“This all reminds me of that film, back in the 70s, ‘Confessions of a Window cleaner’. Why, we could write a book together, only this would have to be called ‘Confessions of a COVID government teleworker’” hailed George, as he poured out the last dregs of his second bottle of ‘Binchoise Spécial Noël’ beer.
Christmas Eve that year found George, rather unusually, reclining on his lounge sofa in the company of his wife Patricia and Lucija, a Croatian colleague, who had been unable to return home for Christmas, due to the prohibitive COVID travel restrictions.
“If you discover you are on your own over Christmas” George had offered warmly in early December “Come and eat with us, you can stay as long as you like, we’ll consider you part of our very own bubble.” Lucija had arrived at the house a while ago but had soon taken up Patricia’s greeting to “Make yourself at home”. Each quaffing their aperitif beer, the conversation had dwelt, inevitably, on how the year had been in the European Regulatory Authority, the ERA, under the ‘régime du télétravail’, which had meant that, apart from two emergency late-night sessions for George in the autumn, neither George nor Lucija had stepped foot in the office for the previous nine months.
“What gets me most,” Lucija had begun “is the way Lecomte sends out his cheery ‘I’m de boss and I care for you’ e-mail messages early in morning and then, if you send him e-mail asking something to do with work, you don’t hear from him for hours on end!”
“You’re so right,” chimed George “it really makes you wonder what is going on, as they say in television parlance, ‘behind the scenes’.”
“But you know, George” this thing about people wearing pyjamas and doing silly things on camera, it’s happened in the ERA, you know”, added Lucija excitedly. “I didn’t like to tell you over Skype, you never know who’s listening. But, of all people, it happened to Bonetti Italian Director, it was Giulia in Budget who told me. It seems Bonetti, like a lot of them, is no good with computer. Well, one day she said she had to watch him picking his nose long, long time before he saw his camera was on and found how to switch it off!”
Initially, despite his complete enthusiasm to receive Lucija into his home and have, at last, a face-to-face conversation with a colleague, George nevertheless felt a peculiar discomfort from the direct contact he was now experiencing with a person he didn’t, after all, know that well, and whom he had only seen at the safe distance of a screen for so long. For about a quarter of an hour he found it hard to maintain eye contact with Lucija. He sensed an uneasiness inside, questions and doubts darting across his mind while he was trying so hard to listen to what Lucija was saying. “George” he said to himself “Relax. It’s Christmas. Just leave all that ERA stuff behind”.
Trying hard to dispel an anxiety he never would have expected to feel before COVID came along, George leant forward, picked up his glass and took another, big gulp of his special brew. “Maybe it’s just some of those nine degrees of alcohol kicking in” he said to himself and slouched back into the sofa, smiling gently towards Lucija.
George appreciated Lucija as a colleague. She had a calm, grounded personality. Physically she was more than a little on the plump side, but she was bonny, and ‘nicely turned out’ as George would put it, her hair was always neat and her nails polished. George’s initial impression when she joined the department, however, hadn’t been so positive. “A little frumpy” he had judged. But George soon realised that her diplomatic experience, gained from her time in the Croatian accession team, meant that she could blend into almost any situation in the smoothest of manners. “That wonderful Slavic straightforwardness, warmed by the Mediterranean sun” George would often muse when listening to her speak.
Lucija had proven to be most reliable during the lockdown. She had remained clear and fair in her treatment of everyone, despite a very heavy personal workload. Under the sustained bombardment of emails, Lucija was always prepared to give a hand to others and provide a constructive reply; and always prepared to switch on her video to make that call not only much more personal and supportive, but also more effective.
One evening, quite early in the lockdown, as George had been folding up his laptop and Patricia was pouring him a glass of his favourite Margaux, an exultant George had announced “She’s a consummate professional, Lucija, a consummate professional”. Shaking his head, he had added: “But what I find most remarkable is how a young woman like her, living alone in Brussels, passing through those terrible times in the first lockdown, can remain so composed.”
Now, as George was listening to Lucija elaborate on the year’s adventures, sitting comfortably in front of him on the sofa, in the back of his mind he was running through once again how Lucija had explained to George her own way of coping with the Coronavirus crisis.
