Mon04242017

Tuesday, 24 February 2015 09:29

Geoff Thompson: Destination London

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With a million and one reasons for visiting London and even more options for things to do there, the world (or London really) was our oyster.

Well, we actually obtained an Oyster Card each so we could hop on and off public transport any time over the week-end we spent there; the only thing is that you need to calculate approximately how much to charge the card - after that it's a breeze.

We took the Luxair shuttle flight on Saturday morning, handy with just a 20-minute drive to the airport, so we were in the centre of London by 09:30. Having breakfast on board and then strolling to the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) station annexed to the airport, change to the Northern Line of the Underground at Bank, and we were downtown London.

Checking in at the hotel, freshening up and going shopping in Soho and along Oxford Street, the fun was just being there as Chinatown celebrated the Chinese New Year, loud music blared out of tannoys and restaurants while passers-by tried to take photos and videos of the Chinese Dragons performing their ritual dances and processions.

Exploring the side streets was great fun, from Carnaby Street and Old Compton Street to Berwick Street and a lot more besides. This is theatre-land, with a myriad of shows from which to choose for the evening's entertainment, as well as restaurants galore offering almost every cuisine imaginable. We settled on something new, an Indian Thali, which earned praises all round. 

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The Oyster Cards got used a lot, as did our shoe leather. I got through a few chapters in my novel I brought with me (we stocked up on reading material as well as DVD box sets too) when we went into clothes shops, but the most fascinating personally was the Rugby World Cup merchandise shop. With a massive array of rugby shirts, t-shirts and jackets, there were also accessories galore, from hats to pins and ties. With the Rugby World Cup not starting until 16 September, the run-up has well and truly started.

No attendance at sports events this trip, although I was more than tempted with Spurs at home to West Ham for the early kick-off on Sunday, but this week-end was a rest from intensive following of sports, with the 6Nations set to resume next Saturday and the Cricket World Cup having matches at night, due to it being played in Australia and New Zealand.

So a bit of culture was on the menu. All in roughly the same area, we headed for the British Museum for the afternoon on Sunday. We took the opportunity to meet up with family and see some of the exhibits. While not at extensive as the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum only displays a fraction of its collections at any one time. On the issue of time, we didn't have a week to browse everything on display in both the permanent and temporary exhibitions, so we took the advice of the museum and saw what they advised were the most important items.

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In between the Greek and Roman imposing gateways and ornate statues, as well as Cretan, there was the timeless Egyptian exhibition featuring eight mummies and sarcophagi, there was the Rosetta Stone which gave clues on how to decipher hieroglyphics, the famous ancient Lewis Chessmen chess set, an Easter Island statue and much, much more. Everyone has their favourites as well as special memories.

A wonderful afternoon of discovery and enlightenment! And still tome to sit down for a chat over a coffee. The atrium in the British Museum - with its lattice-like glass roof - made us feel at hoe as it reminded us of the Abbaye de Neumunster in Luxembourg-Grund.

How to get there: Luxair operates 6 flights daily during the week, 2 on Saturdays and 3 on Sundays

Photos by Geoff Thompson

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Tuesday, 10 February 2015 10:31

Geoff Thompson: Destination Rome

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February is traditionally associated with the cold, ice and snow, at least in Luxembourg; with the recent grey and cold weather here, many people gave been thinking ahead already regarding places to visit and explore later in the year.

One thing to remember, though, when planning ahead, is that the warmer and sunnier months attract a lot of people, mainly tourists: Rome is no different.

Instead of temperatures hovering around 0C across the Grand Duchy in recent weeks, Rome has been experiencing a comparatively and positively balmy 10-15C in early February. Particularly as Ireland were playing Italy in the Eternal City in the first round of matches in thus year's RBS 6Nations championship.

Having checked in online the previous day, Friday saw us take a 20 minute drive to Luxembourg airport, then a short hop through airport security only to discover almost half the flight were Irish travelling from Luxembourg for the match, and taking a couple of days to discover the city.

They had done what we did, planned ahead and booked early, getting good value offers from the Luxair website.

