Following the brexit vote, some Brits may find themselves deciding whether to follow their employers abroad. Brits considering Luxembourg will find some official looking guidelines on how the place works. Here, though, is something intended to give a feel of the country from a fellow Brits’ perspective.
I moved to Luxembourg in 2006, and left after six months. I came back in 2012, and now, because of brexit, am doing all that is necessary to get the nationality. I do not want to lose my rights and freedoms just because my countrymen have lost their minds. I’m staying.
Luxembourg feels like a country county. I’ve always imagined Derbyshire displaced: there’s cliffs and woods and industrial heritage everywhere. On the other hand, it is very multinational, like London. On the third hand, it is beautiful. On the fourth hand, it is a country, not a county, and has all the benefits of such, including the strength of centralised support for the arts, rather than the usual parochial county–town afterthoughts.
If you’ve never lived abroad, you’ll probably find the shock of moving to Luxembourg difficult. It’s not just the change in location, like moving from London to Manchester, it’s the change in culture, and the discovery that so many habits no longer work and presumptions no longer hold.
In many ways, you’ll have to do all the social stuff again that you did when you left home for the first time, without the convenience of mum’s washing or dad’s wallet (© ye olde cliché inc.). It’s not difficult in terms of the doing, but it’s not easy in terms of emotion. It’s a challenge, but one that many have addressed successfully. At least you’re not leaving a civil war at home (yet), and have the right to move here (at the moment), unlike, say, Syrian refugees.
It’s easier, emotionally, to move with family than alone, but it’s perfectly possible to move alone: just make sure you get a new social life started quickly, perhaps via a site like meetup. Be careful, though, not to fall in the trap of only socialising with fellow immigrants.
You can get away with just speaking English. All the locals were taught it at school, and many can use it well enough. You’ll often find, when talking to service desks and the like, that you’ll be handed over to someone else who’s better at English, but there will almost always be someone available.
All the same, in general life, you’ll get further and do better if you speak French and/or German. Fortunately, the Luxembourg government makes it very easy to pick up other languages. They provide evening classes and intensive courses for not much more than pocket money. If you’re lucky, your employer will send you on a course organised by one of the many private language teaching companies, which are frankly better mostly because the classes are smaller.
The main thing it takes to learn a language is graft. We’ve all got the ability to learn a language, because each and every one of us has learnt a language already. Put the effort in, having the courage to make mistakes so you can learn from them, add time and energy, and you’ll be fine.
Luxembourgish is the local native language, which is strangely similar to the dialect of German spoken across the French border. It is typical for this country is that the forms you fill in to prove you speak good Luxembourgish are in French.
The point is Luxembourg is a polylingual country. The natives come out of school fluent in four languages: Luxembourgish, German, French and English. If you overhear other people speaking foreign, and you will, they might well actually be locals speaking local. Portuguese is very common here as well, and many a Luxembourger with a talent for languages speaks that too.
The language you really need to get everywhere and communicate with everyone is French: unless you want some work done on your car, when it’s German; unless you want a natter in a bar, when it’s Luxembourgish; unless you want some business advice, when it’s English … you get the drift. I find it fun, actually, and, having lived here for four years now, I speak them all, most rather badly.
I think the best way to illustrate the attitude to language here is to describe a what’s on magazine I’ve just received. It has many event descriptions, in many languages: French, German, Luxembourgish and English. You might presume that the same description is translated into each of the languages, which would probably happen in the UK. But, no, actually, each description is provided once, in one language, and the editors have simply presumed that their readers speak them all.
Luxembourg’s population has a very high proportion of foreign residents. This is partially because, when Portugal joined the European Union, a great number of Portuguese came here: Portuguese is almost the fifth public language, as if four wasn’t enough. This is partially because the country is a European Union capital, with many institutions centred here, bringing people in from across the EU. This is partially because it is a financial centre, bringing in banks and their high calibre workers from across the world. Indeed, there are so many foreigners working here that the population doubles during the day with people commuting in from Germany, France and Belgium. The result is that Luxembourg is a hugely multicultural society.
