Even in the year of our Lord 1999 , when millions of Indians routinely go abroad, a foreign trip is still looked upon in India as something great. For a civil servant, it is certainly a welcome opportunity for two reasons. First, you get a paid holiday with opportunity to combine business with pleasure. Secondly, it is a sign of recognition ( though those who are not sent abroad dismiss it as reward for chamchagiri. )

I was therefore happy when I was asked last year whether I would like to go to Zurich and Berlin for a two-weeks training with AdTranz ( originally ABB Ltd. And will be Daimler-Chrysler Rail Systems) . In January, I came to know from veteran travellers that it was possible for Amritha (my wife) to accompany me as a 'companion' ( I had always thought she was my companion. But apparently Air India had some scheme called 'free companion scheme'). So I asked her to apply for passport. But we did not make any serious plans about our visit, as we feared that it might not be possible for both of us to be away from Mumbai in March.

But the training which was originally scheduled for March '99 fortunately was postponed to April. Fortunate because Aarthi's tenth standard examinations were over by about 25th March. ( Who is Aarthi, you ask? She is my daughter.). The training was for two weeks - one week with AdTranz, Switzerland in Zurich and the next week with AdTranz, Germany in Berlin.

My preparations started only by end of March, when I applied for my official (white) passport on the day when Amritha got her passport. In the meanwhile, I gathered more information on the companion scheme. As a senior officer, I am entitled to travel by Executive Class in Air India. Since we buy our tickets directly from Air India on payment of full fare, it allowed a companion in the same class 'free' (no fare, but payment of only taxes amounting to about Rs. 2000) . Unfortunately, this scheme lapsed on 31st March. Though it was extended, it was no more a free scheme and required 15% extra ( about Rs. 13,500) . The hitch was that it was available only on Air India routes. This meant that we had to go from Mumbai to Paris by flight and cover Paris-Zurich-Berlin-Paris by train or bus. There were other problems also. But we decided to go together on what turned out to be our second honeymoon.

There were still a number of bridges to be crossed before we left. I won't bore you with all that details. I shall summarise my impressions of the entire trip through answers to questions.

1. If you are asked to say just one thing about your trip, what would you say ?

Well, I'd say that in Paris , Tamil helps you more than any other language except maybe French. ( For some reason , the French don't speak English and also don't seem to like men who speak in English. Apparently they feel it's all right for women to speak English).

The famous poet Bharathi wanted Tamil to spread to all corners of the earth. From our experiences, we'd say it has already happened in Paris. When we got off the plane at Charles De Gaulle Airport , we were sure of finding the car of Indian embassy as I got a fax the previous day from Railway Adviser, Paris that a double room has been booked for us at a reasonable rate and that the embassy car would receive us. We walked very confidently to the exit and soon found that there was no car. Since my previous visit to Paris was in 1983, I didn't feel confident about finding a hotel. My efforts to ring up the officer yielded no result. As Amritha and I were discussing our next move in Tamil, a couple of students belonging to Pondicheri asked us about our problem. They were not only sympathetic, but also took us to Gare du Nord ( 30 kms. away ) and left only after booking us in a hotel. They even bargained with the landlady in French and brought down our room rent. One of them was named Peter and alas we couldn't get the name of the other. God bless both of them. The next night, we had a problem about reservation in the train from Paris l'east to Zurich. Again on hearing our talk in Tamil, a Srilankan Tamil came to our rescue.

The street , Rue Fauborg St. Denis , which is very near Gare du Nord is full of Tamil shops. ( You can reach this street by walking left on leaving the main entrance of Gare du Nord. This street is the first turning to the left. You also go through this street if you walk from Gare du Nord to La Chapelle ).On our return, we spent four days in Paris and had good, moderately priced vegetarian meals , dosa, vada, bonda etc. in Santhini Unavagam ( restaurant in Tamil ) or Pondicheri Unavagam or Woodlands Restaurant , all in this street. There are a large number of sari shops , jewellers , music shops etc. We also bought two Tamil CDs. Even the latest release , Padayappa of Rajinikant was available. We were happy to hear old and new Tamil songs in many shops there.

2. Which would you rate as the best place you visited ?

Mount Titlis. The whole of Switzerland is beautiful. But Mount Titlis was heaven and was worth all the money that we spent on the trip. The cable-car ride, the rot-air ( rotating cable car ) ride, the snow all round , the slide in the snow on the tyre, the ice cave, the special swiss coffee and the vegetarian soup and lasagna for lunch, the light snow fall and of course the fact that Amritha was with me all combined to make it a magical.

3. Did you get the passports and visas easily?

Yes. There was no problem at all in getting the passports for both of us. Amritha was called to the Colaba police station for verification and the passport came by post two weeks later. Mine, being an official passport took just a day. Regarding visas, the Swiss consulate was very prompt. But the Germans were slightly difficult and insisted on Overseas Health Insurance for Amritha on which I spent 900 Rupees. ( It was wasted money as Amritha neither fell sick nor had any mishap during the entire trip!!!). We took only these two visas as we planned to visit only Paris, Zurich and Berlin. It took only about four days for both visas. ( My nephews Deepu and Sriram who were with us during this time must have felt envious as they waited for nearly two months for their visas to Saudi Arabia).

4. Did the Internet help you in your preparations?

Yes and No. Yes because I did get a lot of useful information on Paris and Zurich. No, since I had to literally wade through tonnes of chaff for a gram of grain and I just did not have the time. But if you do have a lot of time for preparation, the net is extremely useful.

