A foreigner’s impression of London, Paris and Switzerland
United Kingdom, France and Switzerland. Three countries beautiful in their own way. Yet there was something not quite beautiful in Switzerland, not behind the scenes.
London: I loved this city. It’s busy and bustling, and wherever we went we found the people helpful and friendly. I loved the beautiful parks of London. How lucky Londoners are to have so much open space, that too in a crowded metro! Walking through Hyde park is a treat, and once, when we got out of the subway station, we stumbled upon a small park where people were taking a break from lunch. I loved the atmosphere there. The privacy one had despite the crowd.
In London we went on a bus tour, chatted with random people like restaurant owners, cab drivers, sales people, met up with friends, took umpteen photographs and well, simply drank in London. We travelled by bus and the subway quite a bit and everywhere we went we encountered nice people. It wasn’t just the shopkeepers who were friendly, the general public was too. Whether it was the woman behind the ticket counter or a fellow traveler on the subway. I don’t know where I had absorbed the stereotype of the British being reserved and stand-offish. We didn’t experience that at all. Everyone was quite normal!
London is a great place for shopping, whether it’s for clothes or souvenirs. There is a lot of variety and I picked up some good bargains. Oxford Street is the place to shop, and eat out too. Cheap street food is freely available in London. For example, outside Madame Tussauds we got a sumptuous burger for 3 pounds. At a small eatery on Oxford street we found an all-you-can eat Vegan Buffet at 6 pounds. Eating at small places near subway stations is cheap too. You can pick up fairly inexpensive sandwiches at supermarkets
Buying a Travel Card as we did (I think it was for 5 or 6 pounds) entitled us to board any bus or underground train in London for the day. This is a must.
The city of Paris has beautiful buildings and a lot of parks, but we didn’t really have much time to roam around there. The bus tour that we took (Open Bus Tour) was not as good as the bus tour in London (Original Bus Tour). The commentary was not comprehensive, nor clear, and worse, the buses were never on time. In between the commentary there was some pretty bad music that they played. However every bit of Paris is beautiful, the river Seine, the cobbled streets, the cafes, the bridges and ofcourse the people. Even more beautiful that I imagined it all would be. As for the Louvre, I can spend days there. For me the museum experience was thrilling.
In the limited time that we had, we noticed that Paris was not as clean and as organised as London. Certain street corners stank of urine and I actually saw a man peeing on the roadside, near a parked van! At night near our hotel there were drunk people shouting and singing but it was only for a few minutes and well, it was Saturday night.
I was anticipating some difficulty in communicating with people (again a false stereotype) but this wasn’t a problem. The city is geared for tourists, and language was never a problem. True, we couldn’t have long chats with people, but people understood what we were saying. The sales people at the shops did their best to sell us their wares, and at cafes we found the service friendly, efficient and polite.
The photograph on the right is is not photoshopped and nor have the colours been adjusted in any way. It was taken directly against the noonday sun and I thought the result would be terrible. But it came out with a kind of starry halo around the Eiffel Tower and I thought it kind of cute. The view from the Eiffel Tower is great!
And what about Parisians themselves? I thought they were a cultured (although reserved) and graceful people. No one was unfriendly, although they cannot be categorized as friendly either. In fact once at a cafe where all tables are close together I managed to carry on a conversation in broken English with a woman barely a foot away. We talked about French food.
I was surprised to see how much people smoked in this city. Men and women. The women were thin and smart, and it was a treat to look at their clothes!
The picture below is of a woman who was skating faster than our bus. It was fascinating to see her ride skilfully pushing a baby on a pram, a baby with a helmet! Never seen such a sight before and I only managed to catch her photo when she stopped to talk to somebody.
If you want to see a video of a busy Paris Square with some rush hour traffic click here. I took this at Opera Square.
We found Paris more expensive than London. However one can pick up souvenirs like key chains, fridge magnets, mementos and T-shirts very cheaply. For example I got a bundle of 12 key chains for 10 Euros and a pretty Paris T-shirt for 6. The city seems geared for tourists. There are a lot of hawkers near the popular monuments as well. Everyone tries to sell you something.
A wide variety of the most delicious food awaits you here and you can get a decent two course meal for around 15 Euros at some small cafes, often with a glass of wine thrown in. Service is excellent at the cafes, however small they may be and however crowded they are. Buying food and drink at supermarkets is a good idea though, to save on money. Skipping lunch is what people do too.
Tourists need to be warned that cashing of travellers cheques can be a problem in Paris. Thomas Cook took 12% commission from us to cash them! It was a Sunday and most of the smaller shops were closed. Even the smaller shops take as much as 3-6% commission, depending on whom you approach. Or maybe we went to all the wrong places! One spends money to make out the travellers cheques and if one has to 5% or more to encash them, one feels cheated!
This is the most efficient place on earth I think. Everything is so organised! And spanking clean. The areas we went to, German was the language spoken, and few people seemed to want to speak even broken English. One mustn’t forget the great natural beauty and one must admire the way the Swiss have maintained it all. But well, organisation and perfection is not everything.
We had an underlying feeling of discomfort while in Switzerland, and this feeling never really went away all the while we were there. We stayed the longest here, as we love nature, and visited three cities and two tourist spots (Jungfrau and Titlis)
Unsmiling (at times grim) shopkeepers and people were a common feature.
Some strange experiences:
Once at Lucerne, I was staring at a Chinese tourist feeding the swans when an impeccably dressed man came up to me and shook his fist at me, gave me a dirty look and muttered something under his breath. He looked with rage at the Chinese tourist too, and perhaps he thought I was with the Chinese group as I was standing close to them. But hey, all he had to do was go up and request the Chinese woman not to feed the swans! Instead, he was horribly rude!
