The 12 and 13-year olds from Chicago standing around Berne's bear pit were hardly distinguishable from their Swiss counterparts. Most of them were clad in jeans, T-shirts, and rain gear - indispensable in the unseasonal wet summer weather.
It had also been raining in Chicago when they left, said Treshaunda, 13, but the weather didn't put a damper on her enthusiasm for Switzerland. Treshaunda and 11 other children are the winners of a competition held in Chicago during the Swiss Week last September.
They correctly answered questions about Switzerland and took part in creative projects, and the winners' trip was organised by the Consulate General of Switzerland in Chicago, and the Chicago public schools.
Travelling on trains, answered Treshaunda without hesitation when asked about her favourite part of the trip. "The trains here are so neat and cozy", she said. Ashley, 12, added that she liked the scenery and remarked on the beauty of Berne.
Treshaunda explained how she'd been surprised by the differences between Berne's old town and Chicago, where she grew up. "In Chicago, when you walk around downtown, there are a lot of buildings that use new technology, but this is so cool, because everything is real old". "There's no traffic either, you can walk in the streets and nobody's going to hit you", said Ashley.
The young Americans are being accompanied on their trip around Switzerland by a group of Swiss children of the same age. Lukas, 11, of Lucerne's Children's Parliament, spoke little English but said everybody was communicating well with each other, using hands and feet when necessary.
It was this parliament that Hillary Clinton visited last year - and there are now plans by the city of Chicago to set up a similar programme. One of the aims of the young people's visit to Switzerland is to give the young people a chance to interact with their Swiss counterparts.
Steve Rosen, a teacher in Chicago, explained that the American students on this visit all go to schools which introduce foreign language teaching as early as kindergarten. They have been exposed to other languages early on, but haven't all made trips abroad.
"Many of our students have never left the United States before, they grew up in very small neighbourhoods - and now they've been given the chance to see another part of the world, a new culture - for many, that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience", said Rosen.
Will the students return to Switzerland? "I'd like to, I really would", says Treshaunda. "I don't know if I will, but I want to", adds Ashley, as the two girls walk around the bear pit to meet the rest of their Swiss and American friends.
by Tina Hirschbuehl
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