able—and likely—to be shipped to the thick of it, as needed, at which point he will go, with the quiet grace that seems to characterize the young people, good and decent men and women, from places large and small, around the world, who stare the existential complexities directly in the eye and respond with the deep simplicity of a willingness to put themselves in harm’s way so that others aren’t required to.  And in the end, it really is just that simple, and that sweetly and profoundly generous.

For my part, I will always have a fondness in my heart for Lionel for another reason, too.  Here’s why:

While still living in New York City I had acquired a small golf-getaway in Florida, a condominium in a gated community.  For Christmas that year, Alice had given me a golf cart, (which was and is, the greatest Christmas gift I have ever received), so getting to the course was just a matter of opening the garage door, cranking up the cart, and scooting away:  For one accustomed to fighting traffic on the George Washington Bridge as perhaps the easiest part of getting to the course in New Jersey, this was something of a dream come true.  And the golf cart will play a significant role in this little story…

Being human and therefore never satisfied, consumed with craven, unquenchable longings, I had been coveting a somewhat larger condo in the same community configured in such a widely desired fashion that having one come on the market was extremely rare.  I had put out an “open order” to my real estate broker to let me know the instant one became available, should that ever happen, so that I might pounce on it.

Months and then a couple of years went by, with no action on that front, but plenty of action in my business life, which is to say that I was working around the clock, seven  days a week, with exactly no time for trips to Florida for golf.    At which point, one night, the phone rang in our Manhattan apartment and the delighted voice of my broker informed me that, mirabile dictu, the perfect unit, the one I had been so hoping for, had just hit the market.

My first thought was, “There is no way, absolutely no way that I can even begin to deal  with this right now”, which was not something I could reveal to the broker, inasmuch as I had been a persistent twit about this for way too long to back out now. “Great!”  I said, thinking to myself, “How the heck am I going to get out of this?”

Suddenly, a bright idea:  I will place a bid so low (and this was when times were good in that industry, well before Barney Frank managed to single-handedly destroy the housing market, but I digress, and, in truth, I exaggerate, since he had crucial help from Andrew Cuomo and Maxine Waters), a bid so preposterously low that the seller will rear back in indignation and demand never to hear of me or from me again, which was exactly the reaction I was banking on.

Needless to say, within twelve hours they had accepted my offer as is and soon I was the proud owner of not one condo that I was too busy to use—but two, the second one larger and completely unfurnished and therefore utterly useless even for short term rental purposes. (After all, why should I expect anything other than a complete cash-flow abyss out of the deal?)

And so it sat, one smaller condo, furnished, but unused, and a larger one, unfurnished, equally unused, as I continued to helm my business  through a category five hurricane, a thousand miles away, hunched over my desk in front of three computers, one Mac, one PC and another PC running AOL (since AOL, then as now, marches to its own stupid and annoying drummer and has to be specifically accommodated, like the spoiled brat it is, and  don’t even get me started on the AOL-Time Warner fiasco), moving my company from being one where, as it had for the past twenty years, effectuated zero percent of its transactions over the internet (since, in truth, the “internet” did not yet exist, other than in the warped minds of a coven of crazed scientists sending each other formulas and abstruse data—along with, I’m convinced,  the occasional  filthy joke since, after all, some things are built into the very DNA of some other things, like, for example, filthy jokes into the internet) to, over a mere three year period, 100% of my company’s transactions being done over the internet.  Let me repeat that:  0% of sales over the internet to %100 percent in three years, and, by the way, we had over 50,000 clients. That’s a story for another day but I can tell you that none of it involved any time at all to play golf.

What, you might ask, does all this have to do with my wife’s nephew Lionel and the Luxembourg Army?  Well, okay, it has nothing at all to do with the Luxembourg Army, except to the extent that the Army gave Lionel some time off over Christmas and in conspiracy with my wife, they concocted a scheme to meet for the holidays at our condominium in Florida, the small one with the furniture, and Alice asked me if I didn’t think that was a good idea.    I said to her, “You don’t seem to understand:  I’m competing against Bill Freakin’ Gates and the Getty family with all their stupid, no doubt ill-gotten Getty money,” (both of whom had decided for some unfortunate reason that they had a crying need to encroach on my particular industry, the Photo industry, although, to be sure, “encroach” might not be the right word, “swallow” being a better choice.  Again, a story for another day…) and you want me to go to freakin’ FLORIDA?    We departed Newark Airport, heading south, on the Morning of December 22nd.  I was looking forward to seeing Lionel, his sister Kim, and their respective love interests, while at the same time, looking forward, too, to the demise of my business for lack of attention.

