The Rotary Club of London has an extensive programme of community projects organised under the auspices of the Community & Vocational Committee chaired by Flo Kauffman. Our aim as a club is to offer compassion for the underprivileged, the ill and disabled in our society and, by helping them to help themselves, to foster a healthy and succsessful community.
This was the continuation of the Rotary Club of London Community/Vocational project started many years ago by our late Past President Claude Calmon and continued by our also late Past President Tom Loftus and usually taking place every 2/3 years, although on this occasion there was a gap of 4 years. This year Past President Brian Somers and his wife Myrna headed up the project. There were 6 female and 6 male pupils aged 14 – 16 years and all selected by the school on merit.
Brian and Myrna met up with the pupils and teachers at 6.30 am on 13 September at Heathrow to accompany the party to Switzerland and immediately there was a slight problem. One of the pupils had only her first name on her passport and the checking-in officer was not happy to accept and disappeared for nearly half an hour to discuss the matter with her superiors. The lead teacher, Louissa Nicola, was extremely glad of our support during this and was becoming more and more anxious as time passed. However, eventually the passport was accepted and we were cleared for take off.
On the Swiss Air flight, which our Number 1 Member Albert Kunz had organized through the Swiss Travel Centre with special prices , the pupils were given star status immediately the stewards became aware of their situation and were offered seconds and even thirds of the croissant and drink snacks provided. There was no shortage of takers! As we left the plane at Zurich, the stewards presented the pupils with a large box of chocolates. What a wonderful gesture and this certainly set the scene for our entire week’s visit, as everywhere the pupils went and the Swiss recognised their handicap, they were treated with interest, kindness and in many cases extreme hospitality.
Another problem arose at Zurich Airport. The customs officer did not recognise the Group Visa which our government provides free of charge for any members of a school party where not all the pupils have British or EU Passports. It’s essential to have this Group Visa, as individual visa’s are expensive and can be very difficult to obtain. However, after another half hour’s wait it was accepted and additionally the customs officer gave Louissa his personal card so that she could contact him if they had any problems whatsoever on leaving Switzerland. Another helpful gesture that Louissa was extremely grateful to receive.
At Zurich Airport we were met by Interlaken Rotarian Martin Finger and his wife Marianne together with Albert Kunz. Martin had brought a school bus with luggage trailer attached, which he used to transport the pupils to Interlaken and with packed lunches for everyone. The journey takes some two hours and indeed he drove this school bus throughout our visit, having taken a week off work to totally accompany the pupils wherever they went. Albert Kunz had his car and he took one of the teachers, together with extra luggage that could not fit into the trailer. Marianne, Myrna and myself took the train. The pupils with their teachers were staying at the Balmer’s Herberge, a quality hostel that has great entertainment facilities for youths and Myrna and I were at Hotel du Lac, whose owner Ernst is also a member of the Interlaken Rotary Club and where the London Rotarians who have supported this visit have always stayed.
Although Albert Kunz lives in Switzerland he also stayed at the hotel with us and on that first evening we were met by Julie Hint, a film maker, who was there to record part of the pupils visit on behalf of the Swiss Government who intend this to be shown to Swiss expatriates to encourage them to think of their homeland and vote in elections, as apparently some 10% of their population reside abroad and this distorts the result. Julie caught me when I was rather tired and dishevelled, but insisted on filming me before I had a chance to freshen up, as she said that if she waited, ‘the light would be too bad’! I apologize now for what I said and my appearance. Julie was also staying at Hotel du Lac and after dinner we joined the pupils who were shown the film of the last visit by their school to Interlaken.
Wednesday morning we all went to Gelmerbahn which has the steepest cable car in the world, but to reach this we had to cross a slippery wooden rope bridge some 200 yards long and with a drop of several thousand feet and being misty and damp was also not encouraging. Nevertheless, we all made it and then had a 10 minute journey on open seats held in by metal bars and with the majority of the ride at a 100% incline. Needless to say, many had their eyes shut but the gravitational pull let us know exactly what was happening! Once we reached the top, we walked around the Gelmerbahn for some 2 hours before we enjoyed our packed lunches. During this break, Julie took the opportunity to film some of the pupils, questioning them about their lives, school, ambitions....what this visit meant to them etc., etc. The pupils generally could not hear what Julie asked and even though they all could lip read, Louissa ‘signed’ the questions and spoke their replies, as they had difficulty in speaking and the film sound needed to be distinct. It was really very moving to witness this!
