Luxembourg and Strasbourg

Melting Potbourgs of Europe

On the centuries old crack between Germanic and Latin Europe, two bourgs became two knots tying the new Europe together.


According to a Strasbourg-born acquaintance, it is well known in France that Strasbourg is a gem. The certified gem part, La Petite France district of the city, is a network of canals and dams. Its name seems to betray the fact that for much of its history this was not a French city: there is no Chinatown in Beijing. Barrage Vauban, a big dam with the best view of La Petite France, was not built by the chief fortificator of Louis XIV for the view. The Sun King’s relentless Drang nach Osten destroyed many a German fortress, including the now romantic Heidelberg castle, before constructing redoubts to prevent the enemy’s rollback. A slightly lost Russian family enjoying the view from the dam was happy to borrow my map to figure out how to get to the Palace of Europe. They were getting around on foot, visiting from Germany, their new motherland. On the main cathedral square, a trio of Moscow Conservatory students, including a giant balalaika, performed standard Russian folk orchestra fare intermingled with high baroque. A tourist kiosk had a Russian version of the local guide on display.

This was just around the corner from Rue des Juifs. As testified by the local newspaper, there were still some Jews living, or at least, dying in Strasbourg. Monsieur Joseph Tronik was dearly mourned by his family and about to be interred at the Cimetiere israelite de Cronenbourg. Minyan was to take place that same day at 25, quai Rouget-de-Lisle. The newspaper comes out in two identical editions in German and French, identical that is except that the German one was really randomly bilingual. There were non-translated French pieces on almost every page. Although no sign of it could be found in Strasbourg, with everybody speaking French on the street, there was one more language in use there – Elsassisch. As I learned a few hours later, the locals apparently use it in public when they cross the Rhine. A gentleman who asked me for help in a parking garage across the border in Baden-Baden spoke to me in something sounding like German. When we finally despaired of understanding each other, he admitted to speaking Elsassisch.

The Strasbourg Cathedral is the second most beautiful in France, according to my resident Strasbourgeois. I don’t know how they measure that, but it was indeed pretty awesome. Besides its oldies, Strasbourg boasts of being the city of the future, particularly European future. A space-age tram runs not too far from the cathedral and the European Parliament complex on the outskirts is far from gothic in architectural style. If it qualifies as the second most beautiful European Community building I would not be too hot on the ones further down the list. A modernist sculpture entitled “Europe a Coeur” by a certain Ludmila Tcherina and billed as the Symbol of the European Union sits in the back of the palace. And Russia is not even a member!

The weirdest moment of the whole trip also occurred in Strasbourg. As I was driving towards the European Parliament on the aforementioned quai Rouget-de-Lisle (La Marseillaise was written in one sleepless night just around the corner from the spot), I was tuned to Sud-West Rundfunk from Baden-Baden. They were playing the Beatles singing, in English, “Back to the USSR”! My instinctive reaction was: nyet, I’d rather stay here.

NOTE 25 years later.

1998 was still a time when pre-Putin Russia was flirting with Europe, however weird and improbable it seems now. And improbable it was.


The reason I went to Luxembourg instead of, say Munich, was to visit a really small country. I had been at times not too far from several others but never actually in. I also wanted to see the first Western asylum of my friend, computer systems administrator Victor Cooper, formerly known to the KGB as the Ukrainian dissident Viktor Konenko. Luxembourg prefers not to display its own flag at the entrance, rather it shows the 12-star European Union seal with the word Luxembourg in the middle. The architecture of small towns changes dramatically as soon as you cross the border. Unlike gothic and baroque, gaily colored in pastel German towns, the buildings are unadorned, almost austere, in several shades of gray. The capital of the small Grossherzogtum appears just as stern at first. Only when you walk the streets you discover the miniature cake palace of the Grossherzog next to an even smaller parliament. Then, the not at all miniature Corniche, a dramatic wall of cliffs along the Alzette River, with towers, and chateux.

I had heard about the Luxemburgisch language before and tried to find any periodicals or books in it, to no avail. But a local newspaper, presumably in German, was in fact in four languages. French cropped up in all possible places. Luxemburgisch (Letzembuergisch) was used on the front page to wish the readers “schei Kiirmesdeg”, i.e., a nice church fair day. Many birth and marriage announcements also used Letzembuergisch. As for help wanted ads, they usually required the knowledge of 3 and sometimes 4 languages to qualify for the job. The fourth language was of course English. The advertisements were usually written in the language most important for the job, thus international banks had their ads in English.

The final linguistic touch came in the store where I was buying maps and t-shirts while trying to find out where I should go for a helping of Letzembuergisch, besides the street signs in the center. In the back of the store, two men who appeared to be the management and processed my credit card slip communicating in French, spoke to each other in Hebrew. When I said l’hitraot before leaving, I got a surprised smile in return.