Gruyères, Switzerland: Language and Transportation Roulette

| July 19, 2013

Gruyeres, SwitzerlandWhile my oldest friends Suzi and Craig were visiting, we all took a road trip to Switzerland that included a day trip to Gruyères. As we neared the region, the views were magnificent: the Swiss Alps in the background, tidy farmland, a hilltop castle.

We were in Gruyères so that Craig could visit the HR Giger Museum. Paul would accompany him while Suzi and I explored the area with Sequoia, who hopefully will never set foot in the HR Giger Museum. I parked at the bottom of town, where all visitors must park and hoof it. We gathered around a giant map and, with no forethought, Craig in a rush to get to the museum and Paul not a fan of waffling over plans, we chose a time (1500) and place (the castle at the top of the hill on the other side of town) to reconvene. The boys set off with the good camera, all of the Swiss franc bills in their pockets, and no phones; the girls set off with 2 phones and a total of 3 Swiss coins in my pocket. Here’s how that went…

Suzi and I briefly discussed our options as we knew them: A) Watch a cheese making demonstration and listen to Sequoia whine “IT STINKS!” the whole time; B) Overcome Suzi’s nerves and ride a cable car to a mountaintop; C) Find a restaurant and eat even though we weren’t hungry yet; D) Walk around the small town for 4 hours. We opted for the cable car. Suzi was uneasy but excited about the views it was sure to offer. We had no idea how to get there, but I recalled seeing signs out on the road. It seemed far, so I suggested we drive.

Gruyeres cowsSequoia: “I don’t want to drive. We were just in the car for soooo long. We just got out of the car.”

Suzi: “I think there’s a bus.”

We see bus pictures on the map but have no idea where to go. I decide to ask the two uniformed parking attendants. This is where our day of Language Roulette begins.

I greet them in German and ask if they speak English. Nope. I ask in German how to get to the cable car. They, residents of a French region of Switzerland, respond in French. Fortunately, I understand most of what they are saying despite my inability to respond in French. Unfortunately, we must walk a bit to the bus station. Fortunately, at that very moment the bus approaches on its way back from dropping off passengers. Unfortunately, we’ve realized by now that we have no money.

The parking attendant waves to the driver, who stops, opens the door and, in French, gushes about his perfect timing coming upon these beautiful women, yadda yadda. The parking attendant tells him where we’re going (in French); I ask if he’ll take us to the bus station and how much it will cost (in German); he tells us to just get on (in French) and opens the gate.

The driver lets us off at the station and tells us when he’s leaving for Molèson, the village where the cable car is located. We rush across the parking lot and are relieved to find an ATM, which spits out only 100CHF bills. We re-board the bus with three 100CHF bills and three 2CHF coins. I ask how much it will cost for the three of us.

Driver to Sequoia (in French) : How old are you?

Sequoia to me (in English) : I don’t know what he’s saying.

Me to Sequoia (in English) : How old are you?

Sequoia (in German): Sechs.

He waves his arm and tells me she will ride free, then says for us it’ll be nine-blahblahblah, something-something. He shows me the machine, which says 9.50. I pull out a 100CHF-bill. He stares and asks if I have anything else. I plunk down 6CHF in coins. Now he’s rattling off something like WTF. Suzi, speaking English, offers a 2-euro coin. Now he’s rattling off something like WTFFF. He opens the gate and lets us on for free. I shove Sequoia quickly through and we sit down.

Suzi: “He hates us.”

Me: “Nah.”

After snaking up the mountain, we arrive and begin to search for a bathroom. This involves passing by our bus and driver three times.

Suzi: “He’s thinking: ‘Stupid Americans.’”

Me: “Yeah, maybe.”

We stand in line for cable car tickets. The sign shows graphics of both a funicular on a track and a cable car in the air. There’s a cable car sitting on the ground outside of the station, but from where we stand we can see only a track-bound funicular that people are boarding inside the station. We’ll figure it out.

