Speaking Same Language

Speaking Same Language

Multilingual Louise of Luxembourg Multitasks Family, Work

Louise Akerblom, a former international business executive, ardent supporter of women’s rights and cheerful wife and mother, seizes every opportunity, whether personal or professional. She’s multicultural, multilingual and a multi-tasking master — a reflection of her can-do spirit.

SpouseLux“I’ve always been an optimistic person; we both are,” said Louise, wife of Luxembourg Ambassador Jean-Paul Senninger. “My husband and I always say when something goes bad, it didn’t have to turn out that way but it could have been worse” — like during this stormy summer when the power went out and they had important dinner guests about to arrive at their residence. Louise just took her ingredients and moved everything over to the embassy. “I didn’t know where anything was and it took me a bit longer, but at least we had electricity and air conditioning.”

This mother of two university-age students is Swedish but has fully embraced her adopted country as if it were her own. “Luxembourg is my home country. I’ve lived there for 19 years before we were posted to Spain and that’s where our children were born, and all the memories of their childhood and our family are there,” she said. “And, Luxembourg is a fantastic country.”

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, as it is officially known, may be tiny but it is a vibrant cosmopolitan center known for its economic and cultural wealth, as well as its multinational, multilingual community. Located in the heart of Europe, this constitutional monarchy is the size of Rhode Island with less than half a million people, yet it’s also a country “where 150 nationalities rub shoulders,” Louise noted.

“People always ask me, ‘It can’t be that small, can it?’ And in news stories they are always adding zeros. For instance, Luxembourg has nine soldiers in Afghanistan and everyone is always trying to make it 900 because they can’t believe that it’s only nine, but that’s a lot for Luxembourg,” she said.

“Luxembourg City is a small city in a small country,” Louise added. “It’s very easy to get things done and it’s very easy to get to know the right people to help you.”

For Louise, it also helped that when she moved to Luxembourg in 1984, she quickly picked up Lëtzebuergesch, the official language, having already spoken German, French and English.

In fact, it would be hard to find another country as multilingual as Luxembourg, where, according to Louise, it’s not unusual to read articles in four or five different languages in the same newspaper, while “foreign” films are often shown without any subtitles. Luxembourgers are automatically ahead of the global game by being able to speak at least four languages by their high school graduation.

“The early grades are taught in Lëtzebuergesch and then German, using German textbooks,” explained Louise, “but French is introduced in second grade. In seventh grade, they switch and start teaching in French, using French textbooks. And in eighth grade, they introduce English. And then students usually add Italian or Spanish.”

She also pointed out, “Our schools are 13 years, unlike your 12. We have added an extra year to get all this into the equation. We have public schools and many international private schools and European schools, like the Swedish section, where parents don’t necessarily speak all these languages.

“It is a demanding system and, needless to say, our students are well-prepared. Although we now have a university, most Luxembourg students study abroad to further their education in Europe, the United States or Canada — and, happily, almost all of them come back.”

That was the case with Louise’s husband. After graduating with a major in international economy and business management from the University of Uppsala in Sweden, Louise decided to get her master’s degree in European integration studies and economics at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium.

“Jean-Paul was there in the same class in 1984 in Bruges,” she recalled. “It was a wonderful experience — 125 students from 30 different countries. It was a universe unto itself with all of us living together in the Flemish part of Belgium. We were mostly speaking French and English. We had lots of chances to socialize and after one month, we knew everyone in our class.

“One of the students, Heinz, an Austrian, decided that we should have a Viennese Ball and he decided to teach all of us the Polonaise,” she remembered. “Jean-Paul was my partner.”

Later, they were partners again for another Viennese Ball, this time in Brussels — and “that’s when we became more than just classmates,” she said.

The ambassador’s answer as to how they got together is much simpler. “You know the winters are cold in Belgium,” he said with a huge smile.

After a year of commuting to Luxembourg while she worked in Sweden for Saab, Louise moved to Luxembourg so that they could be together.

“Since I already had the languages and the international economic background, it wasn’t hard to find a job in this financial capital,” she said. “But in those days, living together before you married was not the usual in this Catholic country.”

A year later, they were married in Sweden, where Louise’s good friend, a female vicar, officiated, surprising some of their Luxembourg relatives.

But the choice was hardly surprising given Louise’s firm belief in gender equality and women’s rights. After a career in finance, Louise spent nine years as the managing director of Initiativ Rëm Schaffen, a nonprofit foundation supporting job re-entry for women.

“I think it was an advantage that I was a foreigner and could think of and suggest different options for these women,” Louise said of her time counseling. “I remember one woman who said she didn’t feel free to work outside the home because her husband told her that, ‘I didn’t get married to boil my own potatoes,’ and that she wouldn’t make enough to pay for someone to clean and do everything she had been doing as a homemaker. I told her, ‘Why not deduct the cleaning from your husband’s salary and you keep your salary for yourself?’

“I think it is important that a woman not see herself as a victim but that she takes charge of her own life and works it out for herself,” said Louise, who worked as an au pair in New Jersey and Illinois when she was 16. “When I moved to Luxembourg 26 years ago, the society was more traditional and mothers usually stayed home. In Sweden then and now, all women work, including my grandmother, but maybe they work more part-time in Sweden. In Luxembourg now, a larger percentage of professional women may work full-time.”

SpouseLux2Wherever Louise has lived, she has always been active in volunteer work supporting groups such as Zonta International, a service club of business executives and professionals dedicated to advancing the status of women worldwide. “In Luxembourg, our Zonta chapter worked closely with women shelters and, specifically, a shelter for girls who were not ready to live on their own but couldn’t stay at home,” she noted. “In Madrid, where my chapter is still the only one in Spain, we had a theater program for inmates at a women’s prison. In D.C., my Zonta chapter is raising funds for scholarships.”

