Saturday, January 07, 2017

Buxom girl in Luxembourg

Spending warm summer days indoors
Writing frightening verse
To a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg

– The Smiths, Ask

For thirty years I've thought Morrissey was writing frightening verse to a buxom girl in Luxembourg. The evening before we left, we played the song – literally, the only cultural reference to Luxembourg we could think of – and I heard buck-tooth girl for the very first time. I was pretty disappointed.

'Discover the unexpected Luxembourg' the tourism ads at the airport told us but we had no idea what to discover expectantly let alone unexpectedly. We'd failed to locate a guidebook or city map. We didn't know anyone who had been there. All we did know was a quick Wikipedia search: a tiny, mainly rural, country (1,000 square miles) with a tiny population of 500,000 landlocked in between Belgium, Germany and France. A Portuguese work colleague told me 16% of the population was Portuguese. We knew Luxembourg City, the capital, was a centre for the EU and business (no corporation tax for a start). That was it. We were going simply because we hadn't been there.

With flight time less than an hour from London (that day it had taken us over two hours to get into central London to see an exhibition, a distance of seven miles; a combination of cancelled trains and broken buses ensured it being a painful and time-consuming journey) it's a perfect place for a weekend getaway. We knew it was going to be a good trip as soon as we saw the officials at passport control, laid back and laughing. Laughing! When have you ever seen passport control laughing?

Our hotel was near the airport and after snacking in the buffet – I had two helpings of cold meats and fish followed by eight desserts and a cheese platter – we went to bed early to wake up early to explore Luxembourg City. The hotel receptionist informed us buses were free on Saturday, but for us they were free every day. Attempts to pay – including rehearsing in French 'Je voudrais un billet pour le jour s'il vous plait' – were met with a cursory wave of the hand by bus drivers, so we hopped on and off without paying all weekend.

Buses full of Turkish refugees sped past us as our bus drove past roadworks, construction sites, banks and office blocks into the city. Was this the unexpected or the expected Luxembourg? We weren't sure. Once in the city itself, this is what we were expecting: churches and turrets, coffee shops and ancient bridges. We soon unexpectedly came across a large gorge where the UNESCO World Heritage old city nestles amongst the two rivers that run through it. The rocky medieval fortifications of the gorge surround the town with walls, ramparts and caves where once the old fortress stood (before it was demolished).

Every step of the way we couldn't help comparing the city unfavourably with London. From the clean air, spaciousness and ultra-efficiency of the city; to the buildings designed with people and pleasure in mind rather than business and money; to everything running on time; to the people being polite and friendly; to the old buildings tastefully blending with modern extensions (in other words, the mix of old and new actually working); to the beautifully designed free magazines in all the civilised cafes serving perfect coffee and lovely cakes; to the skate park and the pedestrianised roads; it all seemed to be there for people. Everything was easy – transport, buildings, art. it was all there for people to enjoy, relax, be at peace.

(I know, I know, we were on holiday and Luxembourg is the second richest country in the world with a tiny population; London has 9 million people but, even so, London feels like a dirty machine. Its purpose is to make money, and we're all making it, and toiling and striving to make it every day but – it's for other people. Other people, businesses, corporations, governments are making the money, not us. Nothing's built for pleasure – or if it is, it's controlled and contrived and a corporation is making money from it.)

Most of all, we loved walking and adventuring – and did it twelve hours a day. It's a great city for exploring, from the underground caves and viaduct with the skate park below it, to the museums, art galleries and beautiful buildings, old and new. We loved Picasso's hiboux (that's French for owls) in the free exhibition of his animal art at the L'Institut fran├žais du Luxembourg – jugs, plates, etchings, collages. We loved the Christmas market and the pedestrianised streets (complete with unexpected homeless people). We loved gate-crashing a gallery opening in an abandoned building and ordering the free wine in French. We loved that design was thought about here, that form followed fuction, that nature – trees, water – were close by and abundant.

Towards evening, wandering around the old town we noticed numerous young people carrying musical instruments, from drums to clarinets. Then we started hearing sounds all around the valley: the lone wail of a trumpet, the reedy caressing of a clarinet. Drummers lined up along the river. Saxophone players appeared in a rose garden. Trumpeters in the caves of the valley. It was a (classical, experimental) rock concert, of sorts, in the rocks, on my birthday (my girlfriend's last birthday funnily enough also involved a rock concert – of sorts: a free classical musical concert at Helsinki's famous rock church, Temppeliaukio – literally, a church chiseled out of rock), performed by students of the local music college as a rehearsal.

If we hadn't been staying out of town we probably wouldn't have known anything about the Kirchberg area. As it was we passed it every day on the bus and decided to explore the area in the evening, and then the following morning. Although predominately a slightly sterile business and residential area, it also contains the Philharmonie concert hall, the Mudam museum of modern art (showing Wim Delvoye, our new favourite artist we'd never heard of) and Fort Thungen; all extraordinary buildings definitely worth a visit. At night it felt like walking on the set of a sci-fi film, but not an apocalyptic or dystopian one, rather a pleasant one, and nicely lit. And inside the concert hall – again, it's using space and light in a creative, relaxing way so it doesn't feel cramped or busy. All in all, a breath of fresh air.

Photos on Flickr here

Previously on Barnflakes:
Mishearing Dylan

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

My daughter’s top ten films (aged 10)

1. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton, 2016)
2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009)
3. Nine Lives (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2016)
4. Star Wars: Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016)
5. Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne, John Stevenson, 2008)
6. Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore, 2014)
7. My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
8. Jurassic World (Colin Tervorrow, 2015)
9. Zootropolis (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, 2016)
10. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)

Previously on Barnflakes:
Notes on Harry Potter