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The Swiss Speak Everything but English?

Bonjour! Or should I say guten tag? Or ciao? In any case, it’s greetings from Switzerland!

How I keep surviving travel to Europe with the parental units.....I don't know. Every time we travel, it feels like a war for them, and a peace corps mission for me. And let me tell you, my role as an aide worker to prevent a civil war from erupting between/with the parental units in a foreign land is no easy task! I deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for all my humanitarian efforts.

I mostly blame the complexities of Switzerland for all the in-fighting. As a peace-loving, neutral country, Switzerland was able to avoid both WWI and WWII. Its neutrality, however, could not prevent WWIII from erupting within my household during our visit.

Firstly, as ethnocentric American travelers, I have learned our assumption that Europe speaks English is a major fallacy. I learned my lesson in Italy (see blog: How to order "non-sparkling" water in Italy). But this was Switzerland for crying out loud! Everyone here is a Roger Federer and speaks multiple languages, right?

I had read that the average Swiss national learns a minimum of three languages in school, and the country has four official languages. As a major European hub for travel, commerce, and the home to numerous international organizations — the United Nations, Red Cross, World Health Organization, etc. — surely they speak some English, no?

Of course, I don't suffer from such a severe case of ethnocentrism that I expect everyone to speak English fluently — the Swiss speak either French or German as his/her first language — but their second or third or fourth language is English, right? Right?


The four official languages of Switzerland are:


English is not on the list. And boy did that throw my family into a vrille a.k.a trudeln a.k.a tailspin.
For our second Euro trip, we planned it all by ourselves again. Given the success of our first Euro mission, I mean, vacation (see blog: Eurotrip Recap) we felt confident it would similar to our last one, if not easier. After all, last time we were traveling for 21 days, visiting 3 countries — Italy, France, and U.K. This time we were on the road for only 16 days, visiting 2 countries — Switzerland and Northern Italy (Lake Como/Milan). Plus, Switzerland is a much smaller country, so how hard could it be?

Well, the first way we made it hard was thinking we could get a rental car and drive our way across Switzerland. It all made sense on paper. We would pick up a car from Geneva airport and cruise through the French region (Lausanne, Fribourg, Montreux, Murten) to the German region (Bern, Interlaken, Lucern, Zurich), before dropping off our car in the Italian region (Lugano) and then taking the bus over the border to Lake Como, Italy.

With its famed Autobahnen, we figured driving in Switzerland would be a piece of cake and it would afford us the flexibility to stop wherever and whenever we fancied. If only we could make it out of the airport Avis....

Our flight from the U.S to Switzerland was long, with a two hour layover in Amsterdam. We tried to sleep on the plane, because otherwise jet-lag would hit us like a brick as soon as we landed. However, sleeping was made impossible when we encountered the unlikely event of a water evacuation as the passengers aboard DL0258 flooded the cabin with their tears. How you ask? Well, Delta had the bright idea of offering The Fault in Our Stars as its featured in-flight Amsterdam, no less! If you thought a crying baby was annoying on a plane, try a cabin-full of wailing passengers of all ages. The lady next to me was sobbing/sucking air so hard that I swear the oxygen masks would drop from above due to a loss of cabin pressure.

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Needless to say, we got no sleep, so when we finally landed in Geneva, we were pretty much The Walking Dead. There was no rest for the weary because mom had pulled out her minute-by-minute itinerary/project plan. According to her project plan milestones, we had to make haste from Geneva airport to Lausanne, so we could tour the Olympic museum and its Old Town area before winding our way through the Lavaux vineyard terraces (i.e. the Swiss wine route) to our hotel, the Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

That was the plan at least. Bleary-eyed and half-asleep, we shuffled our way to the Avis counter. A mousy-looking Avis clerk with greased-back hair told us there were no VW Golfs (the car we booked) available, and asked if we were OK with a VW Transporter? My family is not familiar with the Imperial system of VW sizes. We measure car sizes using the metric system, a.k.a Toyota.

