Go figure!

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 20.08.2021

On the surface, comparing tiny Luxembourg to the mighty US of A, a country that is five hundred times bigger, looks like an impossible task, yet once you dip into ‘I’m Having a Knippchen’ by Jeffrey Palms, you will not merely be intrigued but hooked by the observations made and the conclusions suggested.

Born and raised in Michigan, Palms has lived in Luxembourg for almost six years now. No doubt, some of you will remember him as the author of essays that regularly appeared on the last page of Land between 2018 and 2020.

‘I’m just some guy.’ The book opens on a note of self-irony with the author insisting that he is neither a sociologist nor a historian. But then, this is not meant to be an academic or scientific study. It is a series of essays based on anecdotes, a type of personal witness account. Comparing two cultures that are quite different, though one is constantly being permeated by the other, is definitely a challenge.

The ten texts take you to hockey and football games, on walks through Luxembourg city as well as to a Michigan restaurant. The opening piece entitled ‘Village Envy’ sets the tone. It puts tentacular American suburbs against very rooted and clearly defined Luxembourg village communities that offer you an instant identity. Palms shows how living in either set-up will affect your sense of self as well as your outlook on the world at large.

European regional uniqueness is set against American individual uniqueness. That latter type pops up again later in a text which discusses ‘the ubiquity of American celebrities’. In this context Hollywood, the music industry as well as political figures are key. The USA, we are told, is a star-maker that does not care about where people come from. It is a country whose citizens don’t share cultural backgrounds, a genuine melting pot, in other words, – at least, in ideal circumstances, i. e. as long as xenophobia and racism do not raise their ugly heads.

‘Drunken Students’, the essay on education, is particularly detailed and instructive. While raising fundamental questions about national priorities, it also looks at contrasting concepts of childhood: innocent American puppies vs. tiny Luxembourg adults. The encounter with restaurant staff in ‘Service with a Smirk’ will ring a bell with anyone that has ever been out for a meal in the States or to a terrace on Place d’Armes. As expected, American friendliness – or what Europeans might experience as invasive over-friendliness - contrasts with a grumpy Luxembourg non-welcome or even downright rudeness.

One of the funniest and most tongue-in-cheek texts is ‘Mission in the Kitchen’, the text about raclette. Palms claims that any American is bound to distrust a meal that does not ask for any preparation or commitment. How can cheese turn into a full meal? How can something so easy work? After all, the effort that goes into making a dish significantly contributes to its value! Work pays, according to the American ethos. The fact that, year in year out Thanksgiving dinner becomes ‘a daylong marathon run entirely in the kitchen’ by the expert chef in charge serves as supporting evidence.

Any reader will know that making sweeping statements about whole nations, whether small or large, is bound to rely on simplifications but if you are in any way interested in your own identity and that of those surrounding you, this is a must-read. Spiked with emotional acuity, ‘I’m Having a Knippchen’ invites you to look at yourself and the world around you through the eyes of a relative newcomer. A useful and at times eye-opening exercise.

Last but not least, the casual manner in which Palms mentions RTL and Cactus along the way almost qualifies him as a true Luxembourger. He should definitely both have that Knippchen and eat it – though without forgetting to tell us where the precious chocolate hails from: Café Bruno or Namur’s? This might be a matter of taste, but it certainly also has to do with our very own national kind of snobbery.

Jeffrey Palms, ‘I’m Having a Knippchen’, Black Fountain Press, 2021 (ISBN 978-99959-998-8-9)

Janine Goedert
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