The Exorcist and the C(o)unt: or How I got the Luxembourgish nationality 

IMG_3329Time has arrived to look back on my personal experience on becoming Luxembourgish. I applied for the Luxembourgish nationality in 2016, pre Brexit and before the new law.

For this, I studied Luxembourgish for 3 years. But don’t you schwätzt wann ech glift méi on me! I can do small talk in the language of Rodange and Dicks. However, small talk is something I generally hate, so … I rarely use the language.

However, I know enough to to understand hate comments on the RTL website, especially those articles about foreigners’ right to vote or Flüchtlingen. Funny thing is that I also know enough to see that those comments about how one cannot use his own language in his own country! are 90% of the time not grammatically correct.

Luckily, this is not representative for real Luxembourgers. In fact I found here more acceptance and more freedom than in any other place where I lived. I was blessed to know a few exceptional Luxembourgish  to whom I am and will always be grateful for their support, kindness and open-mindedness.

I truly think that knowing at least a few words in the language of the country where you live is a must. However, it takes more than this to make a nation: culture, history, etc.. In the process of learning this language and during my 9 years here, I discovered music, traditions, expressions and the UNITED ZOHA*. And I made friends.

The second challenge on the way is the civil right classes. I had to attend 3: Human Rights, History and law and an optional. Now the system changed and there are more hours of courses to attend.  Back then the class would have around 25 people. Now they do it in amphitheatres. Thank you Brexit and Trump!

During my 3 classes I came across the same people, a colourful crowd from all over the world. Each class had its share of peculiarity, but by far the one that marked my spirit for a loooong time was the Human rights class. It became a tale of dark humour and awkward cultural misinterpretation.

Introducing the characters, people who were in the room:

  • O, a Romanian woman with an identity issue on the edge of falling asleep. Ok, that’s me.
  • Islam – an intelligent man from Bangladesh cursed with this surname
  • English guy (this was pre Brexit) with red cheeks who was holding his eyes with his hands in an attempt to stay awake
  • German woman with a superiority complex
  • The pedantic Danish couple who already knew all the laws
  • The American – a Jewish older guy with glasses who could at any time play Woody Allen (if old Woody ever stops doing films)
  • Two African men dressed in white robes with kufis
  • A Belgium woman who winked at me after the class

And last but not least, in the leading role: the teacher.

I walked into a room and I wondered if I needed an eye control. The first thing I saw was a woman at a desk. It came to my mind the time when a photographer gave me a tip: don’t combine dots and stripes. How about combining dots, on the sleeves, stripes all over and checkers on the margin in all colours of the rainbow? This was the teacher. She had white hair that gave a literal meaning to the expression: “A bad hair day”, but, but… very important: she had a Vuitton bag… and a bright pink expensive brand coat.

The class began and everyone had to introduce themselves in spite of the class “only” being two hours long. The teacher addressed us with the speed of snail going up a window and warned us that her English skills were not so good, because English was her fourth language. She also told us that her ancestors were Prussians who came to Luxembourg because they were fed up with Prussia.

So why did everyone want the nationality? First, we all agreed that the Luxembourgish passport makes travelling life easier.

Then there were other reasons. The German woman was in search of her true national identity, which was in-between English and Luxembourgish. I would have asked her if she wasn’t in search for her manners too, because she spoke with her feet on the table. The Asians and Africans obviously wanted  to live here without paying visits to the authorities every few years. The Danish couple wanted their children to be part of national sports teams. Yes: they were good looking and smart and their kids did performance sports! Plenty of reasons not to like them! The American because in Europe there’s a thing called “social protection”. The Englis was concerned about the (yet improbable at the time) perspective of Brexit. At least this I think he meant when he said that he was afraid to lose his own nationality. Or maybe I was in the wrong institution.

After all these, you probably won’t believe the reasons why I wanted the nationality. Besides the passport, I wanted it because of pure selfish pride, stubbornness and rebellion. I refuse to define myself through one nationality. Without disrespecting my origin, we do not have only one identity. Out of the numerous identities one can posses, some are not even cultural. And secondly because I sincerely love this country. I came to this place because this was where I wanted to live and I made this place my home. Being Luxembourgish is a symbol of all that, and it’s my story.

