SHORTLY after returning from honeymoon, I was asked to spend a year seconded to my employer's French subsidiary near Lyons. My wife found work teaching in an international school and soon we had settled in to this new experience.

Living only a couple of hours' drive from the Swiss border, we decided that it would be very romantic to spend our first Christmas together in an alpine setting. After weeks of poring over route maps and excitedly discussing our trip, we set off on 23 December for a five day break in the mountain resort of Zermatt.

We were tired after the day's drive, so ate dinner and settled in for the night. Christmas Eve morning dawned with my wife complaining of stomach cramps. They grew worse during the day and by late afternoon the hotel had made us an appointment with the local doctor, who after some poking and prodding muttered something about a possible pancreas problem and called an ambulance.

We were driven at high speed down the treacherously steep and winding mountain roads. When we arrived at the hospital in Visp, the first question we were asked was about insurance. Switzerland is not part of the EU, we had not thought to arrange insurance and so we were told that Marie would be treated as a private patient. She was put on a drip and, when not doubled up in pain on the bed, was spending most of her time on the toilet. Christmas Day was a sober affair. A hospital canteen lunch for me, nil by mouth for my wife.

It was made clear that I couldn't spend a second night at the hospital and towards evening I set off back to our hotel. The most practicable way to reach Zermatt was by the mountain railway and sitting for over an hour in a carriage crowded with high spirited tourists was almost too much to bear. I spent a considerable amount of money travelling up and down the mountain to visit Marie in hospital over the next few days while we awaited the results of laboratory tests. Eventually the doctors delivered the diagnosis - salmonella poisoning. Since no other hotel guests had suffered a similar fate, we could only think that it was due to food eaten before we began our trip.

After three days Marie was still in discomfort, but well enough to be discharged. However, we weren't going anywhere until we had settled our bill. The treatment, medicines and X-rays (but still no food) came to just over pounds 1,500. This was way in excess of our agreed credit limit, but we had no other option but to use our flexible friend and to set off back to France, tails between our legs. Our planned dream Christmas had cost us a great deal of heartache, and a bill that would haunt well beyond the next one.

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