Our guest today is Simône van Schouwenburg, originally from the Netherlands who moved to Luxembourg eight years ago, but before that she lived a long time just across the border. In general, she moved 26 times. Being an expat herself, Simone works with expats and chairs a committee at AMCHAM American Chamber of Commerce in Luxembourg, which is organising orientation courses for newcomers in Luxembourg.
Tetyana Karpenko: You moved to Luxembourg eight years ago after living in the US, London, Paris, and then just across the border. What do you like in Luxembourg compared to other places?
Simône van Schouwenburg: I think Luxembourg is a very special place, even though I haven’t lived in many countries, but still in different cultures. I’ve seen different cultures, but I think Luxembourg regroups it all. It’s really incredible how we have this mixture of nationalities and everybody gets along really well. You have different stories and I think it makes it a really rich country, culture wise. Very rich.
Compared to other places, yeah, I think it’s lively. Don’t ever tell me that there’s nothing to do in Luxembourg, because every day there’s something to do, even more than one thing to do. So, I think it’s a dynamic country. There are lots of things ongoing everywhere. If you live in big countries like the US or France as well, I don’t think it’s the same because it’s so spread out here. You have everything just around the corner.
Tetyana Karpenko: You said, don’t tell me that nothing happens in Luxembourg. But this is exactly what people say when they just move to Luxembourg. They are complaining there’s nothing happening. Right?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Yes, completely true. But it’s just a question of getting the right information where you need to find it. So it’s always up to us. That’s why we have kind of a responsibility for new arrivals to, “hey, you know, if you need help, we’re here, we can tell you where you need to go”.
And I think if you come to a country and you’re coming from the United States, I always tell people, go and become a member of the American Chamber of Commerce, for instance, because then you go straight away in the lively events ongoing, you get a lot to know a lot of people, okay, it’s from your same country. But don’t think that at the American Chamber of Commerce they’re only Americans. It’s a mixture.
People that are just arriving to Luxembourg, we organize like orientation courses. So in orientation courses you have all the information that you need to know about Luxembourg. So it’s from your Social Security system to maybe the tax declarations or maybe your pension rights. So it’s a lot of information, but it’s much appreciated.
Tetyana Karpenko: And who comes to these courses?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Actually, it’s a complete mixture of people. And then, so we do three courses in the year like this. Normally it’s on a Saturday, but I think next year we’re going to do it in a late afternoon, on a Friday probably. And then after all these courses that we’ve done throughout the whole year with different groups, at the end we get everybody together. And which is funny is that these people, they know each other because they’re new and everybody is new. Everybody is in the same position, so they really get to know each other throughout the courses and then they become friends. And I think that’s really interesting. So that’s what I really like about helping the new population coming to Luxembourg.
Tetyana Karpenko: Are those courses open for everyone?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Yes, yes, they’re open for everyone. And how to take part in them? Well, you have to enroll. There will be a lot of publicity, a little bit all over in Luxembourg once we put it online again. But normally it’s through the association that you have the. So basically those who would like to take part, they should go probably to the website of AMCHAM or the American Chamber of Commerce, right? Yes. And to look at the upcoming events. And there you have orientation courses.
Paris and VIP Clients and Fine Dining
Tetyana Karpenko: I know that when you worked in Paris in the hotel business, you were responsible for VIP clients. It was for sure a very challenging job. But you also have a lot of interesting stories, right? Could you tell us the most fascinating one?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Oh, yes. I mean, I have plenty of stories. I think at that time I could have written a book. You still can. Yeah, true. But that’s one day, maybe when I have some more time, maybe one day when I stop working, you never know. So, yeah, about that period in Paris, I was taking care of the VIPs, and I’m not going to mention any names because I think that’s not good.
But for instance, we would have every month somebody coming from the United States and he would come to Paris because he would have a performance. And every time he would come just two days before, he would send us a message saying that he had a dog and his dog only could have food from “Fauchon”. It’s a special, it’s a delicatess store in Paris.
And we used to go and get food for the dog, but it was not dog food, it was food for people. And then it was this whole ritual in his room. You needed to set the table. The dog would eat on the table. No, it’s serious. I mean, this was kind of hilarious. And you don’t really expect that from that kind of person because you might see him in a concert and you might know him through other things, but you wouldn’t think that his life was his dog. And so that’s one or otherwise.
