Tales from abroad: Switzerland
It was the end of summer, and before I knew it I was no longer on the streets of Manhattan. A bus ride, an eight-hour flight, and a train ride later, instead of tall skyscrapers and bustling tourists I found myself surrounded by tall mountains, green open fields, a huge lake, and even some stray cows. I was in Switzerland. After a 45-minute train ride from Geneva, I reached my final destination, Lausanne — the second largest city on Lake Geneva in the French-speaking region of Switzerland. It was a Sunday afternoon and everything was closed: shops, restaurants, and grocery stores. The pristine and tranquil surroundings felt eerie after having left New York City the previous day. Moreover, how could there not be a restaurant open to find lunch?
After getting settled into my new apartment and meeting my suitemates — exchange students from London, Japan, and Tunisia — I prepared for the next day, which was the first day of language classes. Before I knew it, I was meeting ERASMUS (European exchange) students from Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, the UK, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. So many more new languages to learn!
Many students say “I really want to study abroad, but I can’t get credit for the classes I need and I won’t graduate on time!” It wasn’t easy, but as a junior in electrical and computer engineering, I knew I wanted to study abroad and at the same time not fall behind academically. I was in Switzerland during Fall 2009 at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and I still managed to get credit for my ECE classes (Semiconductors, Analog Circuits, Signals and Systems, and Electromechanics). The catch — my classes were all in French, and the last time I took a French class? Almost four years ago as a junior in high school.
Within the first week of the three-week summer language classes, I found myself hiking in the Swiss Alps. A Swiss friend from EPFL was so hospitable that he invited a group of us to go hiking. After a few water breaks, time snacking on Swiss chocolate, and a grueling three hours of walking uphill through the mountain, we finally reached the top and the view was worth it. There was a huge lake — Lake Louvie — surrounded by green fields, and the mountain peaks on the other side were covered with snow, even during the middle of summer. There was even a quintessential Swiss log cabin at the top that served fondue. We took a stroll around the entire lake and I could not believe the gorgeousness of it all. I was in the middle of the Swiss Alps — snow, lake, mountains — the works. The descent was much easier and took us less than two hours. There were also hydro-powered dams at the base of the mountain area, since there were many waterfalls and streams. You can literally just drink the water from the streams on the mountain since it was cleaner than the water in a bottle of Evian (which was ironically a city across the lake from Lausanne).
If hiking in Switzerland wasn’t cliché enough, our Swiss friend invited us to his house for some traditional Swiss fondue, which his mom arranged for us. His parents were extremely friendly and hospitable, although they didn’t really speak any English. Needless to say, dining table conversation was a challenge. I don’t think I have ever concentrated so much during dinner. The entire time, we were speaking in French. His parents even began discussing local politics... in French. I was in the middle of Switzerland, in a Swiss family’s house, eating fondue as they discussed politics in French. It was all too surreal. I was waiting for some French teacher to push the stop button and ask listening comprehension questions such as “What was the main topic of this conversation? What was the father’s opinion? What did the son tell the mother in response to the argument?” But it never came. This was real. Nevertheless, the cheese fondue was amazing. What a satisfying end to a beautiful hiking weekend abroad.