Having said that, Luxembourg feels less global than London. This difference is partially because Luxembourg does not have a history of invading strangers’ homes (unlike some other city states, such as Moscow, which admittedly has grown a bit since the 11th century). Also, of course, the EU workers come, rather obviously, from European countries, many of which have only invaded each other. It’s mostly the global banking and business community who bring non–Europeans here.
Now, I’m a white middle class male, and my experience of being at the wrong end of loud–mouth social failures because of what I am is rare. I cannot speak of the black experience. But I don’t sense tension or trouble, except from occasional Trumpesque tourists. I will not promise a paradise of honey and porridge, but I’m pretty sure there are worse places to be.
The proportion of black people is noticeably lower than in London. Many black faces you do see are French or Belgian, not Luxembourgish. If you are black with a shy personality, and come to Luxembourg, you might find it difficult to hide in the crowd. Having said that, there is a black Luxembourgish community, particularly in the south of the country where you’ll find the strongest Portuguese influence.
People from the Indian subcontinent are rare too. I’ve only encountered some staff in the superb Indian restaurants, and people on business trips from blighty. Having said that, the local chamber of commerce recently celebrated Diwali, so clearly there’s something going on.
There is a lively Chinese community. This community arose, not only because there’s Chinese communities all over the world, but also Luxembourg is a financial centre and the Chinese banks are here. I don’t know how strong the Japanese, Vietnamese and other communities might be, but it is not uncommon to see families who dress neither Chinese nor Californian.
When you move here, make sure you register in the system as soon as you can. Amongst other things, it’s required by law. You start the process at the l’Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) in Place Guillaume. You have the right to live and work here as a Brit (at the moment). If you want to get into the system properly, it’s best if you or your spouse have work. Once you’re in the system, you’re be entitled to almost everything a Luxembourg national can get: the main exception I know about is that you can’t vote in the national election.
If you want to dodge the risks of brexit, if you don’t want to lose all kinds of rights and freedoms, you really need another European nationality. Of course, that requires you to live in the European country: you can’t just choose whatever suites you. That means if you’re here, your only choice is Luxembourgish nationality. You have to have lived here for five years, speak Luxembourgish, have done some civics courses, and not be an axe murderer (etc.). As you might expect, there are different rules for spouses of locals, and so on. Now, that hypersummarises rules that are going to be introduced in April 2017, except that they’re not absolutely tied down yet, so are subject to change.
The Luxembourg health system is like blighty’s, in that there’s state support, yet it’s very different, in that it’s private, but with state regulation and insurance. You go to a medic, you pay, but then you get most of it back from social security (the CNS). They usually repay around 85% of the cost, but exactly how much depends on the details. There are separate rules for anything ridiculously expensive, but fortunately for me, I’ve not been there. You pay for prescriptions, but it’s a token amount, and less than the equivalent in the UK.
All this means it’s a good idea to keep money in the bank in case it’s suddenly needed for medical stuff. Alternatively, you can buy into something called a mutual, which is a top–up private insurance to use on top of the state insurance so that 100% of medical bills are paid off. Most people here don’t bother.
In some ways, the health system will feel very familiar, yet bizarre, to Brits. In the UK, you can walk into an optician, but have to wait months to see a dentist. In Luxembourg, you can walk into a dentist, but have to wait months to see an optician.
The general quality of food here is far better than most places in the UK. For example, it is actually very difficult to buy bread as bad as the plastic you have to buy in the UK (if you want that, you have to pay through your nose, understandably). French, German, and Belgian bakeries abound, giving you a good choice in decent bread.
The restaurants are generally better than those in blighty.
Menus are always available in French. English language translations aren’t so common away from the tourist traps—which reminds me, avoid Place d’Armes; IMHO, most of its restaurants are sh**e.
