by Russell David
“Luxembourg? That’s not a place you visit, it’s somewhere you fly over!” Such was a typical reaction when I told people I was off to the small nation land-locked by Belgium, France and Germany. But I had my reasons. One was that, like my trip to Vienna a month previously, I had paid for a hotel room there in 2020, not been able to use it thanks to the bubonic plague, and unless I filled it before the end of 2021 I would lose my money.
The other reason was that by journeying to Luxembourg I would finally have visited all 27 E.U. countries! In 2018, on arriving back at Bristol Airport from yet another trip to Gran Canaria (a rubbish one) I noticed a poster listing all E.U. members. It was in that moment the idea struck me. I realised I’d been to 15 of the countries already, over many years, so why not set a target of doing all of them? In the spirit of the slogan on the T-shirt I got from Spiked, “Love Europe, hate the E.U.”, in a mad flurry I set about visiting the likes of Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia and more – and I loved it. That was until the governments of E.U. member states decided to go against all of their pandemic preparedness plans and crucify the travel and tourism industry in 2020 because it’d make it look like they cared about us all deeply and were ‘doing something’. (Incidentally, my travel ambition going forward is to visit at least one new country a year until the day I drop.) Who’d have guessed that the final nations I’d visit would turn into me chronicling their descent into dystopias?
The Luxembourg trip started off okay. I flew from London City Airport (a place where in one toilet four out of five hand basins are designated unsafe to use), to the tiny country’s tiny capital in a tiny plane provided by Luxair, which was considerably more pleasant than Ryanair last month. I stayed at the somewhat overpriced Novotel Luxembourg Centre.
The country’s tight rules had been tightened up further on November 1st. This followed seven deaths over the month of October where Covid was mentioned in a nation of 633,000 people. A further three people, so fewer than one in 200,000, succumbed to it during my three-night stay; the grand Covid death total for Luxembourg over the last two years is 855. Consequently, my hotel was awash with paranoia: every time you went to the hotel restaurant (called Red Square, ironically) you had to show proof that you’re double-jabbed; masks are mandatory everywhere; the remote control in my room was in a sealed envelope to protect me from harm; hand sanitiser is the most common furniture and there are instruction sheets on how to use it, perhaps in case guests mistakenly apply it to their feet. But this is a hotel where the breakfast baked beans have carrots in them and room service come to tidy your room at 8.40am. Carrots! 8.40am! Not good.
Outside Novotel’s suffocating walls was the city. According to Wikipedia, “in the 2011 Mercer worldwide survey of 221 cities, Luxembourg was placed first for personal safety, while it was ranked 19th for quality of living”. The personal safety thing may possibly explain the fact that in Luxembourg the world and his wife and her brother and his uncle and his grandchildren are all in masks. At the risk of sounding like a broken record when it comes to talking about mass masking in European cities, because I’ve done a lot of that lately, Luxembourg may be the worst yet. Probably the most grotesque sight was a large troop of schoolchildren, maybe five or six years-old, with their teachers, all completely masked up, marching along in the open air.
There are many willing pawns in this game of soft totalitarianism, but why do so many of them have to be so dumb? You see them with mask on chin puffing on a cigarette; cycling along the street with mask but no helmet; obese people masked up, oblivious of the fact that if they lost weight they would have better protection against serious illness than they would by covering their faces. The least generous interpretation would be that most people are stupid. A more generous interpretation would be that, in one of Gad Saad’s favourite phrases, they are cognitive misers, meaning that they limit their thinking. Most people are too preoccupied to spare the time to think about the veracity of lockdowns and masks, which they have in large part gone along with because they have trust in authority (see the Milgram experiment).
One wants to ask these folk where they think the breath goes when they have a mask on. Do they think that the 20 litres of carbon dioxide they expel from their lungs every minute is magicked off to some never-never land? But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Standing at the top of the gorge looking down on the valley of Luxembourg, I felt vertiginous and had to pull back from the edge. Even though there was a big barrier in front of me I couldn’t possibly go over without trying really, really hard, I took several steps backwards. Was I being as irrational as the mask-wearers? Was I being as foolish as they are?
