Sunday, 25 December 2016 15:09

Lost in transition

Old town Zurich Old town Zurich

So I was in Switzerland last week - almost like home really. Same language (almost), same scenery, similar cultures... after all we do share a border. And yet, I felt more disoriented and out of place than in the chaotic city of Cairo where I do not understand a word people say and cannot read a single sign. Looking back, I think I even found Shanghai easier to get around.

I arrived at Zurich airport and found it huge and despite (or because of?) the many, many signs very confusing. The fact that I actually spoke the language and still felt completely lost made me feel so embarrassed - paralyzed me almost. I walked around, thunderstruck; at first I even spoke English thinking surely this cannot be a place where they speak 'my language'. It felt more natural speaking English while being this confused in a modern European city in my necks of the woods.


Signs and information galore

Everything was clean and orderly with signs and information boards at every turn. And expensive. I finally found a train ticket counter - still without the vaguest idea where the train to the city centre would actually leave. I knew that during the next 5 days I’d be using a local train covering the short distance from my friend’s house, 15 kilometres outside of Zurich, to the centre. So I inquired about a weekly card or some other economic option. It was available - for a mere 96 Swiss Francs (about 90 Euros)!

I got a one way ticket, found the train to the centre and then sat there gawking at the board inside the compartment that showed each stop, the distance, the minutes needed to arrive, the connecting trains one could take from there.


'Landpomeranze' - a village girl

I must have looked like some village girl who is leaving home for the first time rather than a seasoned traveller in her late 40s who has lived and travelled in countries as exotic as Burkina Faso, Mongolia and Kazakhstan without any problems whatsoever. I can still feel that overwhelming sensation of feeling so lost on that modern train and I still have not figured out where it came from.

At the Zurich Hauptbahnhof I found it had not three levels, but three and a half - they had thrown in a ‘mid-level’ for good measure. The place includes a shopping mall and is a true labyrinth of shops, restaurants, snack bars and platforms for different kinds of trains on several floors.  Asking about the whereabouts of lockers, it turned out the employees I happened to ask did not know either - “Somewhere on the other side, but it’s far,” explained one of them. I finally found them and for a mere 6 Swiss Francs was able to leave my backpack while I went exploring.

I went only on a short tour around the city, already having walked about 15 kilometres at the airport and the train station. I enjoyed the pretty lake views with fog and sun rays performing a dance much like a gentle embrace. But then, plagued by anxiety over my next train ride taking me to my friend’s on time, I calculated a good two hours for the supposedly 15 minute train ride.

Apart from accidentally having bought a 24-hour ticket for 18 Swiss Francs, from a woman who actually spoke my language, all went smoothly. I spent a reasonably comfortable 15 minutes on the edge of my seat, ready to leap out the door should my stop somehow jump ahead of all the other stops, listed electronically along with all sorts of information, short of the number of footsteps you can expect to take once you get off.  

Village retreat

My friend lives in a charming small village and apart from one small trip to meet some old friends (during which I managed to get on the wrong tram AND the wrong train) I did not leave it. I did manage to get lost in the village too, but in a most positive and calming way - I immersed myself and my camera in a thick fog that enclosed the area for two days. There were no signs, no electronic information boards, just one path through the woods. All very straightforward - I even strayed off it several times for particularly beautiful shots and did not feel lost even once.

I ended up spending a lovely (if expensive) few days in Switzerland but am still baffled by how utterly disoriented I felt in a place where I was supposed to feel at home. Finding my bearings during recent trips to Cairo and Tbilisi seemed like a piece of cake compared to Zurich!

I guess I’ll stick to more exotic places with no sign and new languages - there at least being a clueless tourist will seem absolutely natural.




Mary Anglberger

I’ve been travelling the world for over 20 years teaching English and am now taking time to follow my passion for photography and writing. I want to share all the things, events and people that have inspired and inspire me and spread those positive vibes all around.

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