Mas­ter­ing man­ners at Switzer­land's last fin­ish­ing school

Mas­ter­ing man­ners is not about snob­bism, it's about re­spect, for your­self and oth­ers

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Eight women sit primly around an elab­o­rately set ta­ble mak­ing pleas­ant small-talk about the weather, as im­mac­u­lately starched wait­ing staff stand at the ready. But as one of the servers steps for­ward hold­ing a sil­ver soup tureen with white-gloved hands, an in­struc­tor helps her ad­just the an­gle of the bowl to make sure the la­dle is fac­ing the diner. And a sec­ond tu­tor whis­pers in the ear of an­other diner to lower her el­bow as she brings the spoon to her mouth. The women are not at a fancy restau­rant or a high-end so­cial club, but at Switzer­land's last fin­ish­ing school, learn­ing to mas­ter good man­ners, strict eti­quette and how to avoid a fa­tal faux pas.

"I re­al­ize now that I have been mix­ing the French style of eat­ing with the Bri­tish style," said In­sti­tut Villa Pier­refeu stu­dent Heba, ask­ing that her last name not be given. With some em­bar­rass­ment, the 34year-old Egyp­tian na­tional ex­plained that she had placed her knife on her plate even though she had not used it dur­ing her meal-a no-no in French din­ing eti­quette. Heba is among 30 stu­dents from 14 dif­fer­ent coun­tries tak­ing an in­ten­sive Pier­refeu sum­mer course, last­ing ei­ther three or six weeks, and of­fer­ing classes like in­ter­na­tional busi­ness eti­quette, flo­ral art and staff man­age­ment.

Not all princesses

The stu­dents are a di­verse crowd, ac­cord­ing to Vi­viane Neri, who took the reins of the school in 1972 -- nearly two decades af­ter her mother founded it. "Ob­vi­ously we have daugh­ters of pres­i­dents and princesses, but those are def­i­nitely not the ma­jor­ity," she said, her warm smile off­set­ting the strict­ness of her im­pec­ca­ble at­tire. "We also have peo­ple who save money to fi­nance their stay be­cause... they re­al­ize that this will give them ex­tra knowl­edge that very few peo­ple have," she said. It is not cheap. Depend­ing on the for­mula cho­sen, a six-week course, with ex­ams and board at the school's ma­jes­tic manor houses, can cost close to 30,000 Swiss francs ($31,000, 27,000 eu­ros).

The cur­rent stu­dents, aged be­tween 18 and 50 and rang­ing from pro­fes­sional busi­ness­women, to doc­tors and housewives, do not re­veal their last names to each other to en­sure equal treat­ment. Half a cen­tury ago, the stu­dents at In­sti­tut Villa Pier­refeu, which over­looks the pic­turesque town of Mon­treux, were among thou­sands at­tend­ing a plethora of fin­ish­ing schools dot­ting the hills around Lake Geneva. Back then it was com­mon for girls and young women from wealthy, up­per-class fam­i­lies to at­tend so-called "charm schools" to pol­ish their man­ners and so­cial graces. Bri­tain's late Princess Diana was among the fa­mous alumni of since shut­tered fin­ish­ing schools in this area.

'Ashamed, post-1968'

But to­day, Pier­refeu is the only one left, af­ter the in­dus­try was dec­i­mated by the 1968 stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion and rise of fem­i­nism. "There was a huge dip in at­ten­dance right af­ter the stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion," Neri said, adding that "the few who came said they were go­ing to a lan­guages school. They were ashamed." Neri at­tributes her school's longevity to its broad in­ter­na­tional fo­cus and its rig­or­ous ef­forts to keep the course ma­te­rial, in­clud­ing text­books avail­able only to Pier­refeu stu­dents, con­stantly up-to-date.

