About nine years ago, I was a university student in Seattle, Washington attending my first college class. The history professor prefaced his syllabus speech with an anecdote about living in Algeria as a young man. After just one month of living in the country, he recalled feeling confident enough to write a book of reflections on Algerian culture. About six months later, returning to his initial monograph-length claim, he found that his estimate needed revision: what he knew about Algeria could be summarized in just a short essay. Then, after one year, he realized that what he qualitatively knew about living in Algeria would only fill the space of a single page.
The lesson is a familiar one: the more you learn, the more you understand how little you really understand. We could also say—though never do—that the longer you stay in a place, the more you see how little you have really seen.
Last year, I lived in Luxembourg as an English Teaching Assistant through the Fulbright Program. I applied to the program in Luxembourg because it aligned with many of my own ideologies: encouraging cultural exchange, fostering international relations at the individual level, and providing language education. With an area of less than 1000 square miles, I figured I might actually be able to see everything in the country during my year abroad and become a kind of expert on Luxembourg as well.
Now looking back on a year living, working, and studying in Luxembourg, what I know, definitively, is that on weekday mornings around eight o’clock, the platform at the train station smells like slightly burnt dark chocolate. I know to savor those aromas while inevitably experiencing railway delays traveling to the high school outside the capital. I know that my twenty-one Luxembourgish students are extremely adept at learning English (their fourth, fifth, sometimes sixth language). I know that attending bi-weekly German classes through the Institut National des Langues will prove my linguistic dexterity rather feeble in comparison. I know that teaching a French workshop at the University of Luxembourg will expose my insecurities with grammar. I know joining a book club will reinforce my love of reading French literature in a group setting. I know that during my train ride home I will overhear conversations in Luxembourgish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and German.
While I visited museums, saw sights, and enjoyed crisscrossing the countryside on the railway, it wasn’t about what I saw in Luxembourg that changed me, but rather, what I heard: the language on the people’s tongues, the conversations I overheard in the cafés, and the ones I participated in too.
The end of my Fulbright contract arrived, I went back to the United States, stopped teaching high school, and started a doctoral degree in French literature. On my first day of class this past September, the professor asked us to write down three words that came to mind about “Algiers,” the capital city which gives Algeria its name. At the end of the term spent studying the city, we returned to the task of mining our imaginary vis-à-vis a place (a place most of us had never been to) to try and find new ways to describe it. My understanding of Algeria had,
Indeed, been molded and transformed from the comfort of my new home in Northern California. I had new contexts with which to understand the people of Algeria. I saw images, learned the history, and read autobiographies of Algerians. But it was my undergraduate professor’s voice that rang in my ears. Did I know enough about Algeria to write a paper? What could I say from such a distance?
Then Luxembourg reminded me that my story wasn’t just my own. The story told about a place is always textured by the voices of people encountered. It is polyvocal, often multilingual, whole but never finished.
In Luxembourg, a common tongue is not the foundation of daily life. Telling stories relies on more than a single voice, a fixed narrative. Instead, like skin itself, language acts as a porous, layered, somatic, and regenerating organ. This living structure envelops us, identifies us, but does not define each story we tell. More languages gather on top of our skin as we walk down the street, more stories are told as we stand in the classroom, more ears are opened as we sit with friends and strangers.
In Luxembourg, linguistic hierarchies exist as they do anywhere else, but here, the vast majority of people find themselves in a state of flux, moving on a stable yet oscillating path through a multilingual society. What is shared on this path is the understanding that language is never taken for granted, no one is its master. Language is fluid, traveling in our ears as a constructive challenge, ringing from our lips with vibrato, pulsing across our skin as we bump up against it, dance with it, and allow it to take part in who we are becoming.
As an eighteen-year-old in Seattle, a story about living in Algeria shifted my position as a narrator. As a twenty-eight-year-old in Palo Alto, living in Luxembourg changed how I told a story about Algeria.
International education resists the construction of master narratives but facilitates the interlacing of master storytellers in and among each other’s paths. The rhythms, contours, and vibrations storytellers weave create a new and unfamiliar sound. I cannot tell a story about Luxembourg without Algeria. I cannot understand Algeria without Luxembourg. If we are to build these melodies and hear voices in a tapestry, we need movement back and forth across borders, education from inside and outside the classroom, storytelling at home and abroad.