Coming Into Lugano 

A multilingual world of weirdness converges in a rainy Swiss town.

One of the beautiful things about traveling is that every day brings something new. Sometimes that's a good thing, like when you come to a lovely place. Sometimes it's a bad thing, like when your luggage vanishes. But sometimes it's just weird. And, really, how often is life at home just plain weird?

Years ago I went to a town in Switzerland called Lugano. I don't remember why, exactly, except that I was traveling with a woman I had met, and somewhere in Austria I had detected a certain chemistry between us. One international border isn't much to cross in pursuit of such things. But that chemistry had started to fade by the time we reached Lugano, so when we came into town, hardly speaking, late at night during a rainstorm, it seemed appropriately melodramatic.

Lugano is a beautiful lakeside town in the southern part of Switzerland. The thing about Switzerland, though, is that in every part of it people speak a different language. In Lugano it's largely Italian. It takes a while to adjust to Swiss people speaking Italian. To complete the picture, imagine a gorgeous lake surrounded by a town that looks like Italians built it and Swiss cleaned it up.

We got to this place on a rainy January night, with no place to stay and no idea where to go. We were also hungry and, like I said, not speaking. Our true love of three days had gone south. We were wandering, in every sense, when a man approached us and said, "Where are you go?"

It's not odd for Swiss people to be helpful; what was odd about this guy was that he looked Arab and spoke with a French accent. We said, "Hotel," and he said, "Okay, after me." Not in a position to be picky, we followed him into the rainy night.

Our guide, it turns out, was Lebanese, so he spoke Arabic and French -- Lebanon being a former French possession. I remembered just enough French from 10th grade to have a kiddie-level conversation with him. He led us through a maze of streets and buildings, stopping occasionally to, yes, ask directions. But everybody in the town spoke Italian, not French or English or Arabic, so we moved slowly. The rain came down harder.

Finally he stumbled into the hotel he had in mind. The lady there, of course, spoke German, but we managed to get checked into a room.

Next, our guide said he knew a good cheap restaurant where we could get fed for seven francs, which at the time was about four-and-a-half bucks. In Switzerland, for four-and-a-half bucks you can usually get a banana. So we followed the guy back through the streets and the buildings and the rain and the multilanguage confusion -- to a Burger King. What the hell, I thought, and plopped down what turned out to be seven bucks for a burger, pommes frites, and a petite Coke.

As we ate, the guy asked where I was from. Now, I was five months into an international journey at this point, and I was long since tired of telling people I was from Memphis and then putting up with the whole Elvis Thing. I already had, in my address book, a German guy who insisted on visiting me and going to Graceland, an Australian who dreamed of seeing Sun Studios, and two Japanese Willie Nelson fans who had gotten Memphis and Nashville mixed up. So I told our man in Lugano that I was from my college town, Dallas.

Well, this guy's eyes lit up like Bastille Day, and he said to me, "Dallas? Dallas? This is the home of the Von Ericks!" The Von Ericks, you must understand, were the royal family of Dallas' professional wrestling scene. I would have rather had this guy get out an Elvis scrapbook and ask me to sign it than what happened next. He started asking me, in loud kiddie-level French and sign language, whether I thought the Freebirds could be trusted, whether the Missing Link would actually come to the aid of the Von Ericks, and whether the two Von Erick brothers who had died (of overdose and suicide) were assassinated.

He went on to explain that in Lebanon, the pro wrestling shows from Dallas were the biggest thing on TV. My mind was reeling. He said he was trying to get a visa to come to America so he could go to Dallas and see wrestling in person. Not New York, not San Francisco, not the Rocky Mountains -- Dallas. A French-speaking Lebanese guy who had led us from our German- speaking hotel through the Italian-speaking streets of a Swiss town to a freaking Burger King wanted to go to Dallas and see professional wrestling.

It was so odd, so filled with weirdness, that I 'fessed up, if only to slow him down. "I'm actually from Memphis," I said. "Memphis," he repeated. He paused, looked at me blankly for a moment, said "Memphis" again, then smiled a little. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.

And then I knew that after everything else that had happened to us in Lugano, I was about to face the unavoidable, the inevitable, the Elvis Thing.

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