I’m wandering through the weekly market at the Place Guillaume II in Luxembourg City, and my eyes fixate on piles of bananas.
I suppose there are bananas in almost every market around the world these days (thank you, global food supply.) But these bananas frustrate me. What I want to find in the market is an amazing selection of local, seasonal food. Traditional Luxembourgish dishes and ingredients. (And let’s be honest, my ideal market has rustic, handwoven baskets heaped with foraged fungi, berries and other Autumnal bounty just calling out for a photo!) I’m frustrated.
This week I’ve been in Luxembourg trying to connect with my ancestors who immigrated to the USA in 1869. But I just can’t get a feel of the place.
This trip is part of my project to reconnect with the locations of my great-grandmothers. In July, I visited Horsham, West Sussex, England, and really did feel more connected to England afterwards. I felt like I belonged here. Of course, Horsham is a well-preserved market town, and I could see many of the same buildings, streets, and churches that my great-grandmother did in the 1600s.
My Luxembourgish ancestors didn’t immigrate to the USA until the mid-1800s – 200 years after my English ancestors. So it should be even easier to feel a connection to Luxembourg, right? Hmmm…
I was a bit torn about how to write this post. I could easily write it from a “perfect” perspective, inventing a sense of connection and sharing only the most Instagrammable photos.
But the feelings underlying that just weren’t there. And the purpose of this project is to ask questions: what happens when I try to connect with the places of my ancestors? Do I feel anything? Does it feel like “home”, comfortable and familiar? I don’t know the answers yet. I’m learning as I go.
Luxembourg is a tiny country squeezed between France, Belgium, and Germany. Whatever little amount I thought about my heritage while I was growing up, it did not include Luxembourg. Turns out, one of my great-grandfathers was 100% Luxembourgish, born to two immigrant parents. So it’s a rather large part of my ancestry, and quite recent.
A dark, chilly 6am London morning, and I’m in a taxi on the way to Heathrow airport. I check my phone and learned that my great-uncle passed away. Not especially unexpected, I guess, but it really affected me. The purpose of this trip was to reconnect with the Luxembourg ancestors, and he was the keeper of the family farm of that line. Now my grandmother is the only one living from her family. I miss her and want to be there. The whole trip was tinged with a mix of feelings: wanting to connect with Luxembourg and honor those ancestors, grief, wishing I lived closer to my extended family, guilt about whether I’d attend the funeral, frustration at not having planned this trip better. On and on. A nice swirl of angst. Always a great place to start a creative project from, right?
I based myself in Luxembourg City. It was incredible Autumn weather – low 70s, bright blue skies, vibrant leaves. Luxembourg is small and walkable (well, except for all the hills!) Everyone seems to speak 3 or 4 languages: Luxembourgish, German, French, and sometimes English.
Good weather, my French isn’t too rusty, Luxembourg apparently makes great white wines, and there’s a market on Wednesday morning. I’m feeling cautiously optimistic.
Luxembourg city is gorgeous. Sweeping views from the high city (major hills!). A few nice cobblestone street areas.
It’s nice. Beautiful. But I don’t really feel any character.
Lots of people speak English. And French and German. The pharmacies are French. There are lots of German beer places. The food is ridiculously expensive. It just feels … I don’t know, generically European?
Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mental state. Maybe getting out of the city will help.
Connecting with my Luxembourg Great-Great-Great Grandmother
My one goal for the trip was to trace the life of my great-great-great-grandmother Anna Margaretha Leytem. Here she is:
My grandmother’s genealogy book starts with Anton and Anna’s arrival in the USA. She writes that they came from a village named Medingen. That was my starting point.
This is where I am SO thankful for digital records and online searching. Luxembourg is a small and wealthy country. They’ve invested heavily in digitizing all the old government and church records, so everything is searchable online! Last year I spent several weekends in my small Hong Kong apartment reviewing German-language church records from Luxembourg to learn more about this family, and was able to trace back into the 1700s.
I don’t want to bore you with the genealogy but here are some fun facts:
- Anna Margaretha liked to be called “Susan” (Source: grandma’s genealogy book)
- She was born in Medingen in 1819.
- She married Anton Saddler (b.1815) in 1844, on the same day that 2 of their siblings also married each other!
- Anton was a day-laborer farmer.
- They had 8 children. One died as an infant.
- In 1869, they boarded a ship called The Denmark in Liverpool, UK and eventually arrived in New York.
My grandmother’s book says “the journey took 3 months and they ran out of food.” (What? Ran out of food? With 7 children? More detail please!)
- Somehow they traveled from New York to Iowa (train?), where Anton bought 110 acres of land near Cascade, Iowa.
- Later, their daughter Elizabeth Saddler married another young Luxembourgish immigrant named John Koster, and they ultimately became my great-great-grandparents.
