Letters from Luxembourg

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I started writing letters, something I haven’t done since the 1960s. The reason was I moved from Finland to work for some years in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and wanted to organize my experiences.

The letter format has been often used to convey observations of a foreign society and culture, or to describe one's own through the eyes of a foreigner. I had an example in mind: “Letters from Finland” by Miguel Angel Ganivet who ended up as Spanish consul in Finland in the early 1900s. Many of his sharp observations remain valid today.

I don’t pretend to compete with Ganivet in creative writing or insightfulness. I’m more or less writing for my own amusement.

I have looked up information in a variety of sources, the most important of which I have tried to acknowledge. Nevertheless, the letters should not be relied upon as a source of information. Mistakes are likely, and I am not going to regularly update the links.    

The synoptic summary below is meant to clarify the choice of pictures that go along with the letters written in Finnish, in case someone is interested in viewing my amateurish photos (more of which are available by clicking “LISÄÄ KUVIA” below the letter title).

Should you wish to give feedback, please click “PALAUTE” and send a message. Click on "TEKIJÄT" for credits.

1 Little big country

This letter looks at some basic features of Luxembourg, such as size (Luxembourg compares with a natural park in northern Finland), official languages (French, German and the secret language Lëtzebuergesch, spoken by no one outside of Luxembourg), transport connections (in former days Luxembourg was dependent on the Moselle river, nowadays it is a global an air cargo hub), and cultural diversity (inhabitants of foreign origin account for some 45% of the 500 000 population).    

A unique feature in Luxembourg is the large number of people who commute to work from neighboring countries. Most of the 150 000 commuters (les frontaliers) use their own cars which is why there is occasionally little room for others on Luxembourgish roads

According to a survey in 2009, 95% of people who do not know Luxembourg well have a negative or neutral view of  the country, which suggests they have never heard of it. Yet Luxembourg has held the Presidency of the Commission of the European Union twice and has won the Eurovision Song Contest five times.    

2 A minority in their own country

This letter looks at how Luxembourg copes with the large number of immigrants. In the capital 65% of inhabitants are foreigners, representing more than 150 nationalities. The key to peaceful coexistence and integration is culture: a variety of events and activities, such as outdoor concerts and festivals, are organized to give people the opportunity to share a common experience.

3 The shopping scene    

Luxembourg is not necessarily the place you want to go shopping unless you are into IKKS-Manolo Blahnik-Vuitton-Frey Wille stuff available in the walking district downtown.

Other than that there’s the teenage paradise Avenue de la Gare which is lined by shops selling very small garments to very small people who do not expect the garments survive the first wash. And there is the stand in the monthly market at the Place de Glacis which sells blue shaded housekeeping dresses, something that may be hard to find outside of Luxembourg.    

People from the neighboring countries come to Luxembourg to buy petrol, booze and fags that are taxed less heavily here. To spare foreigners the trouble of actually visiting the Grand Duchy, Luxembourgers have set up petrol station villages at the borders: just pick your pump and pop in the shop to buy the other stuff and you’re ready to exit the country.

4 The promised land of automobiles    

There are almost as many cars in Luxembourg as there are inhabitats: 700 cars per 1000 people. It may be easier to buy a car in Luxembourg than import one because the procedure for registering an imported car involves at least half a dozen steps many of which require queuing.

A tip: even if you have a resident’s parking permit, it is recommended to check daily that the place you left your car is still lawful. For major events and rallies the police clears the streets of cars – if they have taken yours you’ll have to pay a ransom to get it back.    

5 How to find a white-coat

This letter describes what it feels like for someone who is used to turn to the community health centre and just follow the conveyor belt through the public health care system to be suddenly responsible for locating and selecting by yourself service providers within a patchwork of private health care system. Although the health services are private in Luxembourg, the health insurance is public and universal. The costs of treatment by a medical doctor, clinic or hospital are reimbursed at 80-90%.

6 Dancing procession and ecumenical Fatima

This letter reveals why pilgrims in Echternach jump to polka rhythm to pay respects to the grave of St. Willibrord, why the Luxemburgish Portuguese community gather in Wiltz in the Ardennes to celebrate Our Lady of Fatima of Portugal, and why the Wiltz Fatima may be celebrated by some muslims as well.

7 The safest country in Europe

Crime in Luxembourg is normally less spectacular than the crime prevention equipment of the Luxemburgish police. All manner of economic crimes are characteristic to the Grand Duchy, from swindling credulous tourists out of their cash to using Luxembourg as a base for tax evasion through concealment of assets or fabricated expenditures.

