From the comfort of our living room, traveling always seems like a great idea; a chance to see the world, explore new cultures and break out of our regular routine. When we step off the plane in a foreign country, the stakes change instantly. Without the familiarity of surroundings or language, even the most mundane tasks become exotic and adventurous. Mishaps and misunderstandings are bound to happen which is why packing a sense of humor is almost as important as packing a passport.
When my husband and I wanted to visit friends who live in northern Italy, we were shocked at the prohibitively expensive airfare. Not willing to give up on the idea of a visiting our friends, we did some investigating and discovered that it was half the price to fly into Zurich. A quick consultation with a map showed that our friends live only a few miles south of the Swiss border. 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’ home. Sure, there was an entire mountain range between the airport and their home, but 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 official languages of 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 my husband 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 rapidly in French. Since I had used up the majority of my French vocabulary with my greeting, 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,” my husband said opening the door to our room. We were immediately distracted from our conversation by the view of Lake Geneva and across it France and the French Alps.
“Well, it is centrally located,” I replied as I hustled 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.”
We relaxed on our balcony admiring the view, but eventually hunger took over and we knew we needed to venture out to find someplace to eat. After consulting our guidebook, we chose a café, but since no one at the front desk could assist us, we were on our own to decipher the twisty streets and hills of Lausanne. 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 reading, we were both stunned that we had successfully navigated our way to our intended destination. 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 minor setback we decided to wander around, admire the architecture and hope we could find our way back to this café.