travelers-tales

By Ben Ren

Silver Solas Award Winner in the Funny Travel category

It was during dinner that Mom uttered a most terrifying sentence: “I want to visiting Europe again.”

Dad, who was in the midst of airlifting a swath of noodles into his mouth, immediately paused operations, the carb-heavy threads dangling precariously from his chopsticks like loose wires. I gulped as a wave of anxiety washed over me.

It had been three years since we last set foot on the continent, and for that my feet were grateful. The blisters–our painfully-won souvenirs–had only just healed.

“Wh–where are you thinking of going?” asked Dad trepidatiously.

“I not sure yet. Somewhere pretty, but small. Last time family vacation too big. We go too many places, do too many things.”

Last time the term ‘family vacation’ hardly covered what transpired. Between Mom’s extramarital liaison with our guide, Rick (Steves), our tenure as laundry maids scrubbing undergarments in (five-star) hotel sinks, and dining solely on cuisines of oriental origin despite visiting the (culinary) wonderlands of Italy and France, it’s a miracle that we’re still a family.

“But we still had fun, no?”

No comment.

While Dad and I managed to dodge this question, I knew keeping mum on the sequel was not going to get us out of it: once Mom gets an idea, there is no stopping her, only containment if one acts fast enough.

“What about Switzerland?” I offered quickly. “It’s small and quaint, and by the looks of all the pictures, beautiful too.”

Famed for its chocolates, cheeses, and neutrality that got them out of not just one but two World Wars, Switzerland, physically and historically, appeared to be a foolproof option for a family looking for a small and peaceful getaway. I mean, how much can go wrong in a country the size of Maryland? Right? Right?

Swift arrangements were made: plane tickets, hotel bookings, fresh haircuts, new clothes, and a strict diet of watery rice porridge and pickled vegetables—not to better fit inside said new clothes, but rather the result of a Mom-imposed grocery embargo in order to consume all perishable food items at home before take-off. God forbid any food should go to waste, even if the people might waste away first. By the time we boarded the airplane, we looked practically anemic.

We flew from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, and from Amsterdam to Geneva. Our plan was to snooze on the overnight flight so we could hit the ground running the moment we landed in Switzerland. But unfortunately for us some KLM executive had the bright idea of making The Fault in Our Stars (the tale of two cancer-stricken teenaged star-crossed lovers) the featured in-flight entertainment. So if you thought a crying baby on an airplane was bad, try a cabin full of wailing passengers of all ages. A lady of close proximity was sucking air so hard that I thought the oxygen masks would drop from above due to a loss in cabin pressure. Needless to say, we got no sleep, which contributed to our reduced judgment henceforth.

After collecting our luggage, we stepped up drowsily to the Avis counter to retrieve our rental car. Unlike our previous venture where we had relied on public transport only, we thought a rental vehicle would give us the flexibility (and peace of mind) we so desperately needed for this vacation. No more rushing helter-skelter to the bus or train station with all our baggage–physical, mental, and otherwise–in tow, or dealing with shady cab drivers who took us for fools (and hostages) on pricey joyrides that resembled kidnappings.

No, this time we would be in full control of our own destinies (and destinations).

“Hi there, we have a reservation,” said Dad, handing over his driver’s license.

A rogue-looking attendant with a head of dark hair slicked back with Pomade and a cheshire-cat grin tapped a few deft keystrokes on his keyboard.

“I see you’ve requested a Volkswagen Golf?”

“That’s correct.”

“Unfortunately we’ve run out of Golfs,” he said pithily. “But I can offer you a Transporter instead.”

“Transporter?”

As an (Asian) American family, we’re used to measuring car sizes via the metric system only: Toyotas.

“It’s still a VW.”

“I see. And is a Transporter bigger or smaller than a Golf?”

“Bigger,” replied the attendant, his ornamental smile expanding dangerously.

“Okay then,” replied Dad amiably. “We have a Highlander at home so we’re accustomed to driving something bigger anyway.”

“Sure, sure.”

The attendant handed over the keys along with a copy of the signed paperwork. A shuttle picked us up for the short ride over to the parking structure.

“F4. It should be coming up,” said Dad, checking the keychain tag as we closed in on our ride.

Alas, when we reached our designated spot, we were left stunned by what awaited us.

It was not a sedan.

Or an SUV.

Calling it a minivan would be underrepresenting its potential.

“Wow, he really wasn’t kidding when he said bigger,” said Dad, surveying the gray monstrosity of unconscionable size before us.

“Dad, it’s a bus.”

“Can you drive it?” said Mom, looking over at me. “You said you’re used to driving all kinds of cars now for work.”