The stu­dents learn and prac­tice the proper eti­quette and pro­to­col of 20 dif­fer­ent coun­tries, as well as cul­tural taboos to be avoided. "Cul­tural dif­fer­ences you are not aware of can cre­ate con­flicts for very silly rea­sons," Neri said, point­ing out for in­stance that in Ja­pan it is rude to blow your nose in pub­lic, while in Ger­many it is rude not to. She sug­gested that many jour­nal­ists could use a Pier­refeu course to avoid "em­bar­rass­ing" ar­ti­cles like those crit­i­ciz­ing US First Lady Me­la­nia Trump for not cov­er­ing her head dur­ing a re­cent trip to Saudi Ara­bia.

"She doesn't have to be­cause it is not com­pul­sory for non-Mus­lims who come to Saudi Ara­bia. That's pro­to­col," she said. The stu­dents seem to en­joy delv­ing into such de­tails, al­though some ex­pressed sur­prise at the in­ten­sity of the course. "I don't know if, when you hear fin­ish­ing school, you take it as se­ri­ously as I think we all do now," said Tay­lor, a 34-year-old Amer­i­can stu­dent, who also re­frained from giv­ing her last name. "It is very rig­or­ous,... very com­pre­hen­sive," she said, adding that she felt she was "be­com­ing ed­u­cated here in a very rounded way."

'Not about snob­bism'

Un­like the post-1968 gen­er­a­tion, she and oth­ers said they proudly boasted of at­tend­ing the school. For­mer stu­dent Na­dine Abou Zahr, 46, said she had been skep­ti­cal when she first heard about the school while at­tend­ing univer­sity nearby two decades ago. But the French-Le­banese for­mer fash­ion mag­a­zine ed­i­tor, who de­clined to re­veal her cur­rent oc­cu­pa­tion, told AFP in an email that she could not be more de­lighted with her ex­pe­ri­ence.

"Learn­ing good man­ners in my opin­ion is not about snob­bism or su­per­fi­cial­ity. It's about re­spect, for your­self and oth­ers," she said. The course is not about cre­at­ing "dra­matic" ca­reer or life changes, she said, but, rather, de­signed to broaden cul­tural hori­zons and teach the im­por­tance of pay­ing at­ten­tion to de­tail.

Eti­quette roar­ing back?

Neri said she had noted a clear shift in at­ti­tudes to­wards the need for good man­ners. "I think peo­ple, af­ter two gen­er­a­tions of no eti­quette, re­al­ize that it is so much eas­ier when peo­ple share the same codes," she said. The shift has led Neri, along with her son and would-be suc­ces­sor, Philippe, to ex­plore a range of ex­pan­sion op­tions. Three years ago they opened shorter sem­i­nars to men. They are also look­ing into re­in­stat­ing a full school year and on­line cour­ses.

At the same time, Neri is work­ing to clear up com­mon mis­un­der­stand­ings about what fin­ish­ing schools ac­tu­ally rep­re­sent. Far from see­ing girls walk­ing gin­gerly with books bal­anced on their heads, or be­ing fo­cused on how to find a hus­band, her fin­ish­ing school pro­vides for in­depth learn­ing and open­ing-up of the mind, she said. "I al­ways say we don't fin­ish them (the stu­dents), we start them," Neri said. "We open their eyes to the di­ver­sity there is." — AFP

Eight women sit primly around an elab­o­rately set ta­ble mak­ing pleas­ant small-talk about the weather, as im­mac­u­lately starched wait­ing staff stand at the ready.

Women at­tend a les­son at the Switzer­land's last fin­ish­ing school.

Women talk dur­ing a les­son at the Switzer­land's last fin­ish­ing school.

An in­struc­tor helps a woman to ad­just the an­gle of the bowl to make sure the la­dle is fac­ing the diner. — AFP pho­tos

Women taste choco­late dur­ing a les­son at Switzer­land's last fin­ish­ing school In­sti­tut Villa Pier­refeu.

A teacher holds a knife and a fork dur­ing a les­son.

Women learn how to serve a dessert.

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