8 Eng kleng natioun um velostroun

Luxembourgers are nuts about cycling. The Schleck brothers, Andy and Fränk, are worshipped as heroes whether they make the top three in the Tour de France or not. Luxembourgers are also quite enthusiastic about football although Malta is the only EU country to be lower than the Grand Duchy on FIFA’s ranking list.

9 Moving into the senior citizen mode

On Saturday mornings downtown Luxembourg is taken over by wealthy Lëtzebuergesch speaking senior citizens. They drive down to the weekly market for shopping food and invade the cafés for a glass of Riesling. The population in Luxembourg is ageing fast and only increases thanks to immigration and a tendency among immigrants to have plenty of children.

10 Weeds and roses

Before Luxembourg became known as a haven for banks and headquarters of multinationals it was one of the world’s leading steel producers, which is why it was a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, the first step towards the European Union.

Before that Luxembourg was known as the Country of Roses thanks to a flourishing rose growing industry that employed hundreds of people and exported roses over the Atlantic.

The City of Luxembourg park services take seriously the protection of environment and biodiversity. Herbicides or pesticides are no longer used and grass on roadsides is mown only when it grows so high it hinders traffic visibility.

11 Have you heard about Grand Duchess Charlotte

I had barely moved in when the Luxembourgish 80+ lady next door wanted to make sure I know about Grand Duchess Charlotte. She governed the Grand Duchy from 1919 till she retired in 1964. During the Nazi occupation she was in exile along with her family and Government. Her husband Prince Felix and son Prince Jean joined the British army and took part in the Liberation.

Luxembourgers were so fond of Charlotte that they selected her birthday as the National Day but, because it was in the middle of winter, moved it to 23 June which is weatherwise a much better date for festivities.

The current Grand Duke Henri is Charlotte’s grand-son, married to a lady of Cuban origin, with five children. Luxembourgers await eagerly the wedding of the royal heir Prince Guillaume to a Flemish Countess in October 2012.

12 An unending party

During weekday evenings and ordinary weekends Luxembourgers are nowhere to be seen. However, when someone organizes a free public concert or street party, they gather in great numbers. Teasing them out from their holes doesn’t actually require much: just a brass band, a sausage grill and a stand selling beer and Luxembourgish champagne called crémant. Crémant is the universal drink, consumed everywhere, anytime, by everybody.

13 Biactive couples

This letter basically looks at the condition of women in Luxembourg. “Biactive” doesn’t refer to sex, it’s just an expression for both husband and wife having a paid job. Luxembourgish women have been slow to enter the world of work, except the immigrants who have moved into the Grand Duchy for employment. Lack of day care services is the main factor hindering women from seeking employment, although dated attitudes play a role as well.

14 From iron ore mining to call centers

This letter is a quick tour into the history of steel industry in Luxembourg. Before World War II the miniature country produced more steel per
inhabitant than the US which explains why it was among the founding members of the European Steel and Coal Community, the origin of the European Union. During the past 50 years the banking and finances sector has replaced the steel industry. After the world wide financial crisis revealed how dependent the Grand Duchy has become of this volatile sector, politicians have struggled to find ways to build up a more varied basis for the economy.

15 Black as the devil and fat as a monk

This is about food in Luxembourg. The Luxembourgish culinary culture combines influences from many directions. Luxembourgers are partial to meat dishes. Apart from the staple food, grillwurscht, there are specialties such as horse steak, smoked pork served with beans, calf’s head hash, wild boar piglet stew, and black pudding served with apple jam. Steak tartare is called filet américain in Luxembourg.

16 Crémant for everybody

This letter tells how Luxembourgers managed to turn sparkling wine into crémant and learn the whole nation sip it all the time, everywhere and for every excuse. The letter also describes how the whole nation panicked when the international brewing giant ABInBev announced it will move to Belgium the production of Diekirch, Luxembourg’s second most popular beer brand, brewed in the small town of Diekirch since the 1870s.

17 Eat well, feel well

It’s fairly easy to find in Luxembourg a cosy place where you can get good value food and friendly service. The restaurant scene is highly competitive, however, so you may see your favourite eatery closing down, which is not nice, and obviously even more not nice for the people who have lost their job and livelihood.

18 Make silence, not noise

That was the name of a slightly pathetic campaign run by the City of Luxembourg in an attempt to prevent public nuisance and disorder due to nightlife economy. A prime example of the nightlife economy is Rives de Clausen, a concentration of trendy bars and restaurants in a former brewery block, to which a shuttle bus service feeds in customers from downtown.