After that introduction round that lasted a small eternity, we started the class. I fell under a sort of sleep state.

I was waken up several times: one time when the teacher exclaimed: “I’m so glad that people exorcise Luxembourgish at home”. She was wrong: this language is nowhere near being exorcised. This language will haunt us for a long time, especially if Brexit happens and all the Brits living in Luxembourg will have to learn it. This language will haunt us through the new generation of kids who will stay home until they will be 30. It will haunt us through parents will have to learn how to communicate with the kids schooled here. This language will haunt us through the motto of resistance to change (mir well bleiwe watt mir sinn). No, dear, this language will not be exorcised! Still, I imagined the scene of an exorcist coming into a dark house, looking around and saying: A strange language has gone into her. I think she is possessed.

The second time I woke up was when she was giving us a lesson of history. Luxembourg was founded by a cunt. In fact several “c unts” have come to Luxembourg trying to settle with their horses, but one particular “c unt” named “Siegfried” managed to stay here. Most people in the room didn’t notice the mispronunciation. Just the Serbian next to me smiled. The English guy and Woody Allen were both playing with the phone. In the end most of us came in this world through a “c unt”, so what’s the big deal.

The lesson continued through the history of the women rights in Luxembourg, at which point the two African men interrupted her with a question. It was the first question of the evening. She was so happy to have finally a question that she didn’t come back to the subject. That question was: Is it true that they plan to increase the minimum salary? Of course, no, answered the Danish instead of the teacher. Everyone simply ignored the sudden change of topic, considering normal that minimum salary to be discussed at the same time as women rights.

And finally, towards the end, there was time to talk about the integration of the foreigners. The discussion turned to the Portuguese. And here, there was a phrase from the teacher which capture the whole essence of Luxembourg: “Since there was a migration in the 17th (she wanted to say 70s but I forgive her) we are trying to sensibiliticize them to learn the language. But it is very hard. Very, very hard. Because… men work outside and women work inside”. To be mentioned: there was no Portuguese in the room. They were probably having the same class in Luxembourgish.

Now, there’s one thing that I want to make clear: I don’t hold anything against the teacher. I’m sure she did the best she could to give that class. Everyone does fashion mistakes. I do plenty and my hair on a usual day looks awful. I also do funny language mistakes in English, not to mention Luxembourgish. Thank God no one cared so much, when by mistake I directed people to the “horny lady” instead of the “golden lady”.

I am certain that she didn’t have mean intentions. I’m sure that for her it was something normal, inoffensive to classify all the Portuguese in the country into housewives and construction workers. I’m also sure that if she ever reads this she will feel offended, but, I hope that she’ll understand that this text has a satirical scope.

What I would also want to say is that she is wrong again. The new generation of Portuguese speaks very well Luxembourgish. As well as the Italians who came before them. They are (as a friend said) very ambitious and they will succeed where the old generations of Luxos won’t.

And of course, I don’t see the problem with men outside, women inside, when they obviously won’t learn Luxembourgish from each.

Towards the end Islam raised the most intelligent question related to human rights. I was so concentrated trying not to laugh about the exorcist and the cunt that I couldn’t listen to the answer given by the Danish couple.

But please, don’t think that all teachers are like this or that these classes are useless. I learned important information from each of it, especially from the history and politics. These classes introduced me to the overly complicated voting system. Learning the history confirmed that Luxembourg was not actually founded by a cunt but by a count. I learned that there were other capable men and women who made this small country a place where people want to join the nationality.

And in the end, how would you exorcise fear and obsolete ideas imprinted in the conscience of a nation with an identity issue, if it’s not through … humour?

* United Zoha , also called the N rule is a grammarian oddity in Luxembourgish (that most native speakers don’t know as such) consisting of adding N at the words ending in E, when the following word starts with U, N, I, T, E, D, Z, O, H or A. Simple, isn’t it?  

