Behind the grand drapes of the Luxembourgish village

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 13.04.2018

There are no villages in the United States. There are many species of town, like boomtowns, ghost towns, and college towns—the town family extends to New England enclaves and cowboy outposts, Californian pueblos and bayou parish-seats, Midwestern lakesiders and Catskill sleepers. But none of these is a village. A village is something so old that it grows from the land, with a mossy church and a hive memory far deeper than the sum of its inhabitants’ minds, and no settlement in North America properly qualifies. If you meet an American, don’t ask him what village he comes from—the idea will unnerve him, as if he hasn’t been born yet. Don’t speak to her either of a “new” village, for she may doubt her understanding of new and old altogether, and conclude that all time and life is meaningless.

No: the village is medieval. The village is a stage. I grew up outside a rusty, dragonish town in the Great Lakes Basin, in a suburbia of leafy culs-de-sac and PTA meetings and street hockey. Us, its inhabitants, I’d describe as enterprising and changeable. You could nick a new style off TV and define yourself by it as much as you could own your career or your heritage as “style” of another kind. People respected all that. If you were unhappy with your life, you were expected to rove forth to try another town. This inherently makes the town not a stage, for stage is universe: it’s closed and complete, its stories begin and end upon it and exist nowhere else.

Once, on a family holiday to England to visit my sister during her teaching fellowship at some horrible little school there, my mother dragged us into the Cotswolds. There was no fathoming such a place, for “Cotswold” was, to me, just another morsel of British nattering nonsense, verbiage as dewy and foreign as the foliage. My brother and I strongly protested on the grounds that we had Pokémon to catch on our Gameboys, an argument that intensified into hot, bald recalcitrance when we saw where my father had parked the car: on a grassy verge that bordered on farmland and brackens and gorse… and nothing else! Brightly and blithely my mother hopped out and bid us follow her, to conquer the bundle of thatched houses and tithe barns up the road. This she proposed to do only by walking, which would have amused me had I not been so ludicrously inconvenienced by having to join her. But I have since realised that my mother was searching for the village, elusive progenitor of the town, strange mole on the Old World’s thigh, lost stage. In America, the next oldest thing beyond a colonial town is a copse of oak trees or a field of twinberry flowers—so, perspective-wise, we lack the depth perception to separate the village from nature itself. Did my mother find it, in its murky, histrionic sense, that day? If so, only for one hot afternoon, surrounded by her whining family.

I remember when my fiancée (then girlfriend) first showed me her village, tucked among the grassy wavelets of the Gutland. At least, she insisted it was a village. But it was too new, only two centuries old. I didn’t trust her, fully, not knowing what sort of origin-place this really was. I supposed she erred in her terminology, that this was of course no village but a pre-Schumanic neoclassical hamlet or some such community—because, indeed, this “village” was run through with modernity, the most unvillatic of elements: Volkswagen hybrids were parked on its streets, cyclists in athletic costume zipped through on lightweight aero bikes. People sat on designer Norwegian sofas and watched Netflix! They weren’t formed by the timeless, breathy wind whipping off those hillside lips any more than I sprang out of Lake Huron dressed in freshwater algae. I must admit, I was disappointed.

But she kept insisting that a Duerf is a village and a village a Duerf, so I knew I had to reconcile this with my fogbound and fantastic expectations, which, I began to realise, had been formed largely by Hobbiton and Hogsmeade. But how?

After reading up a little on medieval villages, I now reckon that we New Worlders are still getting meat off the bones of an outmoded concept of the village that we brought over with us but have added no new empirical evidence to. We forged our towns instead, relegating the village to static cobwebs of memories, then legends, then fables. But in parallel, the village was always changing. Villagers don’t fear the evil magic of indoor spaces anymore, or drive pikes into the doorways of neighbours they’ve agreed to banish. A paper on Elizabethan country settlements showed that their bylaws mostly addressed things like annual ploughland redistribution, votership on communal holding issues, or fines for anyone doing work on an outside farmstead. Villages were disparate microsocieties occupied with securing the fruits of their own land, curtained to the outside.

In these times of post offices and railroads and widespread literacy and fibreoptic cables, such isolation is obviously only for mad people—some of whom, actually, might more likely reside in the fringe towns of the Montana foothills at this point. But, in the tradition of outsider vulgarisation, I can perhaps make some observations on today’s Luxembourgish village, like an intimacy with subtle seasonal zeitgebers few townies would notice: the greylag geese migrating overhead; the arrival of the snails; springtime’s kid goats; toad mating rituals. Or sprigs of dialect, (actually my fiancée’s observation), lingual mutations persisting only in one woodsy scratch of the Éisléck for instance—the North American town shuffles populations too rapidly to really develop such sprigs. And there is even a hive memory, too, if you consider an old antagonist, the wolf: offstage for 124 years, he turned up recently, and people spoke not of his arrival but his return. This is perhaps the most villatic cue of all, a medieval beast nipping through the tofts, as uncaring about Norwegian sofas and Netflix as he ever was, all saliva and instinct and songs for his lunar muse.

Jeffrey Palms
© 2018 d’Lëtzebuerger Land