Also maybe a little bit in the same story, an Asian lady, very well known, very rich lady. And if she would come, I mean, in the beginning, I didn’t really know her. And so the first times that she would come in the lobby with her stroller and with cloth over the stroller. So then you would say, oh, maybe the baby sleeping. You have to be careful, be quiet. And then I would get up and would say, hello. And then I would say, can I look at your baby? Oh, how old is the baby? And then I opened the stroller and there were cats in it. And she was just walking around with cats.
But I’m talking about 25 years ago, I think. Now this is really very typical. I mean, nowadays I think people buy strollers for their dogs and their cats to take them on the bikes or everything. So today it’s something normal. But at that time it was really particular. Yeah, very interesting.
Four Tribes in Luxembourg
Tetyana Karpenko: You mentioned to me that you think that in Luxembourg people are divided into four tribes. Could you tell us more about that?
Simône van Schouwenburg: I don’t know if you can say “divided”, but I would say, yeah, there are four populations and it’s not negative at all. But I think if I look at Luxembourg today, you have like a first tribe, which will be all the cross border people. So today we’re over 200,000 cross border people going back and forwards every morning and every evening.
Then you have all the European institutions. So all these people, they’re working for the Parliament or for the commission, European Commission, yeah, all these instances, I would say that’s the second tribe, if we can call it a tribe.
And then you have all the public sector. So there you have all the Luxembourg people mostly working for the public sector, and then you have the private sector and all these four groups or tribes. I’m not sure that they really connect with each other. Maybe if you have kids at school, then you might mix and mingle. But for work wise, I think all these tribes stay a little bit in their own environment, and I think it’s quite significant. And I didn’t really think about that. But now that I live here and I see it, and I’ve done all four of them, which is amazing, actually, I’m not sure if a lot of people can say that. So, yeah, it makes it interesting.
Tetyana Karpenko: Do you have any idea how to connect those groups?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Okay, well, I always have 10,000 ideas, but yeah, especially with events. I would say you can connect all these people, but if you want to really mix these four tribes, I would say it’s rather in the commune where you live, where they should organize events, because there are people, of course, they’re from all over, and there you can mix and mingle with people.
Main Lessons and Trends
Tetyana Karpenko: Simone, in your work, you are also helping women who come to Luxembourg because of the jobs of their husbands, right? Could you tell us about this?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Unfortunately, fortunately, most of the times, people arriving in Luxembourg, if a couple is coming, one of the two have to normally quit their job to come over, if it’s the case, of course. And then most of the time, we realize that it’s rather the men who sign a new work contract to come in Luxembourg and the women will quit their job and come to Luxembourg.
And a lot of times, once the kids are in school or even once they’re installed and they’ve been doing decorating their house, probably they want to do something. And so we started to organize workshops for women that would like to start their own business. So it’s three breakfast workshops, and you go from A to Z. It’s a small group of people. And I think we realized that these people, they also help each other.
There are a lot of questions that you don’t know where to look for. And that’s a little bit what you said earlier on. Where do we get the information? So basically, you think it’s kind of responsibility for people who already live here to share their knowledge, to share their information with newcomers. Totally, totally. I mean, I think we’re all in our interest that these people that come to Luxembourg, we want them to stay here. Hey, you want to get your pension? I want to get my pension. Mean. But it’s important that people stay.
So if the second person doesn’t like the country and might want to go back to their home country. For us, it’s a loss because already the company has put a lot of effort finding the talent, a lot of time in it. So I think it’s our duty kind of also to make sure that the second person feels well.
Tetyana Karpenko: Did you notice any trends, any tendencies that from which countries expats are coming now? Let’s say, five years ago, what was the country number one? What is the country number one now?
Simône van Schouwenburg: That’s an interesting question. Actually, when I started the expat service, actually quite a long time ago, at that moment, there were a lot of people from the US coming, a lot of people from Europe coming, and now we see that there’s no more talent around us. So we’re going to completely exotic continents to get these people to Luxembourg. So I would say I see people from Sri Lanka, from Malaysia, from Brazil, from South Africa, actually from all over. But these countries you might not have seen before, you see. So there is not kind of one country that people are massively coming to Luxembourg. No, I have noticed that. It’s a real mixture.
Tetyana Karpenko: Looking back at your professional and maybe private life, could you share with us several main lessons you learned?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Well, I think, well, I mean, I’ve been moving 26 times. So the first lesson I would say is if you give me a suitcase tomorrow, I’m gone again. Which means my lesson was that don’t get your life completely filled up with plenty of things because I think it’s easier to move around later on. So that’s one of my lessons.
