The train sped from Belgium into Luxembourg. It was a brisk October day. We passed through some wooded hills leaves were brown. This was the Ardennes region. It was impassable to troops because of the jagged terrain – or so the French thought in 1940. I was perusing my Lonely Planet guide ‘Western Europe’ with a picture of a chap on a red moped on the front. It was not much by way of pabulum for the mind but it contained needful information. A porky chap sitting a couple of seats away on the other side of the aisle caught sight of my guide book and said something cheery in English. I understood ot of course but I do not recollect it and I dislike inventing dialogue. That is the problem, nay, one of the many problems with my travelogues. I am a stickler for the truth which is exceedingly tedious half the time.
I went over to this bloke and asked if I could join him. He was in clover. He turned out to be an American soldier. I shall christen him Esau. That is a nice random name that no one has been called since the Bible. Esau was short, dumpy and coming up to the 40 mark. He was genial and had a little brown hair towards the back of his cranium. He had been serving in Iraq and was on leave. We had a fabulous confabulation. He had been posted to Bamberg in Germany before that. He was from somewhere totally forgettable in Middle America. He treated me some of his saloon bar prejudices such as how paedophiles were the most rebarbative people of all and should be castrated. Paedophilia is a contemptible crime and should be appropriately punished but not by barbarity. Keep it in perspective and not exaggerated. Soon after that unenlightened comment we saw some girls at the far end of the carriage speaking to us. Esau commented on how sexy they were. They were speaking to people and getting collection from passengers. Eventually they came to us. It turned out they were all aged about 14. It was a delicious irony that he had been ranting about the mediaeval punishments that should be meted out to those who copulated with underage girls and he turned out to be inadvertently attracted to such girls. When they had gone he said he had not realised how young they were until they came close. It was an easy mistake to make.
The girls spoke to me in French. They were collecting money to build a swimming pool at an old folks’ home. I translated for Esau. Like most Americans he was a monoglot. He had me tell them that he was an American serviceman who had been in Iraq. I got the distinct impression that he was inordinately proud of the fact. He gave them quite a bit of money.
He was single and he asked about marrying women from various countries. I cannot remember what advice I had for him. On politics he said, ”I never vote the party I vote the candidate.” It was a worthwhile lesson in the importance of an individual candidate. He sat oddly – in a diagonal. He had had a back injury he explained. He was keen on travel which was unusual but admirable for a man of this background. He had been in Brussels in ”La Grand Place” – he pronounced the word ‘place’ in the Anglophone fashion. He was scintillated that the country we were about to visit was ruled by ”the Grand Ducky of Luxembourg”. I took a split second to realise that when he said ”ducky” he intended to say ”duke”. Plainly he had not heard of dukes.
We agreed to find a place to stay together. It was night by the time we pulled into Luxembourg. The station was abuzz and we went into the information office which pleasingly was still open despite the hour. They gave us a map and circled the place we were to lodge on it. The city has the same name as the country. As he was a soldier he ought to navigate.
We found our way through the streets in the cool night air. The buildings were not too tall but were all in a good state of repair. It seemed like a sturdy 19th century city. We passed over a deep ravine. We then crossed into the old section of the city. A hill rose abruptly. The long walk was welcome after sitting down on the train all the way from Brussels.
He slightly got us on the wrong path. But we found the place without too much grief and checked in. It was a large and spotless hostel. It was comfortable but charmless. We were in the same dorm. We went down for dinner and had a hearty nosh.
I was so glad for a few days respite from that utter arsehole in Yorkshire. Not that I am agin Yorkshire. This chap was from Brighton.
Next morning I got up bright and early. I had a good breakfast and headed out to see the city.
It was a clear but cool day. The city was very notable for being an almost impregnable fortress. People called it the Gibraltar of the north. I had been in Gibraltar only two years before and I saw the verisimilitude. There were casemates – that is to say places to put cannon in the walls of the city. The steep hill and the very deep valley made for natural defences. The mediaeval lanes were different from the modern blandness I was used to. It was a graceful city and immaculate to. I saw the rear gate of the Grand Duke’s Palace. A thin and dark skinned soldier stood there in a perfectly pressed olive green uniform.
I walked down into the valley. The river gushed by. There were endless flower beds and almost no one about. It was a tranquil and lovely city.
I went to the main square and rambled around. I took a look inside the cathedral. It was insipid as these things go. By that I mean I have seen many far more spectacular and artistic cathedrals. I caught sight of Esau but he did not see me. I hoped he was not offended that I had not suggested going around together that day.
I noticed that many of the names on the businesses were Portuguese. A few months later I met a black-bearded youth who was the future Grand Duke. That is to say Prince Guillaume. He told me that the Portuguese Luxembourgers were the loyalest to his dynasty.
I had not realised that the European Court of Justice was based there – not until I visited this tiny country,
I saw a large stone war memorial. It mentioned their men who had been killed in the Korean War.
It is a very prosperous country. It has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world and it shows in a non flashy way. I noticed a map that in the north of the Grand Duchy there is a town called ‘Trois Vierges’. How do they know there are three of them?
I checked out the porno shop across from the main station. I viewed a film and had a tug.
Later I decided to move on to Strasbourg that day. I found out the time of the train.
I wended my way back to the hostel. I ordered their shuttle to take me. I spoke to the Oriental girl reception and asked her where she was from. She responed, ”Je suit Belge d’origine Vietnamien”. She avoided eye contact as she spoke and seemed an iota resentful as if she had had to answer this question way too many times.
After a while the driver came along. The driver was a giant transvestite. The soft smile did nothing to allay my discomfort. I was the only one in the minibus but sat right in the back. She/he/it spoke in a bizarre falsetto. I tried to speak as little as possible.
I then caught the train to France.