“The sea taught me to be self-reliant” she had commented one day to George at the height of the paranoia generated by the pandemic. “My father took me sailing on his yacht as soon as I could swim. There’s nothing I like more than setting out from Dubrovnik harbour, solo, for as many days as I can spare” she had elaborated. “For me, this lockdown business is not so very different from sailing boat, single-handed. You never really know what’s going to happen next. The vital supermarket trips have just the same feel as checking into port for fresh supplies of essentials. Doing everything by remote is just like doing it all on own boat: navigating, manning sails, taking helm, cooking in galley and writing up log. Even solving own home computer problems reminds me of time I had to treat my own toothache in middle of Atlantic Ocean!”
George could recall, vividly, the sureness with which Lucija had shared these thoughts with him over the Skype video, around the time the COVID death rate was at its dreadful autumn peak. “Taking course through this pandemic” she had continued “is just same as navigating winds and currents of ocean. My father always said, “Lucija, if you feel Nature is against you, She will take you. But if you learn how Nature is and learn how to respect Her, you will know how to live with Her and She will always get you safely to port, sooner or later”. Lucija’s own translation of what her father had told had become one of George’s mainstay sayings in those difficult months: “Don’t fight it, George” Lucija had said “Just learn to go with Nature’s flow.”
“Same notion as Santiago” George had pondered, once again thinking back to the barbecue conversation with that ‘impudent young biologist’, long before COVID had become five letters to strike fear. “Nature teaches you to take in the whole phenomenon of Life, Santiago said. And Death is just part of that Life. Isn’t that what he was saying,” George often cogitated, as his attention drifted back to the Christmas Eve atmosphere, which was now bringing him a new sense of hope.
The conversation between George, Lucija and Patricia was now meandering on, with gasps and guffaws, as the list of teleworking sins and faux pas steadily lengthened.
Lucija giggled when she related the story of the yapping in the background of the finance ministers meeting and the curt call from the interpreter to “Silence your dog please, sir!” George shared once again his theory that “With COVID and teleworking, let’s face it, we have all become TV stars!” and Patricia made them both whimper with laughter as she remembered the halo effect of the bright light reflected off the bald head of one very serious lawyer and the ‘car crash of a face’ of the badly made-up woman in the recovery package discussions.
“But my favourite of all” sounded George “was the on-line Christmas party. It’s the first time I felt genuine bonhomie through the screen.”
Both Lucija and Patricia were by now ‘well oiled’ with their second Binchoise spéciale Noël and giggled in anticipation.
“I guess every Finnish Director General always has a Santa outfit in his wardrobe, just in case he ever needs to entertain the troops” whooped George “but with his big hooter, he didn’t need to paint a red nose, did he?” said George twisting his fist in front of his nose and alluding to the Director General’s widely known weakness for a tipple.
“And then” burst in Lucija “when his assistant and his secretaries came on screen in elf outfits, dressed up as Santa’s little helpers, well….” and the three of them broke into writhes of laughter.
George, feeling himself somehow letting go, sat up and pulled the po-face he saved for mimicking pious bishops. “Apparently the hierarchy didn’t want it to look like we were having too much of a good time” he announced in a deep, serious voice.
“Have a good time? Heaven forbid! Work is sufferance! We are the ERA!” cried Patricia, who by now felt she too deserved a break from the activities of “The Firm”, whose noisy internal workings had boomed across the house from George’s open microphone and intruded on Patricia’s usually quiet life for the last nine months.
“But, hey, haven’t you spoken with Jernej over Skype about all this?” interjected Lucija. “He’s real natural. Such good laugh. He makes my day. He sees absurdity in all this and isn’t afraid to call it out!”
“I’m sure he’s been charming all the ladies”, said George, his gently mocking tone nevertheless soon transforming into a smile. George had not been party to all the Zoom chats within the department but could easily imagine Jernej’s “Antics on the screen”, as he put it silently to himself.
Pre-COVID George would have found it hard not to frown if Jernej had been brought into the conversation. In the office environment George disapproved of Jernej’s ‘tomcat behaviour’ and his hands-on-women hands-off-work approach. “Jernej shows outstanding performance in work evasion” was his favourite way of summing up Jernej’s less than fully committed attitude.
But now, his sharpness dulled by nine months of tele-grind, relaxed by the potent brew and soothed by the warm-hearted company of Lucija, George found himself lulled into listening to Lucija’s rambling series of amusing anecdotes featuring “Jernej the yoker,” as Lucija called him in her light, fetching Croatian accent.
“Yes, yes, I know, I know” responded George every now and again, as Lucija continued.
Because that wasn’t all that George knew. Facebook had told him much much more.