A British family’s changing relationship with the country

Fifty Years and Five Generations

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 22.12.2023

I am a representative of a demographic anomaly – five generations of a British family living across two-to-three houses on the same street in the Mullerthal region of Luxembourg.

The youngest we have here, my niece, celebrated her 13th birthday about a month ago, and the oldest, my great-grandmother, turned 101 in September and continues to be in fine health, touch wood. We tell my niece that not many people ever have the privilege of meeting a great-great-grandparent, let alone of seeing them so frequently, but she, in that phase of rarely voluntarily emerging from her phone, is probably not quite old enough to appreciate this yet. (Maybe something will click when she starts learning about World War Two at school, and she’s able to get a detailed first-hand account of what it was like from her own ancestor, sitting helpfully just across the dinner table from her, who was 17 when the first bombs fell on London and remembers it like it was yesterday.)

Making this demographic anomaly yet more anomalous, each of the five generations is represented by only one person, and each has a different surname. It is very much a matriarchy, and in fact I’m the only male in the current configuration.

It’s a family unit that coalesced about a decade ago but has continued to change shape, particularly with migratory comings and goings. “When did you come to Luxembourg?” is a tricky question for me. Which time? is my natural response. Do you mean when I, on my own steam, moved here as an adult? Or when I moved here, aged nine, with my mother and siblings, and started school here? Or when, aged two, I first came here, with both of my parents, only to leave again two years later? Or should I go back another generation?

The story of my family’s presence in Luxembourg really begins fifty years ago, in 1973, when the UK joined the EU (or the EEC, as it was then called).

It was not the aforementioned great-grandmother, but her then son-in-law, my grandfather, who was the first to arrive here – and his story has something of a European Dream quality to it, though I doubt he’s ever thought of it that way himself. He came from a fairly poor family in a town called Rhyl, in the north of Wales. He left school at fifteen, and worked as a postman in Manchester for a while. From his first encounters with odd German words uttered by villains in comic books he’d read as a child, he’d had a fascination with foreign languages. Now in the city, he started studying German and then French at night school, and excelled at them. This was and has remained his great passion in life. He’d spend hours in the bath, engrossed in his Duden or his Petit Robert. Or, getting a bit of peace from the young family he found himself with, he’d drive out into the countryside, and find a quiet spot to read the set texts and do the homework for the courses he was taking. In early ‘73, having completed his A-levels but still not made it as far as university, he heard the European Court of Justice were looking for Brits with good command of German and French, and, thinking it a very, very long shot, applied. He remembers arriving for his interview, and being confused by how everyone on public transport here seemed to be called Eddie. Nevertheless, he got the job. His proud dad must have told everyone who’d listen, as an article duly appeared in the local newspaper, “Rhyl boy gets job at European Court”. My grandfather brought his wife and his two young daughters over a couple of months later. Another daughter was born here.

Not long after their arrival, the Queen visited Luxembourg and unveiled a Henry Moore statue that the UK had given the Court as a gift. A pretty little British girl was sought for the purpose of giving the Queen some flowers. My mother was initially selected; however, following her now famous remark that
“I don’t want to give flowers to some silly old queen”, my aunt was instead given the responsibility. She still managed to make a scene though. Having practised handing over the flowers with stand-in queens several times before actually handing them over to the actual queen, she did not realise, when showtime came, that it was showtime. She graciously handed the Queen the flowers, and then immediately wrenched them back from her, saying “these are for later!” Everyone had a good laugh. (Look at us now! Chumming around with royalty!)

For my grandparents’ generation, the reason for settling in Luxembourg was essentially financial, or even existential – in the UK, they’d been seriously struggling to get by. Here, they could live comfortably, save money, give the girls a good (and multilingual!) education.

A bonus was that Luxembourg, particularly the east of the country where they initially lived, struck them as wonderfully peaceful, and beautiful in its landscape. My grandmother says the villages were a bit run-down when they arrived, and that it was the Brits, Irish and Danes, all turning up together from ‘73 on, who started the trend of buying old farmhouses in the countryside and renovating them; well-to-do Luxembourgers then followed suit, and villages started looking prettier and prettier. I’ve often wondered how much this account squares with the one a local historian would give.

Socially, my grandparents hardly integrated at all – at least not with Luxembourgers. My grandfather had his work colleagues from all round Europe and spent his free time with family, or doing work on the house, or reading his precious language books. As a language lover, he of course wanted to learn Luxembourgish, and was frustrated by how very limited resources then were to help with that, as well as the lack of enthusiasm locals then seemed to have for outsiders learning their language. My grandmother, far more sociable in nature, a stay-at-home mum and essentially monolingual, struggled at the start to find her crowd. But by the late 70s, however, she’d become very much involved in the growing British expat community, particularly as concentrated around the British Ladies’ Club, and later the English-language theatre scene and the Anglican Church. Even today, my grandmother’s circle of friends consists mainly of people she’s got to know through these expat institutions.

My mother’s generation then integrated far more. They grew up playing with Luxembourgish kids in the village. The TV they watched was all in German and French, with a bit of Dutch thrown in for good measure. They were then put in the German-language section at the European School – as my grandparents had the impression the newly formed English-language section was disorganised and overpopulated, and also wanted their kids to integrate locally as much as possible. Long before they finished their schooling, they spoke two of the country’s official languages fluently, and could understand the other perfectly well.

