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DH and I were invited to a wedding in The Sultanate of Oman last January. I typed the draft about the henna night right after we came back to Malaysia but totally forgot about it until today.

The application of henna as a temporary decoration on the hands and feet of the bride is an important part of Indian, Malay and Arab weddings. According to Wikipedia, in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan, the groom is expected to have it done as well. In Malaysia, the most that Malay grooms ever have is on their fingertips. And not every groom does it.

For Malay brides, however, the tradition is so deeply ingrained, that no wedding seems complete without it, even if it’s not a compulsory thing to do. It’s also a definite must for Indian brides.

In Malaysia, henna can be applied at the fingertips only, but it can be as intricate as the photos in this site.

The henna night I attended in Oman was very unforgettable indeed, for good and bad reasons. Read on…

Held at the bride’s home, the all-ladies affair started around 6 pm. I felt so honoured to have been invited, as the henna party was limited to the immediate family and very close friends and relatives of the bride.

Two henna artists made magic with tiny cones of henna paste, expertly drawing intricate freehand designs on the guests’ fingers, hands, arms and feet, with the area of coverage depending on the guest’s personal preference.

The henna artist working her magic on one of the guests’ hands

The ladies sat and talked, sipping tea and exchanging gossip as they waited for their turn. Those who already had their turn sat with their arms outstretched, to avoid having their clothes stained by the henna. Even little girls as young as 3 or 4 years old patiently sat down to wait for the henna to dry. One lady took some food from her plate and fed her friend who was having her arms decorated up to the elbows. There was music, there was dancing. Omani ladies sure know how to party!

When my turn finally came, I excitedly put my hand on the special pillow and let the henna artist swirl the dark brown paste into tiny flowers, vines and leaves. The lines were very fine and no two designs were alike. I was so excited, I felt like a bride myself!

My hands, nails and fingers done, I sat down and started the long wait for the paste to turn into a pale green colour, signifying that it has already dried.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Omani henna artists now add a certain chemical to the henna paste to make the colour turn dark faster. Traditionally, henna would have to be left on overnight in order to achieve the desired dark red-brown colour. With the addition of certain chemicals, the same colour can be achieved in about an hour. The downside? Not all skin types take kindly to it, including mine. Especially mine!

My poor hands started to feel a hot stinging sensation underneath the cool smooth paste of swirly patterns on my hands. During the first 20 minutes, everyone said it was normal. But as time went on, the stinging became more intense and my skin started to turn scarlet. The other ladies who were present started crowding around me, murmuring intelligible Arabic phrases. All I understood was “ahmar“, which meant “red”, a most apt description of the colour of the skin on my hands.

One of the aunties gingerly touched the inflamed skin in between the half-damp, half-dried designs on my hands. She declared that some of the areas have already dried, and she slowly scraped off the hardened bits. I winced as her hands rubbed my skin, then felt immense relief as she gently dabbed some petroleum jelly on the raw areas. Someone else brought in a small ice pack from the kitchen, which they pressed gently on my burning skin.

It took quite a while for the stinging sensation to completely go away, with my skin feeling raw for the next few days, even after we already went back to Malaysia.

Ahh…the lengths women go through for the sake of beauty!

Feeling like a bride again with henna on my hands… Only the left hand is shown here, as my right hand was holding the camera.

Postscript:

If you are tempted to try this temporary form of tattoo, you can expect the henna to fade within a week or two, depending on the type of henna that you use and how long you let it stay on your skin after application. But if you apply henna on your nails, the colour will go right into the keratin and there is no way of removing it. You can only wait for your nails to grow out.

Different types of henna produce different colours, ranging from red to orange to brown to dark reddish black, and can also be used for dyeing the hair.

If you are looking for a safe, clean, cheap place to stay in Amsterdam, try the Shelter City Hostel. It’s a Christian hostel that’s drug-free, smoke-free and alcohol-free. If you’re a party animal, stop reading right now because this place is not for you. But if you like the idea of a hostel where men and women are segregated, where a curfew is strictly followed, is drug-free, smoke-free and alcohol-free, then please read on.

