In an upscale cafe on the Grand Rue in Luxembourg’s capital, Helen Porter and six other adults stand in a circle and hold hands.
“We are Luxembourgish, we deserve to be Luxembourgish, but we cannot speak Luxembourgish,” they say in unison. “And that’s okay.”
Porter is leading a weekly meeting for people who obtained the nationality but realize they are not able to actually communicate in the language — and perhaps never will.
The 43-year-old risk manager acquired the nationality earlier this year, partially to avoid complications from Brexit.
“I completed the language courses and I made it all the way to A2.2,” she explains. “It was hard, yes, so I also hired a teacher to come to my home twice a week and give me private lessons.”
“I also took a Luxembourgish lover, but as we spoke very little, after a few wild romps I kicked him out,” she says.
When she passed the Sproochentest — the language exam required to become Luxembourgish — she says that she was proud and told herself that she had done it. She had succeeded.
“But my first day being Luxembourgish, I went to a shop and tried communicating in Luxembourgish, but I was lost in one second,” she says. “I thought the cashier was telling me about her cousin who collects tropical fish, but it turns out she was asking if I wanted a sack.”
Porter eventually discovered that there were many people like her, and that most were plagued by feelings of shame and inadequacy. She formed a support group so they could meet up, share their stories, and reaffirm that you don’t have to speak Luxembourgish to be Luxembourgish.
“I have these nightmares in which I’m at the commune and I’m explaining in perfectly good English that I need some forms,” says group member Ajay Shabir, who got the nationality in 2017. “And then someone stands up and shouts ‘hien ass Lëtzebuerger’ or however you say ‘he is a Luxembourger’ and everyone talks to me all at once, and it’s scary.”
Marissa Velasquez, originally from Madrid, was left humiliated after a traumatic encounter three years ago.
“When I got my passport, I was showing it to my officemate Marc, who is from Esch, and he said something in Luxembourgish to congratulate me, but I didn’t understand, so he translated it into French, and I still didn’t understand, so he told me in Spanish.”
“He very kindly never mentioned the incident to anyone,” she says.
While it’s fine hiding the fact that you’re Luxembourgish but don’t speak the language, Porter says, there’s also nothing wrong with proclaiming it to the world.
“Let’s all shout it out in Luxembourgish,” she says. “Okay, here it goes, one, two, three: ech sinn … ech sinn. Wait, how do you say it? Never mind.”