Geologically, Luxembourg is indeed a unique place: built in and around a deep valley, most of the modern city towers way above the older properties down in the hollow. Incredible, lofty bridges span the crevice. It’s like something from a sci-fi fairytale, two time zones atop one another, something conceived in a fever dream after watching too much FW Murnau and eating too much Cancoillotte. Whereas of course it’s actually a testament to the miracle of modern engineering and the free market.
On day one I wandered round the upper part and took in the National Museum of History and Art (free and worth a visit). The staff were more relaxed than at the Grand Duke Jean Museum of Modern Art, which I visited the following day. On entrance the ma’am on the front door immediately instructed me to use the hand sanitiser, and when some chap took his mask down to blow his nose, she quickly admonished him to put it up again. Guards in other rooms watched me like hawks; the gallery’s collection of tomfoolery made by the spoilt rich was hardly worth the effort. It’s the sort of place where patrons might spend 10 minutes admiring an installation before they realise it’s something workmen left lying around.
In town I took in a bar or two, where, naturally, I needed to show proof of vaccination. I noted that down in the valley many of the attractive looking old-style taverns had closed. Were they victims of vaccine passports? It was a great shame, because getting drunk is, I find, the only way to forget about the anti-utopia we’ve been plunged into.
Ambling through the city, slightly at a loose end because there was not an enormous amount to do, I noticed a huge, snaking queue on one of the pedestrianised streets. A line for the latest 007 movie, perhaps? Was Lady Gaga on a visit? Nope, it was a massive queue for a Covid testing centre. Covid: the biggest show in town! Perhaps one could attribute much of the inhabitants’ caution to the fact that they prize social hygiene so highly here. (It’s the only place I’ve been where there are free bags for dog poo in many parks.) But of course it’s much more than that.
Public health zealots now run the world, enabled by craven politicians, an alarmist media and dubious Big Tech organisations. Having travelled to five European countries in the last 16 months, I’ve noticed the screws getting tighter, not looser. (So much for the miraculous vaccines getting us back to normal!) It’s moderate tyranny dressed up in nurses’ scrubs. The lands we thought the most civilised have enacted the most authoritarian controls. But then wasn’t this the case in the 1930s, when one of the world’s most sophisticated nations started a cataclysmic conflict?
With masks and vaccine passports required every which way you look, continental Europe is so much more stringent than England. While perhaps this is not quite a case of ‘you don’t know how lucky you are boy, back in the U.K.’, there’s certainly a difference. Over here we at least have some flinty journalists and campaigners providing some sort of resistance, and they have had an effect. The resultant difference may be akin to having one room full of raw sewage as opposed to your whole house being full of raw sewage, but in some respects we’re lucky. The resistance in Luxembourg? All I spotted was a handful of flyers stuck to walls and lampposts, one publicising a ‘Saturday for Liberty’, which is every Saturday at 2pm at Kinegswiss Park, another stating: “According to the Government, the vaccine doesn’t prevent transmission of the virus, but the vaccine passports will. Ever get the feeling you’re being played?” You get the sense they are lonely voices. In an extremely wealthy and neurotic city like Luxembourg, it can’t be much fun being poor or unvaccinated or sceptical.
I did discover one pocket of freedom, though, when I sought some solace in Notre-Dame Cathedral. Musicians and a choir were rehearsing for a performance, and there wasn’t a mask in sight. The choir belted out their songs and let their humanity rip. It was all rather glorious, yet a shame to eventually have to leave the amity of the place.
I’ve decided this will be my last foreign trip for several months, and not just because of the oncoming winter, but because the process of international travel is still not especially pleasurable and when you explore your destination it’s likely to be less than uplifting. This virus is endemic and all these restrictions do little to stop its spread; the collateral damage, meanwhile, is terrible.
Back outside on the cold and foggy November day, I trudged along an embankment, weary after a day’s touristing and beaten down by the oppressive nature of this strictly regulated city. I have very little confidence that if I was to return here in a year things will be much different – masks and other measures are too ingrained in everyday living. I watched as a Christmas market was being constructed, with a big wheel, food huts and rides for the kiddies, and it has already been announced that people will require Covid certificates to enter. What fun it will surely be. Altogether now: ho ho ho.
Find Russell David’s travel blog here.