Luxembourg after eight days, in ten words or in 2,000

A few possible mottos for Luxembourg, the capital of the country of Luxembourg:

“Luxembourg: Always Take an Umbrella”

“Luxembourg: Everything’s Smaller Here”

“I don’t need to look like a Luxembourger to know how to say, ‘I’m a bad mofo’ in Luxembourgish”

“Luxembourg: Notre grisaille est notre beauté“  (Our grayness is our beauty) 

“Luxembourg: Come for the Eurail Connections, stay for the view”

“Luxembourg: Non, we are not a city in Germany.”


The first impression one has on Luxembourg, before one arrives, is a collective “Really?” The relatively non-EU exposed will say, “Luxembourg is its own country? Really?” The geographically curious will say, “Luxembourg is smaller than Rhode Island and a sovereign country? Really?” The young man moving to the city and looking for a job will say, “I might have to learn Luxembourgish? Luxembourgish is a language? Really?” Luxembourg is something of the fairy tale on which the hopes and dreams of modern Western Europe are built, and much of it challenges credulity.

Luxembourg is the world’s only Grand Duchy, meaning the only place ceremonially ruled by a Grand Duke. They have pictures of the current Grand Duke, a tall and handsome man named Henri right out of “Choose your Royal Figure!” casting books, everywhere in the city, a degree of admiration and worship I’ve only seen surpassed in less politically balanced countries; I saw about as many pictures of Paul Kagame in Rwanda as I have of Henri here.

Luxembourg is a tiny country, one that not surprisingly suffered from invaders and changing rulers for much of its history. It gained its independence in the mid 19th century, discovered a deep iron ore shortly thereafter, and managed to maintain some wealth for the rest of the century. In the 20th century, twice the country suffered under German invasion and occupation. It makes sense from that perspective, then, that the country would be one of the founding members and driving forces of the EU, which in its first form was the European Economic Community, if my memory of undergraduate history serves me correctly, and that community may have well been based around the trading of iron and steel, at the time a cornerstone of Luxembourg’s economy. In the 21st century the country serves as one of Europe’s financial capitals, holds the European Court of Justice to boost its claim to being Europe’s 3rd capital (behind Brussels and The Hague, I believe? Or Paris?), and due to a relatively low tax rate also hosts a number of multinational companies (Amazon and Skype (pre-Microsoft at least) are two examples that come to mind).

Luxembourg is a tiny country and host to a tiny population. The capital, where we live, boasts of 100,000 or so residents. The country as a whole has a population of 500,000. Meaning Boston’s official population is about 100K people more. Like Boston, however, Luxembourg has a huge commuting population during the regular working day. According to our relocation agent, that 500K swells to two million people on a given weekday as workers stream in from Belgium, Germany, and France (the three surrounding countries) to take advantage of Luxembourg’s strong economy and generous worker benefits. Even in the height of the August vacances, every other car I’ve seen seems to have a D or F license plate for Deutschland and France, respectively.

Which leads to one of the major benefits of this tiny ‘burg (any city that makes Tel Aviv look big, well…): the multitude of languages and peoples that make up that 500,000 population (never mind the two million). I’ve seen and heard various quotes for the immigrant percentage of the population, anywhere from 37% to 49.9%. Many of the people who live here are not from here: that much is apparent. Among the largest groups represented here are Portuguese and, more historically, the Italians. The Portuguese are the largest group, weighing in at about 20% of that 37-49% of the immigrant population, which makes them just under a tenth of the total population. Of course, that means there are about 50,000 Portuguese natives living in Luxembourg, hardly a grand wave of migration, but everything is smaller here. Amy and I have also been impressed, walking around, by the evident diversity of the city, both in its restaurants (in 8 days we’ve eaten at Luxembourgish, German, Italian, French, Indian, and mediocre Middle Eastern) and the people walking the streets, with Africans, Russians (Eastern Europe, what what!), and Indians, among others, offering a pleasant blend in the city.

That human diversity leads to linguistic. The official languages of the country are French, German, and, yes, Luxembourgish, a Dutch/German patois with a bit of French sprinkled in. The order in that previous sentence marks the order in which we’d like to learn the languages if we stay here long enough, though Amy reports that Luxembourgish has a charming sound to it: their word for ok, it appears, is “Tiptop.” Beyond those official languages, one hears of course the omnipresent English, in its British, American, and International varietals, one hears the Portuguese of that community, one hears a fair deal of Italian and then Spanish from tourists, one hears Dutch that is vaguely distinguishable from German, one hears when he strains his ear some Russian, some Arabic, and even the barest snatch of Hebrew. For language whores like us, it’s hard to imagine a better place than Luxembourg for the size.

