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At Least We Can See France from our Toilet

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.

The Alpine village of Murren, Switzerland.

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.”

They didn’t speak English at our hotel in Lausanne, but the view from our toilet was impressive.

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.

After wandering the hills of Lausanne, we finally found the cafe.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.



The same view of Lake Geneva and the French Alps from the marina, not the toilet.

About Paprika Furstenburg

I was born with an overly developed sense of humor and poor coordination. The combination of these two character traits has taught me humility and given me the perspective to find the funny in everyday experiences.

62 responses »

  1. Pingback: French is Dangerous | FiftyFourandAHalf

  2. Awe, very good! Thank you so much for the smiles! I enjoyed reading it all…

  3. The only view from my toilet is a wall and a towel bar

  4. What a great story!! My brother and I have very different experiences when traveling in Europe. He speaks 7 languages, three are Asian but the remaining are European so he does quite well in his travels. I speak two, American English and Texan; I struggle. As children we both spoke German fairly fluently, so I can almost still understand and communicate in Germany and German speaking countries.

    Loved this story though, I can so relate to your experiences. The pictures were beautiful.

    • I love that you describe Texan as a separate language 🙂 It is definitely easier to travel when you are able to speak more than one language, but just think of the fun I would have missed out on if I actually spoke French.

      So glad you enjoyed the stories and the pictures. Switzerland was an incredibly beautiful country. It would be hard not to take a beautiful picture there.

  5. as a german speaker I really enjoy your comments 😀

  6. A breathtaking view … no matter where you were positioned. 🙂

    You’re right, Paprika, the phrase book is no help if you do not get the expected response. I spent months preparing for our trip to Paris by studying French, a language I did poorly in when in high school. We lucked out because many Parisians did speak English.

    One communication gap was funny. When we stopped for lunch, the waiter thought we wanted a ham sandwich AND a cheese sandwich. We wanted only one with both ingredients. As they were so nice, I didn’t want to say anything. The beneficiaries of our 2nd sandwich were the pigeons in a nearby park.

    • The scenery in Switzerland was so beautiful it was surreal.

      It seems that communication misunderstandings are an inevitable part of traveling in a place where you don’t speak the language. How you handle that situation can make all the difference in having a funny story from your trip or having a meltdown that ruins the trip.

  7. That brought back some memories! I’ve been to Switzerland a few times, the first time I was just eight and was sent there (long story) without mum and dad to a village in the Jura mountains just outside Lausanne. I could have been Heidi (almost). I also spent a year in France, nearly Chantilly. My French still stinks. So take heart.

    • Wow! You’ve gotten to live in some amazing places. Thanks for making me feel better about my lack of ability to speak French 🙂 If you lived there and still have difficulty, I have no hope of learning it.

  8. Having a sense of humor is everything on a trip to a foreign country. I’ll never forget when my family and I were in a small German town where nobody spoke English. We were trying to ask a gas station worker where the local cemetary was so we could see where some ancestors were buried. We didn’t know “cemetary” so my dad had to act out death. Surprisingly, it worked and we found the place.

  9. Loved the tale. Written so well, it was like being there. And that mimes are actually tourists is such a hilarious – realistic- observation. You are right, always pack a sense of humor when traveling.

  10. The first time we went to Italy I wanted to be sure I would be able to communicate. So I took some Italian lessons.

    When we got there I wanted to buy some post card stamps, so I went into the PO and said proudly in my best Italian, “Due Francobolli, per favore.” And the clerk said, “Oh, you want two stamps?”

  11. Ah, Paprika, you took me back. Literally, we used to live just up lake towards Geneva from Lausanne, which is a lovely town. I was there for 5 years and my french still, well, sucks.

    The first time I realized I was in trouble, though, was on our first visit to France in 1988. We were visiting a friend and had to call her and let her know we had landed. The instructions were in French! In France! Damn those Frenchies …

  12. The best part of vacation are the crazy stories you get to bring home! Sounds like a fun time!!!

  13. I think you managed admirably well. I always find it somewhat embarrassing when I travel abroad and can’t speak the language. The education system in Ireland should really have a better focus on learning a second language.

    • Thanks, Emma. That part of the trip was a bit stressful. Even if I knew a second language fluently, we still would have run into difficulty somewhere on that trip since we encountered so many different languages. We gave it our best shot and managed. It was a good life lesson.

  14. Reblogged this on Life's Adventures and commented:
    Another blogger’s “Life’s Adventures.” I hope you enjoy sharing in their adventure as much as I did. Thank you Paprika and Oregano.

  15. Ahh, the memories. This was the best trip! You didn’t mention that the cafe had “horse filet” on the menu – leave it to the French (Swiss). By the way, I knew you were kidding when you told me to zippen sie uppen. It is always interesting when we travel together!

  16. I loved your story, may I reblogg it on Life’s Adventures?

  17. Forgot to comment on the fabulous title of your blog!!! So funny!!

  18. Great story Paprika! …as always.

    You may have done it purposely to emphasize your level of French but for those interested the correct spelling is “Vieille Ville” for old town :o)

    • Thanks, Stefano, for giving me credit to think that I spelled “Vieille Ville” wrong on purpose to emphasize my lack of French language skills. Sadly, I didn’t need to go to all that effort to prove I can’t read, write or speak French. I thought I had spelled it right. Thanks for correcting me 🙂

  19. Language barriers do pose a problem when it comes to international travel. At least the word “toilet” is pretty universal! Loved hearing about and seeing photos of Switzerland, a country close to our hearts because my husband is of Swiss heritage!

  20. I love it! I’ve been to those places you mentioned. It was nice reading about them. Those darned foreign cash machines are such a blessing!

  21. Uncle Sea Salt

    Absolutely right about the limitations of English speakers in foreign countries. I felt the same way every time I visited my friend Harry in Brooklyn…

  22. Very funny post, we didn’t have to travel so far to encounter similar issues, we just had to go to Quebec

  23. That was another hilarious and well-written post, Paprika! Congratulations on surviving your intrepid wanderings, particularly in Lausanne – and above all, well done on re-finding that cafe and successfully extracting money from an ATM.

    • Thanks, Reggie! We were so grateful that our card came back out of the ATM. As we stood there nervously waiting for it, we wondered how we would ever be able to go into the bank the next day to explain what happened. We kept checking the French phrase book for, “The ATM ate my card.”

  24. Having lived in germany for 9 years I did my share of pointing and trying to get my point across. One of my best experiences was while traveling with my sister-in-law. We went to Berlin 7 weeks after the Wall fell in 1989.
    Long story short she became very ill with flu like symptoms on our first day in Berlin. I literally had to carry her into bed at the hotel. I made my way to a apotheke (pharmacy) to see if I could find something for her to take. I explained in my choppy German and hand gestures that my svester vas kranken in die kopf mit (sniffling gestures). He sold me some green pills and Orangin. I gave them to her and incredibly she woke up feeling like a new person the next day! We never knew what those miracle pills were….I was just glad I got my point across w/ choppy terms and gesturing!!

    • Thanks for sharing this fun story, Yerba Buena! I’m glad it worked out for you and your sister. German seems to be a lot easier to fake your way through than French.
      When we were in the German speaking section of Switzerland going into a mountain to see the melting glaciers that create Trammelbach Falls, I knew it was going to be cold. I turned to Oregano and in a German accent said, “Zippen Sie uppen.” He looked at me and said, “Hey, I’m actually starting to understand German. I knew exactly what you meant.” I had to tell him that that wasn’t German at all.


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