19 Welfare to share

This is about taxation, social insurance and charity in Luxembourg. Most of the pictures have nothing to do with the content but it was hard to find more suitable ones.

20 The dark side of the street

This letter is about he divide between the rich and the poor that has grown bigger in Luxembourg over the past years. Growing wealth has brought along a shortage of resonably priced housing. The willingness of well-paid workforce of the financing sector and of the European Institutions has contributed to a price level beyond the means of ordinary people. Around 3000 people are totally homeless.

21 Cows and lions

This letter tells about the Ardennes horse, bred in the old times to do heavy work in woods and fields. It's also about cows that are more numerous in Luxembourg than Portuguese immigrants and about lions that are mostly found in state, city and nobility arms and in art, although you can also find cow statues in Luxembourg.

22 Affaire Bommeleeër

Bommeleeër refers to a series of bomb attacks  in the mid-80s, targeted at power and telephone lines, the airport, some police stations, even at the Bock casemates, the most popular tourist sight of the capital. The police themselves and the secret service have been among suspects but no one has been charged for want of evidence until now, almost 30 years after the incidents. The result of the trial will be interesting as the people involved are in their seventies and part of the documents, sent to the CIA for further investigation, are still missing.

Before parliamentary elections in 2009 the trade unions organized a joint demonstration bringing together up to 30 000 people. Apart from these highlights the political scene in Luxembourg seems not too colourful. The christian democrats have been in power since World War II and Jean-Claude Juncker, who doubles as the president of the Euro Group, has been prime minister for almost two decades.

23 And Luxembourg goes to...

In this letter I’m trying to make sense of the history of Luxembourg which is quite muddled due to Luxembourg having been repeatedly inherited, annexed, sold and mortgaged and its invincible fortress sieged and conquered a number of times. This doesn’t seem to bother Luxembourgers because, as explained by the author George Erasmus, the powers that be have been Luxembourgish Celts, Luxembourgish Romans, Luxembourgish Franks and so forth.

24 Villmools merci!

This letter is about the alphabet soup in Luxembourg, a pocket-size country with three official languages: French, German and Letzeburgish. Letzeburgish is spoken by 400 000 of the 500 000 population, but hardly any place else. Except for Luxembourgish expats, I guess.

25 Mäin Numm ass Johnny Chicago!

Despite the size of the population, an amazing number of journals are published in Luxembourg – none in Letzegurgish, though. There is also florishing plurilingual Luxembourgish literature, including in Letzeburgish. I haven’t actually read any Letzeburgish novels, because the language beats me, and apparently there is little demand for translation. Some of the French language works, however, have been quite enjoyable. And I love the Luxemburgish films by Andy Bausch, many of which exemplify how the alphabet soup works in day to day life.

26 Remembrance

Wolrd War II seems quite visible in Luxembourg – maybe because the place where I live is surrounded by streets and buildings commemorating those who suffered as soldiers enrolled by force, deserters or members of the resistance, in forced labour or in concentration camps, or oppressed or tortured by the nazi regime. There are at least half dozen World War II museums in Luxemburg and as many yearly commemoration days. Some 6000 Luxembourgers lost their lives in the war. In proportion of the 300 000 population this was more than in any other West European country with the exception of the Netherlands.

27 A bridge towards the future

The Pont Adolphe bridge over the Petrusse valley was built in 1903 to link the old town with Plateau Bourbon where the Gare distric was to be built between the bridge and the railway station. Building the bridge was quite visionary: I found in the flea market a postcard showing the new handsom stone bridge and nothing on the other side apart from a grassy plain. The Gare area developed into what still is the city’s most urban area. Most of the rest are charming but not too lively residential areas.

28 Ravens and their mates

Ravens are a characteristic part of the fauna in Luxembourg, although they have been living in he city only for a couple of decades. So are dogs. Despite the Bravo plastic bags at the disposal of dog owners the city services collect yearly 500 tonnes dog poo from the streets.

29 D'Chrëschtmaart

This letter is about the Christmas season in Luxembourg. The photos seem a bit sad. That's because the weather in Luxembourg tends to be cloudy and rainy in the weeks before the turn of the year.

30 An EU City

The European Steel and Coal Community - the start of the future European Union - was set up in Luxembourg in 1952 because Luxembourg was among the founding countries. When the European integration process took off, Luxembourgers realised there would not be enough space for the European intitutions in the old town. So they set up a new one: in 1963 they built a 335 metre long steel bridge to connect the old town with the Kirchberg plateau that at the time mainly served as meadows. The first building, a 22-storey skyscraper, was completed in 1966. Now the 365 hectare plateu houses a whole city.

