And how do they relate to the country?

Who are the New Luxembourgers?

Elevator connecting the  City-centre to the Pfaffenthal
Foto: Sven Becker
d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 03.03.2023

For the purposes of this article, an Old Luxembourger is anyone who speaks Luxembourgish fluently, went through the Luxembourgish school system and has family who are also Old Luxembourgers. To the extent that you meet those criteria, you are an Old Luxembourger.

A New Luxembourger, in contrast, is anyone who is here in this country for the long haul (though that long haul may have begun more or less recently), but who does not meet the aforementioned criteria. To the extent you are here for the long haul and yet don’t meet those criteria, you are a New Luxembourger.

Let’s skip a lengthy analysis of statistics, or any attempt to establish that one group is larger than the other – suffice it to say, both the New and the Old Luxembourgers constitute very substantial proportions of the population of this country.

Of course, some individuals sit somewhere between the two categories.

I myself am very definitely a New Luxembourger, though I have citizenship, I have been here, on and off, all my life, and it’s now been a full 50 years since my grandparents emigrated here from the UK.

It might shock any readers from abroad to learn that, half a century after its arrival, my family have still not metamorphosed into Old Luxembourgers. As those here will know, however, this is an outcome not only made possible but even encouraged by some firmly established features of the social, educational and professional set-up of this country. Indeed those features are a large part of why it makes some sense to talk of New and Old Luxembourgers, or of a multiplicity of ‘parallel societies’.

Many of the same features of Luxembourg that give rise to these distinct groups of residents also limit the contact between them, and, in consequence, limit their understanding of each other. And yet I take it as a given that, if this country is to work well, let alone for all those who now call it home, that mutual understanding is key. On invitation, I take up here the task of saying a little about who the New Luxembourgers are to an audience of mostly Old Luxembourgers.

Of course, I will be speaking throughout in general terms, and there will be plenty of individual exceptions to anything I say. Some things I say will be true of many Old Luxembourgers too, and a preliminary point to make about the New Luxembourgers is that they are extremely diverse, and not just in the passports they carry. I lived throughout my teenage years in Larochette, a town full of Portuguese immigrant blue-collar workers. Obviously it would be a mistake to simply conflate them with, say, the kinds of EU diplomats and functionaries that my mother was then working with, and that I later did. Equally, in the Luxembourg citizenship classes I took, during which we students and the teachers had some pretty deep discussions about what Luxembourg is to us, there were those who had migrated here from other prosperous, peaceful countries simply to climb up another rung on a corporate career ladder, and then there were those who came here fleeing war. I do not want to overstate the commonality of the New Luxembourgers, but I believe that there are certain important features of our lives here that enough of us have sufficiently in common for it to be worth giving this kind of account.

Maybe the best way to start is with a look at how those features of Luxembourg that give rise to the ‘parallel societies’ are experienced by New Luxembourgers, and with the crucial point that New Luxembourgers have not, generally speaking, ever made any decision to spurn or avoid Old Luxembourgers.

Certainly it is true, in my experience, that New Luxembourgers tend to have little involvement in the community life of Old Luxembourgers, and very often they do not even know any Old Luxembourgers, or not on more than passing terms. I think of the words of an Irish colleague I had when I was working at the European Court of Justice. He was a translator in his mid 30s, had been here eight years, living not only in the City but also in Echternach for a time, and had no plans to leave, and yet he could remark, ‘I used to know a Luxembourger, but he died.’ By Luxembourger, he of course meant Old Luxembourger.

The basics of this Irish colleague’s story resemble those of any number of other New Luxembourgers I know. They come to Luxembourg for jobs in organisations staffed overwhelmingly by a mix of New Luxembourgers and indeed non-Luxembourgers – that is, in the latter case, people really just passing through. They live, at least initially, in the City, where New Luxembourgers and Non-Luxembourgers are again in a large majority and where all sorts of social groups and activities in which New Luxembourgers and Non-Luxembourgers predominate, often to the point of exclusivity, are right there to fill their free time. If they have kids, they put them in international schools – they often have to, unless their kids are young enough to quickly adapt to learning in an unfamiliar language, or indeed several. But then of course the other parents and teachers they get to know tend also to be just other New Luxembourgers and Non-Luxembourgers. And so yeah, they have, soon enough, a full life here, with the full complement of friends and social engagements, and there are no Old Luxembourgers involved, apart from maybe one or two in the margins, like that old guy across the road who, bizarrely, hangs his bedding out the window in the mornings.

