by Timothy Lutts
Way back in 1999, I met Gunter, a German who lives near the French border, at a publishers’ conference in Vail, Colorado, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since, getting together every few years on his continent or mine. Interestingly, we each have three kids—two girls and a boy—and their ages all match, so we like to joke that our families are doppelgängers. This time, we met with our wives, in Luxembourg City, the capital of the country of Luxembourg. Even though it’s only two hours’ drive from his home, Gunter had never been! So together we explored the little city.
How little? It has just 101,000 inhabitants. But these Luxembourgians are rich. Per capita GDP is $80,000, the second highest in the world. Where does the money come from? Banking of course, just as in other small, independent countries like Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Monaco.
Most of the banking these days is done digitally, from glass towers on the outskirts of the city. But as we were exploring the Old Town, we were attracted to a grand building across the river, with this curious name in the front, Spuerkees.
So we entered, and it turned to be—of course—a bank. But the cool thing about this bank is that it has a museum, full of old banking tools (early typewriters and adding machines), old currency and a disused vault, good for photos.
Other than that, however, we found the museums of Luxembourg to be a bust. The National Museum of History and Art was mostly closed, due to ongoing installations, with open galleries mainly focused on prehistory, something my wife had had enough of at the British Museum, so we didn’t enter.
The Museum of Modern Art was also installing a new show, but they let us in for free because there was so little to see. What we did see, from Thea Djordjadze (originally from Soviet Georgia) and Lutz and Guggisberg (established in Zurich and also practicing cabaret, photography and video), was fairly terrible—of poor craftsmanship and uninspiring. And oddly, the museum grounds were very poorly cared for. I asked the lone guard I saw why, and he answered, with great passion, that he couldn’t understand it.
Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in the museum’s history and location. Designed by I.M. Pei and built at a cost of $100 million and opened in 2006, it sits northeast of the city center in a vast complex that includes the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Court of Auditors, the European Investment Bank and the Secretariat of the European Parliament.
Architecturally, the region is a wasteland, but Gunter was very proud of the role that Luxembourg has played leading the European Union. As a German, he still feels some guilt about what his country did, and he’s very happy at the peace that has prevailed since 1945, thanks in part to organizations like the United Nations. Furthermore, he believes very strongly that the only way to achieve peace in the Middle East, or anywhere that religious conflicts are raging today, is to have a neutral country or neutral organization take some responsibility and lead the way forward, just as Luxembourg and Belgium have done in Europe.
Now, because Luxembourg is so neutral, it lacks a bit of identity. Above all, it resembles a sober, well-dressed banker. We did eat very well in the city—and paid the price—and we saw a lot of well-dressed, well-behaved people. Plus, we witnessed major sales events by Cartier and Lexus. But we noted a lack of vitality and freedom of expression that typify the cities we love. No doubt we’ll find that at the end of this trip in Amsterdam, if not before.
What we did like about Luxembourg is its size. Originally a defensive stronghold, it’s bounded on most sides by vertical cliffs. Thus the old town is quite compact, and easy to walk around. And the views from the edge are impressive.
Tomorrow, on to Belgium, and a long-lost cousin!