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[Luxembourg 2005 Presidency of the Council of the European Union]
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Being a Luxembourger

Desperately seeking consensus

Fête nationale ,
ZoomFête nationale

They are not very numerous. This is the main thing everybody knows about them. They are not numerous, yet their country is the European Union member state that has enjoyed the strongest demographic development in recent years. (A touch of paradox characterises the local gastronomy.) There has been no spectacular baby boom resulting from a power-cut to overstretch the local maternity wards, nor a new tax-incentive to have a third child, but reinforcements quite simply keep arriving from countries near and far. Not numerous - which makes them scarce. More pointedly, you might say: Luxembourgers have scarcity value, which might explain their reputation for affluence. Roughly, they might be described as "not numerous, but affluent". Hardly surprising, since the poor have always outnumbered the rich.

How are we to explain the steady increase in the population if we take into consideration the mathematical principle which states that the greater the number of parts, the finer the parts? Let us solve the mystery with the help of the above-mentioned paradox. Assuming that the cliché "scarcity value" has any meaning, it would certainly not be sufficient to explain, even sketchily, the special features of a population attached to its traditions - its identity and its language - but induced, not always willingly, to melt into a world where globalisation and attempts at standardisation leave little room for exceptions, erase peculiarities, ignore susceptibilities and despise the small. It cannot be denied, even though it is not exactly moral, that you tend to stand out more if you take up all the room, and you find it easier to be recognized if you put the others in the shade, and certainly easier to assert yourself if you are stronger.

True to their motto: "we want to stay as we are", Luxembourgers continue to insist on distinguishing themselves by not being like the others, while nevertheless being close to the others. Neither exactly the same, nor completely different, they place themselves between the two extremes of either combining all the faults of other Europeans, which would be a nightmare, or combining all their positive attributes, which would be a bad dream. And since the positive attributes of the one are considered to be faults by the others (and vice versa), making a synthesis impossible, any wish to make homo luxemburgensis a prototype of homo europaeus will prove illusory.

So is it sensible to attempt to sketch the main personality traits of a people without resorting to a catalogue of ridiculous and dangerous prejudices? From "proud Spaniard", "efficient German", "charming Italian", "jovial Belgian", "romantic Frenchman", "stolid Englishman" ... it is easy to slip into "greasy dago", "cruel Hun", "slippery Itie", "boring Belgian", "filthy frog" and "bloody limey". If the same exercise is difficult to carry out on Luxembourgers, and if they receive neither praise nor insult, it is because their history has never given them the power to leave a flattering imprint on their neighbours’ collective memory, not even by force. By the same token, they have never provoked their neighbours into feeling resentful enough to come up with a doubtful image. Thus, no decisions having been taken, one can now risk taking the decision to sketch the outlines of a typical Luxembourger.

Victor Goethe or Wolfgang von Hugo?

A glance at the map indicates that Luxembourgers live between France and Germany, on the border between the Romanic and Germanic worlds. This situation has clearly influenced the history of their country, an eventful and turbulent history which determined today’s reality (here as elsewhere). The period when they were a fortress under the control of a succession of foreign powers has endowed Luxembourgers with an astonishing adaptability and a fierce determination to maintain their independence. They have also carried over from those times a practical sense - one could even call it common sense - which has led them into an almost obsessive search for consensus.

One tangible indicator of this inborn sense of compromise can be discerned in Luxembourgers’ names. Situated as they are between their German cousins and their French neighbours, they have French first names and German-sounding family names. The first name is generally Jacques (this is an example - not everyone is called Jacques) and the family name is Schneider (this is also an example - some call themselves Schmit). So as not to fall into the trap of over-simplification (French first name, German family name, which might seem to lack originality), Luxembourgers tend to turn their first names into typically Luxembourg diminutive forms. Charles becomes Charel (which, admittedly, is not really shorter), Henry becomes Heng, Jean-Pierre becomes Jhemp, Émile becomes Mill, Pierre becomes Pit ...

Fontaine Michel Rodange ,
ZoomFontaine Michel Rodange

These are masculine examples, but women are not spared. Some parents make an effort to give their babies monosyllablic first names which cannot be shortened, just to be different. On encountering a Guy, Marc or Luc, one can deduce that their parents are real characters. The rules have occasionally been broken recently, and marriages between local people and immigrants, or between Luxembourgers old and new produce quite amazing mixtures, such as Julia Suarez-Schmit, Roby Müller-Trippollini, or Bern Ogasaka-Schneider. Not everyone in Britain is a Smith or a Jones, so why should Luxembourgers all be called Jacques Schneider? Then, of course, the insidious influence of screens both large and small can be felt here just as it is elsewhere, so there is no shortage of little Kevins and charming Zeldas.

Justifiably proud of being multilingual, Luxembourgers read (if they read them at all) Goethe and Hugo in their respective languages. They may even manage to appreciate Shakespeare in English, and naturally devour Michel Rodange, the national poet, in Lëtzebuergesch. This ability to enjoy the classics in the original language does not mean that Luxembourgers have no particular preferences. As a general rule, they like to nod off with the help of German TV channels, doze through American films, leaf distractedly through newspapers in German, listen enthusiastically to Radio Luxembourg, stroll melancholically along Belgian beaches, and are gluttons when it comes to French cuisine. They like to point out that the Luxembourg cuisine combines French quality with German quantity. They are absolutely convinced that neither the quality of the one, nor the quantity of the other can hold a candle to Luxembourg "qualantity".