With Italian cuisine at the back of our minds for the evening, all we needed for lunch is what the friendly Luxair crew served in the form of fresh sandwich rolls, crémant, soft drinks and coffee. A nap and a read later and  we were over the Alps, their peaks thrusting their jagged snow-capped peaks through the cotton wool cloud-coverings. Stunning views!

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2 hours after taking off, we touched down at Fiumicino airport, and a 30-minute express train ride into the main Termini train station in the centre of Rome, then a short taxi ride to the hotel located close to the Colliseum, an ideal location from which to explore the city by foot, which is exactly what we planned to do, and did.

There are a couple of different ways to explore a city like Rome by foot: one is to plan using maps and the other is to wander aimlessly - we fid a mix of the two, using the former strategy to see the sights and the latter to come across restaurants. This approach certainly paid off - we explored the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus (which arguably interested me most when studying Latin and Roman History in school), Victor Emmanuel's monument, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and Raphael's tomb, the Spanish Steps, the Piazza Navona and much more.

But it was the unplanned approach to finding quaint eateries that paid the most dividends. We purposely avoided the large restaurants in full public view and explored the back streets, not too far off the beaten track, but enough to find where the locals were headed. As a result, we had the most interesting conversations in which there were hardly any common words at all, and the most delicious pizza and pasta dishes…

And we crossed the Tiber, wandered around the maze of streets in Trastevere, including coming across the square of St Francis of Assisi, and also visited the Castel Sant Angelo which was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. The building was later used by various Popes as a fortress and castle, and is now a museum.

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On the Saturday we walked more than half-way to the Olympic Stadium for the RBS 6Nations rugby match between Italy and Ireland. Although Ireland has had the upper hand most years since Italy joined the other 5 countries in the Northern Hemisphere championship, including a substantial win in Dublin last year on the way to winning the championship, last time in Rome saw the Italians triumphant.

After navigating some of the sights in the city, we paid €3 each for a return ticket on the metro (just one stop) to Flaminio (where Italy played their international rugby matches until they moved to the Olympic Stadium a couple of years ago), then hopped on a tram for 5 stops. We didn’t need to ask the way to the stadium, we just followed everyone else. As we had arrived a couple of hours before kick-off we explored the area and found a delightful family restaurant with hardly any advertising outside at all, where the pizzas cost €4-6 and the pastas €8-10. Perfect before the match!

The stadium operated a barcode system at the turnstiles; we had ordered our tickets online (through Italian, of course) and just folded our self-printed tickets to be read quickly before we were let inside. One could not avoid being impressed with the signage and access to different sections of the ground, helping to avoid queues and crowd scrums. There was even no queue at the bar just behind our block of seats. The stadium had been built for the 1990 World Cup and hosts the home games of the two Italian clubs Lazio and Roma.

It was not the greatest rugby spectacle I’ve attended, possibly as the crowd was back from the action and the atmosphere did not feel as passionate as in other stadia but it was great to see the teams on the pitch and start their 6Nations campaigns. For the record, Ireland won 3-26, with Murray and O’Donnell scoring tries in the second half.

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Sunday afternoon saw us back on the airport express and into the airport which, like Luxembourg’s, ensured little or no delay through security, so we were able to have a drink and catch up with other Irish from Luxembourg (more than half the passengers on the way back seemed to be Irish, so much so that the announcements ended up only in English by the end of the journey). Tired after the Roman adventure, we settled back in our seats, power-napping and waking just for the refreshment trolley.

For full photo album (on Facebook), see https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.664763923634916.1073741891.238112732966706&type=3

Photos by Geoff Thompson

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Wednesday, 28 January 2015 11:21

Geoff Thompson: All to Play For

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Watching the official launch of the RBS 6Nations on Wednesday morning, there is alot of rugby to be played this season.

While Luxembourg was singled out by World rugby in its review of 2014 as the team that rose the most number of positions in the World Rankings, attention now switches to the 2015 RBS 6Nations tournament that kicks off with Wales hosting England in Cardiff next Friday 6 February, followed by Italy hosting Ireland and France hosting Scotland on the Saturday.

