A Strange Conversation in Switzerland with an Ecuadorian Bartender

Why is it that when we’re on vacation adventure knocks at the door? I was thinking about the last few months here in Lausanne and the fact that I didn’t have adventures to share. On the other hand, during the week I spent in Paris something memorable seemed to happen to me every day. You might think this is a characteristic of Paris. But I think it is in the nature of the traveler. This reflection led me to try to rediscover my beloved Lausanne.

I wonder if one should move every time a couple of months go by without adventures. Although, why do we want adventures when there are molecular biology and beautiful mountains here? Maybe this is what happiness is supposed to look like—a rather “adventureless” experience. How can one tell? In any case, I was set to have new adventures in Lausanne, but the adventure I’m going to tell you about wasn’t really an adventure.

cars rainy city street

Buena Vista Images courtesy Getty Images

I went to a town nearby and spent all day hiking and tasting wines. Wines in Switzerland—let’s just say they’re not my favorite. But the trails are so beautiful that I can forget about my feelings for the wine. Then I went home. Downstairs from my apartment is a bar owned and tended by an Ecuadorian man around 55 years old. I’d had beer and coffee at his place several times before, but I was always with company and had never said more than a couple of words to him.

That night, the Internet service at my apartment was not working so I went downstairs to the bar. My conversation with the bartender was strange—so strange that it’s what this post is really about. The entire time we talked, he spoke to me in French, and I spoke to him in Spanish. I think the bartender was under the assumption that I was talking to him in Spanish because I didn’t think he could speak French. However, the reason I was speaking to him in Spanish was, well, because I was really tired after the day of walking. His native language was Spanish, so I can only guess that he continued to speak to me in French because he was trying to prove that he could.

Here, for easy reading, is our dialogue translated into English. It loses a lot from the original Spanish-French conversation, so I’ll leave the missing pieces to your imagination.

“This is a good coffee,” I said in Spanish.

“What?” the bartender asked in French.

“I said this is a good coffee.”

“Oh, yes, good coffee.”

“Do you speak Spanish?” I asked in Spanish.

“Yes I do,” he replied in French.

“Where are you from?”

“Ecuador,” he answered in French.

“I am from Colombia,” I told him in Spanish, certain he would now realize we could speak our native language together.

A short silence went by. The bartender kept speaking to me in broken French. I kept talking to him in Spanish.

“Yes, there is good coffee in Colombia,” he said. “Why are you drinking this coffee then?”

“I’m sorry.”

He stopped and went to the back of the bar for, like, five seconds, and then continued, in French, “I was just watching a movie but my English is not so good and it doesn’t have subtitles.”

“What movie is it?” I asked in Spanish.

“Maybe you can translate it for me,” he said in French. Do you want to watch it?”

I stared at him thinking about his request, wondering if there was something wrong with him. I was definitely not going to sit and translate a two-hour film for this guy. What surprised me is that I was afraid of him. I felt like saying “no,” but it was like challenging the Godfather.

In Spanish, I replied, “I’m sorry but I have to finish some work for tomorrow.”

“It is a good movie, although the images are very strange,” he said in French. A weird silence ensued. He stared very seriously into my eyes.

“I really can’t. I’m sorry.”

I finished my drink, and put my laptop in my backpack. I placed five Swiss francs on the bar. This was a huge tip for a coffee but I wanted to get out fast.

His French broke the silence. “You know, I never noticed before, but this movie made me think about it: if you stare at a car headlight during a rainy night from the inside of a car that is approaching the headlight in a non-straight path . . . . It is like watching the ultrasound of an unborn child.”

I might be getting the last line a bit wrong; it was rather baroque. My memory fails me, but that was certainly the idea. I keep wondering what movie he was watching. I’m so curious I might go back and translate it for him this week.

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