 

“I’d like you to meet the Luxembourg Army…”

Christmas morning.  Lionel suggests we throw a couple of boxes onto the golf cart and make the first small move from the old condo to the new one.  It was only two or three hundred yards down the street.  I thought that was a good idea, even though the actual move would take some considerable doing and would undoubtedly have to wait until the Spring or maybe even next Fall when I have some time to do it, which was unfortunate, since I planned on selling the smaller one but obviously couldn’t do so until we moved out.

So we took the two boxes, and Lionel suggested we take another two.

And then some more.

Pretty soon we were carting beds on top of the golf cart.  Before we knew it, Kim was pitching in, and, soon, the others,  too.

The morning gave way to the afternoon and we were still moving piece by piece, all via golf cart.  Pretty soon neighbors started taking notice.  Who moves the contents of an entire condominium on top of a golf cart?  On Christmas day?

But that’s exactly what we did, and we slept in the new place that night.

People sometimes ask me if I worry for his safety when he is over there dismantling bombs.

“Are you kidding me?” I say.  “This is a guy who can move the entire contents of a condominium, on top of a golf cart, on Christmas day.”

Not that the one has anything to do with the other, except this:  Anybody who could do that, anybody who’s that good a guy, has somebody, somewhere, looking out for him.  I just know it.

_________________________________________

Andy Scheck, the national hero you've never heard of...

There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve never heard of Andy Shleck, unless you live in Luxembourg, or are from Luxembourg, in which case there’s no chance at all that you’ve never heard of Andy Shleck.

This year, Andy Shleck won the Tour de France, even though he came in second.

And in that story is something I’ve come to understand is very, very Luxembourgish, in the most attractive way possible.

If you’re American, like me, there isn’t much you know or understand about that quintessentially French competition known, indeed, as “Le Tour de France”, except that it’s some sort of bike race that goes on and on and on, and they mention it , say, every other night or maybe every third night on the American news, because, after all, what the heck, who cares?

But then, of course, there’s Lance Armstrong, the American who has won the darn thing about a bazillion times, making it all the more of a shame that Americans for the most part, and I mean for the most part, couldn’t care less, except to take note that Armstrong dated Sheryl Crowe, and, oh, by the way, survived testicular cancer and then went on to win races that appear to be phenomenally grueling and, not incidentally, if you’ve ever ridden a bike for any distance, you know it can be pretty rough on the nether regions, making all this that much more notable, if not unspeakably unbelievable.

So now you have Andy Schleck, one of the famous “Shleck Brothers”, son of their famous bike riding father, Mr. Schleck (I forget his first name), all from tiny Luxembourg, and now international superstars on the competitive bike racing scene, although, when I say “International” I mean everywhere but America, where nobody cares (except as it relates to the aforementioned Sheryl Crowe and a passing interest from time to time in the doping issue, which, it seems, Armstrong has managed to dodge, so far…).

But I want to illuminate for you why Andy Shleck is such a cool guy and such a fine exemplar of the kinds of things I like so much about folks from Luxembourg, and in order to do that I need to give you just couple of overview insights into how the Tour de France works, which I actually do know a small amount about, for reasons that are unclear to me.

The race takes place over many days, with winners each day, often different people depending on the terrain.  For example, there are riders who are especially good in the mountains, and one of them will tend to “win” those days.  Conversely, there are those who excel on the flats, “sprinters” as they are known.  Indeed, real aficionados can tell which type of rider a fellow is (and there are even more categories than I’ve mentioned) simply by looking at the musculature of their legs, which is sort of interesting, but way more than either you or I want to go into here.