Tetyana Karpenko: So you are still considering moving again?
Simône van Schouwenburg: The challenge is always there. I never say never in life. Yeah, because I think when you’ve been moving a lot, I think every time there is a challenge, because you change country and everything is different, actually. And I just love to discover other people’s stories. Right.
Tetyana Karpenko: Some more lessons?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Some other lessons…. I’m sure there are many lessons. A lot of times people coming to Luxembourg and they’re looking for housing, and they realize that the housing market is very expensive in Luxembourg. It’s true, looking at the salary, it might be more expensive than the country where they’re coming from. And then they start looking on the other side of the border. And so a lot of times I do a call with my clients and I explain a little bit my personal experience because actually I was the same.
I arrived here with my husband to Luxembourg. With my husband at the time, and we decided not to live in Luxembourg because our son was ten years old. He had moved school five times. But also one of the reasons was, yes, of course, the housing was really expensive, and so we got something on the other side of the border. And I think after all this experience, I would say you better start in Luxembourg and start small, because there’s a quality of life that you might not have on the other side of the border. But that’s a personal opinion.
Tetyana Karpenko: I think when you started your professional life, not that many women were in leading positions. Right. Where did you have your role models at that time?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Okay, well, some. I mean, my role model was Simone Veil. That was a French lady. I think she’s done a lot for women rights. And I thought also, I was always impressed by what she was doing. But there have been many more women, and I think these women have opened up our path, and we can only learn from that. And I see that we have more and more women power all around. And I think men in the beginning thought they were maybe a little bit threatened by that. But little by little, everybody gets used to it, and I hope we really get there, that everybody is on the same foot and on the same level.
Luxembourg is like Honey
Tetyana Karpenko: You know, there is such a phenomenon that people coming to Luxembourg would like to stay two years, and then they just don’t want to leave anymore, to leave the country. Why do you think that happens?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Well, as I said, I think it’s funny that my husband now always says:
Luxembourg is like honey, if you stick your finger in, it stays.
It explains it all. Which means life is good here. It’s nice and sweet, and it’s sticky. Why is it sticky? And why do we stay here? Because I think we’re so well organized. We have everything. In a small country, if you like the countryside, in five or ten minutes you’re out of the city, you’re in the countryside. If you like living in town, you can live in town everywhere. There are places where you can visit not only in town, but all over.
International environment. It’s amazing that 50% of the population comes today from elsewhere. And it’s a nice mix and mingle. Everybody gets along really well. And I think this makes it so incredibly rich, as I said already before, as a country. And I think that’s why people realize, yeah, that finally life is good here. We have everything you need. And why would you go and live in a huge country, in a huge city, while you have everything here.
Tetyana Karpenko: But this is interesting that people, at the beginning, they decide just to stay two years. Very often when I ask this question, the people who are sitting in front of me say, oh, it was me, it was my family!
Simône van Schouwenburg: Yeah, I think we all went through that. I’m sure you did as well. But, yeah, people after two, three years, I would say after three years, if they’re still there, they’re going to stay. But it depends of the age – in which age group you are.
If you’re coming alone, it might be different if you’re meeting somebody, it might be different if you’re having kids. I think the school system in Luxembourg is wonderful. If you can give your kids already three different languages as from the beginning, that’s something that you cannot find elsewhere. So you see, there are a lot of reasons for why people would stay in Luxembourg.
And also there’s something we forget every time. I think Luxembourg, it’s like a hub. We’re not far from anywhere. You’d go to the airport, you can go anywhere, you can take the train, and in 1 hour 50, you’re in Paris, you can take your car, and in 2 hours, you’re in a beautiful city in Holland or in Belgium to Brussels. There’s so many things to discover, and not far from Luxembourg, so I see it like a hub.
Tetyana Karpenko: What advice can you give to people who just moved to Luxembourg?
Simône van Schouwenburg: In which sense you mean an advice, looking for housing or integrating?
Tetyana Karpenko: That’s up to you. What do you think is most important?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Well, I think the most important thing is to go out and meet other people, by the way, which is maybe really something very different according to each country. I remember when I moved from one country to another, or from one city to another, I thought, you know, my tradition in Holland is when you move into a new home, you go as soon as you move in and you’ve done with your stuff, or even if the truck is in front of the door, you go and ring on the doorbell from your neighbors, and you bring flowers, or you bring a cake, and you go and say, hi, I’m your new neighbor.
