Thinking Allowed

By Mariam Mokhtar

Nurul Hana Jamaludin pinched herself as she gazed at the Eiffel Tower, lit like a Christmas tree, against the night sky and said, “When I was a child, I wished that, one day, I would see the Eiffel Tower. I am blessed. My wish has come true.”

The former South-East Asian rowing champion, whose family roots are in Parit, now lives with her parents and younger siblings in Ipoh. Hana likes travelling, pursuing outdoor activities, cooking, reading and experimenting with new recipes. At university, she studied the teaching of vocational courses, with particular emphasis on welding, and she now teaches art at a secondary school in Chemor.

Hana shares an adventurous streak and the desire to visit Europe, with her best friend, and travelling companion, Farha. Their motto is “Have tudung, will travel.” Nowhere is too remote or difficult, to explore. Both have travelled widely, in South-East Asia, but this time, they set their sights on Europe.

Hana said, “We knew no one in Europe, but we have friends, who studied in London, whose stories enthralled us. The MAS promotions were attractive, so we had no hesitation in purchasing the tickets. We were so excited. Our wishes were about to be realised.”

Their month of travelling was a test of their friendship and of their adaptability. They found that they could cope outside their comfort zone, budget effectively, and communicate in the non-English speaking parts of Europe. The two women showed courage, coping in an alien environment.

After three days in England, they decided to go shopping in London but made a detour to a railway station. Before they knew it, they were on Eurostar, bound for the continent. The promotional fare was too good to miss, but there was one snag. They did not have their toothbrushes or even a change of underwear. All they had were their passports and some money. They carried two pairs of trousers, which they had intended to exchange, at shops in London. Without any luggage, it was a good excuse to shop in Europe.

As the English and French countryside whizzed past them, Hana said, “Our European adventure is about to begin.”

On arrival at the Gare du Nord, Hana said, “We were really blur. The European tour was done on impulse, so we had not yet done our research. We did not speak French. We could not read the signs. We only recognised the symbol for toilets.

“We arrived during the rush hour, with thousands of people running around. It was surreal, like being in a National Geographic wildlife documentary, with herds of animals rushing past. It was a wonder, no one bumped into us. We received weird looks, with some people fixing their gazes on our tudungs.” (Hana realised later, that there had been intense debate in France about Muslim headscarves.)

As it was getting dark, they could see the illuminated Eiffel Tower, above the buildings, but asking how to reach it, was difficult. “We asked for directions, in English, but the pedestrians and shopkeepers, ignored us. We didn’t realise at the time, that the French hated to be addressed in English.”

They finally reached their destination and forgot their earlier frustrations. “It is just a tower but it is both unique and beautiful. I love its design. It was built 125 years ago, and was supposed to stand for 20 years. I was surprised that there is a lift to reach the top,” she added.

Hana lists interesting differences between London and Paris, but is intrigued because there appear to be more couples, including the elderly, holding hands in Paris. “Even the classic buildings exude an aura of romance. No wonder they call Paris, the City of Love,” she said.

She thinks Londoners are more friendly than Parisians and insists that, on her next trip, she would speak Malay, when seeking information. “The maps are difficult to understand. The bus stops are all in French, so we are forced, to seek help. In the hop-on, hop-off bus, one bus driver barked at us, and said, in broken English, “When I speak, you listen. He was so rude!”

The Paris metro (underground), she called a big, public lavatory. “The stench of urine is so strong, that the image of this ‘City of Love’ immediately vanishes.”

Their visits included the Notre Dame, Versailles, Musée d'Orsay, the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde. She said, “I wish we had more time for the attractions, or even to sit at a Parisian cafe, drink coffee, and watch people.”

After visiting Galeries Lafayette, and a trip to Longchamps to purchase a souvenir, she said, “This small Longchamp bag is cheaper than in Malaysia. I even treasure the paper bag it came in and took extra precautions, to protect this paper bag during the rest of the European tour. To my horror, it got crushed at a railway barrier, on our return to London!”

Hana has no qualms about flying with MAS and she is supportive of the attentive MAS cabin crew. Her advice to others contemplating a trip to Europe is to do ample research, visit as many museums as possible, wander through the countryside, see how litter is dealt with, speak to the locals, sample the cuisine, but most of all, learn from other cultures.

“Next time,” she said, “I will visit The Louvre, for the Mona Lisa, and perhaps, go to Disneyland Paris.”