Beds for All
01 October 2005

From Ann Rignall behind the scenes in Caux, Switzerland

The Caux conference centre could not function without all the people who work behind the scenes: most of them on a voluntary basis. I am part of the allocation team, which is responsible for finding beds for up to 400 people at any one time.

We can be found at the top of a little known staircase—if you can negotiate the tennis racquets and footballs, the coat hangers, the coat stand and other miscellanea, together with pieces of luggage which are left there for safe keeping. Our team comes from Australia, Canada, South Africa, Sweden, France and the UK. In allocating rooms, many factors have to be taken into account: the ability to climb stairs or to walk the length of the long corridors; the need to be near a lift; the preference for a shower or a bath.

In some cultures husbands, wives and even children have completely different names. We hope that on their application forms they have indicated that they are all one family. As a crossword addict, I rather enjoy the challenge.

Suddenly the whole place is full of children: the intergenerational session has begun. The make-up of the house changes completely —there are 92 young people aged under 17 and only 51 over 65. This is the biggest conference of the summer. With so many children sharing their parents’ rooms, the supply of camp beds nearly runs out.

Ten days later most of the children have gone and many people from Africa are beginning to arrive. We are summoned to meetings by drumming rather than by the tinkling of a small xylophone, and the house is full of bright, flowing robes.

One afternoon the sky goes as black as night and hailstones as big as golf balls begin to fall. All the lights go out and the computers go down. Some rooms become uninhabitable: windows are broken, or beds get wet because windows have been left open. Our team has no computers to find empty rooms for these displaced people. So we have to go around the house (with only emergency lighting to show us the way) finding what rooms are free.

Terrible damage is done to the vine-growing area around the Lake of Geneva. The only people who will benefit will be the glaziers. Over 300 panes of glass are broken in Caux's main building, Mountain House. Strangely some are not broken by the hail but by the difference of pressure between the inside and the outside air.

We get a few demands and many requests. The demands are for rooms with a better view and a bigger bathroom. We try to meet these, when possible. The requests are many and varied: a longer bed for a man well over 6 feet; a lower bed for a young man who says he keeps falling out of the top bunk; a quieter room; a move because the other person in the room snores; escape from a plague of ants or a horrid smell.

Music always plays an important part in the conferences in Caux—violin, guitar, piano, flute, cello....

There is the Australian Johnny Huckle with his impassioned songs about healing and freedom for his Aboriginal people. And the Trio Tirabosco on the panpipes, double bass and piano, whose gypsy-style music brings the house down.

Then there are the house musicians for the last two conferences: Sally Wigan on piano, Anna Wigan on flute and Emily Hurrell on cello. They give two workshops and two concerts, as well as playing in a church service and in many of the meetings.

In their interactive workshop, each group has to give a twominute performance with anything that can be found. Perhaps the best is two men banging trays and fire irons together.