Dad: "What is Transporter? Is it bigger than the Golf?"
Avis: "Yes, bigger than Golf."
Dad: "But how much bigger? Like Corolla vs. Camry bigger?"
Avis: "Camry?"
Dad: "Yes, that's the normal sedan size."
Avis: "No, it's bigger."
Dad: "Bigger than a Camry? Like a Highlander?"
Avis: "Sure.....sure....." (He didn't sound sure at all).
Dad: "Oh OK, that's fine then. We drive a Highlander SUV at home"
Me: "Dad, Transporter doesn't sound like the name of an SUV....."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaaa, why you guys take so long to get car? We need to get moving."

Before I could protest further, Dad took the keys, and the Avis clerk tried to hide a sly smirk. The bastard was basically screwing with us because when we got off the Avis shuttle and followed the signs to lot F4, we were greeted by the VW Transporter.

It wasn't a SUV. It wasn't even a minivan. It was a monstrosity in a shape of minibus, with room for ten.

Dad: "Wow, that's bigger than the Highlander."
Me: "Dad, it's a bus."
Mom: "Can you drive it? You say you drove all kinds of cars when you traveled for work."
Me: "Mom, I was a consultant, not a bus driver. Besides, when I said different cars, I meant I drove a Camaro."
Mom: "What is Camaro? American version of Camry?"
Me: "No. It's Bumblebee. From Transformers."
Mom: "What? You drove a bee? Like a bug? That's small car, la!"
Me: "Never mind."
Dad: "But maybe this is a good deal. It has more room, we can sleep in the back."
Me: "Dad, this is not a good deal! We're not going to be living in a van down by the river in Switzerland."
Mom: "No river. Lake. More lakes in Switzerland."


Me: "NO! I will not be driving us in a bus across Switzerland. People will think we're refugees, not tourists. Besides, how will we park this monster? And do we know how wide the roads are in Switzerland?"
Dad: "Why you so difficult? We pay money in high school for you to take driving class. Now you tell me you can't drive?"
Me: "Dad, they taught me drive a normal car, not a school bus."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, just make up your mind quickly, la! We have no time to lose. Lots to see!"

I bit my tongue because further arguing with the parental units would only get them more testy, so I marched my way across the parking lot to the Avis side office to demand an exchange.

Me: "Sir, we can't drove this vehicle called VW Transporter. It's not a car, it's a tank."
New Avis clerk: "How many people in your party?"
Me: "Three."
New Avis clerk: "Three? Oh. And they gave you a VW Transporter?"
Me (jokingly): "Yes, we're Americans, but even so, we didn't bring that many bags."
New Avis clerk: "You are American? No....where are you originally from?"
Me: "There are Asian Americans, you know."
New Avis clerk: "OK. I give you American car then."
Me (sarcastically): "You sure? You don't have a Chinese car?"
New Avis clerk: "No. I have Ford Focus. OK?"
Parents: "Aiiiyaaaa......hurry up, la! You exchanging car or buying car in there?"
Me: "Just give me the keys."

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After dealing with the car rental fiasco, I thought we could officially begin our Euro trip, part deux. The GPS thought otherwise.

Me: "So, do we know where we are going in Lausanne?
Mom: "Yes, the Olympic museum."
Dad: "I'm trying to find the museum on GPS, but it says nothing found."
Me: "Are you sure you spelled it right?"
Dad: "Of course. O-L-Y-M-P-I-C."
Me: "OK, but do we know if they use the English names here?"
Dad: "Why not? This is an American GPS. "
Me: "Well, you downloaded the European map. And since we're in the French region of Switzerland, I'd think they'd spell things in French."
Dad: "No, I set this GPS to English."
Me: "Dad, you set the GPS lady to speak English when she's announcing directions, but the location might still be spelled in French."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaaa, why you make your father do this? You set GPS. You young man. You learned foreign languages in school."
Me: "Mom. Not this again. I took Spanish. Not French. Spanish. Tu comprendes?
Mom: "What you say? If you say bad words, I smack you!"
Dad: "Yes, you figure it out. We raise you. Now do for me something useful." #DOFORME
Mom: "And hurry up! We already waste half morning."

They hand me the GPS like it's a bomb to diffuse. The timer has been set, and if I don't figure out the French encoding for Olympic Museum in the next 60 seconds, the parental units are going to explode. Anyone who's ever tried a keyword search on a GPS knows it doesn't work like Google. There's no autocomplete. It normally doesn't even produce any results despite spinning for a good five minutes. And now I have to search for something in French? I'm a dead man.