It’s often best to talk with the staff, although one problem is working out which language to use. If the cuisine isn’t a giveaway, then you might have to swap waiters before you can find a language in common: no language is guaranteed. For example, one of my favourite restaurants is the Bosso in the Luxembourg Grund. It has Luxembourgish cuisine, but half the waiters don’t speak the language. I’ve been served by a Russian waiter who also speaks Spanish and English, a Brazilian waiter who also speaks French, and so on. Again, don’t worry if you’re monolingual English, there will always be someone to serve you.
Many of the international cuisine restaurants aren’t particularly special—then again, I’ve lived in Paris, so am spoilt. The exceptions are the Indian restaurants, which are superb—and this comes from someone who has not just lived in London, but lived in London. Reputédly, there was a battle between Indian restaurant proprietors back in the 1980s. They competed on authenticity, and the winners were the customers. My personal favourite at the moment is Namaste, actually a Nepali restaurant.
The things I miss, that are difficult to find, are traditional British edibles. It doesn’t help that the British shop, Little Britain, closed down a few months ago: rumours have it the owner died unexpectedly and the children couldn’t agree on how to proceed, so ended up shutting the place down (which is sufficiently ironic in these brexit times to have me doubt the tale). Now, some things are findable, like Marmite, good stilton, and Indian spices, but others are virtually impossible, like good cheddar (though some claim otherwise). I’ve taken to cheese smuggling when I return from visits to blighty.
One thing that Luxembourg shares with China is that the dominant supermarket is the French chain Auchan. The country has other French, German, Belgian and Portuguese chains. Unlike the UK, the best food isn’t found in Aldi and Lidl, simply because the other chains also offer pretty good product too. Like the UK, some chains are quite evil at not noticing the prices on the shelves and the prices in the tills have little in common.
But you really should take advantage of the differences in food here. There are some absolutely delicious things to discover and explore. For example, meat eaters can buy their own ready to kill dinner from Auchan. There’s a specialist horsemeat butcher close to where I used to live. There are festivals of international food, so you can start to explore many cuisines.
vegetarian & vegan
I’ve been vegetarian for my adult life. Being vegetarian here is more difficult than in blighty, but is no real problem so long as you’re not habitually dogmatic. I suggest that, if you can, you informally follow Islamic convention: if a restaurant or host promises there is nothing even vaguely contrary to your diet in a dish, then pretend it’s so, and never mind the worms.
If you want to eat out, many restaurants have veggie menu options, especially those ace Indians. The Italians and Chinese are alright; undoubtedly better than the UK, which is hardly difficult, but nothing on Paris. If you want good Chinese, and are fed up with all those trips to Paris, go north to the Netherlands, or, at a stretch, take the bus to Saarbrücken. You have to be careful with traditional Germanic cuisine; pork gets added to everything (I’ve even been offered an Arrabbiata sauce with pork!). The europeanised American restaurants serve veggie burgers; the excellent Luxembourgish rosti, spätzle and flammeküche, and so on: there’s often a decent option.
Being vegan is far more problematic. Just as many Germans seem to regard pork the way the English regard onions, i.e. goes in every dish, so the French regard cheese. Unsurprisingly, in a French speaking country that borders France, their cheesy influence is everywhere. Unfortunately, I can’t help: I’m not vegan, I like cheese, so have made no effort to identify vegan friendly restaurants except that I know the vegetarian restaurants cater for vegans. I suggest anyone concerned contact the national vegan society.
Obviously, you won’t have a problem if you cook your own food from the basics. If you buy packets, though, you need to be able to read French or Flemish to verify the ingredients; English is rarely used. Mind you, it doesn’t take too much effort to pick up the necessary list of food words.
The weather here is pretty much like that of eastern England, except the summers are a little hotter and the winters are a little colder. Overall, the country’s just a little warmer. Your existing weather–proofing wardrobe will be fine. The weather is usually somewhere between the pessimistic BBC forecast and the optimistic French metéo for Luxembourg.
I’m going to make a couple of very very obvious points about first driving in foreign lands on the wrong side of the road.
As with anywhere, if you’ve not driven here before, do your research and make sure you know the rules before you come.