Nor is it very different for those of us who grow up here. There were some Old Luxembourgers who my family were friendly with, but I can’t say they were particularly close family friends, nor were they my age, and so really, I didn’t know any Old Luxembourgers personally until my mid 20s. Before then, I attended the European School in Kirchberg, and the extracurricular activities I took part in were all either organised through the school or the parent community surrounding it. Well, with the exception of the football I played in Larochette – but that was all with Portuguese kids. I first met Old Luxembourgers of my own age when I did the SNJ’s “Ech?! Fräiwëlleg?!” course, mandatory for all those who want to volunteer abroad with funding from the Luxembourg state. And I immediately became good friends with a few of them. Crazy that nothing like that happened earlier, I find myself thinking in retrospect.

There are, of course, a fair few New Luxembourgers who do, often because they have no other option, put their kids through the Luxembourgish school system. For instance, most of those Portuguese kids I played football with as a teenager in Larochette were at local Luxembourgish schools. And that definitely is a game-changer. Note that I include having gone through the Luxembourgish school system among my criteria for being an Old Luxembourger. Such kids of course grow up to be much more integrated in Old Luxembourgish community life, and, largely through them, their parents end up more involved in it too. And yet there remain some pretty strong countervailing forces, certainly for the parents, and even, I know, for the kids.

I mean to say, one very important fact about almost every New Luxembourger is that we have another country in our life – call it our country of origin. (Well, at least one other country. Not irregularly two or three, if our migration history or the national make-up of our family is more complex.) And when I say it’s in our life, I mean it’s a major part of our life. We don’t just think of it nostalgically from time to time. No, this other country is continuing to take up a lot of space in our days, weeks, months and years. We are following the news of this country, for instance, and watching television series from this country, and we’re making regular trips back there if we can, and weekly calls to friends and family there, etc. We have property there, quite often. And even if we’ve been here decades, this kind of stuff still tends to be true of us. Even if we were born here, it tends to be.

Relatedly, for New Luxembourgers, immigration is rarely a done deal. Even if we’re very settled here… who knows? We might end up back in our country of origin, or indeed in another country all together. Or if we won’t, very possibly our children will – if their chosen career works better there, or if they meet someone there. It’s hard now to imagine a whole family definitively moving to Luxembourg. We all know: some members of the family will probably stay; some will surely go; some will perhaps yo-yo back and forth. In any case, we wouldn’t bet on there still being members of the family here in another 50, let alone 100 years. Not that we’d mind if there were, you understand.

The fact is, Luxembourg is a tiny country. And so, put simplistically, compared to most countries, there is a lot less here to grab hold of you. Part of that dynamic is just practical. Many careers and interests simply cannot be pursued here, or certainly not to a high level. And so a lot of people who matter to you leave or will soon leave or never came here in the first place, and that all reduces the hold that your community here can have on you. And then we get to parts of the dynamic that are more emotional – more a matter of what we feel our identity to be.

I think of a moment in one of the citizenship classes I attended: an Italian man observed that people he knows who have Italian parents but were born and brought up in the UK or in France or in Germany say they are British or French or German, just with an Italian background or Italian roots or something like that. Whereas people he knows who have Italian parents but were born and brought up in Luxembourg always say they are Italian, just they were born and brought up in Luxembourg. Laughing, several people agreed that this is their experience too, with people of their national backgrounds. It takes a strong national culture, the Italian suggested, to compete for the identity of a first- or second-generation immigrant. Or even, in some circumstances, a third-generation one, I can add. Or actually even a fourth-generation one – my 12-year-old niece certainly identifies as British too.

For many of us, being here even accentuates the national identity we feel with respect to our country of origin. In the UK, it’s not a salient fact about me that I’m British – more-or-less everyone is. Here in Luxembourg, it’s pretty much the first fact about me. ‘That British guy,’ is how two people who’ve just met me would probably refer to me, and, quite likely, their knowledge of UK culture and stereotypes is going to be one of the main lenses through which they see me. Also, in the UK, I don’t ever feel or get close to someone essentially because of our shared Britishness; whereas here I have that experience frequently.

I think of an exchange I once had with a British friend who was born here and attended a Luxembourgish school up to the age of 11. I asked him, do you feel Luxembourgish? He thought about it, and then said: no, not really. But, he added, he does feel very European and cosmopolitan, and his time in a Luxembourgish school contributed to that. I could say the same, actually. I don’t feel Luxembourgish, at least not in the sense that usually comes to mind when I hear that word. Nothing in my life here has made me feel that way. But my life here has furnished me with a strong sense of being European and cosmopolitan. I think most New Luxembourgers would say the same. And, what’s more, they’d say it gratefully.