The location is very convenient — it’s about 2 minutes’ walk from the Nieuwmarkt tram stop, 15 minutes’ walk from Central Station, about 15 minutes’ walk from Anne Frank huis and Nieuw Kerk (New Church). Within walking distance are restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, quaint retail outlets selling everything from kites to shoes to costumes to souvenirs. Oh, and it’s right smack at the doorstep of the Red Light District. Lola and I accidentally found this out on our first night in Amsterdam, but I’ll write about this in a separate post.

The rates start from €16.50 per person per night for a 12-20 bedded room. The price includes hot showers (shared facilities per floor, which also have a common-use hair dryer) and a free breakfast. They offer 5 different combinations for breakfast involving eggs, ham, bread, jam, butter, and/or boiled egg. You can also opt for a hot breakfast, whose menu varies everyday, e.g. French toast for Sundays.

There are no lifts in this place and you need to go up two flights of stairs to get to the girls’ floor, with the second flight being impossibly steep and small. You either leave your heavy stuff with the reception or be prepared to lug your bag by yourself.

The rooms are small and spartan, but the sheets are crisp and clean. We had a sink and mirror in our room, in addition to the small lockers that are provided for free. It’s highly encouraged to lock the lockers but you must bring your own padlock or rent one from the reception.

It felt so nostalgic sleeping on the upper bunk bed, as it reminded me of my freshman year in Eliazo Residence Hall at the Ateneo de Manila University 🙂

Steep & narrow stairs
Bunk beds inside room
Sink & mirror on the right

Most of the people who were there during our stay were young people (obviously!), but there were a few elderly guests, and even 2 Muslim ladies from Algeria who were wearing headscarves. The hostel welcomes everyone, irregardless of religion or belief… or even lack thereof. But true to their Christian nature, they have small Bibles stashed discreetly inside the lockers and also displayed conspicuously on the dining hall counter. They hold Bible studies, as well, but no one’s forced to join them.

Considering that the staff are all volunteers, I was pleasantly surprised to find everyone very friendly and helpful. I remember Michael, who patiently explained to us the house rules when we checked in and gave us directions to the new library near Central Station if we wanted free wi-fi. (We lost our way, by the way, and found the Red Light District instead.) There was also another guy whose name I never managed to find out who taught me how to pronounce ‘Zuiderzeeweg’

. The people who served breakfast at the breakfast hall were also very cheerful.

Reception counter
Breakfast hall
The girls’ floor

Check-out time is quite early — 10 am — but you can leave your bags for free at the reception until 6 pm on the same day of your check-out. Again, you have to provide your own padlock or rent one from the reception.

They have a strict 2 am curfew (definitely not an issue for me and Lola!), and they only re-open the doors at 7 am. Most of the guests abide by this curfew but others don’t seem to mind getting locked out. Apparently, they just spend the whole night partying, then hanging out later on at ‘coffee shops’ before finally going back to the hostel at 7 am to sleep. [A quick note on ‘coffee shops’ in Amsterdam. They don’t exactly sell coffee. People hang out there to smoke marijuana, which is perfectly legal over there.]

The Shelter City Hostel has another branch in the picturesque Jordaan area, the Shelter Jordan Christian Hostel.

With the continued strengthening of the Euro, you can expect a holiday in Paris to significantly dent your bank account. Fortunately, there are a few things that you can do to stretch the power of your (limited) amount of Euros. Here are 10 tips which I hope you’ll find useful:

1. Pick your hotel wisely and be prepared to lower your expectations. Next to the airfare, your hotel bill will take up a huge chunk of the total cost of your holiday so use the internet to your advantage and do some research on possible hotels to stay in long before you travel. Read traveller’s reviews in various websites but take them with a grain of salt, as some of the reviewers have very unrealistic expectations, e.g. complaining about ‘Ikea-type furnishings’ in a 1-star hotel.

