Lifelong Lessons Learned in Luxembourg

When I think back on the nine months that were my English Teaching Assistantship, I am appalled at the speed with which they went by. I think of the lessons I learned, both intentionally and a majority of them accidentally. Big and small. Easy ones and challenging ones.

I remember the countless buses and trains. The sprints to catch them and the looks of defeat at missing them (both mine and those I saw as I sat by the window while we pulled off). I remember the language barriers, the feelings of unfamiliarity and the triumph when I understood that the cashier had asked me whether I was paying with cash or card in French.

And more lessons. Daily, weekly, monthly lessons. Giving lessons while learning them. Like, lesson one (in case you’re ever in Luxembourg): bring the Öko-Tut! Öko-Tuts are these eco-friendly bags that you purchase at stores across the country and when the time comes to restock your pantry, or in my case my Luxembourgish candy supply, you take it to the store to stow your purchases in. When you think you won’t need it, you need it. Or, prepare yourself for the judgment as you carry the alternative. A white, diaphanous plastic bag, which depending on the weight of your items, might not make it through the journey as the words ‘please forget me’ are splayed in large, black letters for everyone to see you didn’t remember your Öko-Tut. Okay, the public humiliation is a bit of an over-exaggeration, but still, it defeats the purpose of the initiative, so learn from my mistakes and just bring it!

Or, one of my favorites, that “bien joué” does not mean well-done (in the cooking sense), but well-played. Which might explain why the chef in the university cafeteria looked at me with both a confused and amused look (it could’ve also been because I had committed a crime by asking for well-done steak).

I was confronted by another lesson quite early on. Luxembourgish students have a superpower. Their language skills are not to be matched. I found myself in awe of them, from lycée (secondary school) through university, as they switched from language to language without breaking a sweat. In the hallways, they stood with others discussing topics I couldn’t necessarily understand, but I admired the impeccable language skills they all possessed. I enjoyed interacting with them (which is all it’s really about). They were kind and often intrigued when it came to discussing U.S.-related topics and were equally enthusiastic about providing their insights on Luxembourg in return.

I also think about the lessons I carried with me to Luxembourg. Like, not to talk to strangers. Of course, the line is an oversimplification and completely valid for safety reasons, but I found myself ignoring this lesson and replacing it with a new one. “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet (Will Rogers).” So, once the initial unfamiliarity wore off, I thought about how I could spend these months.

I enrolled in a French class where I learned a few more survival French phrases and met friends I stayed in contact with after our final oral exams had passed. I produced a segment on Luxembourgish holidays at a radio station in the city in the hopes of providing a window into the many traditions ingrained in Luxembourg’s culture. Through this segment, I learned about holidays like Meekranz and Emaischen, engaging with members of the Luxembourgish community who, like the aforementioned students, took pride in their traditions and were willing to share them with me. The cherry on top were the friends I made at the station who were creative and kind… a perfect mix.

I met the people on my floor who, like many of the university students, came to Luxembourg from all over the world. With the plethora of countries represented in my residence, there was regular unintended cultural immersion in our shared spaces. I joined a community group for women in Luxembourg. I went to events in cities I hadn’t stepped foot in yet. Like a show in the North where I met a Luxembourgish couple who are still the most welcoming people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.

But, did everything go smoothly? Did I check off every one of my goals or become fluent in French? No, but what I got was so much more than that. I learned that I can fly to a country during a pandemic by myself without knowing the predominant language for nine months and provide lessons to students who are more technologically-savvy and familiar with the latest U.S. pop culture news than I am. I learned that having a great sense of humor can make any otherwise embarrassing or difficult situation much, much lighter. I learned that the lesson can be just as much what not to do, as what to do, next time. Finally, and this is a hard one, I learned that there might not always be a next time, so embrace the adventure, and know that being authentically you wherever you might land, like Luxembourg, is what really counts.

Ophelia Anwah was a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Luxembourg (2021-2022). Upon graduation from the University of Virginia, where she received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, Ophelia spent time working in public service. Apart from supporting students with their English language progression, Ophelia worked on segments for a Luxembourgish radio station.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.