The hair on the back of my neck stood up as the packed congregation of the Greek Church sang the National Anthem. It was October 28, and the Church was filled by patriots, the local community, members of NATO and a lone tourist from Australia.
They sang from the heart, as loud as their voices could carry them.
Listening to the rendition by the faithful it struck me that patriotism is key aspect of the Greek community. A young community that will no doubt thrive as the continued ‘crisis’ in Greece provides a golden path for some of her more educated and affluent. For Luxembourg is no Greek outpost in the traditional sense of the Diaspora, ie Greek migrants arriving on boats to an emerging country ala Canada or America early last Century. This is the second wealthiest country in the world (based on per head of population), just behind Qatar. 2,700 out of approximately 600,000 residents are Greek, with the number growing rapidly.
I usually end up in cities that have a Greek element which can be traced over a significant period. In this picturesque Constitutional Monarchy, the Hellenic Community dates back only to 1950 when Greek members of NATO moved here as part of their military obligations. They brought with them their families. With the standard of living being higher than most places in the world, some of them stayed.
There would have been perhaps dozens of Greek speakers living here permanently by 1981. This was the year when Greece was admitted to the EU. Considering the ‘crisis’ in Greece and the continued occupation of northern Cyprus, a cynic would tell you that this was a bad year for Hellenes. However, in Luxembourg the Greek population doubled almost overnight as Greeks were suddenly employed to work in the EU offices ensuring that Europe was actually beneficial to some.
I met Eleni on my visit to Luxembourg. She had moved from Greece in the late 90’s and has worked for the EU ever since. Greeting me in Greek, her friendliness and the large group of expats she had assembled was typical of the Greeks I meet around the world. It was a Friday night and it was freezing. I waited for Eleni and her friends to suddenly show. What followed was a long night that started at a favourite Greek eatery, the Athenian (where else?) and ended at a local bar with perhaps another ten Greek expats. All happy to have a chat and a slow drink.
Eleni told me that she, just like her parea, adore Luxembourg which is now home. She speaks a number of languages fluently and takes the opportunity every few months to fly back to Athens, her original home. I remember on the last night I was in Luxembourg she invited me to a gathering at her apartment. In true Greek fashion, there were a number of jovial Greeks and foreign friends there, plenty of food and singing! Was a pleasant surprise from what I would normally expect from a trip on my own. What was fantastic to note was the comradery of the group. All of them seeing each other as relatives rather than just mere friends, despite the fact that some had been there for less than two years.
I met Giannis Psaltis in a quiet coffee shop in the historic old town in the city centre with Eleni, who had made sure I didn’t get lost. A fact that would easily happen to this tourist Odysseas. Ironically, Odysseas is a term I could use for Giannis, who was
now in his mid 30’s, having already lived in Germany and France. He told me about his time living in Grenoble and explained how he missed the Greek Community there as they were intent on helping each other to fill the void of Greece.
Giannis told me ‘there are many Greeks in Luxembourg and even a Greek church! We are divided in the following categories. The first one is the second generation Greeks who grew up in Germany, France, Belgium or Luxembourg and they decided to come
live here. The second category are students undertaking their studies or internship in EU institutions and the last one, the Greeks who departed Greece due to the bad economic situation.’ Giannis told me that the last category is unfortunately the one which is growing and to which he belongs. ‘I work in Deloitte and instead of two Greeks when I commenced six months ago there are are ten.’ I could possibly add another category, those who live here due to NATO or EU related roles.
Alexandros Poulis, was another mid 30’s Greek I met. Though at first glance you would not believe he was over 20. Luxembourg life certainly seems to agree with him, keeping him young in looks and at heart. Alexandros was as entertaining as he was was friendly. A talented performer in the arts world (theatre, music), Alexandros is also a linguist who had previously studied in Germany before making his way to Luxembourg in 2010. He was typical of the Greeks I met here, well educated, having already lived in another country and able to speak numerous languages.
Active is the first word that comes to mind when I think back on the Hellenic Community. Remembering the day I went to the Greek Church, a twenty minute drive out of the city. I was picked up by the energetic Secretary of the Community, Maria Triantafyllou, and we drove through the countryside on a cloudless though cold day. Other passengers included an elderly couple from Greece who had come to visit Luxembourg and take in the performance of ‘Voice of the Macedonians’ held earlier in the week.
I was introduced to the President of the Community, Ms Sia Kavvadia, who told me how proud she was of the small, but very active community. She was first elected to that position in 2009.
Everyone I met at the festival after the sermon at Saint Anargyroi Church was quick to point out that they are somewhat living in their own Greek enclave, refuge, in Luxembourg. They all have opportunities to come to the Church, socialise, and attend the various events held by the Community. I should point out that the priest here is from Crete, as there is no local Greek priest.
The choir and performers from ‘Voice of the Macedonians,’ also attended the Church service and afterward they gave a stunning forty minute rendition
of their repertoire in the church hall. There would have been 200 people who all stood in unison to applaud the performance of the group who had travelled from Thessaloniki.
The Community hold at least one activity each month, coordinate Greek dancing classes, distribute a newsletter and help promote the Greek school which operates on the Greek curriculum. Luxembourg is one of the few countries in the world where Greek speaking children use the curriculum of Athens. This is a necessity due to the high number of EU and NATO families based here from Greece.
The President explained that her children are second generation and she has known third generation Greek people. Now it appears a fourth generation of Greek speakers in Luxembourg may be emerging though this is a very small number. There have been mixed marriages along the way, which may have an impact on the longevity of those who can trace their heritage to the first Greek people to arrive here almost seven decades ago.
I also met an elderly man here. He was forced out of Constantinople around 1955 with thousands of other Hellenes. He has lived in Greece and Armenia, telling me that above all he prefers Luxembourg as it is quiet. He no longer has to think about tomorrow, about whether he or his friends will suffer any political problems for Luxembourg is a tolerant society. Greek people are welcome in Luxembourg.
Meanwhile back in Sydney
To remind myself of what a small world it is, I met Arthur Panos for lunch here at the delicious Clems in Newtown for a Greek feed early 2014. Arthur is a strategy consultant who lives by the beach in Sydney, therefore, I was perplexed when he told me he lived in the landlocked Luxembourg for five years. Why would anyone move from Sydney to such a place? Arthur knew that was an opportunity to live in Europe for a while in one of the financial powers. His son was actually born in Luxembourg which makes him a Greek Luxembourgian. Arthur was quick to mention that Luxembourg is in a great geographic location in Europe, allowing quick access to great spots such as London, Italy ‘and let’s not forget Greece.’
Luxembourg may sound like a LUXury to many. It is actually a nice refuge, albeit a wealthy one for Greek people who have emigrated from Greece due to the crisis or for EU work reasons. After all that has happened in Greece in recent times, Luxembourg may be the step back to economic prosperity for many Hellenes in a part of the world that has a limited Hellenic history. Time will ultimately tell what may happen in this Greek refuge; though I have a feeling it has a long history ahead.