Luxembourg: Land of the Grand Duke

Yes! Finally! The country-treatment (within the “Europa XL” series of cultural portraits of EU member-states commissioned by the Danish newspaper Politiken, etc., etc.) you’ve all been waiting for: Luxembourg!

Well, it’s at least the portrait I’ve been looking forward to doing. Check it out: The Luxembourgois poet Jean Portante actually lists as his choice for “Object” the local language, Lëtzebuergesch. A very good choice, as you’ll see if you care to read on further, although apparently everyone there (or who is really from there at least) speaks French and German as well.

I’ve also noticed that Politiken recently added Malta to their Europa XL master-index page. I might give that one a pass, unless I get any fervent reader requests to the contrary. I do know a very attractive, vivacious Maltese living here in Amsterdam (I don’t think she reads €S, though), but Roberta B. on her own ordinarily would hardly be enough of a justification to inflict a 10-point cultural review of Malta on you, or for that matter on myself. I would, however, like to inflict Roberta on myself (not you.) On the other hand, I don’t in fact know anyone from Luxembourg, and so that should convince you of my incorruptible and highly-objective standards when it comes to choosing material to cover on these pages.

Back to the grand duchy, then: our resident expert on Luxembourg is the poet Jean Portante, son of Italian immigrants to that country.

He writes in French, but has translated the works of several poets writing in Lëtzebuergesch (presumably to French), as well as Latin American authors; he spent some time in Havana working as a proof-reader and translator. He’s a multiple award-winner, of course, and most particularly is editor of the book supplement (Supplément Livres) to the Luxembourgeois newspaper Tageblatt. (Check it out: it’s a newspaper with a German name, but written in French!) Now on to his choices for depicting Luxembourgeois/Luxemburgian culture:

  • Painting: Vue de la Ville de Luxembourg, by William Turner (1834). So far, so good. Portante is enlightened enough not to blindly choose some piece from a Luxemburgian artist (and who can name a Luxemburgian painter?), but rather a noteworthy work from the renowned English painter which really captures the essence of Luxembourg City that anyone who has ever visited it will recall: that it is built on two ridges surrounding a tremendous gorge. In fact, the accompanying article notes, Luxembourg City has long been termed the “Gibraltar of the North”; its notable geographic features have meant that it has been virtually unconquerable throughout history (except, of course, by means of occupying the whole country surrounding it). The painting turns out even to be a watercolor work; and, fittingly, it resides in the Museum for History and Art in Luxembourg.
  • Photograph: The Last Tram, 6 September 1964. Yes, on that day in history the Luxembourg City authorities retired city tram service, citing what Portante terms “obscure arguments about faltering profitability and [excessive] competition.” Naturally, people now regret that move, so that it’s possible that the trams will return. In the meantime, this photo captures the pomp-and-ceremony with which the retiring of the trams was celebrated in Luxembourg forty years ago.

    Generally speaking, though, consider the fact that you ask for a defining photograph of Luxembourg and you get a tram covered in flowers. France gave us the cupola of the Académie Française building (although of course it should have given us the Eiffel Tower); Denmark, to take another example, gave us a defiantly nursing mother. And the tram doesn’t even run anymore (although it may once again). What does all that say about the grand duchy?