You must keep in mind that hotels in Europe are a lot more expensive but much smaller than hotel rooms in Asia. So if you have a limited budget, work within your budget and try not to expect too much so you won’t end up disappointed. Just think of your hotel room as place to sleep in, after a long day of walking and sightseeing. But be warned: smaller hotels tend to not have lifts, so be prepared to carry your luggage to your room on narrow — and often winding — stairs!

If it’s winter or spring, you can save a bit more by opting for rooms that don’t have ensuite baths. It will be so cold, it won’t matter if you don’t shower daily. [For the info of our non-Malaysian readers, most Malaysians shower twice a day. Everyday!]

You’d also save a lot of time and money if you stayed in a hotel that’s close to a Metro station.

2. Use public transport whenever possible. The metro is a very cost-effective and efficient way of getting around and is much, much cheaper than taking a taxi. Arm yourself with the RER/Metro/RATP map — check with your local Alliance Française before leaving for Paris or ask for one at the nearest Metro station upon arrival, or get a copy of Paris Pratique Par Arrondissement from a newsstand. At the Metro station, ask for directions from the information counter and make sure you get on the right train going to the right direction, as some trains share the same track but go to totally different destinations.

Buy your tickets in carnets from the train station or from a newspaper vendor. A carnet of 10 tickets only costs €11 or , effectively, only €1.10 per ticket. If you buy a single t-ticket, it will cost you €1.50. You can also use the same ticket for the bus. Train tickets to and from the airport cost a lot more so if you are going to the airport, be sure to specify it upon purchase.

3. Consider buying a Paris Visite Card. Depending on how long you intend to stay in Paris and where you intend to go, you might want to consider getting a Paris Visite card. Not only will it give you unlimited travel on the bus, metro, tramway and RER networks in Paris and its suburbs, the card also comes with some special offers. The Paris Visite pass is valid for 1, 2, 3 or 5 consecutive days in zones 1 to 3 (close suburbs). Airports (Orly/CDG) and Versailles are not included in the zones covered by this pass.

Prices for the Paris Visite Card vary, depending on the validity:

Price Adult 1 Day (12 and over): 8,50 €
Price Child 1 Day (from 4 to 11 inclusive): 4,25 €

Price Adult 2 Days (12 and over): 14 €
Price Child 2 Days (from 4 to 11 inclusive): 7 €

Price Adult 3 Days (12 and over): 19 €
Price Child 3 Days (from 4 to 11 inclusive): 9,50 €

Price Adult 5 Days (12 and over): 27,50 €
Price Child 5 Days (from 4 to 11 inclusive): 13,75 €

Check out Paris Info for more information on this card or to buy from them online. The card can also be purchased in all Paris Metro, RER, Transilien SNCF stations, bus terminal ticket counters, RATP Boutiques, RATP sales desks at Orly and CDG airports and Paris tourist offices. You can also buy your pass in certain travel agencies and tour operators overseas.

IMPORTANT: Before buying this card, plan your trip carefully and estimate how often you’ll be travelling by train or bus because it might be cheaper to buy individual tickets if you won’t be taking the train or bus that often.

4. Get a Paris Museum Pass. If you’re into museums and culture, buy a Paris Museum Pass. It will allow you to visit as many times as you like more than 60 museums and monuments in Paris and the surrounding area, such as Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Centre Pompidou, Sainte Chapelle. Click here to see the full list of museums and monuments.

With this card, you also save time by not having to queue to buy tickets. In certain places, holders of this card go through a special entrance. For instance, when visiting the Louvre, there is a special entrance at the Richelieu passageway, instead of having to queue at the main entrance at the Glass Pyramid.

Prices, as of this writing, are:

Price 2 Days: 30 €
Price 4 Days: 45 €
Price 6 Days: 60 €

To get an idea of the savings that you get from buying this card, if you are buying the 2-day card (€30), you can already recoup your investment from the cost of admission to the Arc de Triomphe (€8), Louvre (€15) and Musée d’Orsay (€8) alone.