“Mom, I’m a traveling consultant, not a valet. Besides, my definition of a different car is a Camaro when I’ve gotten a lucky upgrade.”

“What is Camaro? American Camry?”

“No, it’s a popular American muscle car. You might have seen it in the movies.”

“Which one?”

“The most famous one is Bumblebee from Transformers.”

“What? You drove a bee? Bugs very small car, even I can driving that.”

Never mind.

“I guess we’ll have plenty of legroom,” said Dad, looking hard for a positive.

“Legroom? Dad, you can host a sleepover for ten in this thing.”

“Maybe we should,” replied Mom. “That way we can saving some money on hotel.”

Dad nodded agreeably, seemingly ready to latch on to this (crazy) idea.

“No! I did not come to Switzerland so we could live like Chris Farley in a van down by the river.”

Snatching the keys back from Dad, I marched over to the satellite Avis office to demand an exchange.

“How many in your party?” asked the second attendant, taking a quick sip of water from his cup.

“Three, including me.”

I almost got a free facial along with the replacement vehicle.

The minute we pulled our compact Ford Focus out of the parking lot and onto the autobahn, we realized how important size was because we weren’t (driving) in Kansas anymore. Precariously winding and painfully narrow, the medianless topsy-turvy Swiss highway had us steering like a Victorian woman trying to thread a needle by candlelight: keep a steady hand or you’ll end up drawing blood. To complicate matters further, our usually loquacious GPS suddenly became an introvert.

“Why GPS lady so quiet?” asked Mom suspiciously. “It’s been five minutes and she not say a word.”

“Sometimes it takes her a minute to warm up,” replied Dad, seemingly unconcerned.

We drove on for another five in silence.

“No, something not right. What destination you typing?”

“The one you told me: Olympic Museum.”

“Dad, did you type that in English or…?”

“Of course English. This is an American GPS.”

“But with a European map now.”

“So?”

“So I think you might have to use the local language.”

“What language the Swiss speaking?” asked Mom soberly.

Good question.

Aside from its assorted chocolates, I knew the Swiss were famed for their multilingual skills. Like their multifunctional army knives, the average Swiss national comes armed with at least three languages from school while the country has four official ones. And with so many major international organizations—Red Cross, World Health Organization, the United Nations—headquartered here, I would have bet a pretty dollar that English was one of the options.

And I’d have lost that bet and filed for bankruptcy.

We discovered—too late—the four official languages of Switzerland:

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

Forget English, Swiss German didn’t even make the list despite it being the most popular dialect spoken by the majority of locals living in the German cantons of Switzerland. And boy did this send us into a vrille, a.k.a trudeln, a.k.a tailspin. Snatching the GPS lady hurriedly off her perch, Dad tossed it over to me like a live grenade to diffuse. Seriously, how does our vacation always turn into an audition for The Hurt Locker 2?

“Hurry, hurry,” Mom cried as we let Jesus take the wheel.

But as anyone who has ever tried a keyword search on a GPS knows it doesn’t operate like Google. Autocomplete is basically nonexistent and despite its propensity to spin indefinitely like it’s thinking hard for you, the GPS lady sadistically enjoys vexing you with the panic and subsequent letdown of a null result. Beads of cold sweat started to form on the back of my neck as I typed (and prayed) feverishly over the device, trying to crack the da Vinci code.

Please God, give me something. Anything.

Finally, after a heart-pounding wait that neared cardiac arrest, the words Musée Olympique popped up on the screen with an address: Quai d’Ouchy 1, 1006, Lausanne.

Thank you Carrie Underwood; our Olympic bid continues.

“10 km to go,” said Mom, manually announcing the distance to our first exit.

“9 km now,” said Dad a little later.

“8 km.”

“Guys, you don’t have to keep counting like it’s a rocket launch. I think the GPS lady knows where she’s going now.”

“No, we don’t trust her yet.”

So while the parentals continued their countdown like mission control at NASA, I tried to make sense of the Swiss roads signs, which seemed as schizophrenic as the languages utilized. In one part it’s French, in another German. Then Italian. Then tears.

“Keep an eye out for sortie,” I said after an intense study.

Sortie? What’s sortie?” replied Mom.

“It’s the word for exit.”

“Okay everyone, please memorizing this important word.”

Everyone: sortie, sortie, sortie.