The important thing is that there will be somebody who may not be the best at any of the particulars, but who’s pretty darn good at everything and one of them is likely to be in the lead and wearing the prestigious “Yellow Jersey” indicating just that, on any given day.

Hold that thought.

Now, one of the most important “tactics” is “slipstreaming” and then “attacking”.  We all know what slipstreaming is:  That’s when the annoying guy in the BMW comes up right behind you, right off your bumper, like he’s more damn important to you, and wherever he’s going is more damn important, and you spend a lot of time trying to control the level of bad things you wish to happen to him, since, let’s face it, hoping he crashes and dies reflects more poorly on you than him, so let’s just say he should get a blowout and do serious damage to his front end.

That’s slipstreaming.

In bike racing terms, there are lots of advantages to staying directly behind the guy in front, most especially the very effect that gave slipstreaming its name—that the front guy’s wind tunnel pulls you along and he, therefore, has to use a lot more effort than you do, and you can conserve your energy for the moment when you decide to “attack”, and “attacking” is when you try has hard as you can to pass the guy and take the lead.

Importantly, there’s an unwritten rule about “attacking” the guy wearing the Yellow Jersey, a time-honored gentleman’s tradition that says you don’t attack when he’s having a mechanical problem or righting himself from a spill, or doing anything other than flat-out racing.  Pass a guy when he’s racing, not when he’s changing a tire.

How’s that?  What do you do, then, when, say, the Yellow Jersey has a flat (or a “puncture” if you want to pretend, like me, that you’re in the know)?

The answer is:  You wait.  In fact, everybody waits, and the tradition calls for the guy who could gain the most, the fellow in second, to orchestrate the halt, until the Yellow Jersey is fit to go. To take advantage of the guy’s misfortune, rather than outperforming him at cycling, would be disgraceful.

There’s something nicely sportsmanlike about all this, don’t you think, especially when you consider the boatloads of cash and fame attending to those at the very front.

The year before this one, 2009, Andy Shleck from Luxembourg, population 513,805, came in second to Alberto Contador from Spain, population 45,840,557 (yes, that would make it approximately 90 times bigger than Luxembourg) and they have been intense but friendly rivals before and, certainly, after, most especially during this years’ 2010 Tour de France.

Here’s what happened:

On one of the last legs, just a few short days before the final, Shleck was wearing the leader’s yellow jersey, starting ahead of second place Contador by 31 seconds, meaning just that, that Schleck was winning the race– by 31 seconds, and this is after, like, two weeks of racing.  It was shaping up to be a similar finish to last year’s, as exciting, and a minimum of 513,805 people in Luxembourg were bursting with pride for their man and hoping for the best.    And that’s when Schleck’s chain popped off.  Contador should have stopped; he didn’t.

The following Sunday he won the race, beating Shleck by the exact amount of time it had taken Shleck to fix his chain.    From our American vantage point, there’s no way we can begin to understand the volcanic uproar this caused throughout Europe, the volumes and volumes of opinion in every language on every sports page, everything up to and including lengthy exegeses by respected mechanical engineers on how Schleck’s chain popped of, and why, and who is to blame, and on and on and on, and if you have any kind of emotional investment in the Tour de France (and that would include almost every European) it’s all enormously interesting.

But what I found most interesting was the way Shleck handled it, with a demonstration of grace and maturity hard to imagine in a 25 year old world-class athlete brimming over with high-octane competitive fire who wanted, undoubtedly, more than anything on Earth to win that race which, many argue, he did, but, check the record books, today, tomorrow and forever, and it will say second place.

And to be appreciated fully it should be noted that it was not easy for him to wrestle his emotions into check, as evidenced by his immediate reaction on the day that it happened, which was indignation, outrage, anger or, more accurately, fury.

But Contador contended he didn’t notice that Shleck was having mechanical trouble, and  a comprehensive, completely objective poll has shown how many people believe him:    Spaniards:  45,840,557    Everybody else:  0

 

Schlect and Contador, in a gracious gesture of friendsip, begin the last stage of the Tour de France, which Contador would go on to win by the exact amount of time that purists say he should have waited for Schleck to fix his chain.