But plan your trip properly because the card is valid for the consecutive dates specified on the card and those cannot be changed. Many museums are closed on Monday and Tuesdays so it may not be very useful to use a 2-day card on those days. Do your homework beforehand to make the most of your card.

Children below 18 are allowed FREE access in most of the museums and monuments included in the Paris Museum Pass itinerary. But, seriously, how long do you really expect kids to keep quiet in a museum?

5. Go to places with free entry. Some places in Paris actually offer free admission every day, all year round.

* Musée national de la Légion d’honneur et des ordres de chevalerie (National Museum of the Legion of Honor and the Orders of Knighthood and Chivalry) – 7th arrondissement
* Musée Bible et Terre Sainte (Museum of the Bible and Terre Sainte) – 6th arrondissement
* Musée – Librairie du Compagnonnage – 6th arrondissement
* Musée Curie – Institut du radium (Curie Museum – Institute of Radium) – 5th arrondissement
* Musée du Parfum-Fragonard (Perfume Museum) – 9th arrondissement
* Théâtre musée des Capucines-Fragonard – 2th arrondissement
* Musée de la Préfecture de Police (Museum of the Police Prefecture) – 5th arrondissement
* Arènes de Lutèce – 5th arrondissement
* Atelier Brancusi – Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou (Atelier Brancusi – National Museum of Modern Art) – 4th arrondissement
* Le Plateau – Centre d’art contemporain (Centre of Contemporary Art) – 19th arrondissement

Most places are also free on the 1st Sunday of every month but that also means mammoth crowds on those days, so go early!

6. When dining out, take the set menu. If you eat at a café, brasserie or restaurant, opt for the Plat du Jour (Plate of the Day) for the best deal. It normally comes with a starter, the main course and a dessert or coffee. Prices, as of this writing, range from €12 to €17 in brasseries and cafés. If you choose to take à la carte, that same amount (€12 to €17) can only get you an appetiser or main dish or, sometimes, just the main dish.

7. Have breakfast outside. If your hotel room rate doesn’t include breakfast, do NOT take up the hotel’s offer for breakfast at some ridiculous price of €20 or so. Instead, go for a walk and look for a nearby café or pâtisserie (bakery specialising in pastries and sweets) or boulangerie (bakery). Have a cup of coffee (from €1) and a croissant (€1.20) or half a baguette (€0.80). Or try one of the flaky pastries. From the flaky, buttery, layered goodness of the pastry and croissant, you can tell that they don’t scrimp on the butter! And don’t worry about the calories — just walk it off!

8. Eat crêpes on the go. Crêpes are a cheap, fast option when your tummy starts growling. Prices range from €3 to €5, depending on the topping, which can be sweet (sucrée) or savoury (salée). Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread, is a very popular sucrée option, while the ham and cheese salée option is like a meal by itself already.

9. Ask for water. Practice saying “Un carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait” (a ka-raf-DOH, sil-vu-pleh). That’ll get you a small bottle of purified tap water, more than enough for 2 persons, when you dine in a café or brasserie. And it won’t cost you a single cent, believe it or not. Photo of the carafe d’eau from Paris Breakfasts.

A 500ml bottle of Evian will set you back by around €3 in a café; €1.60 if bought from a vending machine. In comparison, a cup of coffee (un cafe) costs around €1. Oh, and if you want coffee with cream, ask for café creme [ka-fe-KHEM].

10. Take a package tour. Many package tours include fare, lodging and meals, sometimes even entrance to a few well-known spots. The upside? After taking everything into calculation, this might just prove to be the cheapest option. However, I find it a major disadvantage to have to follow the tour group’s schedule. You will, more likely than not, end up not having enough time to stay in the places that you’re most interested in. Ask around a bit before committing to a package tour because some unscrupulous tour operators spend very little time in the popular tourist spots — with very little time to even take photos — but set aside hours for shopping.

My assistant and I flew to and from Singapore on AirAsia yesterday. We went in the morning, had a meeting with one customer, had a second meeting with a supplier, then flew back in the evening.