How are you? My name is Simon. And then I noticed that in some countries, they will do that, and they look very strange at you. So I think that’s funny. But in Luxembourg, people are quite open as well. People appreciate it when you come and say hello, and I think that is one of the things that you should be open. Don’t close yourself in a circle. I think it’s very important to go and say hello in your neighbourhood, go in the local stores and say hello and mix and mingle with other people.
Tetyana Karpenko: Do you have some life hacks for those who just arrived?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Life hacks, in which sense?
Tetyana Karpenko: For example, go shopping or go to buy groceries in this store or not in that store, or the best cucumbers you find there, or the best place to find information, what to do is there, or whatever.
Simône van Schouwenburg: Well, funny enough, Luxembourg is a small country, but a little bit dispatched. All over Luxembourg, you have different areas for different things. So I know that most Luxembourgish people will go to supermarket as cactus. So that’s quite Luxembourgish. So I think that’s the first thing that you have to discover. What do these Luxembourgish people like to eat?
And I think that’s interesting to go to a supermarket because there you already have, like, a feeling, you know, what’s going on in the country. You can see the people, you can see the products, which is really nice as well. I think if you’re coming from a different country and the first thing you do is going to a grocery store, because it’s interesting to see that people might have a complete different way of eating or consuming different products as well. Exactly. But it doesn’t mean that you’re lost if you’re coming from a country and you’re looking for your own products. I think in Holland also, we have, like, the hagelslag which is something really special.
Tetyana Karpenko: What is that?
Simône van Schouwenburg: You put it on a really nice piece of white fresh bread with a big chunk of butter, and then you put the hagelslag on it. It’s chocolate, but there are chocolate flakes, and it’s so good, and it’s difficult to find. But in Luxembourg, you can find all those things. So for wherever you come from, the whole world, I would say, according to the neighborhood you’re going to, you can find the products.
Tetyana Karpenko: Do you know some hidden gems, some places to visit that are not that known?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Oh, there are plenty in Luxembourg, because most of the time, well, people that are coming to Luxembourg most of the time, they don’t really have a car yet, even though a lot of times I tell know now, especially with the electrical cars, you can rent them and all is included. I think it totally makes sense because it opens up your discover Luxembourg.
Outside of Luxembourg, for instance, they transformed a railway into a sycling path. And you go from Luxembourg to Esternach. And I think it’s really nice because you discover all these villages, and that is something that not everybody knows about. So I really like that. And then when you’re on the way on this path, you have a great restaurant. It was an old station, railway station, and they transformed the restaurant just next to it. It’s very Luxembourgish.
Tetyana Karpenko: And it serves Luxembourgish food?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Exactly, yes. Which is really nice. And they have a beautiful garden in the summer. So there are all kinds of little places, but take the bike path, and then you discover plenty of things that you won’t see by staying in town.
Tetyana Karpenko: Where do you bring your friends? What do you show them when they come?
Simône van Schouwenburg: I think it’s a very funny story because every time we have friends over coming to Luxembourg, well, friends that have not been in Luxembourg yet, we always say, well, let’s go and visit Le Chateau. What is it called?
Tetyana Karpenko: Vianden?
Simône van Schouwenburg: We had people from India coming over, we had people from the States coming over, we had people from Holland coming over and people from Spain. And I think five times now we tried to visit this castle. And then every time something happened, so went our big car, and then one day, one person from the US, he was just operated on his knee. And then when he saw how you have to walk up all the way, he said, forget it, we’ve seen it, let’s go. We go back and every time something happened, and it’s amazing. So finally, I mean, every time when people are coming to visit, we take these people to the Chateau de Vianden, but we’ve never been inside. We’ve done the cable cars around it, and we’ve done a lot of walks around it, but never been inside.
Tetyana Karpenko: So there is a possibility to go now for the 6th time.
Simône van Schouwenburg: In some countries you said never two without three, but this three we’ve passed already.
Tetyana Karpenko: But there are a lot of other nice castles as well in the country, right?
Simône van Schouwenburg: Yes, plenty. And which is a nice little place as well. It’s La Rochette. You can have beautiful walks there. I think it’s a really nice place to discover as well, but the weather needs to be nice. T
Tetyana Karpenko: Thank you for this interview!