Sometimes (OK, lots of times) Baffled in Basel

I never know what I’m doing here, but one of the perks about plucking yourself out of your normal routine and plopping yourself down in unfamiliar territory, is that you can immediately feel OK about not knowing what you are doing. Living abroad can be confusing (and embarrassing), but it is also comforting to know that it’s not (all) just me being ridiculous. Sometimes I think I could write a book about how to embarrass yourself abroad, but then I realize that for me it would simply be one instruction: walk outside. Here are a few examples of me doing just that.

June 1-30 The days I tried to smile at people.

I used to live in Washington DC where I learned quickly that eye contact on the Metro is to be avoided and anyone talking to you is trying to sell you something. When I moved to Colorado after six years in DC, it took me almost four months to realize that the people saying hello on the walking paths were actually talking to me and not just recognizing someone behind me. When we arrived in Basel, I found it a bit difficult to again dial back on the ‘Colorado friendly.’ I was getting concerned expressions from folks I was absentmindedly smiling to on city streets and it took me quite a while to realize that not only was my interacting with everyone unwelcome, it was also exhausting. There are a lot more people here! Lucky for me my new resting facial expression is somewhere between “Where am I?” and “Am I about to be hit by a tram?” So most people leave me alone. I’m quickly adapting and saving all kinds of energy. It’s nice not to have to worry about smiling. No more inner quandaries of: Teeth? No teeth? Raised eyebrows only? Head nod? No head nod? Now I’ve spent too much time just staring at them while trying to decide and they’ve called the polizei.


This is the cute version of what my face looks like trying to figure out how to interact with strangers on the city streets of Basel.

July 11. The day I thought I knew how to get to work.

Our first few months in Switzerland we invested in a (GA) pass that allowed us to go on any public transit (bus, tram, train, boat, gondola, llama, etc.) without having to buy an additional ticket. This was extremely helpful when traveling around Switzerland, but also just getting myself to work and around Basel. A few days a week I make the short trek from our home in Grossbasel (the larger side), across the Rhine to my office in Kleinbasel (the smaller side). When we first arrived, I mapped it out with Google Maps, then I confirmed the route with the Swiss Railway (SBB) app, and finally I even made my family try out the trip on a rainy Sunday before my first day at work. I had done my due diligence and I would arrive at work on time. And I did — for a month. The next month, I’m riding on Tram Line 6 toward Riehen Grenze all normal like. I’m trying to review my work contract on the tram, but it’s a bit louder than normal with the driver talking on the intercom for what seems like forever. There is a line in my contract that says something like, “associates must know what they are doing at all times.” I wonder if this is normal text for someone who works in a lab or if they’ve heard about me personally, when I look up to see the tram go right up to the river and, instead of crossing it, take a hard left and start heading distinctly away from work. It keeps going, very quickly now, in what I can only describe as an ‘away’ direction. I’m immediately not sure where I am in the city, why this tram has decided not to go to work today, or how to get myself to work, but I am now pretty certain why the tram driver was talking so much and perhaps I should have been translating it! Turns out that route will be closed all summer for construction and I’ll have to find a bus. If you can’t find your way to work does that nullify your contract where you promise to always know what you are doing? Maybe it would be easier just to bike?

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I thought I was hapless on the tram, until I spotted this obvious American wearing white socks with his crocs, swimsuit and sack lunch. Although he does have a certain familiar sweetness to his innocence…

October 10: The day I tried to bike to work.

Everyone here has been telling me how easy it is to bike everywhere in Basel, and since we let our train passes run out in September, I decided I would try to bike the two city miles to work through trams, traffic and over bridges. The way there was terrifying. One major mistake I made was trying to bike on the main road suggested by Google Maps, rather than on a parallel side road. The street was the same one the giant green double-length buses drive on, as well as the tram, with its perfectly bike-tire-sized tracks for me to fall into, and then every 50 feet or so there is a sudden drop off into a pit where they are repairing underground pipes. While trying very carefully to not die while still making forward movement, I saw a dad with his small son biking on a smooth and clear sidewalk. In a moment of good judgement, I decided that as an adult I couldn’t get away with riding on the sidewalk…but then again…well, maybe I could just ride behind the dad and son duo? If I was close enough I might be able to pass myself off as the mom of the group to anyone judging nearby, and if I wasn’t too close perhaps the pair wouldn’t notice me following and think I was a total creep? This worked for two blissful blocks before they turned left and stopped at the kindergarten, while I was forced to return to the street and the certainty of death.