The flights were on time, the leather seats were impeccably clean and felt luxuriously good, and the flight was so short, it didn’t matter that no free snacks were served on board. But if you feel peckish, they sell nasi lemak and nasi briyani for RM8, a hotdog sandwich for RM7, roti jala with chicken curry for RM6, roti canai for RM5, mineral water or Milo for RM4, among other things. You can find the full menu on AirAsia’s flights here.

The flight was supposed to take an hour but, yesterday, it only took about 35 to 40 minutes. Perhaps we got a good tail wind yesterday. Or perhaps the pilots flew faster since their planes are lighter, thanks to AirAsia’s 15-kg baggage limit (vs the standard 20-kg allowance of most airlines), the RM5 baggage handling fee they’ve started imposing since end-April (RM3 if you book online) and the 7-kg limit on hand luggage, a very potent combination that deters most passengers from bringing too much luggage on an AirAsia flight.

We flew into and out of Changi Airport‘s Terminal 1, so it was a pleasure roaming around the airport while waiting for our return flight. Even if we didn’t roam around, the free internet terminals and free wi-fi would have been more than sufficient to keep us occupied.

My only grouse is the schedule of AirAsia’s KUL-SIN-KUL flights, which is not as flexible or as early as Malaysia Airlines (MH) or Singapore Airlines (SQ). As of this writing, the flight schedule is as below:

KUL-SIN
AK123 0950-1050 hrs
AK127 1950-2050 hrs

SIN-KUL
AK124 1120-1220 hrs
AK128 2120-2230 hrs

But with AirAsia’s return ticket (from RM400) at about half the cost of MH and SQ (from RM890), it’s still a very irresistible option.

The KL-Singapore route is said to be one of the most lucrative routes for MH and SQ, and a 34-year-old agreement kept away other airlines from flying this protected route all this while. Then came AirAsia’s Dato’ Tony Fernandes, who tenaciously fought tooth and nail to get the right to fly the same route. AirAsia finally got the nod to fly the much coveted route in October 2007. (Side note: If only AirAsia would fly the KL-Davao or KL-Cebu routes soon!)

Another alternative is Jetstar, which offers fares from RM8 one-way — before taxes and other fees, of course — but their schedule is a bit too cumbersome for me. Their KUL-SIN flight is at 1635 hrs (4.35 pm), with the return flight at 1505 hrs (3.05 pm), thereby making an overnight stay mandatory.

If you don’t like flying, or have budgetary limitations but have 5 hours to spare, then by all means, take the bus. The North-South Highway that links KL and Singapore is very well maintained, ensuring a smooth and comfortable journey. Buses that ply the KL-Singapore-KL route are very comfortable and tickets can cost anywhere between RM30 (standard economy buses) and RM80 (luxury double-decker buses, with movies, snacks, wi-fi on board) for a one-way KL-Singapore ticket. The return ticket usually costs the same, but in Singapore dollars. Tickets can be booked online or you can buy them at the Pudu bus station.

Taxis are also an option which I haven’t tried before, so I have no idea how much the fare costs. And by taxi, I don’t mean the red-and-white taxis you flag from the roadside in KL, but the ones in Pudu bus station.

Then there’s the overnight train from KL Sentral (KL Central Station) to Singapore. Click here to see some photos of the various room and sleeper berth options. Round-trip tickets cost anywhere between RM19 and RM131.80. Schedules, photos, and even online ticket sales are available at KTM Berhad’s website.

The final option is driving, which can take a bit more than 5 hours, if you factor in one or two toilet stops and at least one snack or meal along the way. If you do take this option, try not to go across the Causeway, which is in perpetual gridlock. The Second Link would be a much better alternative and can easily shave off 30 minutes to an hour off your journey.

