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New York kids get breath of fresh air

Oliver (right) with a few other New York City kids and their Swiss "father"

(swissinfo.ch)

Oliver Jordan, a 13-year-old boy from New York City, has been more impressed on his first visit to Switzerland by the lack of police sirens than seeing the Alps.

He also hopes he has eaten his last fondue.

Oliver is one of 15 teenagers taking part in a cultural visit arranged by the Organisation for the Swiss Abroad and New York's non-profit organisation, the Fresh Air Fund.

The Fund usually sends inner city kids from low-income families to camps or "host" families in upstate New York.

But this year, the 12 and 13-year-old teenagers benefited from the Fresh Air Fund's cooperation with Swiss organisations in New York (see related stories), which put on a series of events promoting Switzerland.

Unlikely ambassadors

For the past week, New York has returned the favour by sending 15 unlikely ambassadors to Switzerland.

For most, it is their first time overseas and the first time they have flown.

According to René Meyer, the Swiss host parent of Oliver and three other boys, the trip has been an eye-opener for everyone concerned - both Swiss and New Yorkers.

"Fashion is very important to them, as it is with Swiss kids," says Meyer, "but these boys use toothbrushes to shine their shoes each morning!"

Shoe-shining apart, Meyer says they are just like Swiss teenagers and like normal teenagers, they like to spend a lot of time on the telephone.

During a visit to a park on Lake Zurich's shores, it is Meyer's mobile phone and not the badminton which grabs Oliver's attention.

Queens

The teenager take advantage of Meyer's generosity to make a couple of calls home to Queens where he lives with his grandmother.

"It's crazy over here," Oliver tells a relative on the phone. "You see kids walking in the grass, shooting water guns at each other, and it's not even that hot!"

Also on Oliver's list of highlights are the buttons, as opposed to switches and handles, used to turn on the lights and flush the toilet in Meyers' house.

He makes little mention of the sights around Lake Lucerne or Zurich that he has been taken to see, except to say that the hike to the top of Zurich's local peak, the Uetliberg, was exhausting.

When he returns home, he says the first thing he will tell his classmates is that he "had a good time and that Switzerland is much better than Queens - no, not really," he jokes.

"But much quieter and not a lot of incidents happen here like fires, and the police aren't chasing people down the street."

That is also what he has already told his grandmother - who is also his guardian.

Overseas

The Swiss trip was arranged before the start of the Iraq war, and many families feared that the boys would be more susceptible to terrorist attacks.

It has been the job of Doug Weitz of the Fresh Air Fund to reassure them that the visit to Switzerland would only benefit the kids.

He has accompanied the teenagers on the whirlwind trip around the country and says it has given them a rare chance to experience life in a different culture.

He says that next time, he would ensure the boys have more time to spend at their host families' homes, living like a Swiss.

As the trip nears its end, the strain of travelling somewhere new in the country every day has clearly taken its toll on Oliver, but what he doesn't mind are the train journeys themselves.

"They are much better than in New York," he says. "You get bumped around on New York trains - the trains here are nice and smooth."

"In New York they go 'boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom, shhhh, boom-boom..." he adds, demonstrating the difference.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

In brief

The visit by 15 inner-city kids from New York was organised as part of the "swisspeaks" festival which has been taking place in the city.

The teenagers were selected by New York's Fresh Air Fund, which usually sends kids from low-income families to camps or to stay with host families in upstate New York.

The trip to Switzerland was the first time most of the teenagers had flown or been overseas.

The kids were put up with Swiss host families and travelled around the country to see the sights.

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