It’s 1pm outside a monochrome office block on a season-defying day on the outskirts of Bern. If it’s autumn, the air shimmers in the heat of a ridiculously late Indian summer. If it’s winter, a false spring has sprung, only to scamper away again by evening.
The automatic doors sweep open and a motley but relaxed group emerges from the grand entrance of the building. The smokers outside are heard to snigger amongst themselves and a raucous voice calls out: “Et voilà, les anglais.” A disparaging remark is made about the lunchtime walk.
Les anglais are mostly not anglais but they do subscribe to a certain English decorum and do not dignify the heckling with a response. United in purpose, they stride away in the direction of the allotments, shedding jackets with practised ease, and commenting on the deceptively pleasant weather.
On their walk they will pass houses and tower blocks, an old farm and country house, little scraps of gardens tended by homesick foreigners, a hospital, a school and a motorway. All of human life is there, although because this is Switzerland there will not be many human beings in evidence.
The walkers will split into little knots of twos and threes. Discussion will turn from politics to family matters. Holidays are being planned or children are having problems in school. An elderly parent is ailing. The conversation has been going on for years, added to in small increments, and responsible for the familiarity and affection that has built up between les anglais.
There will be something new on every walk to provoke a moment of reflection: A hearse waiting at the back of the small hospital; grandparents on their allotment lovingly setting out toys around a baby on a blanket.
The walkers complete the loop all too quickly. There won’t have been time to talk to everyone about everything. But there will be another walk the next day, and the next. There will be small news and big news to share and always someone to listen.
Back in the office, the different members of the office family return to their stations. There will be coffee at three, a short break where laughter is the main currency. For now, the keyboard beckons: username, password, login.
This little tribute to office camaraderie is dedicated to my former colleagues of at least twenty nationalities at SWI swissinfo.ch in Bern. I spent the best part of ten years in the trenches at swissinfo, a happy soldier demobbed just last month.
When I get my ducks in a row I will officially embark on a new phase of working as a freelance writer and translator, final grand title to be decided. I welcome any tips on the organisational or motivational side of freelance work.
Here’s to old friends and new beginnings!
Ps. This post was partly inspired by this lovely article about ‘work family’ by Marion McGilvery writing in The Guardian.