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Wednesday, 16 May 2012


LUXEMBOURG In my fictional novel ‘Luxembourg’, two decades are visited – 1986 and 2006. The story switches between both periods weaving a story that begins with youth – with all its follies of love, drunkenness and tragedy and cuts its way towards the 21st century where lies knowledge, understanding and eventually acts of madness. I lived in Luxembourg in the late 80’s. How I arrived there was pure chance. A CV, sent to a job agency, a phone call, an interview and then Pow! I uprooted myself away from everything that my 21 year old body knew. Friends were waved goodbye down the local pub, my mum was left with instructions to sell my Ford Cortina (with trim dashboard) and on a cool February morning I found myself in the Hotel Schincton in the centre of Luxembourg city. The hotel room was so small that going out and socialising was the only option, so along with Nish, who was in the room next-door, the other successful applicant for a similar role to mine, we explored a city that etched itself into my mind as strongly as any religion. The year is now 2012 and we have both returned to Luxembourg to re-trace old steps and for myself to reiterate certain elements of the book I am writing. It is frightening how little Luxembourg city has changed. We started at the train station – where I had rented a flat in 1987 – and standing there now, where buses and taxis line up in slots, offering their wares – I was immediately thrown back to that 21 year old self. The self that was trying to work out how all this was going to work. How I was going to live, eat, commute to work, find friends, find girls.... Yet at that time, 1987, several key things fell into place. There were other English people sharing my predicament. Nish and Mark, who had arrived a few weeks earlier, were both looking for somewhere to rent. Newspapers were planted in my lap (by Mark) – already open at possible living quarters. Advice was offered. A social life was offered. And within a week I had my own flat in Bonnevoie. An area just behind the train station, that fed the adventurous part of my mind with brothels on the doorstep, supermarkets serving strange food and bars that stayed open until daylight beckoned. That was how my 21 year-old self survived. By embracing all that was around me. By – eventually – cutting loose from that old life in England. The one of pints of Stella, constant hints of violence and where being a young man contained scents of both of these. Sure, there were initial phone calls home – to mates, where I explained my new life like an 18-30’s holiday camp. There were visits home, to see parents and siblings and to see friends – again, down the pub. But the pull was lessening. Luxembourg was starting to offer things. New friends (where I was able to re-invent myself, not have to explain weaknesses..) who were seeing me afresh, without judgements of previous actions. I had met my future wife (of 26 years and counting) and all of a sudden there was this new thing – Europe – where I could see opportunity – an otherly quality to life. England had just been a starting point. The Bella Napoli pizzeria offered Nish and myself pasta and wine and the initial flashbacks from the present back to the 80’s. That was where we used to sit. Do you remember Paul/Mark/Claire..? We both filled in histories for the other. Ghosts became real people (“Christ, I’d forgotten about him/her..”) and actions, however pathetic were always recounted as hilarious and necessary and of course would have been repeated given the chance. Luxembourg became the first place where we just thought of something and just did it. Let’s go to the lakes (sunshine, warm beers and hope - all packed into second-hand cars and off we went) – let’s learn French (four of us attended language classes with differing attendance and results) – let’s drink every evening for a week (and it wasn’t just drunkenness, the evenings – never planned – always seemed to have a ‘point’). Let’s jump on a plane to Norway and pay a surprise visit to an au pair I sort of knew (well, I did and the visit wasn’t all that successful). I was learning that restrictions – when you are young – were obstacles that others put in your way and how you dealt with those restrictions depended a lot on who you surrounded yourself with. After the Bella it was a swift walk through the rain to the Pub in the Grund. This pub sits within one of the ‘scooped’ out valleys of Luxembourg city. It opened quite soon after I arrived in 1987 and provided a life support for my initial early social outings. During those first weeks I used to walk everywhere – for miles – the sun shone a lot and to me it seemed a natural way of getting around the city. I fell upon the pub in the Grund one Saturday afternoon and to be honest I have never really left. In 1987 there was just a single level (now there are three) and it had the feel of a real pub. Local beer, sandwiches on the bar and an Irish staff that were more than friendly. I quickly fell within their community, drinking, partying – liking what it offered – an alternate home. In later years when I moved to Holland and my girlfriend still lived and worked in Luxembourg, I used to drive from Holland and the pub in the Grund was always my first stop. Where I would use their upstairs partially finished rooms to change and freshen up. Even having moved away from Luxembourg the country, the warmth was always there for me. As my weekend of revisiting old haunts progressed the feeling that not a lot had changed began to grate slightly. The way that certain elements had ignored modernity, such as smoking still being allowed in all bars and pubs. As an ex-smoker I love the fact that this is allowed but after two evenings of breathing in the stale smug of tobacco my throat felt like it had been finely sandpapered. We revisited an English pub that we used to frequent to find that the same landlord was still running the bar. Instead of a warm greeting however we were met with bitter lemon tales of how much he hated his wife and how awful his life was. This was someone who had three houses, five healthy children and several cars i.e. he wasn’t unwealthy. When I suggested if his life was that unhappy that perhaps he should change it – this produced a set of hurdles as reasoning to why it could never happen – the best one being “she is so bad as a mother, I had better stay and bring up the children” and with that comment he retired to the corner of a bar to draw wistfully on a receding cigarette and stare out towards the scruffy overgrown garden area. This was someone still stuck in the 80’s and determined to stay there as his pub decor demonstrated. I was trying to regain the glorious feelings from all those years ago yet when confronted with an example of ‘how it was’ -it was depressing. Maybe if he had given the pub a lick of paint. And opened up a window. There was another bar that we used to frequent called The Cockpit. It sat at the bottom of a hill, clearly defined by the fact it had the rear end of an aircraft protruding from the front of the building. On entering the bar was scattered with old, original memorabilia from Icelandic planes from the 1950’s. The bar staff all wore airline uniforms and again, were friendly. Nish recalled a summer evening after work where we had ordered so many beers during happy hour (it was four for the price of one or something..) that we were dousing each other with beer to cool down. Now – in 2012, The Cockpit has become an apartment office block of smartly decorated frontage with gold nameplates, of doctors and lawyers. Around the back where we doused each other on the raised decking area, now sat a car park. Yet in a way I preferred this transformation. I preferred that it was gone – The Cockpit – yet it was still there (it was called The Cockpit Apartments) – in a modern format – and it was useful. Not still being run by married owners moaning about their life-style choices. I think in a way I wanted Luxembourg city to still be the same but also to have moved on – perhaps a reflection of how I wanted myself to be as a person. I think what I learnt was – that memories are fine things and that they belong in particular time eras and that dragging them back into the present causes confusion, regret sometimes and a yearning for a past that can never be the present. Ian May 2012

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