After five and a half weeks on the road, at the end of June it was time to settle down for a while in my new home base: Leysin, Switzerland. Leysin is a small town in the Swiss alps, about 40 minutes from Montreux and an hour and a half from Geneva. It is home to just over 4000 inhabitants, around 60% of whom are foreigners (the highest proportion in Switzerland) due to the many camps, international schools and outdoor activities on offer in the area.
I was in Leysin to work on a summer camp, which began with an orientation week designed to mimic the schedule the campers would follow when camp started, to get us into the rhythm of camp life. It consisted of primarily lectures preparing us for what to expect, how to deal with potential situations etc, interspersed with lot of games. We also got to try out some of the activities that would be on offer for the kids – bobsledding was a favourite of mine as well as the ‘icecream and cheese discovery’ (aka hike – a gag that never got old).
There were about 40 counsellors, plus management and kitchen/housekeeping staff. We came from all over the world – Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal, the UK, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Slovenia, Hungary, Estonia, Russia, Canada, the USA, and Brazil. Unbelievably, there were three of us from NZ, which was even more incredible due to the fact that there no Australians! On day one we all made snazzy nametags that we duly wore at all times, which paid off as it only took a couple of days to master everyone’s names. Due as well to the sheer amount of time we were spending together, not to mention the somewhat intimate team-building exercises, we became fast friends. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by just how well everyone got on with each other.
The camp caters for a maximum of 180 children per two-week session. They are divided into age-based colour groups from which they are put into counsellor groups of about 12 kids and two counsellors. The kids sign up for a specific camp – whether it’s learning English or French, Film Academy, tennis camp, dance camp, sports or adventure – and every morning they do activities in these groups. After lunch they are with their age groups doing all sorts of activities, from arts and crafts to archery and everything in between. After dinner they had more extremely inventive games, and on the weekends went on excursions ranging from a local chocolate factory to the UN in Geneva.
I was at camp as an English teacher in the mornings, and ended up working as a receptionist in the afternoon. The bonus of this was that I finished at 7pm every day, whereas the other counsellors were on duty until their kids went to bed – potentially as late as 11pm. However, it meant that I was stuck inside every day, didn’t get to spend much time with kids and didn’t get to do any of the activities apart from a few I managed to tag along to in the evening (namely: ice skating). Most days at reception were pretty chilled but there were a couple of days each session in the lead up to one group leaving and the next arriving that were pretty stressful, and it didn’t help that everyone else was doing extra fun end of camp stuff while we were toiling away. Overall I think the tradeoff worked out pretty evenly.
In the first session I started off with eight students and ended up with three, due to a large contingent of Greeks defecting to sports so they could be with their friends (I shall diplomatically say no more on the matter). I was left with a French girl and Italian and Russian boys, all around 11-12. It was a bit challenging to do activities with only three of them, but fortunately they were all at a very similar level, and more or less had similar interests. The second session was more successful in the sense that I both began and ended with six students! This time they came from France, Russia, Spain, Italy and Saudi Arabia. Although they were the ‘lowest’ class they were at the same level (and ages) as my previous ones which was good for me in terms of planning. It was definitely better having more students in terms of playing games and activities, though the four boys did tend to get quite rowdy (quelle surprise).
Life at camp was, unsurprisingly, very routine, and didn’t vary much from day to day, so I’m going to spare you all a blow-by-blow account and just pick out some of the highlights. Despite being exhausted, almost every evening most of us would convene at the tuck shop/camp bar just to have a chance to relax and actually talk to each other. At some point around the second week, this led to the creation a beautiful tradition that will live on in history: that of the foosball crew. There were honorary second-tier members that came and went, but the original crew was myself, Jen (NZ), Raf (France), and Maxime (France). I was, from the get-go, categorically the worst player. The others somehow managed to put up with this and we ended up playing every night, usually till midnight. This spurred Raf to organise a staff foosball tournament about a week later, which saw quite the turnout. We picked pairs based on one ‘good’ and one ‘bad’ player, and miraculously it turned out really balanced. What’s even more miraculous is this happened to coincide with the pinnacle of my sporting career and I actually played well! Maxime and I ended up 4th, after just being pipped 10-9 in both the semi final and 3rd/4th playoff, both after about half an hour of play. My competitive streak definitely came out having that carrot dangled in front of me! After that we didn’t play for a few days and by the time we started up again my glory days were long behind me. Fortunately though I was still able to fully participate in the banter, in both English and French, which is what I’d signed up for in the first place.