Early afternoon we visited the Reichenbach Falls by Cable Railway where Sherlock Holmes met his death with his arch enemy Professor Moriarty, before miraculously resuming his life some 3 years later. Afterwards we went into Meiringen town which is famous for having introduced Meringue (although the French may dispute this!) and toured the Sherlock Holmes Museum as VIP Guests. The museum annually hosts many visits from the more than 400 worldwide Sherlock Holmes Club’s. Then we had tea in the Victoria Hotelotel and of course we were served delicious meringue with ice cream. That evening Julie Hunt, who had been filming, left to another assignment and would return on the following Monday to film the pupils last full day in Interlaken. This entire day the pupils and teachers were guests of the local area, museum, and hotel! Wednesday evening Jill Loftus, who coordinated completely the visit with the Interlaken Rotary Club and London, arrived with her friend Liz Hill.
Thursday morning we went to Bern and visited the famous Bear Park. There have always been bears in Bern, which gave the town its name, apart from the time when Napoleon took them back to Paris....but they got them back shortly afterwards. In the afternoon we went to the Munster Cathedral and most climbed the enormously high tower, not Myrna & I and then all walked around the Old Town before having refreshments at the famous Belle Époque Hotel as guests of the director. He explained to the pupils the significance of the hotels name and how all the rooms, furniture, paintings etc., were from the pre-First World War period. Thursday evening 5 more members of the London Rotarians who were coming for the weekend arrived.
Friday the pupils went on a bike ride round Interlaken but the London Rotarian party were not feeling quite so energetic and visited the famous Jungfrau Mountain instead, with its Ice Palace walk inside the mountain. That evening Ernst together with his wife Barbara, hosted a cocktail party at their Hotel du Lac for the Pupils, Teachers, Interlaken and London Rotarians and their partners and afterwards the Interlaken Rotarians gave ‘home hospitality’ to the pupils. In the late afternoon the remainder of the London Rotarians and their partners arrived for the weekend and in total there were 16 of us supporting the trip, absolutely record numbers!
Saturday we all visited the Schilthorn Mountain, 3000 metres high, a Unesco World Heritage site and famous for its Revolving Restaurant giving spectacular panoramic views of the Eiger, Mont-Blanc and as far as Germany’s Black Forest on a clear day....which we had. Perhaps equally famous is being the location for the 007 Film ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ and lunch up there was quite unbelievable with its constantly changing views. To get to the top of the Schilthorn we needed to take 4 cable cars and on the way back we stopped half way down, to walk to the beautiful town of Murren and there we took 2 trains back to Interlaken. However, the intrepid travellers Gill & Liz and Rhidian & Monica Jones walked the last 2 stops, even though the pupils couldn’t quite make this...but they did have a long walk from Interlaken station back to their hostel!
Sunday morning was a visit to the Ballenberg Open Air Museum, a Craft & Leisure Centre spread over 66 hectares where impressions of rural life in Switzerland from over 100 years ago. Century-old buildings had been recreated, with traditional old-time gardens and fields, together with demonstrations of old crafts and trades including cheese and chocolate making for which the Country is famous. Additionally there were over 250 farm animals, including several species which no longer exist elsewhere in the country. Afternoon was a leisurely 2 ½ hour Lake Cruise return journey back to Interlaken.
Sunday evening there was a Gala Dinner at Heimwehfluh restaurant which was reached at by funicular which gave the only view from one position in Interlaken of the 2 lakes on either side of the town, which were separated originally by a huge landslide. During the evening individual pupils expressed words of thanks for their week and also made presentations to the Rotary Clubs of Interlaken and London, Martin & Marianne Finger, Gill Loftus and Brian & Myrna Somers. As always, the pupils ‘signed’ their message and the teachers spoke the words.....a very emotional experience!
Monday all the London Rotarians, their wives and friends departed for their return journey home, whilst the pupils enjoyed Rope Climbing at Seilpark in the morning and souvenir shopping in the afternoon accompanied by Julie Hint who had returned for their final day and she has also promised to let our Club have a copy of the film so that our members who were not on the trip could also share some of the highlights.
Tuesday morning the pupils and their teachers were collected once again by Martin Finger in the school bus and safely transported back to Zurich Airport for their return to London.
During the week we had heard how all the pupils from the last Interlaken visit had progressed since their time there and it was wonderful to learn that all had made exceptional progress. Some were now employed in areas that they had expressed interest in and the others were in higher education.
The Rotary Club of London would like to thank Martin Finger and the other members of the Rotary Club of Interlaken, together with our member Albert Kunz for organizing such a wonderfully interesting, varied and inspiring visit in Switzerland for the pupils & teachers of the Oak Lodge School an experience we are certain that the pupils will never forget!
London Rotarian supporters of the Interlaken Visit:
High Commissioner Carl & Pauline Roberts
PP John & Mary Buchanan
Rhidian & Monica Jones
PP Hugh & Janet Kirk
PP Harry Simmonds
PP Brian & Myrna Somers