Many observers, fans, players, coaches and administrators in the game, and not just of the 6 teams participating, will be keeping one eye on the Rugby World Cup that is being hosted by England this September and October. But the 8 clubs left in the European Rugby Champion's Cup will be on hold for just over two months until they can get back on the field wearing their club colours during the first week-end in March.

A new trophy was unveiled at the event screened live from the Hurlinghan Club in London; the 5Nations became the 6Nations in 2000 when Italy joined France and the Home Nations. The original trophy was commissioned in 1993 and still represents the 5Nations, but today a new trophy represents all six participating nations - visibly much more modern than its predecessor - and was presented and is to be claimed for the first time by this year's winner. The new design keeps a vital element of the history of the Championship by transferring the names of past winners onto the band of the plinth, with space for future winners. The new Trophy is made from 7kg of silver, stands at 75cm high and is adorned with a gold-plated '6' in both handles and a rugby ball and crown device on the lid finial.

The RBS 6Nations is the best-attended rugby event in the world, with an average attendance of a staggering 72,000 per match. In addition, RBS 6 Nations matches are broadcast in more than 190 countries and streamed live in another 20, making the RBS 6 Nations the most watched annual rugby Championship on the planet.

So, 6 week-ends until 21 March are going to be consumed by eating, drinking and watching the events unfold on and off the pitches until the final whistle goes. Will it culminate in a finale such as in 2014 when Brian O'Driscoll's last match in an Irish jersey concluded in such dramatic fashion with Ireland claiming the 2014 RBS 6Nations championship?

FORM GUIDE

England: their game is still based on power rather than skill, but individual players can make the difference. Will be in the shake-up for top position if Ireland falter

France: poor performance last year, where they kept the best for their final game against Ireland; inconsistency with half-back selection and performance; growth in domestic league could spell doom for emergence of young domestic players

Ireland: champions and coming off the back of a very good autumn international series; many good players coming back from injury; with France and England at home, the Aviva crowd could spur them to regain their title; coach Joe Schmidt is arguably the most canny and shrewd in the world game

Italy: not much expected from the Italians this year despite the huge growth of the game across the country; but they still have man-machine-motivator Sergio Parisse

Scotland: north of the border there is a new-found belief with new coach Vern Cotter on board; they will improve and could achieve a mid-table placing

Wales: played poorly in autumn internationals; unrest with administration of the game, but gettign resolved with central contracts; Coach Warren Gatland still a class act

Photo: the RBS 6Nations trophy being presented to Ireland in 2014

Thursday, 08 January 2015 09:33

Geoff Thompson: Charlie Hebdo

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With 12 people dead, including two police officers, and another four fighting for their lives in hospital, yesterday's attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly publication that is known for lampooning Islam and other religions, has been described as the most deadly militant attack on France in decades.

The satirical weekly, which was founded in 1969 and named after General Charles de Gaulle, was first threatened by Islamists when it published 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad from the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten in 2006.

The suspects have been named as brothers Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, French nationals in their early 30s, and 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad. They are understood to have links to a Yemeni terrorist network. One was identified by his identity card which had been left in the getaway car. The youngest of the three had since turned himself in at a police station in Charleville-Mézières, near the Belgium border.

Tens of thousands of French nationals held candle-lit vigils on the Place de la République, near the scene of the massacre, as well as in Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse and other French and European cities. Today, journalists in Luxembourg will gather at the Place Clairefontaine in Luxembourg city in a show of solidarity. In fact, many people here have already posted pictures and messages on social media with the "Je suis Charlie" show of solidarity with the victims and support for press freedom.

This is certainly one primary issue at stake here, the other being that of fundamentalist Islamists. The recent rise of Islamic State and support for it from, in particular, young people from western countries who are drawn to going to countries in the Middle East to help in their fight for their beliefs - which are fundamentally different to ours in Western Europe - is a corncern of Western governments and security forces.