Even so, all three of the girls then left Luxembourg. One went to university in Germany, married a German man, started a family there and has stayed there ever since. The other two, my mother included, went to the UK, and started their professional lives and families there. Those two, however, have ultimately settled back here – and indeed never stayed away for long. My mother found herself feeling like a foreigner in the UK in a way she never had in Luxembourg. Maybe things would have been different if she’d been in a big city, but in rural Gloucestershire, where my father was from and where they’d gone to live, my mother’s continental traits made her stand out, and get treated as, at best, an oddity, and, at worst, unwelcome. She felt disillusioned and homesick, missed the forests and villages, and the mix of languages and nationalities as well as the corresponding mentality. And then there were practical considerations: her language skills could far more easily get her a good job – and in that way ensure security for her family – back in Luxembourg than in the monoglot UK. Plus her parents, and any support they could offer, were here. Such practical considerations also proved decisive for my aunt, who, while having an easier time than my mother fitting in socially in the UK, tellingly spent her longest spell there working at the Luxembourg Embassy.

Now things get interesting though! Because the third generation of our family here – i.e. my generation – have ended up, in an obvious sense, integrating a lot less than the second. And that, I think, is essentially because times have changed. My three siblings and I grew up with satellite TV and the internet, meaning the media we consumed was almost all British (and, when it wasn’t, it was American), and we could be in contact with friends and relatives in the UK constantly, because easily and at no real expense. What’s more, by our time, many more immigrants had come to the country, meaning that the language spoken by the kids in the village we grew up in, Larochette, was not Luxembourgish but Portuguese, and that it was a lot easier for us – indeed, it was pretty automatic for us – to find friends and leisure activities within the Anglophone expat bubble, which was then in the process of rapidly expanding and opening up, as English became more and more established as a lingua franca here. We were in the English-language section at the European School, as rules then dictated that your language section was determined by your mother tongue; we emerged with maybe passable German and very poor French, but certainly nothing like fluency in either language, and no acquaintance with Luxembourgish people or the Luxembourgish language at all. Never at ease with the local languages, and not having any meaningful connection to our cultural surroundings, we of course have often felt like foreigners here.

My siblings and I all, at one point or another, went to live in the UK. Three of us are at least largely back here now. Why? Well, one important background factor is politics. Though I was initially based mainly in the UK after finishing university there, I started spending more time here when I was going through the process of acquiring nationality, so as to retain my status and rights as an EU citizen. Brexit is only the most headline-grabbing expression of a political culture in the UK that has done plenty to complicate my relationship with the country. (Similarly, my grandparents say that a return to the UK in retirement stopped appealing to them because of the way the country had gone politically.) Another factor in my generation’s presence in Luxembourg, still not the biggest, and of course related to politics, has been the state support available to us here – medical support in my sisters’ cases, and, in my own case, support with my creative work. Also helpful have been the increasing ease of finding employment, navigating the system and having a social life here without mastering the local languages, and the increasing tendency for friends of ours to stay or return here. By far the biggest factor though has been family, its support of us and its calls for support from us.

In the early 2010s, both the oldest and the youngest generations of the family arrived on the scene here. We brought my great-grandmother, then around 90, over from the Isle of Wight, where she’d been living alone, getting increasingly confused and unwell. She’d recently lost a significant chunk of her savings to unscrupulous door-to-door salesmen. My niece, meanwhile, was born to a sister of mine who’d always had quite serious mental health problems and a man back in the UK who we could immediately discount as a source of parental care. My mother took on primary care responsibility for both of the new arrivals. She, however, was still in full-time employment and not in the best of health herself, so other family members, old and young, grouped together to make it work. This is essentially why the disparate generations ended up assembling on the same street.

Now, you’ll be glad to hear my own generation’s shortcomings on the integration front had taught the family a lesson, and we put my niece in a local Luxembourgish Maison Relais, Précoce and then primary school. I think we have all often felt proud, watching her talk to people in perfect Luxembourgish. It’s a sign of the times though that, when she would come home from the school with her best friend, a Romanian girl, the two of them would be speaking English together, rather than any of the three languages their classes were in. It’s also a sign of the times, and a slightly bizarre one, that the English they both speak has strong elements of African-American Vernacular in it. I can imagine some people being quite offended, listening to these two little white European girls speaking like that. But I don’t think it’s even consciously imitative, let alone mocking. They hear people speaking like that all the time. Just as my mother’s generation grew up on the local television channels, and mine grew up on the BBC, this one is growing up on TikTok, YouTube and Netflix. My experience suggests such things have significant consequences for our senses of identity. This year, my niece started secondary school at the new International Lycee in Junglinster, in the German-language section. She wants to switch to the English-language section. I have to admit, that’s also what I want, partly as I think it would be more expedient for her long-term, and partly because I don’t want the cultural gap between us to be any larger than it need be. My mother, with fond memories of her own Germanic education, doesn’t see it quite like that. My niece likes to emphasise her Britishness, though I think, interestingly, it’s with relatively little conception of what that is. Asked whether she’d like to live in the UK or in any other country besides Luxembourg someday, she gives a classic Luxembourgish school kid answer: yes, she wants to live in a country where she doesn’t have to use French!

And as for the great-great-grandmother – well, she thinks Luxembourg is splendid. For her, it’s inevitably mostly just a backdrop, the view from her window, the scenery of occasional walks and drives, the landscape for a hot air balloon ride we treated her to once. She is vocally grateful that it’s possible for her to be with family, and aware that Luxembourg is the setting of that. She is now the oldest person in the Gemeng and they bring her flowers for her birthday each year. On her hundredth birthday, last year, she got visits from the Minister of Family Affairs, Integration and the Greater Region, from someone from Hëllef Doheem, from the family doctor, from the Anglican chaplain. The Queen – an old family friend, as you’ll recall – sent a birthday card. The Queen was upstaged though, as the Grand Duke sent not only a card, but also flowers, a hamper full of produce from his estates, and a very impressive-looking medal. We’re probably in the right place, aren’t we.

Benjamin George Coles
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