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UPDATE! (1-Dec-08)

AirAsia now flies the KUL-SIN-KUL route 7 times daily. Schedule as below:-

KUL-SIN:
Depart – Arrive – Flight
0730 (KUL) – 0820 (SIN) – AK 121
1000 (KUL)  – 1055 (SIN) – AK 123
1245 (KUL) – 1335 (SIN) – AK 129
1500 (KUL) – 1550 (SIN) – AK 125
1700 (KUL) – 1750 (SIN) – AK 131
1950 (KUL) – 2050 (SIN) – AK 127
2125 (KUL) – 2215 (SIN)  – AK 133

SIN-KUL:
Depart – Arrive – Flight
0855 (SIN) – 0945 (KUL) – AK 122
1130 (SIN) – 1225 (KUL) – AK 124
1405 (SIN) – 1455 (KUL) – AK 130
1615 (SIN) – 1705 (KUL) – AK 126
1820 (SIN) – 1910 (KUL) – AK 132
2140 (SIN) – 2240 (KUL) – AK 128
2250 (SIN) – 2350 (KUL) – AK 134

My love affair with Switzerland started when I first laid eyes on its mountains and lakes and meadows in 1999. I fell in love at first sight and I fell hard.

Image from MySwitzerland.com

At that time, DH and I needed to go to Geneva but Malaysia Airlines only flew to Zurich, so at his suggestion, we took the 3-hour long train ride from Zurich to Geneva. It was my first time in Europe and my first experience with the Swiss Rail system and I was totally impressed. The trains were on time, very clean and well-maintained, and the ride was very smooth and pleasant. It was almost like flying except that trains have much, much better legroom and you can walk around, if you wish to.

During the train ride, I was totally captivated by the unspoilt beauty of the Swiss countryside — skies of the bluest blue, meadows of verdant green dotted by hundreds of tiny yellow flowers which huge brown and white cows munched on contentedly (DH told me that those flowers must be the reason why Swiss milk and chocolates taste soooo good!), rivers so clear we could see the pebbles at the bottom, lakes stretched out as far as the eye could see. And the Alps — the imposing Alps capped by pristine white snow, made even more dazzling by the backdrop of the clear blue sky — made me vow to return to Switzerland again in the future.

And return I did, three more times — in April 2002, April 2005 and April 2008. You see, I get to attend this exhibition related to my line of work that takes place every three years in Geneva. How lucky can a woman get? 😉

In 1999, after the exhibition, on the way back to Zurich, DH and I made an unplanned detour to Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station. It was my first encounter with snow and ice, so when I felt giddy and light-headed at the top of the mountain, I wasn’t sure if it was from the sheer excitement of the whole experience or from the thin air and high altitudes…or from the simple fact that I was pregnant with OnlyGirl at that time!

To get to Jungfraujoch, DH and I had to stay the night in one of the towns in Interlaken, a gorgeous piece of heaven nestled between two beautiful lakes. That place was just so amazing, I wished we stayed much longer. More mountains and meadows and lakes…and even a nearby waterfall. To this day, Interlaken remains on my list of places to visit (properly) before I die. Click here to see a panoramic map of the area to fire your imagination…

In 2002, DH and I went to Zermatt, the charming little town at the base of Mount Matterhorn, where we stayed in a small hotel whose landlady only spoke German but knew just enough French for the two of us to somehow communicate with each other. I may have touched snow in Jungfraujoch for the first time in 1999 (and almost slipped on the ice floors inside the Ice Palace in my Italian leather flat shoes) but it was at Zermatt where I saw snow falling for the first time ever in my entire life. It was magic…pure blissful, I-cant-believe-this-is-happening magic!!! I remember squealing in delight as I held up my arms, perhaps even doing a twirl or two, as the tiny flakes fell on my face, to DH’s amusement (Note: He’s used to seeing snow, having lived in London in his university years and having traveled to all the continents of the world, except for South America.)