I corrected my rookie mistake on the way back and found a better side-road path. This plan was going quite a bit better until half way up a hill sandwiched between a transport truck and a construction site my bike suddenly broke and I found myself peddling like a hamster on cocaine while my bike slowly started to glide backward into oncoming traffic. I’m not sure what one is supposed to do in that situation. What you are not supposed to do is to simply let your bike roll backward down the hill into oncoming traffic. Or scream, you’re probably not supposed to scream either.


Exactly the type of confident cyclist I dreamt of becoming

November 17: The day I thought I owned a jet.

I was flying on my own for a work trip from Basel to Vienna. This was my second time at the Basel-Mulhouse Airport, and it seemed pretty straight forward. I quickly found a large-ish sign that said “Check in here” in both French and German. I wanted to check in, so in line I waited. The line did not move.  In fact the very small group of people standing in front of the counter were talking to one another rather than to a ticket agent, and that really should have tipped me off. I waited another five minutes, for some movement in the line so I could at least ask the ticket agent if I was in the right spot. I’m still not sure what took them so long (perhaps my suit made it look like I knew what I was doing?), but soon one of the passengers let me know in French, and then also again louder in English for extra embarrassment, that this was a private jet, and that I was clearly not part of their group.

October 3. The day I thought I could drive.

My parents like to travel and even though October is a bit hit-or-miss weather wise (it rained almost the entire time), the girls were out of school for a few weeks and we thought we could take a roadtrip. They rented a very nice car that could fit all six of us in Zurich, where I met them at the airport and offered to drive to Basel, since I “knew the city a bit.” Turns out, I did not. Traffic was light in the city, which was a problem. Without following another car in front of me, I had very few clues to go on as to what was a legal road, what was a bus/tram only lane, or which streets were one way the other way. The hardest part was finding how to get to the valet in front of the fancy hotel where my parents were staying near the river. There was only one street and it seemed to be entirely for buses and trams, yet I could see cars parked in front and they must have gotten there somehow. As I tried to circle in on the valet, more than one pedestrian politely stopped us and let me know that I was in fact not in a legal lane and under no circumstances should I turn left onto yet another non-legal lane as my blinker was then indicating I might want to do. A third pedestrian helped hold traffic while I backed up into what seemed like the only legal lane left in the city. They were all very nice, and they all thought I was crazy. Finally I just quickly pulled into the driveway of the hotel and asked the friendly valet if I had done it right.

He said, “No, that was an illegal turn.”

“How was I supposed to do it?”

“You are supposed to go around and turn in from the other direction.”

“But I tried that,” I said, “There is a sign back there that says no entry.”

He then smiled, “Yes, you are supposed to ignore that sign.”

So maybe I’m not totally crazy. While I take responsibility for almost all of my ineptitude abroad, clearly, Switzerland, that last one’s on you.

[Editor’s (Barry) note: it is hard not to notice that all of these unfortunate experiences happened when Jana was not in the company of her husband. Not judging, just saying…  Oh, and Crocs with socks is very German and stylish!]


Perhaps I should have noticed the car wasn’t street legal either…

8 thoughts on “Sometimes (OK, lots of times) Baffled in Basel

  1. I find the driving part easy: think about what you would do in North America, and the opposite is the right choice. For example, no right turns on red lights. And in Sulzburg on the main street you never have the right of way, you have to stop for people on the side streets. Unless you are the city bus – then you are big enough to make your own rules.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Basel is terrific, glad you got a chance to visit. It’s has so much to offer like a big city, but with the walkability and feel of a smaller town. And Ulm looks beautiful! Glad you are enjoying the blog and I hope your time in Ulm is going well. We felt like we were just starting to get the hang of things around the 5 month mark, but then at the 11 month mark we realized we had been deluding ourselves and only just then had started to get the hang of things 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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