I typed (and prayed) away feverishly on the GPS, as beads of sweat rolled down the back of my neck. Seriously, am I on vacation or at an audition for The Hurt Locker 2? C'mon.....c'mon! Give me something! Anything! Finally, by the grace of God, the words "Musée Olympique" with an address of Quai d'Ouchy 1, 1006 Lausanne, Switzerland popped up in the list of search results. Sweet Jesus, Lord have mercy upon my soul. I live to fight another day. On the autobahn.

A word of caution about the autobahn in Switzerland. For car enthusiasts who dream about driving on the autobahn, you need to visit Germany, not Switzerland. The Swiss, being a small and economical country where space is a premium, built their autobahn with the same concepts in mind. Instead of sprawling wide lanes that I'm used to in Midwest, America, the Swiss highways were narrow and winding. There's no median, and with a speed limit of 75 mph (a mere suggestion, not enforced) driving on the Swiss autobahn is akin to threading a needle: You have to keep a steady hand or you'll end up drawing blood.

The drive out of Geneva towards Lausanne was also unexpected. I had pictured Switzerland as a country of rolling green hills, with genteel cows wearing cowbells that clanked musically as they grazed on lush grass. Instead, the landscape along the A1 was a canvas of industrial grey, filled with construction and concrete buildings, all smeared with varying amounts of graffiti. I guess Heidi didn't live in this part of town?

Still, we have started our vacation! Our tiredness was replaced by giddiness at the prospect of reaching our first destination.

Mom: "Only 10 km to go."
Dad: "9 km."
Mom: "8 km."
Me: "Guys, the GPS will tell me when to exit. You don't have to count down like it's a rocket launch."
Mom: "We don't want you want to miss the exit."
Dad: "Besides, the roads don't say exit."
Me: "I know. They say sortie. I think it's French for exit."
Mom: "OK. Everyone memorize this word."
Everyone: "Sortie, sortie, sortie."

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Having committed sortie to memory, we spent a few glorious days in French regions of Switzerland. I fell in love with our hotel in Montreux. Built in 1870 in the "Belle Epoque" style by Eugène Jost, the Grand Hotel Suisse laid early claim to the best location in town. Our lake view room had a balcony overlooking the North shore of Lake Geneva. All I wanted to do was sit and stare.

Sigh. Can I just move to Switzerland already?

Alas, we couldn't stay in Montreux forever, so we got back on the autobahn and made our way to our next stop: Bern — the capital of Switzerland.

I was replaced as the driver because the parental units said: "You drive like a feng zi." Translation: I drove fast and furious. When dad took over the reins, we got passed by every car on the road. Nonetheless, slow and steady got us to Bern, and we parked our car in garage at the Bern train station plaza.

I simply adored Bern. It is probably my favorite Swiss city along with Zurich. Built on a narrow hill, the waters of the Aare loops around the Old City like a lazy river. On a hot day, you can even join the locals for a dip in the river and let the gentle Aare currents take you on a cruise around the perimeters of the city, with its gothic architecture towering overhead. In fact, the city of Bern has become a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site due to the great preservation of its medieval architecture. Built in the 12th century, the Old City has remained largely unchanged since its construction.

What I loved about Bern wasn't just its rich history, but also its modernity. Being the capital of Switzerland, it houses both the parliament and executive council. Thus, as you walk through the ornate arcades of high-end shops, you could be brushing elbows with high-powered legislators. Heck, you could even bump into the Swiss president! (Although executive power is shared by a committee of seven, with the president merely holding a ceremonial title). During the busy lunch hour, armies of these politicians step out for a show of their sartorial elegance and a quick bite. The tall silhouettes of their designer slim-fit suits blend in seamlessly with the tall silhouettes of the pointy towers that are ubiquitous in the city.

I wanted to take pictures of the city's architecture and people, but clean photography is difficult because the skyscape is covered in a latticed patchwork of power lines. These power lines zig zag every which way, forming the backbone of Bern's public transportation system.

