Three languages in three days

Three languages in three days

The main lesson I have returned from Switzerland having learned is that they speak an awful lot of languages. I can't speak any of them - well, they speak English very well, and I'm quite good at that one, but no good at French, German or Italian.

These notes are to remind me of the disaster and joy of our first trip to Europe.

When catching trains across the country it was extremely difficult to guage what language I needed to prepare to be spoken to in, even if I knew I wasn't going to understand it. In reality most people have a strong grasp of all four languages, which is simply amazing, especially as they'd move between them as appropriate.

Our trip started at the fascinatingly named EuroAirport, built on French soil but generally known by the Swiss name of Basel. This was a large and efficient affair (we were the only plane on the taxiway), with an interesting sight of having two customs exits depending on which country you wanted, and the possibility to move between the two.

Escaping from Basel Mulhouse Freiburg Airport wasn't easy on foot, but we made it into the nearest town as Saint Louis. Although this is clearly an industrial place, as you'd expect from an airport town, I did find it rather charming - I think I later found that this was because I knew some words of the language. As flying with only hand luggage to save costs puts you in the unusual position where you are on holiday for a week and have no food, we found a Lidl to visit, where I had my first awkward encounter with the language barrier.

Customs sign in airport

The lady in front of me had most the conveyor belt to herself, and kept looking at my two sandwiches. I tried to avoid eye contact because I knew what was about to happen. She then kindly offered, in French, for me to go in front of her in the queue. Problem is I didn't recognise any of the words in her sentence and had to hope that's what she was saying. Also, while most people know that 'thank you' in French is "merci", under the pressure of my first encounter with the language for five years I thanked her in a way only a bewildered and surprisingly jet-lagged tourist can.

Our stay in France was disappointingly brief as the aim was to clock up mileage on new soil, so we skipped through border controls back into Switzerland, in Basel. While Basel's architecture was impressive, I must say I found the city quite clinical. Maybe I was doing it wrong, but I just couldn't find the soul.

Swiss public transport had promised lots, and as we waited on the wide and open platform of the amusingly named Basel Bad station, hopes were high. What arrived was efficient and acceptable, and gave us some nice views as we went for our third border in one day, Freiburg.

Things went badly wrong when, for no discernible reason - I have to assume the train was running late - I told everyone to get off at the town of Bad Krozingen. With the next train not for an hour and running late (yes, run by a Swiss company), this wasn't a popular decision.

Reading departure boards and next stop announcements in a foreign language is really difficult. So after the first mistake attention was high. This didn't stop us accidentally boarding the express train which had overtaken the stopping train we needed. By the time we realised we decided we should go with it anyway, and have a longer walk from the main station at the other end.

Our arrival in the centre, and not the suburbs as planned, of Freiburg was marred immediately by us witnessing a young girl get knocked off her bike. But so many people came running to her rescue (including the driver who may not have made a mistake), we felt very safe in this foreign, dark city. This was a good thing because my longer-than-expected directions to the hotel took us on a long pathway through the middle of a railway depot, in a subway, and then along a cycle path which followed a motorway. To my English eyes it all looked very unsafe, but I'm sure it isn't and as a result I'm sure these cycleways are very-well used. They were built to a very high standard, even if one of them took us worryingly close to what must have been an illegal raid.

That's the next problem I discovered about Europe: people love to break rules. Freiburg loved colourful graffiti, and to my English eyes that's not what you hope to see when lost on holiday. But I'm sure it's just that they love to express themselves.

Freiburg shared Basel's great architecture, but it had a bit more variety and soul about the place. Maybe I was in a better mood after bumbling my way through a German-speaking bakery situation, or because I had found a long uphill path to an impressive viewpoint over the city, and its surroundings in the borders of the Black Forest. I've always had a thing for mountains, both looking up at them and looking down from them, so our improved explorations were now going well.

That evening we were on another train run by the Swiss operator and another unpleasant surprise - it was running 40 minutes late. We therefore opted for a German double deck to Basel SBB, where we changed onto the next train to the capital Zurich (slightly longer than the recommended route via Lucerne but we figured there would be a bit more sightseeing on the way), and then onto a tilting train alighting at the town of Lugano.

Double decker train doors and stairs

Poor timetabling on our part and delays on the Swiss's meant darkness had fallen as the train pulled through the Alps, and it was only later on when looking at the map did I realise how disappointing this was, particularly given my own love of mountains.