A train story

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The below happened under my eyes in the train which was taking me and my sister to Bruxelles to spend holidays with our family. It’s not a tragic story, it’s just slightly bitter as a day of winter when the sky turns grey and you know that it was supposed to snow by now but you slip under the dim light of your desk lamp and dive your nose into the computer and you let news of climate change be covered by some video with a dog eating a Christmas tree.

It was the day of the attack in Germany and the news were grim, nerves were stretching, a few dark thoughts passed through my mind.

I fell asleep around Namur and woke up near Ottignes where the whole scene started. A man walked into the train, a young man of presumably Moroccan origins. He put his luggage and sat like any normal passenger, with his girlfriend, a redhead young woman. A few seats in front a Muslim woman with her hair covered sat alone.

Just a minute later, another man entered the train. He had washed out jeans and a brown leather jacket, he was bold and had unsteady eyes, surrounded by large black circles. His moves were swift and irregular. He was holding an unlit cigarette between his fingers, using it to point towards imaginary people. His eyes seem to be running in all the directions. His lips were moving as if he was talking to himself. My first thought was “drugs”. He entered our car and went straight to the first man, mumbling and baiting at him in a mix of French and Arab.

Soon the tone started to raise and everyone in the train was terrified. The woman with the headscarf was obviously scared. She had her fingers on the phone, as if she was ready to call someone. What I could understand from the mix was: “you’re not a good Moroccan. What? You’re only speaking French? French? The language of these …? Of these … You’re Moroccan, you should be ashamed to speak to me in French! You think you’re a Belgium? You are Moroccan. French is the language of scoundrels!”
The insults were pouring in this strange language mix, in spite of the young man answering in Arab with an impressive calm. My sister told me later on that she could see his hands shaking while the deranged was shouting at him. It lasted for too long. Other people in the car were looking down, on the window. We continued talking soddly as if nothing was happening. I could smell the fear in the air, this fear that oppresses us lately, the fear of an attack, the fear that raises the tensions, fear of other humans, fear that there was a bomb under that brown leather jacket.

I could smell it and I was myself drowning in it, with every new stronger wave of the verbal violence. I could understand a word in 10 but I could feel the hate through the language barrier. The woman with the headscarf looked more and more worried and the young man was managing to keep calm.

After a while he stopped answering in Arab and any language. The violent guy left the car but he was watching him though the door, still moving his cigarette. A controller came and asked his ticket. For just the 2 minutes they spoke, his face changed at 180 degrees. He was smiling, showing his ticket as if he has been smiling for the entire journey. I was surprised that the employee of the railroad didn’t ask anything about his cigarette, which he was still turning and pointing in his hand. Maybe he didn’t want to know more.

Meanwhile the young man was talking to his girlfriend: “I am so ashamed and I feel guilty for his attitude. You can’t imagine the words of hate he said to me in Arab, all the insults…”

When the train entered the first station in Brussels, it stopped for another extremely long minutes. The deranged open the door and from there he asked the young man why he doesn’t want to get out of train. The young man said that he goes to another station.
That created a new tsunami of affronts and insults. The door kept automatically closing and he was hitting the handle to push it back like crazy, while he was yelling: “your a fagget, a homosexual! You’re not a real Moroccan! Fucking fagget! You only speak French!! You wanna fight? Let’s fight! Let’s see who’s stronger! I know box! You wanna fight, you PD?”

At this point the young man who was saying nothing in this second round, could not take it anymore. He raised his tone and shouted out: “ok! Let’s fight!”

Silence in the train. Nothing was moving for a few seconds. He was still sitting in his seat when the mad shut his mouth for once. The door closed for good and the mad man stepped out of the train.
I let out a sigh. The woman with headscarf let her phone on the table and breathed.
The last thing I heard the young man telling his girlfriend was:
“I can’t feel my hands! I was so scared! My heart is pumping.”
“Would you have gotten into a fight with him?” she asked.
“I don’t know”

There are so many questions I think about while putting in writing this events at 1 a.m. I wonder about fear, about war. Are we about to lose the paradise, the safety and freedom we were used to?
From outside it may look like “Arabs fighting between themselves” but from where I was it looked exactly like a consequence of raising hostility between “us” and “them”. As if this “us” and “them” should even exist.

