Last weekend we were in Lausanne.
Our drive towards Switzerland – along the patchy A5, through edge of black forest, to the border city of Basel – is always uneventful and one we try to get over soon. The scenery alters dramatically after Basel, so much that someone who lands in Frankfurt and drives into Switzerland along this route would label Germany as a featureless land with clumps of trees and houses, and, impressed with the transformation a little after crossing the border, would concur with the image of Switzerland portrayed by travel brochures and Bollywood song sequences. This time, however, the difference was less evident as we stopped at Basel to meet a friend.
The second half of our journey acquired a surreal quality under the fading light. Wife and I drove on in silence, watching the shifting colours of sunset under a clear sky, with the soft rhythms of Norah Jones in the background. Towards the end of our journey the sight of Lake Geneva – a huge mass of molten lead reflecting the last rays of a dying sun, surrounded by outlines of hills below a sky sinking into darkness – formed an image we would remember for a long time.
Our hotel – one from the Novotel chain – reminded me of the Novotel we recently had stayed at in Paris. Hotels in the same chain tend to reuse the same architecture and design which sometimes creates a feeling of having been there before; this one even had a receptionist who spoke French (Lausanne lies in the French-speaking part of Switzerland) and the rooms were furnished with the same elements we had seen earlier in Paris. I looked for a connecting door that would lead to the adjacent room my parents would have been staying in; there was none.
Next morning we drove into the city centre and parked the car in a lot next to the lake. As I walked towards the ticket vending machine I realized that my Euros would be of no use here – I needed Swiss Francs to purchase my parking ticket. There was an elderly man at the machine, trying to insert a five Franc coin into a slot that accepted a maximum of two Francs. He muttered something to himself in German and tried again. I spoke to him in German, explained that the machine would not accept his five Franc coin, and later bid him goodbye after he had received his ticket.
It was my turn next, and I had only a ten Franc note in my wallet. There was no shop nearby; the place looked deserted. I was looking around, unable to decide what to do next when I saw the old man walking towards me. He came up and asked me how much change I needed – five Francs, I replied, and gave him four Euros in exchange. After thanking him and wishing him a good day, I picked up my ticket and walked over to the car to keep the ticket inside while my wife waited at the entrance of the parking lot. When I joined her she told me that she heard the old man tell his wife: “Er spricht perfekt Deutsch“. We both had a good laugh. My German is still eons away from perfection, and I can barely speak a few sentences without making a mistake. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling thrilled by that remark. (A little later I bumped into the old man and his wife again and we had a small conversation. They were from a town near Dusseldorf, and the lady wanted to know if Lausanne had any interesting sights to offer. I somehow held on – without revealing the imperfections in my German – until we parted, and as I walked away I sensed a tinge of excitement at the thought of how many more such conversations I could have in future. Learning a foreign language does open up new worlds.)
My wife had some official work so she went her way while I walked along the waterfront on Lake Geneva and spent the next few hours simply lying in the sun, watching birds and boats, dreaming, reading, and taking the occasional photograph.