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The Swiss speak everything but English? (Part 1)

There's no fault in the (Euro) stars - We should have taken the train!

sunny 68 °F

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:

  1. French
  2. German
  3. Italian
  4. Romansh

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 movie.....to 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.

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?"

OMG. ARE YOU SERIOUS RIGHT NOW?!? I'm here to rent a car, not to discuss the Origin of Species!

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."

To be continued!!!

Posted by CuriousCaseOf 09:29 Tagged french english italian switzerland german languages euro_trip car_rental avis the_fault_in_our_stars

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