Do not drive when tired. When you’re tired, you’re more likely to depend on ‘muscle memory’, and when you’re driving on the other side of the road, your muscle memory is wrong. It could be disasterous should you need an immediate reaction to avoid danger.
Pay attention, they do things differently here. For example, in Luxembourg, like in France, if no signs say otherwise at a junction, and you want to go straight on, you do NOT have the right of way, vehicles coming from the right do. Actually, this isn’t as daft as it seems, it is a very effective traffic–calming measure in built up areas: mr. boy racer doesn’t boy race so much if he has to keep slowing down for someone who might be coming out a side junction.
So do your homework, check the country, check the rules. The basics of driving may be the same (you points the car and makes it goes), but many of the little rules are different. For example, in Luxembourg, it’s illegal to drive off the edge of a cliff. You may not understand these bizarre foreign driving regulations, but you must respect them.
When you first drive on the wrong side of the road, even if you’re careful, even if you pay attention, there will be some gotchas that break your flow. Mine were roundabouts. The first time I came across one, when driving in San Francisco, I really did have to stop for ten minutes to work out which way to go. Many people report problems turning from single to dual carriageway, or from single lane to normal road. Allow time for gotchas, and make sure you’re alert enough to deal with them without making a dangerous mistake. Do not drive when tired.
Now, if you’re driving from blighty to lux, you’ll probably drive through Belgium. It’s certainly the easiest route on the map. But, be warned, Belgian direction signs are bizarre. You’re spoilt in the UK, the road signs are pretty good. In Belgium, there’s often only one sign, no repeats. I know of one motorway junction sign in Antwerp where the direction sign is AFTER the junction. Well, this was ten years ago, perhaps they’ve improved it. It was a Y junction, and the sign was on the join.
And that’s not all that’s bizarre about Belgian signs. Because of the love Belgian communities have for each other, signs are never written in another community’s language. As you travel through the country, the language may change, and the place names will change too—sometimes to something totally different. So if you’re following signs to Bergen, as you may well do, you’ll suddenly find yourself following signs to Mons. Both words mean mountains in their respective languages, reflecting the Belgian sense of humour—Ben’s as flat as the fens.
One final thing about Belgian motorways: when planning your route, avoid Brussels. It’s a dismal bear pit in the rush hour. Actually, if you drive the M25 to work, you’ll feel right at home.
Luxembourg is ‘blessed’ with motorways. The capital has a population of 150,000, yet has a linked radial network of five of the things. It’s only when you remember the population doubles on workdays, as people commute from abroad, that this high–volume road infrastructure make sense. The roads are running at capacity in the rush hour, indeed overcapacity, and tend to get bunged up: plus ça change.
When you’re driving in Luxembourg, turn your politeness up. If you see someone who wants to cross the road, stop and let them cross. If you’re on the motorway, and there’s traffic merging in, you let them merge in: you are a cog in a closing zip. Actually, that last bit applies to most of the UK too, but in Luxembourg you behave even if you’re pissed off.
I remember commuting by public transport in the UK. The basic principal appeared to be that work is a punishment that public transport worsens. Well, that’s probably a bit unfair, or it least it would be if UK public transport wasn’t so ridiculously overpriced and underperforming. If I pay for gilded carriages and scrumptious slaves feeding me golden grapes and gentle poetry on the daily commute, as per UK prices, I expect to get them.
The Luxembourg public transport system is better. A daily ticked covering all buses and trains across the country costs €4; an annual season ticket costs €500. The buses, city and long distance, do suffer from rush hour blockage, but bus lanes and traffic light priority tend to reduce the annoyance into mere irritation.
The trains work as well as trains normally do. They are rarely overcrowded; indeed, a Luxembourg train is unusually packed when all the seats are occupied.
But there’s more. I’ve lived in English villages. I found an attitude in some quarters that poor people should not be allowed to leave. One can imagine the conversation: “It’s a pity the old village fence can’t be rebuilt, with old Tom guarding the gate with his trusty blunderbuss keeping the serfs in their hovels.” “Well, at least we can discourage them by making the public transport unusable.”