When torn between France and Germany in international football matches, Luxembourgers simply support the winning side. This is not opportunism, but common sense. If the football club in Metz enjoys a good season, spectators from Luxembourg fill the stands at the Saint-Symphorien ground. If Metz languishes at the bottom of the table, they flock to Kaiserslautern. The same goes for politics in neighbouring countries. If a party close to their hearts gains the upper hand in France, they show increased interest in what is going on in that country. If that party is defeated in France, but a similar one wins on the other side of the Moselle, then Luxembourgers focus their attention on the Reichstag.

Now that the construction of a new Europe has eliminated the danger of a conflict occurring in this part of the old continent, there is no need to set Hugo against Goethe. However, it would be a mistake to reduce external influences to the two larger neighbours and forget the importance of their close relatives in Belgium. Luxembourgers are aware that across the border the inhabitants of the Belgian Province of Luxembourg call themselves Luxembourgers and refer to them, the real article, as "Grand Ducals". Even though they may like the beaches of the North Sea, admire Belgian universities, which they attend in large numbers, enjoy the astonishing beers that compete with their own, the Luxembourgers are just a little irritated when cars with red number-plates clutter up their roads at certain times of the year. They can get even more agitated every November eleventh (Armistice Day), when French motorists join Belgian ones in causing a complete snarl-up in the capital.

Luxembourgers naturally like their country to be appreciated and visited by tourists willing to part with money, but they really cannot stand it if these visitors hinder their own freedom of movement, because their love affair with the car is so exclusive that it leaves no room for rivals.

Cars are not produced in Luxembourg. On the other hand, plenty of them are bought here. Statistics show that there is more than one car per head. Every person therefore has at least one car, sometimes two, or even three (fortunately, they rarely drive them simultaneously), in a country measuring less than 100 kilometres from north to south and about fifty from east to west (or rather from west to east). The lack of domestic production leaves the buyers’ choice wide open. Chauvinism is not involved, but there are marked habits.

Trasport de voitures ,
ZoomTrasport de voitures

During the Autofestival, the showrooms are stormed by hordes of aficionados excited by the tempting new models. Although comparable phenomena can be observed in Paris, Milan or Geneva, when two million people visit the biennial show in Paris, that represents no more than a sixtieth of the French population per year. In contrast, more than 7,000 Luxembourgers run their hands over the curvaceous bodywork of the latest models from wherever, and wish to own them, especially top-of-the-range vehicles. This explains why the parking spaces, which are based on foreign standards, are rather small for the cars found here. There are said to be dozens of Ferraris registered in the Grand Duchy, but one does not get to see them. Their owners prefer to use them abroad, undoubtedly for reasons of discretion. If one wishes to have a more beautiful, sizeable and up-to-date car than one’s neighbours, one avoids any sort of arrogant behaviour, as this is "not done". Here as elsewhere, cars are visible signs of social success. However, there is less ostentation here. The acquisition of a new car may occasion a Sunday drive along the banks of the Moselle, but this is the only departure from the traditional and necessary modesty. Otherwise, Luxembourgers avoid showing off, moving house, creating a scandal, making waves, or producing any kind of turbulence. They do not aspire to be anywhere near the centre, but rather somewhere in-between.

Complicated complex

If you do not want to end your friendship with Luxembourgers, there is one blunder you should not commit: criticizing them as they criticize themselves. As amateurs of satire, biting irony, dirty tricks and leg-pulling, Luxembourgers crowd into cabarets where their bad habits and minor faults are paraded before their eyes. They do not spare themselves, but the right of ridicule is their own preserve, because the prejudices about their country that are often aired abroad irritate or even infuriate them. Nourished by a distressing ignorance of Luxembourg reality, some unjust comments spread by media not subject to proper editorial control can induce complexes.

Towards outsiders, Luxembourgers claim to be multilingual; within their own walls, they complain of being zero-lingual. Having a mother tongue limited to a few hundred thousand speakers, they are obliged to communicate with the rest of the world using borrowed languages. This leads to some embarrassment and an astonishing anxiety about speaking in public, which may explain the modesty or even diffidence of many Luxembourgers. "Audacity" and "ambition" seem a little offensive. Vaunting your merits, asserting your talents, praising your good qualities ... these are things that are not appreciated here. The expression en bon père de famille (in good household manner), which is to be found in so many contracts and legal texts, really applies to every sphere of life. But even though  they call themselves "small", this does not imply that they want to hear it from others. Besides, isn’t the duchy itself Grand?

Different without differing

It is impossible not to fall into the trap. Reading through what has been written here might lead to the impression that Luxembourgers are like this or like that. It would be easy to find examples proving exactly the reverse. In fact, the opening up of the country, the diversity of its multicultural society, regional differences, or local peculiarities all make this community into an extremely rich, multicultural society. The language itself varies according to whether people are from the north or south, both in terms of accent and vocabulary. Separated by only a few kilometres, the inhabitants of the Moselle region and the capital discern particularities beyond possible observation. The people of Oesling consider themselves more genial, those from Minette more unpretentious, those of the capital more up-to-date. The same surely goes for larger and more populous countries. We could add that many Luxembourgers have dark complexions. Or even downright black. Or have slitted eyes.

What is it that strongly unites them even when not alike? It is the certainty that they are simultaneously citizens of the world, convinced Europeans, and independent Luxembourgers. Thanks to this conviction, Luxembourgers are in no danger of disappearing. But it is also what makes it so difficult to observe them in their natural surroundings!

(Text: Claude Frisoni)

This page was last modified on : 29-12-2004

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