“Just leave if you don’t like it!”

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 14.12.2018

These were the words that, ultimately, emerged from the frustrated German. He had directed them at a fellow clubgoer, a tipsy Spaniard, who by everyone’s estimation had been hitting on him with impressively little subtlety.

More to point, however, was the angle by which she had hoped to bond with him. She had wanted to commiserate over how Luxembourg is a sleepy, boring country, with an empty city and unfriendly natives; how its “culture” is bastardised to life by a hodgepodge of expats who hang around the same couple of bars every night. “I miss London,” the girl could be heard complaining in long, drunken vowels.

Expats will be familiar with this trope. Characteristically, its purveyors speak of Luxembourg as being snobby, dull, and provincial, though without the wholesomeness that often accompanies that latter term. Actually, it’s anything but wholesome: its wealth is what ruins it, what even vilifies its inhabitants. These expats love to gawk at state salaries, to accuse Luxembourgers of lurking in secluded mansions, and to lament how the city’s nightlife is quieter than a cricket’s fart.

Later that week, somewhere on the Kierchbierg plateau, a dour Italian was taking his morning break. As he stared disgustedly at his thin, machine-drawn coffee, he said to his colleague, “It’s… I mean… it’s all right here in Luxembourg.” Then, looking up, he leaned in close: “But come on. It’s not Vienna.”

Of course it’s not Vienna! Vienna is in Austria!

It’s the bizarrely misplaced expectations of these sourpusses that will get to you. Take this latest perpetrator, for example, the dour Italian: he finds himself in some Kafkaesque horrorshow of waking up every day not in Vienna. Even worse, he has discovered that the job he has accepted and the lease he has signed are both in – ugh – Luxembourg.

Not Luxembourg! Luxembourg’s language, he explained to his colleague, is ridiculous, its city tiny, and its people unusual.

To which one might say: yes, yes, and yes. All language is ridiculous; the city is certainly small (much unlike – just off the top of my head –Vienna); and Luxembourgers are far from ordinary, no question about it.

Anyway, it’s best not to listen too much to the dour and the drunken. Let them slip on their own misery and on their own foolishness in hoping this petite country to, by some fantasy of urban magic, resemble metropolitan giants like London or Vienna. In the words of the frustrated German, let them leave if they don’t like it!

Interestingly, however, the coin flips the other way too. Another species of expat is overeager to extoll Luxembourg as a rare utopia of virtuous comforts. Equipping themselves with some quality-of-life statistics and counting a few congenial locals in their entourages, these expats paint the whole country as a little jewel, too small and perfect to have any moldering secrets like poverty.

These gushing expats are probably, on the whole, more bearable than their cynical counterparts. Yet they are also awful to be around.

Indeed, both varieties of offender reduce the whole of Luxembourg to a simple plot point in their own, personal narratives. It’s a terrible thing. English professors would call it a lack of engagement with the source material; psychiatrists would call it severely egocentric; engineers would call it a structurally unsound design; and zookeepers would just say that the llamas have done something woefully moronic again.

These expats cannot separate objective criticism from reactionary emotions. And while such people are of course built into the nightscape of any country, Luxembourg seems to have quite a lot of them. Suspiciously, a lot. In barrooms and breakrooms, Luxembourg as a nation is constantly on trial by expats, more so than in most equivalent situations elsewhere.

How could that be? Tiny, well-functioning Luxembourg!

The main answer must be the country’s size, which produces visions of simplicity. Expats arrive and suppose the place to be fairly accessible and knowable by virtue of its small scale, leading them to frustration when it proves more elusive than expected.

And elusive, it is. Most Luxembourgers have more languages than they have limbs, for a start, which keeps some part or another of their culture forever hidden. These languages also inject Luxembourg directly into the huge bloodstreams of its neighbors, creating a cultural identity fraught with the most wonderful ambiguities. Indeed: when a country has a relationship with an enormous neighbor based on profound commonalities, many identity questions arise when that country must simultaneously define itself in opposition to the same neighbor.

Oh, make that two neighbors – who are, to boot, in square cultural rivalry with one another. Wait, and Belgium too.

Thus, those who imagine Luxembourg’s size to delimit its culture, and conclude therefrom that it won’t be a hard place to figure out, are dangerously in error. English professors would flunk them; psychiatrists would prescribe Ritalin; and so on, and so forth.

So, no: it is not Vienna. It is not London, New York, or Paris. Thank heavens! It is subtler than these urban giants, whose famous personalities and colossal populations make them quite accessible for expats. Fine, fine. For those interested: they are also intensely simple to locate on a map.

But Luxembourg… that is a place whose ambiguities take thought, work, and time to even notice. Imagine how much of the country an expat must endure, and over how many years, before being able to enjoy the subtexts and inside jokes of Superjhemp Retörns! You just won’t quite get there merely by flirting with Germans during your six-month internship in Sandweiler. You just won’t.

Jeffrey Palms
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