But the evening of the incident,  and after Contador had won the whole shebang, they gave joint press conferences in which Shleck thanked Contador for his apology, stated categorically that as far as he, Shleck, was concerned, Contador won fair-and-square, and that he looked forward to continuing the rivalry with his good friend, Alberto Contador.

And he went further, asking as a personal request, that all fans cease castigating Contador (he was getting booed when he made appearances).  Altogether an enormously classy act, but what I find most interesting of all is that Schleck’s behaved in exactly the manner that I know every Luxembourger I’ve ever met would have wanted him to.  In my experience, there is a beautiful natural grace embedded in the culture, starting, quite certainly, with my wife…

Oh, and here’s an ironic coda to the story:  Contador has been caught up in the doping scandal rampaging through the sport and is under intense investigation.  Many think Shleck will be declared the winner after all when Contador is disqualified.  Schleck’s reaction?  “That is not the way anyone wants to win a race, this one or any other.  I hope it doesn’t happen.”

_________________________________________

Logistics – Getting Legal

When you go “traveling” for a while, there’s a level of conformance required to various national bureaucratic imperatives.  Putting that another way:  You better have your damn passport in order.

 

Alice, waiting to interface with The Man in Luxembourg

Okay, fine, we all know that, and most of us have done it innumerable times.  But there is a “crossover point” based upon the length of time you plan on staying  that launches you into a whole new dimension of pain-in-the-butt line-standing, form filling-out-a-tude, a hideous and unavoidable necessity to “interface with The Man”.

Often this interfacing is done in another language, and, in my case, that would be a language I don’t speak, which yet again makes it fortuitous that my wife speaks just about everything.

This is why, indeed, she has borne the brunt of this burden of getting our documentary house in order, both prior to our journey, which involved gathering various documents, certificates, official stamps and permissions, as well as after our arrival, since certain things can only be accomplished once you are here, dealing directly with the heart of darkness, rather than through their emissaries dispatched to the United States as forward guards.

When I say that my wife has “borne the brunt” of this, what I mean is that she has done absolutely everything.  I cede this out of generosity since, let’s

Put in a one Euro coin and you can ride one of these bikes anywhere yoiu want in Luxembourg

not forget, my wife is a trained diplomat, well-schooled in the arcane methodologies of the State (any state, since, on this level, they are all the same) rather than because I would do anything to avoid having to deal with even the smallest part of it myself.  Really.

The good news is that her deep expertise, as well her capacity for persistence, has accomplished all that is necessary, both for ourselves (the easy part, relatively) as well as for the dogs (the hard part, naturally) and we are all legal, biped and quadruped alike, properly registered and, presumably, welcome guests for the duration of our stay.

We’ll see how that holds up for the dogs, based, of course, on their behavior, the imagining of which whittles away at my optimism.

____________________________________________

Logistics – Computer Hell

It would be impossible to exaggerate (what, me exaggerate?) how much time and effort I spent before we departed making sure I’d be able to get all the books I wanted (Kindle; Kindle PC; Kindle iPhone App) TV shows (iStore;

 

Every piece of this stuff is American; good luck getting it to work in Europe...

Hulu; Amazon TV), phone calls, (Skype; maybe get a local phone), Newspapers (Kindle and iPhone), music (iPhone; iPod; iShuffle)—all the familiar things that I ought to give up in order to fully immerse myself in our traveling experience, but which I absolutely refuse to do.

I took all these things, each piece of it, and ran them through “test runs” before we left.

For example, I knew that the Kindle’s Whispernet” 3G “out of the ether” download facility wouldn’t work over here, so I went through the process of downloading my Wall Street Journal to my PC and then to my Kindle.  Perfect.  Seamless.  No problem.

Similarly, I scouted out the TV shows I wanted to keep track of (it’s too embarrassing to tell you which ones they are), imagined myself sitting in the South of France, and went through the process of ordering and downloading them.  Again, perfect.  I am sooooo good at this.

Upon arrival, a few days ago, I set about putting these things in motion, getting myself organized to routinely perform all these tasks that I had so thoroughly prepared for.