The Bern S-Bahn (commuter rail network), the Bern Tramway Network, and the Bern Trolleybus Network all run off these lines. It's a necessary comprise to keeping the city green and pollution-free. Bern feels like the perfect example how a city can develop and grow, while maintaining its tradition and roots — a harmonious juxtaposition of the past and the present.

After taking in the major sights (the Bern Cathedral - Berner Münster) and sounds (the Medieval clock tower - the Zytglogge) and taste (the Renaissance water fountains - especially the Kindlifresserbrunnen), we had to bid adieu to Bern. Thus, we turned around and tried to make our way back to the train station. There must have been something in the water because we got totally disoriented.

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to use the Renaissance water fountains as guide posts. Aside from the Kindlifresserbrunnen, there were ten other of these 16th century Renaissance water fountains scattered throughout the Old City. Unfortunately, not all of them were as memorable as the Kindlifresserbrunnen, which depicts an ogre snacking on small children:


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Dad: "I think we passed one that looked like a man."
Me: "Dad, they're all men."
Mom: "No, one of them was a woman. She had a sword."
Me: "Wait, the statue with the sword is a woman? How could you even tell? It had a blindfold over its face!"
Mom: "Aiiiyaaaa.....she had wide hips! You didn't notice the hips?"
Me: "Uh. No."

(We later fact checked. It was the Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen a.k.a the Fountain of Justice, with Lady Justice atop, with large hips):

Dad: "What about the one that was sucking on a straw, and drinking from a large bag?"
Me: "Um....Dad, I think he was playing a bagpipe...."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaaa, why are we talking about fountains? We just need to ask someone where is the train station."

We accosted a few passersby, but none of them spoke English. Finally, we approached a friendly-looking elderly gentleman.

Mom: "Excuse me. Do you speak English?"
Elderly gentleman: "Yes, a little."
Mom: "Do you know where is the train station?"
Elderly gentleman: "I'm sorry. Can you say again?"
Mom: "Train station. We're looking for the train station."
Elderly gentleman: "Station. Station."
Mom: "Yes, for the train."
Elderly gentleman: "Train?"

The elderly gentleman stares back blankly, but mom doesn't give up. Instead she gets creative.

Mom: "Train. Like this."

She then proceeds to demonstrate train by closing her fists, and then rocks her arms in a circular motion like the coupling rods that connects the driving wheels of a locomotive, all the while miming the blowing of steam with an open mouth. Choo choo!

Me: "'re demonstrating a steam engine. I don't think the Swiss trains are steam engines anymore."


The elderly gentleman looks at us amused and bemused.

Dad: "Aiiiyaaaa, help your mother!"

Me: "One moment please."

I fly through the pages of our travel guide like it's a flip book. Damn it. Where's the useful phrases section when you need it? You also realize how not useful these "useful phrases" are in a real emergency.

Exhibit A: "May I have a kilo of oranges please?" I mean, seriously, who walks around with that kind of vitamin C deficiency?

I speed read through the hundreds of unhelpful phrases before finally finding the word for train station.

Me: "Um, la gare?"
Elderly gentlemen: "Ah! La gare. Yes. I know la gare."
Dad: "Oh thank God."
Elderly gentlemen: "You turn left here. Then you see church. You turn right. Near church. Then la gare."
Mom: "Thank you."

Continuing with our theme of bomb-diffusing stress, we make it back to the train station just in the nick of time. Our parking ticket was about to expire. Since I was excused from driving, I immediately conked out in the back seat while the parentals set the GPS for our next destination: Lauterbrunnen Valley, which lies at the foot of the Swiss Alps in the Interlaken district of Switzerland. We needed to hit the road fast and furious again, because at 0530 hours tomorrow, we were scheduled to climb the highest Alps peak in all of Europe: Jungfraujoch.

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15 minutes later.

Mom: "Wake up. Wake up."
Me (drowsily): "Wuss the matter?"
Dad: "Do you see sortie?"
Me: "Huh?"
Mom: "SORTIE!"
Me (waking up): "Wait. Why are we still in the parking garage?!?"
Parents: "We can't find sortie."
Me: "What do you mean?"
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, we can't find the exit."
Dad: "We've been doing laps around and around the parking garage, but there's not a sign for sortie anywhere."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, stop sleeping! Find sortie NOW!"
Me: "OK. OK. Can you go around again?"