One such village had one bus once a week for the old dears to use for their shopping trips. It took them to the nearby small town, waited three–quarters of an hour, and returned. That’s right, little old ladies with difficulty walking, mothers with infants, and anyone else committing the heinous crime of being poor, had to rush around all the shops and sort out all the weeks’ troubles and bureaucracy in three–quarters of an hour. British public transport outside the big cities was and is ridiculous.
In Luxembourg, buses provide villages with a decent, regular service. They offer a glorious freedom to those of us who dislike city noise.
Avoid the taxis, they carry the lurgy. Boy racers in the UK end up in jail; in Luxembourg they drive taxis. Their politeness could be used for research on the guttural, they don’t so much overcharge as steal your granny, and they’ll take a twenty mile quick route even if your destination is across the road.
I don’t have children, so I can only give you general information. There are two school systems, the native and the international. In the latter, children will be taught in their mother tongue, so long as there’s an appropriate community, and will also learn another two languages: many parents from around the world chose English. In the native system, they’ll become fluent in the three national languages and English, and be taught in all four languages. I know of British parents who’ve sent their children through the native school system, but I gather that only really works if the parents have made sure the children have a grounding in Luxembourgish.
The school system is based on the French system. I gather it’s among the better of the European systems. One oddity is that it’s quite normal for graduates of the Lycées to study abroad for their degrees, especially since, until recently, Luxembourg had no university.
The country and towns organise regular festivals. Luxembourg city is the best, being the capital, with many weekends over summer full of special things happening. I live in the second city, Esch–sur–Alzette, which also has regular festivals and the like. I think this will improve as the new university here expands. Anyway, even though the country’s too small to smoke, the place is never boring.
There is, unsurprisingly, a night life here, although, given it’s a long time since I was young enough to hate night clubs for their dismal choice of music, I know it not. The Luxembourg city clubs are in Clausen. The city runs free night buses there on Friday and Saturday.
The city also has, once a year, a festival of club music, so all weekend the heartbeat of dance sounds across the centre, rhythm slipping around like claws on ice. There’s a blues festival too, a street arts festival, and many more excuses to dance in the streets.
There are many bars, and a few pubs, active into the early morning. If you’re a night social animal, it’s not at all bad for a small city. Luxembourg is too small to have the variety of night life of Paris, but it’s certainly not dead, and, unlike a big city, it’s small enough to walk home across the city after the buses have stopped.
There are some bars which indulge in torturing cats. I know, there’s one opposite me. They pretend it’s karaoke, but they don’t fool me—unless the reason no cats live near those bars really is because they offend the animals’ sensibilities.
I am not a sporty person. If I go for a swim in the sea, and a ship on the horizon turns and starts steaming towards me, it’ll be a whaler.
But the sports facilities here in Luxembourg seem to be pretty good. There’s everything you would expect, and more. For example, my wife once noticed a Chinese woman walking towards the sports collage, and remarked that she’d just seen the world table–tennis champion. World class athletes come here to train the youngsters.
But Luxembourg is—how shall I put this delicately—rarely at the top of the leader board. Indeed, bluntly, if you ever played a sport at county level in the UK, there’s a reasonable chance you’d be better than the national champion here. An American friend’s niece, who plays basketball for her college in the US, was visiting, and was aghast at the errors made by the national team in the European small–country championships. If you want to be pushed to be the best in the world at sport, this is not the place for you. If you want to play and enjoy a sport for its own sake, it’s fine. It’s also good to be in country that doesn’t feel horrified when the national football team is defeated by the Faroe Islands.
This, in many ways, is quite different to the UK. I’ll give a couple of off the top of my head examples. In the UK, to set up a limited company, it costs about a hundred pounds, if you know where to go. Here, you have to have around twelve thousand euro of capital. There, you have quite a lot of freedom to hire and fire, whereas here you can only hire and fire on the first and the fifteenth of the month (I find that bizarre). As always, make sure you’re familiar with the rules, and take advice.