Someone in a post on Facebook, wrote, referring to the Berlin attach: “Muslim immigrants don’t understand the principle of our democracy.”
When I was telling the story into family, I started with introducing the young man, but I called him, for the sake of simplification, “a young Arab”. I could see that from my first words, they were expecting him to be the negative character of the story. As the story unfolded, he became the hero.
And I was wondering what is our so called democracy that allowed so much hate between us as we are no longer recognising the courage, the kindness in a man, just because of a word that I wrongly chose to describe someone?
And do we really know better with our democratic, European values that hang by a hair? What do we know about this large culture? What do we know about being an immigrant and being raised in a family that does not belong and having to fight your way and feel guilty for someone that doesn’t share anything with you, except your language and maybe some obsolete religious rituals? We, the so called “western world” know nothing. This is not a war between the “Arabs” and the “Western world”. It’s a clash of cultures and educations. None of the sides understands the other and those in between, the generation of hard working people who tries to live here like us, well, they are just “immigrants”.
It’s a war of fear. Of course, somewhere in this fucked up world there is blood flowing in rivers and suffering and abuse, but here, in the safety warm, western world we can close our eyes and hide under the blanket. We are no longer used to violence so every outburst is an event.

But then, there was something positive about this story. There was a young man who didn’t answer violence with violence, one of the most forgotten Christian lessons. There was hate giving up in front of courage. There was also mistrust and fear. No one thought about calling any authorities, which shows how much trust we all have in them.

I learned something from the attitude of everyone else in the train.
You can not suppress fear! In front of violence, fear is something real, touchable, it throws you out of control. But, even in those moments, one can chose his or her attitude.
I regret not going and saying an appreciative word to that young man when I was leaving, a simple word of recognition. I was still under this fear that something might have happened.
In the airport there were men patrolling with guns. They didn’t make me feel safer or better. Hate from inside kills as much as the hate from outside.

I don’t have any solutions for the current state of the world. I find that the most difficult to bear is feeling tied, hopeless,  feeling useless. My only way of dealing with these feelings has always been and will always be writing. So, I write. I tell the story as it is, as insignificant as it may look and somewhere in this process I found a glimpse of hope.

Ech welle GUER NET bleiwe watt ech sinn

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I do not, in any case, want to remain what I am.

Did you know that Luxembourg is one of those countries which has a national quote. Fancy, right? It sounds extravagant and intellectual. It states Mir wir bleiwe wat mir sinn. I hope I spelled it correctly and in accordance with the last rules of grammar, because Luxembourgish grammar is younger than the quote.
It means We want to remain what we are and it originated (at least that’s what wikipedia says) in 1859 around the building of the first railways connecting Luxembourg to the neighbouring countries. In a time when mobility was increasing and people from other countries were coming to visit easily, the Luxembourgers wanted to show that they exist on the map, they have been there since some time and want to remain what they are.

Fast forward to World War 2. The Luxembourgish citizens were forced to declare that they were speaking a German dialect, not a language of their own. This time not only was their identity mocked and questioned (as it has always been and still is the case today), but it was literally denied. It was a tough time, and it even went as far as to deport people who would refuse to sign it.
So, in those circumstances,  it made perfectly sense to say: we want to remain what we are.

Fast forward to the 60s or d’Sixties (the name of a documentary about the golden decade in Luxembourg). Luxembourg was negotiating being founding member of the European Union (which didn’t exist). At that time the population of the country consisted mostly of farmers and metal industry workers, so basically it was a poor country. A handful of people formed outside the country came with the ambition to make Luxembourg one of the three centres for EU institutions. For that purpose the Grand Duc and Grande Duchesse gave the permission to transform Kirchberg which was only fields and forests into a modern quarter and to put a red bridge to connect it with the city.