We took another lap around the garage.

Me: "There. There's the exit. Follow the sign for ausfarht."
Mom: "Ausfarht? Why ausfarht? I thought the word for exit was sortie?"
Me: "Yes, it is. But it's the French word for exit. Ausfarht is the German equivalent."
Dad: "I thought you said you studied Spanish!"

OMG. Really parents? You choose this moment to pick this bone?

Me: "I did. But I happen to know one German word."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, too many words! How we supposed to remember all these different languages?"
Dad: "This is too stressful!"
Me: "Just use a mnemonic. That's how I learn new words."
Mom: "Mnemonic?"
Me: "Yeah. A mnemonic is a device such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations that assists in remembering something."
Dad: "What's your mnemonic?"
Me (uncomfortably): "Ummmm, it's a bit weird. Besides, it's better to come up with your own. Helps you remember it more."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, just tell us! We have no time to create this demonic device."

Me: "Mom, it's mnemonic, not demonic. But anyway. Ass fart."
Me: "Ass fart."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, why you say these bad words? You qian zou (want a smack)?"
Me: "No. That's my mnemonic device. When you pronounce ausfarht in German, it, um, sounds like ass fart."
Dad: "And how does that help you remember it means exit?"
Me: "Well, farts have to exit out of the ass."
Parents: "Oh."
Mom: "Everyone. Remember this. Ass fart."
Everyone: "Ass fart, ass fart, ass fart."

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Ladies and Gentlemen,
I think we have our Swiss Peter Mayle. Absolutely brilliant! You made my evening, thank you!

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Thanks everyone for the kind words. I love Peter Mayle! A Year in Provence is one of my favorite books. As Jane Austen once said: "If adventures will not befall a young man in his own village, he must seek them abroad."

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Cannot count the number of times I snorted laughing reading this.
These are the trip reports I funny.

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I am alternatively twitching remembering various technology experiences with my own parents, and laughing incredibly loud. Please keep these coming- they are wonderful!

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Wow, you should publish this! It's hilarious. Love your style. I was envisioning three Americans navigating the small windy roads of Switzerland with that bus. :-)

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Having traveled with my parents before, I can totally relate to his! Hilarious and oh, so true. What fun to read. I’m bookmarking your posts and eagerly awaiting more of your adventures. You are a very talented writer.

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Love, love love this! I could picture my Mom saying some of the same things. She used to always be the backseat driver when my husband was driving us all around. I hope you packed a suitcase full of patience. Do you have more stories? I would love to read them. Looking forward to more….

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Do you make your living writing comedy? If not, then consider doing so. Funniest trip report ever. Can't wait to hear about the rest of the trip.

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OP: Where are you?
We are all dying for more!
I can just picture your Mum and Dad.

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Aw, thanks again everyone for the kind comments! The parentals are for sure harbingers of adventure and hilarity.

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BJ, I am loving your report - it is hilarious.

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Hilarious!! You could definitely have a lucrative side gig as a writer, BJ, if you don't already. I'm the parental unit in our group but fortunately it's just my adult daughter and me (Dad's job is to stay home and feed the dogs and play golf, works great for us :) so we can blissfully do our own thing without having to consult anyone who would most certainly create consternation. Anyway we are going to Switzerland next September so it's very helpful to know that about English. Thanks!

Also would love a link to the recap you mentioned (see blog: Eurotrip Recap) !

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Thanks for the great trip report, it was fun to read. The ending was priceless.

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Reading this made me howl with laughter for the first time since a recent death in the family. Please keep up your sparkling (pun intended) writing here and in the rest of your life.

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Hi msjonessat. Thank you so much for your kind words. I'm so sorry for your loss. Reading helps me too, with dealing difficult moments, so I'm glad this has helped you in some small way.

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This is a quick reminder that linking to your blog is specifically not permissible per our guidelines. Most blog links violate our guidelines, so they're all out. It's one of those cases where the majority ruined it for the few who would be genuine about it. Thanks to all for your understanding.

On a separate note, BJ's stories here are pretty great. :)