New Luxembourgers, in my experience, have a lot of love for Luxembourg, but they love it as a centre of Europeanism and/or cosmopolitanism, and perhaps even more than that they love it as simply a place where they can live well, where there are opportunities, where they can be free of much of the difficulty of life back in their countries of origin, and yet where they are still not compelled – at least not so much – to give up these old identities and attachments.

We New Luxembourgers have, by the way, created our own cultural institutions here, from the cultural materials of our countries of origin. You can see the tips of many of these icebergs every year as you wander around the different stalls at the International Bazar, but they really are just the tips. As a Brit here, if I want to play cricket, for example, or do some Scottish dancing or Anglican choral singing, I easily can, as there are well-established groups here dedicated to those activities. If it’s British pub culture I want, I can easily find that too, of course. And Brit-heavy Anglophone theatre groups, book clubs, writing groups and radio and print publications were also always components of my life here; in recent years, there’s even been the British and Irish Film Festival. Many of these institutions though have been around for decades now, and their histories are tied up in various ways with the history of my family and many good family friends. My grandparents were, for example, back in 1979, among the founding members of Pirates, an English-language musical theatre group that’s still going strong. Stories of Pirates shows through the years are staples of dinner-table conversation in the family.

I have no doubt that what’s true of the British community is equally, if not more true of many of the other national communities here. And indeed, many cultural institutions here that it would have once made sense to call British are increasingly international in nature, with proficient English speakers from all corners of the world sustaining and growing them. And then there are plenty of other cultural institutions here that were in the first place created and run by a very international mix of people. I recently did an interview series for Radio Ara on the English-language stand-up comedy scene there is here. It has sprung up quickly in the last few years, and is now a truly vibrant scene, with probably over a hundred comics, several clubs and regular free-to-attend open mic nights and paid shows. And it’s people from absolutely everywhere running those events, performing, filling the audiences.

In short, know that New Luxembourgers have contributed a lot to not only the GDP but also the culture in this country, which it is up to Old Luxembourgers to embrace as culture of this country, if they want to. Many do already. Many Old Luxembourgers, I know, are cosmopolitans par excellence, and hugely grateful for the vibrant mix of cultural offerings that the New Luxembourgers have brought to their doorsteps. I note though that those Old Luxembourgers tend, in my experience, to be particularly well-educated, wealthy, and middle-class – in any case, they have had the advantage of being properly equipped to engage with these cultural offerings, an advantage which many of their fellow Old Luxembourgers have not had.

What, you might be wondering, about the other way round? What about the New Luxembourgers appreciating the cultural offerings of the Old Luxembourgers? Good question. As many New Luxembourgers don’t even really know any Old Luxembourgers, there’s not a whole lot of that going on. And this is certainly regrettable – even tragic, in a way. What I hope I’ve made clear though is that it is nevertheless understandable.

When I hear of Old Luxembourgers complaining about New Luxembourgers being unintegrated here, I want to say to them, no, sorry, you do not understand. We are integrated here. Just we are integrated in the international community. And as the international community constitutes something like half the population, it is not a trivial kind of integration. Nor is it any kind of ghettoization. In the past, maybe when I was a child even, it made sense to talk of a European School or EU institutions bubble, but not anymore. The population of the country has grown; the proportion of that population who are part of the international community has increased, and become far more diverse in their national backgrounds and occupations. Think of the global corporations building bases here, think of the refugee intake in the last decade, think of the expansion of the EU, think of the establishment and growth of the university. Etc. Etc. What do you expect? And now what was an EU institutions bubble blends seamlessly into a far larger international community, and we are no more in a bubble than you are.

These days, as said, a lot of New Luxembourgers spend their professional and social lives wholly within the international community by default, and would even find it difficult not to. And why should they confront that difficulty? Why should they make a special effort to engage with the community life of the Old Luxembourgers? There are decent answers to that question. And of course, it’s not an either-or thing. But the bigger fact is that, for most New Luxembourgers, most of the time, the international community has a lot more to offer. And I don’t say that as any kind of judgement on the community life of the Old Luxembourgers. Rather, in celebration of what a wonderful thing it is to be able to find in Luxembourg, almost irrespective of where in the world you come from, a community from your home country and a hugely rich mix of people from everywhere else who you can communicate with in English or French, and through whom you can get to know the world a little bit.

