That Time I Toured Three Countries on Crutches
Receiving a visit from a portion of my dear family (with a whole bunch of pain pills and goodies in tow) had done it’s job in cheering me right up and giving me the motivation to grab the year abroad bull by the horns again.
I was going to see the last of it out, however long on my legs I had, and I was going to see it out in style.
So I bought myself a hinged knee brace, a second crutch for emergencies and took a train the length and breadth of France to visit a friend in Alsace.
I would be staying in their family home for 5 days. Their very posh, very proper, very Catholic home. And while I’m hardly bad-mannered, I’m certainly not their idea of any of these things. Having been briefed by my Alsacienne friend (who’s originally from Bradford), I knew to avoid the topics of politics and homosexuality (it was enough for her folks having one big ol’ liberal gay-sympathiser in the house- and she’s not convinced her brother’s straight either). But most importantly I knew not to swear. By the end of the trip I’d bitten my tongue almost in half during a discussion of France’s current socialist prime minister and had the words “sod”, “bloody” met with disapproving glances and the expression “as near as damnit” was deemed “not terribly polite.”
That’s not to say they didn’t love me. As always in potentially awkward and socially stressful situations, I resorted to humour and it seemed to make up for my mild potty mouth.
I arrived after a many-hour train journey in Mulhouse, which doesn’t sound particularly French or German, but which has historically been both (and is in fact pronounced Mull-Ooze). In this part of the world, you are either in or just a short drive from France, Germany and Switzerland at any given time and in preparation for this, I had extended my knowledge of German to include words which when strung together sounded like “Where is the airport?” and “I ate a cockroach.”
So as you can tell, I was hoping not to run into many mono-lingual Germans.
The Bradfordian Alsacienne, who I’m going to name Kitten, after her un-imaginatively named young cat and love of all things feline, met me at the station in a French car, with her French driving license, having been taught to drive in France. I was a bit nervous. I love the French, but to extend that to their driving would be laughable.
The next day I trusted her to drive me into Germany, where I would be supplementing my Erasmus experience with the unapologetic national stereotypes of Europa Park. The gimmick is that each section has a European country theme, with related food and occasionally related rides. It’s like Eurovision on crack.
Here I learnt the German for “Two people” and “Would you like to go in front of us?” Everything I’d heard about the German’s lack of queue etiquette seemed not to apply here- and there’s something quite comforting in associating the massive rollercoaster you’re waiting for with German engineering.
Also I totally got eaten by a shark.
Europa Park is one of the many places I’ve witnessed (although not so much this year) where being trilingual opens up job opportunities in flipping burgers. Having French, German and English is standard, but English speech was strangely comfortingly scarce and I stuck to French, which then allowed me a beautiful moment of being able to surprise some American tourists with some spontaneous translation (it’s the little things…)
By the end of the day, I’d thoroughly abused my knee, which really didn’t want to fit into any rollercoaster carriage, and emerged wearing a smile-grimace from many a ride. To compensate, I’d taken a hefty dose of painkillers and promptly fell asleep in the car home, leaving my navigation duties to Kitten.
Having allowed myself to fall into a pill-induced slumber in Kitten’s car, I trusted her enough to get us into Switzerland, but still, we took the train. Never before have I purchased my ticket in French, got on a train and suddenly notice a shift into German, all without being asked for my passport.
We had a look around Basel, with its (what I imagine are) typically Swiss buildings- and fountains. Someone should advertise a Drinking Tour of Basel- the catch being that each stop would involve downing a pint of eau potable.
And of course we wound up in a chocolatier, where I attempted to buy my body weight in Toblerone and learnt that the Swiss German word for “thank you” sounds remarkably like “merci” and, answering “avec plaisir”, I wondered how I’d been rumbled as a part-time Frenchie.
Come the weekend, it was Kitten’s parents’ turn to play tour guides and our attention was turned once more to Germany, where I had the best lasagne I’ve ever tasted. Go figure.
We toured some cute little German streets, Kitten’s mum got me drunk over lunch (and my swearword replacements became more and more imaginative- even onomatopoeic). Having sampled Alsacien wine and German beer, we finished the day with a walk through the Black Forest (which has sadly nothing to do with gateau, but is extremely beautiful). By this point completely reliant on crutches, I hardly looked the hiking type, but with my newfound upper body strength, I managed to climb into some snug little coves and make it up to some handy viewpoints.
In my final hours before boarding my night train back to Toulouse (which I had thankfully had the foresight to book a lower bunk for), Kitten and her parents took me to see the monument at the point at which France, Germany and Switzerland all meet. Wherever you stand, you have a clear view of all three countries (for an island-dwelling being, this is kind of a big deal) The only catch is that the the actual point is underwater…
One might say we got as as near as damnit…