5. How was the service in Air India?

The service was definitely good. But there were problems. The Audio did not work on our flight from Mumbai. Though the first four channels started working after Delhi, the fact remained that a passenger who had shelled out over Rs. 80,000/= had to be content with a silent film from Mumbai to Delhi and only the film channel thereafter. On the return journey, the terminal in the executive class counter in Paris did not work for over 30 minutes. Barring these hiccups, the service and the food ( for a vegetarian ) were excellent. But the top-class airlines ensure that such hiccups don't occur. I must mention about Sheila, our air-hostess from Delhi to Paris. She made it a point to update me periodically about the debate in Parliament on the confidence motion of our PM , Shri Vajpayee since I asked for news about it. In any international flight, you are overfed and Air india was no exception. The lounges in Mumbai and Paris were good. Overall, I would give 60% for Air India's service.

6. Did you have good company in the training ?

The whole trip was more enjoyable by the fact that Krishnamurthy and his wife were also there.( Krishnamurthy is one year senior to me in the service and we were posted together in Chittaranjan in 1977. He is now in Calcutta, while his wife and children are in Nagpur which was his earlier posting. Photo shows all four of us in the ice cave in Mount Titlis.). Right from 18th April, when we received them in Paris till 30th April, we were together from breakfast to dinner and visited all places together. In Zurich, when Krishnamurthy and I attended the classes, Viji ( Mrs. Krishnamurthy ) and Amritha visited the museums and other places. Most of the photos that you see of us were taken only with his camera. We also had other officers from Chittaranjan.

7. How is transportation in Europe ?

One cannot but regret the state of roads and transportation in India after visiting Europe every time. Though I am firmly of the view that Indian Railways are doing a great job, I have to admit that we are at least fifty years behind European countries as far as comforts are concerned. We travelled by unreserved second class by train from Paris to Zurich and it was comparable to our executive class. The first class in ICE trains in Germany have personal TVs. We travelled by bus from Zurich to Berlin ( about 1000 kms. ) and Berlin to Paris ( about 900 kms. ). The buses covered the distance at an average of about 80 kmph and were very comfortable and punctual. Crossing the countries was not even felt. The German and Austrian immigration and customs officers were both present at the Swiss-Austrian border to avoid another stoppage at the Austrian-German border. The city transport was also excellent in all the three cities we visited. The metro, trams and buses in Zurich , Berlin and Paris are designed to make the commuter's life easy by making intermodal travel possible on a single ticket and by offering cheap whole-day tickets. Above all, the work ethic of the staff was what impressed me the most in our journeys.

8. Any interesting persons you met ?

Plenty. I must mention that almost everybody we met, particularly in Zurich and Berlin was very friendly, greeting and smiling at us. Of course, the sari, bangles and Bhindi of Amritha invited attention in Zurich and Berlin. I was also amused by a few persons drinking scotch at 3.00 A.M. in the Air India lounge in Mumbai just because it was free. Amritha may not forget an old man who was attracted by her bangles in a tram in Zurich and went on chattering in German to her and she didn't understand a word. We met Viku Vinayakram, the famous Ghatam player ( in Carnatic Music ) who was in the same flight. I have already mentioned about Sheila, the air-hostess. Havlin, secretary to Mr. Torintino who was our course director in Zurich was a nice and pleasant lady. She accompanied us to Mount Titlis. I have also told you about the boys from Pondichery who helped us in Paris. Another unforgettable character was the lady in the reservation counter in Paris East railway station, who gave us 50% concession applicable to railway employees even when we did not have the authority letter from SNCF( French Railways). All the guides who accompanied us in Berlin for three days were extremely interesting. But the one who impressed us the most was the bus driver from Zurich to Berlin. He went out of the way to ensure that we got the concession in the bus. We were not really eligible for the concession, but he got it for us merely because the tourist office of Zurich had told us so.

9. Any comments about the other places you visited?

Berlin was the surprise of the tour ( photo is of Humbolt university in Berlin). One hears about many European cities, but Berlin is rarely mentioned. We were wondering how we would spend five days in Berlin. But Berlin and Potsdam are extremely interesting places and eminently visitable. Berlin is also one big building site, with the construction cranes dominating the skyline. Our one-day tour from Zurich to Heidiland (Eastern Switzerland ) and the principality of Leichtenstein was also good.

10. How were the hotel rooms ?

Double rooms were arranged by Indian embassy in Zurich and Berlin for our stay and both were very good. In Zurich, we stayed in St. Gotthard Hotel near the station. The room as well as the hotel's location were excellent. In Berlin we stayed at Holiday Inn, Rohrdamm , which was also excellent, though its location was away from the city. In both hotels, breakfast was lavish and was something that we eagerly awaited as the best way to start the day.

11. Everyone talks of Europe's cleanliness. What do you say about it ?

Yes, generally Europe is much cleaner than India. And the whole of Zurich is so clean that one wonders what they do with the garbage. Berlin, despite all its construction activities is quite clean. But we were appalled by the dirt and muck in Paris l' Est ( photo of the station is above) when we were on our way to Zurich. If a station had been as dirty anywhere in India, the stationmaster or even the officer would have been suspended. Though Paris was generally clean , many parts of the city were dirty.

12. Incidentally, how was the training ?

Thanks for asking ! I have been talking of all the other aspects of our visit that often I forget that I was sent to Europe for training. Out of the twelve days, five were spent in classrooms, one and a half on industrial visits ( half a day to Inter City Express depot in Berlin and half a day each to AdTranz, Switzerland and AdTranz, Berlin), three and a half on sight-seeing arranged by AdTranz ( one day to Mt. Titlis, one day each in Berlin and Potsdam and half a day on river cruise in Berlin ), one on sight-seeing on our own ( Heidiland and Leichtenstein) and one on our bus travel from Zurich to Berlin. This was a good mix. The classes were also good and covered the reorganisation of AdTranz and some details about their SAP package and financial management.

Have as a great time as Amritha and I had . But before you leave, please visit my photo album of the tour.

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