We purchase the most expensive round trip ticket, for the summit, because logically this is the best offering. Once we enter the turnstyle, however, there is total confusion: we still see only the funicular we were able to see people board from the outside. There is no cable car like the one pictured in sight, and no cables, just tracks. We tentatively board. I see a young couple and decide to ask for clarification.

Me: Sprechen Sie Englisch?

Guy: (shakes head)

Me: Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

Guy: (shakes head, points to girl as if she’ll be slightly more help)

Me: (oddly shifting) Parlez-vous anglais?

Her: (Shakes head)…Deutsch, oder?

Me: Ja!

I now ask, in broken German, this person whose German, it becomes clear, is also a foreign tongue, if we’re on the right car to the summit. She and I are barely understanding one another, but she seems to be saying yes.

Result: Me partially convinced + Suzi completely unconvinced = Getting nowhere.

We step back off the car.

Then I hear a woman speak to her child and I understand her clearly, so I ask her in Spanish.

She replies…in Italian.

The important thing? I understand and learn that we take the funicular to a certain point, then switch and go to the summit afterward. I assure Suzi this is the right car. She doesn’t trust me until I tell her I asked the woman in Spanish—a language Suzi knows I once spoke with complete fluency. She relaxes and settles in for the ride. I don’t tell her the woman answered me in Italian until the doors are closed.


The ride up is smooth. Suzi alights and announces, “That wasn’t bad.” Then she sees the cable car. And the summit.

Gruyeres cable carSuzi: “I don’t know if I can do this.”

Me: “You can.” (I’m a pusher)

Gruyeres cable carWe climb into the stuffy cable car and Suzi grimaces. We head toward the summit. All is well until we come to the pulley pole thing. The cable car hitches, thumps, and shakes…then gets over the hump, hitches, thumps, and shakes again. I do not look back at Suzi for fear of murderous glares, nor do I sniff the air for fear she’s shit her pants. Funny, there was no such hiccup during the descent.

Up top, the most unsettling part of the trip for both of us was the open steel grates surrounding the cable car. Who wants to look down at meter upon meter of nothing but a few beams supporting the whole station? Not us.

The summit itself was breathtaking. Mile after mile, kilometer after kilometer, of hills and mountains, flowers and trees, cows and farms.

gruyeres view

Noting that our pictures would be better captured with Suzi’s Canon Rebel, we snapped away with a small camera and my iphone. Later, Suzi was incredulous to learn that I’d left not only my own Rebel at home, but also its telescopic lens. Later still, we both would be cranky to learn that Craig was not allowed to take photos in the museum—something we’d suspected from the start.

We watched some folks below as they hiked from the midpoint up to the summit. Sequoia picked flowers, innocently unaware of the surroundings she now takes for granted.


Gruyeres geeksAfter avoiding any tumbles down cliffs or mountainsides, we boarded the cable car and returned to the midway point for a bite to eat in the world’s most confusing cafeteria-style restaurant. We couldn’t figure out how to order any of the menu choices and none of the cafeteria staff wandering around behind the counter asked (in any language) if they could help us, so Suzi picked up a pre-made salad while Sequoia and I each chose fruit salads. I grabbed drinks and a piece of interesting-looking brown pie, then slid my tray up to the cashier. Seeing a basket of bread, I asked for bread in German. The cashier grabbed the basket and thrust it toward me as she turned to talk to someone behind her. Unsure of what to do, I gingerly took one piece of bread for myself and another for Sequoia, and then she and Suzi and I had a German-French-English transaction.

Gruyeres foodAs we ate what turned out to be excellent little meals, Suzi noticed that everyone else with bread had a full basket. I guess I was supposed to take the entire basket. The pie? It was some kind of molasses-y, caramel-y, maybe even cheesecake-y deal. Sickeningly yet tolerably sweet right up until the last crumb. Glad I tried, wouldn’t choose it again.

