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Speaking Foreign

Augusta Treverorum may have been well connected to all the places that mattered in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, but the modern city of Trier is not particularly easy to get to. The nearest airport appears to be in Luxembourg, and it doesn’t seem to be in the “portfolio” of city-breaks provided by the main short-break specialists.  I decided that, since I only had time for a very short break anyway,  I would make a virtue of Trier’s relative remoteness and make the journey there and back an integral part of the holiday. So I decided to go by train, and booked a train-and-hotel package through I’d never travelled with them before, but I have to say that I was impressed – the journey was well planned with surprisingly easy connections, and the hotel they chose for me was well appointed, within a very easy walk of Trier station, directly opposite the Porta Nigra, with English-speaking reception staff. I’d be happy to do another city break with them again – it all worked very well.

My holiday started on Tuesday morning when I took the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi station. I changed there onto an intercity train to Luxembourg. Well, it billed itself as  an “Intercity”, but clearly that was in the sense that First Great Western trains from Hereford to London call themselves “Intercity” – yes they go through a few cities, but they also stop at all the significant oak trees over the Cotswolds.  The train to Luxembourg was much the same, as it meandered through the Belgian countryside, stopping every fifteen minutes or so. Not many people seemed to be going the whole distance – rather, it was heavily used by locals travelling just a few stops.

At Luxembourg I was absolutely shocked by the price of entry to the toilets at the station. €1.10. That’s over a pound! The most expensive penny I’ve ever spent! I know that Luxembourg is famous for its high GDP and its bankers (and look at where they’ve got us all…….) but I didn’t expect the cost of living (or rather, of peeing) to be that extortionate!

At Luxembourg I changed trains again onto a “Regional Express” train to Trier, which trundled slowly through the Luxembourg countryside and then along the banks of the River Moselle to Trier. This train was a double-decker, so I sat upstairs with panoramic views out over the countryside. The views along the Moselle were so spectacular that I put my iPad away and just looked out of the windows watching the scenery go by.

Then on Thursday I repeated the whole journey in the opposite direction, except that I got off the Eurostar train at Ebbsfleet International where I had a taxi waiting to take me the 15 minutes or so drive to my parents’ house where I was staying for a couple of nights.

The whole trip worked extremely smoothly. The only thing I found confusing was crossing so many international (and more importantly linguistic) borders in one day. All the announcements on the Eurostar were in four languages – English, French, Flemish and German. The announcements on the Intercity from Brussels were all in French, except within the city of Brussels itself, where they were in French and Flemish. The regional express from Luxembourg started off with all the announcements in French, but as soon as it crossed into Germany they switched to German. At Luxembourg station, I asked someone in French if I was on the right platform for Trier, and he answered in German. At Trier on the way back, I asked in German for directions to the platform for the Luxembourg train, and was answered in English.

Languages are not, and never have been, my strongest subject. I did both French and German at O-level, but that was 30 years ago, and I’ve spoken very little German since. My French is poor but serviceable for tourist matters, though I don’t have the vocabulary to sustain a long conversation. My German however is pretty shocking – I’ve forgotten most of the vocabulary I once had, find the grammar very difficult,  and just concentrate on trying to make myself understood rather than on getting genders and cases to agree. Plus I find it takes a couple of days to “get my ear back in” to the rhythms of a language and to have it start to come back to me – time that I simply didn’t have on this holiday. The upshot was that, unless I was very careful and thought hard about what I wanted to say before I opened my mouth, I was liable to end up doing what Christopher rather rudely used to call “talking Foreign” – i.e. speaking a rather random mixture of French, German, Italian and Spanish! “Grazie” and “si” kept slipping in unbidden instead of “Danke schön” and “ja”!

Fortunately, all of the main sites in Trier had pamphlets available in English, some to take away, others were laminated leaflets that you could use to guide yourself around the site but then had to hand back on exit. But either way, the city authorities had gone to some effort to make sure that English-speaking tourists could find their way around. The surprising exception was the Archaeological Museum – all the exhibits were labelled only in German (fair enough) but there wasn’t an English guide book available. The ticket-seller said that there was an English audio-guide available to describe some of the key exhibits, but I really don’t like those – I find you get so caught up in listening to what the audio-guide has to say that you forget to look at the other equally interesting exhibits. Plus they insisted on taking custody of your passport as a deposit for the loan of the audio-guide – no way does my passport leave my possession!

Overall, I was pleased that I managed to make myself understood – I navigated my way across five countries, explained my journey to a number of ticket inspectors, ordered some entirely acceptable meals and, crucially, remembered the German for “Where are the toilets?” and “Another glass of wine please”!

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Julia Jackson | 9 April 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    What a lovely few days – Trier is fascinating. I went there during a trip in ebout 1974 with a group from Church (we were camping in Echternacht for a few days en route between Roubaix in N France to a village in Schwabia, south of Stuttgart). I was so impressed by the Basilica – and we were lucky enough to be there when there was to be an organ recital in the evening, and the recitalist was rehearsing. I couldn’t work out how he’d actually got to the organ console – it was half way up the wall, and there were no stairs in view. I assume they must have been inside the wall itself! I’d love to go back there – all the Moselle area is gorgeous. You do manage some amazing holidays – so brave of you! I don’t think I could have done that, even when I was younger, and there’s no chance now I’m disabled!! Obviously you’re no longer snowed in – friends of ours who live 1000′ up can still not get the car out of their lane for drifts 3’+ deep – they’ve been stuck for over 2 weeks, and have only just been able to clamber over the snow to get to the road at the top of the lane. Not a lot of fun when you’re in your late 60s, but at least they were reasonably well prepared for a longish siege, and are expecting a Tesco delivery this afternoon (meeting the van at the road).

  2. Gillian | 9 April 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Hello Julia. I had something similar – the organist at the cathedral in Trier was playing Bach on Wednesday morning. I sat in the nave for quite a long time just listening to the music and looking at the architecture, to see if I could identify which bits were Roman and which mediaeval.