In addition, Louise founded the Luxembourg chapter of SWEA, the Swedish Women’s Educational Association, and served as president and co-chair of its world conference here in Washington last year.

As a mother of two, Louise has also spent many years juggling her professional career with her family responsibilities. “The quality of children’s lives, in school and out, has always been a concern,” said Louise, who for six years served on the Luxembourg City School Board and was involved in the parent organizations of her children’s schools.

It wasn’t always an easy juggle though. After her fight to introduce a hot school lunch program at her children’s school failed, “I arranged for our two third- and fourth-graders then to walk together by themselves to a nearby school for lunch since neither one of us could leave work mid-day. They were the only ones in their class who didn’t go home for lunch.”

Louise was happy to add though that her efforts weren’t wasted and their school’s hot lunch program was later approved and “it was a great success.”

For the Senningers, “work, not working — who did what was self-evident,” said Louise of the shared parental responsibilities. “We never really discussed anything — what would happen with the children or who would do the dishes. It just happened and we always did it together,” she recalled. “I never said, ‘Wait until your father hears this.’ We always had a united front on childrearing.”

“After one quarter of a century living together,” the ambassador added, “either you’re a good team or not. Plus, we’re good friends as well.”

The same can be said of their two children. “Our kids have always been very close, very good friends,” Louise said. “Even when we’re not there, they get together and bring their friends to our small apartment in Luxembourg while we’re here and our house in Luxembourg is rented.”

Today, their children also seem to be following in their parents’ international footsteps. Although both were accepted into the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, they choose to study elsewhere. Joseph, now 22, studies political science and the Middle East at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and has chosen summer internships in Beirut and Shanghai. Julia, now 21, attends the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya of Raphael Recanati International School in Israel. “I think the beach and the warm weather may have had something to do with it,” said her mother, with a smile, of the decision to study in Israel. Counting their Swedish, the children now speak seven languages each.

It’s that strong focus on education that in part has helped to transform Luxembourg from a relatively poor country into one of the world’s top 10 financial centers. Luxembourgers enjoy a high standard of living, with per-capita income at roughly $75,000. The country, independent since 1839, is also a model of integration, with Luxembourg City ranking as one of the safest cities in the world, which also makes it attractive to foreign investment and companies such as Microsoft, Siemens, Skype, Amazon, FedEx and Goodyear (whose bullet-proof tires for U.S. presidential limousines, incidentally, are made in Luxembourg, the company’s largest plant outside the United States).

“Luxembourg’s wealth is produced during the daytime,” said Louise, pointing out that a large number of commuters from other countries work in Luxembourg. “If you divide the GDP by the people who sleep there at night, it seems very high. Luxembourg City triples in size in the daytime. There are more than 200,000 commuters working in Luxembourg and returning home to sleep in another country. Over 65 percent of the working population is made of foreign commuters and foreign residents.”

The ambassador compared it to the Washington area, “where people commute in one and a half hours from Virginia and Maryland — or New York, where they come from Connecticut, New York State or New Jersey into Manhattan.”

Louise added that “since Luxembourg is small, we work and live well together with partners because we know we can’t make it on their own.”

In fact, Luxembourg’s cooperative, nonviolent spirit is represented by the “Knotted Gun” sculpture given to the United Nations in New York by the Luxembourg government in 1988 — although, as Louise loves to point out, the well-known work was actually created by a Swedish artist, Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd.

Together, Jean-Paul and Louise both praise Luxembourgers for their innate ability to adapt. “If we hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t have survived. We had to adapt,” said the ambassador. “We have always been open to our neighbors and change. We’ve had no revolution, but an evolution or adaptation,” he said. “We are always looking outward because we know that our national market is too small. We look for cooperation, integration and bringing down national barriers. We are open for competition. We know it is easier to put nationalities aside, be truly European.”

But life in Luxembourg City is not all business. Chosen as one of the “European Cultural Capitals” in 2007, Jean-Paul points out that visitors can find a wide range of top cultural attractions, “very elaborate” cuisine and superb Moselle wines.

The ambassador himself is from the picturesque Luxembourg village of Wellenstein, home to the country’s most popular summer festival originally started by local churches to welcome family members home during vacation. But because of all their different schedules, the Senninger family won’t be able to make it to this year’s festival.

Rather, their summer vacation ended at Louise’s family’s summer house in Västerås, Sweden, for a lakeside reunion with her 92-year-old mother, as well as her brother and his family. There, Louise — a trained skipper — spent the last few days of summer with her family sailing.

“I love to sail and ski,” said Louise, who even enjoyed shoveling during last winter’s big snows. “I never say there is any bad weather, only the wrong clothes.

“I remember one day in Luxembourg it started to snow in the morning and by 8 p.m., it had really accumulated,” she said. “I said to the kids, ‘Get your ski clothes on and get your sleds. We’re going to the park.’ I had already decided that if we stayed up too late for school the next day, I would write them an excuse to stay home. I thought it was that important to not miss that opportunity,” she recalled, with a sparkle in her eye.

The Senningers also take advantage of the opportunities afforded by their Washington posting to explore the United States. Prior to heading to Sweden, the entire family spent a few days together in Washington in early August, after which they all flew to Chicago and traveled to Utah and Arizona. Exploring the United States is nothing new to the Senningers. One Christmas when the children were younger, they visited Disneyworld with their Swedish grandmother to celebrate her 75th birthday. Another time, they rented an RV motor camper and drove down the West Coast.

“It’s not the size of the country,” the ambassador noted, “but the people you meet in the small towns and villages that make you realize that we are all still pretty much the same.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.