Get started 2016 in Switzerland – A Training course on organizing international youth exchanges

It was on June 13th that 26 young people from Ireland, Spain, Italy, Kosovo, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Belgium, Macedonia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany arrived from their home countries to the small but very beautiful country of Switzerland. So far, none of them knew exactly what would expect them during the following 7 days, however, this would change soon.

Of course they each had some basic knowledge about the training course, as we were provided with a nicely written call for participants, giving us all the relevant details to then decide whether to apply or not.

We thus knew that the training course would focus on the practical organization of youth exchanges and international project management, that it would be organised by the International Young Nature Friends (IYNF) as well as the “Verein Naturkultur”, that it was going to take place from the 13th to the 20th of June in a Nature friend's house in the Swiss Alps and so on and so forth.

Moreover we were informed about the training course's main objectives: Capacity building and grant writing, developing group leader skills and team-work competencies, increasing inter-cultural awareness and developing new partnerships for future projects.

And there was one more thing we were persistently reminded of, especially during the last few days before our departure: that it would be raining, not just a bit, but actually a lot and that we were to prepare for that with everything waterproof we could find.

Rain in fact welcomed many of us at the Swiss airports, however, it wasn't yet dense enough to deny us the view towards the beautiful Swiss lakes and mountains, as we were driving from Zurich, to Luzern, to Meiringen and then the rest of the way up to the Naturefriend's house “Reutsperre”. After the usual few bustling minutes of finding one's own luggage as well as a free space in one of the rooms, we were once again welcomed by our three trainers Oliver, Lucie and Viv, followed by a lovely dinner prepared for us by our Portuguese-belgian IYNF cooking team. As many of us had had a very long trip or were just tired from travelling, we ended the evening with a simple but enjoyable game to get to know each other and then one by one fell asleep to the constant ringing of the cow-bells from outside.

The next morning proved to be full of action, as we were confronted with several team building challenges to get to know each other. And although the house was enclosed by clouds most of the time, we managed them all and returned wet and partly muddy, but cheerfully into the warm house. The next days were mixed with different parts of the program. On the one hand, we learned a lot about the concept and the philosophy of youth exchanges, especially focusing on the role of non-formal education and intercultural learning. By differentiating this from other concepts and methodologies, we got a much clearer image on how an (Erasmus +) youth exchange looks like and which parts are essential for an idea to have a chance of being granted by a national agency. The first shock upon seeing the thickness of the Erasmus + guide was luckily followed by a feeling of relief, as we heard that only a small amount of these pages dealt with youth exchanges specifically and would thus be of importance to us. After having memorized the most important facts and numbers this guide, Viv led us through the jungle of financing a youth exchange, not only pointing out the distribution of Erasmus + money, but also encouraging us to look for creative fund raising alternatives.

Apart from this informational input on youth exchanges, we were constantly encouraged to think about our own ideas about a future youth exchanges throughout the week. By giving us some space to present the organisations from our home countries to each other, we didn't only get to know each other further, but also started to think about possible partnerships for future projects.

Since IYNF was one of the two organisers of the event with a lot of experience in the field of intercultural activities, there was also enough space to learn something about Young Naturefriend's philosophy, their activities and projects and the network of IYNF member or partner organizations (including how to possibly become a member in future).

Step by step we were encouraged to think more specifically about our ideas, connecting it to our passions and skills and eventually shared our thoughts with each other towards the end of the week. Following this step, we finally formed groups working together on one specific idea and went through all the relevant steps in order to start a youth exchange. Although the process wasn't always easy and smooth, we came up with very interesting ideas of youth exchanges on topics like promoting peace through agricultural farming, facilitating personal development through means of outdoor adventure, discussing gender roles and orientations, exploring new concepts of learning or sharing alternative methods of eco-farming.

However, there was another very dominant theme during the training course. As interculturalism is at the very heart of every youth exchange, it naturally didn't remain uncovered in our program. Through interactive games and role plays we discovered cultural differences and discussed stereotypes and in a very relaxed and open environment. And of course we learned a great deal more about themes and issues we probably wouldn't have discovered on our own. We touched upon topics like the discrimination of travellers in Ireland, the clash of religions on the day of shabbat in Israel, floors covered in paper towels after Bulgarian partying or the one-week-food marathon following a traditional Slovakian wedding. We further dedicated one evening to a passion we all shared within the group: The love for food. As we had all brought something special to eat or drink from our countries, we had another space in the program dedicated to eating (in addition to extensive breakfasts, lunches, coffee breaks and dinners, so that there barely was any space for us to be hungry). But who could say No to the taste of Palestinian Zataar, if it comes along with the promise that it will make you more intelligent, pretty and healthy? Or a cup of Italian espresso that chases away the slightest sense of tiredness, maybe combined with the sweet taste of Egyptian pastries. And how lucky were we that there was some Czech Slivovice and Slovakian Borovi?ka to help our stomachs digest all these cultural specialities.

Talking about cultures, we obviously didn't neglect the culture of the country we were currently staying in. Apart from Swiss bread butter and the famous mountain cheese we were having for breakfast every morning, there was a generous amount of space for us to explore the beautiful Swiss Alps. And although the steepness of the mountain paths brought some of us close to the limit of exhaustion and out of our comfort zones, the view from the top let us forget our aching muscles for a moment to enjoy the sheer beauty of the landscape. After having learned that Swiss cows simply run towards people crossing their fields out of curiosity and without aggressive intentions, some of us even grew fond of the everlasting ringing of the cow bells. On our free day, many of us then took the opportunity to visit the famous Reichenbach falls or the Aare-gorge, once again admiring the beauty of nature and one evening we were even served the traditional Swiss meal of Rösti and sausages. However, one of the highlights of our experiences with Swiss culture definitely was the performance of two people from the village, who came up to our venue to play the Alp horn for us, and even let us try their instruments ourselves. For this last evening the weather even granted us some more dry hours, so that we could enjoy the last hours sitting by a bonfire.

There was a lot of sadness in the air the next morning, when we had to say goodbye, not only to the beautiful venue, but also to each other. We had had a great week together with a lot of fun and work invested into projects that will hopefully become real youth exchanges one day. Special thanks from the group definitely go to our great kitchen team, as well as to Oliver, Lucie and Viv, who made this training course happen and were always more than willing to share their extensive experiences and give us very useful advice. We are very grateful for that, thanks for your motivation and energy!


Paula Blumenschein