In between all this, we also found time for dance practises, staff football, tie dye night, poker night/super jenga night amongst others. Every weekend evening would inevitably end up with a hearty contingent of us at the aptly named Top Pub, where we were no doubt favourite customers thanks to our pre-prepared dance routines that we were not shy to break out.
Aside from all this, I did have a couple of actual days off which I tried to make the most of:
Montreux jazz festival
My first full day off coincided with the Montreux jazz festival, so a group of us headed down to spend the day by the lake. This began with my first hitchhiking experience, un mode de vie in Leysin due to the rather expensive cog train necessary to get to camp if one doesn’t have a car. we split into small groups, and were all very lucky that we didn’t have to wait very long to get picked up (and, you know, made it in one piece). After stocking up on supplies we just spent the day chilling by the lake, in and out of the water; it went by pretty quickly given we weren’t really doing a lot! Lizzie, the arts and crafts maven, had the genius idea to bring some string so we all launched into the friendship bracelets with gusto, a trend that totally blew up with the kids at camp too. The whole lakefront was packed with food stalls for the festival, so we found some dinner and settled down in front of one of the free concerts for the evening. The band was alright, but the evening was made more memorable by the game of ‘what are the odds’ that lasted all evening. Unfortunately, the music was cut short for a screening of the all-important EURO2016 final between France and Portugal. We had to leave halfway through to get the last train home, and it was still going by the time we got back.
On my next full day off I scored a ride down the mountain with one of the groups on excursion and spent the day in Lausanne. This started with a visit to the Olympic Museum, where I spent nearly three hours. At 18CHF it was possibly the most expensive museum I have ever been to, but I think it was worth it. It traced the history of the Olympics, both ancient Greece and the modern reboot, and very thoroughly addressed all aspects of the games today, from athlete villages to doping and debates over technological advances. It was all very modern and full of memorabilia and interactive exhibits. Of course, it helped that I was there just a few weeks before the Olympics were starting, and I left unashamedly excited about it thanks to a few dramatic videos.
From there I made my way to the Collection de l’Art Brut or ‘outsider art’ as it is known in English. I didn’t really know anything about art brut aside from it was somewhere along the lines of naive art which I had learnt a little about at school, but the collection was the top rated attraction on tripadvisor after the Olympic museum so I thought I’d head along. It is essentially art made by people who are ‘outsiders’ in society, perhaps with mental disabilities, who in any case have no artistic training and no knowledge, or no concern of ~the art world~ and its tendencies. The museum really had all sorts, in every medium imaginable. My favourite were the dioramas made entirely of shell by Frenchman Paul Amar. There was an hour-long video talking to him and his wife which was very endearing too. Unfortunately I was a bit museum-ed out by that stage so couldn’t quite bring myself to watch the whole thing.
I spent the rest of the afternoon just roaming round really, hiding from torrential rain in a church in the old town and checking out the Flon quarter with its modern architecture. As the rain got worse I decided to head home, though unfortunately by the time I could get a train it meant I would miss dinner back at camp. I had little choice but to buy a ham and cheese baguette at the train station…for 8.5CHF!
On our last half-day off my roommate Heather and I decided to go for a wee jaunt up the Berneuse, a peak at 2048m behind Leysin (1350m). It was a hard slog setting off up the hill to start with, the worst of which extra-annoyingly occurred as we took a wrong path at a dubiously labelled intersection. After that 30 minute setback we made it to the top in around two hours, and the walk – though uphill – was actually not too bad. Though we were clockwatching, we decided to continue all the way to the ‘real’ top where the gondola station was, even though we weren’t sure if the view would be any better than the peak just next to it. Well, view or not, this gamble totally paid off as there were llamas there! We were beside ourselves. Unfortunately, it was a bit overcast, but the view was still pretty decent. We then frogmarched down the hill in an hour, making it back before the thunder and torrential rain hit, AND in time for dinner! We couldn’t believe it.
End of camp
The end of camp came around predictably, but still alarmingly, quickly. Towards the end of the session there were a couple more highlights worth mentioning:
Each session held an international night, where the kids signed up to represent a country (not necessarily their own). During the week they spent time preparing food and planning a skit, then on the evening there was a big buffet-style meal before the presentations. In the second session thanks to a couple of Aussie campers there was a team Australia-New Zealand! The food contribution was, naturally, a pavlova – and it was bloody good! I couldn’t believe how well it turned out. Their skit was really well done too; obviously I appreciated it more than most of the audience given I actually got all the references, but objectively speaking it was one of the most well-polished.