  • Person: Charly Gaul, 1958 Tour de France winner. “Charly Gaul”? You mean “Charles de Gaulle”? No, that was France (uncanny similarity in the names though, eh?). Luxembourg will have to settle, not for a historical statesman or even for a saint (cf. Portugal’s St. Anthony of Lisbon), but for its greatest sports hero, who kept the Luxembourgeois glued in front of the TV set at the local bar (TVs back then were not so widely owned in Luxembourg, the accompanying article notes) back in 1958.
  • Object: Lëtzebuergesch, or the Luxemburgian language. I like this one a lot, and can certainly agree with the selection of a language as a representative “object.” It’s apparently a “frankish” dialect (not “French” – “frankish”); it’s grammar was first systematically described only in the 1980s, and it is not taught in Luxemburgian schools. No, you learn at your mother’s knee as a true Luxembourgeois – or else you learn it at night school if you didn’t have the knee of a Luxemburgian mother available when you were growing up (as is the case for 40% of the grand duchy’s residents, the article reports). For, nonetheless, it is the “national language,” even though in practice most business is done in French and German – both of which most Luxembourg residents can handle without any problem, Portante claims.
  • Text: Calamités d’un petit combat pour l’access à la mer, by Guy Rewenig. Guy Rewenig uses grotesque exaggeration to write, in French, about the “small pettinesses and grand illusions” of his fellow Luxembourgeois. In this particular work, whose title translates to “Calamities of a Small Struggle for Access to the Sea,” the Luxemburgian political authorities struggle to fulfill their childhood dream of owning a stretch of actual beach. This moves them to pursue a plan to re-form the country into a narrow, 200-km strip of land, stretching from Luxembourg City to that highly-desired stretch of Flemish coast.
  • Music: The Hämmelsmarsch, or “March of the Lambs”. Unlike just above under “Text,” the text of this representative song – or at least one stanza – is reproduced here, and not even in Danish but rather in what seems to be authentic Lëtzebuergesch. This is the march that announces and represents the yearly kermesser, or market-fair. “Lambs”? Portante explains that it’s an old Luxemburgian tradition to cross the street with a lamb walking at your side.
  • Poem: Chants de refus, by Anise Koltz. Back into French here; that title translates into “Songs of Refusal,” and a stanza is reproduced, but in Danish. Actually, beyond the poem itself, Portante makes a convincing claim for the Luxemburgian authenticity of Anise Koltz, the poetess. Until 1973, as he describes it, she wrote in German and occasionally in Luxemburgian. After that point, however, she switched to writing in French. Still, Portante notes, her French is very German-like, and that gives her writing some of its artistic power. She also writes often about Catholic faith, and Catholicism is the Luxemburgian state religion.
  • Food-dish: Fierkelsjelli, which turns out to be “suckling pig in jelly.” Operating under the motto Tout est bon dans le cochon (“Nothing from a pig can be bad for you”), Luxemburgians like to take meat from the head and tail of a suckling pig and mix it all together with pepper, onions, carrots, laurel leaves, and wine from the Mosel (river valley) to make their Fierkelsjelli, according to Portante the cornerstone of Luxemburgian cuisine.
  • Place: The Thillenberg mine in Differdange. Portante refrains from picking as a representative place somewhere in Luxembourg City, again, and instead chooses the Thillenberg mine (it just happens to be located in his birthplace of Differdange – his father was apparently an immigrant miner) as a place encapsulating Luxembourg’s economic history. Up until the 1980s that history revolved mainly around iron and steel, gained from the ore mined at places such as Thillenberg. In fact, he points out, the big steel firm Arcelor still has its headquarters in Luxembourg (City) – although as the twenty-first century begins Luxembourg’s economy depends now much more on the banking and financial services industries.
  • Event: The 1839 partition of Luxembourg. Strangely, Luxembourg’s modern history is said to stem from an historical event in which the grand duchy’s territory actually was made smaller – the partition in which French Luxembourg was basically grabbed by Belgium, to form that country’s Luxembourg province. German Luxembourg remained to form the grand duchy that we know today.

Pretty far out, hey? The leading historical event was an “amputation,” as Portante puts it; the photograph shows a flower-covered tram, and the “object” is a national language that, however, they don’t teach in the national schools. And can I serve you some “suckling pig in jelly”? Just get ahold of a Luxemburgian euro, if you can – right there by the silhouette of the face of Grand Duke Henri (it’s more-or-less that same picture on all the coins), you have “Luxembourg,” but in the Luxemburgian language: Lëtzebuerg.

(FLASH! Politiken hasn’t covered this one yet – indeed, you may have never heard of this recent EU-entrant – so I’m going to try to beat them to the punch in compiling a similar 10-point cultural portrait of Molvanîa, known as “A land untouched by modern dentistry.” (If you follow that last link, be sure you have your computer’s speakers turned on.) Those of you who don’t want to wait for me to do that can get an excellent foretaste-description of this Eastern European land, tucked between Romania and the Ukraine, here.)

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