From Geneva, we reached Lausanne in record time, peer-pressured by the string of tailgating cars who treated the 75 km speed limit like a starter plate. Too bad white-knuckle rental driving by foreigners isn’t an Olympic sport; we’d have been in gold medal contention otherwise. At the destination, we parked the car at the bottom of a hill and climbed up a steep flight of stairs to the museum. Sitting inside a beautiful park overlooking the waterfront, the multistory museum was a treasure trove of Olympic memorabilia: miniatures of famous Olympic venues, equipment used by past champions, medals from every game, and a wall of torches hanging like medieval weapons in an armory. We spent a good hour exploring the museum and its grounds before Mom gave instructions to our next destination, Montreux.

“We should see beautiful lake on the way,” she said, reading from her steno pad of copious notes.

“Really? They usually don’t build highways near lakes,” I replied unthinkingly.

Mom took my offhanded statement under immediate advertisement.

“No, you’re right. We must getting off highway.”

Suddenly, the GPS lady became very chatty.

“In two kilometers, please make a U-turn.”

“Don’t listen to her,” said Mom, now directing Dad’s driving with an invisible compass of her own. “Just keep turning right until you see water.”

“In one kilometers, please make a U-turn,” the GPS lady tried again.

No response.

“Please make a U-turn now,” said the voice, a bit more stern.

“Mayday, mayday, make a U-turn immediately or else.”

In the end, Mom insisted we gag the GPS lady by hitting the power off button. It was a miracle we didn’t end up in the middle of the lake. But they say fortune favors the brave and our reward for braving Mom’s harrowing directorial debut was the stunning Lake Geneva. Shimmering into focus, the gorgeous lake glowed like a turquoise jewel. On one side, picturesque vineyards ran up the alpine terroir while across the waters the white seams of the French Alps surfaced in and out of the mists like a mirage. We slowed our car almost to a standstill along the lakeshore, the shards of sunlight breaking on the flickering waves.

The beauty continued all the way to our hotel. The elegant Belle Époque building, built in 1870 by the famed Swiss architect Eugène Jost, was beset with a sheathe of cheery yellow canopies hanging over each windowsill. As night fell, the hotel’s name—Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic—inscribed in a whimsical font, lit up like a Broadway billboard overhead. We opened the door to our accommodations, ditched our bags on the floor, and ran straight out onto the balcony.

“What a view,” said Dad happily. “We must get up early tomorrow to catch the birds and sunrise over the lake.”

Mom and I nodded in fervent concurment.

Alas, by the time we stirred from our sleep-deprived, jetlagged slumber, the sunrise had become a sunset and the birds had gone to bed themselves. Still, we spent a glorious couple of days in Montreux, visiting the gaunt remains of Château de Chillon, set wistfully on the eastern edge of Lake Geneva, and strolling along the lakefront promenade to the monumental bronze Freddie Mercury rocking out with a raised fist.

After Montreux, it was time for Bern. Arriving in the Swiss capital, we parked our car in a garage near the bustling train station and walked into town. Built on a narrow hill, the glacier-green waters of the Aare River looped around Old Town like a lazy river. On a hot summer’s day, locals enjoyed taking a dip in the emerald river and let the gentle Aare currents take them on a cruise around the perimeters of the city.

Swimsuitless, we settled for exploring the well-preserved, 12th-century architecture of the UNESCO world heritage site on foot. Rambling along Spitalgasse, the main thoroughfare through the city, we come across the first of Bern’s eleven historical fountains. These colorful monuments, commissioned to show off Bern’s wealth, also provided a pop of color to the surrounding graystone buildings.

“Remember the order,” said Mom. “We can following them back to station.”

A gamut of shops ran along the cloistered arcades flanking the strasse. We, seduced by an enticing window display, popped inside an elegant boutique only to discover prices so profligate that we were in no danger of purchasing anything. When the clock struck twelve, the shopping street became flooded with well-dressed men and women in power suits. Bern, I realized, being the capital of Switzerland, was home to the country’s top leaders. Suddenly, we were rubbing elbows with high-powered Swiss legislators, politicians, and presidents on their lunch break, their sharp sartorial display matching the many pointed towers in the city. I rushed to take snapshots of the people and architecture against the backdrop of latticed power lines that ran the city’s trolleys so Bern could stay car- and pollution-free.

From the station, we walked past the Zytglogge, (the 15th-century astronomical clock complete with a crowing rooster, jangling jester, an orchestra of musical bears, and Chronos, the Greek god of time, who announced every new hour with a tip of his hourglass to Kramgasse 49 (Albert Einstein’s old flat where he developed his Theory of Relativity) and Berner Münster (the 15th-century Catholic-turned-Protestant cathedral capped with the tallest tower in Switzerland) before turning back at the Bärengraben (the bear pit featuring Bern’s furry mascot frolicking along the terraced hillside).

“We need to hurrying,” said Mom, noting our parking ticket was set to expire.

