My overwhelming memory of my day out in Bregenz is how difficult it was to get there.

This is a Year Abroad story. I was a student living for a year in French-speaking west Switzerland and it finally occurred to me the month before I left that there wasn’t actually any reason why I needed to stay in Switzerland, at least for a day trip. I’d spent a lot of summer holidays camping in Austria and I thought I’d go to Austria for the day. Of course, living on the opposite side of Switzerland, that was quite a trek for a single day so I kept my ambitions small – just to Bregenz, on the south shore of the Bodensee, just over the border.

But I made a huge mess of it. I got as far as St Gallen without incident. My home city of Neuchâtel is connected to St Gallen by an hourly high-speed direct train which alternates between starting at Geneva and Lausanne. I went to St Gallen a few times because it’s a useful travel hub for eastern Switzerland so that was no problem.

Next I got myself a ticket to Rorschach in the south-west corner of the Bodensee. Having looked at the map, I apparently decided Rorschach was a promising place to get an international train ticket but the small local train didn’t go direct there. It stopped at four haystacks and then Rorschach Stadt. That wasn’t what I’d seen on my map but I thought it might be best to jump off there in case the next stop was beyond Rorschach. Surprise surprise, it wasn’t where I wanted to be. In fact, it was a single platform and a bench but it was a nice little town and it was sunny and there was a lake and a signpost for Rorschach Hauptbahnhof so I decided to walk.

Long before I found Rorschach HB I stumbled upon Rorschach Hafen. One train and 300 yards later I was at Rorschach HB. There were no international trains from here either so off I went to St Margrethen, a border town. Finally, there was a ticket machine where I could buy a ticket to Austria but I couldn’t work it – the card slot ignored my card and the cash slot only took Euros, which I didn’t have because I lived in Switzerland where they still use francs. I went to the ticket desk and bought a ticket from a real human being.

I had spent the last several months living in Switzerland learning to speak like a Swiss person so I tried using my Swiss language on this person rather than defaulting to English like a bad tourist. Unfortunately, French is not as widely spoken in Switzerland as English and my “parlez-vous francais?” got a “… un petit peu. Eeeengleeesh?” in response and I was then caught out as a native speaker when I handed over my card.

I encountered something on the platform at St Margrethen that I’d never seen before. There were border police waiting to get on the train and they were armed. I had never seen anything like it before. In 2017 it’s a bit different but back in 2006 in Europe we just didn’t have guns out and visible. And these were only small handguns – I was still a few years away from seeing police armed with rifles for the first time.

It turned out I’d really made things difficult for myself. This train was going from Zurich to Munich – I could have hopped on this train two or three or maybe even four hours ago and saved myself the walk around little Swiss lakeside border towns. This has only occurred to me as I write it – even at the time, I didn’t think of it.

It was rainy in Austria when I finally arrived, having spent three quarters of an hour on the platform at St Margrethen working out exactly how long I could have in Bregenz, it having taken much longer than expected to get there. I took out enough Euros for a couple of hours and went to buy three important things.

Number one was a bag of semmels. I don’t speak German and I think semmel just means “roll” but I was specifically after the variety split into five segments which Wikipedia tells me is probably called a kaisersemmel. I’d come equipped with a mini packet of butter and some marmite and a knife and I sat on a bench by the lake in the rain and had a little picnic.

Of course it’s not in focus!

Number two was some postcards. My room had two brick walls and I’d taken to decorating them with an elaborate collection of postcards from across Switzerland.

Number three was a packet of glacier sweets. They’re blue-green and transparent and look a bit like mints but they taste… I don’t know what they taste like. Sort of fruity, some of glacial. I’ve only ever found them in Austria and it was necessary to get some.

I wandered along the lakeside once I’d eaten my rolls, bought some panpipes at a market and then stumbled across something large and industrial. It surprised me because it was so big and ugly and obvious and as I walked, I managed to register the half-moon of theatre-style seats overlooking it without realising what was going on. I’d seen barrels leaking luminous green-yellow gloop into the lake, barrels floating away, the scene of the worst environmental disaster I’d ever seen and I was too horrified to make sense of it. Switzerland, dumping toxic waste in the lake? Switzerland?! 

Of course they weren’t. This is a floating stage, the centrepiece of the Bregenz Festival, an international music and theatre festival. This particular set was for Der Trubadour and that’s all it was. It was all made of plastic, it had all been carefully designed and built and it was very much non-toxic.

It was already time to head back to the station. I went the long way, via the park and the tennis courts and the woods and had just long enough to wait at the station to note the difference between the platform announcements in German and Swiss German. I knew that Swiss German was a very different dialect – well, a collection of multiple dialects – but it’s hard for me to compare when I don’t speak either flavour of German. However, I’d spent eight months listening to multi-lingual announcements in Switzerland and could hear that they used a different word for platform and used “achtung, achtung” to get passengers’ attention.

The way back was marginally quicker. The train did stop at every haystack on the way back to St Margrethen but then I took a direct train to St Gallen, cutting out Rorschach altogether.

For reasons that now escape me, I had two hours in St Gallen before getting a direct train back to Neuchâtel so I spent it visiting the cathedral. I have no idea why I didn’t spend those two hours in Bregenz. Maybe I decided there wasn’t much to do there but I don’t remember ever going anywhere during that year abroad and being bored enough to go home early. Anyway, even from St Gallen, the direct train took two and a half hours and it was gone half past nine at night before I made it home.