Imagine my surprise when I found that absolutely nothing worked.

This surprise manifest itself in large amounts of foot stomping, teeth gnashing, tossing of non-breakable items and yelling to Alice “Are you kidding me??? Are you freaking KIDDING me???” not because she could or would do anything to help, but because there was no one else around to listen. She did, however, have a pretty good suggestion:  “This may be one of the times that having four million people in my family pays off.  Some of these kids have got to know a way around this stuff.  Why don’t you get the word that you need some help?”

Hmmm…. I was a bit skeptical.  I mean, I’m not entirely without knowledge in this area, thank you very much, and, besides, I had figured out what the problems were, I just didn’t have a solution, and my suspicion was that one doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, we did get the word out, and, sure enough, within hours I had simple instructions on what to do.

Now, I’m not going to go into any detail here, although I hasten to add that, number one, I’m not avoiding paying for anything that I’m supposed to, and, number two, I’m pretty sure everything is on the up-and-up.  I’m just not positive, and, even if it’s not, I’m not doing anything that just about everybody over here isn’t doing, which, yes, might be something of an unseemly Kantian rationalization, but there you have it.

I’ll just say this: I have no problem getting just about anything I want, including the Jaguars’ football games, live, in real time. Sweet.

And I’ll also say this: In cyberspace there is a whole world out there of people doing things, routinely and massively and constantly, that are so off the mainstream path, so unauthorized, so simple and so accepted from every point of view including the ethical one, that it is hard to imagine how any rules at all can be imposed or, more importantly, enforced. That makes it both a dangerous place and an enormously interesting one. Behavior patterns are not dictated by an overarching authority, but are generated from within, like the Wild West.  If someone has been grazing his cyber cattle on open land for a long time, no amount of barbed wire is going to keep them out.  They’ll just cut it.  Over and over.  And if you make bigger barbed wire, they’ll make bigger cutters. So the rules that do exist seem to arise because people decide they are a good idea.  Or, rather, more people think it’s a good idea than don’t, and the primary method of enforcement , such as it is, and it isn’t much—seems to be a kind of social opprobrium, with the worst possible punishment  being a form of cyber stockade, but instead of being imposed for the sin of being ungodly, it is imposed for the sin of being uncool.

We are living in parallel worlds, the real one, corporeal, and the cyber one, and while they do intersect and often collide off of one another, like asteroids, they are, for sure, very different things and each is carving its own particular and quite separate historiography. There are cowboys in cyberspace and barbarians.  I suspect , too, that there are Saints.

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

_______________________________________________

So we have recuperated in Bertrange, Luxembourg. Quiet times, nice dinners, reuniting with the many veins of Alice’s family.  There are family portraits and snapshots throughout the house.  I find myself looking at the ones on the chest of drawers that sit as something of a shrine to Alice’s parents.  I know that she was fortunate to have them, them in

 

Max and Alice's brother-in-law, Jang, doing their morning exercises

particular, and to have her brothers and sisters.  I imagine what it must have been like when she was young, with so many rapidly evolving lives going in so many directions all at once, the liveliness, the chatter, the rivalries and the love.

I look at a picture of her father, Théo, the one at the top of this post, where he is relaxed, leaning back, smiling, enjoying the world.  What a good man, I think to myself, what a very good man, and I imagine the aching loss each of the children must have felt when he passed.  And as I think these thoughts, another thought, distant and intrusive, like the report of a gun going off in another room, intrudes, and I remember what I felt when I was told that my own father died, because what I felt was absolutely nothing.

We still have nearly a week before our rental house in the South of France becomes available to us.  Geneviève has kindly invited us to visit with her, so, tomorrow morning we leave for several days in Den Haag (“The Hague”), the first time I have been to Holland since I was eighteen years old.

# # #

N E X T : Den Haag

_______________________________________

Gallery

[click any image to launch gallery]

N E X T : Den Haag

One Response to 04 Luxembourg I

  1. What a terrific chapter! One thing is for certain………..Jang, Max and I have a LOT in common these days! Stay well and safe. Be careful out there, too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>