Allemand or Französisch?
Margaret, January 24-26, 2004


It was midday and we had already checked out of the Bahnhof Hotel in Recklinghausen. Despite the proximity to the train station, we had slept well there, in comfortable German beds. Ben had been fencing at the Recklinghausen International Men’s Epee Tournament, one of the eight qualifying tournaments of the Deutscher Fechter Bund (DFB), the German fencing federation, and an FIE “B” tournament. It was a big tournament with 164 fencers, and it was strong – eventually won by the Chinese fencer Gang Zhao, who’s ranked 15th in the world. Ben fenced a minimalist style, winning only one bout in his first pool to squeak into the second round by two places. In the second pool he won two bouts, again just barely making the cut to the next round. In his first DE, he pulled Niels Kugler, a fellow Munich fencer, who had been the last bout of his pool and one of his two wins. Niels, by contrast, had won every bout in the pool except that against Ben. But Ben pulled out his good-fencer style again and upset Niels cleanly, 15-12, to make the second day of competition. On that second day, he fenced well, but not well enough to beat his first DE, Andreas Erdöffy, from Tauber. In the end, he was 64th  not bad for a 4-9 bout record.

So we had the rest of Sunday off, and spent it as tourists. We drove to nearby Aachen, capital of Charlemagne’s empire in his time, and walked around the city. We were lucky in that there was an Aachen medieval festival going on that day and entrance to many places were free. So we checked out the town hall, as well as the famous Cathedral and its treasury. As it got dark, we headed back on the road to drive toward Luxembourg. We had decided that Monday would be spent checking out its capital and heading back home. We weren’t quite prepared for what that entailed.

We headed for Echternach, a small town right on the Luxembourg border with Germany, where we planned to spend the night. As we neared, we flipped through radio stations, trying to find non-German language ones. Yep, here was one: definitely French. And here was one: um, German-esque, but not German; Dutch perhaps, or Letzebuergesch, Luxembourg’s own unique dialect. Our guidebook had assured us that German was spoken with ease amongst the people, but we found out otherwise.

We had literally just gone over the border, just crossed a river from Germany to get to Echternach. (And with a name like “Echternach”, one would think…) We parked and looked at a map by a bus stop entitled “Ville d’Echternach” to get our bearings. The place seemed a bit schizophrenic already. We stopped in at a nearby hotel. No, they didn’t speak German. Ben and I tried to recollect our rusty French, just to discover that we couldn’t get a room there. We moved on to another hotel, and there tried French from the outset, which landed us a comfortable chambre for the night. We returned to the town to find dinner.

What was this? Rue de la Gare? But there was no train station in Echternach! And as we passed storefronts, we saw French, mixed with German, and sometimes a word or two of Italian or English. My brain hurt. The restaurants in the center of town were expensive – with the exception of the many Chinese establishments that seemed out of place, and yet somehow to belong in this cacophony of multilingualism. We eventually settled on a mid-priced restaurant called “Benelux” – which served Italian food, of course. When we got back to the hotel, we flipped on the TV. We wanted to find something in French so we could reanimate that part of our brain. The first was in German. The next, German. German. News – German. I was perplexed. Did these French-speaking Luxembourgers not watch TV?

The next day we moved on to Luxembourg, the city. The signs were certainly in French, and I was glad that although I couldn’t call up spoken French easily, I could understand almost all the French I read. We followed signs for the center, and ended up at the train station. We followed signs for the center away from the train station and ended up back in the north of the city, suddenly going through a long deep tunnel. After this inadvertent driving tour of the city, we found a parking garage, parked, and got out to walk around in the cold weather.

Our first stop was the tourist office in order to pick up a map. In fact, we ended up buying an inexpensive little guide that had both a map and descriptions of the various buildings and monuments around the city. What we found most intriguing about the guide, though, was not the content, but one of the advertisements. It features a gray-haired gentleman from the chest-up, wearing what is clearly (to the trained eye) a fencing jacket. However, there is no other indication of fencing in the rest of the picture – no sword, no mask. The copy reads “Good investments have character,” and “Decisive action and properly timed investment decisions: these are the prime prerequisites for profitable investment of assets.” Clearly, this suggests fencing, along with the photo of the man. But the effect is so subtle that I missed it the first time I flipped through the booklet. Do Luxembourgers know their fencing so well that they’d see this man and think “fencing”? I wonder.

As we browsed the guide, a horde of Japanese tourists descended on the office. Dozens of them streamed into the small room, circulated briefly, each grabbing a city map that the tourist women handed out with blazing speed, and just as quickly as they had entered, disappeared out the door and around the corner, ready for a day of intensive sight-seeing. Ben and I took things more leisurely. We wandered amongst the streets and to the battlements along the cliffs that had stayed would-be conquerors from taking the fortress that became the city of Luxembourg. It was Monday, so the museums were closed, and it was cold out. So after lunch in a restaurant we found through narrow old passages and up some stairs, we went back to the car for the long drive home.