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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The Alps, Oil Changes, & Charades

January 9, 2012

GENEVA— Switzerland was never high on my list. Sure, it was on the original itinerary, but if I had ranked the 30 countries we were to visit at the start of this journey, Switzerland would have probably been in the middle of the pack.

Before we left our home and said goodbye to life as we knew it, my friend Chris said, “I’ve been to a lot of places, but if I could live anywhere in the world, it would be Switzerland.” I wrote the remark off as a geologist in love with giant rock formations.

If we’ve learned anything on this five-month European adventure, it’s that as soon as we say “This is our favorite country/city/site/museum or the most beautiful place we’ve seen, or the most awe-inspiring scenery we’ve witnessed, or, ‘this is our favorite, so far,'” we stand before something new that takes it’s place. Hello Swiss Alps.

We have seen some beautiful things in the last five months. Back in September, during a drive through the Brenner Pass at dusk, we saw the first snow of the year as it barely capped the Dolomites. We’ve seen sunsets over the Tuscan countryside and sunrises over the French Riviera. I stood in awe of the ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel, Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” the cobalt-blue waters on the island of Mykonos and the Amalfi Coast in Italy, Germany’s Black Forest west of Neuschwanstein, Michelangelo’s David, Gehry’s Museum in Bilbao, massive marble-filled cathedrals in Budapest, Vienna, Siena, Milan, Seville, and Rome. But if God or man has made anything more beautiful than the Alps mountain range in Switzerland and France I have yet to see it.

I have always been attracted to snow-capped mountains. At home, I prefer the green, wooded Smokies to the rough, jagged Rockies. The Alps seem to provide the best of what those two American ranges offer.

My family has spent the last two days driving the scenic and winding roads in and around Mount Blanc. We had no pre-set destination in mind, and no mission other than the desire to let the kids see some snow. We were awestruck at almost every turn.

Geneva has suited our needs, well. It is a very accessible city and has everything one looks for in a large European metropolis. The bonus is that it’s a short, picturesque one-hour drive to the highest peak in all of Western Europe.

When one is on the road for an extended period, he or she looks for different things in a city or locale. Geneva was the right place at the right time. In another life, I would have insisted on a view of the lake and accessibility to shops.

The things that makes me grateful, as I sit and type on my tiny desk at the Edelweiss Hotel— three blocks from the lake and a mile from any boutiques of note— is that within a one-block area there is a seamstress, and laundry, and an auto-repair garage. Heaven.

A family of four can go through a major amount of laundry in a 10-day period. Many towns and cities don’t have laundromats as we know them. Hotel prices for cleaning are prohibitive, so budget-minded travelers must find an alternative. That is never easy. In Ostuni, a remote Italian village of 30,000 mostly non-English speaking people, I lost my wife for several hours while on my way back to pick her up at the only laundromat in town. In Madrid, with no laundromats available, we had to go to the food market to find a lady who could launder clothes. She was located behind a fresh-produce booth (which had excellent Clementine oranges, by the way).

Here in Geneva, a half block from the hotel, we found a laundry. It’s just across the street from the seamstress who is hemming my son’s jeans, and two doors down from the auto garage where our car is finally getting a long overdue service.

I am 6,000 miles past due for an oil change. It’s not because I have been an irresponsible automobile owner, it’s that there are no garages near hotels in European city centers. I found a place in Segovia, Spain several weeks ago, but the language barrier challenge arose, and— after a 10-minute game of charades, and a lengthy conversation with the man’s wife over the telephone— we had to get back on the road.

Charades comes in very handy over here. For the most part, we have been able to get anything we need by acting things out. If my son doesn’t want onions in a dish at a restaurant, and I don’t know the German word for “onion,” my wife just acts out chopping with a knife, and shows tears streaming down her face. Nailed it.

Language has only been a slight problem. I have found that, as long as one smiles and is polite and respectful, one can communicate. Despite warnings to the contrary, almost everyone we have encountered has been friendly and accommodating. No matter the nationality, they want to help.

The problem these days is I am getting my pleasantries mixed up. I say “Ciao” when I should say “bonjour.” I “si” when I should “oui,” or say “grazi” when I should be saying “merci.” I find myself speaking some bastardized version of Italian-Spanish-French mixed with English and a little charade-laden Pig Latin thrown in for good measure.

Yesterday we fell in love with Megeve, a remote village in the French Alps. We will return. Last night we ate fondue. Today we drive to Paris and regretfully leave the Alps in our rear view.


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