Historic Moments

What does it take to be considered a “historic moment”? It’s a phrase I came across a lot in media coverage of the December 13th inauguration of the tram line from Luxembourg’s city center to the central train station. 

“It seems like there have been a lot of ‘historic moments’ in transportation since we arrived in Luxembourg,” I mused to Christian as we listened to a report about the inauguration ceremony on the radio. Around the time we arrived in Luxembourg the first section of the new tram was inaugurated (along with two new train stations in the city and a funicular) and the subsequent years have been punctuated by “historic” mobility announcements and changes.

“Isn’t a ‘historic moment’ something that ought to be determined in retrospect?” Christian quipped back. Though not new, the implied question is an interesting one: who gets to decide what is history, and when?

When you stop to think about it, it does feel a bit strange to label something as historic while it is actually happening. While I subscribe to the idea that history is a process of construction, it’s not every day that I witness that narrative construction in action – as clear as the physical infrastructural construction process that led up to this point. 

But why is it that all that physical labor and all that time waiting are considered somehow less historic? What about the years to come in which thousands of people will use and work with these trams on a daily basis? It seems that we often learn history as a series of dates – important treaties, battles, births, deaths, etc. Yet as an anthropologist I’m much more drawn to the question of everyday life. Yes, my research has involved participation in and analysis of specific “momentous” events (like the Mobility Day festivities last March), but the majority of my attention is focused on the day-to-day experiences of transit workers and users.

Of course in this case, part of the “historic” feeling being evoked here pertains to the historical resonance of the event. Pictures and videos of Luxembourg’s old tram have abounded in news coverage and social media, and much has been made of the symbolism of the new tram following the traces of its predecessor down Avenue de la Liberté to the Gare Centrale. As Christian points out, this notion of “return” in itself somewhat counters the image of linear progress favored by politicians and nation-branding consultants. There was a tram, and then there wasn’t, and now there is again. 

Seeing the people who came out to view and ride the new tram on December 13th, I felt sure that the hype was not simply a question of image or nation-branding but that (perhaps in addition to those factors) there was a feeling of genuine enthusiasm and nostalgia. I found myself wondering how many of the older riders and spectators that day had known the old tram, and what kind of memories they have of it. I remembered my visit to the Tramsmusée a year and half ago, when I had the chance to climb aboard and take a short ride on one of the historic trams. Romain Rech, the director of the museum and my guide on that occasion, recounted stories of visitors who had used the old tram as children or young adults and were emotionally moved by being back inside the vehicle. 

Reflecting on this notion of memory, I began to see the “historical moment” question a bit differently. Christian and I did specifically come out to see and ride the new tram on its first day, after all, and I will almost certainly maintain a more vivid memory of that experience than the thousands of other times in past and future years using public transportation in Luxembourg. Often, marking a day or event as special before or while it happens helps to preserve that memory – or at least a version of it that we (sub)consciously construct, tinged as it is by our thoughts, emotions and relations.

The interesting thing about such occasions is that the memories they foster are not just individual but collective. While all of the people who came to the city to see or ride the tram on its inaugural day will probably remember it a bit differently, the fact of coming together to experience it (masks and all) feels significant – perhaps even historically so?

3 thoughts on “Historic Moments

  1. The threshold gap of using the concept of ‘historic moments’ may well be wide between politicians and anthropologists, the inaugural words to the audience may have had less in mind that the re-opening of a track-based public transport system through Luxembourg’s city center was a memorial event in itself but the vague hope that the long battle for a more sustainable transport has been won. While the 30-year-long debate on a tram system in the capital paved with infinite spokes was competing with a simultaneous dispute on the construction of a motorway through the city’s bordering green lung, the “Gréngewald”, it finally resulted in the peculiar outcome of the same Green transport minister opening up first this long fought-over stretch of motorway before translating into action Luxembourg-city’s public transport modernization. Heated clashes that may be partly responsible for, to quote you elsewhere, you being struck of strong opinions being voiced on so many encounters you had over here when it comes to mobility issues. To question whether the last tilt towards greener transport means will prove to be historical may thus indeed be premature.

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  2. I don’t agree. Before becoming Minister (and yes, he participated at the opening ceremony of this motorway), François Bausch was Chairman for Mobility of Luxembourg-City and contributed to the debate of building the tram project. His input (and the one coming from the Green Party) brought the realization of new bicycle lanes and concepts of a more sustainable mobility including the Elevator of Pfaffenthal.
    But I agree to the fact that the word “historical” is not completely correct as mobility is more a thing of habits and long-term changes than events that just come from day to another.

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  3. Thank you both for your comments! It is great to hear your perspectives as you have more knowledge about Luxembourg’s transportation history than I do and have seen these dialogues and processes unfold. As I think you both suggest, it’s important to think about the present moment in the context of a much longer – and ongoing – process of mobility changes, in which different modes of mobility are often pitted against each other in both infrastructural and ideological terms. And from an anthropological perspective, I like Cyrille’s conceptualization of mobility in terms of habits. They’re perhaps harder to trace than these big events but in the long term can give us a better picture of what everyday life is like for the people who use and work in public transportation.

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