There have been clashes of religious differences for a long time, with the Crusades in the Middle Ages a time when idealogies clashed. And there have been other instances too through history, when Western countries have explored the world and forced their religion on locals, be it in South America, Africa, etc... But today we are supposed to be living in a world of greater understanding and toterance, of acceptance, of living side-by-side. And for most of the time we are, but how far under the surface are such tensions?

Luxembourg has been very tolerant, even to the extent of being particularly welcoming, to non-nationals, with almost 50% of the 550k population now being non-Luxembourgish, with another 160k cross-border workers arriving daily. Luxembourg city already has more non-nationals than nationals as residents. We may be asking for a greater democratic voice in being able to vote in national elections, but yesterday's attack and carnage puts this all in the shade and into perspective.

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We would like to personally wish all the readers and supporters of The Luxembourg Chronicle (Chronicle.lu) a wonderful Christmas and prosperous New Year.

2014 has seen a consolidation of the Chronicle.lu brand while we have adapted successful event models to increase the number of activities we have been organising. Thank you for your support!

2015 will see us expand our range of products even more and we look forward to communicating with you about these...

In the meantime, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Geoff Thompson and the Chronicle.lu team

 

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Compared to Perth in Western Australia, Melbourne in Victoria - with a population of over 4 million - is a sprawling metropolis with a significant challenge of vehicular congestion on its road network; in the city, a public bicycle scheme is in operation but the take-up has been poor, primarily as all cyclists are obliged by law to wear helmets but few people are comfortable wearing helmets worn by others.

There may be a tram network and a fairly decent train system, but it is the road network that is buckling under the strain of volume. The main thoroughfares are wide and have plenty of lanes, but adding more lanes is not the answer, as this would simply encourage more vehicles into the city which is ill-equipped enough to deal with current traffic numbers. There are no grants available for purchasing low-emission vehicles, and nothing has been done to encourage the reduction of CO2 emissions and congestion, the two main issues. There is also a lack of photovoltaic cells and wind turbines here, although other parts of Australia have adopted such eco-friendly solutions.

Upon saying (writing) that, it does offer spectacular wildlife. Although, it does depend on where one goes. Yes, there are wallabies and kangaroos to be seen, particularly at dawn and at dusk (as they are nocturnal), but it is the birdlife in the foothills to the east of the city that stands out. Apart from the odd kookaburra, there are plenty of ibises and ducks, not to mention cockatoos, galahs and any number of parrots. These are best observed out walking in areas where there are plenty of trees - these do not have to be of the many eucalyptus varieties.

The magpies here are different from the European variety, as well as other bird species too. Particularly in the evenings (long evenings - remember, it's summertime in Oz now) the cacophony of tweeting has nothing to do with social media... And the sound of rain falling on the corrugated metal rooves takes some getting used to too.

A short flight to Tasmania - to Launceston in the north rather than Hobart in the south - in the same time as it takes to get from Luxembourg to LondonCity. The one slightly strange this is that, as Launceston only serves domestic flights to various other cities on the Australian mainland, there is no passport control and the public has access to the baggage carousel area which is located by the check-in desks, the car hire companies and the security controls for departing flights. All-in-one.

In some way it strikes one as quite quaint, as if lost in some time warp somewhere along the way. This image is maintained when we drive into the town which is partly wild-west, partly old-time. Progress is apparent, however, with blocks demolished to make way for new constructions, yet not everyone is doing well as evidenced by the number of retail units closed (permanently) for business.

Tasmania can be compared to Luxembourg in some ways: it's total population is just over 500k, with 200k in Hobart and 100k in Launceston. The state is the poorest in the Australian commonwealth, with economy primarily tourism, agriculture and energy. While the cities are at sea level, the highlands are over 1,000 metres high, which is where the myriad of lakes are, from which waterways they produce hydro-electricity and export much of it via underwater cables to Victoria on the mainland.

But these lakes, and many rivers too, contain trout - mainly brown but also many rainbow - which are an angler's paradise. We just had four full days fishing there, so we made the most of the opportunity. We had our 4WD, our chest waders and our tackle - rods, reels, flies, line, nets and sun block. The wind was blowing strong during the daytime but this hides the fact that the sun's rays can cause damage to one's skin, even in overcast conditions. At times we looked like Australian cricketers, certainly helped by having a name like mine.

