One of the allures of traveling is the chance to break out of the grind of daily life. Without the familiarity of surroundings or language, even the most mundane tasks become exotic and adventurous.
Several years ago Oregano and I wanted to visit friends who live in northern Italy, but the airfare to Italy was prohibitively expensive. After much investigating, we discovered that it was half the price to fly into Zurich then drive over the Alps into Italy. We’d never been to Switzerland so we decided to seize the opportunity, rent a car and explore the country en route to visit our friends. The more planning we did, the more excited we got about the idea of beautiful Alpine villages and cheese. The fact that we didn’t speak any of the four languages spoken in Switzerland was mildly disconcerting, but we’d find a way to manage with the remnants of my high school German, a phrase book and a lot of gesturing.
Our first week was spent in a tiny Alpine village in the German-speaking part of the country. Between the residents’ knowledge of English and my limited German, we managed quite nicely. Our true test would come in the French-speaking city of Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva. I can’t speak or read French and Oregano can barely understand someone who speaks English with a French accent. Our 3 days in Lausanne were going to be an interesting experience.
Knowing that this would be the most challenging part of our trip, I selected a hotel that had a central location and an English-speaking staff. Our GPS struggled to help us find our hotel among streets with names that were all “Rue du” something unpronounceable. As a result, we had an unplanned driving tour of the one way streets of Lausanne. When we finally arrived at the hotel, I walked up to the clerk at the front desk and offered a bright, cheerful, “Bon jour!”
The desk clerk gave me a friendly “bon jour” in return then began speaking in French. The majority of my French vocabulary was used up with my greeting, so I had no idea what he was saying. I waited for a pause and then asked in French if he spoke English. He replied with the universally understandable, “No,” and continued to prattle on in French. I smiled, gave him my credit card and waited until he handed me keys and pointed to an elevator.
“I thought you said you picked this hotel because of its central location and English-speaking staff,” Oregano said opening the door to our room. We were immediately distracted from our conversation when we noticed the view of Lake Geneva and across it, France and the French Alps.
“Well, it is centrally located,” I said hustling past him to get to the bathroom. “And, check this out, if you leave the bathroom door open, you can see France from the toilet. That wasn’t in the brochure.”
Since no one at the front desk could assist us, we were on our own to decipher the twisty streets and hills of Lausanne. We decided on a café and set out to find it. A quick right turn at the end of the street revealed the first of the many steep cobblestone streets we’d need to negotiate. After much huffing, puffing and map consultation, we were both stunned that we had successfully navigated our way to our destination. Truth be told, we were just about to give up and pick another café when we stumbled upon it. We congratulated ourselves for our small victory then walked towards the front door of the café only to discover that it wouldn’t open for another hour. Undeterred by this small obstacle, we sat near a fountain and discussed our options. We decided to wander around, admire the architecture and hope we could find our way back to this café. If not, we’d just choose another one.
I distracted myself from my hunger by shopping using a lot of pointing, gesturing and writing of numbers. After successfully purchasing earrings in a store that only accepted cash, we realized we only had 20 francs left. Fearing the café wouldn’t take credit cards either, we decided to find a cash machine. Surely in a country known for banking, there would be readily available, easily identifiable cash machines.
Thirty minutes more of hiking up and down the hills of Lausanne’s “Vieille Ville” (old town) and we had gotten a great tour of the city, but no more francs. Hot, tired, hungry and low on francs, we decided it was time to employ the assistance of one of the locals. We whipped out the handy-dandy French phrase book, but quickly realized that it has certain limitations. It is a wonderful resource for asking a question, but you are shit out of luck interpreting the answer to that question because you have no way to look up the response in the book. Nevertheless, Oregano made a valiant attempt to ask the shop owner where a cash machine was. Taking pity on Oregano’s hideous French pronunciations, the man stepped out of his shop and pointed to a cash machine inconspicuously nestled into the architectural detail of a building we had passed no less than 3 times. With a grateful wave and “merci” to the shopkeeper, we dashed across to the cash machine.
Nervously, we stuck our card into the slot while saying a prayer to the Swiss ATM gods that we’d be able to successfully conduct our transaction without our card being swallowed by the machine. Our prayers were answered because we were given the option to conduct the transaction in English! We chose to withdraw 200 francs figuring we’d get a bunch of 20’s or other small bills, like we do at home.
Let me take a moment to explain Swiss paper currency. Unlike the uniformly sized and green U.S. dollar bills, Swiss francs are very colorful. The size of the bill varies by the denomination; the smaller the denomination, the smaller the actual size of the bill. So, when I say we were hoping for small bills, I meant it literally. To our great relief, our card spit back out into our waiting hands, but so too did a single, gigantic 200 franc bill; a bill so large that I needed to fold it into thirds to fit it into my wallet. Very large cash in hand, we headed back to our original dinner destination. Thanks to our unintentional walking tour of this section of Lausanne, we were able to return to the café without making any wrong turns.
Traveling is always a learning experience. Oregano and I learned a few lessons on that trip through Switzerland and Italy.
- Learning a few words in French only caused us more trouble. When we opened with “bon jour,” we had nowhere to go from there, but people assumed we could actually carry on a conversation.
- Mimes are not performance artists, but rather frustrated, desperate non-French speaking tourists attempting to communicate. Given a wardrobe change and some make-up, we could have easily been confused with mimes.
- Packing a sense of humor when traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language is almost as important as packing your passport.