The government is putting a lot of effort into encouraging startups, and they want to make the country start up friendly. They’re active in supporting business and industry, and will take initiative to find for new areas of expertise to develop, as their investment in space industries illustrate. There seems to be a good start up support environment. Luxembourg is business friendly, but it’s just a little bizarre.
This is probably why the Luxembourg government intends to address the cost of setting up a small business with a new system called 1–1–1 companies: one person, one euro, in one day. The details haven’t been completely settled. Indeed, it’s already clear the cost is a bit of a fib: think €300 with obligatory charges; admittedly, that’s still slightly cheaper than twelve grand. These new companies should be available early next year.
If your business ends up in conflict, then you may end up in the court system. If you think the UK system is slow, you’ve seen nothing. Stories of court cases taking more than a decade to be addressed are not rare. Things get even more complicated when you understand that many business activities are cross–border. Basically, if your business strategy involves aggressive use of the courts, this is probably the wrong country for you.
The country is currently very rich, and the wealth is mostly due to the finance industry, and the lawmen know it. The laws are very pro–bank. A normal person living a normal life will hardly notice, but I’d suggest that any business that depends on working closely with the finance industry has great opportunity for success, but has to be careful not to get into conflict with that industry: the courts will side with the bankers.
It’s difficult to find a bad property, but you can if you try. Generally, the quality is higher than blighty. You’ll never come across a house with its roof missing described as having natural ventilation.
The style of living is a little different to the UK. For example, in blocks of flats, things like heating and washing facilities are usually communal, with each flat having a washing machine and dryer in a common space. If you’re in a block with more than three flats, there will be a syndic to manage everything, and that’s very strictly controlled by law.
If you want to rent, you have to be quick about it: the market is always buoyant. Rents are not as expensive as London, but not cheap: think Paris prices. Anything that’s any good will go quickly. You will be required to get some insurance. You will have to put down a few months deposit. Rent is divided into the rent itself, and certain bills. It is not unusual for the bills to include water and heating, but not electricity or the internet. Rises in the rent part of the rent (erm…) are strictly regulated, so once you’re renting prices shouldn’t change too much.
Buying is different to the UK: it’s quite similar to France. Property is expensive, but not London prices. A lot will depend on both the estate agent (the immobilier), the solicitor (the notaire), and, if you’re going for a mortgage, the bank (the bank). You can negotiate with everyone, of course. Do your homework: the state offers quite a few grants and tax rebates, but they don’t always mention it. Worse, there are often bizarre little conditions and obscure complex calculations, but if you know what you’re doing, they can be quite generous.
Luxembourg has invested a lot in arts activities. For example, the country is full of public sculptures because, apparently, when a new office block goes up, a new sculpture must go up too. There’s a beautiful music concert hall, and modern art museum, and much else besides. The problem is that the country is small, so the spark point for a arts ignition is difficult to achieve. This is especially true if you arts interest is language based.
Seriously, if you’re an English language writer, and need a community of writers, consider Ireland or Paris. If you’ve not got the choice, then get ready for not much. I think this may change as the university expands: after all, by far the best place for poetry in the UK is Cambridge, and that’s partially because of the university. Other university towns may well dispute that comment, with good reason, but I can’t think of a non–university town in blighty that can.
Having said that, in terms of the anglophonic arts, Lux is only a couple of hours from Paris by train (and we’re talking real trains, not chug–chug donkeys), and Paris is, well, Paris. The arts scene there is incredible. That city even has a powerful and inspiring English–language arts scene: think New York with a French accent. So if you come here, set yourself up to go there too.
I was bought up in a village near a dull English county town, and perhaps my reasons for living here rather than my favourite city of Paris involve a desire to return to that childhood. If you need the electric buzz of the supercity, Luxembourg is not for you. If you want to gently float on a soft bed made by bankers, this is the place to be. Luxembourg city, a masala of beautiful villages, feels like a minor county town and major international capital all in one. It’s a bizarre combination, but it works.
Thanks to friends and colleagues for the feedback and corrections.