We were up at around 04:00 daily, to get the morning rise. Fishing the Mayfly in December was admittedly quite strange but, remember, this is summertime Down Under. The Mayflies here are slightly smaller than their European cousins, and dark brown instead of light yellow. But the trout in Tasmania certainly like them...

In getting to the lakes at that time of the morning, we were driving along primarily non-asphalt surfaces, with some off-road escapades too. These roads, in particular, are where the wallabies and kangaroos come out of the bush for their nocturnal feeding and drinking in the marshes and streams. Kangaroos are more particular in their diet and compete with sheep for grazing pastures; that's why the farmers don't care for them. Meanwhile, wallabies are less fussy and can be found in less fertile areas, often rocky and in relatively barren areas. The trick was to avoid hitting one as they bounced across and along the roads. When we parked we often had a couple of kilometres of bush, scrubland, marsh and other terrain to cross before we got to the fishing lakes we wanted to fish.

It was interesting to learn too that some of the rock on Tasmania is basalt which leads to vertical formations similar to those found on the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. Tasmania used to have nickel and gold mines, but they have since closed and all that remains is a Mine Museum. On a similar thread, we were staying in a place named Miena which is basically a collection of huts (shacks as they are termed locally) in the hillsides overlooking one of the bays of the Great Lake. In the evenings, we had a choice of two establishments at which to have a meal and a drink, both reminded me of the scene in the Crocodile Dundee film which Paul Hogan and friends frequented...

Rabbits are prevalent too in the Tasmanian highlands, and we glimpsed a number of deer too. While there was no sign of the Tasmanian Devil, and the last Tasmanian Tiger was sighted around 2010, we were left with sightings - some up close and personal - of echidnas (which look like a cross between a hedgehog, a porcupine and an anteater (re the snout), wombats (hitting one of those while driving could seriously wreck the car, like with adult wild boar back in the Grand Duchy) and platypus. Yes, we came across a couple in the highland lakes as they swam in the shallow water near their bank-side holes, as we were walking along the banks, searching for fish by polaroiding.

In other lakes we waded out, also sight-fishing, with the sun at our backs - it takes some getting used to that while the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, it travels to the north, not south - with swans (black with white wing tips, and some with cygnets), moorhens, musk dusks (which have some resemblance to turkeys yet act more like otters in splashing water continuously, while on the backs) and many other water fowl to boot. And then there were the wedge-tailed eagles which caused such a commotion on the water when they flew past...

We also got to go shark fishing in the highlands; not for sharks, but for trout. On the Great Lake, when the wind blows from a certain direction and the sun is behind you, and certain insects are hatching, you can drift across the foam slicks, again polaroiding for trout that come up from the deep and appear to be cruising like sharks, searching for particular beetles that have been blown out from the trees a few kilometres upwind.

Yes, we did get a few fish, all good sizes and all in superb condition. Apart from a couple kept for the pan, all were returned alive, to live and fight another day. And there was the one that got away...

Back in Victoria, we also got the chance to go snapper fishing in the bay off Melbourne. No big ones that day, but we got a few "pinkies", small pink snapper with some of them above the size limit and eligible for the pan, as well as flathead, almost a flatfish. With plenty of birds on the quay, it was the pelicans than provided the most interest that day.

Back in Luxembourg we certainly do have much wildlife to behold, from buzzards to migrating cranes, as well as the odd snake, to deer and wild boar, pine martens and the like, but down under it is another world altogether.

Photos by Geoff Thompson

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Planning for a long-haul need not be that onerous; just think of the basics and you'll be fine: ensure you're hydrated, try and exercise when you can, and try to assimilate to the different time zones.

Flying via Luxembourg via London (Heathrow) and Dubai en route to Australia does take some planning. Once the tickets were arranged I needed to ensure my passport was valid enough - just three months, not the six months I feared - and I then arranged an online visa. So far, so good. Also in the back of my mind was my main concern of being in air conditioning environments for almost 30 hours, so I made a mental note to enure I wore a long-sleeved shirt and a jumper - for at least part of the trip.

