Traveling overseas is intimidating. And I say this as someone whose last several international destinations have included Ghana, India, and South Africa.
I hadn’t ventured abroad since early 2010, for a fairly obvious and adorable reason. But my husband recently learned that he needed to spend nine days in Geneva for work. I didn’t like the idea of our being separated (with a toddler, four hands beat two), and Lila and I had no pressing engagements, so I suggested a family adventure.
I knew that we would see my husband only in the evenings, but the effort still seemed potentially worthwhile. Skype is fantastic for face-to-face conversations, but it’s lousy at hugs; that decided it.
When we adopted this plan, my husband was scheduled to leave a mere week later. So, I booked a seat on his flight stat. I didn’t consider that in Geneva, everything is in French. Signs and menus are often only in French. The city’s tram, its public transportation system, is run solely in French. And many shopkeepers speak little to no English. Did I mention that I took Latin in high school?
I know some incredibly basic French words and phrases from restaurants and childhood trips to Quebec. But that’s not enough to function fully day-to-day in a French speaking city.
Ordering lunch at two tea rooms was challenging, because neither shopkeeper spoke any English. At the first shop, I ordered by using my food dictionary and pantomime. At the second, I enlisted the help of a bilingual patron to inquire about vegetarian options and prices, since nothing in the case was labeled.
Our first trip to the supermarket was frustrating. Package labels required deciphering, and between unfamiliar terms and metric measurements for nutrition, I was largely lost. Products labeled jogurt and yogourt were comprehensible, which was a start. However, I gave up on the frozen food aisle after realizing that I couldn’t read cooking instructions. After seeing Ben and Jerry’s (familiar faces!) selling for $11, I gambled on generic chocolate glace. Luckily, the checkout clerk spoke enough English to help me muddle through buying bananas, which I was apparently supposed to weigh back in Produce.
Everywhere Lila and I went, people greeted us in French. I appreciated locals’ friendliness, but I was often stumped about how to respond to their questions and comments, since I hadn’t a clue what they were saying.
Lila, of course, wasn’t troubled by any of this. She’s used to hearing words she doesn’t know and not being understood by adults; after all, only she is fluent in Lilese. So, she was her usual self, constantly charming strangers.
On one tram ride, we found ourselves lined up beside another stroller; the little boy inside kept reaching for Lila’s hand. Sweetly, she let him hold her hand for a little bit. Like me, the boy’s mother saw this and asked about Lila in French. After I clearly didn’t understand, she repeated her question, listing what I recognized as numbers. Realizing she was asking Lila’s age, I answered “Un,” holding up one finger to signify Lila’s one year. Her son was about the same age.
On another tram ride, a woman blew kisses at Lila, calling her “tres jolie.” That I understood and replied, “Merci,” while Lila grinned and waved at her newest fan. The woman then asked me something, speaking quickly, and I presumably looked confused. “Nomme,” she said slowly. Realizing she wanted to know my baby’s name, I clearly pronounced, “Lila.” “Arab?” she asked. “No,” I said simply, not knowing how to explain in French that we’d actually chosen a Hebrew word to name our dark-haired beauty.
Even more amusing on that particular ride was watching Lila engage a trio of 20-something thugs I would never have made eye contact with, yet, Lila did quite boldly. She really is innocently and infinitely curious. The three of them grinned back at her, made silly noises, and called “au revoir” to her before departing.
Everywhere we wandered in Geneva, Lila made new friends. Every day, this writer managed to get around, often by asking, “Parlez vous Anglais?,” yet all my little world traveler needed was her smile and wave.