Sunday, April 28, 2013

Chasing cherry blossoms in Bonn

This is Cherry Blossom Avenue in Bonn (or Heerstra├če as it's known locally). Each spring, this street is transformed into a tunnel of puffy, pink cherry blossoms. The trees were in full bloom this week and I headed out after work to take a few pictures.

Cherry blossom season is fast, fleeting and blindingly beautiful. Maybe it's banal to say the cherry blossom is my favourite flower. Maybe it's akin to admitting you like puppies and kittens (who doesn't?). But having a deep appreciation for life's transitory moments is something that resonates with me. And there is no more perfect metaphor for the fleeting nature of life than the pale pink cherry blossom. Blindingly beautiful and then gone.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

A tiny trip to little Luxembourg

My quest to visit all nine countries that share a border with Germany continued with a tiny trip to little Luxembourg last weekend. Seven down, two to go.

Luxembourg exceeded all expectations. Which isn't saying much considering that I had no expectations to begin with. It wasn't a place I particularly wanted to visit (apart from the nine-border-country challenge). I knew almost nothing about it (other than the fact that it is one of the smallest countries in Europe). And I had no clue what language people spoke there (Luxembourgish?). Just like watching a movie without first having seen the trailer, I went to Luxembourg without having read anything about it.

The good thing about having no expectations is that it's difficult to be disappointed. Luxembourg had nothing to live up to. It conjured up an ocean of emptiness in my mind. How could I not be pleasantly surprised by the city's pretty valleys, high plateaus, narrow streets and old fortress walls?

Here are a few things I learned about Luxembourg. The default language is French (handy for those of us whose French has lapsed but can still pull a few useful phases like "Un pain au chocolat avec un cafe au lait, s'il vous plait" out of our hats). The city's old quarters and fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is possible to see everything worth seeing in one day, on foot. And the glass doors inside the National Museum of History and Art are so spotlessly clean that they are rendered invisible (as evidenced by the bump on my forehead after walking full-speed into one of said doors. I'm sure someone has already leaked the security-camera footage to YouTube. Look for me in the 2013 Ultimate Girls Fail Compilation video).

It took about three and a half hours to get to Luxembourg from Bonn by train. We lucked out with cheap tickets that cost 18 euros each way thanks to the fact that the German rail system charges less for tickets the further in advance you book them. This rewards good planning but penalizes spontaneity. The trains ran on time on the way there but were delayed on the way back, which is consistent with my experience that German trains run on time only about 50 per cent of the time (German trains are not reliable or efficient. Do not believe the hype).

The train ride itself was uneventful, expect for the group of drunken soccer fans we met on the Koblenz platform when transferring to Trier. They were drinking beer and screaming soccer chants on their way to a game at 7:45 in the morning. I don't follow soccer but I know when a game is being played in Cologne or Dortmund because those are the days the trains are packed with police officers to keep the hooligans under control. It's not fun sharing a train with drunk soccer fans. They smoke on the train, they drink on the train and they're loud, boorish and aggressive. They block the aisles with cases of beer and they stand ready to fight at the slightest provocation. I always feel like there's about two inches between my face and a wayward fist when there's a soccer game on. Public drunkenness is also pervasive in Japan but it's a quieter, gentler kind of public drunkenness, especially on the trains where the only danger is a salaryman soundlessly falling asleep on your shoulder.

The other thing worth noting is that you don't need a passport while travelling between European countries by train. There are no border control officers because there are no borders. Or at least there are no borders that you can actually see. Not only are there no visible borders, there are no announcements to let you know you've left one country and entered another.

The first time I traveled from Germany to another country by train, I had expected the conductor to make an announcement like, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have just left Germany and have now entered Switzerland!" And then all the passengers would applaud and say things like, "Oooh! Awesome!" But this never happens. Europeans are not partial to North American enthusiasm. The only way to know you've crossed a border in Europe is through your cell phone, which immediately receives a text message when you cross a border to let you know how much it costs to make and receive calls in the new country. If you want to know when you've crossed the border, you just have to listen for the symphony of ringtones when everyone receives the same text message at the same time.

And that's all I have to say about Luxembourg (although, technically speaking, only two of the above eight paragraphs are actually about Luxembourg).