Monday, July 1, 2013
Just a few days ago, a friend and I were talking about some of the nuances about living in Europe. She is Italian and was telling me about her expat life, having lived 3 years in Germany and now a couple in Luxembourg. Even though driving from Italy to Luxembourg or even Germany can take just a matter of hours (I compare it to driving from Dallas to Corpus - seriously, takes about the same number of hours by car), it really is amazing how different the cultures between countries can be. Some are quite stereotypical - French can be serious and sometimes quite negative (think, Debbie Downer), Germans can be rigid, Luxembourgers can be aloof or standoffish, and Italians - well, they are just down right... passionate! We were actually trying to pin point what it was that makes Italians, Greeks, Mexicans, etc. such passionate and "touchy" people! My husband and I both have Mexican fathers and English/Irish/Scottish mothers, which makes an interesting mix when you think about it. British are mostly formal in their mannerisms, so PDA is not exactly a norm for them. Mexicans, on the other hand, can be very "touchy" folks, often giving strangers hugs or providing comfort or attention by touching an arm or patting the top of a child's head. So, though I wouldn't necessarily describe myself as a "touchy" type of person, I guess I am a bit more on the affectionate end of the spectrum, especially in Luxembourg. My friend and I chalked it up to the fact that affectionate countries all have one thing in common... we are all from the "South"!
Maybe it's the hot weather, but no matter where you go, it seems that if you reside somewhere near the equator, you tend to be a bit more on the affectionate side. Again, thrown into a country with such a large mix of cultures, this characteristic becomes that much more apparent when you attend a party or social function. You just are never quite sure how to greet friends, acquaintances, and new-comers! That being said, the bigger challenge is the welcome "kiss". One of the first things folks will tell you when you move to Lux is that the customary welcome with friends involves 3 alternating kisses on the cheek. This is an important little tidbit of information, because, though we generally know that Europeans welcome one another through this customary kissing practice, it does vary from country to country. There is still the challenge of which cheek to start with, but at least you know not to stop at the traditionally French version of just one kiss on each cheek! The funnier aspect of this custom is that it can be quite a lengthy process just getting in the door given the amount of expected kissing! I sometimes feel like a pigeon, pecking my way through the crowd, but I have to admit... I like this endearing tradition! In Texas, it seems customary for women to greet each other with the quick hug and perhaps the air kiss if you know each other well, while the men do the combo handshake - shoulder slap thing. Still affectionate by most standards. Consider this - just try to work your way through this social challenge when you attend a party that also has folks from New York or Boston! Well, I am often confronted with social encounters that not only include folks from the North East, but also Germany and the U.K. - an interesting dynamic given their more formal introductions that may or may not include a simple handshake. Generally, I opt for just a hello and a simple nod, since I am done trying to decipher expectations in those situations!
I have been taking French classes at the Institute National des Langues for about a year and a half now. There are a ton of language school options in Luxembourg, from Prolingua, Berlitz, AWCL group classes to private tutors - all of which have their pros and cons. I have tried several, but have found the INL to be the most affordable, flexible and comprehensive option. Though the website and registration process can be a bit frustrating and intimidating (the website is in French and does not always cooperate with Google translate), once you get through the initial registration process, signing up for classes becomes pretty routine. The school offers classes is French, Luxembourgish, Portugese, German, Spanish, English, Dutch, and more. You can also choose how many classes per week you wish to take, as well as classes that concentrate on just one discipline of a language - speaking, writing, etc.
It is in these classes that I realize just how diverse life is here. I am usually one of maybe 2 or 3 Americans in my class of 20 or so students, and each semester the class has had a different mix of nationalities. My first class was comprised mostly of Eastern Europeans who were seeking asylum in Luxembourg. Many were quite poor, had escaped poor or war stricken countries, and were desperately trying to learn one of the local languages in hopes of finding a job. Last semester, I had quite a few younger classmates who had moved here with their significant other or spouse and wanted to be able to communicate better in the community. Most of them were from Western Europe - Spain, Portugal, Italy, The Netherlands - and picked up French so quickly. I would just sit back in wonder at how these young kids could learn a new language in just a matter of weeks. Several of them were young au pairs who are given language class allowances as part of their compensation. This last semester, most of my classmates were young professionals looking to communicate more effectively in their jobs. Again, most were Western Europeans, but many of them worked in law, finance, or international business, hoping to be able to communicate at a higher level with their French or Luxembourgish co-workers. Each class has had a different flair to it, and each one provided me the opportunity to make friends with people of all ages, all backgrounds, and all walks of life. In my, well, 40+ years I have never had such an incredible experience!
Seems life can be very 2-dimensional when you spend your days surrounded only by people who look and sound like you. Don't get me wrong - I love the South and am often homesick for the slow drawl of a native Texan, or the sing-songy sounds of a southern belle - but I have quickly learned to appreciate the lovely sound of the amazing mix of accents that Luxembourg can provide. Just standing in Place d'Armes or at a cafe in the Grund, you can experience such a dizzying array of sounds and cultures! You just have to slow your pace a bit and take the time to truly absorb the experience!
The boys and I are back in Texas for a couple of weeks - a kick off for our summer break. It didn't take long for us to dive head first back into the Southern way of life - great Texas BBQ, cooling off at the neighborhood pool, and purchasing tickets for the next Astros game (yes, we need a baseball fix.) I honestly try to control any hints of a southern accent while I am in Lux, mostly because I endured 3 years of teasing while I lived in Chicago. The boys were quick to point out the change at dinner when the first "ya'll" popped out of my mouth. What can I say? There's no place like "home" ;-)