On a train from Paris to Interlaken there was a huge group of tourists from Japan on the same coach. A Swiss couple in front of us was openly making fun of them. Mimicking them even though they could be seen! How rude! Their children were with them too, and I wondered: Is this what they are teaching their children? I mean, I find the Japanese one of the most polite people on earth and I could see no reason for the Swiss family to behave that way.
At an eatery at Lucerne station, I asked a woman behind the counter (and no the eatery was not crowded at all) about a particular item of food (written in German) and to my surprise she rolled her eyes heavenwards, threw up her hands, and made an irritated and annoyed face! I have never in my life come across such rudeness. Never have I in my entire life come across a worker in a restaurant treating a complete stranger this way.
Often when we asked for directions, we got a stony looks or shaking of the heads. Even if they didn’t understand English, they could have looked at the map we were pointing at and at least tried to help. They didn’t. This happened several times.
If we entered a shop or the restaurant of a hotel we stayed at, the workers never really bothered to greet us, answer our queries properly or help us out. I found this extremely strange. I mean, didn’t the shop owners and hoteliers want business? Even if I picked up an item and showed an interest in it, the shopkeeper would be indifferent! However they were busy saying “Guten Morgan” to whichever local person who entered. Did they not know the simple words “Good Morning?” Is there any harm is saying them to your customers who are foreigners? Well, after I realised that we were not being greeted like other customers, I made it a point to say “Guten Morgan” to any worker in a shop, and if the workers were greeted first, they would acknowledge and nod and at times smile a little in a confused manner. But thats it.
At Titlis, which was crowded with tourists, we were at a shop selling key-chains when an elderly tourist (happened to be Indian) came up to the woman at the counter and asked, “I see a restaurant here but there are no seats. Is there another restaurant here where we can sit and eat?” She looked tired and I looked at the Swiss worker (woman) behind the counter expectantly. To my surprise instead of answering the woman she turned to her colleague and said something in German and both of them started laughing!! How rude! I was shocked, and quickly explained to the tourist lady that not to worry there was such a restaurant on the next floor. The lady nodded at me gratefully.
At Zurich bus station when I wanted change to enter a pay toilet (a series of two pay kiosks) where one had to insert a 1 Fr coin to get the door to open, I asked two random local Swiss people for change. They turned away from me even though I had been most polite and had greeted them. Then I asked a shopkeeper nearby and he said I would have to buy something from him if I wanted to change my 2Fr to two 1 Fr coins! I refused his offer, and was wondering what to do, when one of the pay toilet kiosks opened and an American stepped out. And lo behold, he held the door open for me with all his strength! “Quick!” he whispered, “get in before it closes!” I rushed in but unfortunately the Swiss make their pay toilet booths really well, and quite fool-proof, like they make everything else! The door refused to close as if it knew that it was being cheated! Both this American guy and me struggled for a while and then gave up.
Then I went to the other kiosk (I had the change by then, given to me by another tourist) but I wasn’t sure where exactly to insert the coin. The American guy waited with me, showed me how to do it and then waved a goodbye! It was so nice to come across such helpfulness in a strange city so far away from home! Luckily I managed to use the toilet before the bus took off!
Overall I came away from Switzerland with a negative impression. I felt it wasn’t tourist friendly. And it was not all that it was hyped up to be. At the hotel we stayed at in Zurich, a fairly decent hotel on many counts, (X-tra), there was loud music that could be heard throughout the night, from their own nightclub. Why had I this impression that the Swiss were particular about noise? Another false stereotype? The next morning we checked the room documents which said that earplugs were available for free!! Sure, this was a one-off experience, but still I was a little taken aback at this incident. It was our last night abroad, and we were awake most of the night. If anyone ever uses this hotel, be prepared for this experience. In every other way the hotel is nice. Good location, comfortable rooms and yes, smiling people!! In fact that was a pleasant surprise for us!
When I returned to India I narrated my experiences in Switzerland to my neighbour. She said they travelled all over Europe and it was Switzerland that they had hated. Yes, she used word “hated”. When I told her about the incident in the train, she said they faced something worse. A Swiss family sitting directly across them in a train was making fun of them openly! How rude is that!!
One thing my experience in Switzerland taught me. That anyone who says that we Indians are rude don’t know what they are talking about. Talking loudly, not saying thanks, or belching may be considered rude by foreigners, but this is not rude by our Indian standards. At the same time there is something called universal rudeness and what I experienced in Switzerland falls in that category. You don’t make fun of people in front of them. You don’t make faces at them. And when people talk to you, ask you something, you need to give them a few seconds of your time!
Switzerland is very expensive and even souvenirs like key chains and fridge magnets burn a hole in one’s pocket, at least for those of us from developing countries. I mean, paying 12 Swiss Francs for a simple key chain? Or 22 Swiss Francs for a T-shirt with the Swiss flag on it? In some places you might get things a few francs cheaper but nothing really cheap. Even though most shops were deserted I hardly saw any attempts to reduce prices. Even eating here is expensive. An inexpensive place which offers a snacky meal can put you back by about 15-20 Swiss francs. Just french fries can cost at much as 12 francs. Eating at the mall at the stations is the cheapest. And it’s best to get a hotel which is centrally located otherwise the cabs will set you back by a good amount. We usually walked everywhere or took the metro or bus. Yes, even from the railway station to our hotel.
Be sure to scour supermarkets for bargains on food and drink. I bought some inexpensive chocolates here. No big brands, but well, they are excellent chocolates.
By the way, tipping is not the norm in Switzerland, like it is in the US or the UK. We didn’t know this before we went.
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