Gruyeres alpine hornsWe finished our meals and started toward the tray cart. Just then, a restaurant worker serendipitously walked up and took our trays and slid them in for us, much like our bus driver had appeared at just the right time to take us to the bus stop. We turned to walk to the funicular, when suddenly we came upon four men standing on the mountaintop, preparing their alpine horns. Giddily, we gathered front and center. My arms were host to goosebumps throughout the first song.

We listened to several alpine songs ring out across the mountains and then returned to the village, where we surely had just enough time to check out and potentially squeeze in a bob luge ride before returning to Gruyères (Foreshadowing: Terrible judgment). We passed by our bus, which had no driver in the seat, and searched for the entrance. It wasn’t far. In yet another German/English/French transaction, we purchased our chips for the ride, then allowed the complete stranger ride operator to hold our purses as we climbed into bobsleds. Sequoia and I rode in front of Suzi, who had the bonus of hearing us scream the whole way down.

We popped into the bathroom before heading back to the bus. It was gone. There had been no driver in the seat just a little bit ago! No problem, we’ll wait for the next one—they can’t be more than 20 minutes apart like everything else we’ve walked right onto today, right? This is when the practical Suzi suggests we check the bus schedule.

…which was in French and was a bus schedule like we don’t typically read. And sadly, if we were reading it correctly, told us that THE NEXT BUS WOULD COME IN AN HOUR. We understood one thing clearly: We’d missed this last bus by two minutes. Worse, it was now 1500.

Our husbands are waiting for us and we have no way of contacting them because they had all the money and we had all the phones. Shit.

Just then, we watch two 20-something girls hitchhike. Clearly they, too, had just missed the bus. A two-door hatchback pulls up, the passenger gets out, and he starts tossing a ton of crap from the back seat into the trunk so the girls can climb in. Surprisingly, the hitchhiking discussion that ensued included little mention of the danger of serial killers.

Suzi: I am not getting into a hatchback with a bunch of shit in the back. Look at all that crap he has! It would have to be a four-door.

Me: I doubt anyone has an extra booster seat. Sequoia needs a booster seat.

A 50-something, English-speaking couple walks up to the bus schedule and experiences the same difficulty reading it, then expresses the same disappointment and frustration. A minute later, the woman approaches me and utters the most welcome phrase any person has spoken to me in a foreign language, ever:

“Parlez-vous anglais?”

Why yes, yes I do.

We discuss our options. We lament not knowing how to contact a cab company in order to share a taxi. After I tell them about the girls, the woman cheerfully considers hitchhiking, noting that it’s been many years since they’ve done so. If they’re reading the bus schedule correctly, the next bus arrives at 1538; if we’re reading it correctly, it arrives at 1558. I want so badly to be wrong.

And we were, thankfully, wrong. Just before 1538, a new driver pulled up and let us on the bus while he got off for a break. We sat down immediately, lest he pull away without us. We would be taking the bus into town, just a bit farther than our originating point, arriving about an hour late. Suzi felt helpless and grew increasingly worried that Craig was, at this very moment, freaking out. We’d still have our walk to the castle and would arrive to our rendezvous point no less than an hour and ten minutes late. I was confident that Paul would keep Craig from freaking out, knowing from experience A) how long ski lifts and drives up and down mountains can take and B) how these things can go with me. I also had slightly less sympathy than Suzi for two men who took all the money and no phone, not to mention the good camera. Still, I was kicking myself for not checking the bus schedule, as we’d had plenty of time to make that bus. I also shared with Suzi the very real concern that the boys would leave our meeting point and begin searching for us, turning it into a legitimate nightmare.

Armed with plenty of coins, Suzi walked up front to pay. This time, even her coins totaled too much and the driver had no change. When I could offer no help, I told her to just put in the extra money—after all, we’d been allowed to ride for free on the trip up. She agreed. A few minutes later, after a few more customers had paid, the driver walked back and handed Suzi the change. This is when we concluded that in our experience, the Swiss/Gruyères French are decidedly friendlier than the French French.