Then the trip itself. Online check-in the evening beforehand, arrival at the airport and check in by luggage a go through Luxembourg airport security - never a problem there at all. Then the first leg, a simple 1hr25mins to London Heathrow, change terminls which meant some walking (good) and a bus ride.

The second leg was with Qantas, 6hrs 55mins to Dubai. It was fine. I had an aisle seat, with the seat beside me empty. I got out my book and read a few chapters, nodded off for a while, had a bite to eat (not very appetising) and read some more, and nodded off again. My jumper had by now made its way to my cabin luggage. We were approaching warmer climes.

We reached Dubai just after 08:00 and, like in Heathrow, I had just over 2 hours between flights. I had considered stopping over somewhere en route to down under - in the past this has included (on separate trips) Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore - but this time I was travellign along so I decided to get the trip done in one, in 5 minutes under 28 hours.

Dubai airport was impressive, with its legendary shopping the first thing to see. At that time of the morning it was not too busy, but even in the air conditioning it was quite warm and humid. I freshened up in the bathroom and found where next flight departed from, before my brain reminded me to try and walk around as much as possible in advance of the 3rd and final leg of the trip, a 13hr 20 min flight to Melbourne, Australia.

This time I was assigned to a window seat but the gods were smiling down on me as I discovered that it was beside an emergency exit so I had great leg room and the possibility to get up and down without disturbing anyone else. And noboldy else would be disturbing me...

The only thing, though, was that my internal body clock was going haywire. I gave up trying to calculate what time it was back at home and focused on what time it was at the airports in which I was transiting. So, on the long long-haul flight I managed to sleep for the first 90 minutes, then stay awake for the next 5-6 hours, then sleep for the next 5-6 hours (more-or-less ok) and then wake up in time for breakfast and landing an hour later. With Emirates I must say the level of service was a step above the previous two flights, in service, food, entertainment (there was a decent collection of films, etc., available on demand), etc. But it was the extra space and comfort offered by the Airbus planes, as against Boeing 747s, that made the real difference. At least for passengers. Upon talking with one of the flight attendants while waiting to disembark, he explained that for the crew, they have more space on the Boeings...

So, by the time I arrived Down Under, I really did not know what day of the week it was, or what time. The 24+ hour trip started on a Wednesday and ended on a Friday. We left Luxembourg with snow on the ground and arrived to 22C and sunshine. And I had survived the air conditioning without picking up a cold, not the best way to start a break.

By the end of the first day Down Under I was flagging, but I held out - just - until after dinner and then hit the sack. An afternoon stroll up to the nearby water tower and along the country lanes certainly helped too. I don't remember my head hitting the pillow, but I do remember waking up at 03:15. Luckily I got straight back to sleep and woke up at 07:00. Mission accomplished: From Luxembourg to Australia in a hop, skip and a jump; without a headcold and over the jetlag. Now for the kangaroos...

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With the Luxembourg city Christmas Market up and operational, as well as the annual International Bazaar now behind us - also, the Anglican Church choir and Intermedii will perform Handel's Messiah - Christmas is well and truly on the way here in the Grand Duchy

While the temperatures have indeed plummeted in recent days, hovering just above freezing point, it has not yet begun to snow. But many shops have been starting the Christmas run-up once Hallowe'en had finished - and some had actually started beforehand - and the christmas Coca Cola ad is now being screened on some tv stations during commercial breaks.

But it is the active, as opposed to passive, involvement one has that truly signifies the run-up to Christmas, a time of sharing and of and for families. For those who went along to LuxExpo at the week-end for the annual Bazaar International, this annual event is about many things: the inderlying issue is about charitable giving, but is achieved via providing a cheerful environment that is truly representative of what Luxembourg stands for - multiculturalism.

