What are you asking me for?

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Flag of Switzerland  , Zürich,
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Flying to Europe from the US West Coast is not any fun. I got up at 3:30am in order to make the 1 hour train ride to the airport and arrive about an hour-and-a-half before my flight left. The flight left early in the morning because you have to fly 5 hours and cross three time-zones, which means you've got to get an early start at the Pacific if you want to make it to the Atlantic in time to catch an evening flight to Europe. A direct flight may have been better, I don't remember why I chose this particular trip, but it was probably price related.

When I finally made it to Zürich, after 1 hour of tarmac delay and 7.5 hours of flight to get from NYC to Europe added to my morning travels, my brain was pretty scrambled. The border agent asked me if I spoke any German (just making conversation, there's no German test to get into Switzerland), and I told her "a little", but I said "bitte" twice before I realized my mistake and corrected it to "bisschen".

I later said "arigato" instead of "danke" because my brain's default foreign language mode is apparently still set to Japanese, but luckily I don't think she heard me because I said it with my head buried in my luggage. Hopefully I will avoid repeating the mistake, or at least avoid running into anyone who realizes I'm saying thank-you in Japanese. That would just be weird.

Oh, and the reason I'm in Switzerland in the first place is I'm visiting a friend. He happens to be staying in a French area, so I don't even get to practice my German. I hear it may be useful in Eastern Europe, though. We'll see.

Even in my muddled state, the Zürich airport was pretty easy to figure out. I used an ATM at the airport to get some Swiss Francs. I withdrew 400 and was surprised to have the machine spit-out two 200 Franc bills. Without thinking about it, I kind of expected a mound of twenties like you get back home. Even in Japan, where they really love their cash, the ATM gives the equivalent of $100 bills. When I bought my train ticket, I asked the clerk if 200 Francs was the biggest, and she said they actually have 1000 Franc bills, although many shops won't take them (no problems with 200's, though). I thought that sounded excessive, but my friend noted that Switzerland is know for it's secret banking, and it's a lot easier to exchange a briefcase of 1000 Franc bills in an empty parking lot than if you have to fit a bunch of 100's into a container.

Purchasing the train ticket was also no problem as all of the airport staff seemed to speak English. While changing trains at the Bern station, I broke my own record for least number of hours between arriving in a country and being asked for directions. Note that I said being asked for directions not asking for directions. My previous record was 5 hours, set last summer on the day of my arrival in Germany for the first time ever. Today, it only took three hours between me touching Swiss soil and someone asking me for help. They always ask me in their own language, so in addition to choosing someone who can count the number of hours they've been in a country on one hand, they also choose the person least able to communicate with them.

I must have some exceptional mix of looking both approachable and knowledgeable, although I don't know how the latter could be. I've been asked for help when I'm clearly a tourist, like when I'm walking around with a camera or like today while I was dragging my bags through the train station. Even with that, I could kind of see how someone might possibly mistake me for a German or a Latvian, but it happens in Japan too. Japanese ask me for directions when the streets are filled with Japanese people, and they ask me in Japanese. Why they think they'll have any luck will probably remain one of those cultural mysteries to me...

Another reason I was surprised the woman at the train station picked me out of the crowd to ask was because I wasn't entirely sure how the Swiss train system worked in the first place, and I would have expected my face to have a look reflecting my puzzlement. Because I was visiting a friend, I hadn't done any planning of my own for Switzerland. I had a basic knowledge of the country's geography and politics, but that was about it. I certainly hadn't attempted to acquire any Switzerland-specific travel skills, like what exactly I was supposed to do with my ticket and why the train doors didn't open when the train stopped.

I still haven't quite figured out the ticket thing. On one train a conductor came by and stamped it, but on another, I think there was a machine on the platform I should have used to punch it myself. A third train had neither conductor nor machine that I could see, but it may have been on the platform. I wasn't looking for machines at that point.

In any case, there weren't any real difficulties with the train. I saw some passengers pressing an (unlabelled, but usually green) button on the doors to open them when the train stopped. I switched trains three times going from the airport out to meet my friend. At each switch the train quality decreased from air-conditioned, bi-level cars with station announcements made clearly in multiple languages until the final train had no functioning A/C, one level, and there were no announcements made for the stops (or maybe the electricity in my car was broken). Fortunately, I had the train schedule, knew about the time I should expect to get off and was able to spot the station names.

The ride itself was nice enough. No energy for pictures, though. Now I need a nap...
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