When I saw d’Sixties I imagined a peasant sitting on a stone, looking at his field, looking at the clouds gathering, letting a sight go because the crops seems to be compromised and a group of people passing by asking: “Hey, dude, what would you say if Luxembourg would be part of this new thing called European Union? What would you say if Luxembourgers would host European institutions?”
And the peasant looking at the clouds again, looking at his crops, shifting on his seating stone, thinking “This stone might be a little edgy,  it might hurt my butt a little but at least I’ve been sitting on it since years looking at my crops” and saying “Ne! Mir well bleiwe watt mir sinn“.

Fast forward another 40-45 years later, during the economical boom. Luxembourg was a country with the best salaries and the banking system was flourishing, companies were blooming and there was work to be found, cross boarders arrived from all three corners of the country and there was cheep alcohol and cigarettes. Luxembourgers finally had time to create a grammar and to implement the written language and in the mean time there was a general opening towards languages and foreigners. They were building museums with plans made by famous worldwide architects and Luxembourg was becoming the European Capital of Culture.
No one gave a damn about mir well bleiwe watt mir sinn. Even some farmers became rich by selling their land to investors.

And then, by the time I got to Luxembourg, days before I start my job, a big bank crashed in the US and it created a big economical crisis.

And here we are in Luxembourg these days, where the unemployment rate is still acceptable (at least compared to other countries in Europe) and the prices of housing continue to raise artificially because of locals selling their parents houses and moving in France or Germany and some referendum tries to open the rights of voting to the foreigners, out of the sudden, again, the Luxembourgish resurrect the national motto.

Now, I consider this country to be my home. I was more welcomed here than anywhere in the world. I found incredible people, my best friends are here. I appreciate the life in Luxembourg. But why on earth, why why why would you like to remain WHAT you are. 

Why WHAT and not WHO?

Actually the WHO we are? is the BIG question in Luxembourg and is equally a theme for the locals, for the 2nd generation of Portuguese and Italian, for the expats, for the cross boarder workers, for the immigrants. Who we are, us who live here?

If I wouldn’t have asked this precious question “Who am I?” years ago I would for sure wanted to remain what I was.
And I am a lot like Luxembourg, in a way. Just a glimpse of personal memory here: what was I some time ago? You might not know so let me tell you.
3 years ago, the woman writing these lines had already passed the big challenging of integration and had a nice job, a boyfriend and a bunch of friends. Life was comfortable sitting on the stone and watching the clouds that were gathering. 3 years ago the woman writing these lines was terrified by the idea of change.
She was afraid and unable to climb a few stairs without stopping in the middle.
She was afraid to go for a run.

She was afraid to express her thoughts.
She was afraid to step out of a relationship which was breaking.
She was (at least in her opinion at that time and for many domains of life) worthless.

Back then if you would have asked me, I was damn sure that I wanted to remain what I was.

But I didn’t. One day I realised that WHAT I was didn’t define me, that I was asking myself the wrong question. WHO I was had nothing to do with the WHAT I was, because who you are is that thing in the middle of our soul that defines our values and shapes our personality. What we are can be changed.
So I changed! And that’s the thing about change: it’s addictive. I’ve become something else. I don’t know how it look to the outsiders, but from here, from inside it’s far better.

I also understood that we do not have to limit our identity to one thing. One can be Luxembourgish even if one has an Italian and an English parent (a situation that I saw in Luxembourg)… and be Jewish on top, who cares.

So because Ech well NET bleiwe watt ech sinn, I will apply sometimes in the future for the Luxembourgish nationality.

And because Luxembourg didn’t remain what it was, we now have the possibility to live in a country where important decisions are taken, where we are still not afraid to walk in the streets and where we can have a happy life (because we have more than we need to have a happy life). We also have the opportunity to live among hypocrisy and fear and xenofobia and whatever. But are not doomed to remain what we are. We also have the chance to live among people from all the corners of the world and learn from our differences. We can change for better!

Yes we can!