Histoire contemporaine du Luxembourg

Recording memories at the fair. Oral history and the “Schueberfouer”

Recording memories at the fair. Oral history and the “Schueberfouer”

Marcel Tockert (1975) © Photothèque de la Ville de Luxembourg

Memory has its own pitfalls, and to provide a more tangible environment for remembering, it was decided to perform oral history interviews for the ongoing research about the “Schueberfouer” funfair on site at the fairground. The assumption was that the space of the “Schueberfouer” could trigger memories and reflections that would otherwise not emerge. However, navigating through a noisy present can prove challenging.

Research about the “Schueberfouer” is being carried out for a PhD thesis, with particular emphasis on the intertwining of national, transregional and transnational aspects in popular fairground culture in Luxembourg, as well as how this relates to the wider project “Transnational Popular Culture – Europe in the Long 1960s”. The “Schueberfouer”, as it is called today, is held annually on the Glacis square, to the north of Luxembourg City centre. It was founded in 1340 as a charter market and evolved over time into the largest funfair in Luxembourg.

In 2022, I conducted fieldwork during the late summer period. Fieldwork consists of a combination of interviews and participant observation. Participant observation provided me with insights into the role and relationships of the different groups involved in the funfair and the related rituals and practices. Interviews complement other source types, and personal memories from show people, traders, organisers and visitors will further the understanding of different perspectives and experiences related to this space.

The challenge with fieldwork in historical research is that observations and interviews to obtain accounts of the past are made in the present. The focus of the interviews was on the role of the interviewees at the “Schueberfouer”, their experiences, practices and alliances.

The first step for an academic oral history collection is to secure the approval of the University’s Ethics Review Panel. Once I had done this, I then set out to conduct interviews with show people, traders, organisers and visitors. These are of course not homogeneous groups, but for the sake of planning, these categories seemed the most appropriate.

The interview method itself brought together elements from oral history and ethnographic walking, a concept developed by social anthropologists Jo Lee and Tim Ingold in “Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socialising” (In S. Coleman & P. Collins (eds), Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology, 2006, pp. 67-86). The participant or interviewee is perceived as an emplaced body who interacts through his or her mind and body with the space, and, through his or her senses, triggers memories of the past. Lee and Ingold (2006, p. 68f) describe three advantages of walking together:

  • The interviewee and interviewer are firmly grounded in space, and by setting one foot in front of the other, they become completely attuned with the environment.
  • The interviewer gets a better sense of place, as the interviewee by moving creates routes and trajectories.
  • Hearing and creating a rhythm together while walking creates a sociable closeness between interviewee and interviewer.

Interviewees can look around, hear, smell and feel the space by walking and connect these impressions with their experience. This method worked especially well when reflecting on similarities and changes to the space.

To improve this experience of remembering, it was crucial for the interviewee and myself to be able to walk around the grounds of the “Schueberfouer” without continuously being “recalled” to the present through the presence of a microphone or audio recorder. The interviewee had to feel free to walk, look around and reflect on objects in the environment without having to think about articulating clearly or even focus on me. With the support of the Media Centre at the University of Luxembourg, I used a wireless microphone system with clip-on microphones and an easy-to-use recording interface that provided good audio quality. This also offered a logistical advantage as we would be walking through a very busy and noisy space.

One of the key issues I experienced was that interviewees could not always clearly situate their memories in time. We were talking about the long 1960s, but for my thesis it is still important to get an idea of the timeline. For those who experienced the 1960s as children, this task was easier as childhood memories were firmly set within the context of attending school and living with parents. To situate the interviewees’ statements more clearly in time, I looked at different time markers.

Weather proved not to be a useful marker. In 2022, the weather was very hot, and some interviewees reflected that this was “unusual” and that “usually” the first week of the “Schueberfouer” was sunny, then it turned cloudy and rained, and during the last week, chilly nights announced the arrival of autumn. This impression is probably influenced by a general perception of “summers past” that firmly places the funfair in a “rite de passage” narrative with the “Schueberfouer” ringing in autumn – but it does not hold up when compared to historical meteorological data.

The most reliable marker proved to be the ground covering of the Glacis square, which used to be a field before it was progressively asphalted, partly paved and used as a car park. By anchoring the interviewee’s memories with statements about the ground surface, more specific period assumptions could be made based on the known stages of development of the square.

It is clear that the microphones and recorder (as well as the software for file handling) need to be tested before the first interview to avoid any frustrations afterwards. It is important to plan what you want to ask and how long you will walk, but flexibility must be always applied. For example, depending on which objects we encountered along the way and whether any brought back memories, the discussion would often go in new directions that were always worthwhile even if not the focus of the conversation. Furthermore, the heat was extreme on several days and we relocated to a seated area as walking was no longer manageable. I feel it is the interviewer’s responsibility to look out for the well-being of the participants and adapt to the circumstances.

In addition to being “where the action happens”, I did not foresee that while walking around with interviewees we would be approached by people who know them. I did not record these sometime not so brief encounters and let the people know that I had switched off the recorder. Nonetheless, these conversations were very informative and gave me the opportunity to broaden my network of people at the “Schueberfouer” and follow up with them at a different time or refer to specific points once I was “alone” again with the interviewee.

Memories were triggered fast and the focus often shifted while walking. The challenge of being in such a stimulating environment is that it becomes impossible to interrupt a train of thought and have a more in-depth discussion. To counter this, I will carry out at least one more interview with most of the interviewees in a closed, quiet space.

To conclude, I found the walking interviews on site helpful when it came to seeing the space and the objects through the eyes of the interviewee. I certainly did experience sensory overload, and the need to focus and remain attentive while staying spontaneous demanded a lot of energy. The general impression from the interviewees was that the experience was intense and tiring for them too but also exciting, and they suggested to continue the conversation for this project.