One big subject in all this is, of course, the Luxembourgish language. Given what I’ve just said, it will not surprise anyone to discover that I think it is, in a lot of cases, unreasonable to expect New Luxembourgers to learn Luxembourgish. I would normally judge a New Luxembourger for not trying to speak any of the three national languages, but Luxembourgish…

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t object to legislation requiring some Luxembourgish classes in even the international schools, or some mastery of Luxembourgish in order to acquire citizenship. I totally get that the Luxembourgish language is something that matters to Old Luxembourgers. And I get that they want to take measures to sustain it. I think the measures that have been brought in are moderate and reasonable.

However, I equally understand New Luxembourgers not going any further down the path of learning Luxembourgish than these measures require them to, and sometimes even just taking the hit – and not getting citizenship, say – rather than going along with the measures. Remember that New Luxembourgers normally are here to work. Their work lives normally involve no Luxembourgish. And their time outside of work is of course limited and precious. They have to fit family into that time, maybe parenting, and friends too, and any passions or interests that their job does not accommodate, and rest of course, and sufficient exercise for basic health (given how sedentary our professional lives tend to be these days). They have to fit in all their attachments back in their country of origin. And then very probably they have to work on their French and/or their English… And if they focus on learning Luxembourgish, what will that gain them exactly? Even the Old Luxembourgers they meet seem to speak very good English and/or French. It would gain them something in the ease or richness of their relationships with those Old Luxembourgers, it would gain them the ability to communicate with even the older and less educated Old Luxembourgers perhaps, although they hardly ever meet those Old Luxembourgers anyway, and it would gain them the satisfaction of behaving very respectfully towards their hosts here – this all counts for something, definitely, but look at those things on the other side of the scales: family, passions, rest. And that’s not even mentioning the difficulties of succeeding at learning the language.

I have the impression that a lot of Old Luxembourgers just accept the direction of gravity here, at least on a practical level. They accept that, if there is to be integration between the Old and New Luxembourgers, they are the ones who are normally going to have to make the move. More and more, I find that events organised by Old Luxembourgers, even for predominantly Old Luxembourgish audiences, are in English. I think immediately of that SNJ “Ech?! Fräiwëlleg?!” course where I first befriended some Old Luxembourgers – probably my most extreme experience of this nature. 20 or so participants, and all bar two of them were Old Luxembourgers, at least in that they’d been to Luxembourgish schools and spoke Luxembourgish fluently. The two teachers also were Old Luxembourgers. And yet to accommodate us two New Luxembourgers, the whole course was done in English. There was no vote, no one batted an eyelid. When I apologised in a conversation with one of the teachers, he said it’s quite normal these days. One clear outcome though was that some of those Old Luxembourgers were marginalised, could not take part to anything like their full potential. It’s their 4th or 5th language, of course. I’m pretty sure this couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world.

Particularly for those of us who are reflective about this strange situation we’re in here in Luxembourg, but I think also on a less conscious level for most New Luxembourgers, there is a feeling of guilt. We hear now sometimes of Old Luxembourgers struggling to get certain kinds of jobs, or advancement in them, because of poor command of English or French, or even Portuguese. We hear also of some Old Luxembourgers being priced out of living in their own country, in no small part because of the impact we’re having on the property market. Or we see our votes in the parliamentary elections keeping out of power the more conservative and nationalist parties that would likely put the brakes on this cosmopolitanism a bit more, the ruling liberal coalition having no doubt foreseen this when they made it easier for us to acquire citizenship and so take part in those elections in the first place.

I wonder whether, especially for those of us who’ve been here a long time, part of the reason for the guilt isn’t that we can, on an instinctive level, identify with those being left behind by the cosmopolitanisation of Luxembourg. Of course we can. Because we too have lived for much or all of our lives in this country that we cannot understand or engage with large and important parts of. Those moments of feeling a great distance from our neighbours, or that we are not part of the in-group in the place we call home, have recurred throughout our lives too. There must be at least a certain symmetry between the kinds of alienation that New and Old Luxembourgers – some of them, anyway – have experienced over the years.

These are conversations I find myself having more and more with other New Luxembourgers. It’s not entirely clear to us what we could or should do. Maybe that’s where I gratefully give the floor back to you guys.

Benjamin George Coles
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