31 About weather in Luxembourg

It rains every other day, on average. Relative humidity varies between around 90% in November and December and around 60% in April and May. The good point is that the winter is not too cold and the summer is not too hot.

32 SuperDrecksKëscht

Tiny Luxembourg has an oversized ecological footprint, in part due to the large number of people having jobs in Luxembourg but living in neighboring countries. On the other hand, they do contribute to the national economy, so why shouldn’t they be counted in the footprint too. There are, however, also examples of small steps that seem to contribute to the good of the environment. Shopping bags produced and promoted jointly by the Ministry of sustainable development and by the retail sector have been so well received that since the launch in 2004, Luxembourg has avoided the waste – and production costs – of up to 368 million plastic bags, which doesn’t sound bad at all.

33 Happy houses

There are awful lot cute houses in Luxembourg. Colourful too. It seems the partiality to vivid colours has been imported by Italian immigrants. In any case it brings bright spots in the gloomy gray Luxembourgish winter.

34 Finland in Luxembourg

In this letter I share where I have spotted something Finnish in Luxembourg.

35 The secret cemetery of Anne Marie Mansfeld

This letter is about cemeteries in Luxembourg. They tend to have quite distinct tombstone styles. The most peculiar cemetery lies under the protestant Holy Trinity curch. In it lies buried Anne Marie Mansfield, illegitimate daughter of Count Ernest de Mansfield, Governor o Luxembourg in the latter half of XVI century, whose renaissance palace has totally disappeared. Anne Marie used her fortune to establish a nunnery and school for girls. The nunnery's cemetery was forgotten for more than a century and only opened for the public in the 1990s.

36 Discussing architecture

This letter is about interesting phenomena in architecture. The Luxembourg Foundation of architecture and civil engineering (Fondarch) publishes “opinion leaflets” (carnet d’opinions) meant to spur public discussion about architecture as a factor in our living environments. The first discussion focused on the postmodern Cité judiciaire. Personally, I’m lucky to live in a part of the city where I can enjoy on my walks many gorgeous art nouveu buildings.

37 Blankenberge Express

A Luxembourgish beach holiday consists in riding 4 h on a special train to Blankenberge on the Belgish coast to spend there 6 h and then ride 4 h back. That's if you live in Luxmbourg city. Those who live in the backwoods can count a few hours more on the train. Riding on the Blankenberge Express must be fun.

38 Love, luck and protection

An abundance of medium and clairvoyant services is a Luxembourgish specialty. Service providers distribute promo info into mailboxes. You just need to pick up the phone to contact one of them. They make house calls too. Services are normally provided in French. They can help you with any problem related to love life. They will help you succeed in business, study or any endeavour. They offer protection against bad spells and hexes. They even cure unknown diseases!

39 Äddi Spoo

A charming street name was a factor when I chose the place to live in Luxembourg: rue Spoo reminded me of Harry Potter’s Floo Network. Caspar Mathias Spoo was an industrial and politician and wrote in Luxembourgish language the biography of his sister who was a nun and ended up as missionary in Algeria.

It says in the Michelin Guide of Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg that “you can see most of the capital in a day; but stay overnight to sample one of the excellent restaurants.” I agree on the restaurants but can say based on my own experience that there is plenty to see and do in the City and in the Grand Duchy even though both are tiny on a European scale.

“Äddi” is “farewell” in Luxembourgish.  I have moved back to Finland so this letter is mostly about the things in Luxembourg that I’ll miss.

40 Epilogue

Finally, there are remarks about what has and hasn’t changed in Luxembourg during the time I have been writing letters. On some points there is no change. The Northern Highway has been under construction since 1997 and is still missing the bit between Lorentzweiler and Kirchberg.

On the other hand, the city of Luxembourg will undergo considerable changes over the next few years. The entire Hamilius block next to the main post office will be torn down and replaced by a yet bigger block that will house offices, shops and some apartments.

Pont Adolphe needs to be strengthened and widened for the tram line planned from the railway station to the airport. While the old stone brige is being upgraded traffic will be moved to a temporary bridge that will be built along its west flank. I’m kind of glad I got out of the way before the construction works and traffic disturbance begins right next to my place. You can follow progress in the Pont Adolphe worksite through two webcams.

That’s all folks! I’m not going to update the links.