So I wanted to go visit this village of Medingen, where Anna Margetha was born and married, and where my research had shown that generations of her ancestors lived before her.
I take a bus for 45 minutes from central Luxembourg. I get off at the end of the line in Medingen. It’s very rural and very cute.
I’m not sure where to walk. It’s a small rural village (2007 population: 102 residents) with 2 or 3 streets surrounded by farmland. I check Google Maps, and it looks like there’s a church in the village which hadn’t come up in my research, so I wander over…
The church is locked, but there’s a cemetery, and it’s filled with surnames of my ancestors! There are several Leytem stones, and other names I recognize from my research. All more recent than my ancestors.
There’s no one around. I’m kicking myself that I hadn’t planned this better, to arrange for someone to meet me at the church. (To be fair, I hadn’t known the church existed, but still!) Clearly distant cousins still live in this village. I kick myself again for not getting in touch with someone (who?) to see if I could meet some of them.
Excuse me, is this the house called “Thillen”?
In my research last year, I found a Census from 1861 which lists Anton, Anna, and their children. Apparently in those days, instead of street addresses, you’d have a “house name” (Maison Dite in French). Unfortunately, when Luxembourg modernized to street addresses, no one thought to record the House Name translation into a street address. So the house names are lost to history…
I wander down the street. There’s an elderly man raking leaves off his driveway. I pause. Turn. Should I really just go talk to a random guy in the village? Well, I’m only here for today so…
Excusez-moi monsieur, parlez-vous Francais?
He speaks French with a heavy accent (as do I, I suppose!), but we can communicate.
I explain I have distant ancestors from this village, who moved to America.
I attempt to explain the concept of house names – does he know of any ancient names of any of the houses? What about a house called “Thillen”? I spell it out.
No luck. He’s lived here for 40 years and never heard the name Thillen.
Then I ask him if he knows of any Leytem or Saddler families living in Medingen.
He does! The very furthest house up the top of the hill is the Leytem family. He doesn’t give a street name, just turn left at the white building and go up the hill. Hmmm… OK. I set off.
I retrace my steps through the village, turn left, and climb to the top of a steep road. There’s a house at the end, but it’s a new-build, clearly not the ancestral home. I look for a name on the door or the mailbox to see who lives there, but can’t find anything. It doesn’t look like anyone’s home (it is a Tuesday afternoon, after all…) What am I supposed to do in this situation? I’m not that keen on knocking on doors while I’m alone.
I wimp out and leave.
Connecting with Nature
A bit frustrated (can’t go in the church and can’t identify the house), I decided to enjoy the warm weather and walk a couple miles back from Medingen to the larger village of Moutfort, where I’d catch the bus back to Luxembourg City.
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. This is the closest I get to feeling connected to the place.
I can see similarities to where they settled in Iowa. There are big open field spaces, surrounded by trees. (Although Luxembourg has more pine trees than I’ve seen in Iowa.) There are sheep, cows, and crows. Open fields. Orchards. At least this landscape would be familiar to my ancestors.
As always when I walk, I was on the lookout for weeds.
There were nettles heavy with seeds, juicy rosehips, shriveled red hawthorn berries past their peak. Abundant resources for food, medicine, and beauty. Which ones did Anna’s mother use? Did she make nettle soup or hawthorn jam? I wished I had been able to arrange a walk with a local herbalist (this I did try to do before the trip, but it didn’t happen.)
As I entered Moutfort, the feeling abruptly changed. Moutfort felt like a quiet suburban commuter town into Luxembourg City. Newly built houses, planned roads, and not much character.
In Moutfort, I stopped in the village church (which WAS open!) and lit a candle for my uncle and all my Luxembourg ancestors.
This post feels long and rambling. I hesitated to even share it, as I haven’t gotten to the ‘result’ of the Luxembourg ancestors yet. But that’s where I am right now.
I’m in the middle of this huge, daunting project to retrace my great-grandmothers … and this trip just felt flat.
The next morning was the Wednesday food market, where the bananas mocked me. Reinforcing the feeling that The Real Luxembourg was elusive, and that I definitely had not found it.
Luxembourg just felt so… generically European. Am I jaded from spending so much time in different European countries? Did I not give it a fair chance? Maybe I should have prepared more?
One of my big questions now is how do you connect with a place, when it’s so different from how it was in the past? My day-labor farming ancestors didn’t eat at overpriced restaurants, drink fancy wine, and wouldn’t recognize the spaciously-constructed commuter towns with perfect public transport systems.
I feel caught between acknowledging what a place is today, and connecting with the essence of that place which would have been familiar to my ancestors. I don’t know the answer yet. The exploration continues.
I did wrap up my trip with a glass of chilled Luxembourg pinto gris in the warm sunshine along the river, and that moment, at least, felt perfect. Onwards!
Do Well. Be Well.
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