Not only can one purchase different foods from around 50 countries spanning the globe, and eat them on the spot, but one can mix and match to one's heart's (and stomach's) content - for example, with a starter in Bangladesh, a main course in South Africa, a glass of wine in Luxembourg and a dessert in Lebanon, finished off by a coffee in Ireland...

And then there are the Christmas presents, represented by arts and crafts from many, many different nations, and browsing the book stand, but it more the meeting and catching up with friends, some we see almost every week, but some we would see only only a year, at the International Bazaar.

The Luxembourg city centre Christmas market is now in full swing; this is the third year that it can not only be found around the Place d'Armes and Place du Paris, but also on the Place de la Constitution, with the giant windmill and illuminated Big Wheel visible from afar.

Parking in the city centre is now even more difficult during the evenings than during the daytime, such is the popularity and attraction of this event, not just with the magnetic draw of mugs of gluwein and lots to eat, but of Christmas cheer and good will, of people wanting to forget their trials and tribulations, and ejoy the good things.

With St Nicholas due to arrive in a few days' time, and Santa Claus in just over three weeks' time, it is not only the children in the Grand Duchy awaiting Christmas in eager anticipation...

Photo: Crown Prince Guillaume and Crown Princess Stéphanie

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With the American community here celebrating Thanksgiving last Friday evening - Thanksgiving proper is this coming Thursday - it's a (calendar) sign that we're closing in on the end of the year.

While Thanksgiving is one form of giving thanks for the harvest - in the British Isles the Churches lead the way with their services of Harvest Thanksgiving, usually in September or October - the traditional celebration in the US of a turkey dinner centred around family and friends is traditionally followed by the tv viewing of a college football game.

Not that non-Americans need John Cleese's parody of American Football (where he berates the use of the word "foot" in a game where the ball "and it's not even round" is passed by hand) to remind us of the differences between sports.

Here in Europe, the Autumn (rugby) Internationals are coming to a close. These are where traditionally the teams from the Southern Hemisphere, notably the big guns of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, as well as Argentina, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, have been joined this time round by Georgia and the USA, playing against teams in the 6Nations championship (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy).

While these internationals are friendlies, they are eagerly anticipated: by all teams/unions because of the financial benefits, by the visiting teams as it will be the last time they will be in European before the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England that starts in September, and by the European sides as it gives them an opportunity to see where they are in relation to the big guns, as well as to experiement with some fringe players and build a squad, and also for the fans as it provides a feast of top-class rugby to watch, and debate.

While two matches remain next weekend, with Australia finishing their tour at England and South Africa play in wales, the others have all come to an end. So, what have we learned?

England, the RWC hosts, must be disappointed having only won one out of three so far and have doubts with their half-back combinations; Wales under Warren Gatland have wilted from their success under the Kiwi of a couple of seasons ago and have faced turmoil from the clubs and regions regarding players' contracts; Scotland are seeing an upsurge in fortunes under new coach Vern Cotter and put up a very courageous performance against New Zealand last week-end; Ireland claimed two Souther Hemisphere scalps under perfectionist / inspirational coach Joe Schmidt and have climbed to the dizzying heights on 3rd in the world rankings; France are suffering from the influx of foreign players in to their national league and their side short on flair and guile lost at home to Argentina; whereas Italy appear to be in yet another phase of redevelopment.

But the most interesting is the build-up to Pool A in the RWC, where three into two just won't go. England, Australia and Wales have been drawn in the same group, along with Fiji and Uruguay. With no disrespect to the latter two teams, the other three are currently ranked 5th, 4th and 7th respectively, but one of them will not make the quarter-finals. While it would be inconceivable that the hosts, England, will not qualify, that means that the loser of the Australia - Wales game (crucially, to be played at Twickenham, not Cardiff) will most likely be leaving the tournament early...

But, before than, and without looking at any of the other permutations, a lot of rugby is to be played, Squads will change as injured players come back, other players may get injured, the 6Nations championship is being played in February-March and the Rugby Championship will be in July and August.

For now, though, the teams and players are starting to recover from the exertions of the last few weeks and attention with turn back to club tournaments and looking to the future.

