My run-in with the Swiss Gendarme

Last weekend we went on a road trip to visit my cousin and her family who live near Geneva. It’s a little over a 3 hour drive from here “Just the same as from Canberra to Sydney,” I reassured myself.

But the journey did not begin well. After picking up Silas from school, I went to tap the address into the GPS: “aucune adresse trouvée” replied Henriette. Hmmm, I tried several different approaches. Nothing. She refused to recognise the street name. The best we could do was the suburb. So, conscious of the passing time and the plan to arrive for dinner, I decided to get going in the hope that the closer we came to our destination, the more accurate Henriette would become.

Delphine slept at the beginning but at about 1 hour in, the screaming began. I don’t need to go into the causes. Suffice to say it was with frayed nerves that we rolled into the rest station for a toilet stop and another go at finding my cousin’s address in the GPS. Again, nothing. So I tried to call my cousin. The phone system didn’t recognise the number. I tried to text. My darn phone would only send as an iMessage and I didn’t have wi-fi. We trooped into the rest station in the hunt for a public phone. Nothing. The wi-fi promised by the rest stop came up on my phone as “internet not available.” At least the toilets were open.

With rising desperation, I approached the kind-looking lady behind the boulangerie counter. “Is there a public phone around here?” I asked in French “No. Not any more,” she replied. I explained my dilemma. She looked at my two little children and the worn expression on my face. “You can use ours,” she offered. I accepted with deep gratitude, the call went through and I wrote down a bunch of hand-written directions.

Feeling on slightly firmer ground, we marched back to the car and were just buckling on our belts when they appeared. Two blue-uniformed Swiss gendarmes.

“Bonjour. Where are you from?”

Somewhat surprised and a little nervous I explained my complicated origins: from Australia but living in France for a couple of months and now in Switzerland for the weekend to visit my cousin in Geneva.

“Do you realise you have been using the Swiss autoroutes?”

Flash of memory: two and a half years ago, transiting through Switzerland to France, we had had to buy a yearly pass to be able to travel the Swiss autoroutes.

I felt a tide of emotion rise up and over me. I didn’t even try to stop the tear that welled in my eye and started to run down my face.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I stammered “I like to be a law-abiding person, and I’ve just realised what I’ve done.”

I had completely forgotten that in Switzerland you have to buy an annual autoroute pass before travelling on the country’s freeways. Even if just for a couple of days.

“In France you pay as you go.” I explained. “But of course I know that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.”

“And now, I’m sorry for being so emotional” I was starting to lose it a bit by now “But this has been such a tough trip: my daughter’s been screaming for half an hour, we can’t find my cousin’s address in this stupid GPS and my mobile just won’t work here.”

His facial expression started to soften as he watched this woman – probably almost twice his age – fall apart in front of him.

“OK. I can see it was an honest mistake. So I won’t charge you the 200 Swiss franc fine. But you do need to buy a pass just inside the rest stop here. We’ll go help you do that and then we’ll see what we can do about that GPS.”

Back in we went: me, my two children and our Swiss gendarme guard. Under their watchful, but kindly eye, I duly bought my autoroute pass. We returned to the car, where he affixed it in the centre of the windscreen and then sat down in the passenger seat to poke around at the GPS with me. His partner started trying to find the address on her phone. No luck there either. It’s when I spied the street name finally pop up on his phone that I saw the problem. There was a preposition “du” in the version we had but not in the google map street name. Once I tapped in the name without this errant “du,” Henriette became compliant.

It had taken one Australian and two Swiss Gendarmes to solve the problem. They sent us off with a friendly wave and good wishes for a pleasant stay in Switzerland.

From an encounter that had begun with official displeasure at presumed free-riding, we had ended as a convivial band of problem solvers with the joint mission of getting this waylaid family of Australians back on route.

Contrition on my part: comprehension and compassion on theirs. If only all tangles could be resolved so satisfyingly.

Finally in Switzerland, we did indeed enjoy a pleasant stay.

Finally in Switzerland, we did indeed enjoy a pleasant stay.