Directions to my New Home

I (used to) have a very good sense of direction. No matter if it was finding my family’s car in the multi-story parking structure, or the way out of the woods in national parks, I knew exactly where to go after only walking through once. 

Well, not so much during my first week in Europe. I delusionally trusted my sense of direction to find my hotel, which is near the Zürich Hauptbahnhof (main station), until I was standing in one of Europe’s busiest railway centers with dozens of exists. 

Bahnhofstraße…should be the right one. At least it shows it is still somewhere close. I ended up dragging my two suitcases through all the priciest luxury stores, just not my hotel. 

“Entschuldigung.” I stopped the first passer-by, “Wo ist die Direktion nach…” As part of my major, I have learned German for three years. Therefore, I should try to speak more German and less English from the first moment in Zürich. 

However, when he spoke up, I felt like I have never learned the language before.

I have heard about the difference between Swiss German and standard German. While the written forms of the languages are almost identical, even native Germans have a hard time understanding the conversations of their Swiss neighbors. If “Grüezi” May still remind you of “Guten Tag”, then what about “Merci vielmal” and “Vielen Dank”? Not to mention that Swiss German actually varies from canton to canton, with suburban dialects even more remote from Zürich German. 

Yet there should be another category: standard German in Swiss accent, which is spoken in public broadcasts, or by Swiss people if they are asked questions in standard German. It took me a long while to realize I exited from the opposite side of the Hauptbahnhof. I had to repeat his words in very slow, simply German and asked if it was the right direction. 

Yet I still got lost after his “Ja.”  And when I asked other Swiss people in the same way, they just responded in English. 

On later part of my journey in Switzerland, a ticket officer even told me “it may be easier to speak English because others are waiting behind you” when I was trying to explain that “ich habe nur Kreditkarte, wo kann ich Swiss Franc in Cash welchsen.”

It threw me back to 3 years ago when I landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport from Beijing for the very first time and struggled to even answer the simplest question from US immigration officer. After cross-conteniental travel your brain was spinning even worse when you trying to squeeze out the very limited vocabulary you have. Yet it is even harder to avoid speaking English than not using Chinese. 

Still, English is widely spoken anywhere in Zürich, but not so much in a small town as Reutlingen. Yet things did not get too much easier under standard German. 

I arrived at Reutlingen Hauptbahnhof in a Sunday afternoon, a time almost impossible to find any open stores. Doubting which bus to take, I missed the upcoming one towards my new home. Unlike in Zürich, where 15 trams running around the city every 10 minutes in addition to S Bahns, missing a bus in Reutlingen on Sundays means waiting for the next half hour. 

Until I realized that I had no change for bus ticket at all. 

Bus station near Reutlingen Hauptbahnhof on a Sunday afternoon


“Aber ich habe…nur… 200…Euro, wo kann ich.” Seeing the next bus arriving, I had no choice but turning to local lady approaching the bus stop, stammering, a little bit too panic to remember the last phrase of “money exchange, split up.”

“I will buy it (the bus ticket) for you.” She gave me coins of 2.5 Euro and sent me on the bus. Yet I couldn’t express how grateful I was for this simple act of kindness, other than the simplest phrase of “Vielen Danke.”

The bus drove away from the city center, and I quickly found myself surrounded by hilly motorways, a few scattered villas and endless woods. Although being trapped by language barriers, my instinct of direction remained: It did not seem right to me. 

In fact, even the same bus line here could stop at different places. And the one I took was indeed taking a detour. Even safety is not a big concern in southern German towns, getting lost in the middle of nowhere is still the last thing you want to happen. 

Yet I was sitting still, as an old lady with her grandchild told me to do so. 10 stops had already passed but I still had no clue where I was. Maybe I misinterpreted the bus sign? 

Until the old lady approached me: “Get off at the next stop and follow us. We are close to the place you are looking for but the area is not very pedestrian-friendly.” 

Should I trust her? Well, at least it seemed to be a better bet than the bus. Having carried all my belongings up and down stairs and across train platforms for the entire day, the pedestrian bridge standing in front seemed to be final yet the largest hurdle to go—not too much easier for the old lady as well. Yet she was introducing the surroundings to me, including a supermarket, hotel and the place she used to work; and asked if I need any help with the suitcases. 

Her grandchild was muttering in German, asking how far is home. “But firstly we need to send her home,” hi grandma said, and waited downstairs until my landlord got my door. 

And yes, the kindness of locals is your direction to new home. 

Yuwei Liu is senior majoring in International Business with and emphasis in German and Western Europe participating in the IB exchange program in Reutlingen University  Baden-Württemberg, Germany for the fall semester. 

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