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Happy New Year . . . Penny Keeling (left) and one of her host mothers Monika Tanner celebrate a subdued farewell to 2020. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

When 16-year-old Penny Keeling boarded a plane for a year in Switzerland last January, Covid-19 was an obscure virus in China slowly worming its way into the public’s consciousness.

Two months later, almost to the day, the former St Kevin’s College student was being locked down along with the rest of the world. The only difference was, she was living with almost complete strangers who spoke a different language.

On January 12, Penny left New Zealand as part of the Rotary Exchange Programme.

with other exchange students, two weeks of language camp and a two-week ski holiday, she landed in a town called Zug, in central Switzerland.

“It was a pretty relaxed introduction to what life is like, and showed me how little German I understand.”

On starting school, she found it difficult. Although the Swiss spoke German, it was “Swiss German”, even more challenging for Penny to understand.

“Teachers taught in High German, but as soon as the bell rings, they switch to Swiss German. So I would understand even less at lunchtime.”

The length of the school days varied. A long day ran from 8am to 5pm, and the class would stay together the whole day, Penny said.

“I liked school over there, because the school system was quite different.”

But she only had three and a-half weeks of regular school before the country went into lockdown.

Penny found herself home-schooling in a language she barely understood. Her host parents were both working, so she was home all day with just d her 12-year-old host sister.

“She didn’t speak enough English to converse .. and I didn’t speak any German, so it was quite lonely.”

She spent most of her day in her room and, due to the language barrier, struggled with schoolwork.

Although lockdown began to ease in June, online schooling ran until the summer holidays, which began in July.

Luckily, in April, Penny found an escape from the confines of her bedroom in the form of a nearby farm.

A member of the Swiss Rotary owned a tertiary farm, similar to Balclutha’s Telford. Because of the lockdown, it had no students and was short-staffed.

Having grown up on a dairy farm in Duntroon, she jumped at the chance to work there.

She was given special dispensation from full-time schooling, on the proviso she kept up her German, English and maths classes.

“So I worked on a farm until the summer holidays. It was a dairy farm with 75 cows, but it was all automatic.”

Milking, feeding and cleaning were all robotic, she said.

“That was a cool experience because I got to see a different way of dairy farming from what I was used to. And it meant I was actually able to go outside during the day.”

As the year progressed, Switzerland’s Covid-19 cases dropped and the country started to open up again.

Penny spent her summer holidays with a new host family on a rural property in France, near the Spanish border. A three-week European tour with other Rotary exchange students had to be cancelled, as did a ski trip.

When school started back mid-August, case numbers were slowly creeping up again and students had to wear masks. Then in November the numbers skyrocketed.

“We got up to like 17,000 to 20,000 new cases a day,” she said.

“I think our new infections per capita were second highest in the world.”

There were restrictions on gatherings, but schools remained fully open.

“We wore our winter jackets inside because the doors and windows were getting opened every 30 minutes, from 7.30am in the morning.”

As she left in January, people were back working from home, and gatherings were heavily restricted.

After completing managed isolation in central Auckland, she was now happy to be back home in Duntroon briefly, before starting a physics degree at the University of Canterbury.

She said the hardest part of her trip was the uncertainty of the first lockdown and not knowing if she should “wait it out”.

Highlights were skiing, the people she met and friends she made along the way.

She was extremely grateful to Rotary in Oamaru and Switzerland, who made her feel safe and cared for during the whole tumultuous time.

Rotary Club of Oamaru president Michael Robinson was full of praise for Penny, after she made a presentation to the group last week.

“She has done incredibly, incredibly well to be away from home, out of her comfort zone, and to blossom and get that experience.

“To go through what she did, she’ll be all the stronger for it . . . kudos to her. She’s amazing.”

The Rotary Youth Exchange programme was now on hold.