Hamburg only made up part of my fall break adventures. The second trip had been in the works since August, and had more to do with visiting my friend, Sven, than with marking off countries on my mental travel checklist.
I first met Sven in 2006. I had just moved to Blacksburg from Pittsburgh to share an apartment with George. Sven had just moved to Blacksburg from Germany to share an office with George. We all got to know each other well that year. We bonded over tailgating, cheap scotch, and eating Sayak’s homemade Indian feasts with our hands. In the years that followed, we all remained close. Sven knew everyone in Blacksburg, and could always be counted on to keep a party going (loudly, I might add) until the wee hours of the morning. He was also a serious student and active member of the physics department at Virginia Tech. We were sad to see him go in 2010, but the University of Luxembourg was calling.
None of us was surprised when the department invited him back to VT in August to give a talk on his new work; we were surprised and delighted to learn that his time in town would overlap with George’s defense. This was perfect timing for the non-stop party that would characterize Sven’s visit. The party lasted two weeks, during which time, Sven invited me to come celebrate his birthday with him in October. I accepted, and at the end of October, it was off to Luxembourg for me!
Luxembourg is a unique place. No one knows much about it. If you take a German class, you learn that it is one of the five countries where German is spoken. (Bonus points if you can name the other four.) It is the only sovereign grand duchy in the world, whatever that means, and banking is its main industry. NATO and the European Union Parliament are in Luxembourg. The entire country, all 51 x 35 miles of it, seems to consist of the capital city and some dairy farms. I think a good comparison would be to picture Rhode Island, but with extraordinarily wealthy inhabitants.
I arrived in Luxembourg City around 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday after a 7-hour train ride through the gorgeous German wine country. Many people were just getting off work and were running to catch their trains home. If you would like to imagine what the train station in Luxembourg is like, picture a constant stream of hundreds of the most polished and well-dressed people you have ever seen running at you. Truly spectacular. I found Sven, and we boarded a bus to his apartment.
Luxembourg’s three official languages are French, German and a dialect called Luxembourgish. Luxembourgish sounds like you took German in high school, forgot some, and are now in a few weeks into your first semester of French. If you speak German, you can understand it. I speak very little French, but Sven had assured me in August that I would have no problem. Once we were on the bus, however, he turned to me and in true Sven fashion and said, “So how’s your French?” “Non-existent,” I replied. Although it turned out to be no problem, I was nervous for the rest of the trip about my language. Luckily. I can be overly apologetic in several languages.
During my two days in Luxembourg, I met some of Sven’s friends, who were lovely. We went to a freestyle hip-hop club, where you could hear rap performed live in many different languages. The crowd at the bars consisted many of chic young professionals and bo-bos, or bourgeois Bohemians. (Actually, this might be an accurate description of Luxembourg’s entire population.) We also took a nighttime stroll through the whole city, which we repeated the next day in the daytime. The city itself reminded me of a tiny Zürich: impossibly clean, incredibly walkable, very expensive. We got free espresso at the Nescafe shop, drank gourmet hot chocolate next to the Grand Duke’s palace and went to the MUDAM Museum of Modern Art. Sven described Luxembourg as Disney Land, and I completely agree: it looks real, but has none of the pesky issues facing other “real” cites, like poverty, crime and the Occupy demonstrations.
Though he now lives in Luxembourg, Sven’s birthday celebration was going to happen at his parents’ home in Bad Nauheim, Germany. We left in Sven’s car on Friday evening. We were a mile from his apartment when he asked me,“Do you smell something?” I did, but I assumed the odor was coming from the exhaust from the car in front of us. Then, the people behind us started honking and flashing their lights. We pulled over, and noticed gasoline pouring out of the vehicle. We barely made it back to his apartment. Sven rented a car, and we left the next morning for Bad Nauheim.
Bad Nauheim is a cute town in the federal state of Hessen. It is also a Kurort, a spa town with natural hot springs. I hadn’t realized how accustomed I had become to the northern German landscape until I saw the mountains and autumn leaves there. (sigh) After a short tour of the town, we went to his parents’ house to begin the party.
Sven’s parents are a warm, open couple. They make guests feel instantly welcome. After an hour with them, you learn that Sven comes by his propensity to party naturally. For the event, they had five cakes, gallons of drinks and tons of food. There were at least 40 people there, smoking, drinking, looking at photos, and laughing. Sven repeatedly played one of his typically odd musical selections (The Best of the Jackson 5) as loudly as possible, and the party went on until at least 4 a.m. As is typical for me, I went to bed around 2:30. Sven’s parents outlasted me.
All of the food was delicious, but two items stood out. The first is specialty of Hessen called Handkäse. It is a high-protein cheese marinated in oil, vinegar, onions, salt and pepper. It looks like raw chicken breasts, but it is wonderful. Unfortunately, we ate it so quickly I didn’t have a chance to get a photo. The second item of interest was the Mett-Igel. Mett is raw ground pork, which is seasoned and spread on bread. An Igel is a hedgehog. A Mett-Igel is a lot of raw, seasoned ground pork shaped like a hedgehog. Sven had been talking about the Mett-Igel for years, and I was certain that he had been misinformed. Everyone knows that raw pork = trichinosis. I thought there must be some sort of acid in it to “cook” it, like ceviche.
I was wrong.
This was straight up, raw meat. Furthermore, I had always thought the German attitude towards meat was “grind it up and either stuff it into a tube or suspend it in aspic.” Apparently, the third option is “shape like some other animal.” Still, against all my better judgment, I tried the Mett. I was pleasantly surprised. Mett is pretty tasty, but I will not eat it again, if I can avoid it.
It was a lovely weekend with Sven & Co. Thank you to Peter and Helga, for providing me with lunch, conversation, grappa, and a place to sleep. Thanks to Sven for inviting me to celebrate with you, the Indian take-out, the pastis, the guided tour of Luxembourg, and the laughs. I had so much fun at the party I forgot to take photos. It was great to see a familiar face, especially one attached to a good friend.
- Luxembourg City: tourism office
- Luxembourg: general information on the country
- Luxembourg: information from the CIA World Factbook
- Luxembourgish: learn a few phrases from the BBC so you don’t have to sound like a tourist
- MUDAM: Museum of Modern Art; the building alone is amazing. Cool enough to be worth a visit, small enough to hold your interest.
- Chocolate House Natalie Bonn: wonderful cafe/chocolaterie across from the Grand Duke’s Palace