One of the many reasons that my wife and I were excited about our move to the Netherlands was that our visas would allow us to travel freely within the EU zone. We lined up a trip to another European country the very week our visas arrived. Going to a relatively obscure German city might not be as grand an occasion as flying to Paris, but the fact that it would entail doing something that was forbidden just a few days ago was the only justification we needed.

Aachen is just a 50-minute bus ride away from Maastricht, which in turn is a 2-hour 30-minute train ride away from Amsterdam. On a Sunday that promised lots of sunshine and little rain, we packed our bags and set out on our maiden voyage across the border. The railways here carry out a lot of repair work during summers. In order to minimize the inconvenience to daily commuters, some of the more disruptive repairs are scheduled over the weekend. Our trip happened to fall on a Sunday when extensive train re-routing lengthened our journey to Maastricht by an hour.

From Maastricht, we caught the international bus that goes to Aachen every 30 minutes. The crossing of the border itself was event-less: I wasn’t expecting a Checkpoint Charlie, but there ought to have been something more to crossing into a new country than noticing that urls on posters now ended in .de rather than .nl. The other sign was the occasional appearance of the German flag that a patriotic soul or two displayed from their houses.

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Gradually, the view from our bus window began to change. The architecture became grander, the roads wider and the cars on the road got bigger. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, but it has not been conceived on the same scale as, say, London. After two months in Amsterdam, we felt a little intimidated by a town in Germany.

By the time we got down at Aachen, it was well over 1:00 PM. In an unfamiliar place, no familiar sight exercises a greater power over hungry tourists than McDonalds. They had a veggie burger on their menu, to order which we had to resort to an awkward mix of sign-language and broken English. The apparent belief amongst the people manning the counter there was that Bitten” is that magical German word, which, if spoken with the right intonation, can bridge the gap between any language and German.

We had almost forgotten that English is not ubiquitous in Europe. The Dutch, especially in bigger cities, probably speak the best English in all of continental Europe. While the programming in TV here is meticulously subtitled (to the point that whenever an American soap refers to 911, it’s subtitled to 112 - the emergency number in The Netherlands), it is rarely dubbed. Sure there is plenty of original programming in Dutch and sometimes the narrative in shows like Master Chef USA is redone in Dutch, but most other programming - from cartoons to soaps to movies - gets aired unmolested. So while the formal English education here does not start in kindergarten, the ambient exposure to the English language begins at home at a very early age.

We ran into the language barrier once more. We were looking for a way to the main church and asking a passer by on road got us:

Judge? I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know judge.”

Asking for the Dom” worked, though it took great effort for the person to string together sentences that would register as English on our ears. A building that still stands after 1200+ years is impressive for just being there.

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But whoever said about looking for inner beauty probably had this church in mind. The intricate and colourful mosaic work on the walls and roof will make sure that you step out with a crick in your neck.

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Also, looking at the predominant use of blue and gold, it’s hard not to think of Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Starry Night.

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Most smaller cities in Europe seem to be remarkably similar in their planning. The townhall and the main market are a few minutes walk away from the town’s main church. This being a Sunday, most shops were closed. You can still window-shop and take away memories (and in my case, pictures) of things cute and strange.

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This mannequin, for example, looked like an unfinished commission for Hillary Clinton at Madam Tussauds.

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After a few hours of walking in the market, we took the bus back to Maastricht Station and braced ourselves for a long train journey back home. As the sun set, our train rushed pass small towns and tree-lined roads bathed in golden sunlight.

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We are a big fan of journeys by train but a train ride in silence, especially after a day of walking in a new city, is a wonderful thing.

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August 14, 2011