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Update #13: Communication Is Key

There is something strangely poetic about sitting in a McDonald’s in Basel, Switzerland, right on the German border, staring out the window at the passing trains, sipping my cappuccino purchased with Swiss Francs (beer at Burger King and cappuccinos at McDonald’s—what a country), listening to conversations around me in German, with Sitting On The Dock of the Bay on the radio.

Unlike most Americans, I came to Europe not expecting English to be much of a common denominator. Languages intrigue me. How various regions of the world develop ways of communicating with one another that are so different one person cannot understand another perplexes me. And yet, with all the languages I have been exposed to, the songs I hear on the radio are predominantly American and/or in English. I am constantly amazed at how prevalent English is everywhere I go, not only in music, but with the people I meet (except in France).

That didn’t stop me from being a bit intimidated embarking on this trip by myself. When you cannot communicate with people, it really limits your options, and puts a lot of pressure on finding your way without getting lost. It took me about seven hours to arrive at my destination in Karlsruhe. Traffic was so bad that people turned their cars off, got out, and were socializing on the freeway. I finally arrived and reunited with Sarah, a friend with whom I used to work at Cal Poly, and her friend, Lina.

Lina and Sarah were awesome. Not only did Sarah put me up in her flat, but Lina was my contact during my drive as Sarah had not yet returned from her holiday in Konstantz, along the Swiss border. Both are fluent in German and so we were able to tour obscure locales such as the ritzy resort town of Baden-Baden. I will discuss more of the detail of my destinations when I get the pictures online, but Baden-Baden is one of the few cities (one of two, I believe) in Germany that was spared in the wars. Not having to rebuild had its advantages, and Baden-Baden is now the home of natural mineral hot springs and high-roller tourists.

The theme of this trip is communication, and I have some important lessons to share with everyone—some of which I already knew but ignored.


  1. Always carry a calling card that works in whatever country you will be in. When I arrived in Germany, I quickly discovered after a 20-minute conversation with my mom that, although incoming calls are free, when in Germany, your Swiss account incurs roaming charges. I quickly depleted my remaining credits and lost the ability to make phone calls from my cell phone.
  2. Always carry plenty of cash—preferably money that works in the country you are in. When I got to Basel and before I crossed the border into Germany, I stopped at the train station to convert some of my Swiss Francs to Euros (Switzerland is one of two countries I know of that has yet to switch to the Euro). I should have converted more, because I discovered that contrary to the commercials, Visa is NOT everywhere I need to be and my cash went faster than I anticipated. I was carrying over four hundred U.S. dollars and Swiss Francs, but according to the Germans I was broke.
  3. Write down important phone numbers and keep them with you. All of my critical contact information was stored in my phone, which for reasons that are more technical than need be discussed here, stopped working as I prepared to depart Strasbourg. This ended up making me broke, lost, and out of touch until I crossed the Swiss border; not a good combination.
  4. Buy a map. Even if you don’t know where to get one or you think you don’t need one, always carry a map.

Getting lost WITH someone is kind of a thrill. There is something strangely exhilarating about not knowing exactly where one is going. Approaching intersections and asking each other “OK, which way?” was the theme of our Monday afternoon. At the end of the day it was a different story. Since it was raining, we decided to utilize my car and drive 45 minutes over the border to France. I will admit that before this weekend my feelings about the French were technically unfounded, as I had not actually experienced any of the things that people usually complain about. I can now make those complaints.


When you enter France, all bets on communication are off. Signage is poor, the language is pure, and the French just don’t seem to be very warm and fuzzy to tourists. Already behind schedule, I dropped Sarah off at the Strasbourg train station (which was a challenge to find due to the aforementioned lack of signage), said goodbye, and set out once again on the road. Finding the autobahn was not a problem, but once I found it, I was counting on seeing city names I recognized and heading in that direction. That did not happen. The only city I recognized that was listed on the signs was Karlsruhe, and I knew that was the wrong direction, so I went the other way. After about fifteen minutes the freeway ended and I was at a roundabout in a suddenly rural area surrounded by fields. The last thing I wanted was to be heading

further into France, so I decided to turn around and head for the truck stop I passed about ten minutes back.

Suddenly all the arrogance of the day’s success and good times faded away into one ugly lump in the pit of my stomach. I walked into the truck stop and grabbed an atlas off the shelf. The lump grew as I realized, I didn’t know where I was. There was no “you are here” dot on this map. I was lost in a world of French speaking assholes. At the end of my rope, I walked up to a truck driver finishing a pastry at the snack counter. As an American who has traveled through quite a bit of the United States and worked for a moving company, if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that truck drivers know the roads. This one said he spoke a little English and in ten minutes he plotted a route for me (+1 for the French speaking assholes). A35 was now my lucky number—that was the name of the highway I needed to follow. Since I was already stopped, I thought about calling campus to update them, but once again VISA was not accepted, so I anxiously hit the road.

The directions proved to be outstanding. Each time one of my target cities appeared on the freeway signs I sang a little victory song culminated with “wooooo!” I never thought I’d be so excited to enter a foreign country, but Switzerland was a welcome site for very sore eyes. As soon as I crossed the border I tried my phone again and this time it worked. We were back in business, at least for incoming calls. I fueled, restrated, and within about 30 minutes both Sarah and Meghan called me. I updated them on my status and relaxed a little. I still need a Swisscom card, but we’ll cross that bridge another day.

As I sped through the French countryside heading for Switzerland (which really was quite a beautiful drive with the sunset, despite my anxiety level), I began to reflect on a great many things. Foremost on my mind was what a great weekend I had. Two things worked to my advantage during this adventure: the freedom of a car, and the expertise of “locals”. Sarah and Lina were awesome, and without their German speaking abilities and knowledge of great places like Baden-Baden and the stories behind the landmarks of Strasbourg I never would have been able to experience all I did.

But it’s more than sightseeing that makes trips like this memorable. It’s always great to see friends you haven’t seen in awhile and you all know how much I love being “hooked up” in foreign cities, domestic or

international! Sarah is one of those people that we could have been almost anywhere and it would have been fun. I still can’t wait to watch the video that we took of our adventure in France, aimlessly driving around. And I will always remember leaning out the window watching the thunderstorm in Karlsruhe, Germany, with the trains going by, the church bells ringing, and the German girls singing “It’s Raining Men” and “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” as they walked in the rain down the middle of the street below.

Driving home to Lugano, it was a combination of these thoughts and the American music on the radio that kept me company and reassured me. It’s amazing how the language of music transcends almost all boundaries. From the jazz festival in Lugano to Otis Redding in Basel to my compilation CD I brought in the car—music seems to be the one thing I have in common even with the French. There’s still a language barrier, but hearing familiar songs brought me one step closer to being more comfortable with it.

I have tons of pictures from the weekend and stories to go with most of them. I hope to have them up in the next few days. In the meantime, session 1 with the kids is coming to an end. Friday we get a new batch and start over again. After this past weekend though, I am greatly looking forward to my post-camp travel plans.

Safe in Lugano, I remain,