Gruyeres main street

Upon arriving at the bottom of Gruyères, we began booking it to the castle. “Booking it” with a 6-year-old, however, isn’t quite the speed a frantic Suzi can bear. She took off for the castle. When we reached her, she was not happy to report that the boys were nowhere to be found. We stood in front of the HR Giger museum and discussed, once again, our options. I was hesitant to split up, but Suzi wanted to check the parking lot at the bottom of the hill, so we tested Whatsapp on our phones. The three of us were still standing by the museum when Craig and Paul came waltzing up.

Paul: “How did you get past us?”

There was no worry in his voice.

Me: “Where were you?”

Paul: “On the wall. How’d you miss us?”

Craig started babbling, gushing about the museum.


I looked at Suzi. Suzi looked at me. I looked at the men. “Have you been drinking?”

They had. This was the best-case scenario. They’d even assumed that we would be now be cranky to be waiting on them, and furthermore pissed that they had no phone and the good camera! I looked at Suzi, astounded, and mouthed, “This is the best!” We repeated this to one another quite a few times during the course of the afternoon, as they made no fuss over our tardiness.

We all strolled around Gruyères (home, incidentally, to the most adorable public restroom, and Paul showed us the wall you don’t pass when you come from the bus instead of the parking lot.


Gruyeres Switzerland cheeeeeeeseAfter exploring the wall, we chose a restaurant for dinner. We weren’t leaving without gorging on a Gruyère cheese meal, and that we did. In yet another French-German-English scenario, we ordered our preferred delicacies. Suzi chose fondue, which involved a full skillet of melted Gruyère cheese being placed before you. I ordered raclette, which involves machinery for which I should have been licensed. Boiling hot, it is the size and shape of a sewing machine, only slightly heavier, with a piping hot tray that swings toward you—upon which they’ve placed a block of Gruyère cheese, which heats up until you can scrape melted cheese onto your bread, potatoes, onions, or pickles. Eventually, the cheese is burning and bubbling, your entire table is sweating, and you’re wishing you had welder’s gloves and Lactaid pills on you. I highly recommend it.

Finally, we walked around the shops before heading back to Basel, exhausted from our wonderful, merveilleux, wunderbar, maravilloso, meraviglioso day.

Tags: , , , , ,

Category: Europe, Family Travel, In Germany A Broad blog, Linguistics, Photo Gallery, Shits & Giggles, Switzerland, Travel

About the Author ()

Kari Martindale is a writer and ESL instructor. She’s visited all 50 states and 37 countries, including many of the big cities of Europe and a ton of Christmas Markets. She spends her days straddling the fence between a sense of adventure and a sense of dread. She is married to what is clearly a patient man and has a daughter who, frustratingly, is just like her. Her academic and professional backgrounds are in linguistics and foreign languages. When she's not teaching ESL, she's writing. When she's not writing, she's thinking about her next trip.

Comments (6)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Notes from 19 July 2013 | Sequoia Spricht | October 6, 2013
  1. Sir/Madam:

    I recently wrote a travel blog on La Gruyère for senior travelers and wanted you to have a copy.

    Please share this site/information with interested persons.  Below is the link.

    Jim Becker, Webmaster
    Professor Emeritus
    University of Northern Iowa (USA)

    Homepage for the above:

  2. People can often go home and say that! But yes, I try.

  3. ATW says:

    Ha! The people you interacted with must have thought you were REALLY strange, because usually Americans aren’t known for speaking more than one language, and you were able to try to work through several :) I could imagine the people going home and talking to their family, saying, “I met this most unusual American today!”

  4. suzifenton says:

    So, oldest friends, or OLDEST friends?! This was probably the best part of the trip. Much fun in climbing mountains and overcoming fears with my oldest friend and skiks!