In 2005, our trip was cut short due to a fluke with my Schengen visa. You see, our Air France-KLM itinerary was KL-Geneva (via Paris)-Amsterdam-KL, as we were planning to stopover Amsterdam on the way back to KL. The Dutch Embassy gave me a single entry Schengen visa at that time. Unfortunately, when we reached Paris, I had absolutely no idea that we had to get out and change terminals at Charles de Gaulles airport. And when we did, we had to get past French Immigration, who stamped my passport, which meant that I’ve used up my single entry Schengen visa. So to make a long story short, upon arrival in Geneva, we quickly had to book us on another flight back to KL, also via Amsterdam (as our tickets were non-reroutable) but without stopping over, just on transit. The bad news was: the only flight available was 2 days after, which meant that we had to cut our trip short and could not even stay in Switzerland after the exhibition.

But as I commented in a previous blog post, perhaps I wasn’t fated to go to Amsterdam at that time because I was meant to go to Amsterdam this year with my mom. As Shakespeare put it, all’s well that end’s well. And all that remains is my yet to be written post(s) about our trip 😛 (I know, I know, I’m working on it!)

So, as I was saying, our Swiss trip was cut short in 2005. At least at that time, we were staying in the Swiss countryside, at Ferme Pittet (Pittet Farm), a charming farmhouse offering country-style accommodation in the town of Russin, close to the French border, so even though we didn’t really go anywhere, it felt like we went somewhere.

Vineyards on both sides of the road to the Russin train station. DH enjoys the fresh air and the view as he pulls his favourite Samsonite bag behind him.

The quiet town is just one train ride from Geneva’s central train station but it felt like a completely different world. There was nothing but sprawling vineyards all around — which must be quite a sight in autumn, when the branches are lush with green leaves and heavy with fruit — which looked quite bare in spring, as all that we could see were rows of gnarled thick stumps less than 3 feet high from the ground.

The whole place was so quiet that, once the trains have departed, the only sound that you can hear at the Russin train station is the occasional chirping of the birds. Oh, and the annoying sound of planes as they flew past the Swiss-Franco border.

The town was so small that it only had one restaurant, one general store, and one church, and everyone knew everyone else. When we first reached the town, a friendly local gave us a lift in his car from the train station to the farm (just a few minutes walk, but an uphill one) and he turned out to be the town’s mayor!

Oh, and one small thing: in Russin, no one spoke any English, just French. DH doesn’t know a word of French, so his life was entirely on my hands at that time. Or so I like to think 😉

By now you must have noticed how the Swiss only speak German or French in certain parts of the country. It’s because Switzerland has 4 national languages. Majority of the Swiss population speak German and a huge chunk of them speak French, but there’s also a small percentage who speak Italian, and about half a per cent of the Swiss population speak Rumantsch. This very unique feature is a direct result of Switzerland’s geographical location being at the crossroads of France, Germany, Austria and Italy. Of course, with the huge number of foreign residents in Switzerland, they have brought with them their own languages, which taken as a whole, is now said to outnumber both Rumantsch and Italian. According to the Swissworld.org, “the 2000 census showed that speakers of Serbian/Croatian were the largest foreign language group, with 1.4% of the population. English was the main language for 1%.”

I first noticed this uniqueness of Switzerland in 1999, when DH and I were on the train from Zurich to Geneva. When we were in Zurich, the automated announcements for the next stop were in German and English. At some point, the announcements were suddenly in French, German and English. Then as we moved closer to Geneva, just in French and English.

Since I speak a little French, Geneva and Russin were a breeze. But it was quite a struggle in Zermatt, Jungfrau and Zurich. Despite Switzerland’s status as an international country and its superb tourist infrastructure in the smallest of towns and the tallest of mountains (they even have excellent mobile phone network coverage at the top!), once you get to the small towns, very few locals speak English. Once, we stayed in a very small village near Andermatt — the hometown of the sales manager of a Swiss company whom we used to deal with — and it so happens that the only German words I know are ja (yes), nein (no) and schocolade (chocolate). Somehow I got by with a lot of sign language and those three little words 😉

Switzerland is arguably one of the world’s most expensive places to visit but its landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, absolutely magnificent and totally unforgettable, making it worth every single cent that you spend to get there.