The final night was prom night, which was A Big Deal. The kids had to have their rooms all tidy and ready to go to get their hands on a ticket. They were then treated to a super fancy dinner, being waited on by their counsellors who didn’t scrub up too badly. In true prom style, there was a prom prince and princess for each age group, tidiest room awards, dance camp performance and – the pièce de résistance – the staff dance. Round two was a v cool Backstreet Boys number. After those formalities it was time for the kids (and staff) to dance the night away. This time it was effectively the leaving party for most of us as well, and I made the most of it and made up for five weeks of basically being in zero photos due to reception duty by inundating the photo booth (sorry Lawrence). The night didn’t end there though, as we had – more importantly – the last foosball session :(
I was very lucky to be able to stay with a friend housesitting in Leysin so hung around for another week. The next day happened to be Swiss national day, with a bit of a party going on in the village – a very impressive fire dancing performance, substantial fireworks display and general rave in the carpark. Most of the gang still working at camp were able to come down which was cool.
Les Dents du Midi
The real project of the week was an overnight tramp in Les Dents du Midi, which saw a group of five of us reunite a couple of days later. Les Dents du Midi is a seven-summitted mountain across the valley from Leysin, which I had the pleasure of looking at out my window every day. It’s possible to do anything from a day walk to a five day loop of all the peaks. Krystle planned our route, which worked out really well – we started in Champéry, elevation 1055m, and walked for about 4.5 hours including breaks till we made it to the Cabane de Susanfe, 2102m, where we stayed for the night. For someone acclimatised to DoC huts, this was a luxury – a very cosy chalet that included a hearty dinner and breakfast, and bunks with decent mattresses and duvets! No showers, but it did have real flushing toilets, so I’ll call that a win. The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn, setting off at 7am for a big day of walking. We attempted to climb the summit of la Haute Cime, 3257m, the tallest of the seven peaks. This was expected to be difficult and was considered a bonus if we made it. In the end, two of the group made it to the top, while three of us abandoned – the entire thing was scree, and it was very difficult to make out the path in places (it wasn’t even an officially signposted route). After a particularly harrowing experience on the side of the cliff face which turned out not to be the path, that was it really. The gale force winds when we got to the next ‘landing’ sealed the deal. Everything was just going against all my NZ tramping instincts (the importance of which we have been reminded of this week). Once we got off that mountain it was a lovely, easy, walk for the rest of the day as we headed past the lac Salanfe and back down the valley to Salvan (912m). From there we headed in separate directions and Krystle and I couchsurfed with a really lovely family in Martigny.
After heading back to Leysin, for a much needed post-tramp spa session and one final night at Top Pub with the gang, I spent my last weekend in Switzerland staying in Montreux. The Saturday I spent the day with the gang on their day off down at the lake again, but on the Sunday I flew solo. It was actually really nice just to be by myself after five weeks constantly in the company of other people. I started off at the Queen Studio Experience, a small museum on the site of the recording studios owned by the band from 1978-1995. I was there when it opened, and was lucky to be the only person there until I left. I’d definitely recommend a visit even if you’re just a little interested in Queen – it’s free, and full of original memorabilia but also a lot of information about the band. In the site of the actual studio there is now a replica of the sound desk, but one set of mixers work to play around with a few pre-recorded tracks which was cool.
From there I got the bus a short ride to Vevey, and spent the rest of the day meandering the 7km back round the lake to Montreux. It was so nice just to relax, read a bit, catch up on some podcasts, stopping here and there when I found a bay with a bit of shade. I must say seeing the throngs all out picnicking/barbecuing/having a generally lazy Sunday did make me rather nostalgic for a good ol Kiwi summer. Once back in Montreux I had a roam around the old town (as until this point I hadn’t actually seen anything of the city). Then I chilled by the lake again till it was an acceptable hour to go to bed at the hostel really. The whole day was really a perfect way to end my time in Switzerland.
Back in France
As I mentioned in my last post I am now back in France, on a thus-far unsuccessful hunt for a flat. I have a couple more visits lined up for this weekend so fingers crossed, once again! Aside from endlessly refreshing flat websites I have really not had much to do for the past couple of weeks, and have been going a little stir crazy. I’m not very good at doing nothing, even though I’ve been trying to tell myself that I should just enjoy the chance to be super lazy. It’s been super hot here, mid 30s for a solid couple of weeks, which has made mooching around inside a lot easier. I have braved the heat for a couple of errands and to catch up with a fair number of friends which has been great, so all is not lost. My work contract starts next week, and I’m looking forward to once again having some purpose to my life. The next time I write I should hopefully have some interesting things to report….à suivre!