Lugano was still impressive in the dark, and had a friendly feel about it. This hotel was at the top of the hill and ran by a very friendly man who didn't seem to think that a language barrier would prevent lengthy small-talk. We no doubt came over rude and a bit odd, which is a shame because he really was very nice; it's just that his English wasn't as strong as he seemed to think it was!

Morning in Lugano brought about something we really hadn't planned for: thick fog. Lugano's mountainous backdrop is impressive in its own right, but on the day we were visiting you'd struggle to make it out. Good job I hadn't got up for the sunrise. Even a long walk didn't give it time to clear, as we went around the mountain on the west side and along the seafront on the north side. As you'd expect from its location, Lugano is very Italian in nature, with lots of Catholic decorations and stylish shops.

From Lugano we dodged the rain on a train through the mountains to Como. Most trains, like the one we boarded, required a change at Chiasso, where you have to alight, walk through customs, and re-emerge in Italy. You're still at least a few hundred yards from the border, but you're ready for it. I was done with Swiss public transport, and waiting for us was our first encounter with Trenord.

Trenord are funny. I have no complaints about their service at all, but I saw a lot of their trains while I was away, and they all looked municipal, even slightly Soviet. Lots of graffiti and old in appearance, even if they weren't. Very odd. I must stress again that this is only me using English eyes and expecting the grass to be greener everywhere I go: the service Trenord offered was pretty infallible.

Clouds; lake; mountains

At Como we walked around the beautiful Lake where - late in the afternoon - the fog began to lift, revealing a beautiful backdrop of snow-topped mountains. We watched the sun-set from one of the viewpoints and then headed back up one of the many hills we'd encountered to the station. Mysteriously the our train seemed to have vanished, and not understanding the announcements we instead caught a train to Monza, and then changed to an express train to Milano Centrale.

Milano Centrale, as with all Italian stations, was a beautiful building, but being night-time our experience was slightly marred by warnings online and at the station advising us not to hang around. I'm sure it's not that bad, but seeing as we'd just arrived and were knackered, we figured it best to get to the hotel.

I wasn't expecting much from Milan. That's not really a criticism, it's just that it's not really a city that offers much for someone like me. I walked past the shops for the sake of crossing them off, and we ambled around to take in the vibes of being in a foreign city, but this was a trip where we wanted to walk past impressive sights and we didn't really know what we were looking for here. The Cathedral was amazing, as was the Castle, but then I am a man who was later impressed by Porta Garibaldi station and bad driving around trams so what do I know?

Later that morning we caught another Trenord train to Bergamo. This was much more our style: great views on the way there, and great Roman architecture when we arrived. Our approach with the whole trip had been to do as little research as possible, so we were a little naive following the main road up a long hill, not expecting to find a magnificent Old Town (Citta Alta) at the top. It's a shame by now our feet were a little too tired to take it all in. As per our policy of refusing to pay for any buses or funiculars, we walked right the way to the very top - a viewpoint overlooking the entire town (and region) on one side, and the mountains on the other. It was a pretty perfect ending, and made being absolutely knackered as we climbed hundreds of steps back down to ground level all OK.

A local supermarket and more language barrier awkwardness as used to tick-off any food clichés we hadn't picked up on yet. Bread, sausages, chocolate, pizza and crêpes had already been ticked off (not necessarily in that order), with just ice cream and an urgent pasta visit in Malpensa Airport left to go.

Our final train ride took us back to Porta Garibaldi, where we arrived at Platform 13 and had a few minutes to get to Platform 12. Even to fresh, young legs, this would be an unbelievable walk which took you all around the world before eventually winding up opposite where you had just been. Trenord's Malpensa Express was our final train to the large but efficient airport.

To complete the story, I must add that we arrived in England to find it disappointingly cold and drizzly. "Cold and drizzly" is what we had been describing the weather as where we'd been, but despite the car parking attendant's best efforts to cheer us up by welcoming us to Long Stay Zone B, it had been proven that every type of weather is worse when it's in England.

Tedious about the author bit

I write about media, exploring, heavy machinery and lists. I produce radio with an attitude accurately described as "amusingly surly".

I can't tell you how many terrible ideas I have had. But it's a lot of terrible ideas.

PS. I am not a travel blogger. But I do travel and I do blog.

Legally bland

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© 2020 Johnathan Randall.