Yep, back to the future, again.

Photo by Geoff Thompson: Ireland - South Africa, November 2014

autumn-road-GT-600

Mid-morning last Friday, 31 October and Hallowe'en, the end of a relatively quiet week and it didn't look as if there was going to be any rush of work coming in before the week-end, and nothing was scheduled for later that day.

OK, time to sort out the car. I had received notification that my trusted mode of transport - which had recently made it back from Dublin, heavy laden - was due its first visit to the Controle Technique. As we live to the west of the city, I was invited to attend the centre at Esch-sur-Alzette; nothing wrong with that, in fact the queues there are traditionally much shorter than at Sandweiler - the problem was the date and time. I was in the middle of the Irish Sea at that stage, making it a tad difficult.

So, before I left, I consulted the SNCT website a number of times to try and chamge the appointment, to discover (initially) that there were no free slots until November and, when I checked last week, the first slot available was for December.

Sod this for a lark, I thought. I decided to go down on spec and I ensured I had all the documents and I had cash on me, in case any card reader was malfunctioning - I really didn't want to have to go a second time. I even checked that they would be open during lunchtime, which they were. I prepared for the trip and supplied myself with a drink and even a book, fearing the queues ahead.

No traffic along the way, I looked for the start of the queue. The lane for "sans rendevouz" was blocked off so I joined the one queue which had maybe a dozen vehicles in front (note this was to the first check-point, after which there was a second queue, to go indoors for the main tests). Cutting the motor between stop-starts, it took maybe 20 minutes to reach the first human interaction. I handed over the documents and was asked about my appointment time. Using my best (or worst) French, I explained the situation but there was no budging the state employee - only by appointment.

However, he did check online and discovered that there was an appoitment that had become available in an hour and 40 minutes time, in Weilerwiltz, up the north of the Grand Duchy. Even though it was 87km away (I only found this out when tapping the address into the SatNav when getting back into the car), I grabbed the opportunity as I just did not want to have to come back again, and I felt I had time so I got him to enter my car's registration number into the computer system.

Weilerwiltz may not be as far north as Clervaux, Marnach, Weiswampach or Troisvierges, but it's still a good drive. With one short drop-off on the way of something I had been meaning to do for a while anyway, it took me all of the time allowed to get there just in the nick of time, and just three vehicles in front of me, for the first control anyway. Handing in my documents I was allocated a lane and duly pulled up. I spotted a sign and availed of the loos - it was now three hours since I had left home that morning. Another half an hour and I called up.

To my amazement, I was asked if I wanted to speak English, and I had a great chat with the chap operating the left of the sole two lanes available. I had wondered what he had been doing in the back of other cars ahead of me in the queue, and now I undersood; he was just checking if the seat belts actually worked. No checking the number of reflective vests or the triangle, as on a previous visit with another vehicle. Then all the standard checking of lights, brakes, undercarraige, etc., and that was that. I parked, paid and got my certificate for the next 12 months.

But that is when it finally hit me, the incredible beauty of the countryside in the north of the Grand Duchy. I set the SatNav again, ensuring that I would not have to go back through the city and instead go a more direct route home, alomng a different route. I let the SatNav direct me and I seemed to be dissecting every main road around me as I went cross-country, literally, until I got no near Esch-sur-Sure. The autumn colours were stunning in the early afternoon sunlight and I went up over hilltops and down through vales, along boreens (small roads, tracks) that at times only seemed to be wide enough for a wheelbarrow.

I went through villages I've never visited, let along heard of, saw windfarms and drove through spacious agricultural country with herds of cattle without a care in the world. Hardly any other cars on the roads, nor tractors or other farm verhicle for that matter, and the air was still and the afternoon haze captivating. I lost count of the hairpin corners I navigated, but I was calm and relaxed as I took in the magnificent countryside in its full autumnal spendour - the incredible silver lining in the frustrating attempts to get my car through the contole technique.

Five hours after I left the house mid-morning, I returned home. Thankfully the feared avalanche of emails had not materialised... Mission accomplished.

Photo by Geoff Thompson

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