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Swiss butler breaks gender barrier

Dressed for excellence: Zita the butler

Perfection, concentration, ability and discretion – these are the trademarks of excellent butler service.

And Zita Langenstein should know. As Switzerland's only woman butler, she has a unique perspective in an industry dominated by men.

Langenstein, 47, says she has always felt inspired by fictional butlers like Anthony Hopkins' character in Remains of the Day.

As a butler, Langenstein has had the chance to rub shoulders with royalty. In 2006, she accompanied one of her butler school colleagues to a Buckingham Palace garden party in honour of the Queen's 80th birthday.

"I love her, really," says Langenstein of Queen Elizabeth. Although there were about 1,500 people at the party, the Queen approached and asked to be introduced to Langenstein. To the lady butler's astonishment and delight, they chatted for about five minutes.

"I was very surprised by how much she knows about Switzerland. We started talking about the world football championship, and she said, 'It would be fantastic if Switzerland and England were in the final, wouldn't it?'" remembers Langenstein.

Men only

As a professional trained in both the hotel and restaurant industries, Langenstein was head of housekeeping at Basel's Hotel International. She later transferred to the Mövenpick restaurant chain, where she was responsible for all apprentices nationwide.

Yet it took her a full decade to get her foot in the door of the renowned Ivor Spencer International School in London. Langenstein never received a reply to her initial written application, sent in 1989.

She followed up with the school by telephone, and was repeatedly told that somebody would get back to her. They never did; the school wasn't accepting women.

"But in England they'd never tell you directly, 'Sorry, you're a woman and can't do it,'" says Langenstein.

She persisted, and in 1999, Ivor Spencer himself called to tell her that she'd been accepted. However, Langenstein was unable to drop everything and head for London; at that point she was working for hotel and restaurant association GastroSuisse.

But by the winter of 2005, the time was finally right. She left Zurich to spend two months under the tutelage of Spencer and his team.

"I'm very lucky that I had him as a teacher," says Langenstein of Spencer, who passed away in January 2009. "There's nobody else who has his experience."

1,005 questions

How does one address royals? ... serve afternoon tea? ... wash a car properly? ... book a table at a busy restaurant? Butlers trained at the Ivor Spencer International School must be able to answer 1,005 such questions.

Despite the vast curriculum, there were no textbooks or paper handouts. Instead, Langenstein and her colleagues learned everything by rote.

"We only had the voice of the teacher," recalls Langenstein, whose intense school days began at 7.30am and ended at 8.30pm. Some drills were especially demanding. Laden with heavy serving trays, the butlers-in-training had to walk around for 99 minutes at a time. As if that alone weren't challenging enough, each had to balance an empty wine glass on the head.

"You have to have muscles to carry those big silver trays. Otherwise, you sweat – which you shouldn't," says Langenstein with a laugh.

Some of the tasks – like ironing a newspaper – might seem ridiculous to the average person. But according to Langenstein, there are two good reasons to do so. First, it prevents the ink from smudging the reader's fingers. Second, a coat of starch makes the newspaper easier to read.

Sticky situations

Langenstein says that her butler's education has prepared her to handle potentially awkward moments with finesse. Unexpected guests are a prime example.

"We learned how to react professionally if there's a strange face on the pillow in the morning," says Langenstein. According to her, a butler would never talk with the visitor.

"Instead we'd simply ask if 'Mr Lee' would perhaps like another tea or some juice today."

Today, Langenstein is the head of further education at GastroSuisse. She trains hotel butlers, chauffeurs and gastronomy executives in the finer points of white-gloved service. And whenever she has the chance, she slips back into the role of Zita the butler.

Susan Vogel-Misicka, swissinfo.ch

Butler school

The Ivor Spencer International School for Butler Administrators/Personal Assistants opened in 1981.

For admission, a good standard of education is required, plus two excellent references. The six-week course costs about £5,500.

The starting salary for a full-time butler is about £40,000 in Britain and $80,000 in the United States.

Faced with a tough task like obtaining tickets to a sold-out concert, Ivor Spencer was often quoted as saying, "There is nothing you can't get when you ask in the right way."

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