LUXEMBOURG IS, IN EVERY WAY, a mishmash of other countries. Its ads are mostly French; its language sounds German; its radio mostly Luxembourgish. Even the just name “Luxembourg” sounds like a conglomeration of other words smushed together: luxurious, emboldened, smorgasbord. (All of which, strangely, are perfect descriptors of this tiny European nation.)
Contrary to what some believe, Luxembourg the Country is more than just Luxembourg the City (locally called “The City”). There are dozens of tiny villages and collections of farms, all technically communes but effectively townships, with quirkily old-fashioned elections held every six years and proper cobblestone roads. This much I expected from the elusive and perennially wealthy country.
What I expected less was the depressing normalcy of The City. There are a lot of high school students commuting from every corner of Luxembourg (because, brilliantly, any mode of transportation costs two euros for two hours, which is as much time as it could possibly take to drive from the northernmost to southernmost ends of the country), and they’re all victims of the worst parts of privileged suburban life: wide-brimmed camo caps, fur-lined parkas, low-hanging baggy jeans—as if any underground hip-hop artist had ever been addressing the highest-ranking GDP nation of the world.
I mentioned this to my host, Joe, who graciously put me up for a night in his gorgeously modern apartment in Ettelbruck, a junction town in the centre of the country. He shrugged it off and credited globalisation. Perhaps this trend is just another in the long line of Things Luxembourg Absorbs Into Itself.
All this social teenage conformity, though, flies in the face of The City itself. Built above and between precarious cliffs and huge swooping valleys, the Old City of Luxembourg is without question one of the most beautiful urbanised parts of the world. Everything bends and flies: massive arches support stone bridges over gaping valleys, connected by roads that curve along mountain ridges, the hazy sight of cathedral and castle spires off in the distance and below, defining a horizon otherwise lined with a dense collection of pine and fir. The grandiose town squares, empty in these chilly December afternoons. The strung-up holiday lights adorning the stone alleyways. The ruins of a castle built 1,000 years ago, popping out the side of a cliff.
The next day I was in Paris, and my French host asked me where I’d come from. I told him. “Luxembourg?” he looked at me quizzically and laughed. “What’s in Luxembourg?” He had never been, and I didn’t know how to describe it, so I just smiled, shrugged, and told him to see for himself.