For several months now I’ve been planning to write something about how far it’s possible to integrate into Luxembourgish society as an incomer, but it’s a big topic, and new experiences keep changing my opinions on it. However, now that we’re focusing on planning our Seattle move, I suppose I’ve understood it as well as I ever will, so here goes…
Before arriving in Luxembourg I rather smugly assumed that even though our stay might be temporary, our family was going to ‘integrate’ here rather than living in an ‘expat bubble’ – our children would attend local schools, we would learn the language(s), and our social circles would be effortlessly multinational and multilingual. The more that I’ve learned about Luxembourg (and about living overseas generally) I’ve realised that I was both naively optimistic and overly simplistic in my thinking – but I haven’t given up on the idea of integration altogether. Here are my thoughts after nearly two years here.
When our daughter (then 5) started at a Luxembourgish-speaking school, we found that it was harder for her to learn the language than we’d expected. Luxembourg is an unusual country due to its functional multilingualism and exceptionally high proportion of immigrants, and our own area is particularly international, so most children in her class were not actually native speakers. She wasn’t really hearing Luxembourgish spoken outside the classroom (e.g. waiters and shop assistants tend to speak French), and there are far fewer books published in Luxembourgish than in German or French, so living here wasn’t quite the immersive language learning experience we’d imagined.
I’d assumed that my own first step in getting to know people would be to take our son (then 2) to a local playgroup, which I’d hoped would be attended by a mix of locals and immigrants. I didn’t find one though – a high proportion of families here have both parents working outside the home, perhaps due to the impressive state subsidies for childcare. The only playgroup I heard about was attached to the British school on the other side of the city, so wasn’t a promising start for meeting local Luxembourgers, and even at the local school doors the parents tend to naturally cluster into small groups, each speaking a different language…
After our first few months here I was happy to realise that I was finding it far easier than I’d imagined to make friends – but they were all English-speakers. Much to my surprise, I’d also come to rely heavily on events run by the “British Ladies Club” (which is in reality a social network for any English-speaking women) as an easy and welcoming way to begin to feel connected, especially for people with young children. In my theoretical enthusiasm for mixing with Luxembourgers, I’d massively underestimated how comforting it would be to spend time with people who shared our language, our cultural assumptions, and our experiences as new arrivals, particularly when we were new here and first getting to grips with the Luxembourgish school system.
Luxembourg’s unusual mix of multilingualism and high immigration definitely adds to the challenge of truly integrating here, but we’re lucky enough to live in an area where they are actively working to provide support. I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes attempt to speak Luxembourgish at “Café Babel”, a free monthly event run by our “commune” (local council) where people can meet and attempt a conversation in a language of their choice, with each table facilitated by a friendly native speaker. The same team also holds free “Kufika” events (short for “Kultur fir Kanner”, or culture for children), at which we’ve enjoyed puppet shows, several concerts, and a magician. For me, one of the best things about these is seeing my daughter disappear off with her school friends as soon as we arrive, making them feel like real community events.
Luxembourg also attempts to help newcomers connect to their local communities by celebrating “Neighbours’ Day“, an initiative launched in France in 2000. In our area this takes the form of a well-attended annual barbecue in the little field at the end of our road; last year our daughter stayed out later than she ever had before playing (in Luxembourgish) with an Icelandic schoolfriend while I joined in an animated multi-national discussion on parenting approaches in different countries.
Almost two years on, my own friendships are still mostly with English-speakers (partly because despite their equal status as ‘administrative languages’, German is in practice far less useful than French in everyday life here), but the children are becoming less insular, especially our daughter, whose increasing fluency in Luxembourgish has allowed her to make a wider range of friends at school. She’s also started having dance classes after school, and recently enjoyed taking part in a huge and very professional gymnastics & dance ‘gala’ involving around 300 children, including several of her classmates. It may be hard to integrate as a first-generation immigrant, but I can see how children that have been through the local school system could grow up to feel rooted here.
I’m also inspired by people such as the often hilarious “American in Luxembourg“, who makes a point of engaging with the Luxembourgish language and culture. His example – he’s a keen cyclist – reinforces my impression that one of the best routes to integration is to pursue shared interests alongside local people. Friends of mine have made similar connections in their local communities through running clubs, music groups etc. Unfortunately if asked to name my “hobby” I’d probably choose writing – in English! – so although that’s definitely helped me to meet some lovely people here, it hasn’t actually connected me to any Luxembourgers…
Complexities and contradictions
Another side effect of Luxembourg’s high immigration rates is that I’ve realised that I wasn’t really clear on who I wanted to integrate with. I’ve had a few moments where I’ve mentally congratulated myself on stepping out of my English-speaking comfort zone, e.g. after having a chat in German, and then realised that the other person was no more Luxembourgish than me… It would be quite easy to make up a game of top trumps on this one, with top points obviously awarded for interacting in Luxembourgish with born-and-bred Luxembourgers. (I have actually done this a few times now, so I must have integrated, right?)
What is integration, anyway? Does it actually mean assimilation of all incomers into the existing local culture? I’ve definitely changed since being here, particularly in my expectations of our children, although it’s hard to disentangle the specifically Luxembourgish influences from those of all the other nationalities we’ve met here, the experience of living overseas, or simply the effects of the children getting two years older. Is integration actually more of a “melting pot” process where a wide range of influences interact and mix together? A perfect example of this is one of my favourite events in Luxembourg, the international bazaar: a huge annual fair where volunteers from over 50 nationalities work together to raise money for charity by selling traditional goods from their countries (and a wide range of delicious food). Many people here are also working to extend this approach of personal connections and cultural exchange to newly-arrived refugees – last year I was able to meet women from Syria and Iraq while enjoying food and dancing from all around the world at a “women without borders” social evening.
Sometimes it can feel as though there are actually two separate Luxembourgs: the largely French-speaking capital city, where the multi-coloured stripy buses proclaim the ‘multiplicity‘ branding of “variety, diversity, welcome, conviviality and tolerance”, and the Luxembourgish-speaking rural areas (and schools!) where a stronger emphasis is placed on preserving Luxembourg’s traditional culture. For me, one of the best things about having the children in the Luxembourgish school system has been the exposure it’s given us all to local traditions: they’ve sung Luxembourgish songs for Kleeserchersdag (St. Nicholas’s day), and made lanterns to take door-to-door – singing again! – for Candlemas at the start of February. This “liichten” trip included one of my proudest moments since we’ve been here, watching our daughter chat happily in Luxembourgish to a visibly delighted elderly lady.
The Luxembourgish national motto is “Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sin” (we want to remain what we are), which struck me as rather inward-looking and negative when I first heard it. However, considering Luxembourg’s long history of being threatened or controlled by powerful neighbours, and particularly the German occupation during both World Wars, I’ve developed a greater respect for Luxembourgish nationalism (particularly of the linguistic variety, after seeing a display about Nazi-enforced German-speaking in the city history museum). According to the government information portal, “around 70% of the country’s workforce is composed of immigrants or cross-border employees”; in that context, the Luxembourgish resolve to actively defend their traditions seems eminently sensible rather than paranoid or xenophobic. So on reflection I hope that the Luxembourgers do indeed manage to remain what they are: I hope that they pull off their tricky balancing act of preserving their national identity while welcoming new arrivals and celebrating their diversity. Based on our experiences here, they’re on the right track!