I try to never make assumptions when I’m travelling to new places. I like to do a lot of research so that I know what I’m getting into, but I don’t want to colour my experience by thinking I know what a place will be like.

But sometimes you just do and you get it wrong.

After I finished my master’s degree in Glasgow, I took advantage of my proximity to, well, to a lot of places, and I did as much travelling as I could afford. My BFF Mags, her boyfriend Tim and I went to Paris together, and then we split up and did some travel on our own before meeting up again in Lisbon, where I spent a good chunk of time with family.

When we split up, I went to Amsterdam and Geneva by myself.

Geneva, as I’m sure you know, is the home of the United Nations:

Cool! Photo Copyright Andrea Beça.
Cool! Photo Copyright Andrea Beça.

From what I read, a lot of people speak English in Geneva.

At least I think I read that. But maybe I just assumed.

Because from my experience, almost no one speaks English in Geneva.

I was basically lost from the time my plane landed. Having done enough solo travel, I found my way to the bus that supposedly went into town, but with absolutely no knowledge of the city or its layout, I had no idea when to get off the bus.

I tried to ask the bus driver. He just shook his head at me and pointed for me to sit down again.

Here’s the thing: I’m Canadian. I have a pretty extensive French vocabulary just from living in Canada ad absorbing words here and there, but I only took French in school until halfway through grade four when I switched schools, because my new school didn’t offer a second language at the time. I speak Portuguese and Spanish, and a little bit of Italian, so I understand a lot of French, but I can’t speak much back. And unfortunately, I definitely don’t know how to form questions in French. I know “ou est” means “where is” and that’s about that.

So I sat on the bus and wondered what the heck I was gonna do.

After a long, long time, I started to wonder if somehow we had driven all the way through Geneva and I was going to relive my wonderful (see: frustrating as hell) bus misadventure in Glasgow. So I panicked and I got off the bus.

Another assumption I made about Geneva is that because it’s in Switzerland, which is insanely expensive, it would be beautiful and impeccable and clean like Sweden, which is also insanely expensive.

Don’t get me wrong, Geneva has a lot of gorgeous areas within the city, like this one:

Adorable! Photo Copyright Andrea Beça.
Adorable! Photo Copyright Andrea Beça.

But it’s also an old European city, so it has a lot of areas that have that old, gritty European feel. Which I totally dig, but when I’m lost and worried, old and gritty also makes me nervous.

My nerves were calmed by the fact that Geneva’s crime rate is like, 0%. (No, really.)

I wandered around, looking for someone to ask for directions. No one I encountered spoke even a word of English, and my poor French was getting me nowhere.

(In all fairness, if someone said, “Ou est….this!” and pointed to a random address on a piece of paper, I would feel inclined to ignore them, too. I probably wouldn’t, but I’d want to.)

Finally, I met a lady who said “non” to English, but in French asked me if I spoke any other languages. “Italiano?” She asked, perhaps seeing something in my features that looked Mediterranean.

“YES!” I shouted back in English. (Oops.)

On that trip, I got more assistance in Italian and Portuguese (thank goodness for Brazilians, who seem to be all over the world!) than I did in English or French.

Lessons learned:

(A) Never assume the UN = English speakers.

(B) I really should work on my French skills.

(C) Geneva is COLD in October. Like, COLD COLD.*


*Random, but important!