Alas, our scheme of using the water fountains as breadcrumbs suddenly proved to be more disorienting than orienting.

“I think the last one was a man…” said Dad, trying to remember.

“They’re all men, Dad.”

“Not all,” interjected Mom. “There was one lady.”

“Which one?”

“The one holding sword.”

“What? How could you tell? It had a blindfold over its face!” I exclaimed.

“Because of her hips. Didn’t you notice her big hips?”

Uh no. We later fact checked: the Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen, a.k.a the Fountain of Justice, was topped by Lady Justice with her womanly, child-bearing hips.

Instead, we bounced like aimless pinballs through the streets of Bern, looking for our next clue.

“I remember a guy sucking on a straw from his water pouch,” said Dad.

“I think that was a bagpipe, Dad.”

Mom, fed up with our patchy guesswork, turned to her favorite holiday activity: accosting strangers for help. A passing elderly gentleman became Mom’s first victim.

“Excuse me sir, do you speaking English?”

“Yes, a little.”

“Do you know where is train station?”

“Sorry, can you say again more slowly?”

“Staaaation. We are looking for train station. You know train? Choo-choo?”

The unexpected sound effects sent the elderly gentleman a few paces backwards. Undeterred, Mom proceeded to demonstrate her meaning further with body language: she clenched her fists and began rocking her arms back and forth like the coupling rods on a steam locomotive while miming exhaust fumes through the rapid inflation and deflation of her cheeks like a pufferfish under attack.

CHOO-CHOO! All Aboard the Orient Express.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” Dad hissed. “Help your mother!”

But what could I do? I grabbed our guidebook and flipped frantically to the helpful phrases section in the back, which incidentally, proved to be most unhelpful.

Exhibit A: Puis-je avoir un kilo d’oranges s’il vous plaît? May I have a kilo of oranges please?

I mean, seriously, who walks around with that kind of vitamin C deficiency?

I sped past a host of other useless entries before finding one pertinent to our current predicament.

“Um, la gare? We’re looking for the la gare?”

“Ahhh, la gare, yes, yes, now I know,” the gentleman smiled, finally understanding Mom’s acting workshop. “You walk to the end of the street and turn left. Then you will see a church on the corner. Keep walking until you reach church and then turn right. Then voilà, la gare.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Continuing our theme of bomb-diffusing stress, we reached the train station just in time. I made sure the GPS lady was properly set for Lauterbrunnen, the foothills of the Swiss Alps, before conking out in the backseat from exhaustion.

Time passed.

“Wake up, wake up,” Mom hissed loudly.

Hmmm? What’s the matter?” I stirred drowsily. “Are we there?”

“No. Do you see sortie?”

I opened a bleary eye to find us still in the parking garage.

“We can’t seem to find the exit,” said Dad. “I’ve been driving around in circles for ten minutes.”

“Stop sleeping and helping your father!” Mom screamed.

Okay, okay. Geez. I instructed Dad to do another lap around the block.

“There! There’s the exit,” I said, pointing to a sign marked Ausfahrt.

“I thought you said exit was sortie,” said Mom.

“That’s the French word. We’re in Bern now, a German-speaking part of Switzerland, so the signs are now in German.”

“Oh my god, how we supposed to remembering all these different names?” she cried.

“It helps if you use a mnemonic device.”

“What’s that?” asked Dad.

“It’s a mental aid for remembering things: acronyms, rhymes, a similar sounding word—that sort of thing.”

“What is yours?” inquired Mom.

“Oh…ummm…I really shouldn’t say,” I replied uncomfortably. “Besides, it’s better to come up with your own. That way you’ll remember it more easily. ”

Hiyah, we have no time for making demonic devices, just tell us.”

“Okay, fine, it–it’s…ummm…ass fart.”

“WHAT? WHAT YOU JUST SAY?” the parentals replied, recoiling in shock.

“Ass fart,” I repeated.

Mom raised her hand in preparation for a slap: “You qian zou? Why you say bad words?”

“No, that’s my device. It’s what ausfahrt sounds like in English.”

“But how that help you remembering it mean exit?” she demanded.

“Well, farts have to exit out of the ass so…”

“Oh.”

“Okay, everyone, remember this new keyword.”

Everyone: ass fart, ass fart, ass fart.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Ben Ren grew up in various countries—China, UK, Singapore, and the US—where he currently resides in Minneapolis. He studied computer engineering and creative writing at the University of Minnesota. His writing has been published in IMPACT magazine and his funny travel blog is currently featured on Travellerspoint.com. Previously, he worked as a consultant at Deloitte where he hoarded every single hotel point and frequent flier mile which engendered “How the Swiss Make You Say Bad Words.”

Read his blog here