Marie-José: Alumni voices

Tue, 25. Feb. 2020

In this last installment of the miniseries on the Chalet Marie-José, the first private school in Gstaad, alumni share their memories.

I went to Marie José from 1963 to 1966. As an English boy and thus an English speaker I remember being instructed to look after John John Kennedy (as he was known as then). John John Kennedy and his sister Caroline were sent to Marie José briefly after the assassination of their father. This was to remove them from the limelight of the press and provide some peace in their lives. I remember tracing pathways in the gravel of the playground to create “roads” for our toy cars. Meeting up with “Les anciens du Marie José”, of which there are a large number in the Saanenland, is always great fun as each and every one has a different memory of the place.

I was a student at the Marie-José for two years. I arrived there in 1964 with my older sister Melina and the following year with my younger sister Alicia. I remember a lot of things: long and beautiful excursions with chocolate syrup and boiled eggs. Once a year, we would go down at night with torches and have a fondue. I remember the ski equipment of the time and the rides on wooden sleighs down on snowy roads with the whole school. I also remember my friends Fiona, and Franchesca with her red hair, and my Turkish friend Aiche, who sometimes let me try some of her black olive cream. At the end of the year, we prepared the theater performances with fantastic costumes. When I counted the days that were missing to go home, I was 9 years old.

My parents were travelling in Europe for three months during the summer in 1939, during which time I and my sister Sheilah stayed at the Marie-José. My memory of that time is mixed. It was a vivid but also rather unhappy time due to the difficulties to communicate as an English speaker but nevertheless I did make a friend from South America called Mito and also befriended a family member of the Royal House of Romania. My love for (European) history, nature and in particular for the mountains has remained ever since.

At the age of 10, as a skinny little girl, I was lucky enough to be one of those thirty or so children, privileged yet subject to strict discipline. Indeed, many of the children came from families of leaders or diplomats and the parents were particularly demanding in terms of good manners. At the request of the headmistress, I returned there at the age of 23, as a primary teacher. I found there the essential value of the institution: the health of the children. For example, a small chalet entirely open at the front had been built as an “outdoor classroom”. Needless to describe the virtuosity required on the part of the teacher to transport, in a biscuit tin, the 5 open inkwells that were to be used by the pupils! In my memory of the Chalet Marie-José I keep many episodes and treasure those who gave part of their lives to the children entrusted to them.

There were no ski lifts then. We went by bus or train to the foot of some mountain, fastened pony skin strips to our skis, and climbed to the top. The angled-back fur gripped the snow, so we could walk up quite steep slopes. At the summit, after winding the skins around our middles, and eating a snack of bread and chocolate washed down with an orange, we would set off down the glorious snowfields, fifteen or twenty boys and girls from five or six countries. That was the reward after the exhausting climb, an hour or more of swooping and gliding down the unmarked slopes, weaving through the snow-laden pines, under the sparkling sky.

Our childhood was strange since we had no family life and our mother worked so hard that she could only save short instants for her two sons: her life was devoted to the children and adults she had to take care of. On the other hand, we had many friends "at home" (some of them are still in touch with us) and the cultural life was very stimulating, as well as the varied outdoor activities.

I remember building huts in the forest behind the school and playing footy. My first kiss took place at the Marie-José! The girl was taller than me, so I had to step up onto a rock. Many former students still return to Gstaad on a regular basis. The Marie-José was part of the social tissue of Gstaad and, to some extent, still is today. The alumni are a close-knit community.

I went to Chalet Marie-José for one year (1950/1951) for “the good Swiss air”. I fell deeply in love with Corinne Roland, then of the 16th arrondissement in Paris, and simultaneously with the Princess Shahnaz of Persia (as it was). All lessons were in French, which was tough to start with but I became reasonably fluent & still speak with a decent accent. I learnt to Ski. I only stayed one year as the school could not prepare me for Common Entrance exams for Harrow especially in Latin, although they tried & a young mistress learnt at the same time as me!! A Madame Schwab taught us Maths & I think another subject & I still have one exercise book where in respect of the Maths she felt strongly that I was not learning fast enough – the comments were quite pointed!! It was a great time.



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