Over 192,000 people commute to Luxembourg from the Greater Region for work
Over 192,000 people commute to Luxembourg from the Greater Region for work*. No all of them live in their native countries. Delano met some of the expats driven across the border by Luxembourg’s spiraling living costs and shortage of affordable housing.
For Irish national Dermot Crowley, the decision to move in 2005 from Luxembourg City to Audun-le-Tiche, in France, was motivated by his then partner’s pet dog. “In Luxembourg, it was difficult to find rental accommodation with dogs and kids,” he recalls. They bought a house a mere ten-minute walk from the town’s CFL train station, offering four trains per day. Not able to speak French confidently at the time, Crowley left most of the administrative tasks to his French partner. This, he said, was tough and there were times he felt isolated. “I felt I couldn’t go out and meet people because I didn’t feel confident in my language skills. Going out in Luxembourg was difficult because I would have to drive home.”
Things changed in the intervening years, particularly when they had children and Crowley had to interact more with school staff. While the school his children attend follows the French curriculum, it is as diverse as any school you’ll find in Luxembourg. His daughter recently told him of a new classmate who did not speak French very well. “My daughter tried English, another girl tried Lithuanian, another Spanish,” he said. “They are totally unselfconscious about the idea of speaking a second language at home.” Living in France forced Crowley to learn other things too, like how to drive, a move which proved critical when the trains were replaced with buses. “Everyone has a car and you get used to driving.”
After Crowley and his partner separated, he moved to Villerupt, a nearby former industrial town. By then, he was fluent enough in French to be able to handle the administrative tasks on his own. But, he admits, he finds himself spending more time in Luxembourg than France. With just 27 kilometres between home and work, the distance wouldn’t be an issue if public transport were better or if there was no traffic. This, Crowley said, is the hidden cost of having a bigger house and garden for the children. “Because if you’re spending 2-5 hours per day on the road, the kids may have a garden, but you’re too tired to talk to them when you get in.”
Another important consideration, he pointed out, was the growing demand for childcare and pressure on the local after-school system as a result of families moving to the Greater Region. “There’s been a boom because of the families moving there.”
The first jobber
Bianca-Marina Chirilà, a Romanian national, chose to apply for work in Luxembourg after the 22 March 2016 Brussels attacks. She was finishing her masters in the Belgian capital and had been minutes away when the attack occurred at the Maelbeek metro station. Luxembourg seemed a safer option and when she landed a job, she found accommodation in Arlon. “Since I already lived in Brussels and had the titre de séjour [resident permit], I thought it would just be a matter of changing address,” she recalled. Located 35 kilometres from Luxembourg City, Arlon is proving increasingly popular with expats. According to the local council, the number of foreign nationals living there more than doubled from 2014 to 2018, from 2,154 to 4,881.
Bianca-Marina Chirilà, a Romanian national, began working in Luxembourg in 2016. Photo: LaLa La Photo
Chirilà lived in a large, shared house where she paid €450 for a private bedroom. “Arlon is a good start until you settle, especially if you don’t have the best salary and you’re at the stage where you’re still junior,” she said. The low cost of housing meant that when things didn’t work out in her job, she had enough saved to cover rent until she landed a new one.
It was not just housing that was cheaper, Chirilà said. She spent less on groceries, all savings which gave her a bit of extra margin to enjoy the “many good restaurants in Arlon”. Among the fond memories she shared of the year she lived in Arlon was the Maitrank festival, a street party when bars serve a traditional flavoured wine, usually in May.
Like Crowley, however, Chirilà spent her free time hanging out with people in Luxembourg. Relying solely on trains, she found she had to turn down invitations. “I remember there was a film festival in the city, but I couldn’t go because I couldn’t get the train back. I was close to crying.” Trains turned out to be a recurring issue of a life split between Arlon and Luxembourg. Delays meant that it could take her up to an hour and a half door to door to reach work and she was frequently late. Another downside, she recalled, was receiving a surprise bill for €248 from the local council for waste disposal and sewerage. Chirilà eventually bit the bullet and rented a flat in Luxembourg City through a contact. “I would never move back to Arlon. For families, it could be nice, especially for people starting their career,” she said.
The nationality question
British national Karen Tomasi lived the cross-border life for three years when she bought a house in Perl-Besch, a hamlet on the German Moselle in 2011. At the time, she commuted to work by car, choosing her travel times carefully to avoid getting caught in tailbacks. While pros included the chance to live in a beautiful part of Germany, she admits it was hard, as most of her friends were in Luxembourg as was her daughter’s school. Tomasi said there were times she just used the house to sleep in, “which felt quite soulless at the end. You have to push yourself to integrate. At that point, you need the languages,” she said.
After an interim period back in Luxembourg, she looked to move abroad again. Despite being fluent in French, she dismissed Belgium and France because of the taxes and construction quality. Instead, she opted for Perl, a small town not far from where she lived previously. In late 2015, she purchased a new, two-bedroom flat with breathtaking views over the Moselle and vineyards for €250,000. She planned to live there, but after the June 2016 Brexit referendum, Tomasi reassessed her priorities. “It’s not just moving 30 kilometres away. You’re moving countries and laws. I took time to think about it and thought ‘I need another passport’.”
In another two-and-a-half years, Tomasi will have notched up 20 years’ residency in Luxembourg, enabling her to apply for Luxembourg nationality under certain conditions. She now lets out the flat to tenants and is finding her way through German administration for filing taxes, not an easy task when you don’t speak German. “It’s not like you’re moving to an international German city where they speak English,” she said. Tomasi does not rule out one day living in Perl. But, for now, she is happy to remain in Luxembourg.
Had Tomasi moved to Trier, her experiences might have been different. Driven by low rents and house prices, the number of expat cross-border workers has almost tripled over the last 15 years, from 5,600 to 15,500 (900 of which are Luxembourgers).
Chemsseddine Salem, a Hungarian IT worker who coordinates the local InterNations meetups, told Delano: “A year ago, we were getting 10-15 people attending our events. Now, we’re reaching 60-70 people.” Salem, who previously lived in London, Hong Kong and Brussels, chose Trier because he had friends there. He first lived in a house share, paying €100 per month, before renting a 60-square-metre flat for €380 per month and then eventually buying a flat. “I wanted to move to Luxembourg, but for an equivalent apartment in the city, it would have cost up to €2,000 per month with charges. For the same price, you can have a house in Trier with a private swimming pool,” he said.
Salem says he splits his social life between Luxembourg and Trier. It helps that he has a car and is less reliant on public transport, but that is improving. By the end of 2019, the frequency of trains between Trier and Luxembourg is expected to increase from one per hour to two. Salem knows enough German to get by and, if in doubt, the expat network helps out. He added that he often encounters Germans who speak English. With foreigners making up 14.1% of the city’s population, the commune has introduced German language courses for this new community. There’s also a council lobbying for the interests of foreign citizens and the commune sponsors and supports initiatives to make foreigners feel welcome in Trier.
Of Greater Region residents, in 2017, over one in ten were foreign nationals, according to Statec figures. With public transport and infrastructure improvements planned and no sign that Luxembourg house prices will stabilise, the trend for expats moving over the border only looks set to continue.