(One interesting footnote to this linguistic diversity, for me, is as follows: I asked J, our main relocation agent, how the hell he knows what language to use with a given person. He, a handsome man of about my age, with a skin complexion that suggests Mediterranean, South American, or even African heritage somewhere down the line, who claims Belgian as his nationality but has lived in Luxembourg all his life, and who of course speaks all the languages needed, recalled, “It’s interesting. If someone looks foreign, I would probably speak French to them first, unless I hear them speak German or English or something else. If it is a setting where I know they’ll speak Luxembourgish, I speak Luxembourgish. Sometimes, people, like just now at the bank, will begin speaking to me in French because I don’t look Luxembourgish, and I’ll say, ‘it’s ok, we can speak Luxembourgish if you want,’ and they’ll say, ‘sorry,’ and we’ll speak Luxembourgish. So it’s hard to say. Sometimes you just know, sometimes you don’t.”)


It’s August here in Luxembourg, and in some ways you’d know it, while in others you wouldn’t. You’d know it because there is a lack of bustle during the week, because many of the restaurants are on their congé, because it’s doubtful that any recruiter or company is going to respond to my desperate pleas for another month. You wouldn’t know it because, well, it’s not that warm. On a warm day like yesterday, the temperature bleeds into the mid 20’s Celsius, or low to mid 70s Fahrenheit. Mostly though, I’ve been wearing long sleeves and jeans (though by golly, I’ve actually seen Europeans wearing shorts: the glorious benefits of globalization!).

Beyond that, the fate of the day’s sky never reaches surety or permanence. Any day might start of cloudy, break into a bit of blue and sun, and then fall back into showers or drab overcast, before cycling through again. Even today, looking out on a mostly clear blue sky out our living room window, I expect that there will be rain at some point, and that our umbrellas will again serve us well. (N.b.: posting this a few hours after writing it, I find myself proven wrong – it has been sunny and gorgeous, hitting 30 degrees Celsius, or about 85 Fahrenheit.)

August sentiments do reign over the city’s mood though, in all senses. While much of the rest of the continent and indeed the world may be rife in protest, worry, and fear of debt (despite being in Israel for the better part of three years, including during a war and some seemingly monumental political moments, I feel like I missed out on the action there, for example), here our second Sunday was marked by a concert in one of the town centre fairs, along with a large collection of mimes dressed In different costumes – clock heads, instruments, butterflies, Enlightenment-era bewigged royals – walking around to mug for photos with children and families, some on stilts, other at ground level. Today is a Catholic holiday and, Luxembourg being ostensibly a Catholic country, the city is mostly shut down and quiet. On the whole, Luxembourg holds a nice mix of French flair for life and German industriousness, I say on first glance, but in August the French side is winning.


Lastly, on the physical nature of the city.

The Centre on the Left, the Rest on the Right.
Luxembourg owes its existence in large part to its physical nature. The main city was once a fortress; that fortress rested on a rocky formation surrounded by river valleys; as such, the city is something of a land island, surrounded by natural moats. This did little to slow the 20th Century Germans, or many of the foreign rulers from earlier history, but nevertheless, Luxembourg stood out, in a literal sense.

Grund from above.
What that means for our cozy town is that the centre locks onto the olden fortress area; a largely pedestrian shopping area occupies the heart of the city, streaming shoppers past the landmark squares in front of the Grand Ducal Palace (one of five in the country, I hear). Then, surrounding the city are the valleys of the Petrusse and Alzette rivers, as well as les Villes basses. The rivers are hardly impressive, the Petrusse hardly a stream, less than a meter wide, the Alzette a staid stew of a river bearing that grungy green that many city rivers boast of, though without the size or import of those other rivers. The low cities, Grund, Clausen, and Pfaffenthal, offer the classic Old Europe feel, narrow cobblestone paved roads next to a river, replete with Michelin-starred restaurants and a famous church (the Abbaye of Neumunster). We have so far only made it to Grund, home to many of the Portuguese in town, as well as a pair of Scottish or Irish pubs. It was indeed scenic strolling down to the low town on a Saturday night, twilight upon us and the black roofed buildings of the old city towering above.

A Grund street. Ok, a slight incline.
The city is not hilly in the way I often think of European cities as being hilly. In the main part of the city there are mild undulations, but nothing significant. What of the high versus low cities, you might ask. It is of course true that there are different altitudes in the city, but it is better to think of the city height as a discrete rather than continuous functions – to get to the bottom, one descends on a steep decline, whether towards Grund et al. or one of the outer neighborhoods, Cents for example. To get back, one takes a cab or a bus. The high city is mostly flat, the low cities are mostly flat. No, hills are not part of the scenery.
For all that, we do live on something of an incline, and from our 3rd floor apartment (4th floor by American counting), we have a slightly elevated view of the center and of the old town, and a peering glance to the train tracks and villes basses below. The contrast between that high and low, along with the contrast between the more traditional center and the modern surrounding neighborhoods (to our northeast, we can spot the beginning of Kirchberg, where the EU institutions are housed), and the ever-present contrast between sun and clouds, blue and gray, lends Luxembourg its beauty, a beauty it can boast of.

At that, I leave you with a picture of the view I have from my desk, as well as a standing invitation, presuming I actually know you, to come visit. And if I don’t know you, just visit this site for more writing on Luxembourg, travel in and near the country, and any other adventures that merit the time. Tiptop? Tiptop. Et Merci.